jubilat, Number 12
Claudia Rankine was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1963. She is the author of four collections of poetry: Don't Let Me Be Lonely, PLOT, The End of the Alphabet, and Nothing in Nature Is Private. With Lisa Sewell, she co-edited American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2007. She has taught at Barnard College, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and the University of Houston, and currently teaches at Pomona College. The first part of this interview was conducted by Jennifer Flescher in March 2006; the second part was conducted by Robert N. Casper in July 2006.
Where does the relationship of form and function begin for you?
Form has everything to do with content. We know this from Olson. I love the potential openness of the page there is so much unspoken "underneath-ness" in language. I try to use the page to illustrate the mind's meanderings to suggest silence, for example, and to represent all the ways the subject is approached in my own mind. The more I can open up the page to accommodate my own explorations, the more integrity the poem has for me.
In some of my earlier books, I experimented with ways to keep the text open. I was invested, perhaps crudely, in communicating the fact that the poem is a process without resolution. In order for me to begin, I need to come up with a form that accommodates an investigative poetics. For instance, the introduction of images in Don't Let Me Be Lonely was an attempt to acknowledge a total experience of being to involve as many of our senses as possible.
All writing is a kind of performance, but modes that fabricate closure seem less authentic to me. When I was working on The End of the Alphabet, for example, which was in my mind about silence, about a darkness that felt crippling, the language had to be very different from the language in something like Don't Let Me Be Lonely, which is interested in mediated responses, the media, and the clarity or lack of clarity around our own connectedness.
You've said that in Nothing in Nature Is Private the subject did not determine the form. I'm interested in revisiting that statement in light of Don't Let Me Be Lonely.
This is a surprise I forgot about that first book!
Because I always see my second book as my first book. I think Nothing in Nature Is Private was an unconscious effort in a very conscious process. That book came out of an MFA program, where I behaved a bit like a tennis player trying to hit poems over the net back to a roomful of people. There's that constant struggle between satisfying the expectations of the program and what your unconscious wants to investigate.
Did you have a sense of that struggle when you were writing the book?
No. I only thought of it when I received the book I was mortified [laughter]. The box of books just sat in the corner of my room. Nothing in Nature Is Private was created from my interests after all, I did write it! yet it didn't feel like something I wanted to have written. When I began Don't Let Me Be Lonely I went back to the Césaire quote that begins Nothing in Nature I felt I finally had the tools to address race and the space around what it means to be human, such as our responsibility to society.
I was excited to see you return to a more accessible, socially engaged voice with Don't Let Me Be Lonely, but I am still struck by the fragmented, interior register of your second and third books.
I feel I need both things. Don't Let Me Be Lonely has an interior register as well: even though the book tries to negotiate questions in the world, it focuses on one's inability to effect change, which is deeply crippling. It's a journey inward that allows you to come back out. The earlier book's title, Nothing in Nature Is Private, correctly engaged my belief that the public and the private selves are intertwined. But ultimately those early poems seem too public the issues seem set up. In writing The End of the Alphabet I tried to get closer to the private self and not be overwhelmed by the darkness and vulnerability that self seems to hold. Eventually I was able to bring that feeling back into its context, in terms of both the personal and public world.
I think if you always see yourself as in process, always searching, you're willing to try things out. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get to the real questions as I perceive them. I also get inspiration from so many different places, like Samuel Beckett's plays or Ben Marcus's experimental fiction or Lyn Hejinian's poetry or Cornell West's essays. There's a way West articulates our sense of responsibility that I want to somehow mimic. So the form, when it is really working, is open, responsive and flexible.
In PLOT there is a poem about pregnancy that looks like a pregnant belly, and even the names of the main characters are allegorical such as Ersatz. How conscious were the creations of these representations, and where did they begin?
