The History Behind the Feeling: A Conversation with Claudia Rankine by Aaron Coleman

Image by Tom Moore /
Image by Tom Moore /

“How people feel, what they feel, what breaks them, how trauma resonates through their lives . . . that’s a legitimate space in poetry.”
                                                 —Claudia Rankine


Claudia Rankine exudes a particular kind of poise as we sit across from each other; a poise that seems to me a commitment to attentiveness, to witnessing, as genuinely as we can, the world in which we live—and our complicated selves. She speaks thoughtfully about everything from childhood reflections and MFA experiences to altered photography, authentic justice, intimacy, suspicion, and her writing process. And throughout, I can’t help but think about the magnitude of the year that’s passed since Claudia Rankine first released Citizen: An American Lyric. Rankine, who had already accomplished and grappled with so much of American poetry and culture in her first four books, including Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (to say nothing of a wildly busy year, including more than a few Citizen interviews), continues to embody a subtly compelling energy and sensitivity not only toward the craft of poetry, but also toward the question of what we as humans can be and do for each other. For Rankine, it’s clear that the present moment—and all it carries—is a crucial one . . .  

Aaron Coleman: I’ve noticed how in various interviews you’ve said there’s a spirit of investigation at work in your poetry; how your poetry, in some ways, springs from a desire and ability to deeply investigate the societal and the personal. Can you talk about how investigation factors into your writing process?

Claudia Rankine: It’s rare that I write anything without some kind of research. I’m really interested in the context that emotion sits inside…I would say most of my work comes out of some manner of research. The trick is to take all of that knowledge gathered from the research and make it into a kind of transparent reality. I forget who said this, was it Romare Bearden? I’m not sure. But I live with this idea that “you have to know a lot to know a little.” Before I write anything there are multiple investigations: books, films . . . behind every single project. Right now I have a research assistant pulling up all this material on Josephine Baker because I’m going to write something.

I really just write from the position of what I feel . . . I mean, I think eventually I get there, but I’m always interested in why I feel the way I feel and what the history is behind that feeling.

AC: So everything that’s an outward investigation is toward the inward investigation of why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling.

CR: Exactly.

AC: Was that process of investigation different between Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen? Did it change? Did Don’t Let Me Be Lonely inform Citizen?

CR: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is a book full of research, but not conversation, whereas Citizen is a book full of conversation, and the conversations are the research. I feel as if Citizen brought me in conversation with living people and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely was really the bringing together of a lot of newspaper articles, transcripts, legal documents . . . all of that. That was me working with documents. Citizen is me having conversations. For the first time, being both an archivist and, kind of, an anthropologist in the sense of bringing the stories to the page. The use of the images was more curatorial.

AC: Was that a conscious decision to move more toward conversation in Citizen?

CR: Well, it was different because I think when I was working on Don’t Let Me Be Lonely I was interested in the culture as an organism. And, with Citizen, there was much more of an emphasis on: What does it feel like to live now? For all of us, what forms our encounters? What does black living look like, feel like? What does American living look like, feel like? What does it mean for people of color to interact with white Americans? This wasn’t something that I was going to find in a book. It was going to come from experiences and talking to people about their experiences. Conversations were really the only way to get at what I was trying to locate.

AC: Thinking about that process, and especially thinking of your Guernica interview, about how Citizen started by thinking about the precariousness of black health: how do you know when or how much to let a book or project change as you’re creating it? For example, asking friends and accumulating all those experiences . . . how does that effect how you actually write?

CR: I think that talking to people meant that I was responsible to what they told me. And so it controlled how much I projected onto the thing that I was writing. I didn’t feel comfortable giving an interior life to the subject if I didn’t have access to that interior life. If they hadn’t shared with me how they felt as a moment was happening, I wasn’t going to say that they felt one way as the thing was happening. And so I was very conscious about it. Because I knew that people, many of them my friends, would read the book and feel like “that’s my story, but why is she saying that I felt this when in fact that’s not at all how I felt?” I tried in those cases to communicate what I was told.

