February 4, 2019KR BlogBlog

Go Where You Love: Claudia Rankine on Poetry & Privilege

When Ohio Poet Laureate (and KR Blog contributor) Dave Lucas learned he would be moderating a conversation with poet Claudia Rankine, he contacted a friend for advice. “OH MY GOD,” the friend replied. “I would ask her to put anointing oil on my head.”

Lucas shared this story at the Parma-Snow Branch of Cuyahoga County Public Library on January 23, where Rankine appeared as part of the NEA Big Read program. Rankine spoke about poetry, publishing, racism, privilege, and more. Here are some snippets from her conversation:

How Rankine welcomed the crowd: “Thank you for coming. It’s raining, it’s nighttime, it’s dark, it’s January—and you’re here.”

On the magic of specificity: “In writing and art, what makes it travel is the fact that it is highly specific and only you could have done it, only you, and yet it becomes known to everyone.”

On what writers should strive for: “The idea that writers, especially poets, should be going for something transcendent or universal—that’s not a thing to reach for. Stay proximate to that which moves you; it will put you in the larger world. This desire to writ large is not ultimately useful to a writer. You really want to go where you love and write from that place.”

On one of her current projects: “I’ve been asking random white men about white male privilege. I spend a lot of time in airports and on planes, often in first class. I’ll be the only black woman with all white men, so I started asking them about white male privilege. Sometimes they get really angry when asked [about it]. They must know they have all these privileges.”

The insight she gained from her therapist when she shared how a man cut her off in an airport line and then, after she spoke up, remarked to his friend, “You never know who they’re letting into first class these days”: “That’s insulting, but it’s also to cover his embarrassment. He did something wrong and, because he had a witness, had to account for that wrongness by erasing me.”

On whiteness and calling out racism: “White people are just people. Whiteness in United States is a thing. White people benefit from whiteness. You can love white people but that doesn’t disallow racism from coming even from those people. Microaggressions will come from colleagues, from white friends, and what allows you to feel safe is to call it—hey, that’s racist—and they don’t run screaming from the room or crying, [making] them the victim. People of color need to call it when it happens. We’ve been complicit. I know it will cost us to call it out. You could lose jobs or friends. Don’t lose your job, but don’t carry it.”

On the trauma of blackness: “The toll on black people’s body—the trauma gene—is passed from one generation to the next. America is an anti-black society. It just is. We are expendable.”

On her play, The White Card: “I was really interested in what it meant to have a conversation regarding race and not leave the room.”

When asked if her publisher pushed back against her decision to categorize Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen as “An American Lyric” rather than “Poems”: No. I am published by Graywolf, and they’re the best press in the world.”

When asked how a writer can find her own voice while reading others: “It’s not easy. The trick for me is to always listen and not get involved. The only way to hear what works for your voice is to wait. Don’t revise things right away. Just listen.”