I first heard Tiana Clark read at AWP in 2017, on the heels of the release of her first chapbook, Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016), at a crowded bar in which two out of three organizers seemed to have gone mysteriously AWOL. But when Tiana read “BBHMM,” based in part on the Rihanna music video, the bar was rapt. In a Skype conversation about her debut collection I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), Clark and I discussed how to structure a poem, a collection, an essay, a writing life. How do you follow your “poetry antenna”? How does training in one genre prepare us to write in another? I learned that the fierce attention the audience gave Clark at the bar was typical also of her own attention to her craft, to the subjects that make their way into her poems, to the poems themselves, to how some poems might make the next poems possible.
Tiana Clark is the author of the debut poetry collection, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016), selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. Clark is a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow and a recipient of a 2019 Pushcart Prize, as well as a winner of the 2017 Furious Flower’s Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize and 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. She was the 2017-2018 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing. Clark is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt University (M.F.A.) and Tennessee State University (B.A.) where she studied Africana and Women’s studies. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Callaloo, Kenyon Review, VQR, BuzzFeed News, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Oxford American, Best New Poets 2015, and elsewhere.
S. Brook Corfman: You’ve talked about the first poem in your book, “Nashville,” in a couple of places, but one thing I want to ask is this: how does it function as the opening of the book? I’ve been thinking about it as an almost cinematic opening—it directs our vision towards and away from certain parts of Nashville on both a spatial and historical level.
Tiana Clark: I hadn’t thought about it in a cinematic way before, but that makes a lot of sense. I was just talking to my students about setting techniques in Janet Burroway’s text, Imaginative Writing (2014), in which she discusses setting as a panoramic camera lens by employing long, middle, and close shots, in a cinematic way. Hearing you say that made me think about how “Nashville” is kind of a localized long shot at first, where the personal and political are going to collide in a southern landscape. However, it ends on a close-up shot of the speaker in a panic, searching the mob and mumbling to herself. The book is book-ended by two poems trying to tackle two racial epithets: it starts off in the present day in “Nashville,” a poem that ends with this searching of “Who said it? / Who said it? / Who said it?” coupled with that predatory, mythic chase of Apollo after Daphne, that pursuit, that hunt if you will, which breathlessly tracks the entire collection, all the way to the epilogue poem, “How to Find the Center of a Circle,” which ends with a wound that is seared raw but always permanent. I wanted to sandwich those two traumatic events together, a moment in present day and then the original moment when those words were first hurled at the speaker.
I also was interested in viewing ekphrasis as landscape or through the boundary of a landscape, so “Nashville” crosses that boundary for me—looking at ekphrastic poetry as: “How do I encounter and trespass this boundary on a landscape, and weave in this lyric self with personal history?” I’m kind of known more for bigger, denser poems. I think for some there is an instinct is to start a collection with a quieter poem or a short poem (an amuse-bouche of what’s to come); that’s not really my style though. I have a more bombastic vibe, so having this more muscular poem that brings in a lot of threads of the book in the beginning—I really wanted to situate the reader with a main course, a way to say: “Boom, here we go!”
SBC: One of the questions I thought about a lot while reading your book is about movement—as in, do we end where we start, or not? How do the same experiences or objects register differently? I hadn’t quite put it together with your opening and ending poems, but it makes sense to me—many things have shifted over the course of the book but we’ve returned to a maybe-familiar scenario.
And ekphrasis is maybe one way that movement happens—it seems important to you as a mode of engagement, rather than engaging a prototypical kind of art object, because you use it to talk about the city, music videos, ballet, films, Carrie Mae Weems’s photographs. In “Bear Witness,” your poem about Carrie Mae Weems’ Roaming series, one of the things that struck me was how at the end your speaker is maybe a little bit exasperated with her. This doesn’t undo the work of her photographs, but there’s this sense of “I’ve been standing by the water / my whole damn life / trying to get saved,” this question of what to make or do with an object—as opposed to a history of ekphrasis that’s very much about exalting that art object. I wondered if you might say a little more about ekphrasis as a generative mode?
TC: I’m a big proponent of the lyric “I,” but it’s hard to have these modes of confession just purely in free verse. There’s something about persona or ekphrastic free verse that helps translate the lyric self for me. Interacting with a ballet or with a music video ignites my poetic impulse, it becomes this cipher or this filter and a way for me to express certain anxieties, frustrations, and power dynamics in a way that I wouldn’t be able to with just the “I” alone. There’s this energy shift interacting with other modes of art, this washing-machine-tumbler mode that helps me add tension and drama as well as experiment with surprise and syntax. I can reveal certain truths I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint without them.
