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DOGBYTES Interview: Camille Rankine

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.

Jericho Brown is the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, The New Yorker, and  Best American Poetry. His first book, Please (New Issues, 2008), won the American Book Award, and his second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon, 2014), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal, Coldfront, and the Academy of American Poets. He is an assistant professor in English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta.


You are one of the originators of Black Poets Speak Out. How and why did you help launch this movement? What can poets do to promote social justice?

While Michael Brown’s body lay dead in the street, many of us wished we could do something other than watch it…something to help…something to help join and honor the grief of his mother and the crowd gathering around the murderous display. Then Amanda Johnston was brave enough to go to the Cave Canem Fellows Facebook group and ask quite directly, “What ARE WE going to do?”  Soon, I joined in the conversation along with poets Jonterri Gadson, Mahogany L. Browne, Sherina Rodriguez Sharpe and others. I’m not sure I remember which of us came up with the hashtag, though I do remember writing a template for the language poets could use to introduce videos they uploaded in response to police brutality. After that, I texted everyone I knew in my contacts who writes and asked them to record a poem. Then spent my Thanksgiving—John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice had all been murdered by then—retweeting and reposting. Word of mouth did most of the rest. I guess all of that is the how. Community. Community is always how. Though writing a poem is an act of isolation, it happens by way of no one alone.

In this case, the why has to do with something that may be much more individual than it is communal. I don’t see the purpose of Cave Canem or Alpha Phi Alpha or Mount Canaan Missionary Baptist Church, for that matter, if these organizations don’t take a break from regularly scheduled programming to show and prove that they are made up of people with a stake in the world and our future. That’s my why. I could just imagine Amiri Baraka rolling his eyes from the grave and saying, “Oh, so what you Negro poets gon’ say about this?” Of course, no matter how much you do, you never feel you’ve done enough.

I don’t know that poets have to do anything other than allow all of themselves—all of their lives (and everyone on Earth lives a political life)—into their poems. That’s our only responsibility, and it’s all any one of us really can do.

Which poets or artists have influenced you the most, and where might readers see that influence in your work?

This list is probably too long to be of use to anyone, and I don’t think poets should intrude upon readers by telling them what antecedents to look for. I really wish everyone approached my poems assuming that I’ve read everything and that I’m allowing all of that to do some work in my writing.

I’m actually much more interested in talking about books that I see some of myself in than I am in talking inexhaustibly—doomed to leave someone out—about all those who come to make me who I am. I am, for instance, really excited about the work of people like Anais Duplan because something about it makes me feel that I haven’t been wasting my time and that my work has been of use to someone else’s work. I mean the greatest poems I write are the ones other poets will learn from and expand upon.

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

I’m excited to see Christina Garcia’s new book come into print. It’s called The Brighter House and should be out from White Pine Press soon. Her voice is wholly her own, and she speaks in the language of delicate and mesmerizing touch with phrases like “feather-brush antennae” and “ticklish insect-footed sensation” and “wished-for snow” without ever falling into precious sentimentality. Over and again, these poems mount to harsh and cold violences that speak to the intricacies of the soul in a gorgeous way that leaves the reader feeling bruised—as in pressed upon—but not bloody. It’s really a brilliant book of first-rate artistry.

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

Well, I try to wake in an attitude of gratitude so that feeling can guide the rest of my day. Then I weigh myself. If I’m over 189 pounds, I drink some water and do 100 burpees in my basement then eat breakfast and then sit in my living room to pray. If I weigh less than 190 pounds, I eat some breakfast, then sit in my living room to pray. Once I’ve done that, I check my five email accounts and my Twitter. I’m totally addicted to Twitter.

Email correspondence takes all day if I let it, but I usually stop after two hours and head to the gym and work out for about an hour. Most of the ordinary day other than that is “reading, writing, or teaching,” which really is at the center of all my doings and which, as far as I’m concerned, includes listening to music and having phone conversations with close friends about “reading, writing, or teaching.”

