We’re over-the-moon excited for the release of Equilibrium, Tiana Clark’s debut collection of poetry coming from Bull City Press. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tiana and ask her some questions—about her Adroit poem, about early inspirations, about exciting voices on the horizon, and lots in between.
EH: To start: Growing up, what were your specific literary influences that inspired you to pursue writing?
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was a seminal book for me when I was a preteen. It was the first time a black female writer was talking to me, and I saw myself on the page. I was enthralled by Dr. Maya Angelou’s personal story, how she regained her voice through reciting poetry out loud, while I was an adolescent trying to figure out my own changing body and identity. I remember writing a speech about the book for class. I actually got in trouble, because my teacher thought my topic was not age-appropriate, because I discussed Maya’s recovery from sexual assault. Even then, I remember that I liked making an audience uncomfortable with the truth. Even then I witnessed the power of poetry as I recited “Phenomenal Women” at the end of my speech. I remember feeling a sense of pride and power seeing the shock on their faces: here I was, twelve years old, talking about the power of my hips and breasts—unashamed and at full volume! I still recite this poem in my head before a reading. I still have to claim that power continually, there are too many voices that tell me that I am not worthy, and this poem helps me shout back to that specific brand of darkness.
EH: Why and how did poetry become of interest to you?
I grew up the only child to a single mother who worked several jobs—IHOP, Red Lobster, Rainforest Café, Shoney’s—so I was alone with my imagination most of the time. Creating worlds within this world, and creating the characters to place inside those worlds, became an escape hatch for me. My childhood was spent speaking back into the silences that filled our apartment, imbuing them with language. I spoke to myself often—still do. That was my coping mechanism, a way to imbue my life with language. In a way, this impulse to create, to dream, and to express myself vocally was grasping towards poetry before I ever put pen to paper. I still like to think of creative writing as a form of a play, a way to re-access that childlike sense of spontaneous improvisation. It helps me self-soothe.
EH: Religious imagery seems to be an occurring theme in your poetry—your piece from our fourteenth issue, for example, warps a biblical psalm into a raw, powerful lyric about longing and loss. What do you think has led to the consistent incorporation of these images into your own work?
I am obsessed with the intersection between the sacred and sexual, because I’m obsessed with the body—the nexus: the communion I took in church, the juice and crackers, all symbols I ingested every Sunday. Conflating holy and profane images creates a kind of seduction that I like to manipulate through verse. Rilke said it best, “… the artist’s experience lies so unbelievably close to the sexual, to its pain and its pleasure, that the two phenomena are really just different forms of one and the same longing and bliss.”
EH: Much of your work also deals with systematic racism and, more specifically, police brutality. What do you think we as allies can do to ensure that important work like this continues to be given increasing attention?
Honestly, I don’t know. I truly mean that, especially after the recent news about Terrence Crutcher. I’m still trying to metabolize my anger (now and for the next story). We all know the answers: listen, do your homework, read, support, share, provide platforms and opportunities, etc. But right now—all of that just seems useless if people can’t police their imaginations as Claudia Rankine illuminated in Citizen.
EH: Let’s talk about your stunning chapbook Equilibrium, which won the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition (!), for a second. How did the chapbook come together—did you have the set idea in mind for the program, or did it develop as the poems came along?
Thank you! I’m still buzzing from the recent release via Bull City Press!
Charles Baxter came to visit Vanderbilt last semester and I asked him how to order a book of poems. To paraphrase, he told us a good book should begin with unanswerable question, which wrestles with this inquiry throughout the narrative arc. That was my “A-Ha!” moment and soon afterward the chapbook clicked into formation. I began the collection with the titular poem because it ends with this unanswerable question:
What is left
whispering in us, once we have
stopped trying to become the other?
This interrogation of self becomes the catalyst for the bi-racial speaker in the poems, confronting opposing forces inside and outside of her body, history, place, faith, family, and race. This question is at the seam of every poem in the chapbook.
EH: As a young writer yourself, do you have any advice for aspiring poets?
· Always be reading
· Trust your imagination
· Start wherever you are
· Do it scared
· Memorize poems
· Find a writing community (local or online)
· Let failure make you better, not bitter
· Submit, Submit, Submit, Submit
· Be nice to everyone
· Trace your aesthetic genealogy
· Take risks in your poems
· Treat yo’ self/practice self-care
· Criticism: learn how to digest it and when to reject it
· Remember everyone is scared and lonely and weird
· Find trusted readers
· Read inside and outside the “canon”
· Make your own canon
· Join a workshop or create your own
· Be yourself, unapologetically, on the page and stage
· It’s okay to say, “No, I haven’t read that book yet. Please tell me about it.”
· “It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud. / Nevertheless, live. / Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.” – Gwendolyn Brooks)
EH: Some say that poetry is a dying art form, yet 2016 has (so far) been an incredible year of strong poetry releases. What’s one recently released title you’re excited about (other than your own!), and what’s one forthcoming title you eagerly await?
Poetry is alive and well, my friend, especially in Nashville. My music city is becoming a Lit City!
One recent 2016 title that I am excited about: My Dinner with Ron Jeremy by Kendra DeColo. Buy it and bask in all its juiciness!
I can’t freaking wait for these forthcoming titles in 2017:
· Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar
· The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown
· Telepathologies by Cortney Lamar Charleston
· Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing by Charif Shanahan
· Rail by Kai Carlson-Wee
EH: Give us a question, if you would, to ask during our next Conversation with a Contributor.
Explain a favorite quote or epigraph that has helped articulate or unlock your poetics.
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For more information on Tiana and her recent work, visit www.tianaclark.com.