The following is a transcript of an interview with Claudia Rankine
conducted at the office of the Academy of American Poets in September
Poets.org: Although you identify more or less as a
poet, your work is notorious for its tackling of multiple genres—I’m
thinking of the way you incorporate photography in Don't Let Me Be
Lonely, or, more recently, with the genre-bending work of The
Provenance of Beauty. A guided bus tour through the Bronx, combining
pre-recorded and live elements, this piece is presented as a "poetic
travelogue," though it also seems part-radioplay, part-happening,
part-sightseeing tour. How does one genre inform another in your work?
Claudia Rankine: I'm beginning to think less in terms
of genre and just in terms of writing in general. My background, my
education, has been in poetry, so I feel that many of the layers in
whatever I'm doing are coming out of a world of allusions that are located
in poets. So, no matter what I'm working on, I like to call it poetic in
some way, because the poets that I've read and that I love, their work
tends to infuse it.>
For instance, we had a line in the play that referred to "getting and spending," (it was in an
earlier draft of the play—it's no longer there). I wanted it there
because it sort of worked against the industrialization of the landscape,
and for me, it was a sort of private joke, to throw in that phrase. The
director, Melanie Joseph, said, "What is reminding me of college from
this?" I said, it must be "getting and spending." And it was; she
remembered the Wordsworth. For me, that is sort of my private
cache;. But when I'm writing, I just feel like I'm writing. I don't
really think that I'm writing in this genre or that genre. That might be a
problem, but it seems very integrated to me
Poets.org: Very early in the play, the narrator says:
"Are you wondering why we’re here? Where we’re going? When we get there
will you think, This is nice. This is new. This is old. This is urban.
These are the real people. These are the other people." What is your
relationship with the South Bronx, and, more generally, how do you feel
geography, setting, space informs your writing?
Rankine: I grew up in the Bronx, so [the director and
I] went and checked out different neighborhoods in the Bronx, and we ended
up, for many reasons, in the south Bronx.
I believe that where we are, how we are allowed to live, is determined
by the politics of the land—the big politics and the little politics.
And it varies depending on where you're located. I'm very interested in the
landscape in general as the site of living, of a place created out of
lives, and those lives having a kind of politics and a kind of being that
is consciously and unconsciously shaped. Decisions are made that allow us
to do certain things, that give us certain freedoms and 'unfreedoms.'
Poets.org: Another statement early in the play:
"Identity is time passing. Every moment of what we call life is life in the
shadow of choice." Do you consciously resist assumed notions of identity
and identity politics? If so, what value is gained or lost in such
Rankine: Well, I don't know if it's resistance, but I
do think that the more we are conscious of the limits that are put on us or
that we put on each other and the ways in which we try to code the
existence of others—the more we understand that—the more we are able to
work with it, to make conscious choices about how we live.
You know—I do it, you do it, I'm sure we all do it, and it's a
kind of shortcut to living. And I think if we can sort of back up from that
at least and begin to see people as individuals and to not take the
mechanisms that society has handed us to get past people very quickly. If
we can just slow down a bit, I think we would begin to treat each other a
little better. I really feel that way.
Poets.org: What do you consider the role of
collaboration in poetry? Particularly in theatre, this is often an
obligatory part of the medium. To what extent do you consider a completely
singular work possible or attractive? What does the collaborator gain or
lose in that sort of a project?
Rankine: I know that the making of the play is
tremendously collaborative, and I have been living it for the past two
years. But still, in the end, the writing you do on your own. You still are
writing at your desk by yourself. What is more collaborative, perhaps, is
the editing process. In some ways, things can go faster, because you have
many eyes responding and looking and feeling, and the actress being in the
language, and if it doesn't hold, everybody sees that very quickly.
I have learned to be very clear about what's not 'just
language,'—things that I am very committed to and that cannot be
edited out just because somebody doesn't like the feel of that. I'd be
willing to revise maybe syntactically the way something happens, but I'm
not willing to cut certain things that are part of what I feel is the
meaning of the piece. And so the process is a good one in that you have to
lay claim to your commitments early on, or else somebody else's view gets
laid over yours. And, you know, that might be okay. But for me, it's not
okay most of the time. And so you have to be very willing to articulate why
things are necessary and to convince a number of people that that's the
case. And that's been a great process to be involved in. It's like the
ideal marriage—where you're constantly negotiating, but you win many
of the battles.
Poets.org: Is that how marriage works?
Poets.org: With Juliana Spahr, you co-edited the
anthology American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets
Language. Can you tell us how the two of you worked together? Did you
struggle with the idea of defining a contemporary moment in American
poetry? And how did disagreements and compromise shape the collection?
Rankine: The reason I wanted to work with Juliana on
that was: her training was very different from mine. She had studied with a
lot of the language poets and what
is in a sense the next generation. And I had worked more with lyric-based
poets—people like Louise Glück and Bob Hass. And I admired Juliana's work so much. I love
her work. And I also loved her vision—sort of the politics of her
work, the connectedness that she advocates in her critical work and that is
demonstrated in her creative work. And so I wanted that approach to help
shape the book. So I don't think there was any conflict per se in the
collaboration with the collection, because I so admired what she had done
both critically and poetically that I could stay hungry for her point of
Poets.org: What about conflicts with yourself?