AC: Because The Spectacle is born out of Wash U’s English department and MFA writing program, I feel like it’s important to ask: In what ways was your MFA useful to you and how did it meet or not meet your expectations? How have your thoughts about your early academic experiences changed over time?

CR: Well, I think when you’re getting your MFA you have no idea how it will help you later on. The most tangible benefit in later years was the friends I made. Many of my close friendships were formed while I was a student at Columbia.

There’s something about being given the time to explore your writing and to watch other people explore their writing, and to see what questions an audience—this random created audience—brings forward to your work. And that stays useful as a kind of voice in your head. Even if it’s irritating, it stays useful.

I also felt that I was exposed to books that I perhaps wouldn’t have been exposed to anywhere else at that time in my life. The books that your friends bring to you are part of what form friendship. For that I’m really thankful.

AC: I read in a New York Times piece that you were born in Kingston, Jamaica and moved to NYC at the age of seven. And personally I’m just really interested in thinking about diasporic blackness, blackness across different countries and cultures. I was wondering in what ways the positionality of you and your family might have influenced your experience of blackness in the US, or citizenship in the US?

CR: In many ways I feel like, you know, I’m now in my fifties, so it’s hard for me to think of myself as not the American citizen that I am. But I do know, growing up in my household with two Jamaican parents, that American blackness was referred to as American blackness and American whiteness was referred to as American whiteness. So even as a child I was thinking of the dynamics as a dynamic specific to this culture. My mother would say things like, “American blacks” or “American whites,” identifying herself as a Jamaican as she was trying to make sense of a new culture. In doing that, she was communicating what she had observed—so I should understand that when they do this, it means this. I think I did grow up with that sense of seeing the culture as a culture, as a thing to be read.

AC: That reminds me of that earlier question of thinking about an investigative sense in your work, in being able to look at the culture from both inside and outside simultaneously, kind of . . . I don’t want to put words in your mouth . . . 

CR: But you are right. I think there’s a sense of being out here and feeling like this is a culture that I should learn . . . this is a history that wasn’t necessarily the history of my parents. So if you ask my mother who was the prime minister of Jamaica during x period of time she can tell you, but if you ask her who was the president during x period of time she might not be able to tell you, so I was always negotiating two cultures as a child.

AC: So some of the context is different.

CR: Yes.

AC: You’ve spoken in various interviews about intimacy and how the idea of intimacy was important to Citizen. To me, it seems one of the challenges of thinking about and engaging with racism and sexism and other isms is that we’re forced to negotiate systemic and structural violence along with personal prejudice, our own and friends’ and lovers’ implicit biases, and not-so-micro micro-aggressions, and how all of these elements support each other . . . What led you to focus on these, sometimes, cruelly intimate interactions? And, in what ways do you see your work creating intimacy and/or exposing a lack of it?

CR: I had a friend say to me—he’s a white man and he was party to one of the interactions in the book—he said to me, “I think what you’re doing is pushing people away so that they can get closer.” And I love that phraseology partly because—though I don’t experience it as pushing anyone away—I experience it just as responding to what is being said to me, responding to what is happening—even as he might experience me pushing him away—but I think ultimately, for him, it was me showing up, fully, and saying, “this is not acceptable to me. And if you want to be my friend maybe don’t do this again.” You know, that kind of thing. So I think the book is about showing the breaches inside that intimacy, but those breaches wouldn’t exist if we didn’t presume intimacy.

AC: I like thinking about that . . . so showing up authentically with all of that is honoring how that really feels and not just brushing that under the rug. Sort of, “This feels like a rift because I thought there was a certain intimacy here . . .”

CR: Right. Exactly.

AC: The flipside of that, for me, is that intimacy opens up a vulnerability that can lead to some of the anxiety I feel both in the opening lines of Citizen, When you are alone and too tired even turn on any of your devices . . . or even in the title Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. There’s a certain shadow of anxiety that to me is really interesting. In what ways, if any, do you see anxiety and the personal ways we are forced to struggle with it factoring into your work?

