My intention for this interview was to understand Rankine as a reader of her own work: what does the poet see when she looks at what she has made? Her responses to this theme, coupled with our conversation about her upbringing and emergence as an artist, reveal an intelligence navigating our world — and her poetic one — with wit and skill, and most significantly, a commitment to “possibilities other than the ideas or attitudes I’m at ease with.”
PETER MISHLER: Let’s start with the title of the collection, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, which is excerpted from one of Jenny Holzer’s “15 Inflammatory Essays.” Is there a kinship between her work and yours?
CAMILLE RANKINE: I came across Jenny Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays” when I was maybe a year or so from finishing the collection, and I felt immediately drawn to them. I was so struck by the absolute authority in the voice, the tension between the darkness in the statements and their presentation on cheerfully colored squares of paper, the way the cold pronouncements felt both terrifying and a little true. I don’t think that I employ a voice like this, exactly, but that the speaker in my poems is perhaps under the spell of this sort of voice, and at times internalizes it, or parrots it, or resists it.
Do you have a sense of how Holzer’s phrase serves the collection as a whole?
When I saw that phrase in Holzer’s work, I knew right away I wanted it to be the title of my collection. There’s something about it that’s provocative and uncomfortable in a way that I enjoy. I love how complex the idea of mercy is, the power dynamics inherently at play in that word. I’m fascinated by the idea of an impulse being categorized as incorrect, and specifically a merciful impulse being labeled that way.
We receive messages about the wrong and the right way to feel about each other constantly, without necessarily realizing it. There are those we are told are deserving of our sympathy and understanding, and those we are told are not, those who are worthy of charity and those who are not. I think of the speaker in this book as a person beset by these messages, someone who is trying to sort through them and figure out how to be in the world with other people and maybe getting it wrong. Or getting it right, depending on who you ask.
For me, some of the poems in your collection are similar to Holzer’s work in the sense that you are writing about our world, but also another in which some of the more terrifying aspects are exposed. Is the speaker of your poems inhabiting our world or an allegorical one?
I think it’s a little bit of both. Most of the poems are very much of our world. A few feel like they’re from a more nightmarish version. I like the idea of the reader being unsure about whether this voice they’re hearing is coming from this life or a more extreme and startling parallel. That’s one thing I enjoy about some science fiction and dystopian narratives — that the reality you enter could easily be the one you’re already living in. It seems possible. And that possibility makes it all the more unsettling.
Do you find yourself operating out of an imaginative space or an autobiographical space when making a poem? Or perhaps the distinction is blurred?
I’d say the distinction is blurred. For the most part, I wouldn’t describe my work as autobiographical. There are times when a poem starts with my own experience, but then grows out of that into something larger, or transforms into something more extreme, more dire. Mostly, though, the poems begin with just an idea, something I read about or heard on the radio, something that’s been on my mind.
What elements of craft do you find yourself attending to most specifically when you are writing?
Probably sound. I think I make a lot of decisions in a poem based on sound, rhythm, music. I have a stubborn sense of how things should sound, and I can’t leave a poem alone until my ear is satisfied. I’ve also been thinking a lot about silence lately, and the work it can do in a poem: line breaks, full stops, white space, and the things in a poem that aren’t voiced.
Do any of the poems in your collection have a speaker whose thoughts, or voice, or experience differ from your own, or that you don’t recognize as your own?
Sometimes the speaker says something I don’t know that I believe. Actually, maybe a lot of the time that happens. I don’t want to take anything for granted, or rest too comfortably on what I’d like to be true, so I think in my poems I tend to contradict myself, defy myself, provoke myself. Because what do I know, really? I like to explore possibilities other than the ideas or attitudes I’m at ease with.
Has there ever been a circumstance where you’ve written a poem that was able to see something that you couldn’t, that you now believe to be true having written it?
I don’t know if any poem I’ve written is true, exactly — just possible. That’s how I would describe the relationship I have to my poems, and that they have to my interior life: they’re possibilities that come from me, that exist in me.
Can you point to a particular poem where the language or content of the poem transformed into something larger as you wrote it?
Well, for example, the poem “Syzygy”: That poem started because there had been a lot of talk about an imminent supermoon one day when I was feeling especially unmoored from the sense of living on a planet, and not just in this universe called New York City. I like to see things that happen in the sky and that’s very hard to do when you live where I live. So I was excited about this moon business.
But then on the night of the supermoon, I went out partying and forgot to look up. I missed it. And I was very displeased with myself — probably disproportionately so. And somehow, from that experience, this poem arrived. It started there, but ended up being about something else entirely. Or maybe not entirely — when I read that poem, I feel there’s a string tying it to its origin, and on the other end is a balloon floating into space.
I’d love to know more about your poetry’s relationship to the natural world.
It’s funny, a friend told me recently that he had figured out my poetry, and that it was about existing in an urban environment. This hadn’t really occurred to me before. I think the imagery of the natural world in my poems and that juxtaposition between what is natural and what is constructed is a somewhat unconscious element. Maybe it creeps in because I miss the natural world, living in the city. Whenever I leave New York and come back, I wonder what the hell we’re all thinking living here surrounded by concrete and garbage. But here I am! And here I’ve been for 10 years!
That’s my ambivalence at work, and I think that comes through in my poetry. Though it does play a role in the collection that’s more conscious, as well. There’s a sort of struggle between what is natural and what’s constructed in terms of ideas and relationships, which is not to say that the collection necessarily privileges the natural. The natural world can be brutal and indifferent — just like our constructed reality. So the speaker will sometimes try to reach beyond the constructed world and access the natural world, only to find that it can be equally cruel. But I think that helps provide the speaker with some perspective, and maybe even greater understanding, by placing our own systems and behaviors in a larger context.
