Talk: Claudia Rankine with Will Rawls

Poet Claudia Rankine and choreographer Will Rawls discuss the themes of their MCA performance "What Remains," which explores how erasure and exposure shape black American life. Associate Curator of Performance Tara Aisha Willis, who also performs in "What Remains," moderates the conversation. This event was filmed in the Edlis Neeson Theater on Dec 4, 2018.

Poet Claudia Rankine and choreographer Will Rawls discuss the themes of their MCA performance What Remains, which explores how erasure and exposure shape black American life. Associate Curator of Performance Tara Aisha Willis, who also performs in What Remains, moderates the conversation. This event was filmed in the Edlis Neeson Theater on Dec 4, 2018.

Will Rawls and Claudia Rankine Video Transcript

January Parkos Arnall: Tonight, we are thrilled to host a conversation between Claudia Rankine and Will Rawls on the eve of the MCA’s presentation of their collaborative work, What Remains.

The work will be performed at the MCA Warehouse. Who has tickets? If you don’t have tickets, get them now. There’s already a few sold-out performances. It’s running from Wednesday until Sunday, and you can do so at the box office on your way out.

Joining Will Rawls and Claudia Rankine will be MCA Associate Curator for Performance and also a performer in the piece, Tara Aisha Willis. Very happy to have her here to moderate this conversation. This program tonight is made possible by the Gloria Brackstone Solow and Eugene A. Solow, MD Memorial Lecture Series, so we’re very grateful to the whole Solow family for their continued support of this program.

I also want you to encourage you to communicate with us on social media using our hashtag #MCAChicago, but please go ahead and turn off your phones now. And on to tonight’s program.

Claudia Rankine is the author of five collections of poetry including Citizen and American Lyric and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Two plays including Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue, numerous video collaborations and is the editor of several anthologies including The Racial Imaginary, Writings on Race, In the Life of the Mind. Her most recent play, The White Card, premiered in February of 2018.

Among her numerous awards and honors, Rankine is the recipient of the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, the Poets’ and Writers’ Jackson Poetry Prize and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Lannan Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, United States Artist, and National Endowment for the Arts. In 2016, she also cofounded The Racial Imaginary Institute.

Will Rawls is a choreographer, writer, and lifelong performer. His practice combines dance with other media to investigate the poetics of blackness, ambiguity, and abstraction. He is recipient of the 2017 Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer and has presented his work at The Chocolate Factory Theater, MoMA PS1, Performa 15, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.

He recently collaborated with Ishmael Houston-Jones, who was also recently on our MCA stage, to cocurate the dance space project platform 2016 Lost and Found, which focused on the inter-generational impact of the AIDS epidemic on dancers, women, and people of color. His writings have been published by Artform, Triple Canopy, the Museum of Modern Art New York, and the Hammer Museum. He is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Residency, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant.

Please join me in welcoming Will Rawls, Claudia Rankine, and Tara Aisha Willis to the stage.

[Applause]

Tara Willis: Hello everyone. Thanks for coming out tonight. It’s 8 pm. I really appreciate you being here this late at the MCA. I’m Tara. I’m really excited to be here with these two, who are people that I admire and am lucky enough to get to work with on a regular basis––especially you but also you as well. A lot of hours with Will and it’s been a great fortune to get to speak your text. And sing. And mumble. And sputter it, as well, in the piece which, if you come you will understand what I mean.

And this is a special opportunity because I get to ask you all questions that I don’t get to ask in rehearsal. And so, I’m excited to do that. I want to start off––just to give you all context because I know not all of you have heard about the show necessarily or are planning to come. Or hope you will but a few of the themes of What Remains, the piece that they’ve created together, it’s a show with four performers.

It’s a very intimate show in certain ways and we’re all, all four of us, are black performers. One is sound designer and three dancers including myself who are down here, in the front row. And it’s sort of jumping off from, I think, texts from Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which came a little bit earlier as well as some text that you two created together, a little tiny bit of text you created together for this show.