For example, the ballet in “After Agon“—I had seen Agon and I was so spellbound. You can’t really pick your obsessions, your obsessions kind of hunt you down. You’re looking at Arthur Mitchell’s black body dancing with this white ballerina; I just became obsessed with this dance. I watched it over and over again and then I started my huge research dive, and learned more about the history of Balanchine and these ballets, that he wanted to capture the “anxiety of his time,” the 1960s. I was thinking about the interracial pas de deux, thinking about what that would have been like for the audience—that dance captured so much of what was happening in my skin, being mixed. Seeing it in real time, this awkward fraught staccato ballet which is really gorgeous but really anxious—it piqued my poetry antennae.
But I’m still figuring it out! I didn’t even know you could respond to music videos ekphrastically—I was in a workshop with Kendra DeColo in Nashville, Tennessee, and she brought in Hanif Abdurraqib’s poem “Carly Rae Jepsen,” and I was like, whoa. It was a permission-giving poem. It was great because I’d already been obsessing over the Rihanna video, but I sometimes still get locked up in these bourgeois concepts of what I’m allowed to access or write about.
SBC: Which brings us, maybe, to research—how much you do, how much makes it into the poem or just contextualizes it. Because the kind of research for something like “BBHMM” and the research for “After Agon” are maybe different, but—it’s like ekphrasis, this larger way of approaching the poem.
TC: I actually wanted to be a historian for the longest time when I was in college, and poems would be kind of to the side or in the marginalia. I had this internship at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture in Harlem—I was supposed to write this massive research paper but all these poems kept bubbling out. I was like, “Poems, go away!” It was almost an existential crisis, this realization of, Oh shit, I think I’m supposed to be a poet. But my body just digested the research as poems, with this very lyric impulse, instead of writing in this very academic way that seemed to be lacking passion and desire. Research drives me to the page.
There’s a recent Commonplace Podcast episode with Robin Coste Lewis where she talks about research as a form of devotion, and I do kind of see research as this sacred practice, this daily practice. Research helps me get into the meat, the cellular marrow of the poem. A lot of it doesn’t even make it to the page, but I think it helps me start pre-writing, getting immersed in the world. I’ve always been this magpie that collects these images, these bits of information, and I’m always pulling from various sources and braiding it all together. From personal experiences, from images, from figurative language—braiding those together helps me figure out the structure and vitality of a poem.
SBC: As you were talking about devotion, I was thinking of your essays, especially your essay about a kind of pilgrimage to Nina Simone’s house—I think of that almost as a triptych with your essays about polycystic ovarian syndrome and black burnout. Those have a kind of clarity and efficiency of direction—your poems are clear and efficient too, in a lot of ways, but they work differently than the movement of your essays. Thinking about what different forms can do, can you talk about the relationship between those essays and the book? Did they come after?
TC: Thank you for mentioning them! Essays are a totally new format for me. I was always terrified to write prose, I very much singularly described myself as a poet until last year. The essays all came after the book—I started writing the PCOS essay while I was finishing final edits. But some essay pitches came my way and I was like, let’s see what happens. And for so long I was terrified to write prose because I had this conception of, Oh, if you’re a poet, then you should be really good at other forms of writing—so I really felt like, oh god, if they read my prose and it sucks, then they’ll think I’m a fraud! I had this idea that if I was going to write prose, it had to be erudite in a way that didn’t feel natural to me. But I started reading more prose and realized, hey they’re using anaphora, hey they’re circling back to an image, or they’re beginning with a strong scene or in media res—let me just use my poetic skills instead of bifurcating them, as in, this is poetry over here and prose is sacred over there. And I just let my mind unspool that way.
It’s really magical in the prose world because there are more editors that come in and want to help you—at least in my experience. For that Nina Simone piece for Oxford American, I basically wrote five mini-essays and Eliza Borné helped me add structure. I knew how to write, but I needed help congealing the larger themes together for a more cohesive experience for the reader. Although, now that I’m thinking about it, the long essay format as kind of an aerial view is somewhat analogous to putting together a poetry collection! I basically wrote the book as three mini-chapbooks and put them together, so in that way it’s not too different.
