Woogee Bae, master’s student, on Visiting Poet Claudia Rankine

Woogee Bae stands outside on Seattle campus.

“How do you end something that doesn’t have an ending?” Yale Professor and Poet Claudia Rankine asked an audience at the University of Washington. Rankine was the final speaker in the Graduate School’s Public Lecture Series; she came to discuss Citizen, her book of experimental poetry and art which explores interpersonal and systemic experiences of racism.

Woogee Bae, master’s student in Fine Arts at UW Bothell and a fan of Rankine’s, helped us to dissect Rankine’s poetry following the lecture. As a poet, Woogee writes about breaking cultural barriers — not unlike Rankine’s work. “I try to break language and see what happens when certain codes of language become incoherent,” she says.

Why do you think Citizen is effective at discussing racism? 

Claudia Rankine reads from Citizen
Claudia Rankine reads from Citizen at the Graduate School’s Public Lecture in May. Photo credit Emile Pitre. 

Woogee Bae: I think Rankine’s work talks about microaggressions in a way that highlights how seemingly harmless incidents build up and create a slower violence on both an individual and a systemic level. Rankine is very subtle in the way she writes about these violences, because these violences are subtle. Yet the poems underscore how past experiences still inform and shape present experiences.

Another way this manifests is through Rankine’s decision not to title her poems. Many of them are snapshots into the everyday situations and lived experiences of Black people. To me, it communicates that these experiences of racism and microaggressions are all connected. You can’t separate these issues or categorize them into one thing.

There’s a poem that centers around the 2006 World Cup, specifically when an athlete head-butted a member of the opposing team in response to racial slurs that had been thrown at him. This section is really interesting because it takes quotes from different writers from across history and creates a collage of words to speak to the justified anger of this athlete. For me, the effect of this is to say this isn’t an isolated event, that this anger in response to racism has been felt across history.

Claudia Rankine uses the second-person “you” in the Citizen. What is the effect of directly addressing the reader in this way?

WB: Using the second-person, Rankine pulls the reader in and asks the reader to be engaged in these situations of racism. It’s an interesting choice here because it’s invasive, in a way: you feel complicit; you have to engage; you can’t be passive. In creative writing classes, we’re often discouraged from using “you” because it’s hard to do well. I think here’s it’s an interesting and effective choice.

This book is fairly experimental in nature and definitely ground-breaking. How do you think it became more mainstream and popular?

WB: It was pleasantly surprising to see an experimental/hybrid text receive so much attention and acclaim. After this book, people were saying that poetry is on the rise. I think the book really spoke to a present situation and issue — the systemic neglect of Black bodies that has been happening for a longtime and continues today — that people are looking to discuss.

What else stands out to you about Rankine’s work?

WB: I really like the many different perspectives she brings in to her writing. It acknowledges you can’t completely know what it feels like to be in another’s shoes; but that shouldn’t deter you from working to deter microaggressions from happening.

This is a book to make you feel uncomfortable;  not to make you comfortable because you suddenly “get” racism. That discomfort is important: sometimes we need it to take action.

Published June 2018