Of course, there are my fraternity meetings and service projects, and church on Sunday and sometimes a class offered at my church I may be taking once a week. I club or go to a house party when I can because I like to dance and look at cute black men and to see them look back at me. I love to hear live R&B, so I go to concerts whenever I know about them. And I watch Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder and Game of Thrones if I’m in town and not away giving a poetry reading.  I go to the movies when I can, but of course, that’s writing too. I like to cuddle, but that doesn’t happen often enough for any of us to call it the way we spend our time.

I eat at least six times throughout the day. I’m generally hungry, so I spend my money on food. I enjoy shopping, but I don’t get to go hurt the mall as much as I would like because I’m so busy “reading, writing, or teaching,” and all three of those trump my capitalist and consumerist leanings.  Whatever money I’m paid is divided among my bills, save for 10%, a tithe I give to my church, Cave Canem, and my alma mater Dillard University. (I really want to be a person who spends money on giving gifts to people, but unless it’s someone’s birthday and he or she is in my presence, I never actually send all the gifts I plan to send. This is like the last mountain of shame in my life.)

I try to keep the house open so that people can come and crash there if they have a ride and are visiting Atlanta for a couple days or even if they just need a place to wash clothes or to catch some cable TV or if people want a place to come work and read. I’m not really a host, though; often, I have people over who seem to understand that other than the music I’m playing, I like for the house to be quiet.

Lately, I’ve been practicing what I call radical forgiveness, so before I go to sleep at night I go over my day and think of anyone who may have rubbed me the wrong way in any interaction, and I let that shit go. I realized in these last few months that I was holding on to the idea that people in my past had done me wrong, and those grudges weren’t making anything good or new happen. So now when I come across these people in my mind or on the street, I try reimagining things and try remembering that people generally just do the best they can in the moment that they do whatever they do and that we all have times when we act out of fear when we should be acting out of love.

Just before going to sleep, I make a list of five things for which I am grateful and email it off to my friend the novelist Amber Dermont, who by that time has already sent her list of the same to me.  I spend that “energy” you mention praying for another poem and trying to see some good in everything, which gets hard when police follow me into my driveway to ask if I live in my house.

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

But I have four:

  1. Use condoms, unless you’ve got another thought-out plan.
  2. Go about being whomever it is you want to be or doing whatever it is you want to do with what you have now.
  3. Experience your days as wholly and awake as possible so you can have something about which to write that comes to you as an automatic passion rather than a project for some poems.
  4. Go be where the poets are. Physically sit next to one sometimes.  Read books written by some all the time.

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 thought I was going to be one of those people who gets tenure then sits down somewhere. I’ve found that I’m actually still a dreamer. I still want to write a poem better than my last poem and a book better than my last book. I’m collaborating with Snehal Desai on a play, and if you had told me as a kid that I’d ever want to make anything other than a poem, I’d have rolled my eyes.

I didn’t think black people would be so wholesale taken with white people who record some version of black music. The Bee Gees and Billy Joel and Michael Bolton and Hall & Oates would have made way more money if they were artists who debuted in 2015.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

The summer after I graduated from college, Toi Derricotte and Gloria Wade-Gayles and Yona Harvey and Terrance Hayes and Major Jackson all moved to New Orleans where I was living at the time. They (and people like Randy Bates and John Gery and Kay Murphy and Brenda Marie Osbey and Kalamu ya Salaam and Mona Lisa Saloy and the people Nommo Literary Society) seemed to appear out of my imagination as caretakers of my imagination. They looked at me as if I was a whole human being; this was a brand new way of being seen for me. They talked to me as if I already was a poet, and in their speaking to me that way, I became what they saw.

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

I may remember this wrong, but I think 2000, 2001, and 2004. I’m glad Cave Canem has stayed around long enough for me to be thought of as old skool CC.

