Interview with Tiana Clark

Tiana

Tiana Clark is the author of I Can’t Talk about the Trees without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), her debut poetry collection which won the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starett Prize, and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016). Clark has also won a 2019 Pushcart Prize, the 2017 Furious Flower’s Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize, and the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. She received an M.F.A from Vanderbilt University and a B.A. from Tennessee State University, where she studied Africana and Women’s Studies. She has been featured in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Kenyon Review, BuzzFeed News, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Oxford American, Best New Poets 2015, and elsewhere: feel free to explore her writing.


30North: We’re happy to have you here today.

Tiana: Happy to be here.

30North: The first question we have for you is, “When starting the process of writing your poems, do you always have an intended topic and audience in mind, and what is the truth you are trying to reveal?”

Tiana: Looking at the first part of your question, just because my mind starts going and then I can’t catch up with it…so one of my favorite writers, and especially with poetry, is Terrance Hayes, and he did an interview one time and someone was asking him about his process, and he said in the first draft, “it’s just me and my shadow, and no one else is in the room.” I really liked that idea that I’m not thinking about anyone else in that first initial draft. I think that first drafting process is really special and wild and that’s when you want your little, carefree kid to come out and play on the page. You don’t want your internal editor in that first draft session, because it’s going stomp out that impulsive, intuitive little kid, right?

I like this idea of exorcising all your demons and letting your little kid come out, and if I thought about audience in that first draft, I probably wouldn’t write anything, right? Because I’d be like “that’s stupid, that’s silly, that’s whatever.” Especially if I’m writing about family. If they’re in the room with me, and in my head, I’m never going to get anything out of my body or head. So as far as audience goes, in that first draft, it’s a very insular process for me. Oftentimes, I’m just trying to chase the thing that’s haunting or obsessing me.

In another interview that I read from Ruth Stone, she talked about how sometimes she would feel like poems are barreling down the hill and chasing her, and she has to run inside the house and grab the pen to try and catch the hem of it, you know? So, sometimes, these ideas… they do come to me, and they do feel like they’re barreling through my body, and I don’t even have time to think of my audience because I’m trying to pin that poem down to the page before it dissipates.

Now, when revision comes, I’m definitely thinking about audience. I’m like, “Okay, editor brain. Little kid, you’re not welcome anymore. Editor, please come in the room.” Then I’m thinking about, “okay, what form do I want this to be?” I throw it into different containers. Is it couplets, tercets, do I want this to be a sonnet, or do I want to break the sonnet open, or do I want to have the ghost of a form in palimpsest? Do I actively want to make them uncomfortable? All those different questions come into my mind when I’m editing.

Now, topics? You know, I think being a poet is paying close attention to the world. So, I think I’m just constantly pained and fascinated by everything. I’m always looking up words that I don’t know. I’m always carrying words or clips of conversation in my head and journal. I write things down a lot in my notes, so sometimes those thoughts are just always are kind of swirling. I don’t know if those impulses are actively taking me to the page, but I’m kind of just a magpie collecting images and sounds and sensory experiences, and then try my best to filter them through my poems.

So, what is a truth I’m trying to reveal and who am I trying to speak to? I think if anything (and I wrote about this in a recent interview), I’m writing to save my own life. You could look at that in a very narcissistic way, but I think so often when my experience hasn’t been part of the traditional Western canon, then I’m trying to create a narrative of survival, a way for me to see and sustain myself, and possibly others to see themselves, too. So often in the world, especially in our current political climate that feels so inundated with a kind of psychological dissonance, I’m just trying to kind of create larger spaces for my lyric self to have some more swagger and sway that I don’t feel in the everyday world. Right? So, really, I’m speaking to myself through these different personas that I’m trying to capture. When you publish a book, they ask who’s your market audience, and I think it’s definitely women of color, but so often I want the work to have a circumference that’s large and immersive, a net that could capture everybody. I always tell my students to write very, very personally, because for me, the personal is a way to the universal, and nobody can really argue with your own story. I like to smash the personal and the political together and see what kind of tension and drama that creates on the page.

30North: Several poems in this book mention or respond to non-literary artworks. What is your biggest non-literary influence or inspiration?

