DOGBYTES Interview: Camille Rankine

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Camille Rankine’s first full-length collection of poetry, Incorrect Merciful Impulses was published by Copper Canyon Press in January 2016. She is the author of the chapbook Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship, and a recipient of a 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Atlas Review, American Poet, The Baffler, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Octopus Magazine, Paper Darts, Phantom Books, A Public Space, Tin House, and elsewhere. She is a visiting professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst’s MFA for Poets and Writers, and lives in New York City.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

I think there are a lot of ways to be in the world as a poet who promotes social justice. Not just through one’s own writing, but through community, and by helping to create and enrich spaces for people to connect and share their words. The possibility for connection through poetry is a powerful thing. I’ve heard the argument made that literature isn’t an effective avenue for social justice, and I couldn’t disagree more. Even if poems don’t conspicuously engage with social issues, they’re the work of one mind speaking out to an imagined other. There’s a reaching act there. A desire to be heard, to communicate. Too often we remove ourselves from what we think of as foreign, as other, as apart from us, irrelevant to our lives, our reality. And in this distance we become less and less human to one another. That makes the injustices we enact and enable that much easier to allow, to carry out. To me, literature is one way of shrinking the distance between individual experiences and helping us to understand each other as human, making the fact of another’s humanity felt and unmistakable, making it harder to ignore, harder to forget for our own comfort or convenience. I believe that’s an essential part of any effort toward social justice.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

This is supposed to be an easy question, I think, but for me it’s always a challenging one. I have a hard time with the concept of “best” anything, especially books, which have so many different ways of being good. I’ve mostly been reading for work, for teaching, and that makes my reading life is a bit of a blur. When I’m preparing a syllabus, there’s a whirlwind of texts moving through my hands and not everything ends up in the class. But I’ve spent time with some incredible books this way over the past year. The Racial Imaginary, a collection of essays edited by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda. Audre Lorde’s essays in Sister Outsider. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. TJ Jarrett’s Zion. The Gorgeous Nothings, a collection of facsimiles of poems Emily Dickinson drafted on scraps of envelopes. Cynthia Cruz’s Wunderkammer. Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus.  Li-Young Lee’s The City in Which I Love You. So much goodness. But this summer I’m spending more time reading purely for pleasure. I want to read all the novels.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

Driving in the snow. And parallel parking in New York City. The key is: don’t panic.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

BBC World Service. I listen to the radio every day.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

I do a lot of service work in the literary community. I serve as Membership Director for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, I’m Chair of the Board of The Poetry Project, and I help organize programming for the Brooklyn Book Festival in my position as co-chair for the Brooklyn Literary Council’s Poetry Committee. In between all the work, I like to binge-watch TV to turn my mind-noise down a bit. And then I have other creative pursuits I pick up when I have the time – mostly music and photography. Also, I like to cook. And I try very hard not to spend my money because I don’t have a lot of it to spend, but New York makes that difficult. This city is a talented pickpocket.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets; to all emerging poets?

  1. Don’t let rejection silence you.
  2. Take your time.
  3. Define success for yourself, and don’t try to be any other poet but the poet you are, the poet that you have the potential to be.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

I don’t know. I guess I tend not to make assumptions—my attitude about whatever’s to come seems to be “we’ll see!” I will say that in the 90s spending all night in internet chat rooms, I never anticipated that acronyms like LOL would become such a widespread mainstay of our everyday communication that even my mom would be using them. Hi, Mom!

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I was never at the retreat as a fellow, only as Cave Canem staff, so my experience of it was different from those who were there as writers. The two retreats I attended—in 2010 and 2011—were the hardest work weeks of my life. But they were also two of the most beautiful. It was a privilege to witness this community of artists listening to each other, loving each other, and lifting each other up. And the time I spent with the retreat staff was incredibly fun, in a sort of delirious way. Working with Amanda Johnston was magic. And Hallie Hobson. And Marcus Jackson. And Yezmin Villarreal, a most talented intern who is now a most talented journalist in LA. I’ll love them forever. Cave Canem is all about the people. The fellows are the heart and soul of the organization. And even though I had to be up and in the office by 8 am every morning, I couldn’t help but stay up way too late every night and talk and drink and laugh. I was so fed by that time. And I was exhausted every day, but it was absolutely worth it.