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Tiana Clark reads “My Therapist Wants to Know about My Relationship to Work”

November 12, 2018

Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of November 12th, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Tiana Clark was raised in Nashville and currently teaches at Southern Illinois University. Her debut book, “I Can’t Talk about the Trees without the Blood,” was published this fall. 
Lindsay Garbutt: Clark’s therapist once asked her to describe her relationship to work. Clark said she wasn’t able to answer the question during the therapy session, but on the drive home, she was.
Don Share: The answer came in the form of a poem, called “My Therapist Wants to Know about My Relationship to Work.” She told us she comes from a line of black single mothers who worked multiple jobs.
Tiana Clark: You know, we lived paycheck to paycheck, and we never knew when we had to move or something else, an emergency, would happen. And so I think that kind of fear is in my adult life. And it’s not from a place of abundance, it’s from a place of fear. And so when she said that, it kind of pinpointed a lot of that insecurity for me.
Lindsay Garbutt: The poem was also an occasion for Clark to capture the hyper-fast pace of life, with social media constantly reminding us of everyone’s accomplishments and how we’re falling short.
Don Share: Clark said the poem also pays tribute to early American poet Phillis Wheatley, whom she calls “a beating heart of the poem.”
Tiana Clark: You know, I saw her hustling, trying to get books sold from her friends and trying so hard, and then she kind of died in obscurity. And thinking about this unfinished manuscript in someone’s basement somewhere just breaks my heart. And so, I carry that legacy of her life with me, always.
Lindsay Garbutt: Here is Tiana Clark reading “My Therapist Wants to Know about My Relationship to Work.”
Tiana Clark:

I hustle
upstream.
I grasp.
I grind.
I control & panic. Poke
balloons in my chest,
always popping there,
always my thoughts thump,
thump. I snooze — wake & go
boom. All day, like this I short
my breath. I scroll & scroll.
I see what you wrote — I like.
I heart. My thumb, so tired.
My head bent down, but not
in prayer, heavy from the looking.
I see your face, your phone-lit
faces. I tap your food, two times
for more hearts. I retweet.
I email: yes & yes & yes.
Then I cry & need to say: no-no-no.
Why does it take so long to reply?
I FOMO & shout. I read. I never
enough. New book. New post.
New ping. A new tab, then another.
Papers on the floor, scattered & stacked.
So many journals, unbroken white spines,
waiting. Did you hear that new new?
I start to text back. Ellipsis, then I forget.
I balk. I lazy the bed. I wallow when I write.
I truth when I lie. I throw a book
when a poem undoes me. I underline
Clifton: today we are possible. I start
from image. I begin with Phillis Wheatley.
I begin with Phillis Wheatley. I begin
with Phillis Wheatley reaching for coal.
I start with a napkin, receipt, or my hand.
I muscle memory. I stutter the page. I fail.
Hit delete — scratch out one more line. I sonnet,
then break form. I make tea, use two bags.
Rooibos again. I bathe now. Epsom salt.
No books or phone. Just water & the sound
of water filling, glory — be my buoyant body,
bowl of me. Yes, lavender, more bubbles
& bath bomb, of course some candles too.
All alone with Coltrane. My favorite, “Naima,”
for his wife, now for me, inside my own womb.
Again, I child back. I float. I sing. I simple
& humble. Eyes close. I low my voice,
was it a psalm? Don’t know. But I stopped.