Tiana: How are you defining non-literary? Is it the pop culture references, is that what you’re…

30North: There’s dance in there, pieces of art…

Tiana: Okay, I got you. I really love ekphrastic poetry, or poetry that responds to art or art responding to art. So I have the Balanchine series in there… again, I’m always interested in fraught issues of race. What brought me to Balanchine was Arthur Mitchell, who just passed away a couple months ago. He was the first African American dancer to be a part of a major dance company in New York. Balanchine had this radical dance; it was the first time they had a black male dancer dancing with a white, Southern ballerina, and it was 1968, this fraught time in America, so there was this tense anxiety woven throughout the dance that I wanted to capture. That was just my entry point. Then I kind of got obsessed. I really love research. Another poet I really love, Robin Coste Lewis, on a really great podcast you should listen to, Commonplace, talked about research as a form of devotion. I thought that was really beautiful. I get on these big, deep-dive holes of researching. So, I’m researching Balanchine, I’m researching Arthur Mitchell, I’m researching what’s happening to the 1960s, and in the ballet world, but, again, for me, I don’t put those things in categories of literary/non-literary. I’m sweeping in all of that research into my poems. We are painting with words, using these abstract symbols to connect to the limbic system in our brains, and I see all these intersections with poetry responding to art. With dance, I was interested with the theme in that one. With the music video, the Rihanna music video, “BBHMM” – again, that just kind of pierced me, and it’s an obsession that starts happening. Poets, we have a certain set of obsessions and be sure to try and chase those, and try and pin them down.

30North: Before each section in your book there are quotes. Do you choose the quotes before or after you’ve written the poems? And how do you intend for the quotes to influence the direction of your poetry?

Tiana: These are wonderful questions. So, yeah, I love quotes. I’m a quote collector. Oftentimes — I don’t know what different kind of instructions you’re told, like not to have too many epigraphs — but I don’t pay attention to a lot of the rules.  I, in fact, try to push against them. I actually had more epigraphs in this book. This is actually a tamed down version.

When I was thinking about the structure of the book — sorry, let me sidebar. Have you all read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts? So, it’s this nonfiction book, it’s really fascinating, where there’s a lot of intertextuality, and every time she’s quoting someone or pulling in a different theory, she puts their names in the marginalia. And her whole point is that she wants you to know who she’s in conversation with at all times. So, I think of epigraphs as a way of showing the reader what other texts and other poets and other writers I’m in conversation with, who are kind of hovering at the seam of the collection. I think of epigraphs as little foyers, you know? A little entry space before you enter the house of the poem.

By starting off with Claudia Rankine in that first section, I am wanting my readers to think about her book, that collection of micro-aggressions, and I’m pulling that quote, always ruminating on the idea of trees, but in this section, it’s thinking about lynching. And in that second section, Adrienne Rich, another political poet of her age, I’m ruminating on why it’s necessary to talk about the trees. That quote rattled my brain while I was writing the collection, and I wanted that to forefront that section. The third section (which is more abstract) is centered on blood that’s pulled from Ezekiel, which is actually this weirdly intense prophetic dream about an abandoned metaphorical baby that represents Jerusalem. I wanted the reader to think about different kinds of religious themes, like blood and sacrifice.

Regarding epigraphs in general, I think about them as a meal, you know what I mean? You have the appetizer, then you have the little palette cleansers, like little limoncello shots, and then at the end of the book, as the dessert, you get Gwendolyn Brooks, saying, “…You are the last of the loud, conduct your blooming in the noise and the whip of the whirlwind.” I wanted the book to end on a strain of joy that was clutched in pain, but still kind of swinging towards growth. Yes, I wanted the readers to know who were the writers I was in conversation with, the quotes that were rattling in my head as I was writing this collection. And I just love them. And I think they’re wonderful. But there is some guidance to not get too wild with them, because they can be barriers to entry.

30North: You toy with the lineation of your poems to create representations of your content, such as when the words form a circle on the page. Can you talk to us about how you see the relationship between words on the page and meaning?

Tiana: Yeah, so, we’re talking about lineation here…line breaks and aesthetics. Aesthetics are really important to me. There’s so much consideration when you’re crafting a poem, and I’m really interested in form and in the aesthetics of form. For me, playing around with lineation is a part of my revision process. When you’re putting poems into different containers, what ends up happening is that your syntax starts getting weeded and kind of controlled. There’s a really great… actually, it’s Rebecca Hazelton’s essay on the poetic line, on Poetry Foundation, that I always teach… but it was Catherine Wagner who talked about cutting lines around the themes of sound, speed, surprise, and syntax… I always think about line breaks and lineation as a way to fulfill or thwart expectations in a poem. Think about curating a museum exhibit. You get to decide how your reader is going to walk through your collection, or through your poem. Some pieces of art might have a ten-foot velvet rope, some other might be an interactive exhibit where you get to touch it, but you get to control that experience.

