“…that lack of structure morphed into a sense of freedom, so when a poem comes—I chase it.”
Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016)
What’s your chapbook about?
Equilibrium is about wrestling with an unanswerable question. This interrogation becomes the impetus for the bi-racial speaker in the poems, confronting the opposing forces inside and outside of her body through history, place, faith, family, and systematic racism. This question, “What is left whispering in us once we have stopped trying to become the other,” is at the seam of every poem.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The poem that galvanized the collection for me was “Prometheia Remixed” as it was the newest edition to the chapbook. I wrote it around the same time I drafted my manuscript, and I felt like it captured the essence of the entire collection. I guess in some sense, it may be odd to end a chapbook with an origin story, but the preceding poems become a cipher, a series of steps that lead up to the final decryption à la “91 Revere Street” in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, or at least that was my hope, ha! That poem took the longest to revise. I think I was sending Ross White edits every week up until press day, at some point I had to abandon the poem, untie the hog, and let it run free from my overthinking and constant tinkering. Sometimes you can scrub the soul out of a poem with too much revision.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I respectfully defer to Kwame Dawes here. He said, “I do the things that need to be done when they need to be done. Writing is a constant.” I don’t have a set writing practice. I wasn’t raised with routine—my single mother was always working, and being an only child I was left at home without supervision. However, that lack of structure morphed into a sense of freedom, so when a poem comes—I chase it. I chase it no matter where I am, often times repeating the same line or lines over and over again until I can jot it down. I tried to be a more disciplined writer, but I’ve (realized/come to accept that) my “set” writing times just look a little different. I make sporadic work for me. The poems come when they come, so if it’s the middle of night then I wake up and chase it. If it’s on the road, I pull over.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I was up late one night mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and a fellow poet, Phillip B. Williams, posted this link, 10 Female Artists of Color on the Rise. Amy Sherald’s stunning painting popped up and I froze. I said out loud, “This is the cover of my chapbook!” I knew it was fate, because when I noticed that the title of her painting was Equilibrium—I lost it. I took this as a sign and began pursuing her. The more I found out about her and her work, the more excited I became at the possibility of collaboration. So much of what she is trying to accomplish in her visual art is what I am trying to do on the page by subverting and challenging the construction of race via racialized bodies. The painting captured my book completely—the black woman fixed between two poles, two opposing forces of strength and burden, her gaze, the intensity of color and negative space. It was like BOOM—yes, yes, yes! I sent it to my publisher, Ross White, and he loved it as well. I feel extremely blessed and happy that I was able to contribute to the cover. Also, Victoria Lynne McCoy did such a stunning job with the graphic design!
What do you wish you had known before submitting a chapbook?
I wish I had spoken with more of my poet friends who had gone through the business side of publishing. Everything is still very new to me, especially navigating sales, tours, promotion, etc. Again, Ross White has been invaluable to me here as I have lots of newbie questions. I’m extremely grateful to have such a hands-on press that I can text whenever I have a question, like “what is consignment?”
What are you working on now?
I am the new Poetry Editor for Nashville Review—so I’m working my way through slush at the moment. I’m also revising and drafting new poems for my first full-length collection. Plus, I’m teaching my first undergraduate Beginning Poetry Workshop at Vanderbilt University this fall as well as finishing up my the second year of my MFA.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Read everything, and not just the people you love.
Listen to poetry podcasts (Two of my favorites: Poetry Magazine & All Up In Your Ears).
Read Poetry Interviews (Divedapper, Paris Review, etc.)
Find and plug into your local literary community or create your own!
You don’t have to attend an MFA to be a writer. I created my own D.I.Y. MFA program years before I attended Vanderbilt. I went to open-mic nights, created a workshop with my poetry friends, went to the library and checked out poetry books, created my own reading lists for myself.
Learn to process rejection and failure—it’s a part of the process. Let it make you better, not bitter.
If you can, attend writing conferences and workshops.
Hustle and grind on repeat. (Redefine what success looks like for you/Have a clear vision for what success looks like for you, but be flexible and prepared to redefine it as you go).
Find a mantra for the days of doubt.
If you’re scared, just do it scared.
Find people you trust that will tell you the truth. Find people that love your work, but not all of it.
Start where you are.
Don’t be afraid of big tasks.
Wait a couple of weeks before you read your workshop comments—a little time and distance does wonders.
What music do you listen to as you work and write?
I don’t listen to music often when I write. I prefer silence or light café chatter, though sometimes I will write with jazz or classical in the background—nothing with lyrics, unless it’s a song I’m so familiar with I’m able to tune out.
What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?
Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith and Please by Jericho Brown.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?
Terrance Hayes, Sharon Olds, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucile Clifton, Bill Brown, Kendra DeColo, Danez Smith, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, Phillis Wheatley
Why the chapbook? What made it the right format for your work?
I had twenty poems that were in conversation that were ready to go.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
Improv/ SNL/ comedy. I use to be in a troupe for a couple of years in my early twenties. Improvisation incorporates so much of what I love about creative work by getting out of your head and allowing yourself to play and free-associate. It’s incredibly freeing.
How has your writing and writing practice evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?
I started “lying.” I use to be beholden to this idea to always tell the strict, factual truth no matter what, but I would get stuck trying to remember how it happened and that’s not the point. I have to remind myself that emotional truth can be truer than the factual-truth.
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?
Bi-racial people with daddy issues, ha! Just kidding. I hope the chapbook creates a space for all people to find a world within my world.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“The Frequency of Goodnight,” because every word of it is true and about my mother. I read an interview from Eduardo C. Corral about writing “To Robert Hayden,” as a way to give him a gift in poem that he couldn’t posses in his real life. Similarly, my poem is way for me to (enact a type of grace for my mother, something I wasn’t able to do as a child. Every time I read that poem I get to take care of my mom, tuck her in, like she did for me.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
Documentaries, Roget’s Thesaurus, NPR, and “bougie” cocktail menus.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Terrance Hayes, Robert Lowell, Emily Dickinson, A. Van Jordan, Lorca, Robert Duncan, Langston Hughes, Nella Larson, Anders Carlson-Wee, Carrie Mae Weems, Patricia Smith, and the list goes on…
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
Trust your imagination! Robert Hass told me that this summer at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and that has made all the difference.
Tiana Clark is the author of the poetry chapbook Equilibrium, selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition sponsored by Bull City Press. She is the winner of the 2016 Academy of American Poets Prize and 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. Tiana is currently an MFA candidate at Vanderbilt University where she serves as Poetry Editor for Nashville Review. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Rattle, Best New Poets 2015, Crab Orchard Review, Southern Indiana Review, The Adroit Journal, Muzzle Magazine, Thrush Poetry Journal, The Offing, and elsewhere.
_____after Carrie Mae Weems’s Roaming series
Before I knew
how to fill my onyx body
with slick measures,
dip every curve
in my skin with dark sway,
I needed a picture.
Before me stood
a long black dress I called Woman—
you stand opaque
with your back to me,
a statue of witness,
the door of Yes—
I can Return
to the monument
of your silhouette
to find my longest muscle.
We both stare down
the ocean to stillness.
what are you trying
to tell me here?
I’ve been standing by water
my whole damn life
trying to get saved.