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Tiana Clark


Tiana Clark
Broken Ghazal for Walter Scott

                              You can't write poems about the trees when the woods
                                     are full of policemen.

                               -Bertolt Brecht

A video looping like a dirge on repeat, my soul--a psalm of bullets in my back.
I see you running then drop heavy hunted like prey with eight shots in the back.

Again, in my Facebook feed another black man dead, another fist in my throat.
You: prostrate on the green grass with handcuffed hands on your bleeding back.

Praises for the video, to the witness & his recording thumb, praises to YouTube
for taking the blindfold off Lady Justice, dipping her scales down with old weight

of strange fruit, to American eyeballs blinking & chewing the 24-hour news cycle:
another black body, another white cop. But let us go back to the broken tail light,

let's find a man behind on his child support, let's become his children, let's call
him Papa. Let us chant Papa don't run! Stay, stay back! Stay here with us. But Tiana--

you have got to stop watching this video. Walter is gone & he is not your daddy,
another story will come to your feed, stay back. But whisper--stay, once more,

with the denied breath of his absent CPR, praise his mother strumming Santana
with tiny hallelujahs up & down the harp of his back. Praise his mother holding

the man who made her son a viral hit, a rerun to watch him die ad infinitum, again
we go back, click replay at any moment. A video looping like a dirge on repeat--

The Frequency of Goodnight

                                     The duende is not in the throat:
                                     the duende surges up, inside,
                                     from the soles of the feet.

                                      -Federico García Lorca

Like so many nights of my childhood
I lived inside the fishbowl
of a one-bedroom apartment,
waited for my mother to come home
(from her second job). As a waitress
she wore orthopedic shoes for flat feet.
All her uniforms blur together: IHOP,
Red Lobster, Rainforest Café, Shoney's...
This is how she tucked me in--
jingle and clack of keys
would turn the doorknob open
allow me to fall asleep.
She tucked me in-- not with blankets
or a kiss on the forehead,
but with locking the door behind her.
My single mother would take those big,
boxy shoes off, unhook her bra
(too tired to take it all the way off)
and eat the left over pizza
I had ordered for dinner.
Television shadows flickered
her exhausted frame, smell
of other people's food on her skin,
crumpled ones, fives, and tens
fanned out of her server book.
I heard the change from bad tippers
like hail on the kitchen counter.
Maybe for other children
the purr of the air conditioner, the sound
of a ceiling fan whisking the darkness,
or the steady neon glow of a nightlight
set their dreams ablaze?
But for me, hearing those keys
slipped me under the wing
of my mother's white noise.

Let me begin again,
when I was a waitress during college,
I had the shoes that doctors and nurses
wore to support their posture.
Saturdays I worked doubles,
toward the end of my two shifts
my pace would slow--
as I made laps around my tables,
picked up half eaten sandwiches,
grabbed wadded napkins with chewed
gristle. When we closed,
I'd be on my hands and knees,
as I swept litter from the day,
collected broken-off ends of French fries,
dislodged pucks of used gum,
dragged swollen and leaky trash bags
to the dumpster.
Bone heavy and body tired--
I would come home,
take those heavy wooden clogs off.
Turn on some show and listen
to the cadence of dialogue
like a metronome tipping my head
to the baptism of sleep.

Let me begin again,
The first dead body I ever saw
was my grandmother. Alzheimer's--
My mother said, She always left
that old TV on while she slept...

damn frequencies messed with her head.
If I focus now, I can still see my mom
asleep in her uniform on the couch--
feet propped up, open pizza box
dappled in grease stains.
I would tiptoe and turn off the television,
slink back to our bedroom.
This is how I tucked her in.
This is how we said goodnight.

Hair Relaxer: an Origin Story

                                      ...never to look a hot comb in the teeth.
                                       -Gwendolyn Brooks

You came into this world, creamy--full of alkali and burn,
like a baby born of hard labor. Ruler of all things straight
and acceptable. You made kinky your nemesis, fought

genetic bend of curls. Cold lotions brush-stroked the Afro
on our heads inside of our hearts to bloom. Wait for it...
scratch of matchsticks ignited on the scalp. Wait for it...

sting of water pressure on the fleshy bottom of new scabs.
I was seven when it first happened to me. Told mama,
I wanted my hair to swing like the white girls in my school!