Visually, I’m always trying to push myself to take risks on the page. There’s a really great essay by Charles Olson called “Projective Verse” which talks about the breath, the sound, and the syllable kind of controlling that first poetic verse or spark. That’s one way to look at it. For me, I’m really led by surprise. I’m really into the idea of contrapuntals and multiple meanings that can happen in a text, so that you get to decide how you’re going to read it. Are you just going read it the traditional way, horizontal, left to right? Or are you going to read the right side then the left side, then read it all back together and pick up on different meanings? In doing so, I like that there’s these little echoes of meanings kind of bouncing around the poem that are layered. Everything has been written before, but how do we breathe life into dead language? How are we making it fresh or making it new? These different techniques of craft help me as a writer by providing a type of creative mental gymnastics for myself. I’m always thinking about my readers’ eyes when putting a collection together. After a long, dense poem, maybe they want a shorter poem that not only has caesuras for breath, but also on the page, like a breath for the eyes, you know what I mean? And I think that any writer has to think about their relationship to the line. That’s something that I’m always asking myself. I’m a poet who takes joy in making and breaking forms, playing around with the field of the page. It’s something that keeps my writing practice really fun and fresh, and it’s also helpful in exacting and clarifying and sharpening my syntax. Which was really helpful as well.

30North: Where did you get the idea for your title, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood? It’s a unique phrase that splits into three parts of the book, and we’re curious about the creation of this phrase and how it morphs your book.

Tiana: So, the title comes from a line in “The Rime of Nina Simone,” which is in the middle of the book. I went to graduate school at Vanderbilt, and my mentor was like, “I really like this line. What if this was the title of your book?” And I was like, “It’s really long, I don’t know…” and then it just came to me. I was like, wait a second. I’m a visual person, and in my head it broke apart into a tryptic, a three-part panel: “I can’t talk/about the trees/without the blood”. From there, that became my triumvirate structure. And then I was like, “Oh. I’ve made a chapbook before, so let me just make three little chapbooks and string them together.” And that helped me kind of think about my sections, because it was almost too much to think about them altogether, because you can’t hold it all in your brain. So then, that became my structure. It was also trial and error. It’s kind of like a house. You see what furniture you can move around, and what poems talk to each other. For the first section, “I can’t talk,” I was thinking about silence, silences in the body, silences in history, and about what poems are having that conversation around erasure. Then you put all your poems on the floor, see what’s conversing, and then you put them together.

I knew I wanted Nina Simone to be in the middle of the book; she’s the fulcrum of the collection, the ghost that haunts the book. And, so, I knew she’d be “about the trees,” the part that makes up the middle. “Without the blood” was the hardest part for me to wrangle. I didn’t want to be on the nose with it, but it’s also the section that’s probably the wildest and also the one that’s tipping my hat to what I’m working on next. I remember Ocean Vuong came to talk to us during graduate school and he said that he always tries to write at least one poem in his book that’s a little bit of a nod to what he’s working on next. I like that idea.  Maybe I don’t have all the answers figured out in that section, and it’s a little wild… but I wasn’t worried about totally figuring out all of the creation. What I really invested in was actively letting the reader see my thought process, and maybe it’s not done, but there’s something about reaching for that trapeze baton kind of snatch…you may not get it, but the effort in trying is really beautiful. Instead of just having something that’s highly curated. I don’t know. I’m still working through it. But it gives me a sense of permission to keep going.

30North: You said there’s a nod to your next work in this book. Could you give us a clue as to where that might be?

