Poet Claudia Rankine

Poet Claudia Rankine

Ricardo DeAratanha/PEN America

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We spoke to poet Claudia Rankine in front of a live audience at Literary Arts in downtown Portland in 2018. Rankine is the author of six collections of poetry, including National Book Award finalist “Citizen: An American Lyric.” Rankine was awarded the MacArthur “genius” grant in 2016 and founded the Racial Imaginary Institute to explore whiteness in American culture. We listen back to that interview today.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller. We’re coming to you in front of an audience at the Literary Art Space in downtown Portland today, spending the hour with the poet and playwright, Claudia Rankine. Rankin has written five collections of poetry. She described her two latest as American lyrics. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely came out in 2004. It’s a personal meditation on life in George W Bush’s America. Citizen came out 10 years later and catapulted Rankin to another level of fame and a claim that explored micro and deadly aggressions against Black bodies. And as Rankin wrote, the quotidian struggles against dehumanization. Every Brown or Black person lives simply because of skin color. Rankin is also a playwright and a Macarthur Award winner and a professor of poetry at Yale and I am honored to welcome her to TOL. It’s great to have you here.

Rankine: Thank you for having me, Dave.

Miller: I thought we could start with a reading from early on in Citizen, your most recent collection and any preface that you think this needs.

Rankine: No preface. Just read. “When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, You remain behind the wheel another 10 minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level, and one time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door, you were reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical term John-Henry-ism, for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieved themselves to death, trying to dodge the build up of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the psychological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence, you’re bucking the trend.”

Miller: Can you describe the scene that proceeds that and which is sort of a piece of a good chunk of the book?

Rankine: The scene that precedes what I just read is of an academic in the car with a writer, who is also an academic. And the writer says something racist. He tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color, when there are so many great writers out there. And when I was told this by this person, she said, I thought, what did I communicate to him that that was okay to say that to me. And the rage built up in that moment. And then you leave the moment feeling sort of dirtied up by this other person’s comment. And you drive home and you have to kind of decompress in the build-up of rage, confusion, implications, all of that.

Miller: One of the tensions that runs through Citizen is how to respond or whether to respond to those moments. The urge to speak out, to point out injustice, point out racism, and then the desire to just get along, to not make waves, perhaps because of economic or personal or workplace reasons. Very understandable reasons. How do you personally navigate that?

Rankine: Well, I think we are brought up – I’m going to generalize this, because I think it’s true – we’re brought up to make other people comfortable, to not disrupt spaces, not to interrupt other people when they’re talking: all of that. And alongside that comes the implied suggestion that you should just take it when people are sexist or racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic, because it will make them uncomfortable. Which is such a ridiculous equation. It’s like the person has made you uncomfortable, but you shouldn’t then make them uncomfortable by calling it out. So what I’ve done – and it’s not that I’m suggesting anyone else do it, but I did it – but I trained myself to speak up. Because I think as a writer I’m so used to being in the position where I’m just listening. Because often what I hear finds itself in the work. So I find that I’m often in positions where I should speak up and I don’t because I’m just listening.

Miller: And listening is part of your work?

Rankine: And listening is part of doing the work. So I began to do this thing where even if I was late in response, I would do the response. And eventually over time I caught up so that I . . .

Miller: You got faster?

Rankine: I got faster, so I could actually respond in real time.

Miller: Could we, could we play acting? I’m just curious because you’re talking about training, it seems like this is really some craft that you tried to hone. I mean if if we had been driving and I had been the fellow academic and I’d said that we have to hire somebody, a person of color and I don’t think it was written this way, but it’s not a shame. But that was the implication that, um, and then it’s a shame because there are so many great writers out there. What do you say?

Rankine: Well, the old me, the original me, would be driving and I would be thinking, what is he saying? And is he talking to me? What is he ... you know, does he understand the implication of what he’s saying? And all of that would be going on in my head, but I wouldn’t say a word. And then the next stage would have been, we would have talked about something else.

And then I would say, “Oh, you know, that thing you said about the writer? You know, that to me makes it, you know what I’m hearing, is that the person of color is not a great writer? Is that what you meant?” And he’d say, what did I say? When did I say that? You know, 10 minutes ago. And then finally, I got to the point where he would say what he said, and I would immediately respond. But it took training.

