Article by Lizzy Strapp ’21
The Visiting Writer Seminar had the pleasure of hosting author Camille Dungy for a week-long, virtual visit. The Visiting Writer Seminar is a semester-long course which allows for an in-depth study of one author, concluding with a special visit from that author. The first day Ms. Dungy visited our class, virtually this year, and she brought with her a humble brilliance and some kind encouragement. She asked each of us to introduce ourselves and think of a word that we were currently fascinated by. My classmates introduced themselves with various words like “connection,” “liberation,” “strength,” “belleza” and more. I chose the word “facts,” because recently it has been my go-to response to any given comment or question. As we began to write about our chosen words, Ms. Dungy added writing prompt after prompt. I was a little surprised by the pace at which she asked us to change from one idea to the next, but I continued to write. My writing turned into dialogue as I struggled to keep up with the snowballing prompts. When I later mentioned this to Ms. Dungy, she smiled.
At our next class meeting, Ms. Dungy read part of her personal essay titled, “The Conscientious Outsider,” from her collection of personal essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers. This essay, like my prompt response, is based heavily in dialogue. After concluding her reading, Ms. Dungy assigned us a second series of prompts also rooted in dialogue. She said she was inspired by what I had written the day before and had therefore decided to build off of that groundwork. This was incredibly meaningful to me. I had been reading and studying Camille Dungy’s work for the past few months and had come to admire and respect her as an author. I had even written my own meditative essay based on her collection of essays, and yet she had been inspired by something I had said. That moment accurately depicts the genuine and humble person Camille Dungy is. Not only did she come to visit with our class to help us broaden our knowledge of poetry and writing, but she came to have illuminating conversations and fully engage with us. Anastasia Reid, a fellow student in the Visiting Writer Seminar, described her experience with Ms. Dungy this way: “[Camille Dungy’s] visit was really encouraging from a racial standpoint, especially as a black student where blackness is under-represented in every facet of life, especially, unfortunately, in the classroom. Having her come was inspiring but also reassuring and encouraging [because she] exemplifies blackness in an intellectual, sophisticated light.”
In her address to the entire school, Ms. Dungy continued to exemplify this humble nature and genuine expression. I was particularly moved by the way she described the language she employs. Both in her address to the school and in class, Ms. Dungy mentioned how language can affect people differently. She encouraged us, as young writers, to look up even the simplest of words so that we completely understand their meanings and origins. This can help ensure that what we write communicates precisely what we want to say. My favorite moment of her address was when she admitted to making a mistake in the reading of a poem. As a listener, I had not even registered the mistake, having been lured into a kind of suspension of disbelief by the slow yet intense reading of her poetry. However, she took the time in her address to assure us all that mistakes are a natural part of life and as young women we must not be afraid to recognize them, acknowledge them, and move on. How many of us would have paused the recording there and started again? How many of us would have simply kept going, hoping that no one had noticed?
To end a fantastic week, Ms. Dungy and the Visiting Writer Seminar hosted a Friday evening event that was live and open to all members of the Walker’s community. It began with Ms. Dungy reading her poetry and a personal essay. One of the poems she chose to read was “Trophic Cascade,” the title poem from her most recent book of poetry. The poem discusses the ecological relationships between predators and prey and the environments they interact in. At the end of the poem, Ms. Dungy shifts the focus away from animals and onto herself. She relates the ever-changing hierarchy of animal relations to her own internal shift brought on by motherhood. Camille Dungy’s visit was like that — a collective trophic cascade as we gathered and began to utilize the new tools she was offering to us. Over the course of the week, she inspired new ways of thinking and writing within each of us. The Visiting Writer Seminar is sincerely thankful for the time she spent with our class and we hope that our paths will one day cross again.