Tiana: For me, this book was very much like going through puberty in that there are certain rite of passage poems…And I think it was Helen Vendler who said we’re always writing the same poem over and over again. So a lot of my poems are going to have daddy issues, black pain, slavery, black woman: I had to get all of that out. Now that I got all the stuff I need to say about that out, I feel free to move on. I will always still hover around those themes, but I’m trying to transition to… not writing about pain so explicitly. Is it possible to ever transcend pain? Obviously the answer is no, but what would be the effort in trying to have my poems bend a little bit more towards joy, to be a little bit more about happiness? And I’ve also been writing longer poems. I think “The Rime of Nina Simone” was my first big long poem, and the second collection I’m working on actually has like four big long poems in them. So I’m very interested in taking up a lot of space on the page and not apologizing for it. I feel like whenever someone has a long poem, they feel the need to be like, “Sorry, I have a very long poem.” I’m trying to be less apologetic in my next book. I feel more freedom in my next book because I kind of got some stuff out of the way. You know those early dating relationships? You get those out of the way… and then your third or fourth one… maybe you aren’t all there yet, but you get those out of the way so you can have more freedom. Does that make sense? I think one that’s tipping the hat to the next book is “Rituals.” That poem is exploring sexuality in a more complex, anxious way, which is what I’m looking at in my next book.

30North: Many of the poems written have a historical connection to black culture and segregation beyond slavery: how important is history for the creation of poetry, in general, and in your own?

Tiana: I was a history major in college and for the longest time, I thought I wanted to be a historian. I actually did an internship for the Schaumburg Center for Research on Black Culture in Harlem in the summer of 2008. If you’re ever in New York, I would highly suggest going. It’s fabulous. That’s where Langston Hughes’ ashes are interred and they have this huge Cosmo-gram inlaid in the terrazzo of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and his ashes right in the middle of it. So, everyday I’m walking over his body. During this time I thought I wanted to be a historian. I had started writing poetry when I was in high school, but I didn’t think you could do anything with it, I didn’t know about MFA programs. I’m doing all this really dense research and then poems started kind of bubbling out, and I was actually quite terrified, like: “Oh god, like, go away poems, I need to write this research paper!” but it was my body telling me about my future.

My body digests research through poetry, and that was really terrifying. I was like: “What job is that?” I started researching poetry careers, and I found about these MFA programs. I was like “Wait a second, there are places that will pay you to read, write and teach and learn and explore your imagination? What is this magical place? I want to go to there.” That’s a longer story of how I made it to the MFA.

The historical context – again, that was a major obsession of mine; again, I really love smashing the personal and political in my poems, and having those historical elements woven through. In the poem “Nashville,” I’m taking you into a private moment between a husband and a wife, whilealso unspooling the history of Black Nashville, which creates a really interesting tension in the poem that I like to explore. That’s been how I interact on the page; all that research flows in.

Deep-dive into your obsessions instead of avoiding or controlling them, and that’s what’s going to make you different. Honestly, I’ve been studying a lot about grammar and genre. Writers who are unabashedly themselves and unabashedly show their passions, those are the writers we fall in love with. Or think about how you fall in love with your friends or different lovers; it’s just their weird, idiosyncratic ways that they do things. How can you be more of yourself on the page? For myself, history is one of my obsessions; it’s something I just can’t help put into my work.

30North: One of your poems clearly details an internal struggle with the use of African American history and the perception that your work is more or less appreciated for its tragic and graphic nature. Is it a subject which must be navigated through poetry?

Tiana: That’s a good question. We’re getting into the deep stuff today. That hits home for me with “Nina Simone,” where Nina is really an avatar to have a conversation with myself. In the first couple of drafts I couldn’t really tell the difference between her voice and the speaker’s. In subsequent drafts I was really trying to nail down and have her really indict the speaker. “Hey, if you are really free and can write whatever you want, then why would you choose to write and retread Black pain?” I was trying to kind of call myself out a little bit.

The idea of attacking your history a little bit – maybe attacking isn’t the write word, how about interrogating? Interrogating your origins. It’s one thing to indulge your obsessions, but I think it is crucial to also to interrogate them at some point. So, I was interested in interrogating myself, like “why do you like writing about Black pain so much?” So, then Nina gets into issues of, “do you have sadomasochistic impulses towards your subject matter?” You’ve got to dig into psychological layers of it, because, again, you don’t want your writing to be one note, and there’s a kind of self-awareness I was trying to lasso in the book. I was questioning the expected-Black-pain poems as well the need to perform this type of slavery porn for others. Because in my writing, who am I writing to? Am I writing to my audience? Am I writing to myself? Am I writing to digest black pain for white people? Make it more palatable? Am I talking to a black audience? Am I just retreading stuff that’s already been heard before? How am I making it new?

And also, am I just re-enacting trauma, inflicting pain on myself again, so why would I do this? Why would I self-flagellate the performative aspects of suffering in front of other people? What’s great about creative writing is that you don’t have to answer any of these questions. I’m constantly wrestling and holding and caring for all these questions while I’m trying to explore and reach for answers that may never satisfy.

