Claudia Rankine and Kevin Young on Influence in Art and Poetry

P. Scott Cunningham, Claudia Rankine, and Kevin Young
P. Scott Cunningham, Claudia Rankine, and Kevin Young

The Friday session of the 2016 Key West Literary Seminar was capped off by a conversation between poets Claudia Rankine and Kevin Young, moderated by P. Scott Cunningham, a poet himself and also the director of the O, Miami Poetry Festival. The talk, titled “Art from Art from Life: Poetry & Its Sources,” began with Cunningham asking Rankine what might have been lost had images not been present in her most recent work, Citizen. Rankine replied that one of her main goals with the book was to explore visual culture—and interactions between blackness and whiteness, in particular—without trying to control the reader’s experience. “When one looks at an image, one can go anywhere,” she said.

In her view, the book creation process is curatorial—a way of stepping into and dissecting cultural moments to access feeling in ways that newspaper or textbook accounts might not. “I’m only interested in the fact of it,” she said, “because the fact of it accumulates to account for the feeling, and then the feeling leads me to the lyric.”

Following that thread, Cunningham asked Young about the diverse influences informing his own poetry, as well as his work as an editor of anthologies. Young also views his work as a poet as curatorial, as if he’s making an assemblage of influences often rooted in blues music. “We’re always trying to figure out that leap into someone else’s skin,” Young said. When one hears Bessie Smith, he added, “You’re meant to understand that the ‘I’ is the ‘we,’ and you are somehow part of that.” From there, he referenced Citizen‘s frequent use of the second-person “you” in place of “I,” and its power to transport the reader “not in a calm, touristy way, but in a deep, sometimes disturbing, uncomfortable way.”

Continuing with the theme of influence, Cunningham asked what responsibility the poet might have in adapting the work of others or influencing the reader’s view of it. Regardless of whether you’re responding to someone else’s art, or putting your “grandmama” into one of your poems, it’s an ethical question, Young said. Rankine agreed that the inclusion of or response to any other artist’s work comes with ethical concerns, adding that any objective treatment of another’s work is impossible.

In his view, Young said, artists are born not just when they find something interesting, but when they decide that they want to inhabit something and understand it more fully. In describing To Repel Ghosts, his collection of poems about Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings, Young said he didn’t simply want to illustrate Basquiat’s work or write persona poems, but to “get at the feeling of seeing the paintings” and to “capture [their] sound.”

This idea of blending senses came up again during the Q&A when Young said that his mentor, the poet Denise Levertov, encouraged her students to think of the page as a musical score. In a similar vein, Rankine referred to thinking of the images in Citizen as a kind of a score that speaks back to the text, rather than a kind of ekphrasis. Referring back to the relationship between image and text in Citizen, she said, “The images exist to be their own moment … they’re not waiting for the written [word] to bring them to life. They are their own life.”

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