CR: I’m thinking about what we talked about [before this interview], how a recognition of a loneliness can lead you to a kind of shame . . . this sense that you need other people. You want to be . . . in the room with others. You don’t want to be by yourself. (laughs)

AC: No matter how much we try . . . (laughs)

CR: You know? We are social animals. We want connection. We want . . . understanding. We want intimacy. But if the terms of that intimacy feel dishonest, or feel only possible with the acceptance of your erasure, then that’s painful. So to say, “don’t let me be lonely” is to say, “don’t ask me to exist in a position that allows for my own annihilation.” You know? Don’t do that to me. Don’t say that in order for me to be in this room with you I have to agree with racist, sexist or homophobic projections onto bodies. That cannot hold for me.

AC: On a personal note, I remember just being so thankful for your presence here in St. Louis and your work and the timing of your work at a performance you gave at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation last August, just weeks after the killing of Michael Brown. I remember mentioning the timing to you and you saying something like, “it’s always the time.” That’s really stuck with me, pressed me, usefully. I’m thinking, too, about how often people note the cover of Citizen’s relationship to the mythology of hoods and blackness that was especially heightened during 2011-2012 after the killing of Trayvon Martin, even though David Hammons’ piece, In the Hood, is from 1993. Can you speak to what kinds of change across time you do or don’t see in terms of America’s relationship to its blackness?

CR: One of the things that I find hopeful is the way that social media has forced issues around aggression against the black community into mainstream media. So movements like Black Lives Matter, all the retweeting, all of the footage of police encounters that [is posted] on Facebook, the audio of a lot of those interactions . . . the Sandra Bland interaction with the policeman. All of those moments suddenly have made something that the black community shared domestically over dinner tables available to everyone. So no longer are we talking about a kind of Du Bois double-consciousness where some people know something and the other people don’t know . . . all of a sudden the American consciousness includes what happens randomly to black people. We’re seeing some of it.

AC: Hmm. It’s forced into [American consciousness].

CR: It’s forced in and the mainstream media is now forced to address it. In that way, I think that things are different than they were before. It’s not that any of these things were not happening—they were happening chronically. But you heard people saying things like, “We don’t know the whole story. We don’t know what happened between those people because we weren’t there.” Now we’re there. We see it. I mean we’re not physically there, but we have surveillance of these moments. And we’re seeing again and again black men especially and black women sometimes just being gunned down. Not that people don’t break the law, not that certain people don’t create the situations that they’re in, but for the most part, the ones that we’re discussing, we see, just . . . murder. We’re seeing just murder.

AC: So maybe the context for how we’re seeing these things is changing?

CR: Well, it’s that we’re seeing them. I think before we knew they were happening because infractions of all kinds happened to each of us individually, but we weren’t seeing all the other times they were happening. We just knew—we assumed they were happening because they were happening to us, if you’re black. But now we’re actually seeing them because they are videotaping them. Because we have the capability—technology is actually helping us bring our actual day-to-day to the public view.

AC: In interviews with Poetry and Guernica you mention how so many generations of violence against othered bodies and the conundrum of hyper-visibility and invisibility for those of us considered Other can at times feel almost Greek, tragically fated or inevitable, and how there was a sense of dealing with what feels like inevitability in your interactions with people in Ferguson last summer. How are you thinking about fate or the idea of inevitability these days? And how might we be changed or transformed—or not—by our experiences, including not just what happens to us, but what we read, write, or create?

CR: I think that . . . how can I say this? The more we have people in positions of power, the less inevitable things feel. So, in Baltimore we have the mayor who brought charges against the policemen, including the black policeman, who were involved in the death of Freddie Gray.  We also have Loretta Lynch as the new Attorney General. As citizens we have to show up but I also think what happens throughout the government is important. One assumes that these appointed people will come forward and force the question of authentic justice because they have had the same experiences.