30North: In “The Ayes Have It,” a ‘post racial America’ is mentioned and shot down; can a ‘post-racial America’ exist? Can a ‘post racial’ anywhere exist?

Tiana: So, it’s interesting thinking about time. I wrote that poem when President Obama was in office. And, so, I think at that time everyone was like: “We got a black president, everything’s cool, everything’s fine, I don’t care, everyone needs to stop talking about race, we’re good now,” which obviously wasn’t the case then and isn’t the case currently. But the idea of the post-racial America has always been a myth in my opinion. We never reconciled what happened in our national past with slavery.

And so, one thing I am interested in is that poetry is on the rise. I think it’s up like 38% percent with the last poll I read. A lot of younger people are using their anger and frustration with the government by siphoning that discontentment into poetry. I think that’s really fascinating and awesome. Also, It seems like people are paying more attention to poets who delve into political landscapes, especially with the boost of social media. You can share and retweet these little empathy shots everywhere, and I’m really comforted by that.

30North: What about Nina Simone moves you to write about her?

Tiana: So much. Did you all see What Happened, Miss Simone? the documentary on Netflix? So good. I highly recommend checking it out.

I’ve always kind of been obsessed with Nina, I wrote a long essay about her for Oxford American and in my research Maya Angelou interviewed her in 1974 for Redbook where she said, “life has left keloidal scars on her throat, “ which makes me think about duende. Have you all read Lorca’s essay on duende? So it’s this idea that all dark sounds come from duende. It’s not necessarily from a beautiful voice or technically skilled voice, but that there’s this broken glass inside the throat that’s authentic. You can tell that this Nina has been through pain. Like Janis Joplin; you believe that Joplin has been in pain versus some highly curated, sugary pop songs. I mean to me, she has this ancient diasporic-rich voice that has gathered all of Black history: the duende of slave ships, of sharecropping, of work songs and field songs, call-and-response and Motown and blues, it all wraps up in her voice in this kind of magical, arcane way that I’m interested in exploring.

Her life is utterly fascinating and devastating; if you read her autobiography – it’s bananas, all the things she went through. She’s an interesting character, she’s someone who felt it was her job and duty to reflect the times and it actually lost her a lot of her career. She got super political in the sixties and seventies and she honestly felt like black people betrayed her. I’m interested in looking at black female artists at the end of their lives, so often the narrative is a woman abandoned and alone, like Phillis Wheatley or Zora Neale Hurston.

So, going back to obsessions, there’s a way that I’m indulging and also wanting to interrogate them vis-à-vis Nina Simone’s life and tone. I was working off of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” again with the idea of making and breaking new forms. I was thinking about, “who would be that person who would stop me on the way to a wedding? Who would want to interrupt me and have a conversation with me and kind of warn me about their apocalyptic life?” And that was Nina Simone.

30North: The cover art of your book is very interesting. The back cover says that it’s titled “I Think Imma’ Nina Simone” yet the actual image is dripping with distortion. Were you a part of the creative process behind this cover design? What do you think the art represents, and how does it connect to your work?

Tiana: So, the artwork is actually by my favorite poet, Terrance Hayes, who was very kind and generous to allow me to use it. Alex Wolfe worked on the cover deign from Pitt Press and did an excellent job. Aesthetics are extremely important to me, so with my first chapbook, Equilibrium, I have a painting by Amy Sherald with the same title. She also did Michelle Obama’s national portrait. I wanted a woman of color on the cover, but I wanted a gaze that looked directly at the reader.

I feel that’s what my poems do; they’re looking at you, not away, and I also wanted that continuation with this new book. It’s a black woman looking at you, except her eyes are covered and distorted. And so again, when I saw that painting from Terrance Hayes, I was like, “oh my god, that’s my cover,” and I had already been working on “The Rime of Nina Simone,” who was haunting me, so I was like, “here’s Nina, but she’s a spectral kind of Nina,” which was perfect.

The cover is beautiful and grotesque, kind of how I interpret the landscape in the South. The picture is a representation of this kind of complex relationship I have to the racist history smearing across gorgeous, idyllic views. I love the South and I miss it actually very much, but where someone might see a row of trees, I might see lynching trees. And so, to me this distortion, you see, is kind of like the psychic disruption I have as a filter framing my work.