Amid historic times, Claudia Rankine feels a deep sense of obligation. The celebrated poet and playwright is preparing to deliver a three-part lecture series at the University of Chicago during a pivotal moment: Russia has invaded Ukraine; the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the world; and the United States, she said, still teeters between fascism and fragile notions of democracy.
What the U.S. people will choose next—electorally and beyond—is one of the central questions Rankine will explore in her upcoming talks. Starting April 6, her Berlin Family Lectures will focus on the meaning of survival, and what it means to continue living after crisis or catastrophe.
“All of us need to be doing whatever it is we know how to do to engage these questions,” said Rankine, professor of creative writing at New York University and the award-winning author of the poetry book Citizen, among many other works. “It’s about our lives, the lives of our children and our friends and family moving forward. These decisions about women’s bodies, voting and the ability to have as just a system as possible profoundly affect all of us.”
Since 2014, the Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Family Lectures bring to campus individuals who are making foundational contributions to the arts, humanities and humanistic social sciences. Hosted by UChicago’s Division of the Humanities, the series has featured past speakers such as political philosopher Danielle Allen, renowned author and photographer Teju Cole, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa and Harvard scholar Lawrence Lessig.
Registration for this year’s Berlin Family Lectures are open for in-person attendance at the University’s Rubenstein Forum, as well as for virtual livestreams. Continuing April 13 and April 14, the series will also include a reading from the text of Rankine’s forthcoming experimental film Meanwhile, a collaborative project expected to be completed in 2023.
In this edited Q&A, Rankine discusses working in different genres, integrating her poetic skills into nonfiction, writing a trilogy and exploring one subject through different lenses to develop a deeper understanding of history and survival.
What do you hope to examine in your Berlin Family Lectures, and how does the series differ from other presentations you have given?
A series of lectures allows me to think further on a subject by going in different doors and down different hallways. The theme of these three Berlin Family Lectures is Meanwhile, and the different meanings it has for all of us.
For example, in my first lecture, I focus on the work of artist Jennifer Packer. When I first saw her work at the Whitney Museum, I was blown away because I could immediately incorporate her vision into my own world, as well as see beyond my own work. Jennifer Packer’s exhibit and book The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing show what it means to live beyond the event. Many of her paintings come from trauma and violence and suffering and grief. She depicts the moment after the event—the moment of metabolism. She has managed to capture the sensation of that moment and the emotion found there. Her paintings offer a visual representation of what is heard in the lyrics of blues and jazz music.
I’m really interested in what it means to survive “the event.” Meanwhile looks at the ramifications of what has happened between over there and over here. In other words, what does it mean to survive what you are not meant to survive, and to continue living with it continuing?
Why has poetry been so foundational for all of your writing?
Poetry is the best training for a writer because they must pay attention to both the breath and utterance. I bring that breath and utterance to the world of nonfiction. It’s a liberating approach, allowing the text to open up but not in a traditional, linear or narrative way.
With poetry, you must find the reality underneath the reality, which puts pressure on the narrative and the event.
Just Us is the third work in your trilogy, following Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen. Why did you decide to write a trilogy on this topic?
In the beginning, I did not plan to write a trilogy. The first book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, centered on the palpable rage in U.S. around Sept. 11. During the time of President George W. Bush, questions came up about deaths and disasters that we couldn’t control, and many of those realities continued.
When I wrote Citizen, I butterflied out some of the topics and themes in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. For example, anti-Black violence is part of our history, and voter suppression is a long part of our history. I have been stunned to begin to understand the deep levels of white supremacy in this country. Through social media, we have been made aware of violence and voter suppression happening all over the country because now any citizen can post anything on different social platforms. Citizen came out of my new understanding of systemic violence.
The third book, Just Us, centers on where I was standing in my own life and having those conversations with other people. What is happening in the U.S.? Let’s talk about it. How does one book start a conversation that engenders another conversation? The three books followed each other organically and represent an evolution of my thought and lines of inquiry.
How did you develop your talents in poetry, plays, fiction and nonfiction?
Gertrude Stein said that all writing is writing. I have been lucky to work with many collaborators and learned to move from genre to genre. I would not say this movement is completely seamless, but I can do it with minimum effort.
I started with poetry and have studied with masters in the poetry genre. I think the lyric form of writing speaks to an emotional landscape. In turn, I applied this foundational knowledge in language to my work in theater, film, and image. I work in language, and it doesn’t matter what form.
Does your teaching of creative writing to students make your creative work harder or easier?
I find teaching creative writing makes it easier because it’s another way of thinking. It gives me a way of reassessing the books that I find necessary and important. The conversations that I have with students extend my line of questioning, as well as my empathy and curiosity.