AC: In my conversations with students about your book, I’m struck by how your work recalibrates our awareness of connections between the past and present, recalibrates our awareness of the accumulation of what has happened to “you,” to a speaker, to human beings . . . and what continues to happen. With that in mind, what, for you, does connection via poetry or art in general have the potential to create, or what can’t it create?

CR: I think it’s important that poets exist in societies because they exist in the realm of affect. Feeling is important to them. How people feel, what they feel, what breaks them, how trauma resonates through their lives . . . that’s a legitimate space in poetry. It’s a legitimate space for investigation. It’s a legitimate space to embody. And a legitimate space to call into question. Other disciplines, I think, are trying to feel impartial, so they don’t take that into account, they leave that out. Whereas I think for us as writers that is the area in which we are most invested.

AC: Yes. That’s the battle cry right there. (both laugh) Thinking more about the challenge of connection, this quote in your New Yorker interview from last August really stuck with me: We experience it differently, but it’s all of ours. The killing of Michael Brown is experienced differently in the body of a black man, and in the body of a black woman, and in the body of an Italian man, and in the body of a French woman. But we’re all experiencing it, and we all, on some level, have to negotiate it. Citizen pushes us to think about what we might share and what we might not share. Could you speak to how you do or don’t think about difference and commonality in your audience (in terms of experience, perspective, and even trauma)? And did that influence how you approached Citizen and how you approach your writing in general?

CR: I think I’m always relying on the commonalities. On a certain level we are human beings. We want very similar things. And we expect from each other very similar things. So, if somebody came to me and said, “There I was and he just let the door slam in my face,” it doesn’t matter who you are, you know what that feels like, you know what that is. You feel the same level of dismissal and subtle violence in those moments. So I think I’m, in a sense, always relying on our humanity. That’s what we share. Even as certain people want to take that away from other people. You shouldn’t have to battle for your humanity. But, it turns out that we have to. (laughs)

AC: Yeah—yeah. (laughs)

CR: But, nonetheless, it’s a thing that I rely on. As I’m writing . . . we, whoever you are, should understand this as just me being a human being. And [understand] that space can be under assault.

AC: Lauren Berlant in your BOMB magazine interview writes, Citizen is so much about tone—of voice, atmosphere, history—the unsaids (James Baldwin’s ‘questions hidden by the answers’), the saids, the spaces within a conversation holding up the encounter both in the sense of sustaining it and of blocking it… How do you see tone influencing expectation and/or assumption in your poetry? In what ways do you make use of tone in your work and how central is the crafting of tone to your writing and revising processes?

CR: I feel like a lot of the time I’m trying to pull the tone out. What I’m trying to do is create a kind of transparency so that people can infuse the moment with their own tones. So that they can say, “That’s not really acceptable,” or “I cannot believe that that happened.” I’m just trying to describe the moment and say “This is what it looks like.” I think when I’m not working on a piece as an art piece, my tone is usually incredulous. I feel like when I’m writing journalistic pieces that tone of voice comes out more. But in places like Citizen I feel like I’m, as much as I can, mediating the tone to zero. I’m trying to say, “This happened and this happened, then this happened. What do you think about that?”

AC: I feel like the different mediums with which you engage—visual art, your situational videos—are a way of creating different kinds of tonal shifts . . . or maybe these other mediums allow for a continued exploration of a similar tone but through different mediums? How do you see the different mediums and different genres you employ interacting in your work? What leads you to choose the form(s) you choose?

CR: One of the things that visual art brings to the work is a continued investigation of a subject in a different medium. It employs a different thing in the reader. It asks to be looked at versus to be read. It also drops down references in different registers than the text does. In that way it’s a relief from the text but it doesn’t allow you to go away. It seems like a door but the door actually is leading right back into the text. (both laugh)

So reading becomes the kind of negotiation—the kind of interaction—I’m looking for between the text and image. As a reader I assume that, if it’s a successful arrangement, the reader will understand why that image is there versus any other. They’ll think, “Oh, she was talking about this thing . . . and this image does this other thing that is related to that text.” So that’s how I’m utilizing the images. They in some way glance off of the text even as they don’t sit on top of the text. Because I’m not interested in illustrating the text but I am interested in creating conversations between the text and the images.