But it really is a work from my perspective as a dancer inside of it that sort of takes on the feeling of Citizen, of the sort of experience of living inside a black body. Feeling micro-aggressions, feeling the way society operates around that image and that flesh, that lived experience. And kind of makes that be a space that we’re actually inhabiting on stage that plays with––because it’s a stage, because it’s a theatrical experience, it plays with how we recognize the performers on stage, how we understand what we’re seeing as audience members and, as performers, how we are seen and felt by the audience. Does that feel like an accurate description? Okay, great.

I would love––with that in mind, amongst all of us––I would love to hear you all kind of lay out for us the basic timeline of your collaboration across this process starting as far as I know in 2016 but perhaps 2015. Sort of where the conversation started and how it’s progressed. And how it’s dipped in and out of these different versions of the performance that we’ve made along the way.

Will Rawls: Thank you, Tara. Nice to see you again, Claudia. Thanks for coming tonight. We met, we were kind of set up on a blind date in a way by a curator at Bard College that you had been in conversation with who was creating a festival for 2017 about looking at the theme of surveillance and how it kind of could prompt a number of live performance-makers to generate works around that.

And then, so we met and chatted that summer of 2016. And then said, yes. And then, from June 2016 until April 2017, we met probably I would say bi-weekly, sometimes monthly, beginning to pull excerpts from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen as kind of the beginning stages of a constructing body of text that we could then share with the performers to begin working with.

And then, I mean, that led us up to the premiere of Bard College in spring of 2017. Since then, it’s been about a year and a half. And since then, we re-premiered the show in September of this year. And now, we’re on tour. In that year and a half, there have been a lot of changes. It’s definitely like a kind of skin that keeps shedding layers month by month, rehearsal by rehearsal.

Claudia Rankine: Hello, it’s good to see you all and both of you. That’s pretty accurate. I remember at the time I was living in LA and so, I met you two in that studio for the first time. It was when we were sort of literally in the body bags of thinking about surveillance and the trajectory of the state versus black people in America. And then, we pretty fast moved away from that.

WR: It was pretty wild, though, because I think the first material that I had made happened to kind of be ready when Tara was in LA for Christmas. And so, we invited Claudia and John Lucas into the studio. And there we were, trying the first thing, which I mean I tend to like to pull things apart and disintegrate language. And I love watching things fall apart as an experience. And create space between things so that people’s minds can kind of float around.

And so, there we were, inviting you into the studio. And the first thing you were doing was stuttering like [Gibberish] all these words that you had written. And it was pretty thrilling, your reaction, because you were really excited about that. And I think that kind of prompted us with this sort of license to kind of go further in that direction. And see what’s in between the letters and syllables and lines of the text.

TW: Will, for you working with this text and what you just said about disintegrating and pulling it back together and finding different versions of it. And sort of, as I’ve experienced it in rehearsals, processing it through our bodies in different ways, can you say a little bit more about some of the later stages of how that’s developed since that first rehearsal in LA?

WR: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, I mean, I think part of what I love about Claudia’s writing is that I think your books are so meditative and they’re such an interior voice that kind of runs through them even though you’re speaking about these kind of nationwide issues or kind of major national crises and events. And then, also, the kind of tiny steps in between those that lead back to us.

And I think one of the things that dance tends to do really well is to create lots of ambiguity. When you see someone dancing, you’re like, "I can feel some energy. What’s going on?" There’s not always a word that attaches to what you’re seeing and that’s what I love about dance. Finding where those two things meet, the specificity of the writing and the kind of, this sort of butter melting in a pan of what happens to language when you’re watching dance.

We’ve sort of developed some practices like how to speed talk. And as you speed-talk a line, how it––words mash together. And then, can those give rise to other kinds of syllables? We worked on, gosh, so many things. We worked on musicality. We worked on composing live, thinking about the musicality of the voice. We worked on really stretching the range of our voices and playing with pitch. And kind of really trying to pull the taffy of language in as many directions as possible.