PLOT started with the idea that there are certain subjects you can't write about without being sentimental the issue of sentimentality in poetry and the sacredness of certain subjects intrigues me. I hadn't yet had a child, but I was thinking about motherhood in the abstract thinking about it intellectually and I was able to build a world before I sat down to write. Also, at the time I was watching all of Ingmar Bergman's films. The characters' names in PLOT came from the names of the actors in Scenes from a Marriage, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. I loved that Erland sounded like "her land" and that Liv dovetailed into life, live, livelihood. But Bergman's film Wild Strawberries probably influenced the plot of PLOT most. Because the book is fictional, I didn't want to use a real child's name. And because in many ways it ended up investigating the life of an artist, the child became a replacement for the art object hence the idea of Ersatz, never a real child, as artistic construct.
In PLOT you work with lexical proximities, such as "clock" and "lock" could you talk about that?
The idea with PLOT was pregnancy, so the thought was quite literally: how many things engender an other? How can the subject inform the form? Since PLOT was an investigation of shape within shape, and language was my tool the words became lives themselves, and I began to see words within words.
I wrote PLOT a few years before I got pregnant the anxieties were my anxieties in anticipation of having a child, the anxieties of every woman I had ever talked to about having a child. To the Lighthouse became an important source for the book. I couldn't have written PLOT when I had a child because I would have thought I had a specific arc for it. In the book the nine months start with the thought, "I don't want to visit anything from what I have lived onto this child," and move to the understanding that the child returns possibility to the parents' lives, opens up what is possible for both child and parents. If I had already had a child, I would've written a different book; the writing went toward this rather simple, but to me then unknown, truth.
Are you still working with proximities?
Now I look at it differently. I was just working on a piece about consumption and desire I started thinking how proximity is relational. For example, if you "owe" to "own," what is the relationship between those two things? Do you really own it if you still owe on it? Or when you finally own it, does it own you? Are capitalism and American synonymous? Can one keep them relational but not reflective?
What about art and ownership? PLOT certainly looks at what a mother and a writer has to give up, or what changes for the writer when she becomes a mother.
I just read this great book by C. D. Wright, Cooling Time. In it she talks about poetry and pregnancy she says, You get what you give or, you lose some and you gain some, but there is no going back. You think it is a struggle of one against the other, but it isn't at all. The language in which we think about the relationship between motherhood and art making is inadequate. Unfortunately we enter into motherhood feeling like it is an oppositional struggle rather than focusing on the effort living fully takes. This is what C. D. reminds us.
How do you feel about the importance of addressing race in your poetry?
Well, race is always a part of existence. Everybody is a race, and each racial identity allows access to cultural legacies. Race is always active the question is how American writers engage this activity as it functions in this country. In the case of white writers, often the sense of privilege allows for the assumption that their realities are "normal" (the word normal being an explosive one), that their choices are not choices they are just living life. I am always happy to see white writers who are responsible who take race and class into account. Writers like Juliana Spahr, Jena Osman, Mark Nowak, Charles Bernstein, and Tony Hoagland really make you understand that lives are constructed and that language is part of the construct. We are either contributing to the fictions or retraining those fictions. As a black person, I am interested in keeping blackness a present and active part of the world because it is a present and active part of the world. As poets we keep the field reflective by acknowledging who we are in the world by coming clean with that. This is all the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets were asking for: to understand that language is constructed around certain investments, certain sets of privileges. If you read Juliana Spahr's work, it is clear she is conscious of being a white woman in America. As a reader, you know she is aggressively thinking about what this allows her. She makes statements from her perspective and her understanding of what it means to be her. I think that is the most honest place a writer can begin from, and I admire how her work acknowledges its beginnings.
In my own work, it's not that I feel I need to say every ten minutes that I am a black woman who lives in America but I am a black woman who lives in America. It makes a difference, but not necessarily in the scripted ways one might think. When it seems to be in play, I put it in play. The perception that race is not an active part of our existence allows people to make the kind of mistakes they make against each other. This kind of responsibility starts on the level of recognition and accountability to the self. In other words, what does it mean to be the speaker of the piece you are working on that is crucial to the integrity of the piece. It's not anything big and grand simply I am here; here has a history.
What about your identification as a woman writer?
A female consciousness is not one that I can separate out. If the content allows for a full being of the self, then the full being of the self means that it is going to be a female, black self. Those things are always going to be integrated into the consciousness of my speaker. Even if I constructed a white male speaker, the fact that I am doing the constructing means these issues of race and gender, directly and indirectly, will be in play.
