‘I’ll Eat You to Live’: A Conversation With Poet Tiana Clark
Midway through poet Tiana Clark’s first full-length collection, “I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood,” the ghost of Nina Simone beckons the poet over and whispers something urgent in her ear: “Listen, little girl:/For every pain/there is a longer song.”
It’s a strange message—half warning, half balm. And it’s one that echoes continuously between the pages of Clark’s book. While her poems often trace the contours of painful spaces—of being a black woman in a deeply racist America; of being a girl in the backseat of a car with a boy you aren’t quite sure of—Clark also has astonishing ways of urging the reader to be still and to listen for the longer song. What you’ll hear if you do is often shockingly joyful, always faceted and cutting as diamond. Lean far enough into that music and, if the song is meant for you, it might just save your life.
Raised in Nashville and now teaching at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s innovative new creative writing MFA program, Clark creates work that is rooted deeply to the soil and to heartland landscapes where even the trees themselves can morph into reminders of the blood we’ve shed as a nation—and where, hopefully, extraordinary voices like Tiana Clark’s will only echo louder.
Your poems often make use of the first person point of view, and they draw on elements of your personal experience. Why do you feel drawn to the lyric “I”?
The lyric “I” has always felt like the strongest mask for me to put on. I actually struggled with literature and essays in high school until I found it. I had this amazing creative writing teacher who showed us contemporary poetry, and it was the weird new format that wasn’t essay, wasn’t music, but it kind of combined both worlds. And I could write about my life, but I could use these craft methods to shape the page, and the “I” was this handlebar I could grip and ride out my imagination.
I used to write very autobiographically. I actually didn’t know that poets lied until my mid-20s. I was like, “Oh, we’re allowed to lie? Sweet! Let’s get this party started.”
Once I started being semi-autobiographical, it really was an awakening—especially when I learned that the lyric “I” can contain both personal and imagined experiences to create this collage.
A lot of my work is plucked from my life, but some of it is more of a psychological fear that’s made real on the page. When you have PTSD, your body doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined. When your heart rate is raised— when your blood pressure is rising—your body doesn’t know what is and isn’t happening to you. So why not write from that space?
Your work is so personal, but it’s also constantly reaching outward. Many of your poems put you in conversation with other writers, such as Phillis Wheatley, or other characters from your wider literary ancestry, such as Nina Simone. Why do you feel drawn to invite so many voices in?
I think as writers, we just carry so many voices in our heads. I was an only child, so I just talked to myself a lot and created a lot of imaginary worlds. I think, even from a young age, I was always kind of in my own head, talking to different types of real figures and imaginary people. I was raised by a single mom, and I loved having the TV on and having those voices fill the room when my mom was gone at work. That was always part of my creative playscape, of interacting with so many voices.
At Vanderbilt I had to kind of trace my literary ancestry, to create my own poetic family tree. I’m always, with research, trying to interact with that ancestry. When I was researching Phillis Wheatley, [the first published black female poet, and the subject of a sequence of four poems in “I Can’t Talk About the Trees”], I couldn’t help but talk to her. That’s the way that I digest my research, just talking to them. In some sense, they kind of become these avatars for my own lyric self. But I think it’s a way for me of understanding another person’s life, by weaving it through my own.
So there are a lot of dead black women’s voices in the book. But there are also living women like Rihanna. Pop culture is very important to me, because I’m a writer that likes to respond to the current time. I’m not really thinking about legacy or the future; I’m thinking about right now, so I’m not really afraid of a time stamp in my work. Terrance Hayes has a line: “I’ll eat you to live: that’s poetry.” I’ve always thought of poetry as a means of subsistence. Thinking about responding to the right now—I mean, I’m writing these poems to survive, right now. To live my own life. For me, poetry’s always been a means of survival.
I think that’s part of why pop culture is so important to me, and why black female pop artists inspire me. Because especially for black female artists, there’s a different responsibility we have to the world today, and to our politics. Thinking about Beyoncé, or Nina Simone—both of those women have aligned their music with their activism, even when it wasn’t easy. A lot of people were pissed when Beyoncé put out her “Formation” album. They were like, “Where’s ‘Bootylicious’ Beyoncé?” When she started talking about police brutality—her lying on top of that police car in Louisiana, drowning—that was a major confrontation.
I relate to that struggle. But it’s also a struggle I feel a lot of freedom in, because I know there are a lot of foremothers before me that have traversed this landscape of having to express your freedom by smashing the personal and the political together.
A lot of your reviewers refer to your voice as “unflinching,” especially when you deal with themes of racism, violence, misogyny and their intersections. But that word doesn’t feel quite right to me; there’s a tenderness and complexity in your work that seems to want to specifically make space for flinching, and for doubt, and for joy.
I think what you’re pointing to, honestly, is that a lot of reviewers out there are lazy, and the language we use around black women’s writing, specifically, is lazy. You see a lot of words like “fierce” and “powerful” and this idea that black writing is confrontational. To me, what you’re saying is that white people are projecting their own discomfort on black people’s work, because it often stands as a mirror to their own sense of guilt.
I remember once another reviewer talked a little differently, specifically about my Rihanna poem. She was like, yes, this poem has some violence, but what I see here is a type of mercy. It was the first time I read a review and actually got kind of emotional, that another reviewer would use that word—mercy. I had never actually used that word to drape over my work. But that word mercy—unmerited grace or favor—it did feel kind of right to me in that moment.
I did a reading once, and a white lady came up to me afterwards and said, “I love your anger; thank you for your anger!” And I was just like, “Thank you, but that poem is actually full of joy for me. I don’t feel anger when I read it.” And she was like, “No, you were angry!” She kept telling me how I was feeling. She wouldn’t believe me.
To me, I take a lot of joy in expressing the type of power that I don’t often feel in my own life. The world makes me feel small, but I feel large and brave and courageous in my work. Even when I’m talking about violence, I hope there’s a sense of care in what I do; at least, I’m trying to care for myself, and other black women.
That’s a type of joy, to exclaim myself in such a large way on the page. That joy, that mercy, that tenderness, that type of care and devotion to loving yourself—it sometimes gets missed, or diminished.
You just joined the faculty of the creative writing program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, helping to launch their new MFA. What’s unique about that program?
The major focus of our program is the Writer in the World sequence, which students take on in their second year, and which I really love. A big part of that is the idea of being a literary citizen; we’re really invested in our students being plugged into the community writ large, not just being absorbed in their own work. But we also know that not every student can get a job in academia. We give them access to other organizations so they can come up with their own writing-related programs and pitch those to nonprofits, and that helps them build up a skill set for when they graduate. It helps them to think of writing as a vocation rather than only as a career.
It can be really destabilizing to finish a degree like this. You’ve had all this nurturing for two or three years, and then you get out in the world and it’s like, “Bye! Good luck!” So getting our students linked up with organizations and giving them something they can carry with them afterwards, wherever they go—that’s something we’re all interested in at the program.
Images courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.