Art Talk with NEA Literature Fellow Camille Rankine

By Paulette Beete
head shot of an African-American woman with short curly hair
2017 NEA Literature Fellow Camille Rankine. Photo by Ms. Rankine

"[I]f we're all writing the same poem, what's the point?" -- Camille Rankine

As newly minted NEA Literature Fellow Camille Rankine told us in a recent phone interview, "[Writing is] a mysterious process for me, but it's a combination of mystery and will." In her poems, Rankine explores the myriad of ways we compose a self, whether through our own expectations or the expectations of others, and the tensions provoked as those two modes of seeing clash. Rankine's first full collection, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, was published by Copper Canyon Press in early 2016. Her work has also appeared in a number of literary journals, such as Tin House, Indiana Review, and Narrative, as well as in O, The Oprah Magazine. She has previously garnered the "Discovery"/Boston Review Poetry Prize and a New York Chapbook Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America. Rankine was also a finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Hard at work on her second book, Rankine says she's "very committed to finding ways of making sure that poetry is always my first career." Here's more from Rankine on what gets her to the writing desk, her writerly obsessions, and her superpower as an artist.  NEA: What’s your origin story as an artist?   CAMILLE RANKINE: I have always been a creative person and I used to do a lot of visual art and music. When I was in high school and college I started to focus a lot more on poetry and writing so that became my my main creative outlet. After college I was looking for a job and I was thinking about what my life was going to be. That was the point at which I thought I really wanted poetry to be at the center of [my life], and so I decided to get an MFA…. Since then, I’ve been very committed to finding ways of making sure that poetry is always my first career, which can be challenging I think because it’s not a moneymaker. <laughs> It really takes a lot of energy to make sure of that.   NEA: What’s your mission statement as an artist?   RANKINE: I think my mission statement as a poet is to say something that matters, at least to me, and to try and risk something…. I think that it’s hard to define what the practice should be for others, but for me it’s important that when I think about what I’m writing I feel like I’m speaking to something in the world that matters, whether or not it’s going to have an effect. It’s important to me that I am able to identify what’s important about it for me and why I think this needs to be said. I can only hope at the other end of it that the readers can take some meaning from it as well, and that it can have an effect in them.   NEA: Where do poems start for you? What gets you to the desk?   RANKINE: I’m the kind of writer who’s always really listening and taking notes, and I like to record little snatches of things that I hear or phrases that pop into my mind. Or maybe if I hear about an idea or some interesting story on the radio I’ll scribble it down. Those are the germs of the process for me. And then getting to the desk is really my job. <laughs> I need to push myself in that direction a lot of the time because I do a lot of other things besides just writing—work, and I do a lot of volunteer efforts as well—so I have to make myself sit down. But it’s always this process of accrual and sorting through the notes that I’ve taken. I’m thinking about where my mind’s at and what’s interesting to me and how these things are hanging together and why. I think the beginnings [of my poems] oftentimes are mysterious. I’m drawn to certain things and ideas and words, and then it’s a matter of me taking a moment with myself and figuring out where this is coming from and where it’s going. And sometimes, not as often, but sometimes there will just be something happening in the world or something that I’m thinking about that I feel compelled to immediately write something about. NEA: Are there questions you find yourself returning to in your work or are you exploring a particular obsession in your poems?   RANKINE: When I was putting together my first book I had a certain set of obsessions with those poems and now I’m identifying new ones. I think at the center of both obsessions right now—the one from my last book and the one that’s coming together at the moment—is how we operate as people who receive a lot of messages about what we’re supposed to be, and how we’re supposed to live, and how we’re supposed to treat each other. How we interact with those messages and how we internalize them or push back against them, and how they might define us or destroy us, or just what they mean for us as human beings. I’m thinking a lot about the individual, the self as it exists within us, and what happens to that identity when we walk out into the world and and people react to what our bodies are saying to them. I think a lot about how we decide to live and how we decide to treat each other, and the different forces at work in terms of culture, and history, and social forces, and political forces that affect that.   NEA: Can you talk about the importance of your NEA Literature Fellowship? RANKINE: I just left my full-time job last year and I’ve been bouncing from job to job from different teaching gigs and traveling for poetry readings, and stitching an income together. It’s been going really well but I’m a person who likes stability and it’s not particularly stable and predictable. And it’s hard to plan travel or to know that you’re going to have downtime. You have to jump on everything that comes along when you’re not sure where your income’s going to be coming from in six months. For me this award is providing a stability right now that is great for my creative work because I really do best when I can have moments of quiet and calm. I anticipate that for the next year or two I’ll at least know that I have this as income, and I’ll know that if I need to take a moment for myself I can. So that’s an exciting thing for me. I’m working on my second book right now and seeing how that’s coming together and seeing where that’s going, and I’m excited to be able to take time for myself to explore that…. There’s a lot I feel that’s possible now because of this grant that wasn’t possible before.   NEA: You mentioned that you also teach; what do you think is the most important thing you can teach your students?   RANKINE: One thing that I’m always thinking about in a classroom is the idea of what great writing is and what good writing is, and how it’s really difficult to say that there is a definitive good or great in writing. Everyone’s work can be going after its own version of that; not all poetry can be the same kind of great because that’s boring. <laughs> So a lot of the time in the classroom I’m trying to show that there are lots of different kinds of work and you don’t have to like all of it. [The important thing is] that are you interested in what [the work] is doing, even if it’s not your taste. That’s how I like to discuss it because I want there to be space for a lot of different kinds of voices and visions and creative ideals. I think that what makes poetry and literature the most vital and the most compelling is when there is a lot of variety and plurality. Because if we’re all writing the same poem, what’s the point?   NEA: What’s your superpower as an artist, and what do you wish you were better at as an artist?  RANKINE: My superpower as an artist is the way that I observe, although I don’t necessarily think that that’s unique to me. I think that that’s how every poet does what they do—they observe in a special way, in a certain way that only they can. I wish I had lighting speed. <laughs> I wish I were faster at writing. I think everyone has their own pace, and a lot of people can produce a lot of work and can be very responsive to the world and write a poem in a night. I’m not that person; I’m very careful. So I wish I were faster.   NEA: Please complete this sentence: The arts matter because... RANKINE: The arts matter because art is life. Learn more about the artists and arts organizations we support through literature grants, as well as upcoming funding opportunities here