Claudia Rankine and the Difficulties of Communion: An Interview with Annie Bolotin by Hakim Lewis

Annie Bolotin, “Miserable Communions: Sentimentality in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 63.3 (2021): 299-319.

Black Lives Matter mural being painted on a street of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Throughout the essay, you speak at length about the miserable communion present throughout Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Do you think this communion is an experience that we should bring into our larger collective discourse or is this better off as an experience shared between individuals?

The idea of a miserable communion is a term that I created in order to describe a form of emotional identification with literature. In a miserable communion, a reader discovers poetry that can describe their experience of sadness. Although we tend to think of sadness as a private emotional experience, Rankine often represents sadness as a response to violent and unjust social arrangements. Even though the miserable communion helps describe the public element of emotional experience, it’s actually really tricky to imagine it seamlessly functioning as a form of public discourse. In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, there are these almost comic scenes where the narrative persona quotes poetry to express her feelings to people she encounters—a taxi driver, an EMT—who are (understandably!) utterly unable to respond to these cryptic formulations. I think it suggests that in order for poetry to have a role in public discourse, we cannot just quote it and expect it to be meaningful. In order for the insights generated in a miserable communion to be useful to larger collective discourse, readers of poetry need to describe the contexts that make it meaningful to us.

Yale University, where Rankine is currently a professor

Between the trilogy of Don’t Let Me Be LonelyCitizen, and Just Us, which one is your favorite?

It is hard to choose! I focus on Don’t Let Me Be Lonely in my scholarship because Rankine’s citations of other poets in that book give me an opportunity to explore the question of what civic purpose reading poetry can serve. I’m particularly interested in how poets in the U.S. after WWII register the increased global power of the nation so I also chose to focus on Lonely because of Rankine’s depiction of the early years of the War on Terror (though, this part of my research does not appear in the article).

Claudia Rankine is awarded the Forward Prize for Best Collection 2015.

What influences of other artists do you see within this trilogy of Rankine’s work?

One of the things I love about Rankine’s poetry is the range of her influences. I can see the impact of poets who aren’t typically considered together such as Audre Lorde and Lyn Hejinian as well as the influence of scholars like Saidiya Hartman and Lauren Berlant. One poet whose influence on Rankine I haven’t seen acknowledged as frequently is Muriel Rukeyser. Rukeyser is one of the innovators of documentary poetics, a style of poetry that includes historical records. For example, Rukeyser’s best known work The Book of the Dead (1938) offers a poetic representation of an industrial mining crisis. Her book weaves together the words of the victims’ bereaved families, congressional testimony, and a long history of U.S. conquest dating back to the colonial period. Like Rankine, Rukeyser explores the emotional life around historical facts and also considers what possible agency she can have as a poet.

Print conceived and designed by Riley and commissioned by the USTA for their “Be Open Initiative” at the 2020 US Open.

If you encountered a friend that had never even heard of Rankine, what would you say to persuade them to read this book?

In the past few years, I think we’ve all become more aware of how our emotional lives are entwined with our shared political reality. For Americans in particular, we’ve simultaneously faced a global pandemic, a new stage in a long struggle for full civil rights for African Americans, evidence of the fragility of our democracy, as well as our own varied and painful personal losses. Rankine has been thinking about the public dimension of emotional experience for decades, and I think Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is particularly valuable to read now because it allows us to examine the history of so many issues that are central to our lives as citizens and human beings. It helps readers think about various forms of personal and political grief.

Claudia Rankine, 2015 National Book Festival.

What do you think Rankine is trying to tell us about the miserable communion? How do we move forward after dwelling in this space?

Although reading poetry, and especially lyric poetry, is often imagined as a private experience, the effect of what I call the miserable communion makes reading Rankine’s books a social experience. Even though you and I may read the book silently and alone, her form of address makes us continually aware of ourselves in relation to others. The sort of self-awareness we gain by reading Rankine’s poetry is a sense of how we are situated within a larger political collective. As I discuss briefly at the end of my essay, I think Rankine’s decision to subtitle the last book of the trilogy “An American Conversation” instead of “An American Lyric” suggests how we can move forward after learning from her American lyrics: we can work to bring these insights into conversation with others in the world.

Parkview Fifth Avenue, Duke Ellington Circle, 110th Street and 5th Avenue, Harlem, Manhattan.

If you were to pick a singular quote from this book to persuade someone to read it, what would it be?

After a series of vignettes about police violence against Black men in the 1990s, Rankine writes, “Sometimes I think it is sentimental, or excessive, certainly not intellectual, or perhaps too naïve, too self-wounded to value each life like that, to feel loss to the point of being bent over each time” (57). This quotation captures the dynamic that I discussed earlier where the narrative persona experiences sadness shaped by what she witnesses on the news.

Black Lives Matter Fence-closeup, West St. Paul, MN.

