MacArthur ‘genius’ Claudia Rankine, poet Solmaz Sharif deliver Ernest Sandeen Memorial Reading
Selena Ponio | Friday, January 27, 2017
Seating was scarce in McKenna Hall Auditorium on Thursday night as students and faculty gathered to listen to poems and excerpts of stories about race, discrimination and how to find hope in it all.
Poet, essayist and 2016 MacArthur “genius” Grant recipient Claudia Rankine delivered the second annual Ernest Sandeen Memorial Reading hosted by the Creative Writing Program. She chose the poet Solmaz Sharif to accompany her for the reading as well as to share some of her own poems.
Aside from the packed auditorium for the reading, Rankine and Sharif also held a Q&A session earlier in the day that was open to the public. Both poets took questions about the role of poetry as a catalyst for change and reflected on the process it took to produce their works.
Rankine talked about her book “Citizen” — a book of criticism and poetry filled with images and artwork, as well as stories of microagressions and racist language. She said poetry is a successful method for talking about topics like these because of its ability to hold feeling.
“I think what poetry does that other genres don’t do that easily is … no matter what your approach is, the poem is still in the realm of feeling,” Rankine said.
Rankine also discussed accountability in response to a question about the best way to get through to people who believe racism no longer exists in today’s society.
“I think I’ve spent a lot of my life watching things happen,” Rankine said. “I don’t think you need to get to them — I think they’re around you and they’re getting to you all the time. And the question is, are you holding those moments accountable? If you hold your own space accountable that’s the first step to bringing it to those who are bringing it to you.”
Time and perseverance are necessary, Rankine said, when it came to writing.
“It has to do with the patience of staying in there while you’re still finding your way,” Rankine said. “I am inside these sentences, inside these lines and I can sit there for 12 hours.”
Sharif, an Iranian-American poet, said her first book, “Look,” is a book about the costs of war and the abuses of speech. In response to a question about the subtleties of poetry and how poetry can act as an impetus for social change, she said she tries to “remain faithful to the ways that poetry is not journalism, is not fast-acting.”
“[Poetry] never has been that kind of rational response to external events,” Sharif said. “Yes there is something about this moment that feels an acute crisis. There’s a cabinet of self-identified white nationalists. But to me a large part of that is a rupture in a kind of decorum … rather than an actual shift in ideology.”
Sharif said although the themes she writes about have an element of urgency, she does not worry about the message getting lost in the subtleties of her writing.
“I have valued always that within these moments of crisis and urgency and urgent action we need those patient moments too,” Sharif said. “So maybe the poem is that space for patience, for deliberation, for a kind of concentrated slowness within an otherwise chaotic and rapid world.”