Miller: Would you say that is racist?

Rankine: Now I do. But I had to train myself up to that point.

Miller: How long did it take before you decided this was a project that you wanted to undertake? Because you said the old self, when did this happen?

Rankine: . . . I was teaching in a department and very odd things were being said and done, and I’m sitting in this room, I think I was one of two black faculty members, and I’m listening to all of this. And these are people who I’m socializing with, who, you know, you moved to these towns, you take these jobs and then this is your community. And yet these things were being said, and then I would go home and complain to my husband. But I was saying nothing in the room. And finally I thought, you know, you can’t do that. Even though it’s not about you. And then I had this great day where the chair of the department said this, I’m gonna repeat it now., He said, somebody said, well, I thought we made a commitment to diversity in this department, because look at the numbers. And the chair said, we already hired one of them and we lucked out with Claudia. Like that. And then there was a white woman sitting next to me who was relatively . . .

Miller: You mean “we got a good one”?

Rankine: We got a good one with her. We lucked out with Claudia . . .

Miller: . . . because if we’re going to hire a writer of color, there’s a good chance that they’re not going to be good. But luckily we got a good one. That’s what you heard. And it was hard to not hear that.

Rankine: Yeah. And as far as he was concerned it was done, so we can move on. We had solved the diversity issue. And so the woman who was sitting next to me was a younger white academic. And I turned to her and I said, I think I’ve just been insulted and she said, no, no, no, you were complimented. And there was something so discouraging when this woman who was in her thirties said that. At that point I decided, okay, you can’t just sit here, you really have to speak up.

Miller: This is may be a dumb question, but it hasn’t stopped me in the past. Was it worse to hear this young white woman sitting next to you say this is a compliment, then hearing the original comment from the chair?

Rankine: Yes, because he was an older white man and you – excuse me – but one expects that from both generationally and from white patriarchy. But this young white woman, you think, oh, she’ll know better. She, you know, she read Judith Butler and Lauren Berlant and Homi Bhabha. And there was something really, really discouraging about that moment for me, and it made me realize that there was no consensus in the room about what racism is, what it sounds like.

Miller: That sense of lack of consensus, the realization that on some level you’re more alone than you might have thought in certain company. It made me think that a lot of the examples that, as I understand it, come from both your life, and also people who you know. A lot of them, some of the more painful-seeming ones, have to do with interactions with friends. When that’s happened to you, does it make you think differently about the level of friendship that you thought you had?

Rankine: Yes. Many of my friends and I have had encounters, and we have taken breaks so that what was a very close friendship suddenly became silence. And then we have come back together.

Miller: And that silence would follow your calling out. You’re saying, what you just said, whether you realize it or not, is racist.

Rankine: Exactly.

Miller: Have you lost friendships as a result of that?

Rankine: I have lost friends . . .

Miller: Where the silence simply took over?

Rankine: Yeah, that’s why people don’t speak out. Because they know that in speaking out they risk something. And if what you risked is the loss of someone who unconsciously does not see you as a human being, I think you should be okay with that.

Miller: If you’re just tuning in, I’m talking right now with the poet and playwright and essayist and multimedia artist and on and on. Claudia Rankine. Today we’re coming to you from the Literary Art Space in downtown Portland. A lot of the things I see in society today, especially among liberal white people or white people who say that I’m not racist or I’m not a part of the problem is that they point to large, explicitly violent demonstrations of anti black racism or neo nazi groups or hate groups uh, and and may not really put too much stock into the kinds of more subtle experiences that you’re talking about. Citizen is interesting because it explores both of these. What was your thinking in terms of putting those two kinds of racism together in a book, along with explorations of some explosions of anger on the part of some very well known athletes of color. Why put them all together?

Rankine: Well, one of the things that after Katrina actually irritated me was I found myself in conversation with good white people, and . . .

Miller: What’s a good white person?