Let's talk about a subject that came up earlier: going to an MFA program, and how that affected your first book. How does that relate to your own teaching?
I don't want to suggest that I wasn't guided well at Columbia. I was very lucky to have J. D. McClatchy as my thesis advisor, and I worked with some really great people, like Alfred Corn, Henri Cole, and Dan Halpern smart, insightful people. The danger with MFA programs is they create a sort of factory: at the end of day seven or year three, you're going to complete something. So you strive toward that completion, and you're not encouraged toward messiness. In my own teaching I try to create environments where exploration is more important than ultimate product. At a certain point people will sit down and have a manuscript, but they don't need to do that in front of me. I get excited by the imaginative possibilities students create, which lead to more possibilities.
For poetry, I think privileging exploration and the formal innovation that follows is distinctly American. We've had it since Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman...
. . . and Gertrude Stein.
Right, and William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. It's what's exciting to me about American poetry!
My dream MFA program would have a philosopher, an eco-poetics person, and a political analyst on staff with the poets. It's about what the mind can hold, and interrogating the mind. I've been working with the poet David Ray Vance on a documentary poetics reader, which will come out with Wesleyan University Press. It's very exciting to come up with a definition for the term the definition we are working with involves being interested in the situation of our existence through actual documents. We are using Muriel Rukeyser's definition as a base she wrote about extending the document into the world of the poem. Her work in The Book of the Dead is one model for this. These kinds of conversations would allow the field of the poem to be open to all the ways we are domestically and globally intertwined. It doesn't have to be overtly political, as we see in the work of Susan Howe and Anne Carson.
But a document that is somehow outside of poetry the poetry becomes a response to that?
Right, or in conversation with it the response sets up a dialogue. For instance, in Shut Up Shut Down Mark Nowak pulls documents in to create a field that actually more accurately portrays what the whole story looks like.
So the context or the dialogue creates a larger sense of truth.
Yes, exactly. C. D. Wright's work often allows you to step inside a territory, and see that place in a larger way. It privileges the voice of the inhabitants I'm committed to anything that brings the individual back into the room/stanza. Not in a narrative way, but in a way that shows that the entire environment is dependent the individual, and the river, and the oil field, and the factory are all somehow in some kind of conversation.
How do you feel about accessibility in poetry?
Not everything you pick up is going to be accessible to you immediately. The kind of reading we do the kind of reading the nonspecialized person does reading the newspaper, reading magazines, reading whatever is around is very narrative-oriented. Consequently, the expectation is all genres will continue in that vein. I think you learn to read a poet like John Ashbery. The more of his poetry you read, the more your expectations shift. The sentences often meander the way a mind might, the pronouns shift and ask us to have looser expectations from what a more linear narrative asks from us. In the end it all makes this wonderful sense, but you have to be open to the track it takes.
When I wrote The End of the Alphabet I was having this conversation with myself about confessional poetry what it is and what it is not. I didn't want to get to the expression of a feeling through the investigation of actual events in my own life. I had had one of those harrowing childhoods where the events could parade as false and distracting subject matter. I was reading around a lot in contemporary poetry at that time, trying to find ways to avoid being distracted by the factual events of my own life. Many contemporary poems told an anecdote or described a scene, based in life events, biographical or imagined, in order to express some feeling I am very angry, I am very sad, I am very depressed. I thought, Couldn't you just write the poem from the moment of expression rather than having to lead the reader there through events? When you think about the work of Hopkins, Vallejo, Dickinson, Celan, or Glück, you find yourself experiencing an authentic rush of feeling. What makes you understand and identify with those poets is that you have had that feeling you are in the emotion, not the life.
I started to try to write poems that began in the moment of a feeling it felt as if I rewrote the same poem a thousand times. The End of the Alphabet was a very metaphor-driven book this feels like this, and this feels like this and as long as I could keep coming up with another analogy, I could keep writing the poem. The process I was involved in ultimately boiled down to the question: how close can I make language represent without being representational? By the same token, I'm always shocked when people say they don't understand my work my intention is always a kind of clarity.