I’m actually working on more essays now and thinking about writing an essay collection. I thought my essays were really disparate, so it’s interesting to hear you call them a triptych—I’ve been talking with my agent, and all these essays are kind of interconnected in ways that I hadn’t seen. When I wrote the black burnout piece I was like, oh wait, I’ve been writing about black burnout basically this whole entire time. I just didn’t have that kind of aerial view yet. But to use the research to sprawl and unspool my mind in this way—that’s been really fun and challenging.
SBC: One of the most interesting things to me about your Nina Simone essay is that the personal functions differently than in the poems—because you’re going to her house. Or, you’re trying to. So the duration is very different even than in “Rime of Nina Simone” in the poetry collection.
TC: It touches my heart that you spent time with the essay. Actually, I’m also working on my second poetry collection right now, and I’m writing really long poems—there’s something about taking up space that feels very political to me right now because the world is making me feel very small. There’s something that feels very satisfying to me about both the lyric self and this essayistic mode wanting to take up space, wanting to explore. So often in a poem I’m thinking about concision, I’m thinking about the reader like, oh no, they’re not going to stay with me if the poem is too long. I had that fear when I was writing “The Rime of Nina Simone,” so I was very terrified to read that poem aloud. I read it at my book release in Nashville and the whole time I was thinking, “They’re bored, they hate it, they hate it, they’re so bored,” but then I looked up and people were crying. And I don’t say that to toot my own horn or whatever, but—sometimes it takes a lot of courage for me to match the lyric swagger and stamina that I often write from, because often in my life outside of the page I’m anxious and terrified about everything! But when I do possess the courage to read my longer poems out loud, I can tap into a peaceful, commanding trance. So when I read my long poem, it was really powerful to be like, “Oh Tiana, trust in the work that you’ve done, it’s meaning something to people, don’t back away from this terror of inconveniencing people with your words.”
SBC: One difference between the essay about Nina Simone and the poem is that in the poem the form shifts. It’s a very restless poem. Now that we’re talking about these different forms—how do you pick a form for a poem, or decide when or where to change it?
TC: I’m never really thinking about form in the initial drafts, I’m feverishly trying to chase and hogtie the content. Form decisions come in revision. My little child self is there in the first draft saying, “Let me be free and play!” and I let her: “Be free, little child!” And then I kick her out during editing. My harsher self comes in, and I throw on different containers—let’s try couplets, let’s try tercets, let’s try caesuras. This is part of what I teach my students: to put your poems in different containers. Because when you do that, the language starts sharpening as you look at your lines very intensely. And then, slowly the poem starts revealing itself to me. Oh, something’s happening here, oh, something’s bursting over there. And then I start to feel where the poem wants to go. Most of the time it’s about getting my ego out of the way, trying to weed the little language garden. It’s hard to put language to what that is, but it’s a very instinctual kind of gut feeling to prune a poem.
I feverishly wrote the Nina Simone poem over a weekend—it was probably fifteen pages and I was just hacking away at it. I think I first wrote it in quatrains because I was mimicking this ballad form from Coleridge, and then when I started revising I wanted to distinguish the speaker from Nina. I thought about Charles Olson’s projective verse and about breath, how Nina would be someone following breath—her line breaks would be capacious and playing in the field of the page. Whereas the speaker’s lines, because she’s in graduate school, her lines hug the left margin—that feels comfortable and safe for her, that feels right, or rather, more like following the “rules.” But Nina’s going to be flowin’ and jivin’; I would speak Nina’s lines out loud and listen to my breath and that’s what guided my edits. I really like to experiment and romp around the page, and so when I put a collection together I’m thinking about my reader’s eyeballs—like, hey, I’ve just given you a really dense poem, so I want to make sure that I give you a poem with a lot of caesura next, give you some breaks with silence to rest. I’m always thinking about the mental and visual gymnastics that are happening on the page.
SBC: This idea of finding the right form that is both responsible to the reader and to the material, or to Nina Simone, or to the research—it’s making me think of your title actually, which asks: how can you look at the trees and not see the blood? The history that is not visual per se but is in the form, the way a form summons something around or behind it.
I wonder if you would say a little more about the three sections your title structures, thinking about that history? They each have their own epigraph, their own part of the title, and though they share maybe an energetic core they have distinct concerns and feelings, I think. Does the “chapbook” idea you mentioned structure the next poem, or do you collect the poems together?
