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Citizen : an American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (Penguin, 2015)

On American Independence Day, 4th July 2016, we looked at one of the most acclaimed poetry collections of 2016, Claudia Rankine's Citizen : an American Lyric.

Biography of Claudia Rankine (adapted from an interview with The Guardian, Wikipedia, and The Poetry Foundation)


Claudia Rankine was born in 1963 in Kingston, Jamaica, and moved with her parents to the Bronx, New York, aged seven. Her father took a job as a hospital orderly, her mother as a nurse's aide. It was a reading household. In Jamaica, Rankine's mother had memorised poems at school, which made her, in Rankine's words "quite a big advocate" for poetry. The first poem Rankine knew was Emily Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop For Death", which her mother read to her a year after the move to the US.

Rankine earned a BA at Williams College and an MFA at Columbia University. She has said, "For a child of immigrants, [choosing to be a poet] was a huge decision. You don't become a poet if you want to make any money." Her parents were initially confused by her intended career, but the master of fine arts in poetry led to a teaching post. "And once I got a job, once they saw that, yes, I could live without their help, they were OK." Rankine is now a professor of English at Pomona College, California and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. 

Rankine is the author of five collections of poetry, two plays and is the editor of several anthologies, including American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language (2002) and The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (2014). Her first collection Nothing in Nature is Private (1994), won the Cleveland State Poetry Prize, which is a poetry publication prize. The poetry in this collection is more conventional than her subsequent collections (it consists of individual titled poems) but from her first collection she was concerned with issues of race. Her next two collections were published by Grove Press. The End of the Alphabet (1998) is a series of linked poems about despair.  The individual poems have no titles but there are section titles. Plot (2001) is a verse novel about starting a family. Her 4th collection saw Rankine moving to a more important poetry publisher Graywolf Press. Don't Let Me Be Lonely (2004) also has the subtitle An American Lyric, the same as Citizen and like Citizen is a hybrid or collage text made up of "lyric essays," prose poems and reproductions of artworks.  

As well as writing and teaching she makes "situation videos" with her husband, filmmaker John Lucas. She has a son and a daughter.


Critical reception to Citizen 

In the US Citizen won both the PEN Open Book Award and the PEN Literary Award, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry (Citizen was the first book ever to be named a finalist in both the poetry and criticism categories); and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Citizen also holds the distinction of being the only poetry book to be a New York Times bestseller in the nonfiction category. In the UK it won the Forward Prize for Best Collection and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize.

"Citizen, which documents the commonplace racist encounters so deeply embedded in American life, is bracing and intimate, complex and accessible, personal and universal." American Poetry Review 44:1 Arielle Greenberg

“The collection is compelling and the experience of reading it is exhausting. This seems the point - it's exhausting to read, much like the repeated instances of minor racism [...] are to its subjects... so much of the book is about anger, and whether or not someone has the right to it. Expressing anger is so often a taboo, but what if it is actually just an appropriate response to oppression that too many people don't notice?" Poetry Review Summer 2015 Aime Williams

"To subtitle it a lyric is as provocative and, in a sense, political as Wordsworth and Coleridge calling their 1798 collaboration Lyrical Ballads, which sounded like an oxymoron to contemporary readers with a settled sense of genres: the purity of the lyric was affronted to keep company with the vulgar ballad." PN Review editorial 42(5)

"The 'lyric' is traditionally associated with brevity, intensely felt emotion, and highly musical verse. [...] What I encounter in Rankine is the felt unavailability of traditional Lyric categories; the instruction to read her writing as poetry - and especially as lyric poetry - catalyses an experience of their loss, like a sensation in a phantom limb." Ben Lerner, The hatred of poetry (London : Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016.)


Sections of book for discussion:

Opening pages 5-7

Watch Rankine read the opening section:
Listen from 3.20 until 5.32

1. What is happening in this opening paragraph, where is Rankine taking us? (like a bedtime story?)
2. A reviewer has described this opening as “understated” (Kayombo Chingonyi Poetry London). Are you surprised a book about anger (see quote above) has such an understated opening?
3. Have you assumed this school memory and the housekeeper memory are Rankine’s memories?
What effect does the “you” address have on you?
4. Why this picture? (page 6)
Watch Rankine talk about this picture:
Listen from 5.32 until 6.44


Two  microaggressions:

In an interview with The Guardian Rankine has explained that the process of this book involved her collecting her own and her friends stories of racial abuse: "Soon, these small, private experiences - which Rankine gathered from her own life and from friends' anecdotes - begin to accumulate". Citizen contains and explores 5 years worth of these stories and Rankine calls it a "community document".

