Voices of Bettering American Poetry 2015 — Lauren Russell

What do you think is the most significant impact social media has had on the poetry world recently? 

Lauren Russell Cover Dream Clung Gone

At the same time that social media keeps us connected, it has also been essential to furthering conversations about racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia in the poetry world. To the extent that this helps us break from perpetuating old systems of power and oppression, I’m all for it. But I find that at the same time social media is raising awareness about these issues, it is implicated in a culture of outrage that is sometimes more about jumping on a bandwagon than it is about thoughtful engagement with difficulty, which is hard work. I can’t excuse myself from this trend. In her introduction to the Race and Innovation dossier published in boundary 2 in 2015, Dawn Lundy Martin writes of recent controversies over Vanessa Place’s appropriation of black voices in her Gone with the Wind tweets and Kenneth Goldsmith’s use of Michael Brown’s autopsy report in a conceptual poetry reading. “Still,” Martin writes, “in all the mayhem, in the personal attacks on social media, there has not been much actual conversation about what poetry has to say, and can say, about race in the contemporary moment.” In my view, the culture of outrage is doing more to clamp down on what poetry can be than it does to advance effective interventions and innovations in poetry or in the world.

Aziza Barnes asks in their poem, “How come black folks can’t just write about flowers?” Does this resonate with you? How would you answer that question?

Aziza Barnes is a marvelous poet, and that poem in particular expands my understanding of what it is possible for poetry to do. I love how the syntax moves, the language. The speaker of the poem is having a party with friends, is in joy, itself an act of resistance, as Toi Derricotte would say, especially given that “bijan been dead 11 months,” the poem’s opening clause. In the middle of the party, the police show up to demand proof that that the speaker has a right to be in their own house. The poem suggests that black people can’t just write about flowers A.) because there are more urgent concerns in the face of such violence, and B.) because the state is actually policing black joy. At the same time that these conditions exist, I believe we should write about flowers, we should write in and through flowers, if that is what the writing demands.

Photo by Dia Lacina
Photograph by Dia Lacina

At the Cave Canem retreat in 2015, the same week nine black people were gunned down in a church in Charleston, Cave Canem faculty member Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon emphasized the importance of joy in black life. She was thinking about joy in terms of both history and form. In a handout she gave out in workshop, Lyrae wrote, “Our story is not abjection. That’s somebody else’s narrative. That’s some old bullshit. Our anger is not ugly. Our joy is not absurd. In the face of history/our joy is complex. Our joy is strength. Our joy makes space. Our joy is/ emergent/creative arts practice.” A note I made from Lyrae’s workshop reads, “Think about joy in history. Every moment in history that has been sold to us as pure abjection has a Cave Canem in it, too.”

I have been working on a historical, Reconstruction-era project for the last two years that is based in my own family history, which is inextricably laced with racial oppression and sexual violence. In undertaking this deeply emotional work, I have taken up Lyrae’s challenge. Joy can exist amidst trauma, and beauty can appear in a landscape of violence, as, in fact, it does in Aziza’s poem. So I think that to articulate the fullness of experience, black people should write about flowers if we want to: A.) Because flowers exist at the same time that systematic violence against black people exists. B.) Because writing the poem you want to write should not be a whites-only privilege. If my poem demands a Grecian urn, a Grecian urn there will be.

Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon Cover Open Interval

What needs to change in the educational/academic world, with regard to poetry and writing? What can literary educators do to affect this change? What can students do?

I’ve noticed a tendency at the undergraduate level, and I think it starts earlier, to read all poetry as symbolic. Students can get so tied up in searching for “deeper meanings” that they miss what is happening on the page.  I remember taking a standardized test as a high school student and seeing questions like, “The clock in line four stands for A.) Death, B.) Time, C.) Freedom.” That isn’t it exactly, but the questions were something like that. I said, “I am offended for this poem,” and of course nobody else could appreciate what I was talking about. The challenge is to redirect attention to the text itself. Once students can approach poetry as an experience to be enjoyed rather than a puzzle to be solved, they become better readers and also free up possibilities for their own writing.

Do you need to go to school to be a poet? Absolutely not. I am employed by a university and appreciate that despite some politicians’ best efforts, reading and writing are still valued in most institutions of higher learning. But I was a poet with a GED long before I was a poet with an MFA, and one idea I would like to see change is the assumption that the academy is the best or only valid route to a writing life, whatever that may be. There are as many ways to be a poet as there are poets.


Lauren RussellLAUREN RUSSELL’s first full-length book, What’s Hanging on the Hush, will be out from Ahsahta Press in 2017. She is the author of the chapbook Dream-Clung, Gone (Brooklyn Arts Press), and her poems have appeared in Better, boundary 2, The Brooklyn Rail, jubilat, PingPong, and Tarpaulin Sky, among others. Her reviews may be found in publications including Aster(ix), The Volta, and Jacket2. A Cave Canem fellow, she was the 2014-2015 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and was the 2016 VIDA Fellow to the Home School. She is Assistant Director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for the anthology. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.