The End of the Alphabet centers on a miscarriage that has already happened it seems to search for reconciliation out of the psychic pain that remains.
I recognize pain in the faces of so many people, and in the work of so many people. For me it's not about reconciliation so much as recognition I don't feel you can reconcile such events. I've felt touched by work that addresses pain it's almost a texture. In writing about pain I've felt I'm opening out something I could never reconcile a kind of conversation I knew I couldn't end, but could begin. I'm interested in moments that hold the confusion of our pain the worry and the fear and yet show how we continue on. That's why I'm fascinated with Beckett's plays: he can tick-tock his way through the difficulty of pain and remain in it. Because pain also seems to remain difficult, I feel it's a narrative lie to create a structure that closes it off, resolves it.
Right maybe reconciliation was not the best word.
Accommodation is a term I like, and engagement.
The End of the Alphabet and PLOT both instruct the reader how to comprehend the conflict of the book, while Don't Let Me Be Lonely relies on the bald power of its character's declarations.
The End of the Alphabet and PLOT, in exploring psychic trauma, keep stepping into the same muck over and over and over again, despite their interrogative nature. The point is that the psyche refuses movement. Lonely moves across and through time.
Do you think of Don't Let Me Be Lonely primarily as a lyric essay as something that was moving away from "poetry"?
That's a hard question for me because of my identification as a poet, and because of the way poets like Anne Carson, Mark Nowak, Kenneth Goldsmith, or Tracie Morris have expanded the notion of what a poem is. I didn't start the book thinking, "Oh, I'm going to try to do a lyric essay" I thought for a long time about what form would allow me the most flexibility to bring in as many things as possible. I saw the book as a kind of assemblage, so I knew it had to be informational. In writing drafts I began to think of it as a lyric essay then I went back and read essayists like Renata Adler and Joan Didion, and turned to contemporary artists like William Kentridge. I'm always looking for help always thinking, "Who can show me a way to do this?"
There are a number of poets who employ other mediums to augment or enlarge our sense of what poetry is.
Theresa Hak Jyung Cha's Dictee is a good model because of its freedoms, its willingness to go wherever it needs to go in order to document the kind of strife present in the creation of her Korean American identity.
Itself a hybrid identity.
Right, exactly. It's funny: I didn't think about Dictee when I was writing Don't Let Me Be Lonely I didn't go in thinking about utilizing images. I wrote the piece about James Byrd because of what President Bush said about the case: he wasn't clear on what had happened to the men who killed Byrd. To Bush's credit, he was saying they had been dealt with harshly and that's what mattered, but I kept thinking about how Byrd got lost in that gesture of closure I wanted to bring him back visually because comments like that erase him. That's how it began. At first I thought I would only bring back people who needed to be brought back in images in most cases it ended up being black men, like Abner Louima. But then I realized other parts of the project could be served by a conversation set up through the text's relation to the image.
The book's section breakers contain a static-filled TV, which makes us more aware of both our position as viewers and our often naïve belief in media as truth.
What I like about the section breakers is the fact that they themselves are a critique of a cultural passivity watching television has become a national American pastime, and that's where we get our rest. So, in the breaks between the sections you hang out [laughter]. Did you know there were images of George Bush in those televisions?
You can't really see that it's him, but if you squint you can see a male figure in the static. While I was working on the book, my husband the photographer John Lucas said, "Why don't you put an image of George Bush here?" Initially I said no because I wanted to show that America is much larger than an individual. That's how we arrived at the static.
As a way to obscure Bush, yet make him ominously present. I thought he showed up in more images.
Oh, yes, he's in there with Colin Powell, in a cartoon which circulated on the Internet. I think our culture tends to get distracted by individuals; the real issues need too much thought. In the case of Hurricane Katrina we would rather talk about where Condi Rice was shopping while people were stranded than the real issue of poverty and race in this country.
On the subject of truth and authority, I want to talk about the relationship between the text and the notes in Don't Let Me Be Lonely. It almost seems as if the narrative voice in the notes is separate from the rest of the book and has a greater claim to truth but a suspect truth, a just-beyond-the fingertips truth.
