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Interview with Claudia Rankine

Of all the books to enter the wider consciousness in the last decade, Citizen is the one to which I have returned most frequently. The book comes up in conversation in an astonishing array of situations, all of which serve to illustrate one thing: there is an appetite at the moment for discourse, for enquiry, for the posing of important and difficult questions. This tendency might not be anything new, but the media through which we can express it have multiplied in the last few years. Instagram and Tumblr poets are now part of popular culture, and the boundaries that divide poetry from other creative modes are being called into question. What does it matter if a text is or isn’t a poem as we commonly understand that term; what does that text make us feel? This is the question that sits at the heart of Claudia Rankine’s artistic practice, a practice which centres the art itself, the text, asking what form it should take to realise its potential rather than trying to bend that work into an existing shape so that it is recognisable as X or Y. What follows is a textual account of a conversation I was lucky enough to have with Claudia Rankine while she was in London for Poetry International at The Southbank Centre. Our conversation took place over breakfast — poached eggs on toast, if I recall — in a wonderfully apposite location, the riverside bar of Mondrian London, a hotel that borders on being a gallery space, which sits next to the Sea Containers HQ of Ogilvy and Mather, a short walk from Tate Modern. What follows cannot capture the sound of clinking glasses and laughter that punctuated our conversation, but let that sit in your mind as background as you read and enter the mind of one of anglophone poetry’s most generous and engaged practitioners.

Q

The White Review

—  I get the impression that race is something that comes up in every interview. Do you feel a pressure to speak about it?

 

A

Claudia Rankine

— No. If I feel a pressure it’s from society, what’s happening in the world. I don’t feel the pressure is coming from you or interviewers, the pressure is coming from the kind of injustice that is so palpable that it’s amplified in my life and the lives of Americans and the lives of Europeans; the turn towards a more fascist orientation. I think I’ve always been the kind of writer who responds to what’s in my life. You go to bed and you wake up and you find out that undocumented students who could be in your classroom are getting deported. I’m more surprised that people shut that stuff down.

Q

The White Review

— There’s an interesting moment within Citizen in which the setting is London and there’s this feeling that race is not something that can be broached, or it isn’t the role of certain people to talk about race. The provocation I get from your work is that it is up to all of us to talk about it.

 

A

Claudia Rankine

— I don’t like telling people what they have to do. I think people should do what they want to do, especially in the realm of creative work. I think you can’t really legislate the imagination, and if you do it’s something else: it’s journalism, it’s sociology. For me as somebody who is a creative artist, either writing or visually, it is part of my imagination, and it would sadden me to think that somebody who is a creative would shut an impulse down if it presents itself for fear of dating the work or of upsetting somebody, if it is in fact an integral part of the things that they’re thinking about. I’m not advocating for anybody stepping into an arena that they’re not in, because what is that?

 

Q

The White Review

— I do find your work inspiring at that level. I think the work you’re doing, in Citizen and now with The Racial Imaginary Institute, is emboldening for my generation of writers and a number of other generations and audiences. I’m particularly inspired by that, not just in relation to race but also in relation to the form and matter of poetry; what constitutes a poem on the page and what constitutes an interdisciplinary work. So, when I think about Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which looks at how our lives are increasingly mediated through a number of different spheres and media, the fact that our poetic culture didn’t previously reflect that is so strange. When I started to interact with your work it made so much sense for it to be presented that way: accepting that as poetry didn’t feel problematic.

A

Claudia Rankine

—  I’m not the first poet who has worked in the prose-poem form — the French were doing it a long time ago. I think people get into these boxes in terms of what the form should be, and I really believe that form and content should always be in dialogue. When I work on something I think ‘what are the tools I need to make this be the best it can be?’ and if it were a song lyric then I would do it. That’s a stretch, but if I knew how or I could collaborate with people, if it were a sonnet then I would write a book of sonnets. It’s not that I have anything against traditional form, it’s just that in thinking about race you’re thinking about people’s lives. A book like Citizen was dependent on stories of people, and so one wanted to find a form that could hold that. In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely I felt like the sentence helped me more than the line, so I went to the sentence. These are questions one has every time you walk into the making of a poem.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Was that understanding of poetry present early in your writing life? What constitutes your early writing life? Were you writing from the time you were a child or in your teens?

A

Claudia Rankine

— No, I started writing in college. I was really influenced by the work of Adrienne Rich, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett, Yeats, and I’m a big reader of fiction, I love Coetzee. It took time for me to understand that everything I learned from all those people could help me in my work. Initially I was working more in form, I was producing what I was being fed, but the older I got the more I was reading. I was reading people like Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Eugenio] Montale, and so then your ideas about what can happen inside the poem become activated and you start to experiment.

Q

The White Review

— To my mind the experimentation in your work is very integrated, and so it makes a lot of sense that you would mention Yeats on the one hand and Lyn Hejinian on the other. It seems clear in your work that disparate influences have been brought together over a long period of time…

A

Claudia Rankine

— …and Edward Kamau Brathwaite, what he does on the page is incredible and how he takes over that space as a kind of canvas. He’s someone that also I look to. And then Derek Walcott and his use of sound… All of them are out there and they can help you, but you don’t have to replicate what they do.