I cried at the shampoo bowl, thought pain would make me
beautiful. Learned to suck it up, keep it in, tucked and folded
like origami. Blow dryer wiped those tears away. Salon girl

said, Ohhh, we got it so straight this time! Singe, on the teeth
of a hot comb forged from the European Gods of smooth metal.
Swipe from root to unruly tip. Rise of smoke--from the kindling

of burnt black hair. Rise of smoke--smogging the salons and
kitchens from coarse haired daughters and mothers. Rise of smoke--
from the altar of our vanity. All the wavy hair I broke like the back

of a slave into submission, into black yarn I knew inside me grew
to find my way out of this chemical labyrinth. Out of wanting boys
to glide their wanting hands through my straight hair, out of my

own Minotaur of self-hatred, but I slayed the beast of pretty!
Took my hair inch by inch like the yarn of Theseus to find my
way back to my little self, back to my baby pictures with a fro-pik

in my hair, to the bounce, the spring in every coil. Rain, I am not
afraid of you. Let the water take me back to curls. Let the water
be gospel, brown hydrangea, my grandmother's silver cotton boll,

my auntie's cornrows, my mother's hands kneading almond oil
in my scalp like coating a cast iron pan to shiny black patina. I came
into this world greasy, full of thick psalms. Let the water take me back.


                            -from Equilibrium


Tiana Clark is the author of the poetry chapbook Equilibrium, selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition sponsored by Bull City Press. She is the winner of the 2016 Academy of American Poets Prize and 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. Tiana is currently an MFA candidate at Vanderbilt University where she serves as Poetry Editor for Nashville Review. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Sewanee ReviewRattle, Best New Poets 2015, Crab Orchard Review, Southern Indiana Review, The Adroit Journal, Muzzle Magazine, Thrush Poetry Journal, The Offing, Grist Journal, and elsewhere.

Tiana grew up in Nashville and southern California.  She is a graduate of Tennessee State University where she studied Africana and Women's studies. She has received scholarships to The Sewanee Writers' Workshop, The Frost Place Poetry Seminar, and The New Harmony Writers Workshop. Tiana has recently been awarded funding from the Nashville Metropolitan Arts Commission for her community project, Writing as Resistance, which provides creative writing workshops for trans youth.


A Review of Tiana Clark's Equilibrium by Katherine Frain, first published at The Blueshift Journal

To end before we begin, Tiana Clark’s Equilibrium is almost impossible to draw a conclusion about. It belongs to that rarest category of poetry collections – one where the name is impossible to extricate from not just one, but all poems. Equilibrium investigates the uneasy balance between contemporary and classical, experimental and expected, and what works and what doesn’t in a way that seesaws through the entire collection. It is a collection of courage, openness, and skinned knees both well-gained and well-deserved.

To begin with, the titular poem, Equilibrium. Nigh-impossible to reproduce here, the poem itself takes the shape of borders to a winding white river that becomes a symbol for the negative and invasive space of whiteness itself. This poem is a masterpiece, one of many among the work – Clark navigates the landscape of colorism with surprising and evocative imagery even as she accounts for the double-break within the line itself.

And yet, a similar piece later in the work, Flambeaux, tries to dance the same rhythm and ends up stumbling on the beat. Where the daringness of Equilibrium weights the scale to Clark’s credit, Flambeaux does not quite achieves the same grace, and its white spine does not hold the same effortless gravity. In some moments, the danger is the siren call of New Orleans imagery, which so many poets love and treat with an overly constant touch; meanwhile, the double-break of the line seems disconnecting at times unless handled like gossamer.

But perhaps this is the nature of many of Equilibrium’s experiments; one minute, they are in perfect balance, the next they are pushed a bit further than natural limits may allow.

