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

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

This is the first of two parts. Click here to read Part II.


CARMEN GIMÉNEZ SMITH: I’m really excited to be talking about a poet I consider a hero, and about a highly anticipated book that speaks to a lot of urgent issues. Early on she enunciates one of the book’s themes:

[Hennessy] Youngman in his video doesn’t address this type of anger: the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color.

The anger is generative; I think of the work a controlled fire does. I’m thrilled to read a book that expresses anger, something which is oppressively frowned upon in our liberal humanist circles. This wasn’t the book I expected, but I’m thrilled it’s the book it is. What about you?

RUTH ELLEN KOCHER: Carmen, I like that you say, “the work a controlled fire does.” It does seem to me from the first page that this book is doing necessary work. I have to concede that I am, initially, after emerging from this book, at a loss to ask anything of any of you. To ask means that I have to step outside the experience of the book, the experience of a body entering into and then stepping outside of the experience of this book, and somehow objectify that experience in order to “get at” it — the experience of the book, and perhaps also the experience of the body, of my black body. I’m caught up in the act of searching. What do I do? What do I say? What do I say to you? How do I “say” this feeling? How do I contain this feeling? What does that container look like? What can house a feeling like this, feelings like these? So I am confronted at once with the form of this book, and the ways it calls into question the mechanisms whereby we contain these thoughts, these feelings, this language. To what efficacy? What does a script mean to a book of poems? What does an image of Turner’s sublime terror, captured in the flailing limb of a chained body, mean to the poem, to the language that is perhaps poem or not poem, and to you, the reader and witness to this language and these images presented in this particular way? These are many questions, I know, but I want most to ask about the role of form and invention, within a discourse of the body, of identity, maybe even of the self and Other.

I’ll add that for some time now, the media has been giving us frequent reports of brutality directed at the black body. These are explosive, politically charged, violent moments. To me, they are obvious moments of degradation. Part of the work in Citizen is to engage the charged moment that is not necessarily explosive, not obviously violent, not initially considered political. These micro-aggressions are at the heart of larger conflict. They are stealth. They often fly under the radar. Their impact and the damage they cause is no less catastrophic in the end. We don’t talk much about the psychological violence that gives rise to the physical. Rankine takes us there and makes us sit with it awhile, uncomfortable in our skins, shifting in our seats, shaking our heads.

NICK FLYNN: I’ve also been waiting for this book for a long time and am thrilled to have this chance to talk to the three of you about it, and about its impact, which will be far-reaching. Ruth, in some ways I also do not know what to say, after emerging from these pages, except that I felt utterly alert to every word while reading it. One of its projects, it seems, is how — or if — one is able to navigate through the feelings these micro-aggressions bring up.

Carmen, you start with Rankine’s reference to Youngman’s video How to Be a Successful Black Artist, where he proposes an enactment of anger as a way to fulfill (white) expectations. Rankine aligns this type of anger (enactment) with Serena Williams’s (seeming) embodiment of anger, after a history of bad calls against her by line judges. Though, tellingly, the final explosion of anger comes at a justified call against her. Rankine wonders if Serena “has come across Hennessy’s Art Thoughtz and is channeling his assertion that the less that is communicated the better. Be ambiguous.”

MARK NOWAK: I totally agree, Nick (and all). And that brings up a question from Rankine’s book that seems central to my own thinking about Citizen, and I ask it of all of us — how difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice “wheeled” at another? And together with this — how does your reading of Citizen: An American Lyric make you think through this question, and your response to it, differently.

CGS: The use of the word wheeled, which seems important to reading the book, captures the relentless cycles of race and power Rankine is critiquing. While reading the book, especially the first section, I found myself audibly whispering, No. No, this can’t be true, I was thinking, Surely not now, even though another deep part of me thought, of course, and I know this. I think the cycle is also interminable and the book’s relentless quality is a rhetorical evocation of this cycle. The truth is — and I think what this book reminds us is — that we glance past the experience of blackness because it’s easier, because we don’t know what to do or because it seems insurmountable, unaddressable. The book’s urgency doesn’t let the reader off the hook (and I don’t want it to, especially since I come to literature to be transformed).

REK: Yes, Carmen and Mark. I’m thinking of that transference of injustice wheeled from one body to another as something akin to the cumulative effect of grief and mourning — how the loss of someone always recalls, freshly, the last loss, so you live through each simultaneously and as if for the first time. I respond, in thought, of course, and I know this, but also No. No, this can’t be true again.