And then, I think now in the later stages, we’ve been really thinking about repetition. And how repetition as something that kind of exists in all of these practices that we were doing is sort of a thru-line for us. How to repeat something over and over. Once a word changes or a syllable changes, how to kind of add that to what you were saying so that you’re kind of pulling this scarf out of your mouth, in a way.

TW: And how that happens in the body at the same time or not. And what the relationship is. Or all the different options of what it can be, I think too. Claudia, I’m curious because I’m remembering that LA rehearsal and we did a version of what you described, actually. Speaking really fast. I think we were doing it at once and then alone. And it was very terrifying for me because I have not really worked with text on stage so much until then. And then, also, Claudia Rankine was in the room. And I was like, "Oh my God, this is her poetry. This is crazy."

But I’m curious what your experience in that rehearsal or any of the other stages along the way when you’ve seen us do some of those practices of taking your words or even a syllable of your words and pulling it apart. What does that feel like to you as the maker of those words?

CR: Well, it was when I first saw that in Los Angeles and then, when the whole ensemble of you started doing it, it was very exciting for me because I feel like as a writer, you spend a lot of time trying to get all these words to communicate a feeling or to communicate an action. And to be able to get rid of the words but still hold the feeling was stunning to me. And so, it was really lovely to kind of free the text up, from its scaffolding. And I think that’s what I experienced of you are when you started working with the text and not be married to the line as a narrative. That to me was incredibly exciting.

TW: I wanna jump back a little bit to something someone said, I think Will, about how sort of timely the text that Citizen was for us in 2014 and then still in 2016 for various reasons. And then, thinking back to Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, too. And sort of a post-9/11 moment. And then, this piece, What Remains, being in the moment that it’s being created. And maybe or both of you to talk about how––I’m going to try and say this somehow. How timeliness works in relationship to what you make. That could be these pieces or what you’re working on now. But sort of being of a particular time or for a particular time. Or inside of. Or about a particular time. What does that process feel like in the making?

CR: I was just interviewed a few weeks ago and the person who was interviewing me kept saying, "Well, I’m not tied to the news cycle." And I thought, "Well, the news cycle is just an articulation of what is happening." I mean, I don’t need to watch the news all the time to know what’s happening but it is tied back to decisions that are actually affecting our lives. I think that when I’m working, I’m really interested in how do you stay inside the current of the now? And for years, as a reader, I was always frustrated when I felt like writers had to go back to the nineteenth century to say something. They’re great books and they’re great writers so it’s not that I wasn’t happy with what I was reading. But I often thought, "These people are living now so why can’t they just write about what’s happening right now?"

And so, I try to stay as current as I can. And that’s a deliberate, conscious decision in terms of the work because there, I think there is something about trying to locate the temperature of bodies in the moment that you can’t get beyond the moment. I can’t actually today write about four years ago with the same way, in the same way. It’s a real, this kind of in the––you know when electricity, that little buzzing sound you hear sometimes in your house and you’re like, "What’s that? What’s that sound?" It’s that that I kind of want to get at.

WR: We heard some of that buzzing today in the theater. I was just thinking about I just wanted, again, hope many––just a huge shout out to the amazing cast that’s here that I’m so grateful to work with and so lucky to have in the room. But yeah, there was a moment today in rehearsal where there was a kind of buzzing sound. There are all these microphones and the room is really wired so that the breath and the exhales and the thump and the thud of the body, all that is hyper present. And I think that one of the things I love about dance is that it unfolds in real time so it’s hard to get more present than that.

And I think I realized a long time ago that I was really bad at making narrative dances. And so, what’s left without the scaffolding of the narrative is just a body kind of up to something. And I think a lot of people can talk about how that sort of slips into abstraction. And I think abstraction is a very complicated word which it’s easy to slip into talking about very abstractly. I maybe don’t have to do it but I think there’s something so concrete and fleshy. And sweaty. And smelly. And active. And confused. And searching about a body that’s improvising along a kind of structured set of questions. That’s really exciting to me and for me that’s kind of what is exciting about the real moment.