AC: The image that rocked me the most in the book, that I just . . . that I can’t leave alone is the altered image of the lynching . . .

CR: Mmhm.

AC:  . . . on page 91. The body of the person, the person that has been lynched, is no longer in the photo. But you see everyone below. I’ve stared at the expressions on the people’s faces there, for so long. Can you talk about how you ended up deciding to include that image? What was the process of photoshopping that—I think that was something John Lucas did?

CR: I wanted to include the image but I wasn’t interested in including the lynched bodies partly because I feel like they’re always there.

AC: Right.

CR: And for me Citizen is about white liberal collusion in white supremacist violence. One way that the culture doesn’t think about that is by always focusing on black pain.

AC: Yes!

CR: We know that blacks are in pain. We know that they have been subjected to things no one, anywhere, should be subjected to. But what about your silent collusion with that?

And the use of the second person was: “Let’s find you in here, too. Where are you? I wouldn’t be here if you weren’t here as well.” There’s no aggression [in these situations] without also, the white supremacist imagination. I wanted to disallow people from looking at a photo like that lynching photo in Indiana and historicizing the murder without seeing how, in their day-to-day living, they’re actually, silently, in some cases, allowing these things to go on. Because people like to talk about the South, they like to talk about white supremacists . . . Dylan Roof as somebody that doesn’t belong to whiteness, when in fact we’re all in this system that was built on white supremacist thinking.

AC: It’s so good to talk to you about all of this. You know . . . it breaks down that loneliness. You know, “I’m not crazy to think these things.”

CR: Yeah. You know when people do things, why they’re doing it . . . even if they don’t know why they’re doing it. (laughs) And that’s part of what’s sad about it . . . because sometimes I think they really don’t know how their feelings were formed.

AC: Finally, in the situational video that engages with that kind of moment that happens too often on the train, you end it by asking the question: What does suspicion mean? What does suspicion do? And these, to me, feel like such important questions to speak and write and think through, even if there’s no clear answer to them. How did you know when to push toward declarative statements in Citizen and when to leave us with the potency of the interrogative? And more generally, I’d love to hear more about how, if at all, you see poems as questions and/or poems as declarations, or responses. Are they both? Neither?

CR: Zora Neale Hurston said there are years that ask questions and there are years that answer them. So for me, Citizen, interrogative or not, is in the moment of asking a question. It’s coming out of these last years that are asking questions. How can anyone say we’re in a post-racial society? How can you say that—when these things are going on? When people are living the lives that they’re living? When I see myself asking questions in poems I try to get rid of them by answering them but, in this case, “What does suspicion mean?” came up because I used the word suspicion talking to a friend and she said, “Well, what does suspicion mean?” And I was like, “Well, what does suspicion do?” And that moment, because it was really organic to our discussion of the poem and thinking about the realm of it, it was one of those times when it felt like these questions are the questions. Suddenly, the question is the declarative, you know? It becomes both. It’s doing both things.

AC: Would you say that’s a goal of a poem, to be able to do both things? Or is that too directive?

CR: I don’t think it’s too directive because I think any poem, and any writer, is always breaking open the questions beneath the poem, or the writing. You’re always trying to figure out: what gives me the right to say x or y? What does that mean? When I say this, what does it mean? How does it mean might be even more important than what does it mean. And so I think that circling questions is really what writing is. That constant investigating of any statement, any word, any question mark, any punctuation…you know, all of those things. That’s writing.



This interview took place on September 23rd, 2015.


Aaron Coleman is currently Washington University’s Third Year Fellow in Poetry. A Fulbright scholar, winner of Tupelo Quarterly’s TQ5 Poetry Contest, and a semifinalist for the 92Y/Discovery Poetry Contest, his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Meridian, Pinwheel, Southern Indiana Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere.