August 30, 2016

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

In the time of Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston, the poet Claudia Rankine has been the lyric teller of our deepest hurt. Her new book, Citizen: An American Lyric, was a best-seller and something of a lifeline this year, ...

In the time of Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston, the poet Claudia Rankine has been the lyric teller of our deepest hurt. Her new book, Citizen: An American Lyric, was a best-seller and something of a lifeline this year, mapping America’s racial traumas — from the Katrina travesty (2005) to the death of Trayvon Martin (2012) and the now-and-then travails of Serena Williams.

Rankine says that American life is made of these moments when race gets us “by the throat.” Only some are nationally noted tragedies. The rest: millions of episodes between friends and loved ones, errors of human interaction, when “citizens” of different races trip up, and damage each other, typically without realizing it.

She calls them microaggressions. An example:

A friend tells you he has seen a photograph of you on the Internet and he wants to know why you look so angry. You and the photographer chose the photograph he refers to because you both decided it looked the most relaxed. Do you look angry? You wouldn’t have said so. Obviously this unsmiling image of you makes him uncomfortable, and he needs you to account for that.

If you were smiling, what would that tell him about your composure in his imagination?

Screenshot 2015-07-13 17.35.02

We had gathered a poets’ panel in Chris Lydon’s living room led by Harvard’s Stephen Burt earlier this year, and the conversation about Citizen took over. Burt and company were ready to compare Rankine’s poetry to The Wasteland or Howl, and they marveled over Citizen’s Whitmanian multitudes: elegiac verse, poetic prose that reads as diary or essay, video scripts, and diptychs of words and art.

Rankine works every angle to take us inside the reality of what it’s like to be a black person in America — how “black bodies” are contained, how the smallest slights replay history, and how racial judgment in first class cabins and subway cars hurts everybody:

We followed Claudia Rankine to a packed house at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, where she described Citizen’s last page, which depicts J.M.W. Turner’s terrifying painting The Slave Ship, and her wary brand of hope:

I didn’t want to create false hope… I thought, “Gosh, this problem has been around since the market—since black bodies were part of the market. When they were objects. When they were considered property.” And that equation between whiteness and the black body as property of whiteness is the equation we can’t get out of… I wanted to end [Citizen] with Turner because people always say, “Well, I didn’t know. It wasn’t my intention. I wish I had known more about this…” But Turner knew better in the 1800s. He knew better. And this is 2015. So, there it was. The end.

Rankine told the ICA crowd that she has always loved Turner. He shows her that not everyone is stuck all of the time. The micro- space where people live and create is where we fail each other every day, but it’s also the place where sometimes we surpass ourselves.

As our own conversation closed, Claudia Rankine took heart from Samuel Beckett’s old advice. “We will always fail each other,” she said. Her hope is that we will not fail the same way forever — that we will “fail better” or, more realistically, “fail other.”

Can any of us listen to Claudia Rankine without asking: How have I failed this year? How have you? So tell us on Facebook: When does race have you by the throat? And, just what does it feel like in your skin?

— Pat Tomaino.
Photograph by Don Usner/Lannan Foundation.

Whose Words These Are: A Questionnaire


After a long interview, Claudia Rankine agreed to field our sometime questionnaire for poets and writers, which we’re bringing back in 2015. See the other questionnaires here.

As a poet, who’s in the conversation with you, living or dead?
Toni Morrison, of course: “This is not a story to pass on” — the last line of Beloved. J. M. Coetzee: I love the way he sees blacks, whites, everyone, as failing, failed, anxious, self-interested individuals, which we all are. Fred Moten, The Feel Trio. Louise Glück, who taught me at Williams, whose ability to interrogate a moment has stayed with me. Claire Denis, the filmmaker. Chris Marker.

Who do you think of as doing the work of your spirit in a different medium?

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is a really important book to me right now, in terms of “the school-to-prison pipeline.” Many of the visual artists in Citizen, people like Glenn Ligon and Wangechi Mutu.