And then, I’m also I think the news, it’s inescapable I think for me. And so, that really is the conditions of what I feel is possible in a way to imagine right now doing. And trying to create a space where the sort of situation that I feel like really runs through your books––especially in regards to this project but I think in a lot of my other work, thinking about how a black person moves through the world and inside of a performance space. And where you can touch on the unknown when so many things feel hyper determined when walking on stage. A lot of undoing while creating at the same time.

CR: I almost feel like it’s touching on the known because I think that there’s a lot that’s known by all of us. But there’s so much, there’s so many mechanisms put in place to prevent us from knowing what we know. Manners, like you’re not allowed to say certain things because you might be offended or somebody might be offended. Or you’re not allowed to recognize somebody because you’re not allowed to touch people. All of these things. To me, it’s not the unknown. It’s really the known but we are not allowed to arrive at the known. And that’s what has become radical in terms of action.

WR: Yeah, I feel like life is more gray than black and white. I feel like really that’s what I know to be true is that these in-between spaces, I’m constantly transitioning from this to this to this. And yeah, in a way, it feels unfamiliar to me to make room for that in a performance because it does seem like performance is always about a rehearsed thing that’s being presented. But yeah, knowing that you are kind of unfamiliar to yourself is maybe something that feels exciting about life for once and again.

TW: I feel like from inside the piece there’s a lot of moments that we’ve worked through of figuring out how, as a group of four performers, we’re coming together, being a mass, being not so much in unison but sort of up to the same thing together. And in some moments, literally. It’s hard to distinguish who’s who and then a lot of moments of really becoming individuals. Or having things that we have to get up to separately.

And then, also with this disintegrating the text. And bringing it back into being audible or legible, all of those processes going on as well. I feel like we’re bringing ourselves into existence in some way on stage in very complicated and hard to nail down ways because we’re improvising a lot.

And so, my question is in a way there’s a lot of––in Citizen, there’s a lot of moments like, "Who is the subject? Who is speaking? Who is being spoken to?" And there’s a lot of articulating I, you, she, he, they, them. All of that in ways that circulate and shift all the time. And I think in a different way, that happens in the piece, too. And in some ways, it’s literal. We say the word "you" a lot. But it’s also happening physically amongst the group of us on stage.

And so, I’m curious how you understand in your work––is it separately or in these projects––how you understand who the subject is and then how you locate yourself, also. Or the subjects. Sorry, that was a long way to get to a very short question.

WR: No, it’s good. Good.

TW: But a big one.

WR: It’s a question for the winter because––

TW: [Laughs] I wish I had some cider for you.

WR: I’m like, "Where am I in my work? Where are you?" I mean, in particular, there is a text in Citizen, "Who shouted you? You shouted you. You, the murmur in the air. You sometimes saying you. You, sometimes sounding like you." And that, for me, was a really delicious and exciting text to work with because the speaker and the listener and the who and the what get entangled. And, in a way, it speaks of the deep entanglement of the––being on US soil in so many levels and the web of that. And it’s not a pretty web. It’s like a cat’s cradle that went wrong many times.

Yeah, I mean, I think that what––I mean, what I’m hoping to create space for, for the performers to explore and generate. And regenerate. I mean, the piece is so active and really hard to do because there is a lot of open space and void space in the work. But is that there can be a kind of, I don’t know. Collective sharing of the weight of what the subject matter is? At times, there’s a lot of kind of sounding and things that sound like music. And then, things that sound like gurgling. And then a joke or a kiki. It just kind of bounces around all these places and the logic keeps changing.

And I think in a way, the sort of rules and protocols that we come up to, against every day, it’s like, "I just have to go from point A to B to C." And performance is a great place to kind of let go of that. And so, I think that’s where I’m in there, in the work because for me, I’m much better at free association than linear thought. I’d say that’s where I am in the work.

CR: It was interesting you talking about––you, Tara, talk about the way in which you all move in and out. And break apart. Because when Leslie came in, I was really curious how that would work. Because you previous, the four of you were so much in dialogue. And I’m sort of more used to theater where if a new actor comes in, that actor is a different person. Very different person. And brings different mannerisms, different––whereas in the dance, it really felt like a very seamless integrative move. It’s really interesting to me that it felt like separateness because it really looks like collectiveness.