Rankine: Well, the people who consider themselves good, who are liberal, who vote democratic, who would never use the N-word, who adopt Black children. They go . . . who do not segregate in their house in terms of who comes to dinner, who’s allowed in their spaces, who are advocates for, and then you can fill that in. And they started saying to me – and these are friends of mine – they would say to me what a surprise, what happened in in New Orleans.

That was such a surprise. And every time they said [it], it just irritated me more, because it made me realize they don’t realize that the anti-black racism that determines the lives of Black people [is] there, has always been there and has never changed. And so I thought, you know, I don’t think they’re connecting up the small implicit bias and micro aggressions to these larger acts and I wanted to perform that connection in Citizen.

Miller: Have you found since this book came out that the interactions you have with white friends have changed? Have they changed as a result of reading your book?

Rankine: Well, I think my friends now are more willing to risk talking to me about race. I don’t think I have a friendship where it doesn’t come up. People are willing to make mistakes with me, I make mistakes. We all discuss things. The fallout a little bit is they will now just bring the race stuff only.

Miller: But you want to talk about tennis or music or whatever.

Rankine: But we can only talk about Serena, or we can only talk about Colin Kaepernick, or we can only talk about that, rather than . . .

Miller: It doesn’t seem like an insignificant kind of fallout. I mean, you could see it as an overcorrection. I wasn’t addressing my unconscious bias before, but now let’s only talk about it.

Rankine: Yeah, exactly.

Miller: And does that get tiresome?

Rankine: I’m sometimes I find it disappointing if not. Like a friend of mine wrote a novel and and she’s a great writer, and she knows I’m busy. And so she said, just read the section about the black character. I was like, okay, I’ll try to read the whole book. But, your thoughts about the other characters don’t matter.

Miller: If nothing else you have another snippet to put in the next book.

Rankine: Well, no. She’s a good friend. But I did just tell you all!

Miller: Given the trauma that you explore in really often painful ways in the book, there’s one moment that really caught me short because it went in a really different direction. This is when the you [the] narrator, is in a restaurant with a friend. And the waitress comes by and gives your friend who – as I was reading I assumed was a white friend, it doesn’t say it ever in the book – the waitress gives your friend the credit card that you have given the waitress. And then you ask your friend, what else her privilege gets her, and she says my perfect life. And then you both burst out laughing, and everybody apparently the restaurant looks and is overjoyed by the levity. I don’t think they can hear you, but they just see how happy you are and how funny this is to you. Why include that moment in the book?

Rankine: Because it was a moment because one, it had actually happened, and it was a moment when that friend and I were in collusion in the recognition. I mean, she saw it, I saw it, we both knew what was going on, and because of having company it became funny. It was no longer just me, rolling my eyes. What’s funny about that friend though, is I said something public about another writer, who is also a friend of hers, and she then said to me, you know, you shouldn’t talk about our friend like that. And I said, well, he said what he said, I just repeated it. And she said, well, it’s the media, they throw things out of proportion. And anyway, I’m always defending you. And I said, what do you mean you’re defending me? And she goes, people think you’re a Black extremist. And I said, why do they think I’m a Black extremist? And she goes, all the stuff you say. And I said, well, you should not defend me, because if they think I’m a Black extremist for not wanting Black people to be treated the way they’re treated, then you should look at your friends, not at me. And so we had a little break for a little while, but I think we’re back. You just never know what’s going on in people’s heads.

Miller: Speaking of the “you” I think I mentioned it briefly just a second ago, but the majority of the book, when it comes to these vignettes is in the second person: you experience this, you see this, you say this. At the very end, there’s a little bit of a switch and there are a few slippages where you add in you-I-he-she, in interesting ways. But for the most part it’s all in the second person. Why make that choice?

Rankine: There were some logical reasons, and some other reasons. One, many of the pieces in Citizen were stories given to me, through a conversation. And so I didn’t want to represent it in the first person as if they were mine.

Miller: And people would assume they were living a culture where everyone assumes every i is is the writer’s life.