Rankine: In terms of deciding on the poets—that's
tough. Because for everyone you include, there's another you're not
including who you should be including. So in a way you come up with these
rules, and you make rules only to narrow the field, not to judge, not to
create a hierarchical structure at all, only because you have to narrow the
field, so you do that. But luckily we are now in the process of making
volume two, so a lot of the people who should've been in volume one, like
C. D. Wright, Leslie Scalapino, Laura
Mullen—many, many people are now going to be in volume two, so that
is incredibly satisfying. And this volume I'm co-editing with Lisa Sewell.
She's writing the introduction as we speak.
Poets.org: Glancing quickly at the extensive notes for
Don't Let Me Be Lonely, the sources include Shakespeare's The Tragedy of King Lear, the
television show Murder, She Wrote, and pharmaceutical pamphlets, to
name a few. What is your process for collecting and seeking out these
materials—were they gathered over the years and selected when the
writing called for them, or did you actively seek them out for the
Rankine: They're not even gathered, they're just lived, and when you need them they come to you. But I think somebody like John Ashbery gives you permission to pull from
everywhere. From all the bits of your life, when you need it—and
before him Eliot, obviously, and the Modernists. But there's no conscious
sense that I'm engaging in this because I will use it later. You're just
living it. You just happened to see it on television, you just happened to
see it in the paper, and you just happened to have read that book and loved
it. And I think, on some level, all of those things must have touched me in
some way, because they did come back to me. So, on some level, I connect
with everything that I end up using.
Poets.org: Are certain subjects more conducive to
poetry than others?
Rankine: One way of thinking about it
is—something like ecopoetics. When somebody like Gary Snyder
is very interested in engagement with the landscape as it exists rather
than in a romantic way, that speaks to me. That's a sensibility that I
understand. At a certain level, all poetry seeks something, is looking, is
in conversation with something. I just think there are certain poets that
speak to me more because they are engaged in the world in a way that I am
engaged in the world.
But it's not even a linguistic thing, it's a bodily thing. And so I feel
very close to Yeats, partly because I think
Yeats—even though I don't agree with his politics—was very
interested in the politics of the world he was living in. He was affected
by it; he had to address it. And that's something I feel like I understand.
I also feel very moved by the work of Emily Dickinson,
for the same reason, though the work is very different.
Poets.org: Can you give us any insight into the notion
of a book as unit of writing, as opposed to a collection of singular
Rankine: Somebody once said to me: you're not a
magazine poet, because you don't write single poems, you write in whole
books. I think it was Richard Howard who told me that
actually—after he rejected one of my poems from the Paris
Review. But I think he's right. I tend to be interested in a subject
and the world around that, so once I get started on something, I can go
years circling it.
I definitely start with the idea of something, and then I begin to
investigate it. I really see it as an investigation, an interrogation that
goes on on the page for me, for a long time, until something gets resolved.
Not that questions get answers. I think that after a while, I come to an
end, because I come to an end. I've always admired, but never understood,
the ability to write a single poem and then be done with it.
Poets.org: Your collections Don't Let Me Be
Lonely and Plot feature personae that are at once intensely
personal and noticeably distanced. More recently, in The Provenance of
Beauty, there is an insistent, though disembodied, first-person
speaker, that guides the trip. In what ways do you identify with these
voices? What is your relationship to autobiography in your writing?
Rankine: I think a lot of people assume that Don't
Let Me Be Lonely was autobiographical because of the "I," the use of
the first-person. It's not—and it is. I feel that when I'm working on
something, I will take from anywhere I know to get at the place that I'm
going. Anything I know about you is mine now. And everything I know about
me is also mine now. And I will use whatever I can to investigate whatever
it is that I'm investigating.
Poets.org: Should I be worried?
Rankine: No, you shouldn't be worried—you'd never
notice. For me, those lines are not hard and fast. But I'm not writing
nonfiction. Until I say I'm writing nonfiction, I'm not writing nonfiction.
I feel like I should be responsible textually. And I am. That's why notes
are in the back of Lonely and will be in the back of any other text
that I write, but I don't feel any commitment to any external idea of the
truth. I feel like the making of the thing is the truth, will make its own
truth. And I do really feel like what I know through living is material for
the making of whatever it is that I'm making.
Poets.org: How do you think one project leads into the
next? Can you tell us, are there connections between your play and what
you’ve previously published—and to what you’ll publish next?
Rankine: Definitely. I think it's organic. I think life's
organic. And I don't think I would have been commissioned to do the play had
I not written Lonely. And I don't think I would have been prepared for
the play had I not done the films that I had been doing, with my husband,
John Lucas, recently. I definitely see my life unfolding in a very organic
fashion. Each time it's a little more difficult, it's a little bit more
collaborative, because it becomes a little bit more unbanded, but I do feel
that I'm being prepared each time for the next thing.
Poets.org: You should feel lucky.
Rankine: I do.