Claudia Rankine (or, what is poetry?)

I had the fortune of seeing Claudia Rankine read at my university early last month, and it was easily the most captivating poetry reading I’ve ever attended. This is likely because I went to the reading having just finished Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. In the 2004 collection, Rankine touched on topics such as loneliness, mental illness, and brutality against black bodies. The book was a whirlwind of vulnerability and I can’t possibly recommend it highly enough.

I went into the reading wondering how an artist who writes so openly about pain and hardship can be so brave, and how she protects her own sanity. I’ve noticed that I avoid looking at race, gender, and queerness directly in my own work for two reasons: I don’t want readers to hold me accountable for any controversial opinions, and I’m afraid of what feelings it might raise to write about such difficult things. While I’ll admit that the first of those reasons comes down to cowardice, Rankine addressed the second beautifully. She explained that she doesn’t find writing to be emotional, but instead views it as a puzzle or a math problem; the task isn’t to process her feelings, but to make all the pieces fit. I am a mathematician, and I felt my perception of writing change in response to to her words — I don’t worry about interiority or vulnerability when plotting a complicated graph, so why should writing necessitate a visceral emotional response? I can focus on how best to tell a story, rather than worrying about dredging up trauma whenever I sit down to write.

Rankine also reshaped my idea of what poetry can be. I do not consider myself a poet, but that is likely because of where I draw the arbitrary distinction between prose and poetry. I see poetry as lineated, formal, and stiff. I see prose as fluid, more casual, and less concerned with devices such as assonance or alliteration. Rankine blurs the lines between forms, writing poetic prose and prosaic poetry. Her work forces me to question: if Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is poetry, then what’s stopping me from writing poetry? The most valuable lesson I learned at Claudia Rankine’s reading is that the limitations of genre and form are meaningless, and that I must push past them in order to create bold and worthwhile art.

I’m excited to experiment with prose poetry! Who are your favorite form-defying writers?

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