NF: The question “how difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another” does seem central. It’s from the section of the book where the “Situations” are located, the texts/scripts of her collaborations with her husband/video artist John Lucas. (Citizen is dedicated to the real-life characters from his powerful documentary film The Cooler Bandits.) But this passage doesn’t seem to have a video component to it, except for the fact that it’s “In Memory of Mark Duggan,” a black man shot dead by Scotland Yard officers in London, and the fact that the subsequent riots were endlessly televised. The narrator makes a connection between the Rodney King riots, or, rather, an English novelist makes that connection, a novelist whom I assume is white (though Rankine never specifies his race). The novelist asks the narrator if she will write about Duggan, and looks “slightly irritated’ when she suggests he could write about Duggan. This is the setup for the question “how difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another” — in my reading, it seems the white novelist feels it is the duty of the black poet to write about the killing of a black man. Or, rather, it seems that he feels it isn’t his duty. The poem speculates that for the white novelist, “the difference (between their bodies) … makes all the difference.” Mark and I are the two white bodies on this panel, and I know that Mark is able to cross that difference, in his work, that it seems a vital part of his poetic project. That said, at the moment I am listening to the radio, and there is yet another story about a black man being shot by a white cop — “before it happened it had happened and had happened.” I am painfully aware that by simply moving through this world in a seemingly straight white man’s body the air around me parts differently. This morning I said good morning to the black crossing guard outside my daughter’s Brooklyn public school. She turned toward me, surprised, maybe slightly pissed off, and said, no one ever says good morning to me, as all the other (mostly white) parents passed by. The killing of black men by cops is everywhere these days, but by being immersed in Rankine’s book I am more tuned into the micro-aggressions, which are perhaps even more insidious.

CGS: Nick, I identify with that helplessness, and I think the book and the response the readership has to it is a crossroads at this point of crisis, when black boys are being murdered by the police. Rhetorically this book evokes empathy (and anger), which I think is meant to work as a flashpoint for all of us. I’m finally at the age in which my previous beliefs are being changed with and by history. That a book about race could be wildly successful speaks to our need for these conversations.

NF: I have a question: Rankine uses the word “manumission” to describe Serena Williams telling a lineswoman who had called a foot fault (in 2009), “I swear to God I’m going to take this fucking ball and shove it down your fucking throat, you hear that? I swear to God!” I had only recently come across the word “manumission,” in some research about Thomas Jefferson and his slave/children. It seems Rankine is coining a new use of the word here, or at least retooling it?

REK: Nick, it’s interesting to me how much this word did not stand out to me and now that you’ve called attention to it, I have to consider why not. The act of freeing here — manumission as it traditionally defines the process whereby the master frees the slave — becomes the act of freeing oneself. Serena Williams freeing herself. There’s something familiar there in terms of racial discourse I suppose. Agency, and the power that comes with it, attributed to the master in manumission is transferred to the enslaved and so here Rankine empowers the black body. If the black body reliably had such agency our discussion would be very different. I see the search for that agency, that autonomy (maybe even autocracy?), enacted throughout the book. Perhaps it would be more true to say that I see the search for the source of that agency — actually, the source of the loss of that agency — enacted throughout the book. Why did it not, at first, stand out? Perhaps the active reclamation of agency is so much a part of the context of the entire book that the term manumission seemed at one with the thematic landscape.

NF: I love your use of the word agency here, reminds me of something Rankine said in her BOMB interview with Lauren Berlant:

I am not interested in narrative, or truth, or truth to power, on a certain level; I am fascinated by affect, by positioning, and by intimacy, as I know you [Berlant] are. What happens when I stand close to you? What’s your body going to do? What’s my body going to do?

It seems that one of Rankine’s strategies to address racism is to simply place her body in relation to another, either black or white or whatever, and to both document what happens and to register her emotional response. It feels, at times, almost like a daily practice, a meditation. I also think of this idea — of a daily practice — in relation to her use of the word manumission, which seems to me to be a nearly impossible strategy within which to achieve agency. As I understood the concept, manumission was a promise held out by a slave owner to a slave that after so many years of “service” the slave could then be freed, though usually that freedom had to be bought from the slave owner. So one was essentially offered the chance to buy one’s own body. Is this what Serena is doing?