TW: Yeah, I mean, I think just for context, we had a cast change so that’s what Claudia is referring to. And so, I think when Leslie came to be part of the quartet, in a way we built the piece around the four people that were in the room. And that was the new four people. And so, we were also still working on the piece. And so, that was part of the seamlessness in a way was that there was more work to be done on it after the first time we performed it.

And so, to me, it feels like it changed a lot. The way that Leslie does that speech––there she is. I’m so sorry to call you out. The way that Leslie does the part that she does by herself. These things are very different but also, it’s in the world of the piece still and it’s just a matter––I think Will, as a director, is very good at bringing out the particular-ness of each performer and the particular way they can do the thing they’re doing. The task they’re given, in a way, and to make that the new normal, if that makes any sense.

CR: But there is––to me, anyway––there was a sense that not that you were interchangeable but that you were of one thing. And that’s one of the things that I love about the piece, that the quartet is slipping through each other in a sense. That the body loses its corporealness and becomes almost a passageway where through sound and movement, one seems to slip through the next to the next to the next.

TW: I think you’re right that there’s always, there’s sometimes one or two of us that surface more clearly but then there’s still something else going on and there’s still a tether. And I wonder, to sort of bring the question back to Citizen or even how the subject position works in what you’re working on now. I’m remembering the way that pronouns work in Citizen in particular and the way that this conglomeration of stories, essentially––I mean, abstracted but they’re still stories. It’s storytelling in a way that it’s, there’s certain ones where you think you know who’s black in the situation and then you don’t quite know in the end.

And so, there’s a similar experience that I had reading it of coming in and out of focus. And moving in some unexpected pattern kind of as I moved through the text, if that makes sense. I’m curious how you understand yourself in relation to your writing and then what are your ways of playing with who the subject is?

CR: Well, I mean, the writing is––the thing that I’m attracted to are the individual words before I am attracted to anything. For Citizen, the idea that you has that kind of French tu, vous, that it’s both a collective and a singular, that it’s also the tu––I can use tu with you because I know you but I wouldn’t use it with somebody else. And that, tonally, you can make it very aggressive or you can make it very intimate. And that it’s a second person was also interesting to me, that we’re not talking about the subject position. We’re talking about the second person. That, I found funny but nobody else seems to laugh when I say that. But sitting at my desk, I’m like, "Ha, ha, ha, ha. It’s a second person." And then, I had to collect myself after that.

That’s what I’m thinking about and then once I have that you and the slipperiness of you, I was really specifically with Citizen, people kept saying that––you know, I would give talks. And I’m sure there’s some white women in this room. But there were many white women who like to say this thing, "I don’t see color." I know white men say it too but white women say it a lot. And so, I really was interested in how that positionality of "I don’t see color" would read those pieces if they had to step inside the you and determine exactly what you were saying, who is doing what without that person being named in any way or given any characteristics.

And then, there are other words that I love like “here.” And that’s a word from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely because I loved that here was a word that positioned you in space and gave you, like, "Here, here. I’m here and here. You can have it. You can have me. Not really." But like that. And so, those words, the words that do that thing, are the words that carry the entire text.

I’m working on a new book now and the title is Just Us. And if you just think of just us, how the US functions inside that. And that could be the whole book. [Laughs] Just us, people. But I mean, there’s a lot of writing in the book. But those two words carry the entire book for me. And carry me through the pages of the book.

TW: Claudia, what does poetry do that dance doesn’t do? Because I think you said what dance does that poetry doesn’t do in the piece, at least. What happens with movement and what can be beyond the words. But I’m curious, what goes the other way around?

CR: What does poetry do––

TW: Poetry do.

CR: ––that dance doesn’t do?

TW: Or that dance doesn’t do as well.

CR: As well. [Laughs]

TW: I might be a little partial to dance myself so. . . [Laughs]

CR: Well, I think, I mean, the thing about dance that, for me as a person who’s not a dancer––

WR: Claudia was a dancer.