In one poem, Clark rewrites Dickenson to accommodate Sandra Bland; in another, the equation of a circle becomes a poem about lynching. Both of these are incredible ideas, but only Dickinson seems to work in this context, while How to Find the Center of a Circle is again encumbered by the weight of the double-break. Equilibrium is full of admirable risk, and How to Find the Center of a Circle is an excellent legwork poem, one that requires a fair amount of thought and effort and bears fruit in proportion to those; it simply never leaps at us the way Sandra Bland does. Clark is calling, in Equilibrium, for an equilibrium of reading styles; Billy Collins’ famous hatred of students ‘beating poems with a hose’ juxtaposed against a classical academic sense of deliberateness.

And it’s one of the classical poems that tips the scale decisively in favor of Clark. Waking Up in the Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital is worth the cost of the book alone, and – if there is any justice in the world – will one day be immortalized as the flawless child of William Carlos Williams and Sylvia Plath. It has a sense of lyrical wonder and ease about it that entirely belies the poem’s subject in the best and most conscientious way possible, with images that will leave you hollowed out and breathless. Here, Clark seems to say, is where equilibrium lies; with the bold and the familiar mixed together as easily as blood and water, as rhyme perfectly executed and the subtle hints of racial strife in a simple “vanilla/black bean speckled crème brulee”.

How to end a review of a poetry book when the conclusion has been reached at the start? Simple: buy the book. It is worth studying in the same way scientific manuals are. Equilibrium has reached out to the unexpected, pulled it apart, and tried to put it back together – sometimes crookedly, sometimes perfect, and sometimes in ways that would make a Cubist blush. And yet every experiment is colored with a dedication that makes even the slips fascinating to watch and valuable to see. This is a book I’ll be picking up again.

An Interview with Tiana Clark by William Woolfit, first published at Speaking of Marvels

William Woolfit:What’s your chapbook about?

Tiana Clark: Equilibrium is about wrestling with an unanswerable question. This interrogation becomes the impetus for the bi-racial speaker in the poems, confronting the opposing forces inside and outside of her body through history, place, faith, family, and systematic racism. This question, “What is left whispering in us once we have stopped trying to become the other,” is at the seam of every poem.

WW: What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

TC: The poem that galvanized the collection for me was “Prometheia Remixed” as it was the newest edition to the chapbook. I wrote it around the same time I drafted my manuscript, and I felt like it captured the essence of the entire collection. I guess in some sense, it may be odd to end a chapbook with an origin story, but the preceding poems become a cipher, a series of steps that lead up to the final decryption à la “91 Revere Street” in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, or at least that was my hope, ha! That poem took the longest to revise. I think I was sending Ross White edits every week up until press day, at some point I had to abandon the poem, untie the hog, and let it run free from my overthinking and constant tinkering. Sometimes you can scrub the soul out of a poem with too much revision.

WW: Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?

TC: I respectfully defer to Kwame Dawes here. He said, “I do the things that need to be done when they need to be done. Writing is a constant.” I don’t have a set writing practice. I wasn’t raised with routine—my single mother was always working, and being an only child I was left at home without supervision. However, that lack of structure morphed into a sense of freedom, so when a poem comes—I chase it. I chase it no matter where I am, often times repeating the same line or lines over and over again until I can jot it down. I tried to be a more disciplined writer, but I’ve (realized/come to accept that) my “set” writing times just look a little different. I make sporadic work for me. The poems come when they come, so if it’s the middle of night then I wake up and chase it. If it’s on the road, I pull over.

WW: To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

TC: I was up late one night mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and a fellow poet, Phillip B. Williams, posted this link, 10 Female Artists of Color on the Rise. Amy Sherald’s stunning painting popped up and I froze. I said out loud, “This is the cover of my chapbook!” I knew it was fate, because when I noticed that the title of her painting was Equilibrium—I lost it. I took this as a sign and began pursuing her. The more I found out about her and her work, the more excited I became at the possibility of collaboration. So much of what she is trying to accomplish in her visual art is what I am trying to do on the page by subverting and challenging the construction of race via racialized bodies. The painting captured my book completely—the black woman fixed between two poles, two opposing forces of strength and burden, her gaze, the intensity of color and negative space. It was like BOOM—yes, yes, yes! I sent it to my publisher, Ross White, and he loved it as well. I feel extremely blessed and happy that I was able to contribute to the cover. Also, Victoria Lynne McCoy did such a stunning job with the graphic design!