REK: I would say yes, this is what Serena is doing, but with a few stipulations. First, I think I would say not “buy” but “take.” She “takes” her own body back. She, perhaps, even wrenches her body from the grip of those who would deny her agency. There is no understanding here between parties but instead, an upset, a coup, an overthrowing of the way her body is colonized by their gaze.

CGS: I’ve recently started reading Fred Moten’s In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, and here’s a bit that resonated for me in this other reading:

Between looking and being looked at, spectacle and spectatorship, enjoyment and being enjoyed, lies and moves the economy of what [Saidiya] Hartman calls hypervisibility. She allows and demands an investigation of this hypervisibility in its relation to a certain musical obscurity and opens us to the problematics of everyday ritual, the stagedness of the violently (and sometimes amelioratively) quotidian, the essential drama of black life, as Zora Neale Hurston might say.

This observation of Moten’s describes how being black creates the paradoxical condition of both being invisible and hypervisible, and Rankine writes about this too: in one moment she’s invisible to someone in a line and in the other she startles the therapist she’s only talked to on the phone by going to her door, and Serena Williams is a macro-recipient of terrible micro-aggressions that, because of her public status, Rankine asks, “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?” I think Serena Williams is an analogue to, or avatar of, the speaker’s experience.

NF: Alongside the invisibility/hypervisibility of the black body, I can’t help thinking that Citizen is also about the insanity that comes from carrying racism in a white body.

CGS: So often an argument is made against the political possibility of the lyric, and obviously this book’s title engages the American political through the private quite effectively. Evoking the lyric also calls attention to the speaker, who uses the second person — which might be the reader addressing herself, but it also is suggestive of apostrophe, an address to the reader, implicating her. How are you seeing “the lyric” in this book?

MN: I agree, Carmen. I found the use of the second-person address here to be quite compelling, reminding me of other important books that use the second person in a different way — like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, and Mohsin Hamid’s recent novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. The second person tends to draw us in close while simultaneously isolating us in its crosshairs, especially when uttered in a public space. And it’s the employment of this “you” at the intersections of the public sphere where I found myself most deeply engaged with Rankine’s use of the second person. From the World Cup to the Arthur Ashe Stadium to “quotes collected from CNN” and the rest, it’s a publicly mediated second person that seems to put readers, myself included, under interrogation, into the interrogative, on page after page after page.

REK: I’ll add that I believe the lyric has great potential, as Rankine demonstrates here and also in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, for the political subject in a way that purely avant-garde poetics, which rejects the expressive implications of an “I,” simply cannot. For this reason, I think that most black writers who write innovatively, who experiment with form in the way Rankine does, remain lyric poets — because the project of lyric accommodates the necessary expression and work of black aesthetics. As Evie Shockley notes in Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry, the black poet is always “renegade,” not because of the work’s formal conventions or challenges to convention, but because of the transgressive nature of blackness, of the black body as subject, in which he or she invests. An innovated lyric such as we see here, and a dedication to the second person as apostrophe, seems an apt vehicle to take up assertions and questions that perhaps cannot be contained by expectation.

NF: Jonathan Farmer’s Slate review points out (correctly?) that Rankine’s use of “you” refers, mostly, to herself, forcing the reader to either embody the micro-aggressions she documents, or to stand apart and say, “that’s not me,” or to defend the aggressions as possible misinterpretations. I am saying this from my white perspective, trying to remember what I felt as the aggressions piled up. I think it was somewhat nuanced, not monolithic — I was mostly sickened, but occasionally wondered if it was a simple misunderstanding. One example of a possible misinterpretation, which I am sure is not lost on Rankine, is on the airplane, when a little girl asks her mother to sit in the middle seat. I have a six-year-old daughter, and she does this all the time — it doesn’t matter if the person she would have to sit beside was black or white — that person is simply a stranger. I once heard that if you are at a party, say, and not prone to approach anyone you do not know well — shy — the risk is that this lack of contact might get interpreted as racism by a person of color. The solution offered, which I think is a good rule of thumb, is to get over your shyness.

As for the idea of Citizen as a lyric, Rankine seems to address it most fully in section VII, which is also the first section, I believe, where she employs more conventional poetic devices, specifically line breaks and enjambment. It is where the use of the “you” — used throughout until then — is questioned, and it contains the line “Don’t say I if it means so little.”

