Roundtable on “Citizen: An American Lyric,” Part II

THIS IS THE SECOND of two parts. Part I is here. When Gabrielle Calvocoressi, LARB’s poetry editor, invited me to organize a roundtable with writers to talk about this important book, I was both thrilled and terrified. The discourse around race is fraught, but it’s also the most important subject we’re facing today. I invited Mark Nowak, Ruth Ellen Kocher, and Nick Flynn to have this conversation with me because I admire their work, and because they are all writers who are unafraid to talk about even the most difficult issues. This conversation could have gone on for months — all of us felt that this book brought to bear some urgent questions about race, micro-aggression, and power. We are all grateful to Claudia for reminding us that our work as poets can have a great political significance.

— Carmen Giménez Smith


CARMEN GIMÉNEZ SMITH: On someone’s Facebook a couple of days ago, a poet said something to the effect of, why are we still talking about race? We’re all the same, and we need to move on from that. And a part of me thought, no. There’s this kind of shaming around talking about things that make people uncomfortable, things that people refuse to look at, which are sometimes referred to as spectacle. When Rankine writes about how Serena Williams resisted how she was dissected or how she called out the unfair treatment she received, she made a “spectacle,” and I think that’s what Rankine is writing about. An everyone is talking about and writing about this book — it is, itself, a type of spectacle.

RUTH ELLEN KOCHER: Well, I’m just going to jump in and say that one of the things that I find interesting about the use of the word spectacle, when talking about this book, is that we enter kind of a different domain of visual authority. It’s interesting to bring the idea of visual authority to the conversation, because we are talking about the black body, and I think of it as Ralph Ellison’s black body — a canvas onto which is projected white fear and so, so much of this has to do with that idea of visual authority and the visual domain. I think domain is kind of a significant idea in the book, too. In an interview Rankine talked about her experience with Kara Walker’s sculpture A Subtlety, at the Domino Sugar Factory. The one thing that kept coming up in Rankine’s conversation was the word “exhausted.” I understand her sense of exhaustion as an idea in perpetuity — of being exhausted there in that space of the factory, as someone who goes to witness this sculpture only to find herself surrounded by people who, instead of bearing witness, act foolishly; who act disrespectfully, make jokes; who take pictures around its breasts and truly make a spectacle of that body. Being confronted with such a barrage of these micro-aggressions is simply exhausting. Anyone who lives in a marginalized body can attest to this. While the sculpture plays on the notion of the black body on display, the “spectacle” is enacted through the gaze of a viewer who possesses a certain authority in this visual field. We have this not-so-subtle sculpture called a subtlety. The transformation of the body on display to the body as spectacle is only fully realized through the participation of the viewer and the authority of the gaze in a visual domain, through a domination of the visual field, an oppressive visual authority.

NICK FLYNN: I completely believe Rankine’s experience with the Kara Walker sculpture — her exhaustion. I had a similar experience, but I felt that Walker anticipated all that dumbass behavior by making the sculpture so monumental — all the antics looked simply foolish in relation to it. Spectacle is a funny word to use in relation to Rankine’s book — it’s so contained, so restrained, the emotions held in check. The micro-aggressions are described in a very straightforward way, almost the opposite of spectacle — one of Citizen’s great tensions is its syntactical restraint in the face of these micro-aggressions. So it seems off to read Citizen as a spectacle — though I’ve nothing against spectacle. I’m thinking of the folks going to Ferguson in the past few weeks and putting themselves, their bodies, on the line to get arrested. That’s a spectacle. Kara Walker’s A Subtlety is a spectacle, and it provokes in the audience a variety of conflicting spectacles. There’s room for all of it.

CGS: People have been anticipating this book. Visually, I think the book is stunning. The images are beautiful and gorgeous and seem to point toward an aesthetic iconography of blackness, but I do wonder why it’s there.

REK: Yeah, it’s interesting that we have this constraint, and it’s met with this interpretation. That might be what’s happening in the book — we feel the constraint in these accounts, and I think that the tension between one aggression and another yields exhaustion. Someone occupies this subject position, this identity, and becomes exhausted by the continual, perpetual tension between occupying the subject and being subject to occupation. It makes sense to me, even though I agree that spectacle seems like an odd word to attribute to the book. Maybe if we imagine “the spectacle” as an act, too — an act that’s contained in this tension — it applies.

CGS: I think I mean it in both senses: there’s a way in which people are silenced by being told they’re making a spectacle, but I think that an artist obviously deliberately creates spectacles, and in poetry, spectacle can come in lots of different forms, and in this case it seems like bearing witness. I think that’s why it’s called an “American Lyric” because it’s this very deep subterranean voice coming from the core of the country’s consciousness. This voice is speaking out and naming names, in a way, and that uncovers things that people don’t necessarily want to hear or see.