Steve McQueen — did you see that film he did, called Hunger? It’s the most beautiful film, on a hunger strike in Ireland. One of the things I love about him, the sense that one can interrogate a social condition through beauty. Beauty doesn’t just fall by the wayside. Because the eye is always looking, it’s always seeking, you know?

When you walk down the street, who do people see?
That’s odd. I don’t know. I’m looking myself. I’m always looking. I love being outside. I love overhearing conversations. Maybe what they see is somebody who’s watching.

What is the talent that you’d most love to have that you don’t have (yet)?
My husband is a filmmaker; I wish I had his ability to see, actually. It’s astounding to me, sometimes, what he can point out visually. I listen the way he looks. Maybe together we’re one being. (Laughter.)

What’s the keynote of your personality, as a poet?
I think I’m patient on the page. I will stay with something for as long as takes for me to feel that whatever I wish to communicate is being communicated. And if that’s the whole book on one thing, that’s OK.

Who’s your favorite character in fiction?
In J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, the plot in a sentence is that the guy who’s in charge of the village. He has a black housekeeper who he falls in love with. And at a certain point of the story he says to her, “You can leave, or you can stay with me.” And he’s very torn up about what she’s going to do. I love that character, because you know she’s going to leave — and she does leave. She’s always been a favorite character of mine.

What is your favorite quality in a man?
Man or woman, I love anyone who will laugh — at anything. At things I say, at things they say, at things they see, at things that aren’t even funny.

I was going to ask you: what’s your favorite quality in a woman?
I love women who don’t care, who are not being controlled by external ideas about what it means to be a woman. And you know those women when you see them — they just don’t care. It’s sort of Sula, in Toni Morrison: women who make their own terms.

What are your desert-island discs?
I would take Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. I know it’s traditional, but I would take it. I would take Adele, 21. I love Adele; I love that voice. The third one would be the hardest one to choose: I guess I would take a radio.

What’s your motto?
There’s a quote from Romare Bearden, the collagist. He said, “There are all kinds of people, and they will help you if you let them.” As somebody who collaborates a lot, I take that to heart, and I certainly would hope that other people would see me as one of those people who would help them, if they would let me.

What’s your city for all time?
New York. I know I live in L.A., but… New York.

How would you like to die?
Old, I’d like to die old — and laughing.

Podcast • October 5, 2010

Whose Words These Are: Helen Vendler’s Emily Dickinson

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Helen Vendler (64 minutes, 30 mb mp3) Helen Vendler, our tutor in W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens, is showing us here how to swim the chilly depths ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Helen Vendler (64 minutes, 30 mb mp3)

Helen Vendler, our tutor in W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens, is showing us here how to swim the chilly depths of Emily Dickinson.

The poem that taught Vendler how to read Dickinson is “Ashes denote that fire was…” The bleak miniaturist “Belle of Amherst” imagined her tiny poems as the burnt residue of a life. Reading her becomes a sort of forensic analysis. The literary critic becomes a sort of reconstructive chemist — a natural move for Vendler who learned as a college chemistry major to study and marvel at organic structures and patterns.

For me the Dickinson poem that cracks the central mystery of her theology — her devotion to King James language, her preoccupations with Jesus’ suffering and Christian ideas of resurrection and immortality, and finally her staunch unbelief — is this three-line stanza:

In the name of the bee

And of the butterfly

And of the breeze, Amen!

It’s a parody, of course, of Jesus’ admonition to his disciples to baptize all nations “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” The three-B Dickinson version is the first fragment in Vendler’s grand selection of Emily Dickinson. It marked for me, as I volunteered to Professor Vendler, the first of Dickinson’s endless bouts — some playful, some pitiless — with the Big Guy:

HV: She’s wrestling with her society, I would rather say, that insists that she believe in what you just referred to as the Big Guy — that she thought of as an eclipse that the family prayers were addressed to every evening.

But when she baptizes her poems as she sends them into the world, she is taking up the sacred formula… She is ushering her poems into the world, as newborn children, you might say — being baptized in the elements of nature: bee for being; the butterfly is psyche, the soul; and the breeze is the breeze of the holy spirit — ‘the spirit bloweth where it listeth.’ All of these are translations from the religious substructure, but wittily, playfully, beautifully lifted into a summer afternoon with a bee, a butterfly and a breeze. And they all alliterate so that they’re a trinity — again a parody of the three equal persons of the Trinity.

