The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Camille Rankine about her new book Incorrect Merciful Impulses, student loan debt, history, and trying to be a writer every day.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Ellen: I feel like I always ask this question, but I’d love to hear how the collection came together. How you decided on the order and sections, etc.
Brian S: I was just going to ask something similar, about the story of the book.
Camille Rankine: Most of that work happened while I was at The MacDowell Colony. I had a month-long residency and I arrived with the intention of finishing the manuscript, which is exactly what I did. At that point, almost all of the poems were written, so I was focusing mostly on order, sections, and deciding what belonged there and what didn’t. I thought a lot about what I wanted the book to say and how I wanted to move through the ideas it presented. It basically entailed a lot of interrogation of myself and the poems.
Dana: I’m curious—can you tell us a little about your inspiration for the title of the collection?
*Googles Jenny Holzer*
Camille Rankine: The title came from Jenny Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays,” which is a series of text-art pieces. I saw them in a show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and was so struck by the language, which has the tenor of propaganda and manifesto, and its presentation on these brightly colored squares. When I read the phrase “INCORRECT MERCIFUL IMPULSES” on one of these squares, I knew immediately it would be my title. I just love how how complex each one of the words is, and how they are further complicated by being next to each other.
Brian S: This will be an odd question, but is “Forbearance” about student loans? Because I sure read a lot of that in there. 🙂
Camille Rankine: YES!! It is totally inspired by my massive student debt!
Brian S: I’ve used up nearly every month of forbearance offered me, and if it weren’t for those income-based plans, I would be, well, probably on the run somewhere.
Ellen: Is that for your MFA? I was going to ask how that experience was—what you enjoyed/didn’t enjoy about the MFA (I’m in second semester of mine now).
Molly: That sounds like a really cool art piece.
Camille Rankine: Yes, my financial anxiety all comes from my MFA. My undergraduate debt was much more manageable. I loved my MFA program unreservedly. Except for the whole massive debt issue. That was the only negative. Otherwise, Columbia was everything I dreamed it would be.
Ellen: That’s great to hear.
Camille Rankine: The teachers there were so dedicated, and I got so lucky with my class—I still have many friends from Columbia. It was rigorous in a way that I wanted at that time, and I put a lot of myself into it.
Brian S: I loved the way you balanced the stress of being broke with both beauty and love in that poem. It just felt right.
Camille D.: I want to ask a question about your poems themselves. I’m curious about your ideas about the stanza and the line. There is something both systematic and… perhaps a word might be improvisational… about your stanza structure and lineation strategies. Lots of 2-, 3- of 4- line stanzas, but then many variations. What thoughts do you have about what makes a stanza a stanza?
Camille Rankine: It’s funny, I’ve thought about what makes a line a line, but not so much about the stanza. I mean, everything I do in a poem is very intentional, but as far as the stanza goes, I haven’t really defined it for myself. I think that’s because I don’t think in terms of stanza, exactly, but in terms of the line and in terms of the poem as a whole. So maybe the poem feels like a poem that needs the neat pairing of couplets, or the the third wheels of tercets, or maybe it needs to have a more jagged, instinctual feeling, or maybe it needs a lot of space and air. So that’s how I choose the form, and the stanza comes along with that.
Dana: Ooh, I’m curious about that too, Camille D. And also, I admire the use of spacing in “Still Life with Copernicus & Hypnophobia,” if you could elaborate on your choice to do that, please. It really slowed me down in such an impactful way.
Camille Rankine: Yes, I chose that form for “Still Life with Copernicus & Hypnophobia” precisely to slow you down! It worked! I think having all of that space gives it a meditative feel, but it’s also a little unsteady, grasping, as if the poem is continually reaching.
Molly: I almost wondered if we were to read top to bottom in columns, as well as in the typical L–>R order
Brian S: One of the ways the book affected me was the way you used the second person in the poems, like at some moments the poem reached out and grabbed me and said “what is your part in this?” Is that something you consciously do to engage the reader?
Camille Rankine: I hadn’t thought of it that way when I wrote them, Brian, but when I placed them in the manuscript, I was thinking a bit of that. How those poems point out.
Ellen: I love the phrasing at the end about “This terror is a lesson in mediocrity.” Has stuck with me all week.
Camille Rankine: Thanks, Ellen! Welcome to my brain! =)
Ellen: Do you have a special favorite of this collection?
Camille Rankine: No! I love all my babies the same!
That’s false of course but it feels really wrong to play favorites. I don’t have ONE favorite either. But I will say that “Dry Harbour” has a special place in my heart because I wrote it for my grandfather.
Brian S: I’m sitting here with one eye on the chat and the other reading and rereading “History,” especially the ending line “I get the feeling you’ve been lying to me.” Could you talk a little about where that poem came from and where you got that closing line from?
Molly: I really loved “failed human experiment.” I love the way there are multiple layers to your poems—they read well on the surface (they’re not super obtuse, as some poems are), and then on a second read, you can see all of the beautiful details and the way you have really lovely descriptions for the reader to imagine and consider.
Dana: That’s really well said, Molly. I feel the same way about these poems… I want to return to them again and again.
Ellen: I enjoyed the storytelling in each of the poems. Made me wonder if you also write fiction?