NF: Okay, yes, definitely, if to speak at all is to make a spectacle, in some eyes.

REK: You know, I’m thinking of the negative connotations of spectacle, and I’m thinking of this palpable fear of being a spectacle as a black body, a product of the past. The loud body. The body that wears gauche bright colors. The body that dances and moves and performs — the extreme version of which is the black body performing specifically to satisfy the hunger for spectacle. Minstrelsy, of course. As women, especially, we are warned, perhaps shamed, into being conscious of our bodies, of not revealing too much, of not making a spectacle of ourselves, which is also a way to be invisible. I can’t help but think of Quicksand, when Helga recalls a girl on the campus of her teacher’s college, in the 1920s, who wore a bright color and who was quickly chastised by the head mistress who sent her dress to the dyer to be cast in a more neutral, less visible, color. Helga imagines someone penning a plea for color, which I think amounts to a plea for visibility. I have a good friend whose father told him that black people shouldn’t wear red, and so, as a black man, somehow subscribed to this censure. When the speaker in Citizen tells her friend that he should probably go to the back yard to make a phone call, she unintentionally submits to the notion that the black body is less threatening, and perhaps more safe, when it fades into the background, when it remains unseen.

NF: That interaction — unintentional or unconscious — with her friend on the sidewalk outside her house, which ends with her friend telling her that he will make a phone call wherever he damn well pleases, was one of those moments of slippage in the book I found devastating. That edict not to be seen, not to rise up too high, is part of Irish Catholic culture as well, but cops aren’t shooting Irish kids just for being Irish these days.

REK: That perpetual constraint on one’s visibility is exhausting. I think that we feel that when we read this book. And I think the reader enters into that position. What I mean by that is that the book essentially invites the reader to occupy the space of the body made abject — and here, the abject is the black body — and so experience this exhausting constraint.

NF: I wonder if “witness” is the right word to apply to this book? It’s so from within the experience. Witness seems about having your eyes opened to the suffering of others, rather than having it embodied within you. With these poems, as Ruth just said, the body represented becomes, in the act of reading, the reader’s body. Witness doesn’t seem quite accurate for what’s going on in this book.

REK: We enter the book and occupy a common location. We each enter the book as a citizen, and it’s a shared identity. I feel as though there’s an attempt to erase the division between witness and participant. Witness and object or witness and subject. You’re invited to that location of subject-occupation, invited to not just imagine these aggressions as responding to blackness, but to imagine these aggressions as something that’s responding to You. Of course black folks are exhausted, right? To occupy the place of the subject is an opportunity for the reader to encounter the abject body navigated and the burden of that navigation.

CGS: So now what? What do we do with this document?

REK: I take this document and the first thing that I do, after I talk to my friends and colleagues about it: I teach this book. And I continue to generate conversations because I think that this book is an instruction manual on how to articulate voice. But I imagine that it first becomes a book for a lot of different people to speak about, to speak about these kinds of experiences, regardless of what subject position we’re talking about. I have a few students who participated in a march for Ferguson and who have written about it in an online journal called Vannevar, and, as predominantly white students, I thought that they articulated their own anxieties about race really well: a female writer talking about being fraught with the cultural anxiety that encourages us to cross the street when you see “that” person walking toward you. The black man is a canvas onto which we project our fear. There are just so many perspectives that this book takes up, I believe it’s available to a multitude of readers. Because of that availability, I wonder what we make of the elements of documentary enacted here. I don’t know if it’s better to say “enacted” or “performed,” but we can’t overlook this other mode of telling when we talk about the impact of the book.

NF: One of Rankine’s side projects while working on this book, if I’m remembering correctly, was to put together an anthology of documentary poetics — her “situation” on Hurricane Katrina, which is made up entirely of quotes culled from CNN, is an example of the genre. Which brings us back to whether it is even possible to have a purely subjective experience. For the Katrina situation Rankine chose the quotes, but even if a computer chose them, they would be just the subjective experiences of the reporters on CNN, many of whom were not even in New Orleans itself. Another type of witness.

CGS: One has to think of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely in that regard, right? That that was a fictional speaker, right? That book was an exploration of a widely shared anxiety following 9/11. It captured the vibration that’s entering your house because of the collective anxiety of terrorism landing on our shores, and then mediating it through the pharmaceutical corporations which neuter the thinker. You can’t not talk about that book in relation to this one — how do we establish, how do we differentiate the terms, of the documentary sensibility?