I remember falling asleep on Sean Hill’s shoulder during a long bus ride. I remember Douglas Kearney waking me up every morning because I didn’t have an alarm. I remember hearing Mendi Lewis Obadike sing “Believe in Yourself” from The Wiz at a CC graduation.  I remember writing while I wished I was partying with other CCers who were already done with their poems to be workshopped the next day but feeling like I was writing my ass off. I remember John Murillo doing pushups shirtless. I remember cuddling with Marvin K. White. I remember everybody acting like it was normal when Nikky Finney said she used to catch herself levitating when she was a kid. I remember Ronaldo Wilson giving a great reading and Treasure Shields doing a great Ronaldo Wilson impression. I remember listening to Shane Book and Greg Pardlo talk to each other about poetry and thinking one day I’d be as smart as them. I remember Elizabeth Alexander reading to us the poems of Forrest Hamer and feeling like I wasn’t alone. I remember Tracie Morris singing the word “Blackberry” until it meant everything. I remember Jacqueline Jones LaMon giving us one motherly look that made us rethink our decision to play music full of profanity at the farewell party. I remember Patricia Smith dancing in a magenta dress, leaving to go to sleep, then coming back to dance some more. I remember Lucille Clifton telling me to hush.

Kyle Dargan is the author of four collections of poetry, Honest Engine (2015), Logorrhea Dementia (2010), Bouquet of Hungers (2007) and The Listening (2003), all published by the University of Georgia Press. For his work, he has received the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. His books have also been finalists for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Eric Hoffer Awards Grand Prize. He is currently an Associate Professor of literature and director of creative writing at American University and is the founder and editor of POST NO ILLS magazine. Originally from Newark, New Jersey, Dargan is a graduate of Saint Benedict’s Prep, The University of Virginia and Indiana University.


What was the most challenging aspect of finishing your most recent book, Honest Engine?

With Honest Engine—unlike my other three books in which I was still figuring out what I wanted to achieve as a poet, a communicator—I knew well before the book was published that I had hit the sweet spot, I knew I was actually executing at my optimum capacity at that time. Refining that—when you are already exceeding what you assumed your abilities to be—was challenging. I was afraid of doing too much and ruining the recipe, or that I was delusional and the manuscript was not as strong as I thought it to be. It helps to have poet colleagues and editors you trust, and, luckily, I did. Their honesty—and confidence—kept me from rendering the book overwrought.

On Twitter, you often encourage poets to “push for the book.” Why is it so important to complete this step?

Well, I mostly say (or tweet) this to people who I know have manuscripts on hard drives or under their beds. It’s not something that generally validates or completes a poet—no one should feel that way—but I do want people who have ventured the audacity to produce and present a book to the world to follow through. I always say that whenever you send out a manuscript, it should be stronger by the time you get a response. Releasing it should free you (and encourage you) to allow it to grow, and I want people to believe they can stay engaged in that process or cycle of release and growth until their manuscripts find a home.

How might social media enhance our collective effort towards social justice?

When it comes to social justice, I am more interested in hacking than social media. To me, social media amplifies and, on occasion, clarifies narratives, but hacking actually grants access to change the narrative. It gets people access to the information that those who—tacitly or explicitly—want to maintain inequalities and disenfranchisement need to keep out of the public record. Politically, I would say hacking tends to be thought of as a tool of The State—espionage—but the people who really need hackers and hacktivists are the ones whom The State denies rights and resources and access. The world needs to be able to see how a web is being woven behind firewalls.

What does the phrase “do the work” mean to you as a poet?

“Do the work” means many things. It means be serious about your craft as a poet—as in not more serious than you are about networking and promoting yourself. It also means the work one does to or with the self to grow. Growing as a human being and growing as an artist, those two phenomena are impossibly connected. I like to be active about moving back and forth between the two. It’s almost like pistons—pushing hard in one direction acts as the compression before ignition and the push back in the other direction.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

Outside of literature or art—does Japanese anime count as non-literature or non-art? If so, then I would claim that first. At this phase of my life, many of the ideas that push me (as in challenge or stimulate) creatively come from anime. Visual narratives that do not begin with the limitations of what can or cannot be done with film just tend to be more inventive in the way they can and do probe the human psyche. Of the serious and dramatic stuff, loved Durarara! Loved Ghost in a Shell. Loved Full Metal Alchemist. Loved Death Note. Attack on Titan. Parasyte. Evangelion. The Gundam series. Yu Yu Hakusho. Akira.