CR: But as a practice, as a practice. A person who was not a dancer in my practice. That it can move into a kind of freedom that is beyond language in a way. And you use the word abstraction. But to me, it’s a kind of freedom. It’s something that might not have a word attached to it. It’s what that particular body, person wants to do and how they can move. Like my husband, he has this walk. And maybe you would see him walk. And it wouldn’t affect you. But it affects me. I’m like, "That is a nice walk." [Laughs] But you know what I’m talking about. [Laughs] But that has to do with a particular body moving through space in a particular, maybe it has to do with somebody’s leg being a little bit shorter. Who knows? But you’re into it or not.

And it carries with it a lot of other things. It really brings a world towards you, which is why you can sit through a whole dance piece because you’re not necessarily there thinking, "Oh, what is the story?" You’re there holding the movement of space and time inside the vessel of this person. And whereas I think with poetry, what does poetry do? I don’t know what it does. I mean, it’s not poetry. It’s language. And language, for me, is always moving towards the thing but never arriving there. It’s trying really hard to get somewhere but it never gets there.

I just wrote a piece and the editor said to me, "Oh, the end of the piece, it seems to be that you’re just frustrated and maybe you need to write a new ending." But the whole time, I had spent days trying to get the ending of the piece to feel frustrating. [Laughs] I was like, "No, no. It’s supposed to feel frustrating. That’s what I was trying to do." And she was like, "It feels like you got frustrated." I’m like, "Yeah?" But it’s that thing of getting all those words to line up towards a feeling and how that feeling, then––but it never really arrives there which is why you keep writing.

TW: What have you learned from each other through this process? Anything?

WR: I think I, at some point, asked Claudia about her time at grad school, creative writing. You got a Master’s and wrote a poetry thesis. And wanted to know about the early years. Or the years before there was a Don’t Let Me Be Lonely book or a Citizen. Or Just Us, which will be two words and will be an amazing book, I’m sure. And her response was, "I go back to that poetry thesis and it feels like––I think you used the word "bad" but I’m sure it’s not bad. But a bad version of Citizen.” But just that it was a, that those questions were present and crucial and urgent for you always.

And I think as you bounce around in the pinball machine of trying to have a career in art, I think it’s tempting to kind of change your questions to fit what door might open better with that. Then I think it’s just a certain kind of courage. And keep writing. Keep working. Keep making. And you can do a lot with fewer words. I really enjoy Claudia’s precision. I don’t know if it’s something I’ll ever achieve like I’ve learned it but. . .

CR: I think what I’ve learned from Will and from all of you, actually, as a collective, which at times is frustrating. I have to say, it has been––is you spend a lot of time as a writer trying to get the thing to do a thing. And then once it’s a thing, you stop it. You’re like, "It’s done." And to watch you over the years move in and out of a process has been really freeing and interesting. And at times frustrating, at times exhilarating, at times like, "What are they doing?" And then, at other times, "Wow, that’s really incredible." At other times, "This is above my pay grade. I’m not in the lexicon of that."

And to be able to walk the walk with ya’ll has been really good for me as an artist, to see that this discipline really is a discipline of freedom which is––I know I keep coming back to that word. But I think that it’s both rigorous. I mean, I’ve seen you in rehearsal. I’ve seen all the work that goes back into what you do and the buildup so that it becomes part of who you are, the performance. And also, the way it has to grow and do its thing. It’s a good education away from ideas of completion and the preciousness of a thing settled.

TW: I think we are running out of time for us talking to each other but we’d love to hear a little bit from you all so we’re going to open it up for questions. I think there are some mics running around this space. Please make sure you wait till you have a mic to throw your questions at us.

Audience: Hi, I had a question for Claudia. You were talking about the slipperiness of words like "you" and "here." And I’m also kind of interested in what I take to be kind of the genre slipperiness of Citizen where it’s unclear whether we’re reading memoir, criticism or poetry, it seems to kind of weave in and out of those registers. I’d be curious to hear thoughts about slipperiness with regard to genre.