Camille Rankine: The poem started with something my dad said to me when we were driving through the country in Jamaica. He pointed out the stone wall at the side of the road and said “that was built by slaves.” I wrote it down in my notebook, as I am wont to do. And the poem grew out of that line. I was thinking about how we all exist because of our history, no matter how ugly, and we have to find a way to wrestle with it, come to terms with it. And also how “History” is a story that gets rewritten again and again. So that’s how I arrived at the last line.
Camille Rankine: Thanks, Molly! And no, Ellen, I’ve never written fiction. It’s so many words!
Ellen: Can you tell us a little about your process of writing… do you write every day… how do you balance with teaching, etc…
Camille D.: Camille R., you know, I think, how glad I am to share a name with you, right? Can you talk a bit about your sense of musicality? If you’ve thought about it in this way. I’m thinking of “We,” for instance. All that gorgeous piling up of sound (assonance, anaphora, alliteration, all the a-stuff). It does so much for me in building a sonic scape that is both welcoming and tense that I want to further interrogate how easy and also discomforting the poem feels and why. Beyond what the words mean, I mean and into HOW they are achieving their meaning. So, I think the question is, what are your thoughts on music as a tool?
Brian S: That is the poem I turned to as well. It seems such a natural ending to the book, given all the I and you that appears earlier, to end in We.
Camille Rankine: Oh balance! So elusive! And I’m a Libra, so I’m always after it. I don’t write every day. I’m a very slow writer. I try to BE a writer every day, though, and that happens in lot of ways. It’s about how I move through the world, how I observe and listen. I do try to write weekly, but it doesn’t always happen. I might scribble in my notebook or write a note on my phone, or open up the document on my computer with all my scraps and try to work through them. Sometimes all I do is look at my thoughts and look away. But it’s something.
Molly: I love that—”to BE a writer daily.” I’m going to think about that as I go about my life and writing.
Camille D.: ”Sometimes all I do is look at my thoughts and look away.” I like that way of describing that very important action.
Camille Rankine: Camille D. I’m happy to share a name with you, too! And music, that’s my great love. It’s a really big part of how I put a poem together. It has to sound right. I think about the way that music moves me, and it’s something inexplicable, something in the gut. That’s what I’m after when I’m writing, so music is a part of how I want to get there.
Molly: Do you have any favorite musicians/singers that inspire you?
Camille Rankine: I do have a lot of favorites, but I don’t know if they inspire me in my writing. I guess they do, just by being a part of my idea of beauty. Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Radiohead and anything Thom Yorke touches, PJ Harvey, Björk, and I could go on and on and on…
Brian S: Anyone embarrassing you’d be willing to share? Not like Nickelback embarrassing, but maybe a little? A guilty pleasure?
Molly: I like what you said, about music being part of beauty.
Camille Rankine: I do not understand “guilt” and I refuse to be ashamed of anything I love!! So I don’t know. I do know both parts to almost every Simon & Garfunkel song. Is that embarrassing?
Brian S: Not at all.
Ellen: How about your favorite poets? Any recent books you would recommend? Or favorite classics that inspired you?
Camille D.: Simon and Garfunkel as a duo were undeniably not embarrassing.
That was a doozy of a double negative. I’m not sure in the end if I’m supporting S and G or not given that statement… Speaking of turned around language, there was a comment earlier about how yours is NOT such. Can you talk a bit about your ideas about “straight forwardness” (if that’s what you’d be willing to call it)?
Camille Rankine: Hmmmm that is always my kryptonite question. Anne Sexton was an early love for me. I’m excited to read Khadijah Queen‘s Fearful Beloved. Terrance Hayes, all of the things he writes. I really enjoyed Kate Greenstreet’s Young Tambling. But what happens to me is when you ask me about my favorite poets I forget all of the poets. So that’s just a sliver!
Am I straightforward in my poems? I don’t know. I guess, in a way, because the poems are saying things to your face. They’re not really bashful. But I think they don’t always travel in a straight line, if that makes sense.
Camille D.: It absolutely makes sense. I was thinking along the lines of the syntax. And you’re right, the uncomplicated nature of the sentence level allows for a complex totality. Is that a thing you strive for?
Ellen: I’d love to read your chapbook. Is it available for sale anywhere?
Camille Rankine: No, the chapbook is sold out!
Ellen: Time for a second printing, please!
Camille Rankine: You can petition the Poetry Society of America!
Ellen: I will!
Molly: I feel like they were straightforward in that they were grounded in some imagery. They were friendly in terms of comprehensiveness.
Brian S: Anything new on the horizon we should be on the lookout for? Either of yours or from someone you read?
Camille Rankine: I can’t wait to read Solmaz Sharif’s first book, Look. Like I wish it were already here and I’d be teaching it in my classes.
Brian S: I’ve already had people asking to review that, and it doesn’t come out for a few months, I think.
Camille Rankine: Yes, I love complexity! And I also like the sharpness of a simple syntactical structure.
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight and for such a terrific book.
Dana: Yes, thank you Camille!
Camille D.: Thanks for taking the time with us, Camille R.
Ellen: Thank you for your time!
Camille Rankine: Thank you everyone! It’s been fun chatting with you!!