TC: The title actually came from my mentor, Kate Daniels, when I was in graduate school. At first I wasn’t sure, because that’s a really long title, but then I saw—as you said triptych earlier—I saw the triptych and everything fell into place for the structure of the book. And before that, I had the “floor stage,” where you throw all the poems on the floor and see what’s talking to each other. The title helped me think about three vessels—in the first section, what poems are dealing with silence? I ruminated about silences in history, silences of the body, and the way the body has been erased. Nina’s got to be the fulcrum of the collection, in the middle, and then “Without the Blood” is kind of the wildest section. I wanted to take some leaps forward. So there’s menstrual blood, biblical blood, physical blood, but also some concepts around DNA that are perhaps more abstract. But I had to take each section at a time, and section three was the hardest to wrangle. It took a long time to reveal itself to me.
SBC: I thought a lot about anxiety and desire in your book, and how they circle each other, and that maybe feels the tensest in the third section.
TC: You’re reading me so well! Those are my main two modes: anxiety and desire. That’s basically everything I write about, I didn’t know it was so obvious, ha!
SBC: One of the most moving moments for me was the emotionally vivid juxtaposition from “Midnight to 3 A.M.” into “Rituals.” The former includes a meditation on the white husband, the history of the roles of enslaved women, on masturbation—and then “Rituals” has in its first stanza the phrase “sex and syntax,” which I kind of just want to run around yelling at the top of my lungs: “SEX AND SYNTAX”—
TC: I do too—
SBC: These poems think about the ways desire can’t be policed but bodies maybe can, or that desire can only be indirectly shaped through what happens to a body. I wonder if you might say a bit about how sex and syntax and anxiety root together?
TC: Mm. This is a fabulous question. Ocean Vuong came to Vanderbilt when I was an MFA student, and he talked about how he’d added a couple of poems to his book that were kind of tipping his hat to where he was going next. “Rituals” is sort of where my mind is going next, it’s one of the later additions. I was really hesitant about it—I felt like, this is part of my second book. But I wanted to give my readers a sneak peek as well as give myself a moment that felt apart from the collection, tipping my hat towards something else outside of the world of the book.
I was in a workshop with Rick Barot and he said to write down the two things you’re most terrified of, and I wrote down sex and syntax. And that’s where that poem came from. But I think you nailed that third term, anxiety, which kind of connects those two things for me. Because there’s a way I’m very anxious about grammar, always kind of feeling like I’m going to be found out—as a professor, as a poet—oh, you didn’t read that book, you don’t know what you’re talking about. My whole pedagogical approach is to decenter authority, the idea that we’re all learning this together. Even though grammar can bring us together, it also can make us feel very isolated, right? The way that I still need to sometimes look up the rules of grammar but also know it’s fluid and changing—that mimicked my own desires. I think Carl Phillips said grammar is the rule of language but syntax is the fluidity. So thinking about the sexual body as well, about a speaker that’s biracial, that grew up in a church context, all these rules and restrictions that were rooted in the prepubescent self trying to make its way in the world. If I’m thinking about sex, I’m thinking about power, that master-slave dynamic, and thinking about the ways that a slave, too, would have their own power, masturbation as their own type of release—that feels very liberating. So having that next to a poem that’s dealing with desires, grammar, sentence diagrams, but thinking about how would you diagram a body that feels broken, sexually, as well. I wanted again to smash it all together.
I was also really influenced by Louise Glück, the way her poem “Mock Orange” so brilliantly enters the psychological space of not only language but sex. I’m usually a poet that shows all my cards, but I was interested in abstractly talking about some difficult subject matter in a more circumspect manner. My second poetry collection is very much naming and claiming something that I think I was too terrified to claim in this first book. I have a new, long poem coming out that’s called “Indeed Hotter for Me are the Joys of the Lord” which just tumbled out of me in a workshop led by Gabrielle Calvocoressi. I think in that poem you’ll see the progression of what’s happening, you’ll basically have all my cards.
SBC: Well, it’s one thing, right, if the showing of the cards deflates the poems, but it’s another thing if you also convey a different experience in the reading and unfolding.
TC: Right! And I’m working on a longer prose thing right now about the sex and syntax thing, so stay tuned . . .
S. Brook Corfman is the author of Luxury, Blue Lace (Autumn House Press, 2019), chosen by Richard Siken for the Autumn House Rising Writer Prize (2019), and two chapbooks: the limited-edition letterpress Meteorites (DoubleCross Press, 2018) and the digital collection of performance pieces The Anima (GaussPDF, 2019).