Rankine: Exactly. And I was trying to push against that. That’s why there’s no picture of me in the book. I was thinking about how do you democratize this information? And then when I was thinking about the “you” even though it’s floating “you”, it could be the white person, it could be anybody. I thought, you know, we’re really talking about who was in the first position, and who’s in the second position. So we need a second person. And so that was sort of funny to me, that the book was talking about the second person, the invisible second person. So that’s why I settled on it. I also wanted to create a space in the space of the “you” where the reader could step in, because one doesn’t know who the reader is. So the reader could step in and decide for themselves. Is this “you” me? Am I that “you”? Is this a scenario where I would behave this way, or I would receive this treatment, and they would make that decision for themselves? I’m always trying to think in my work, how do you open it out, so that it’s not the sonnet with the closed couplet? We’re really the space is a negotiated space between the writer and the reader.

Miller: I assume you saw this as . . . a year and a half ago, in the middle of the presidential campaign, there was a gift that was making the rounds, of a young black woman who was in the front row of then-candidate Trump rally, who had a copy of your book Citizen basically in front of her face, and that what happens in the series of images, is that an older white guy who looks pretty agitated, you see him sort of pointing at her and saying what we assume to be, hey, you’re being rude, put that book down, and she sort of shakes her head and put the book back up, and then loops, because it’s a gif. Your book had become – maybe has become – a kind of symbol of anti-Trump resistance in that moment. And perhaps people could see it more broadly, even though it preceded candidate and president Trump by a number of years First of all,

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what did it feel like to have somebody reading your book, be giffed, become this repeated motion?

Rankine: I think just somebody reading a book and using the book, any book as a form of resistance, is [an] incredible moment, especially with our current president. But it would be false modesty to say it wasn’t a pleasure to see that she was reading Citizen.

Miller: We have to take a short break, but we have a lot more from Claudia Rankine, the poet and playwright and essayist, as well as some questions from our audience here at the Literary Art Space in downtown Portland. That’s all coming up after a short break. This is TOL on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller. I’m talking today with a poet and mixed media artist Claudia Rankine. Her most recent collection of poetry is Citizen: an American lyric. Rankin has won two Pen Awards, NAACP Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and a MacArthur Award, among others. She is a professor of poetry at Yale University. Let’s take a question from our audience. What’s your name? Amy, go ahead.

Audience member: Welcome to Portland. We’re thrilled to have you, have been waiting for a couple of years, so we’re happy that you’re here. My question is about the conversation that you’re having with your students right now. In this moment, what is on their minds, and when they come to you and you host those conversations, what are they about?

Rankine: My students and I are thinking about how to write or perform white dominance in their work. And so the conversations have been really fascinating. And to me as well, just last week, we were looking . . . Do you know that photograph of the little girl who missed the bus, so she had to walk into that school on her own, and she’s surrounded by the white women who are screaming at her? We were looking at that photograph, and in the class we were talking about the rage, that white female rage against this small child, right?

Rankine: You could name that rage as a kind of defended position. There’s a psychoanalytic term. We were coming up with different ways to talk about white fragility, this resistance to change, just racism in general, all of the ways you could think about those women screaming at that child. A student in the class raised her hand and she said, well, you know, professor, you have all this language for the rage, but what about the girl? What’s the word for what she’s doing? And I didn’t have one. I mean, I know it’s a civil rights movement, we know all that. But what’s the word for a child walking through a sea of white adult rage just pouring in at her just for her to go and get an education? And we all just looked at the image and we never came up with the term because it’s so much bigger than any language. It was beyond language in that moment. Because words like precarity and all of those other kinds of trauma didn’t seem specific enough to what that must have felt like for her.

Miller: When you say that you’re working through with your students trying to help them to figure out how to write about white dominance are white students working on that project as well?

Rankine: Yes, everybody is in the class, Asian students, white students, Hispanic students, men, women, transgender students, everybody. And the question really is, what don’t we take into account? What parts of whiteness are still being coded as normality? So we really were talking about whiteness, but it’s not named as such. For example, there’s one thing I use in the class, there’s a passage by a writer and they’re talking about white people at lynchings. And the sentence is something like these people watching the lynching are probably good churchgoing people. That’s what it says. But nowhere in the entire passage does the word white come up. There is nothing that mentions their investment in whiteness as they stand there watching this lynching going on. She just says they’re probably good churchgoing people. These are probably neighbors of each other, and she goes on and on and on, and you’re scanning it for the word white, it never comes up. So we’re looking at where…

Miller: Why not?

Rankine: Because even this writer who was calling out--it’s in the pain of others--calling out white dominance, even in that situation, white people are seen as people.

Miller: Because it’s a given.

Rankine: It’s a given.

Miller: If they’re white you don’t need to say they’re white, If they’re not white, you have to say...

Rankine: Exactly.

Miller: that they are not white.

Rankine: Toni Morrison says that everybody else is hyphenated because white Americans are Americans, they are people. And you know, Bryan Stevenson says the South might have lost the war, but they won the narrative and I think that’s true.

Miller: This gets to one of the projects that you have embarked on recently with the money you got from the MacArthur Grant to set up the Racial Imaginary Institute. What is the Racial Imaginary?

Rankine: Well, the Racial Imaginary Institute as it stands right now, because we don’t have any space because we can’t really afford that, but we did get a very fancy design firm called Flyleaf to make us a website that will hold everything. So if people send us poetry, fiction, film, sound essays, images, whatever we can, we can house it. And so the first issue is dedicated to whiteness. And if you go online to the https://theracialimaginary.org/ you will see work by people like for example, Alexandra Bell. She works in counter narratives. I don’t know if anyone knows her work, but she rewrites the front page of the New York Times so that the implicit bias inherent in the naming and the placement of images becomes clear. Hank Willis Thomas is on the site. Toyin Ojih Odutola. All kinds of people. In fact, anybody can be on the site. We are incredibly democratized. If you send us work and it does the job of highlighting how whiteness previously made invisible is now visible, we will put the work up.

Miller: What kinds of responses have you gotten from white people when you say I want to investigate whiteness? I ask that because often when in popular culture when people talk about whiteness, it seems more likely to come from people like Richard Spencer, the white supremacist, than the “good white people” who you were talking about before. It seems like those are people who would just rather not not talk about whiteness or Blackness. What kind of responses do you get?

Rankine: Well, I think the game changed when we had a president who was willing to put it on the table. I mean, previously it was out there, everything was the same but nobody would talk about it, nobody would own it. And suddenly we have a president who says I’m white and I’m for white, okay, you with me? And 53% of white women said yes, we are. And many, many white men. And so I think now people are willing to see that it’s a real thing, even though obviously it was controlling everything. I had a student ask where does it say that things are not being given to people of color? And I said to him, why do you think there are diversity initiatives? Because people are looking around their spaces and understanding, even if it didn’t say, “do not hire anybody who is not white,” the habits of the space continued to do that. And then suddenly people wouldn’t do it freely and it had to become institutionalized. So I think people are now beginning to see that it’s a thing.

Miller: In your mind. Does whiteness mean something in and of itself? Or does it only exist in comparison to non-whiteness?

Rankine: No, I think it means something in and of itself.

Miller: Which is what?

Rankine: It’s about dominance and it’s about privilege. Initially whiteness was used against other white people. If you go all the way back to like 1790 to the Immigration Act, it said, white anglo Saxon men could vote and own property. So if you were Irish or Italian, you did not belong in that and there was legislation to keep you out.

Miller: Because “whiteness” has changed over time?

Rankine: Over time.

Miller: People lose the hyphen.

Rankine: They lose the hyphen and they assimilate. If you follow the movement of, say,

the KKK, initially, the KKK is formed after the Civil War to terrorize Black people and to keep them out. And legislation in the form of the Black codes are working alongside their agenda. But by 1919, when the KKK reforms itself and comes to places like Portland and out West, its main focus, it’s still Black people, but it’s really against Catholics, that’s why you have the burning cross. It’s the Irish, the Italians. They do not belong in the category of whiteness. It’s only when they have to consolidate the forces and turn everybody into caucasian so all the white people can attack the Black people in the Civil War that they stopped fighting among themselves inside of this creative category, that constructed category of whiteness.

Miller: There seems to be some new profile every other week by national publications, looking into the white middle class or the struggling white former factory workers in the upper midwest. And often then there’s a backlash that that kind of coverage is criticized for prioritizing the experience of that particular group of Americans over other Americans. Are you at all concerned about falling into that trap as you delve deeper into what whiteness is?

Rankine: No, I think people are always going to protest. People are always going to point a finger. I think sometimes it’s a useful thing. Will I fail in terms of my own interest? Yes, because I’m a human being and people fail that, but that does not concern me because in the last few years, I am just shocked at how much Americans do not know about their own history. And the part that’s been suppressed is the part that talks about white involvement in the violence, the bombing in Tulsa, the Black Wall Street. The American government bombed that Black community. It wasn’t independently some crazy KKK; it was the American government who did that. The internment of Japanese Americans. That was a land grab. You know, they were in turn, but they took all of their farms. When those people were let out, it’s not like they were going back home. But those histories are not told to us and to bring forward the information will include looking at whiteness. That’s just the way it is. I mean to me it’s just history.

Miller: Really reading you,I’ve been struck by something that is an issue I probably have had sitting in this building talking with writers five or six times over the last couple years, which is at heart about empathy about the challenge of it, the power of it, sometimes the limitations of it.

You had a line in Citizen, how difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? There are a lot of ways to read that question with different intonations which make it come out really differently. But do you have an answer to that question of how difficult it is for one person? And this could be about race, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s about putting yourself in somebody else’s life, about how difficult that is.

Rankine: I mean, it’s a question of precarity. Like can you enter other people’s precarity? And you know, when I think about...

Miller: I have to be honest, I don’t know what that word is.

Rankine: It’s an academic term for being precarious, living in a way that has no assurances. I mean, when you think about students who now don’t know if they can stay in this country, if their parents can stay in this country. What does it mean to live every day when you cannot be sure of what your family structure will look like tomorrow? I don’t have to be that person to understand that’s not tenable. So…

Miller: But why not? I mean where do you think your empathy comes from? Because as that line in your poem suggests, it’s not a given that everybody feels the way you do and everybody can put themselves into somebody else’s life. So, I guess the question is how if somebody doesn’t have that, how do you teach empathy?

Rankine: I don’t know how you teach empathy, but I I know that you can point out certain things.

I watched--I don’t know if you’ve seen Shoah--but I watched the eight hours of Shoah.

Miller: It’s a documentary by a Frenchman in the eighties about the holocaust.

Rankine: Exactly. His name is Claude Lanzmann and what he did was he wanted to interview people who had been subjected to the holocaust before they died, people who were actually there. He tracked them down around the world and sat them down and he didn’t use any footage. He wanted them to bring the world back just through language. He talked to them and he asked them to retell things that had happened. And in every one of the encounters there comes a moment when the person refuses to go on. Lanzmann says, you have to go on. He says, I can’t I can’t go on because the thing that I saw was unbearable, you know, and it’s often a moment like they’re made to dig graves or or cover people in the grave and as they’re covering the bodies, they encountered their wives or they encountered their mothers and and they have locked that away and he makes them reopen it. You as a viewer have to sit with them while they process the re-entry into this moment that they were made to bear, that they shouldn’t have had to bear. They were made to bear what they shouldn’t have had to bear. I think, being a Black person in the United States, that’s how you live. You’re made to bear what you shouldn’t have to bear. You’re put in a false fight for your humanity when you’re just a human being. And yet you’re fighting for that day in and day out legislatively, socially, through language, trying to buy a cup of coffee, trying to drive somewhere. So I think Black people know about empathy.

Miller: In my reading, you made a public display of empathy of your own in a poem that you published in the New Yorker a year and a half ago called “Sound and Fury’ about poor white people. You wrote foreclosure vanished pensions, school systems in disrepair, free trade, rising unemployment, unpaid medical bills, school debt, car debt, debt, debt. You wrote if people could just come clean about their pain that being at a loss when just being white is not working,

who said there is no hierarchy inside white walls, who implied white owns everything even as it owns nothing but white can’t strike its own structure. White can’t oust its own system. Why write that poem?