Would it be possible to substitute “past” and “present” for “natural” and “constructed” in your collection, and draw a similar conclusion?
I suppose there’s a parallel to be drawn there, in the sense that I look to the past to help grapple with issues of the present and future, but at the same time, I refuse to romanticize the past. So this dichotomy also becomes about gaining perspective and understanding. Our history holds some answers to questions we have about where we are and where we’re going. There are lessons to be learned there, and we should recognize that. But I don’t want to fall into the trap of casting any former era as “the good old days,” because there’s really no such thing. Some things get worse, some things get better, and it’s important that we not forget any of it.
The collection is dedicated to two generations of your family: your parents, and theirs. What role does your family’s history play in your poems?
My parents moved here from Jamaica with my brother a couple of years before I was born, and I think as a child of immigrants I’m keenly aware of the fact that the choices made by my family have placed me where I am, and allowed me to live how I live and pursue what I pursue. Poetry is not a practical living. It’s not a living at all, really. Not everyone has the privilege to make the choice that I’ve made to place poetry at the center of my life.
So the dedication for me is mostly about gratitude. I wanted to honor my family in my first book. And I’d also say that the experience of growing up in a Jamaican household while navigating American culture in a predominantly white Portland suburb has certainly informed the way I see the world. I’ve always felt a little outside, or in between, and that perspective is present in this book. I think the speaker is a bit bewildered by their own identity, their history, and the demands of the society that surrounds them, and is trying to understand how to properly exist, perform, relate, fit in.
Did you grow up in a family that was interested in the arts?
Well, we’re all avid readers. And my brother and I are both creatively inclined — he makes music — and people often ask my parents where that came from. They’re pragmatically employed, but they’re both interested in the arts, my dad especially. He’s an excellent photographer, and he loves film, music, and literature. He used to recite bits of poetry to my brother and me — the Romantics, Shelley, Coleridge, and the like, if memory serves. A result of a British colonial education, I imagine. I would flip through books of poetry we had around the house and find poems that sang to me. I wrote little poems as a child, but I was more drawn to other creative activities: drawing, painting, photography, piano, singing. Writing, as a serious pursuit, came later, but poetry was always a part of my tapestry.
I’d love to know more about how you came to poetry, and I wonder if what I am understanding through this conversation as your openness to possibilities is a value that drew you to poetry.
I’ve always been very analytical, and ill-disposed to dogma. And I’ve always loved literature and language. Poetry drew me in, I think, because of the way it can communicate. As a teenager, when I started writing more seriously, I just had so much to say, and it was all devastatingly unique and insightful, of course. I’m less angst-ridden now, but I still have things to say. I like that poetry can be sort of a wish of reaching someone. And I like that poetry picks up these words we use every day and take for granted, and arranges them in a way that, hopefully, can make us feel or see something in a new light. Or in the same light we’ve been seeing it all along, without noticing, or having the right words to express it.
“Dry Harbour,” one of the final poems of the collection, is dedicated to John Dudley Rankine. Would you share his story, and explain why you chose to preserve his memory in the collection?
John Rankine was my grandfather. At his funeral, one of my uncles told a story about him, a story my grandfather had told my uncle about himself as a boy. He used to swim in Kingston Harbour, and sometimes people would have their horses swim in the harbor to cool down on a hot day — which is every day in Jamaica, basically.
The story struck me because it wasn’t often that I heard stories about my grandfather from when he was young, before he was my father’s father. I thought about him as a boy maybe for the first time then, and I thought about him as a younger man telling this story, holding onto this story for years. As a product of the transatlantic slave trade, I’m very conscious that much of my family history is lost and irretrievable, and living in the Americas as a product of immigrants, I also feel that parts of my culture and story are continually at risk of erasure. So more and more, stories and memories like these have become important to me.
In an essay you wrote for the Poetry Foundation, you mention a question you’ve asked yourself as a poet: “what to say, what to speak up about, what kind of work my words will do.” Do you feel you’ve come any closer to answering that question having published this collection?
The question is one of responsibility, and it’s one I imagine I’ll never stop asking. Much of the time when I write a poem, I ask that question of it, of myself. And maybe with every poem I write I’m trying to find the answer, but what answers I do find are only true for an instant, for the moment that the poem comes out of and exists within. So I suppose I don’t feel any closer to having the answer. But I’m becoming more and more comfortable with that.
How do you reconcile a sense of responsibility to meaningful subjects while embracing a sense of “not knowing” and perhaps not spoiling the more unconscious act of making a poem?
I don’t know that I’d agree that the act of making a poem is necessarily unconscious, or that it could be spoiled by introducing consciousness. That being said, I don’t always know what a poem will be or what it will be about when I begin. Or even well after I’ve begun. So there is an element of the unconscious in there for me. I’m agnostic, so I fully embrace existing in a space of not knowing. And I believe it’s possible approach a meaningful subject with a sense of not knowing. I don’t feel the need to reconcile, I suppose. I’m more interested in recognition, in acknowledgment. I don’t want to turn away from the question of responsibility completely, even if I’m not answering it. But from my perspective, it’s a question that’s more often thrust upon poets from marginalized populations. And generally speaking I don’t think it’s right to say a poet should be writing any particular kind of poem. Maybe instead we should be asking ourselves what we want our poetry to mean to people, if we’re lucky enough to have our poetry mean anything to another person. If you’re given the opportunity to speak, what will you say? What would you like others to hear?