The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences has recruited renowned American poet Claudia Rankine as holder of the Aerol Arnold Chair of English. She will teach a wide variety of literature and creative writing courses at both the undergraduate and graduate level starting in fall 2016.
Known for her commitment to social justice and her poetic innovations, as well as an incisive intelligence and wry humor, Rankine is the author of five collections of poetry and two plays and has become a sought-after speaker at colleges and universities across America.
“Claudia’s unique ability to perform her writing, in addition to crafting vivid and powerful poetry and plays, makes her an invaluable asset to USC Dornsife’s English department,” said Steve Kay, dean of USC Dornsife. “I am thrilled to welcome her here to further her own body of work and to impart her artistic gift to our students.”
Helping students take creative risks
Rankine said she was excited to join USC’s intellectual community.
“USC Dornsife has an incredible writing program, writers that I admire, people whom I have read and whose work is part of the stratosphere of my thinking,” Rankine said. “So to have the honor of working alongside them to me is kind of a dream come true.
To run into people in the halls and be able to casually discuss their work creates a melting pot of ideas.
“And USC in terms of its larger community — the American studies department, its social justice work — was very appealing to me. To run into people in the halls and be able to casually discuss their work creates a melting pot of ideas.”
In her creative writing classes, Rankine said she was looking forward to working with graduate students on their dissertations and manuscripts.
“I’m also looking forward to working with undergraduates and talking about poetry and activism and the history of 20th-century poetry. I’m hoping there will be room for more experimental classes that incorporate hybridity in writing.”
Rankine said that in the classroom she is interested in creative risk taking.
I am not that interested in polished work initially, but in the mess of creation.
“I am not that interested in polished work initially, but in the mess of creation,” she said. “I believe that in order to be able to know where you can break open the tradition, you have to know the tradition. Then you can create and mine the gaps that allow your work to move to the next place.”
Love of poetry nurtured from an early age
Born in Jamaica, Rankine moved with her parents to New York at age 7. “My parents were immigrants looking for a better life. They both worked in hospitals, my father as an orderly and my mother as a nurse’s aide.”
Rankine’s love of poetry began early, when her mother read to her Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” the year after the family arrived in the United States.
Rankine attended Catholic schools in the Bronx and then went to Williams College in Massachusetts, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in literature in 1986. From there she went to graduate school at Columbia University in New York City, where she earned an MFA in poetry in 1993.
Rankine said she was inspired to become a poet by the work of Adrienne Rich.
“There was something about the way in which Rich addressed social issues from a very personal position that made me want to write. This strategy of bringing the historical, the current moment and the emotional landscape of the speaker into the poem attracted me from the very beginning.”
Latest work the ‘most important in recent years’
Rankine’s most recent book, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2014), won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry in March and the 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry. In 2014, she was a National Book Award finalist for Citizen and was honored with the Lannan Literary Award, the $50,000 Jackson Prize in Poetry, awarded by Poets and Writers, the 2014 American Academy of Arts and Letters: Morton Dauwen Zabel Award, the 2015 PEN Open Book Award and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work — Poetry.
Citizen, Rankine’s fifth book, is a prose poem that runs for more than 160 pages. She wrote it by asking friends about their personal experiences of everyday racism. The result, written in the second person, recounts these incidents — “calling them out,” as Rankine describes it — in a way that is brutally honest and utterly compelling.
“Citizen was a way for me to interrogate our present condition around violence and race in the United States,” Rankine said. “I wanted to start with the micro aggressions, with the day-to-day moments where racism initially shows itself in ways that don’t initially lead to scandal but that affect black and brown bodies’ mobility in the world. You constantly have to integrate these aggressions into your day-to-day living.”
Describing Citizen as the single most important collection of poetry of recent years, David St. John, professor of English and comparative literature, and chair of English, said Rankine’s work has always pushed the boundaries of the contemporary lyric.
She is without question one of the most powerful and humanizing writers we have today.
David St. John
“Claudia’s profound moral vision is nothing less than astounding,” St. John said. “In this historical moment, so wrenched by violence, her work has emerged as an essential voice of social justice. She is without question one of the most powerful and humanizing writers we have today.”
Artist and educator
Rankine comes to USC Dornsife from Pomona College in Claremont, where she was Henry G. Lee Professor of English. She has also taught at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland; Barnard College in the city of New York; the University of Georgia; the University of Houston; and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
Her work Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (Graywolf Press, 2004), a meditation on death, has been acclaimed for its unique blend of poetry, essay, lyric and television imagery. Her other collections of poetry include Nothing in Nature Is Private (Cleveland State University Poetry Press, 1994), which won the Cleveland State Poetry Prize; The End of the Alphabet (Grove/Atlantic, 1998); and PLOT (Grove/Atlantic, 2001).
Rankine’s work has appeared in many journals, including the Southern Review and the Kenyon Review.
Her play, The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue, was a 2011 Distinguished Development Project Selection in the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage. Nominated for a Drama Desk Award, it was originally performed on a bus touring the South Bronx in September and October 2009.
Rankine wrote Existing Conditions With Casey Llewellyn, a three-act play commissioned by the Mellon Foundation and Haverford College and performed in 2010. In 2013, she was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2013.
Rankine also collaborates on documentary multimedia pieces with her husband, photographer and film director John Lucas.