Rankine: Well, I actually believe that’s part of the problem. But you know, one of the things this election showed us is that a Marxist read on anti Black racism doesn’t really hold water. I am sure there are poor people out there who feel rage against people of color, Asian people, Black people, Hispanic people, Mexicans because they feel they haven’t gotten their just due economically. But what we saw with this election is that people making over $100,000 a year and upwards voted in our current president, so clearly it was not economically motivated. It had to do with with rage and a desire to maintain whiteness around them. But as I said, I’m a great fan of listening to people and I just recently was driven by a woman who lived in a double wide and I didn’t even know what a double wide was. And she was telling me how she had voted for Trump and she believes that he’s been given an unfair rap in all of this. But when she started telling me about her life, it just was shocking to me how much she didn’t trust any system. Her husband had died of cancer. I said to her, so do you get your yearly checkups? She said no, those doctors, they know they’re talking about. And I said, so are you on Obamacare? She says it’s terrible, it’s terrible, but I’m on it. And I said well you know you can have a wellness check. She says I don’t trust those doctors. She lived in upstate New York because she was driving me to a college up there and once we got by the initial Trump thing, she was very open about her entire life and I left that car just feeling very sad that we have people in our society that had been let go. You know, either through education or through distrust of the system all around.

Miller: Could we hear one more poem before we are done?

Rankine: Sure.

Miller: Your mention or the word sad reminded me of this one.

Rankine: My grandmother is in a nursing home. It’s not bad. It doesn’t smell like pee. It doesn’t smell like anything. When I go to see her, as I walk through the hall past the common room and the nurses’ station, old person after old person puts out his or her hand to me. Steven, one says. Ann, another calls. It’s like being in a third-world country, but instead of food or money you are what is wanted, your company. In third-world countries I have felt overwhelmingly American, calcium-rich, privileged, and white. Here, I feel young, lucky, and sad. Sad is one of those words that has given up its life for our country, it’s been a martyr for the American dream, it’s been neutralized, co-opted by our culture to suggest a tinge of discomfort that lasts the time it takes for this to happen and then for that to happen, the time it takes to change a channel. But sadness is real because once it meant something real. It meant dignified, grave; it meant trustworthy; it meant exceptionally bad, deplorable, shameful; it meant massive, weighty, forming a compact body; it meant falling heavily; and it meant of a color: dark. It meant dark in color, to darken. It meant me. I felt sad.

Miller: You have that line about being in third world countries and feeling overwhelmingly American, calcium-rich, privileged, and white. Did that feel good to feel those things?

Rankine: It was a recognition; it is not good or bad. It’s just a recognition of what you have and that access to money, health insurance, all of those things. If you have it based on your position in this culture means that you have moved into what is presumed to be whiteness and the comforts of that.

Miller: There’s also the part in the end where I hear it as a sort of work through of what sad means, what the word means. The work of the poem, at least to my ear, it becomes the poem itself. We see you working through the meanings and you turn that work into the poem. How do you arrive at that style where we see and feel the work of you figuring out what this means to yourself?

Rankine: Well, a long time ago when I was studying poetry, I read this poem by Robert Haas called “Heroic similarly” and in the poem he said something like X happens, Y happens. And then he said, I haven’t imagined the next thing. I don’t know, it was something like that. And then I thought, oh you could just say, I don’t know. In the poem, you don’t have to know. In fact you can show the mechanisms of either knowing or not knowing. And so then it became a formal endeavor for the work to sort of show how the thing unfolds.

Miller: Are we watching some version of the process of your mind or is this a highly-crafted after- the-fact thinking out, if that makes sense to you?

Rankine: Well, I think, the writing is the editing there. You read a lot of stuff and then really the fun of it is the process of editing and finding the form that really underlines the meaning. So Citizen didn’t start out in the second person. I found that. But you’re thinking through and and I like works that allow you to understand that the formal parts of the work are part of the meaning of the work. And so it’s not something that I try to mask. I’m not trying to pretend I know. So there’s no way the work is not going to show that sometimes I don’t know.

Miller: Claudia Rankine, thanks very much.

Rankine: Thank you.

Miller: Thanks to Andrew Proctor and his whole team here at Literary Arts for hosting us and to our wonderful audience and thanks very much to our radio audience as well for tuning in. I’m Dave Miller. We will join you tomorrow.


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