The term, "microaggressions" was coined by Harvard professor Chester Pierce in 1970 to describe unconscious insults white Americans aim at people of colour - these pieces illustrate incidents of microaggressions.
 
Page 13
1. Why the Caesar salad?
2. Elsewhere, in her book Don't let me be lonely, Rankine quotes the German poet Paul Celan who wrote "I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem" - Rankine seems to locate her poetry very clearly in the very real world of human exchange and interaction - does the Celan quote help us understand what Rankine is doing in these poems/stories/musings?
3. Does this feel like simple reportage, or do you feel there is poetic craft at work behind the scenes?

 Page 17
1. "son of a bitch" - does this phrase feel particularly loaded here? Is it always so loaded?
2. We don’t find out if the stranger apologised? Does this feel important?
3. Later on in this section we have uncles and brothers protecting the narrator and son. Is this writing saying something about men specifically?
 


Serena Williams section 

page 26 "For years…” through to page 29

1. Were you aware that Hawkeye line technology was brought hastily into tennis because of this incident?
2. This incident can be watched on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4mGqwA7cCM Those of you that have read Citizen did you find yourself looking up this incident on YouTube? Does watching the incident become part of the reading experience?
3. Why bring Millet and Turner into this? Were they perhaps the YouTube of their day?
4. Serena Williams' outburst in 2009 was covered negatively by the press. For example, The New York Times described it as "Serena Williams became unhinged in a shocking display of vitriol and profanity toward a line judge at the most inopportune time Saturday night - right before match point for Kim Clijsters in the semifinals of the United States Open. In a matter of confusing minutes, Williams turned what had been a scintillating women's match into an ugly and improbable spectacle that gave Clijsters, an unseeded wild-card entry making a joyful return to Grand Slam tennis, a 6-4, 7-5 victory she could not even celebrate."
Do you remember when this happened? Does Rankine make us view it in a different way? 
5. In a review of Citizen Craig Raine's magazine Areté questions Rankine's right to excuse Williams' outburst in this way in what they call “the past internalised”. Read page 36. About this section of the book Areté says:
 “A few facts. Wozniacki is Serena’s best friend and has been described by Serena as a woman ‘without a mean bone in her body. The have laughed about the imitation game… The existence of Hawkeye demonstrates how genuinely difficult these umpiring decisions are. In 2004 there was no Hawkeye - just close calls. And Serena Williams is the most successful and admired black athlete of all time - here seen as a victim. The essay on Serena is predetermined - all selection and imposition, a fit-up.” Are you surprised by this response to Citizen? Can you read this section, watch the line calls on YouTube and not be outraged?
 

Mark Duggan section
pages 115-118
 
1. "Though this house in London has been remodeled, the stairs, despite being carpeted creak." Why start with this line? What does this suggest to you?
2. Does the narrator like the artwork she finds on the stairs?
3. "A man, a novelist with the face of an English sky..." Do you like this metaphor/description. Is "English sky" too easy to describe the face of an Englishman? Does Rankine recognise this later in this section?
4. Do you remember the English riots in 2011? Do any of you know the details of Rodney King and the Los Angeles Riots in 1992?
5. Do you think the English novelist should write about the riots? At the end of the section Rankine questions if she herself is best placed to write about it (a middle aged artist who goes to parties in million pound houses). Do you think she should have written about it? 


Pages 147-149

1. How does this artwork make you feel?
2. Do these stories share a theme? What might that theme be?
3. Why do you feel they laugh so hard in the restaurant?
4. "It [the father's gaze] seems to belong to all the children as it envelops their play." Is there a spiritual aspect to this story?
5. The image is by Wangechi Mutu, a Kenyan born artist who resides in New York. How do you feel the image works with the poetry?


Final page page 159

Rankine reading this section:
51.07 to end (including intro)
53.02 to end (just poem)

1. Do you feel the narrator is coming from a place of certainty or doubt?
2. "him her us you me" - do you feel the narrator is successful in addressing a universal reader here?
3. Do you feel the authorial voice has been consistent throughout the book?
4. "It wasn’t a match. It was a lesson." Do you feel you’ve been to a match or a lesson?


Concluding questions:

1. Is this book poetry? (Rankine as the Forward prize-giving said "Poetry is the realm of the emotions.")
2. Do you feel angry?
3. "Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black." Claudia Rankine, New Yorker
Is it enough that a white person reads this book and feels bad?
4. Does anyone have recommendations of any other books (not just poetry) on racism or injustice that they would recommend to the group?

Citizen is available in print and audio at The Poetry Library for reference and loan. Search The Poetry Library catalogue for material relating to Claudia Rankine:


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