After I finished working on the text, I felt it was necessary to provide actual facts. I didn't feel committed to the literal truth, but to creating a mosaic that created a larger truth. However, because the events represented had their own facts in real life, I felt some distinction had to be made. I asked a graduate student assistant of mine John Woods, a fantastic fiction writer to research the facts on all the events in the book. He wrote descriptions for the notes, and I took what I needed and changed what I had to, but never in an artistic sense more in the sense of providing the "truth." Even though sometimes the notes tell their own stories, everything in them is based on fact, whatever that means.
At one point the narrator says, "I tried to fit language into the shape of usefulness" but the structure of the book felt like it complicated such an attempt. One would normally call the notes section of a book useful, but in Don't Let Me Be Lonely it interestingly intruded on, or competed with, the book itself.
I was surprised at that. I think people have used the notes as a way not to read the text, to be distracted from the text. That's unfortunate I really wanted them to function like the images: to take away the "literal truth" authority from the text. It's important that people don't think I had a sister whose husband and children died in a car crash, for instance. I wanted the notes to destabilize the text further they make the book messier, and I like that. I'm not interested in creating anything that contributes to the fiction of wholeness; instead, I continue to try to find a mode that can accommodate without pretending to transcend, that manages to stay in the mess and continue an exploration of thought in the imagination.
Let's talk more about your current project.
I'm working with my husband on a film essay, influenced by the work of Chris Marker. Films like Le Jetee and Sans Soleil provided me a starting point in terms of collaging. We are looking at engaging consumerism desire, ownership and landscape. What does desire look like in the landscape of the mall, the superstore, Madison Avenue? Right now we have shot lists, and I'm working on the screenplay. But then things come up that take me away from it. Things like Katrina. Things that feel like they need a response.
Which you don't feel that the film can incorporate?
That's the thing: I don't know. Lately I've been working on a video essay about Zinedine Zidane's head-butt of Marco Materazzi in this year's World Cup final. Before the incident happened, videos show the two talking for viewers, this moment is silent. What's being exchanged at the moment? Maybe it doesn't have anything to do with race or national identity, but maybe it does. Then the explosion happens, and the general response is Zidane is a bad man and should apologize...
But the public doesn't know what Materazzi said to Zidane...
The public might never know and it might not be what we think, that's the other thing. But in a way it doesn't matter what we think, and it doesn't matter what was said. Because there's the other story that has to do with Zidane's national identity versus his ethnic identity. I'm compelled by this story, not just because of the mystery of it but also because of the familiarity of it. As a black person in the United States, I'm fascinated by that moment it reminds me of the moment when Frederick Douglass decides to fight his master. A moment when consequences are irrelevant. With Zidane, video has captured the moment, and we can play it and replay it without ever really knowing more than what we see. Clearly his physical response is the one we're saying is not acceptable. But something else that happened in that moment was as violent to him as his head-butting, and it's brought forward through language. In The End of the Alphabet and PLOT the psyche holds a trauma that seems a greater violence than anything the physical body can hold. I am held by those moments.
At one point in PLOT, the narrative voice says, "A certain type of life is plot-driven, a certain slant in life." That made me think of Emily Dickinson's line, "Tell all the truth but tell it slant," and how our cultural narrative of pregnancy and childbirth is so cleaned up, so picture-perfect.
That's why I love the word plot the various meanings of it. And having it be both so flexible and yet so rigid, and also being an end point in terms of a grave.
It's also a little insidious to plot against, for instance.
Yes, exactly. It's a word that allows you to live and die in it...
And not entirely trust it, even though the whole point of our culture is to believe in narrative. If it was named narrative, it would be something else, but as plot it keeps us on our toes.
It has its own subversive elements written inside of it.
Exactly. I think that's a good place to stop for now.
About the Authors
Jennifer Flescher is a poet and journalist whose work has appeared in The Harvard Review, The New Hampshire Review, and The Boston Globe.
Robert N. Caspar is program director at the Poetry Society of America and Publisher of jubilat.
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Publisher: Robert N. Caspar
Editors: Jen Bervin, Terrance Hayes
Managing Editor: Jedediah Berry