Q

The White Review

— Can you think of a moment that you felt, in relation to your own work, ‘this piece is doing the work I want to do’?

 

A

Claudia Rankine

—  Well, my publisher, when I wrote Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, got rid of me. When they got the manuscript they said ‘this is not poetry’. It was one of those moments where I thought ‘I’m disappointed about this but this is what I need, I’m not gonna change anything to conform to somebody’s idea about what the market needs, and if the consequence is I find myself without a publisher, I find myself without a publisher.’ It didn’t take long to get another one. These decisions are not without consequences, but if they’re truly yours then you stand behind them and you take what you get in terms of people’s responses. But it doesn’t bother me so much because I know it’s what I want to do. Which is not to say I couldn’t be wrong; I could be wrong, but let me be wrong on my terms, and what am I wrong about? Wrong that I want to express myself this way? In my case I feel very lucky that I was able to find my audience. Somebody like Ashbery, people didn’t like his work at all in the beginning, and they said it didn’t make any sense, you can go back and read all the reviews, and he began to teach people how to read him and now nobody thinks there’s anything odd about John Ashbery’s writing.

Q

The White Review

— I think that’s an important part of the process of finding something distinctive. I think if there is nothing particularly distinctive about one’s work and lots of people like it immediately, the scary thing is that one can get comfortable and get trapped in a pattern of churning out more of the same every two or three years.

A

Claudia Rankine

— One of the things I love about Anne Carson’s work is the way in which the form and content meet and how exciting it is that each book does its own thing. Which is not to say I love everything she does, but I anticipate everything she does because I know that she’s thinking ‘how does this thing best show itself, best speak itself?’ Jorie Graham has a new book out right now that also does incredible things around how information, how memory, comes to us. With Graham I love what she does in terms of sound and language — coming up with new sounds to talk about that space in terms of the articulation of memory. I agree with you, I think the poets that I love create form for content.

Q

The White Review

— What’s your perspective on where you publish?

A

Claudia Rankine

— It doesn’t really matter to me where I publish. I rarely publish poetry; usually I publish right before a book comes out unless I’m responding, like I’ve written a poem in response to something and then I will send it to an editor and say ‘consider this’. That’s reflective of the point I am in my career right now. Earlier on I, like everyone, wanted to be published in The New Yorker or The Paris Review or The Southern Review. By the time I was in my forties it seemed like there were so many reviews that everybody was reading and all my friends were publishing reviews that it became less and less important where you published, you were really happy to give your work to people who were like-minded.

Q

The White Review

— There seems to be a healthier journal culture in the States. It feels as if, at every level of poetry publishing, beautiful things can be produced and it doesn’t matter as much if your poems are in a big journal because even the smaller ones have a dedicated following.

A

Claudia Rankine

— I think also because we have this MFA culture in the States where a lot of young people are studying writing. You have this internal market that’s not determined by public consumption, it’s automatic with those students, and many of them are the ones who start these journals and so we have a different reading public. I don’t know if here you have the same MFA culture?

Q

The White Review

— It’s beginning to be that way. The Creative Writing MA programme has become part of what most universities offer if they specialise in the humanities, and at most universities there has to be some form of creative writing course at the undergraduate if not the postgraduate level. It’s a growth area.

A

Claudia Rankine

— I think people have recognised that it actually is good to sponsor creative expression. Writing especially is a good skill to have, and not every one of those students will continue to do it for the rest of their lives but it’s still a good skill to have, like learning how to swim. To understand what language can do, to become a closer reader, a better reader, and to improve your writing skills as a point of communication.

Q

The White Review

— I wondering also about your interaction with, and continual return to, visual stimuli, not only as an influence on written expression but also the incorporation of works of visual art into your work when written expression is insufficient. There are prints of art works, video installations of your poems… Are you always working in this cross-disciplinary manner?
A

Claudia Rankine

— I am, because I think if there is one thing my work does, one thing it’s invested in, it’s seeing. What does it mean to see this thing happen? I’m really interested in affect. I read a lot of critical work by affect theorists. One wants the language to embody what is seen and what is felt and what is heard. It helps to then be able to visualise the unnamable. If I have to take the image myself, I’ll take it, but there are so many visual artists out there that I’m willing to buy the rights to replicate what they do better. When you’re in this realm of talking about relationships between people of different races, so much of it is triggered by what is seen. You could be on the phone and suddenly you walk into the room and you’re a black man and, according to the white imagination, you’re someone to be targeted, not someone to be welcomed. The space suddenly has no space for you. And all of that has to be negotiated by that person and by you, so it’s something to see.
 

***

 

This interview is an excerpt from Issue 21 of The White ReviewTo read it in full, buy the magazine here.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is an Anthony Burgess Fellow at The University of Manchester and poetry editor at The White Review. His first full-length collection of poems, Kumukanda, was published by Chatto & Windus in 2017.

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