Tiana Clark is the winner of the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at Vanderbilt University where she serves as a Commons Writer-in-Residence and the 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, The Offing, and elsewhere. Tiana graduated from Tennessee State University where she studied Africana and Women’s studies. She serves on the board for The Porch Writer’s Collective, a local non-profit literary center. Tiana received a scholarship to The New Harmony Writers Workshop, and has recently been awarded funding from the Metropolitan Arts Commission for her community project, which provides creative writing workshops for trans youth at the Oasis Center. Find her online at www.tianaclark.com.
What does it mean to you to win the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition Sponsored by Bull City Press?
Winning the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition sponsored by Bull City Press is such an incredible honor! I love everything about books—smelling those new pages and cracking the spine for the first time. I’ve been dreaming about holding mine someday in my hands. As writers, we have this special relationship that toggles between acceptance and rejection each time we hit the “submit” button. You hold your breath and wonder if should read the manuscript for the 100th time, but there comes a point when just you have to push the button and hope someone says yes. Not only did The Frost Place and Bull City Press affirm my work, they provided me with a new home. For this, I am in deep gratitude to them, as well as The Frost Place Board of Trustees and to Afaa Michael Weaver for choosing my manuscript. However, this book carries countless fingerprints from nurturing hands. So winning this magnificent award is not just for me, but also for my mother, Bill Brown, Kendra DeColo, my Poetry Church brothers and sisters, and my Vanderbilt Creative Writing community. And, I’m really looking forward to attending the 2016 Frost Place Poetry Seminar and the one-week writing residency in the historic home of Robert Frost. I’m breathless with thanksgiving!
What is the driving force behind this manuscript? What does it mean to you?
Charles Baxter came to visit Vanderbilt last semester, and I asked him how to order a book of poems. To paraphrase, he said that a good book should begin with a question, a question that is to a certain extent unanswerable, and that the content should wrestle with this question throughout the narrative arc. I began the collection with the titular poem because it ends with an unanswerable question:
What is left
whispering in us, once we have
stopped trying to become the other?
This interrogation of self becomes the catalyst for the bi-racial speaker in the poems, confronting opposing forces inside and outside of her body, history, place, faith, family, and politics. This question is at the seam of every poem.
What poets/books have you been reading of late? What books do you return to again and again?
I’m always reading Terrance Hayes. Lighthead was a thunderhead for me, a prediction of the storm to come—a permission to enter the damages of my past and not be afraid of what I was going to find there. His collection helped me to take risks—my poems got weirder, but also I started finding joy in being afraid of what was coming to the surface. Hayes says, “Everything is a metaphor for sex,”—and I think to myself, yes, that’s true, because good sex is really scary; it is truly being seen by another person in a vulnerable and intimate way. It’s messy rapture and that’s what I try to conjure on the page.
As for current reading, I’m super excited for Ocean Voung’s new collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds —it seems every poem he’s published is on fire and I want to wait to hold that heat in my hands. Danez Smith, Fatimah Asghar, and Kendra DeColo—these poets, who I have been currently reading, make me really excited about the current and future state of poetry.
Do you write every day? Do you go for long stretches without writing?
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 didn’t grow up with routine—my single mother was always working, and being an only child I was left at home a lot without supervision. However, that lack of structure morphed into a sense of freedom, because when a poem comes—I chase it. I try to 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 on my phone or find paper. I tried to be a more disciplined writer, but I’ve realized my “set” writing times just look a little different. I make sporadic work for me. The poems come when the come, so if it’s the middle of night and I wake up—I chase it, and if it’s on the road I pull over.
As far as how I work. It’s a scatter shot. I’m one of those people who have a bajillion tabs open on their computer. I’m often working on several poems at a time, toggling between research tabs, Roget’s thesaurus, and my sticky notes. If you can picture the scene from the abandoned shed in A Beautiful Mind, that’s it.
Read and listen to a poem from Tiana’s winning manuscript, Equilibrium:
(Mark Levinson, 2013)
They built a seventeen mile circle
to recreate the big bang,
how the laws of physics crash
like a drum beat of what makes us.
Your hand finding mine in the car ride home,
as white lines on the highway blur into memory.
I do not need to know every answer.
Give me a plane ride to question my ego.
When you are mad,
give me my first name in your mouth—
hard consonant of T,
said with the Tip of the Tongue.
What we speak into existence
like a drum beat of what makes us.
Give me a plane ride to question myself.
Aren’t we always flying,
into each other
into the mouth of the universe?
Could it be magic?
The white bunny we lift from the hat
like early fog on the road to work.
We discover foot by foot
how we grope for each other,
sway to music we don’t even hear.
There is always movement—
atoms bouncing around us
like a room full of endless balloons.
The seen and unseen world.
What wanted to be born out of nothing?
Mouth open—kiss ready:
lit with charge and wonder.