NF: It’s interesting to have both books subtitled “An American Lyric.” Lyric does suggest that it’s a deep utterance from the poet herself, that it’s not a persona. I know that Rankine’s stance on Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is that the narrator is a fictional creation, which I always took to simply mean that every character one puts into a book is a creation — that’s just physics. I don’t know her stance on the narrator of Citizen, whether it is to be read as a fiction, but in both books everything that transpires seems true to what must transpire every day for Rankine, both inside and outside of her head. Nothing seems far from what we know happens every day, whether acknowledged or not, which is why it’s so chilling — this blurring is another of Citizen’s mechanisms of tension. If you call it a lyric, it’s going to be read, in part, as a personal utterance, and it is certainly somebody’s personal statement.

REK: I can figure out a way to define anything as lyric if you give me enough time. But I think with this whole — the whole idea of documentary and lyric and the speaker —the thing that’s unclear is that there is a lot more “I” in this book than we find in documentary. I hear what Nick’s saying about the formation of the “I” in the book because you can’t crawl into a book, and that’s absolutely right, and I think that ultimately this “I” is just a lot of people. It’s just a lot of people.

NF: The “I” in this book contains multitudes, is that what you’re saying? It brings me back to the line “Don’t say I if it means so little.”

REK: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right in that this is, this isn’t the standard formation of an “I,” a lyric formation — it’s of her own design, absolutely. But, you know, in some ways, the same way people are saying, I’m Michael Brown or I’m Trayvon Martin, I think that what happens in this book is that I feel as though I’m this narrator, too. Right? I’m this narrator, too. That I come into this. And it’s part of the effect of using the second person that I feel engaged in it. When I read it out loud, I occupy that space. So I think that, absolutely, this is Claudia Rankine’s formation of Claudia Rankine, but in a sense, it’s Claudia Rankine’s voice as me. There are definitely moments that line up with the universal “I,” or with something like group suffering, group experience. But the moments that really interest me in the book are the more lyric ones, when there’s some sort of slippage or ambiguity, when there isn’t any certainty. I may not be able to articulate it sufficiently except to say that it’s a, you know, it’s an “I” that I can crawl into. It’s an accessible “I.” It’s an “I” that I can put on. And I don’t think it’s universal because I don’t think that everyone can. I think that the book is inviting you to, and I think that some people can take that on. And some people can’t or some people won’t.

NF: That seems like what art can do, right? To create a scrim for others to project themselves upon. Like you, the slippage is what I’m most interested in, the parts that really feel really strange and unstable and edgy, you know, where the narrator slips in some way — the child on the airplane, the friend on his phone. Those are the moments you see that the racism and micro-aggressions have (perhaps) become embodied, and begun to spread outward.

CGS: I became familiar with the term micro-aggression very recently after reading Presumed Incompetent, an anthology about women of color in academia, and when I had experienced things like that, I didn’t know what to call them, and I thought, I’m just being paranoid, that person isn’t being racist or classist. I’m just projecting and seeing things, and so when I read Presumed Incompetent, I started crying because I felt, okay, other people are experiencing these things. This isn’t just me. They could be misread but it’s also emblematic of like, of a sickness, right? Or a distortion, I guess.

NF: The term micro-aggression is a useful way of naming something deeply violent and damaging, that is all around us, and I’m grateful to now have a name for it. In Citizen those moments that contained some element of ambiguity and slippage were revelatory to me in a different way.

CGS: I admire that she even goes there, that she outs herself — that’s the term that keeps coming to mind.

REK: You know, a while back — and I suppose Claudia was working on this book then — we were talking about this little film I was trying to make about navigating academia as a black woman. I had recently discovered Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, the book you were referring to, Carmen. The book named an experience with which I was familiar as a black female academic. I did not know how to represent this experience, exactly. I didn’t know. She suggested I say it plainly, to recount, enumerate, and inventory each aggression. Reading Citizen, now, I understand exactly what she meant — the power in speaking plainly.


Carmen Giménez Smith is the author of a memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds, and four poetry collections. She currently teaches in the creative writing programs at New Mexico State University.

Mark Nowak, a 2010 Guggenheim fellow, is an award-winning poet, social critic, and labor activist, whose writings include Shut Up Shut Down (2004) and Coal Mountain Elementary (2009).

Nick Flynn has worked as a ship’s captain, an electrician, and as a case-worker with homeless adults. His most recent book is The Reenactments.

Ruth Ellen Kocher is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Ending in Planes (Noemi Press, 2014), Goodbye Lyric: The Gigans and Lovely Gun (Sheep Meadow Press, 2014), and domina Un/blued (Tupelo Press, 2013), Dorset Prize winner and the 2014 PEN/Open Book Award.