One of the things I appreciate about anime is that the settings are often imagined spaces within real environments. (Think of One Punch Man taking place in Japan but all the cities are “City A,” “City B” etc., or Akira’s “Neo-Tokyo”—a city built in a crater following a third world war.) I’ve given myself a little moratorium on writing about America after my next book, Anagnorisis, is published, but whenever I get back to that, I want to write about America using imagined spaces nestled within our history but not beholden to its rules. I’m excited to see what aspects of my imagination that might allow me to access.

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

I actually spend a lot of time responding to and communicating with people who write me—former students, other writers, complete (and I say this lovingly, or jokingly) randos. If my writing is doing the work of actually communicating and connecting with people—who then reach out to me—I feel an obligation to respond. (Luckily, though, I’m not that popular of a poet.)

Aside from that, I play basketball and lift weights a lot. Those things don’t really make it into my writing, but they inform—as philosophies—a lot of my life. I’m always thinking in terms of basketball-to-life, or weightlifting-to-life. Darry Strickland—another CC fellow—he thinks a lot like that. He’s like a sage. (He played Division I college ball and has coached a lot.) Conversations with him that blend all these worlds are a blessing.

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

The key piece I would suggest is to always think of yourself as an emerging poet. That language of “emerging poet” has always been empty to me. I had my first book, the Cave Canem prize, at twenty-three and my third by thirty. By the industry’s standards, I was out of the emerging “phase” by my late twenties, but that was ridiculous. Number of books has nothing to do with degree of development. Finding a space for my process and continued growth was difficult, and I have people coming to me for mentorship when I’m thinking “yo, I’ve been in this game just as long, if not less time, than you.” Rather than fit a category, I just embraced being an emerging writer all the time—always emerging into my next iteration. So try that. Try being a, to steal Oliver de le Paz’s term, poet citizen—to the country but also to the field of poetry. What are the “civic duties” of poetry we need to attend to? And this last bit, it may not be great advice for everyone, but have a bit of a chip on your shoulder about your work. I’ve only felt wholly inadequate reading next to one other poet—Lucille Clifton. (A privilege but, to this day, I think, “what the hell was twenty-something-year-old me doing on stage with her?”) But anybody else, I want to feel like I earned my space next to her or him because—(recall)—I did the work and I’ll keep doing the work.

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?

Over time, I began to believe that my birth city, Newark, New Jersey, would never change from being a majority blk, majority lower-income city. The September 11th attacks changed Newark’s post-riots trajectory. New York companies and workers felt safer in New Jersey. Downtown Newark is practically becoming a college town. The old Bamberger’s (Macy’s) where my grandmother worked as a girl once, that’s going to be a Whole Foods soon, but that kind of change has been forty years in the making. D.C. is very different in terms of development. You’ll feel whiplash watching neighborhoods gentrify in D.C.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

Being negro. Negotiating and managing “whiteness” almost constantly—which is exhausting. Living as both one of the nation’s greatest fears and one of its clearest examples of disenfranchisement, you’re constantly distinguishing people’s reaction to you. It sharpens your eye, as long as you don’t let that racial animus consume you. As a cis-het blk man, occasionally I need to remind myself that life is so much bigger than the struggle against “white” supremacy. Being a being—not just a human but a sentient entity in the universe—is bigger than that.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What’s a favorite memory from those times?

I attended in ’02 and ’03 I believe. Never “graduated.” I’ve popped back in for readings and things a few times. I remember, my second year, as a joke, some of us advertised a party, The Denmark Vesey Club, that really did not go over well with some of the faculty (though some of the faculty were at the party)—particularly Nikky Finney, who went in on us the next day. For someone like her, who would have died to have a space like Cave Canem when she was a younger writer, it was just unfathomable that we wouldn’t treat the time and space with supreme reverence. I still remember that “talking to.” It still hurts, but I am ever grateful to her for doing that as an elder, for modeling how we need to see to the integrity of our spaces, especially since we have so few and they are not guaranteed. And, sure, I was twenty-four and less mature then. But after that, the stakes, the urgency, of life as a poet became very clear to me, and Nikky Finney still serves as a model in that regard.