In 2023, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Claudia Rankine discusses her curatorial approach and her own creative work. Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy, and I’m here today with the Guest Editor for December, Claudia Rankine. Claudia is the author of Citizen: An American Lyric and Just Us: An American Conversation. Claudia, thank you, thank you, thank you so much for joining.

Claudia Rankine: Thank you for having me. Yeah, this is a special pleasure for me because I’m a fan, a deep admirer of your work. And I hope we can talk a little bit about some of your work in addition to your curation during this interview. But let’s jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day for December?

Rankine: Well, it’s very simple, I just thought, “Who are the poets I would love to contact and get a new poem from?” Because I’m always waiting for the next book or the next poem, or the next thing to show up here or anywhere. So those people just came to mind because I had been avid readers of them for years. And then there were a few new people who I’m very interested in. If you could direct our readers to one poem or more poems on that you haven’t curated, what would they be and why?

Rankine: Well, a very good friend of mine, Saskia Hamilton, passed away recently. And I think, when a poet passes, you worry that their work will not appear in the public because they’re not there to put it forward. So I would actually direct everyone to the work of Saskia Hamilton on the site because she is an incredible poet who has the uncanny ability to bring language to silence. I know that sounds odd. But you read her poems and you still feel the silence in the room. And “On the Ground” is one of my favorites that’s on your website. Would you be interested in reading that poem, or…?

Rankine: Sure. I’d love that.

Rankine: “On the Ground” by Saskia Hamilton.

When the collie saw the child
break from the crowd,

he gave Chase, and since they both
were border-crossers,

they left this world.
We were then made of—

affronted by—silence.
The train passed Poste 5, Paris,

late arrival, no luck, no
enlarging commentary

magnified in any glass.
“The ineffable

is everywhere in language,”
the speaker had said

in the huge hall where
I sat amongst coughers,

students, in the late
February of that year,

at the end of the sinuous
inquiry on sense and sound—

“and very close to the ground,” he’d said
Like mist risen above

the feet of animals
in a far field north of here. That line, “The ineffable is everywhere in language,” is so resonant. It reminds me of an interview that you gave with The Paris Review some years ago, in which you mentioned that, in regard to your own work, you’re less interested in stories, which is why you write poetry in the first place. And very often when you’re listening to people in conversations, you’re less interested in what they’re saying because you said that the speech is the performance. What you’re interested in is what they’re feeling, and how the speech really gets to what they might be feeling. So beyond the curation that you’re doing for us in December, you have also edited other anthologies. When you’re curating poems, do you also still have that interest in looking at poems that are getting to—not so much providing us with narratives—but trying to really get at the meat of what people are feeling, at the things, at the emotions that might exist between the lines, if you will?

Rankine: That’s a perfect way of saying it, because I feel like poetry has the privilege of living in non-narrative space. And I know there are great narrative poems, but I personally love poems that draw out what’s hidden behind the language, what’s hidden in the silences in the betweenness, the liminal spaces. The looks, the gestures that we bring to each other. And when I find a poet I feel who lives in the arena of the human capacity to feel all time… You know, because I think, when we feel, we’re not feeling only the moment in front of us, we’re often feeling into the kind of depth of everything that has happened and everything we can imagine will happen. And so that—that ability—is what I’m looking for. Though I must say, you do create great stories, or narratives. I’m thinking particularly about Just Us, which is my favorite of your books. And there is a moment that you relate in that book that is just indelible in my imagination. And it’s when you were in the airport, and you were observing this white couple and the wife wasn’t moving fast enough for the husband, and the husband called her stupid, and you went over to the woman and, I guess, you know, maybe flabbergasted by what you heard so openly, and asked her, “Did he just call you stupid?”

I think that moment really gets at what you just mentioned about, not just what people are feeling right now, but all of the other feelings that encompass that moment, all of the other things, the experiences behind that very abusive comment. You know, whenever I think of your book, that is a moment that is really indelible in my consciousness. I mean, I don’t know if I would’ve been emboldened enough to enter that space in the airport and go to that woman and give her the comfort that she definitely needed in that moment. But that moment really sticks with me from that book.

Rankine: I think, moments like that, they land in us because they reverberate backwards. And we have encountered them, we have seen them, we understand the violence inherent in them. And so it’s almost like standing around when somebody’s being slapped, you know, because you’re just like, “Whoa.” So it’s hard not to feel the feeling, even if it’s being directed at another. Indeed. And I think it’s important to feel the feeling even when it’s being directed at another. To shift a little bit, who or what are you reading right now?

Rankine: You know, I’m in the lucky position of being a friend of Jericho Brown’s, so I have been able to have access to his new poems. They are so incredible. You know poems where you’re just like, I don’t even feel jealous because I couldn’t write them. [laughs] It’s beyond that feeling. It’s just bow down, bow down to this. So I have been looking at them and they’re out on the table, and I’ve been reading them. Just every book he writes does and goes places you didn’t imagine. And his sense of humor, which I really appreciate, is there, and the generosity and the vulnerability that is apparent in the work is just glorious. So that’s my luck of these days, to have access to those new poems. That is very lucky. He is a delight. I’ve enjoyed working with him in the past. What are you working on now in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?

Rankine: You know, I haven’t written anything in a while, but then I was in Rome and I started writing about couches. [laughs] That’s been my obsession of late. Because I was thinking, you know how people say that thing they say: “All you need is a table, a chair, and a bed.” Like, no, you need a couch. [laughs] Because you need a place to collapse. You need a place where you know you’re going to get up from, but that can break the fall. So that's what I’m doing, I’m writing about couches. Well, that’s interesting. [laughs

Rankine: You’re like, “What?” [laughs] I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a poet writing about furniture, and one particular piece of furniture, of course. So if you ever do publish that, I’m definitely hooked.

Rankine: [laughs] Who’s going to publish that? I mean the new work, it exists between poetry and prose, as much of my work does, and it’s in there with memoir and fabulation and fiction. And it’s just everywhere, and still in conversation with images and history and couches. You know, that is the fact of the matter. [laughs Well, again, I would be delighted to see that book. I want to thank you so much again for joining me today. This has been a great talk.

Rankine: Thank you. Thank you. And thank you for the gift, the pleasure of being able to connect with poets I love, and to be able to read some of their new work and to pass them on to you. Wonderful.