All of this is so lightly touched and so sweetly done that you don’t think of this at first as a blasphemy. But if you took a child to church to be baptized and heard this, you’d be a little surprised.

CL: You’d know you’d arrived at a hippie wedding, or something.

HV: Yes, exactly.

In pursuit of Vendler’s Dickinson, we are talking about just a dozen poems out of some 1800.

Aurora: beginning: Of Bronze — and Blaze —

Ashes denote that fire was

This is my letter to the world

I died for Beauty

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

The fascinating chill that music leaves

The gentian weaves her fringes

Safe in their alabaster chambers

After great pain, a formal feeling comes —

God is a distant — stately Lover

A Spider sewed at Night

I know that He exists

In our unplotted conversation of 90 minutes or so, these were the poems that popped into the mind that’s studied them all.

Podcast • May 27, 2010

Whose Words These Are (27): Dan Chiasson, the Natural

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Dan Chiasson. (50 minutes, 24 mb mp3) Nancy Crampton photo Dan Chiasson has the easy charm of a natural New England oracle, in a tradition encompassing Emily Dickinson ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Dan Chiasson. (50 minutes, 24 mb mp3)

danny ch

Nancy Crampton photo

Dan Chiasson has the easy charm of a natural New England oracle, in a tradition encompassing Emily Dickinson and William James, Robert Frost and Robert Lowell. When he reads the poem “Train” from his new book Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon, you’ll picture that Boston-Fitchburg railway that Thoreau ranted at in Walden. When he reads his six compact lines on “Falls, Bristol, VT,” you’ll see the poet playing waterfall, having fun with his Emersonian “self.”

The waterfall runs all day and night,

shedding big self on the rocks below,

refilling with more self, more self, more self,

while bathers visit in small groups, never

the same bathers, always the same river —

my local, inverted, redneck pre-Socratic.

That voice of the “natural” took some cultivating. Dan Chiasson can see himself as a French-Canadian kid from wrong side of the tracks in rural northern Vermont. “My Vermont was full of fire escapes and convenience stores,” he has said. His father took off before Dan had a chance to say hello. Dan went to a Catholic high school with an inspired English teacher, then to Amherst College and to Harvard for a Ph. D. in literature, with Helen Vendler, among others. He didn’t start thinking of himself as a poet until he audited Frank Bidart‘s class at Wellesley. Now he’s tenured at Wellesley himself, colleague and maybe successor to Bidart and another prized mentor David Ferry. In three books of poems Dan Chiasson’s bite is more and more his own. In Natural History one poem in the voice of the poet-critic Randall Jarrell observes young Dan’s progress:

He tried on the confessional style for a while.

If people hurt you, tell on them: perhaps you’ll heal.

If language hurts you, make the damage real.

This is a poet of balanced clauses and complete sentences, ending with periods. He also likes stepped couplets and quick-fire bursts of poems in short, matched forms, like the ten 8-line “swifts” in Where’s the Moon…. With a title spoken by his first son, then 2, Chiasson’s new book is enmeshed in the mysteries of sonship and fatherhood.

Infinite capacity for love in the smallest detail;

infinite suffering in the innermost reality…

The young commissar emerging in Dan Chiasson’s name, meanwhile, has ever wider sway, as the new poetry editor of The Paris Review and as frequent critic, between incisive (on Rae Armantrout among the Language Poets) and deflationary (on Donald Hall’s Selected Poems) and scathing (John Updike’s “Fellatio” was “perhaps the worst poem ever written on any subject”) for The New Yorker and The New York Times. Our conversation begins with the Herbert, Blake and Keats poems that got him started, and works its way to the “perfect” Raleigh and Bishop poems he’s memorized over the years.

Our Proust Questionnaire

What’s the talent you’d most love to have that you don’t — yet?