Christina Pugh: I just want the speaker to stay in the bath longer. (LAUGHING) There is something kind of wonderfully anxiety-provoking about this poem, it really mimes that kind of anxious information overload that we’re always experiencing with technology. I love the way it builds to this kind of relief, where there is the lavender bath and there is Coltrane, and when she stops singing, you know, you know, that phone is going to be there buzzing and flashing and it will return to what’s described in the first part of the poem with the scrolling and scrolling.
Tiana Clark: I see what you wrote — I like. / I heart. My thumb, so tired.
Christina Pugh: So yeah, I just want her to stay longer in the bath. (LAUGHING) For her sake. (LAUGHING)
Lindsay Garbutt: For all of our sakes, right, we could all use that.
Christina Pugh: Exactly.
Lindsay Garbutt: I’ve been thinking a lot about that shift in the poem that you were talking about, Christina, because it’s not just the content of the lines, but something about the way the lines are written. So at the beginning:
Tiana Clark: I grasp. / I grind. / I control & panic.
Lindsay Garbutt: There is no real object there, we don’t know what she’s grasping or what she’s controlling. It’s all very short as the poem is very self-aware of. “All day, like this I / short / my breath,” and so it’s calling attention to this fact. And it’s not until later in the poem where this starts to break down, as we enter this sort of self-care section of the poem, where she says:
Tiana Clark: I sonnet, / then break form. I make tea, use two bags.
Lindsay Garbutt: And that’s kind of where the poem breaks itself. And I think, what’s interesting for me, is that the most joyful parts of the poem, personally, were when she talks about...
Tiana Clark: Just water & the sound / of water filling, glory — be my buoyant body, / bowl of me.
Lindsay Garbutt: So there’s a lot of alliteration there, but there’s also this return to the “me,” which only appears two other times in the poem, whereas “I” is everywhere. And the sections with the “me” are all towards the end.
Tiana Clark: All alone with Coltrane. My favorite, “Naima,” / for his wife, now for me, inside my own womb.
Lindsay Garbutt: It sort of calls attention to the fact that the poet is paying attention to herself, that the self has become not just a subject, but also an object of attention. And so I think that helps reassure us and slow the poem down, to feel like, oh, this body is being cared for and being thought about in a way that it wasn’t at the beginning when it was all hustle and grind.
Don Share: Mmhmm.
Christina Pugh: Yeah.
Don Share: It turns the hustle and grind into a buoyant nervous energy, and it’s really interesting to think about Clifton, Wheatley, and especially Coltrane in a way that allows you to take a kind of tension and energy and break form, but then sort of create a new form from it. I mean, the musicality cannot be restrained. And I like that sort of conversion of something that really has a kind of rootedness in anxiety. That conversion of it into bursts of formal energy that sort of break free in lots of ways from the things that caused the anxiety, you know, “I hustle / upstream. / I grasp. / I grind. / I control & panic.” There is a rhythm that the poet discovers in this, and that is… the redemption comes in the rhythm.
Christina Pugh: What’s kind of fascinating is that, when form is being broken, that is actually the moment in the poem where it starts to look and sound a lot more like pentameter. (LAUGHING) You know, so that sonnet form is being broken with:
Tiana Clark: I muscle memory. I stutter the page. I fail. / Hit delete — scratch out one more line. I sonnet, / then break form. I make tea, use two bags.
Christina Pugh: It’s really becoming more like pentameter lines there, which feels ironic, you know, at the moment sort of that form is being broken, but then, you know, based on what you were saying, Don, right, it sort of sets us up with the first part of the poem to expect really short, staccato, very quickly moving lines. So, it’s interesting that relaxing into a bath is also relaxing into a known form of line. But of course, it is a new form, as you were saying, because it doesn’t start out that way. It learns itself that way. And it also seems to speak to another interesting contrast and irony in the poem, is that, you know, the title, “My Therapist Wants to Know about My Relationship to Work.” And I was thinking about the juxtaposition of the title and the poem, and how we think of therapy as a place in which we can really narrate stories, things about ourselves. And, you know, what we get in the first part of the poem, instead, is the voice continually interrupting itself in response to these various stimuli, that are technological, that are happening. And so it’s, again, when the lines lengthen and the self-care starts, as you were saying, Lindsay, that that feels also like a moment in which, you know, narrative can take shape. I mean, when you first start the poem, it almost feels as if there’s something anachronistic about therapy itself. Because people are speaking in these very limited character ways. And then you realize, oh, there is a connection, right, when the poem ends and the lines lengthen. And I thought that was a very interesting development in the poem.
Don Share: Hmm. One of the ways that development works, too, is in the muscular, you know ... the restless activity isn’t just kind of inside, it has to do with what you’re doing with your fingers, you know, tapping ...
Christina Pugh: Yeah.
Don Share: ... tapping things on a phone or trying to type or delete things and then making tea, and then drawing the bath. And even when I think of Coltrane’s fingers moving on the saxophone, you know, what I like is that that recalibrates all of this activity by trusting the muscles, you know, like, the sort of energy in our bodies. Trust the energy in our bodies to modulate itself beautifully.
Lindsay Garbutt: I love that part of that memory are poets too, that it’s Lucille Clifton and Phillis Wheatley that help her get to that place, too. Because that’s where the poem feels like it has a shift as well. Especially that repetition of Phillis Wheatley, it’s almost like the body is buffering or something, like: let me try this again, let me keep thinking about this until I sort of reset.
Tiana Clark: I underline / Clifton: today we are possible. I start / from image. I begin with Phillis Wheatley. / I begin with Phillis Wheatley. I begin / with Phillis Wheatley reaching for coal.  
(CHIME)
Don Share: You can read “My Therapist Wants to Know about My Relationship to Work” by Tiana Clark in the November 2018 issue of Poetry magazine or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all November episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at podcast@poetryfoundation.org, and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and produced by Curtis Fox and Catherine Fenollosa.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.

The editors discuss Tiana Clark’s poem “My Therapist Wants to Know about My Relationship to Work” from the November 2018 issue of Poetry.

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