CR: Well, this is partly why collaborations like this are also exciting to me. To be able to move into, get the benefit of moving into the vocabulary of another genre that no doubt will find its way into the writing in some way. But I think the genre police is unfortunate because I do feel one of the things––I’m gonna say it this way. One of the things that I decided long ago––it sounds like I’m gonna sing––is that if I’m a poet, I can be outside of the market. And as a poet, you don’t expect to make lots of money so you can do––I feel like if, it’s not like I’m going to make millions of dollars, so why wouldn’t I do what I want?

Because I sometimes am, I have friends who are novelists and they have representation and editors. And big, big advances. And you say, "Well, why don’t you just do this?" And they’re like, "No, no. They would never accept that." I’m like, "Who would never accept that?" It’s like, "The people who are waiting for this object and this object is going to go in the world. And many people will buy it. And it will all be worthwhile." And, in fact, they have a lot more money than I do. They’re not wrong, they’re not wrong but over here, in the poetry world, I just felt like really I can do what I want.

And I’m lucky enough to work with Graywolf Press who, I used to have a publisher. And they kicked me out. They were like, "This is not poetry so when you write another book of poetry, we’ll publish that." I was like, "No, no, no. I’m a poet. I wrote this. Therefore. . ." You know those little therefore dots? They didn’t see it like that. But then I found Graywolf and they’re okay with that.

I think you make those kinds of decisions. If you’re willing to be in the middle of things so that it can’t and won’t be apprehended immediately. So that the value of it might not be known immediately. But you, yourself, have made the thing that you want to make. And it’s a moment of a leap where you’re sort of out there by yourself. But then, poets are out there by themself whether or not they realize it. And there are also fiction writers who also go there. And filmmakers who go there. People like Chris Marco, who I’m a big fan of and other writers. It’s really a conscious decision to be your––my husband used to say to me, somebody would come over and he’d say, "I don’t like your friend. Your friend is too much of a narcissist."

And I would say, "My friend is an artist and as an artist, my friend has to be my friend’s best friend because they are doing their work before anybody else even sees it or cares about it. And so, if they have to be excited about it all by themselves, that’s okay with me." And that’s what working in that slippery zone is. You’re actually making a decision to be your own best friend. [Applause]

TW: Any more questions?

Audience: Hi. It’s another question for Claudia. You said that language is always trying to get somewhere but never really reaching there. And there’s that frustration. Do you enjoy this frustration or are you sort of still fighting it?

CR: Well, clearly, I enjoy it. I mean, it’s been––how old am I? Almost 60. I mean, I think in some ways dance is maybe the same.

WR: Dance is so frustrating.

CR: It’s that thing of you can see it over there and all these hours and years and thoughts are trying to get you to bring something from nothing, which I think is art. Like all art brings––and you never actually do it. And so, then you try again. And it’s true that my thesis in graduate school, when I look at it now I see bits of Citizen in there. And you’re kind of pushing, pushing.

When I was in college, I read Dostoevsky. I read every book of Dostoevsky and I remember thinking, "He’s writing about the same thing over and over again." But he has the book called The Idiot and then Crime and Punishment. But they’re all circling something he’s trying to unravel. And each time you go back to one of his books, you’re inside the same questions but from a, like you’re standing in a different place. I think for some of us––I don’t think all artists work this way but I think for some of us, that’s how it works. That you’re constantly navigating the questions, especially when you’re doing the kind of work we do which is looking at a dynamic of the state versus the citizen. And then, we’re in a dynamic where it’s not shifting. You’re like, "It’s still in that same place. And could I say it another way? Is there another way to say it? Is there another way to articulate the wrongness of this?" You just keep going back in.

Audience: I don’t necessarily have a question but what I observe and appreciate from the conversation is the fact that you’ve helped define convention as the killer of creativity. And there is a limitation that convention will then put in place. And it seems to me that poetry and dance have a lot in common in terms of finding a new way of expressing where we’re headed because if we stay where we are today, we’re sort of dead. I can’t wait to see the performance because of this blending of search for the freedom of expression that convention has a lot of times killed. And Dostoevsky really expressed that by going over and over and over the same thing. And coming up in new ideas. And so, thank you.