I would love to be an amazing tennis player. I could take anybody anytime anywhere and beat them. I’d like to be a great tennis player.

When you think of all the expressive possibilities, including baseball and space flight, who do you think of as people doing the work of your spirit, your imagination, in another way?

There’s this guy that I’m friends with, Paul Harding, who’s just written Tinkers, this wonderful book. I would like to have written that book.

There’s the amazing super short story writer Lydia Davis, whose collected stories was just published. And I just lived, and am still to some extent living inside that book. The mind on display there is as extraordinary as any mind I know.

The French filmmaker Chris Marker’s early science fiction movie La Jetée. It’s twenty minutes long, so you can watch it over and over and over again. If you don’t know it, it’s entirely still photography, except for one scene where a woman’s eyes open. Something about the arbitrary constraint of making a movie only with still photographs in order to allow for or arrange for this transcendent moment where you actually violate the rules that you’ve created for yourself—that feels a lot like writing poetry to me. You create a set of arbitrary rules. Even if you’re writing free verse it’s a totally rule-bound environment when you’re writing poetry. And so the moment when you transcend or transgress those rules will feel extraordinary. That’s what I love about that.

I would love to compare myself to some athletes. I can remember watching Pedro Martinez during those great seasons: ’99, 2000. It was like watching pure intelligence work itself out in relation to an adversary. It was just astounding, gorgeous and so full of mind. He was 5’ 10” or something; I’m 5’ 10”, so I had a sort of identification with him.

What do you think of as the keynote of your personality as a poet?

What I strive for is a kind of athleticism. I want not to have to linger in any thought or emotion or point of view for too long. I like to get from place to place rapidly. I hope to find some kind of intensity, but that allows for self-mockery, self-caricature. I guess the keynote would be inner conflict, inability to decide about and rank language, ways of thinking, ways of feeling.

Do you think of yourself, your work, your writing in a historical context? When they remember Dan Chiasson someday — way back in 2010 — what will they say of your setting?

I think that all the other remarkable forms of entertainment and forms of diversion that greet us now in this moment put an enormous amount of pressure on poetry. What I’m doing and what poets that I admire are now doing are figuring out viable accounts of interiority that allow for all the passing mental stuff, but don’t totally concede the inner life to external buffetings of information and the sense that if you could Google something infinitely, you would know it fully. What I’m doing is trying to figure out ways to keep some mystery of the self and language alive.

When the day comes, how do you want to die?

Boy, I’m too superstitious to name a way, because I think it’ll happen when I walk out the door of this bookstore.

Do you have a motto?

I don’t have a motto, but I did the other night order some bumper stickers made. One can do this. Any passing sentiment you have, you can now go online and order some bumper stickers, and lo and behold, they’re at your mailbox three days later. So I’ll tell you what my bumper sticker was. We live on a road called Water Row, and I’m always incredibly angry at passing traffic, because people drive too fast. So I had a bumper sticker made that says simply, “GO SLOW ON WATER ROW.” That’s my motto.

Is there a perfect poem out there in the world?

Yes, many. One would be Sir Walter Raleigh’s “Three Things There Be.” It’s a warning to his son. It’s about being a good boy so you don’t get hung. That’s a perfect poem.

The other poem would be Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo,” which is an amazing love poem, one of the most beautiful love poems I know.

Dan Chiasson, at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop at Harvard Square, with Chris Lydon. May 27, 2010.

Podcast • May 19, 2010

Whose Words These Are (26): Pulitzer Poet Rae Armantrout

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rae Armantrout. (47 minutes, 23 mb mp3) Rae Armantrout, this year’s Pulitzer Prize poet, calls her stance “quizzical.” Fellow poets and critics write of her “oppositional temperament” (Steve ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rae Armantrout. (47 minutes, 23 mb mp3)

Rae Armantrout, this year’s Pulitzer Prize poet, calls her stance “quizzical.” Fellow poets and critics write of her “oppositional temperament” (Steve Burt), of an impulse “to countermand, rather than to express” (Dan Chiasson). She is speaking in our conversation of the gesture of resistance that runs through her poems — of a habit of dissent and a lifetime of “talking back to the world when it’s bothering me.” Talking back, among other things, to her Fundamentalist upbringing, to the Vietnam war, to the diagnosis of an exotic cancer in her system, to advertising catch phrases and TV news. Talking back to news formulas can be just a matter of quoting them:


Anna Nicole news

as she buries

her son.”

