Claudia Rankine in Conversation
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 resistance?
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 view.
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 book?
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 poems?
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.