WW: What do you wish you had known before submitting a chapbook?

TC: I wish I had spoken with more of my poet friends who had gone through the business side of publishing. Everything is still very new to me, especially navigating sales, tours, promotion, etc. Again, Ross White has been invaluable to me here as I have lots of newbie questions. I’m extremely grateful to have such a hands-on press that I can text whenever I have a question, like “what is consignment?”

WW: What are you working on now?

TC: I am the new Poetry Editor for Nashville Review—so I’m working my way through slush at the moment. I’m also revising and drafting new poems for my first full-length collection. Plus, I’m teaching my first undergraduate Beginning Poetry Workshop at Vanderbilt University this fall as well as finishing up my the second year of my MFA.

WW: What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

TC: Read everything, and not just the people you love.

Listen to poetry podcasts (Two of my favorites: Poetry Magazine & All Up In Your Ears).

Read Poetry Interviews (Divedapper, Paris Review, etc.)

Find and plug into your local literary community or create your own!

You don’t have to attend an MFA to be a writer. I created my own D.I.Y. MFA program years before I attended Vanderbilt. I went to open-mic nights, created a workshop with my poetry friends, went to the library and checked out poetry books, created my own reading lists for myself.

Learn to process rejection and failure—it’s a part of the process. Let it make you better, not bitter.

If you can, attend writing conferences and workshops.

Hustle and grind on repeat. (Redefine what success looks like for you/Have a clear vision for what success looks like for you, but be flexible and prepared to redefine it as you go).

Find a mantra for the days of doubt.

If you’re scared, just do it scared.

Keep submitting!

Find people you trust that will tell you the truth. Find people that love your work, but not all of it.

Start where you are.

Don’t be afraid of big tasks.

Wait a couple of weeks before you read your workshop comments—a little time and distance does wonders.

WW: What music do you listen to as you work and write?

TC: I don’t listen to music often when I write. I prefer silence or light café chatter, though sometimes I will write with jazz or classical in the background—nothing with lyrics, unless it’s a song I’m so familiar with I’m able to tune out.

WW: What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?

TC: Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith and Please by Jericho Brown.

WW: Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?

TC: Concision.

WW: Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?

TC: Terrance Hayes, Sharon Olds, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucile Clifton, Bill Brown, Kendra DeColo, Danez Smith, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, Phillis Wheatley

WW: Why the chapbook? What made it the right format for your work?

TC: I had twenty poems that were in conversation that were ready to go.

WW: If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

TC: Improv/ SNL/ comedy. I use to be in a troupe for a couple of years in my early twenties. Improvisation incorporates so much of what I love about creative work by getting out of your head and allowing yourself to play and free-associate. It’s incredibly freeing.

WW: How has your writing and writing practice evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?

TC: I started “lying.” I use to be beholden to this idea to always tell the strict, factual truth no matter what, but I would get stuck trying to remember how it happened and that’s not the point. I have to remind myself that emotional truth can be truer than the factual-truth.

WW: What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?

TC: Bi-racial people with daddy issues, ha! Just kidding. I hope the chapbook creates a space for all people to find a world within my world.

WW: Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

TC: “The Frequency of Goodnight,” because every word of it is true and about my mother. I read an interview from Eduardo C. Corral about writing “To Robert Hayden,” as a way to give him a gift in poem that he couldn’t posses in his real life. Similarly, my poem is way for me to (enact a type of grace for my mother, something I wasn’t able to do as a child. Every time I read that poem I get to take care of my mom, tuck her in, like she did for me.

WW: What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?

TC: Documentaries, Roget’s Thesaurus, NPR, and “bougie” cocktail menus.

WW: Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?

TC: Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Terrance Hayes, Robert Lowell, Emily Dickinson, A. Van Jordan, Lorca, Robert Duncan, Langston Hughes, Nella Larson, Anders Carlson-Wee, Carrie Mae Weems, Patricia Smith, and the list goes on…

WW: What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?

TC: Trust your imagination! Robert Hass told me that this summer at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and that has made all the difference.

          An interview with Clark at The Adroit Journal

Click here to buy Clark's book

Tiana Clark

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