Be brave, be reckless, stay weird: An interview with poet Tiana Clark

Tiana Clark is a Pushcart Prize nominee, first-year MFA student in poetry at Vanderbilt, and recipient of the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. (She's also a Porch board member.) Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Raven Chronicles, Nashville Arts Magazine, Word Riot, Native Magazine, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, Best New Poets 2015The Adroit Journal, Muzzle Magazine, and elsewhere. Porch Intern Gabriela Garcia sat down with her to talk about growing up in Nashville, literary citizenship, and the politics of poetry.

GG: In July Rattle published your poem “Sandy Speaks” about the police brutality against Sandra Bland for their Poets Respond series. They also published a recording of you reading it out loud where you were kind of inhabiting her words. What was that experience like?

TC: When we read poems they go through our bodies, and so much of police brutality is about silencing. I wanted to be a megaphone for her. I think poetry is a powerful act of witness and a way to respond to injustices.

GG: “The Ayes Have It” felt connected to “Sandy Speaks” in its address of racial trauma in American society. How did it feel to talk about that particular issue through poetry?

TC: I’m interested in the ontological approach of asking what race means as a construction. What I love as poet is asking how to manipulate and subvert the roots of words and create a new meaning, a new place for myself.

GG: Poetry is often thought of as a difficult career path. In The Paris Review, Eileen Myles talked about poetry as a career. She said: “In the poetry world, people need to act like they don’t know how this happened…It’s the loafer posture, the veneer of I don’t really need this. People loved to talk about how Frank O’Hara didn’t really care about getting published. That doesn’t jibe with my experience.” What are your experiences with publishing and envisioning your career?

TC: Literary citizenship is really important to me, and publishing is a way for me to connect with a larger community and consciousness. Poems are conversations and I want to be in dialogue with an audience. Especially when talking about race, I don’t want to shout into the void. I’m humming; I want people to hum too. With technology and the Internet, we have immediate access. It feels so powerful to have that connection, to have people interact with my work. It democratizes the process. You don’t go into poetry for the money, but I do I think there’s something noble about a vocational approach. Finding innovative ways to bring poetry into the marketplace helps writers thrive and hopefully fund their art.

GG: You were an Africana and Women’s Studies major at TSU. Did you also take creative writing?

TC: I didn’t! I was writing in the margins of my notebooks and then just couldn’t give it up. But studying Africana and Women’s Studies changed how I view history and taught me to be really honest and critical. Poems can investigate unanswerable questions when we explore things like grief or loss, and I think having that investigative mind helped shift my view.

GG: So you hadn’t taken formal workshops until Vanderbilt?

TC: I took classes at The Porch, started my own workshop group, and did a conference before I started. I called it my DIY MFA.

GG: Did that cause your poetry to evolve in any way?

TC: Absolutely. As a poet you spend a lot of time by yourself, so finally having people respond to my work and ask questions was really important. It raised the level of critical analysis in my poems.

GG: When did you first start to engage with poetry?

TC: I grew up an only child and I would always talk to myself. I look at that now as the beginning of my relationship with poetry and love for language. I was speaking into the silence of me and my Mom in a single room. It was a way for me to self-soothe.

GG: Did you grow up in Tennessee?

TC: Pretty much. I was born in Los Angeles but moved here when I was seven.

GG: Where we are in the world affects how we process poetry, how we create. How has this particular landscape influenced the way you write?

TC: I actually have a poem all about this. In Los Angeles, everyone was different. I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. Then I came here and people asked, “What are you?” That’s a question I’m constantly answering in my work, and I think it will be the engine or drum behind my first book. It’s really what “Equilibrium” is about. Being uprooted was very interesting.

GG: What’s next?

TC: I’m working on a chapbook. It’s fun to see how my poems are talking to each other. I can see the holes, as well—where I need to write the connective tissue.

GG: Do you ever find that your poems have a better memory than you do? Do things show up that you didn’t know were there?

TC: It’s like you’re an archeologist dusting off bone. Like most of us, I don’t know how a poem is going to end, and that’s usually when I am most surprised, like, “This is what this experience made me feel.”

GG: What is a word or phrase that you think is highly underrated?

TC: I think the lyric “I” is underrated. I find liberation in the “I.” Only I can tell my story. Muriel Rukeyser said, “What if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” That, to me, is the power of the “I” in the poem.

GG: What writing advice would you give your younger self?

TC: “You’re not alone. Write no matter what. Whatever you’re scared about is what you need to be writing. God’s still gonna love you. Your parents will still love you. No one’s gonna leave you for telling the truth.”

GG: That reminds me of the last line of your poem “Magic”: “It took me a while to understand that I didn’t have to beg for it, God was already washing the dust of my feet.”

TC: Yeah! I used to be very afraid. I thought I was too emotional. I thought I was this weird Sylvia Plath/Maya Angelou trapped in a fourteen-year-old body, but it takes intensity to write mypoems. I would tell myself to be brave, be reckless, and stay weird.