CGS: Perhaps some of these events are misunderstandings, but if micro-aggressions are par for the course, why wouldn’t one misread interactions? Racism in polite society is very coded. Just as politicians use dog-whistle statements, the person of color also receives messages that might not read racist to someone else. This book along with Presumed Incompetent have been important to me as I navigate and try to categorize the small indignities experienced by people of color around me.

NF: By bringing up Rankine copping to misreadings I’m not intending to minimize the effects of racism — quite the opposite. Part of Rankine’s project, I think, is to point out the fact that the body carries these micro-aggressions on a cellular level, and that they occasionally leak out in situations where there is, possibly, no fault — the question then becomes — is “no-fault” even possible in a society so caught up in its unprocessed racism? These moments of slippage in the book are where I see the world in an utterly new way.

MN: In the same BOMB interview with Berlant, Rankine says: “The book ends with Turner’s Slave Ship, because it seemed funny that those trips across the Atlantic would have us disgorging still. Maybe the disgorge is a form of storytelling.” The idea of storytelling as disgorge — with its multiple meanings including an act of pouring out, a discharge of occupants, ejecting (food) from the mouth (spitting, vomiting), the emptying of a river into the sea, etc. — is so intriguing to me. How might disgorge be a form of storytelling? And is Citizen an act of telling the story of America as disgorge?

CGS: I remember before Obama became president, how idealistic I felt about what it meant for us as a country: we had renounced a long history of racial discrimination and the civil rights dreams of the ’60s had come to fruition. I was so easily carried away by my own liberal humanism and by a complete lack of context when it came to understanding how the US related to blackness. As a woman of color, I knew that many entrenched and problematic views about race existed in cultural and economic infrastructures, but surely seeing a black man leading the country would change the terms with which this country dealt with blackness. Instead, Obama’s legitimacy has been disputed from the word go. White America has perpetuated a doomsday culture since a black president surely means the end is near.

The disgorging I see at work here is the insidious bile unleashed toward the black body. In the essay “Feminism Inside: Toward a Black Body Politic” bell hooks writes, “Within neo-colonial white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the black male body continues to be perceived as the embodiment of bestial, violent, penis-as-weapon, hypermasculine assertion.” So we see the rise of Jesus as warrior, the fetishization of the phallic gun discharging (or disgorging) upon the black male body and we see the response pouring into the streets — the idealist in me sees this as a productive disgorging. I joke with my friend Joseph that we should be training our daughters for the revolution that’s coming in their adulthood, but perhaps it’s only half-joking because it seems that there’s a lot of leftover enmity that we haven’t addressed yet, perhaps because we’ve hidden behind our own sense of post-ness. But really we’ve buried our heads in the sand, and conditions have reached a boiling point.

NF: I think it best to leave my mixed feelings about Obama on the table for now and focus on Citizen. Citizen seems so much about what has been internalized, and thereby what needs to be disgorged. And I don’t mean simply what has been internalized by black bodies — the effects on the entire culture do seem at a breaking point. That the book ends with Turner’s Slave Ship, or more specifically with a close-up of the section of the painting where we can see the chained feet of a slave, sinking below the surface of the ocean. How far have we really come? Is this what we want to offer the future?

REK: I think I’m hearing disgorge here, as the three of you have spoken about it, as a conceit in conversation with itself. Mark, you talk about disgorge after Rankine’s allusions to effusive emptying of the body in Middle Passage, that is, the bodied emptying itself and also the ships emptied of black bodies cast overboard sometimes because their currency had been depleted in one way or another. The metaphor extends itself to telling — I want to say but hesitate to say confession, because of the formal poetic implications, but more because of the impotent function of the confessional for the body oppressed — as if the oppressed had something to confess, or purge, toward redemption, as if the oppressed need to ask for redemption. Carmen, you address disgorge as the mechanism whereby the black body receives, perhaps fields, aggression that is spewed in its direction. Nick, your take on disgorge seems to recall a system that’s crippled itself, such that its vile retentions are released by this reflex. And you say that which is internalized by the body “needs” to be released. I think disgorge for all of you indicates a purging of some sort, which I’d say is more accurate a characterization than “confession,” if only because a purge is somehow more violent than a confession — a reflexive mechanism that responds to an overwhelming abundance of excreta, of poison and waste.

This is part one of two. Part two is here.


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.