What role do you feel this book could serve in the broader discussion of racial equality in America?

In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine critiques a form of optimism that she finds central to the American character. This optimism leads to a form of amnesia about the horrors of our national history. I think Don’t Let Me Be Lonely remains relevant to the broader discussion of racial equality in the U.S. over a decade after its publication because it tells a history of racialized violence in the U.S. that predates the Black Lives Matter movement. Reading this book prevents us from seeing our current moment as an aberration.

Memorial plaque, Vienna.

Are there any novels or works of art, outside of Rankine’s works, that has thrust you into a sudden space of communion?

Absolutely. I was drawn to research sentimentality because I am most motivated to write about and teach poems that have allowed for a sense of emotional identification. One that is particularly important to me is Auden’s “September 1, 1939.”  The poem was widely popular after September 11, 2001 in part because it has this affirming crescendo: “we must love one another or die.” Although this line is part of why the poem is popular both in his lifetime and ours, Auden actually came to reject that idea and revised the line into “we must love one another and die.” As someone who had been involved with the anti-war movement preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I found that Auden’s miniscule revision of a conjunction provided me with a way of describing my own trajectory from optimistic engagement with the anti-war movement to a recoiling following my glimpse at the structures of power that limited the agency I had previously believed democratic citizens to hold.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Handkerchief. Medium: cotton Technique: printed by engraved roller on plain weave. Cooper–Hewitt, National Design Museum. c. 1870

How would you describe the role of sentimentality and emotion in political literature?

In general, sentimentality is associated with nineteenth-century novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin which attempted to further the cause of abolition by representing the humanity of slaves. After that point, most critics argue that the political engagement of sentimental literature declined. My research on Rankine is part of a larger project that argues that sentimentality remains a vital force in politically-engaged poetry through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, I look for that political engagement by examining what reading renders possible to say about the social nature of our emotions instead of looking for evidence that a particular book rouses emotions that then inspire action.

Author photo taken of Claudia Rankine, 2013.

What do you think is the most important or unique thing about Rankine’s voice?

Rankine writes about highly emotional content in a voice that most often sounds incredibly calm and controlled. Her willingness to be analytical and intellectual about emotional experience is the element of her poetic voice that I find most significant.

Don’t Let me Be Lonely establishes a close relationship with the reader. How do you view the nature of this relationship?

From the very title of the book, Rankine asks the impossible of us: obviously, we cannot help the narrative persona solve her loneliness. Yet, as we read the book we gain an interpretative ability that people who share a fictional world with the narrative persona often lack. This allows us to understand her emotional life. I called this form of address a communion because I think there is a spiritual or at least immaterial sense in which we do come to make her less lonely through being able to understand the language and the form of sadness it expresses.

Manhattan Bridge, New York

How does this relationship strengthen the message of the work?

The form of address in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely implicates the reader in the vision of America that Rankine develops and the sadness her narrative persona describes. When reading her American lyrics, we cannot ignore the way her “you” describes who we are as American citizens beyond our roles as readers of her work.

King Street, Kingston Jamaica on a Sunday morning.

If you had an hour to speak with Rankine, what would you ask her?

I’d love to talk to Rankine about her approach to teaching writing in the academy. One of the elements of Rankine’s oeuvre that I admire most is her excellence in many genres of writing: poetry, essay, drama. How does that multi-genre writing practice inform the way she teaches writing to students?  In Just Us, she briefly mentions an assignment where she asks her students to interview white people about their perception of the role of whiteness in American history. It struck me as a brilliant way to have students conduct original research and to connect the personal experience of individuals with a larger framework of American citizenship.

Signs and poster from Black Lives Matter protests, 2020.

Do you feel the miserable communion established through Lonely would be an effective tool for therapists working with clients as they process their trauma?

I’m fascinated by this possibility. I do think that the miserable communion might have some promise as a tool for therapists because it could give patients a way to articulate and explore the shared and public dimensions of their experience of trauma by reading poetry in a manner similar to how Rankine’s narrative persona reads poetry in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Very often writing poetry is treated as a form of individual self expression, but learning to talk about the emotional experience of reading a poem helps us to understand the varied social forces that have shaped us as individuals.

Abandoned pier in Kingston, Jamaica.

In an ideal world, in which everyone in this country read and understood Rankine’s work, what changes to our country do you think we’d then be able to make?

It thrills me simply to consider the level of literacy and the widespread value of humanistic pursuits assumed in this hypothetical situation! While it is hard to predict specific policy changes, I do think citizens in the utopia imagined in your questions would have a greater awareness of their sense of self in relation to other Americans and their shared history. Consequently, these citizens would have a greater willingness to face their shared national past and recognize how it continues to exist in the present. Although it may be impossible to ever fully redress our past, this mindset strikes me as the precondition for doing any meaningful political work together now.

George Floyd protest in Grand Army Plaza, June 7, 2020.