Award-Winning Poet Claudia Rankine Lyrically Dissects Citizenship
Claudia Rankine , KCRW.
During the Q&A following her reading last night at MOCA, someone asked poet Claudia Rankine about the politically and morally complex act of sharing images and video clips of dead black bodies, bodies murdered by policemen, across social media. It’s unquestionably a form of pornography, but can there be something of substantive and socially transformative value in the posting of these modern day lynchings? Ms. Rankine answered, in part, with a multi-tiered question:
“What does it mean to have black male bodies out holding the space of evidence, and also allowing whiteness its sentimentality around black pain, and also having the body be an orphan body as if there’s no family behind it?”
After breaking down in detail the obscenity of Michael Brown’s slain body laying in the street uncovered for four hours (“No way that would have happened to a white body,”) with even his mother not allowed to touch him – and then his mother being denied her son’s body for two weeks – Ms. Rankine reminded the packed room that 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s mother had to wait six months to get his body from the city after he was killed by cops. “They [the authorities] need [all that] time to explain away what we are seeing,” she said bluntly.
“Yes, this is pornography,” she added during the post-reading book signing, “but we need these images out in the world to make real and undeniable for others what we know – what we have always known – and what has always happened.”
Her 2014 book Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press), which has won the National Book Critics Award for Poetry, the PEN Open Book Award, an NAACP Award for Outstanding Literary Work/Poetry, and is up for the Forward Prize for poetry in the UK, is an exquisitely written brutal read. A collection of lyrical prose poems, cultural criticism, brief screenplays, and images from across the spectrum of the visual arts, the effect of the book (experimental/accessible/intoxicating) is at times akin to having a razor slide across your skin.
Thursday night, she read at MOCA Grand as part of their William Pope L exhibit Trinket, and kicked the evening off reading from his monograph The Friendliest Black Artist in America (MIT Press), whose text she says turned her into a Pope fan-girl, and is one of the core influences behind Citizen. She said Pope’s work is one of the things that egged her on to explore, “The lack that becomes the hole that cannot be filled.”
From there, she read poems about police brutality, Hurricane Katrina, the failure of white people to call out racism in their daily lives (with nods to those who actually do,) the soft-but-not-really racism in academia, the racism Venus and Serena Williams have faced throughout their careers – and still face, and the quotidian erasure of and hostility toward blackness. In between pieces, she explained her process; for example she and her husband recorded CNN coverage of Hurricane Katrina in the days leading to its touchdown on land, and its aftermath. Going through the hours of footage after the fact, she came across post-hurricane statements by Barbara Bush (“And so many of the people in the area here, you know, were underprivileged anyway so this is working very well for them,”) and Wolf Blitzer (“… so many of these people, almost all of them that we see, are so poor and they are so black,”) that she wove into her piece, and have lost none of their power to stun.
One of the biggest overall surprises was just how funny she was – dry, droll, sardonic. But it also makes sense. That humor is a very necessary protective device when swimming in and documenting the grim realities of anti-blackness. And it was a relief to be in the presence of a poet with a sense of musicality and melody in their delivery that was utterly absent the god-awful slam-poet / coffeehouse / spoken word flow whose embedded hackneyed rhythms and overblown self-importance can sabotage even the best written poems.
In the Q&A that followed, a question about identity politics of the ‘90s and the psychoanalytic aspects of her work led her to observe that the flaw of identity politics was/is the notion that, “If you could see me and properly name me, then you’d change the way you think about me.” To which she added, “That’s bullshit.”
But one of the highlights of the evening came when she introduced her final poem. “It’s always interesting, the choosing of the last piece,” she said with a chuckle. “Because I could leave you in a place of great happiness…” She paused. “But noooooo, we would have to start all over.” She laughed wickedly.