Often the effect of her play with cliché is laugh-out-loud gruesome, as in the poem “New”:

If yellow

is the new black,

Since Fallujah

is the new Antigua,

Dan Chiasson’s New Yorker review had me braced for “some tantalizingly hard poems,” and for “the most genuinely experimental” poet since John Ashberry won the Pulitzer in 1976. Her voice is disarming, though, and her teaching-reading manner is modest, maternal, clear. As in her account of the famous, or infamous, Language School of poets and poetry she’s been associated with, in and out of the Bay Area since the Seventies:

We were and are a group, a social group, a community of poets with Cold War childhoods who came to maturity in the age of Vietnam. We were politically on the left, as so many young people were, and we were very much estranged from what the government was doing and suspicious of the rhetoric of the Cold War and of the Vietnam War. I think that suspicion of rhetoric and public discourse was one thing that held us together and that we all share, maybe still. As we challenged each other and influenced each other, various styles developed. I mean, I was kind of always a minimalist. I had written poetry since I was in elementary school, and I was writing poetry when I first went to Berkeley and when I first met Ron Silliman. He was the first of what would later be the Language Poets, and he was a college friend of mine… I do think that I do have elements in common still with the Language Poets, and I think that it’s something about the way my poems jump from thought to thought or image to image without explicitly narrating the connection between. That kind of juxtaposition. Which actually you can see all the way back into modernism, but it’s something that also became very much a hallmark of Language Poetry…

Our Proust Questionnaire

Q: What talent would you love to have that you don’t?

Oh, I’d love to be able to sing, to really belt out a blues song. That’s a simple one for me. I can’t carry a tune, and if I could have, maybe that’s what I would have done, because I’d love to do that.

Q: Who do you think of as fellow travelers in other mediums, that could be sculpture or music or dance or painting? Of all time. Who’s got Rae Armantrout’s spirit out there under a different name?

Well in fiction it’s easy. That would be Lydia Davis. She and I really are on a wavelength I think. We communicate very easily. That’s all I got.

Q: Who’s your all-time favorite character in fiction?

Well, I like the Beckett characters like Molloy or Malone. You know, the I-can’t-go-on I’ll-go-on people. And of course there was the narrator in Swann’s Way who is unnamed. I think later in the series of books he is referred to as Marcel, which was Proust’s first name of course.

Q: What do you think of as the keynote of your personality as a poet?

The keynote… E sharp. No. A minor key. I think probably being quizzical, questioning things, doing a double take, going, huh? That would be my keynote.

Q: When you walk down the street, Rae Armantrout, what do you think people see?

People don’t see me, because I’ve got on my invisibility cloak. No, because I’m an older woman. I don’t think people are looking at me.

Q: What quality above all do you look for and love in somebody else’s poem?

Fierceness. Speed. Quickness. That’s why I don’t do that filler stuff we were talking about earlier. Grace, actually. Sonic pleasure is important to me. And surprise. When something surprises me, when there’s a word that seems right but you didn’t see it coming at all. That.

Q: You’ve been through the big scare already, but how would you like to die when you do?

Well you know, because I’ve been through the big scare already, I guess I’m not going to give a fanciful answer to that. I’m going to say I’d like to die in a way that was not in pain. I would like to die when I chose, you know. I actually wish that Dr. Kevorkian was still working, because I would like to die from an overdose of morphine I think. So. And surrounded by people I love.

Q: What’s your motto?

Ooh. My motto is never have a motto. Mottos get you in trouble. I’ve got a Dickinson quote about that actually that might fit. “Experiment escorts us last / His pungent company / Will not allow an Axiom / An Opportunity.”

Rae Armantrout, in San Diego, with Chris Lydon, at Brown. May 18, 2010.