Camille Rankine Talks Poems, Feminism, & VIDA
Sarah Marcus: Your captivating poetry collection, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, is filled with beautiful, haunting closures, metacognition, powerful imagery, and questions of authenticity. In "Symptoms of Prophecy" you write: "I called to say we have two lives / and only one of them is real." I can't stop reading this poem and thinking about which life is the "real life" in such a scenario. Can you talk to us about the process of writing this poem and arriving at this moment of realization?
Camille Rankine: I don't know if I ever arrived at that realization, actually. Sometimes I write a line in a poem that perplexes me a bit, and I find myself puzzling over the truth of it—this line is one of those instances. For me, it taps into a certain unease about modern life, this sense that technology is causing a sort of dissociative state within us, that we've allowed some part of ourselves to be consumed by a virtual existence that is deceptive and superficial and will ultimately destroy us. This is not a thing that I believe myself, but I am interested in the anxiety around how technology affects our understanding of ourselves and our relationships with one another, and the way that anxiety is linked to concerns over how to understand what is true and genuine, and the idea of a correct way to connect to another person. I suppose to answer the implied question, which life is real, we'd first have to identify and distinguish the two lives, and decide how to define the boundary between one and the other. That boundary and the way we choose to define it interests me more, perhaps, than question of which life is real life.
SM: One of my biggest fears is realized in your poem, "Still Life with Spurious Picturesque," when you close with "... you go outside/ and there is nothing to see." This book does the work of exposing some difficult and raw truth. How do your fears play a role in your writing?
CR: I'm not sure if my own fears pay a significant role, but fear itself certainly does. These poems were written during the rise of the War on Terror, when the figure of terror was suddenly looming larger than ever before in the national consciousness. In the midst of all the rhetoric around the war, I started to think a lot about the power that fear has over us, how it is used against us, used to control us, and how we so often act in service of and in deference to our fears without even realizing it. SM: What's it like to be on the VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts Executive Committee? Have your perspectives on feminism or our current literary landscape changed or grown since joining this effort? You participated in a conversation through The PEN American Center about diversity and how we have a lot to unlearn. What does inclusive feminism mean to you and what role should it have for other writers?
CR: Working with VIDA has been an amazing gift. It's an all-volunteer effort, and it's incredible to see what a group of hardworking, dedicated feminists has been able to accomplish over the years. And I think that through my work with VIDA, my understanding of myself as a feminist has evolved. Up until a few years ago, I hadn't thought much about my relationship to feminism. I'd always been a feminist, but without really feeling connected to the movement or the term, probably because I was so busy trying to understand what it meant to be black that I forgot about being a woman for a while. It was as if I felt I had to choose one element of my identity to concern myself with, that I couldn't have room for both. But of course, I am both things, and the way that these identities intersect is an essential part of how I experience the world and how the world sees me. So I'm excited to see VIDA become a part of opening up a more inclusive, intersectional conversation about what it means to be a woman in the literary world.
SM: What are you currently working on, and what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
CR: At the moment, I'm just working on writing new poems, without putting much pressure on myself or on them to be anything but what they are. I find that I'm thinking and writing a lot about the gap and friction between our interior selves and the version of ourselves that exists in the physical world, and is received by the physical world. Maybe that's the beginning of an idea for the next manuscript. We'll see.
Camille Rankine's first full-length collection of poetry, Incorrect Merciful Impulses was published by Copper Canyon Press in January 2016. She is also the author of the chapbook Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America's 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship. The recipient of a 2010 "Discovery"/Boston Review Poetry Prize and a finalist for The Poetry Foundation's 2014 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship, she was featured as an emerging poet in the fall 2010 issue of American Poet and the April 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including American Poet, The Baffler, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, Narrative, Paper Darts, A Public Space and Tin House. Camille earned her BA from Harvard University, and her MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. She is the recipient of a fellowship from theMacDowell Colony and was named an Honorary Cave Canem fellow in 2012. She serves on the Executive Committee of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and the Board of Trustees of The Poetry Project, and co-chairs the Brooklyn Book Festival Poetry Committee. She is a visiting professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst's MFA for Poets and Writers, and lives in New York City.