On a warm evening last May, a pretty, petite woman with deep caramel-colored skin and short hair arranged in asymmetrical coiled twists walked to the podium at the Strand Book Store in New York City. Camille Rankine, 30, spoke with controlled elegance, letting only her expressive eyes reveal her nervousness and excitement.
She thanked poetry powerhouses such as Alice Quinn, director of the Poetry Society of America, and Cornelius Eady, Pulitzer Prize nominee and co-founder of Cave Canem, who were both in the audience. Then she lowered her voice and her head, and launched into her first poem, “History”:
Our stone wall was built by slaves and my bones, my bonesare paid for. We have two
of everything, twice heavyin our pockets, warmingour two big hands.
Her careful enjambment-and-pause rhythm directed and disquieted the audience. She quickly grew comfortable at the podium—perhaps because, as a part-time musician, she is at home performing for an audience. She continued to read:
This is the story, as I know it. One morning:the ships came, as foretold, and deathpearl-handled, almost
and completely.How cheap a date I turned out to be . . . .
“History” is the first poem in Rankine’s debut chapbook, Slow Dance with Trip Wire, which was chosen by Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s Chapbook Fellowship and which Rankine refers to as her “little ambassador.”
“When people read ‘History,’ they often read it as a poem about the transatlantic slave trade, but there’s an intentional double meaning about the act of complicity,” says Rankine’s friend and former co-worker at Cave Canem, Hafizah Geter. “In so many ways, her poetry says we are all very much agents in the problem . . . there’s no situation we aren’t complicit in somehow.”
After the reading, Eady described Rankine’s chapbook as being an unusual type of music to his ears; being haunted by it was like a “bad rock and roll riff in your head” that “just won’t go away.” When he first read it, he felt “astonished by the beautiful way this poet was singing,” he said. “I just wanted to know who the hell this person was.”
Turns out Eady did know Rankine, who had worked with him at Cave Canem for three years, though he didn’t know her work until she submitted her chapbook to the Poetry Society of America contest. Judges read the contest entries blindly, with applicants’ names removed.
Rankine was born in Oregon, to Jamaican parents, and grew up in Milwaukie, a suburb of Portland. Her parents (her mother was a nurse, her father an engineer) moved there in 1980 with their young son, Jerome, three years before Camille was born. Rankine was the first in her immediate family to be born in the United States.
Rankine estimates that her high school had about 1,200 students, of whom maybe five to ten were black. “There were the Johnson brothers . . . there was that girl with the braids . . . there was me . . . and there was that girl that was maybe kind of black,” she jokes, also recalling that, as the lone black student in many classes, she was often, prematurely, expected to play educator when asked the obligatory “Do you have any perspective on this?” question from teachers during Black History Month. But Rankine’s tone isn’t one of bitterness or victimization. “I have a lot of empathy for teachers, looking back,” she says.
In fact, it was one of her teachers, also a poet, who encouraged her to write poetry. “My junior-year English teacher, Michael Jarmer, gave us a few poetry assignments and I thought, maybe I can do it.”
Growing up, Rankine was interested in music and sang in choirs. A big reader of novels, she also enjoyed poets such as T.S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson as a teen. She was a big fan of Anne Sexton and “the music of her poetry and how ballsy it was,” she says. A good student who was obsessed with rules and the television series Law & Order (her parents called her the “little lawyer”), she worked hard and was accepted to Harvard. She understood then that no matter what the future had in store for her, having that sort of academic access would make any life she chose easier.
On many levels her poetry speaks to this access: Rankine’s work, says her friend Geter, asks what happens when a black woman has access to these systems of power. At Harvard, Rankine studied poetry under D.A. Powell and Forrest Gander, finding them “encouraging and interested” in her work although she was “really shy" and still honing her confidence. After graduating, she enrolled in Columbia University’s MFA program in poetry, where she studied with Lucie Brock-Broido and Tim Donnelly, whom she now considers a friend. Donnelly remembers Rankine’s honest workshopping: “There was no holding back. Once she started talking, you were going to hear exactly what she thought. If she didn't like something, you knew it, and she didn't really change her mind.”
A couple of years after graduating from Columbia, Rankine landed a job at Cave Canem, handling communications. At her reading at the Strand, Eady discussed the mysterious forces that conspire to propel a young poet forward, noting that while a series of “yesses” are crucial, access is often just as important, if not more so. And it was while she was at Cave Canem, writing poetry on the side, that some of those yesses occurred. In 2010 Rankine was a winner of the “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Contest, was awarded the Poetry Society of America’s New York Chapbook Fellowship, and was named an emerging poet in the fall 2010 issue of American Poet. The following year she was included in a spread on emerging poets in O, The Oprah Magazine.
Donnelly remembers thinking that Rankine’s confidence really began to rise upon winning the “Discovery”/Boston Review prize. “She had really committed to what she was doing—odd attempts to lighten up were left in the dust, the poems had been honed, the vision sharpened,” he says. “The work may still have been as bleak as ever, but it didn't feel heavy in the slightest—it felt triumphant. For me, her poems call to mind a line from Tennyson: ‘Let darkness keep her raven gloss.’”
Now the assistant director of the MFA program at Manhattanville College, Rankine is modest about her success. “I never expect anything,” she says. “I don’t feel like I have it coming.” But a line from her poem “The Current Isolation” hints at her careful and thoughtful approach:
A flock of birds when touched I scatter I won’t approach until the back is turned.
And her poem “Papier-Mache and Other Human Resources” poignantly speaks to an anxiety about wasting away, unheard:
Before I learned to speak I was a birdthroat gaping, split on the first go.I was a shower of treasures eatenup by the floor. Despite the evidenceI’ve remained convinced: if the tree fallsas my voice falls, limp and unheard,we are all done for. These thoughts willbury me before it’s my time, my paper feathers
Drawn to the brave, revelatory, and “confessional nature” of poets such as Frank O’Hara, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Mary Jo Salter, Rankine describes her creative process as a “balance of input and output.” But she doesn’t romanticize it. “It’s not magical, it’s work,” she says. “There’s an element of the unknown, but the unknown is what’s happening in my mind.”
Music offers Rankine another avenue through which she can access the unknown in her mind. She currently fronts an experimental rock band, Miru Mir (Russian for “peace to the world”). “The simplicity of notes, just these vibrations express something inexpressible,” she says. “I can almost remove myself from language. I cannot control the music that I’m writing, which is similar to my poetry,” she says. “I’ve taken in so much that there’s a radio in my head and I’ll just sing a song from who knows where.”
Whether or not her music takes off, she’s happy to just keep testing boundaries. “My first year at Columbia, Lucie said music is so much better than poetry, and we are just trying to emulate that,” Rankine recalls. “That’s the pinnacle.”
Her friend Elizabeth Whittlesey has seen Rankine reach for that pinnacle onstage. “[She] loses herself in the music,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if people are watching or not.” This could be, in part, because she’s used to compressing and creating alone. As “Letter to a Skeptic” chillingly begins:
“You are alone. Welcome to it.”