TW: I was going to ask Will, do you have anything to add in terms of your practice? Does it feel like circling a question in the same way Claudia just described or something else?

WR: Yes.

TW: Great.

CR: Yes what?

WR: I mean, yes. I think I’ve been making the same dance for 15 years and always involves language, always involves bodies moving, always in kind of a frustrated but kind of productive relationship for me sometimes. And now, I’ve kind of gotten to the point where I’ve started printing letters and moving them around as a way to figure out what movement actually does to language and cognition. But I think, yeah, I mean, in a way it’s like how do I think more freely? Can I come up with doing other ways of me or creating the conditions for other people, performers, that I love to do themselves? And to invite people to watch that take place. But yeah, circling. Lots of circling.

JPA: We have time for probably one more question.

Audience: Hi, this is for Claudia. You mentioned earlier that there are so many mechanisms in place to stop us from knowing what we know. What is it that grounds us back to that knowing or grounds you specifically in your own life?

CR: The new book I’m working on is, it’s called a memoir but it’s out of conversations. The book is––in the book, there is––I’m somewhere. And someone says something to me. And I say something to them. And then, they say something to me. And I say something to them. But I was thinking, "In all of––it’ll be like three or four exchanges. And in that time, I am thinking a hundred things. And that person is thinking a hundred things." I am trying to write these texts that have the back and forth but also contain everything I think that doesn’t get said inside those moments.

And then, I send the piece to the person I was talking to. And I say, “This is what happened in the conversation. What were you thinking?" And some of them write back and say, "This is what I was thinking." And so, that becomes part of the piece, too.

I think the knowing––you kind of want to believe that what you’re seeing and what the other person is seeing is the same thing and that we’re knowing the same thing. And the disappointment comes when that’s not what happens. And profoundly, it comes on a sort of national level when you have––all right, Trump. You have this person who is saying and doing and wanting and legislating for inhuman things. And then, you have over 50% of the population who says yes to that. And then you think, "What am I––how is it––could it be? Yes, it is."

And so, it’s I think that knowing. When you meet somebody who sees what you see, then you’re friends with them. You’re like, "Oh, that just happened." And so, I think that’s the kind of knowing. It’s not a knowing for me of a profound kind of anything. It’s really just like, "That happened." And so, the writing is really how do we begin to see the same thing? Because I think until we see the same things, not that we are the same people, but there are some things called facts and truth. I mean, I believe in those things and I think, "How do we––“

And it’s been interesting because I have known people, especially around race, white people who will say, "What I heard was somebody yelling at me some black person yelling at me to do something." In a film or in something. And then, we go back and watch the film. And it’s not there. The yelling is not there. And they’re surprised that it’s not there. And I’ll say, "I don’t remember yelling, I remember asking. I remember conditional what if." Or something like that. And they were like, "No, I was being chastised as the viewer." And then, you go back. The experience, what is that? What else is happening inside that body to turn that moment into that and to turn that into chastisement or to turn that into rage?

And it works also with people of color. I mean, I think people of color expect disregard so sometimes they hear it when it’s not there. We’re all projecting these things but it’s just, I’m just like when do we, as a national body, begin to see the same thing and know the same thing? And then have the feelings that we have around it. But at least agree that oh, this is what he said or this is what––and that means something.

I know that’s not really an answer to your question but it’s sort of in me as trying to get to know something.

Oh, I wanted to say one thing. The word "idiot," since I brought up Trump, the word "idiot" originally the way in which Dostoevsky meant it meant, meant that you lived disconnected from society. Idiot didn’t mean stupid. It meant internal. It meant private as opposed to being involved and understanding the self socially. And then, it evolved into the wrongness of its––but that’s why that book Idiot is called “idiot.” It’s not about being stupid. It’s about being disconnected and in the world only as you. I just wanted to say that.

JPA: Thank you. That’s all we have time for this evening. Thank you so much to Claudia and Will and Tara.

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