Review: Bristol Poetry Institute Annual Reading with Claudia Rankine

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by Emma Hanson, English Literature, Masters

The Bristol Poetry Institute annual reading took place on Wednesday 18th November, organised in partnership with Festival of Ideas and the Centre for Black Humanities. It saw Claudia Rankine, a critically acclaimed poet, essayist and playwright, reading from her latest work Just Us.

Just Us is a collection of essays, poems and images capturing the ongoing discussion on racial issues. It is a conversation surrounding the guilt, pride, and violence of whiteness and blackness.

Giving excerpts of real conversations which Rankine has had, as well as commentaries and rebuttals on these interactions, Just Us doesn’t focus on having the last word, but instead strives to be true to the ongoing conversation on race.

Rankine read an excerpt from Just Us which explored a visit to the theatre with a white friend and a dissection of their uncomfortable behaviour during the performance. Her friend refused to go up on stage when asked, in an attempt to draw attention to the class divide in the theatre.

The excerpt followed Rankine’s thought processes as she tried to understand why her friend acted in this way. She sees this as a ‘performance of refusal’, a ‘performance of resistance’, transposing the idea of performance into everyday life and looking at performances of a different kind.

Rankine’s internal monologue felt like an intimate and privileged position with which to analyse racial dynamics.

Just Us doesn’t focus on having the last word, but instead strives to be true to the ongoing conversation on race.

The reading of this excerpt fed into a discussion of Rankine’s use of pronouns. She states that the the continued use of the pronoun ‘I’ transformed the word as it ‘stopped being a pronoun and became a place’.

The first person singular demonstrates the specific place that Rankine inhabits – that of a middleclass, bourgeoise black American woman. She wanted these aspects of her life to come through and present reality, and nothing other than that.

Throughout Rankine’s reading, the benefits of the digitisation of the Bristol Poetry Institute’s annual reading became evident. There was a much greater audience participation than previous years, as audience members used the chat function to give an insight into their excitement for the talk, also stating where in the world they were listening from.

People from all over the world tuned in to listen, which is a testament to the accessibility and global reach of digital talks such as this.

After Rankine’s discussion on Just Us, the host Vanessa Kisuule moved into a wider discussion on issues of race and racism.

She asked how Rankine values and believes that therapy can work to undo the trauma of racism in black lives. ‘I love therapy’, Rankine chuckled, but went on to admit that the lived experiences of black people inevitably place a limit on what therapists can achieve.

People from all over the world tuned in to listen, which is a testament to the accessibility and global reach of digital talks such as this.

She references the higher death rates of black babies when cared for by white doctors, and states that these facts and figures do not disappear when you walk into the therapists office.

Kisuule then asked how Rankine navigates deep racial issues along with her celebrity status. She stated that ‘white people like a narrative of black people and need’, and her celebrity status doesn’t fit that fantasy.

She talked about a time when she was told to remove herself from the First Class check in desk at the airport, as she must have been in the wrong queue, giving an honest and heartbreaking look at the reality of racism even in the celebrity world.

White people like a narrative of black people and need

‘My blackness trumps every dollar I make’, she admits. Racism runs deep and doesn’t care about your status within society. But honest conversations like this make us aware of the reality of the situation and the hard work that still has to be done.

In Defence of Poetry: my tumultuous relationship with verse
Poetry Evening with Tjawangwa Dema and Vanessa Kisuule @ Anson Rooms ★★★★★

Anyone can watch the discussion again online https://www.crowdcast.io/e/bristol-poetry-institute

Claudia Rankine’s book Just Us is available now at Waterstones. If you use the code ECONOFEST, you’ll receive an exclusive 10% discount at the checkout!

Featured Image: Bristol Poetry Insitute / Claudia Rankine

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