3 Things I Learned About Writing: Analyzing Claudia Rankine’s CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC

This reoccurring column takes the classic writing advice “good writers are good readers” and puts it to work, by looking at books across all time periods and all genres to find techniques that we can apply in our own work. This installment examines Claudia Rankine’s highly acclaimed poetry collection CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC.

1. Visuals are powerful

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What’s most important about this picture is the way the image dialogues with this essay. Rankine’s essay focuses on Serena Williams and race. She looks at the way race factors into sports and how we judge an athlete’s response to a bad call based on race. This image initially has nothing to do with either of those things. It’s a person covered in flowers. However, the image gives the reader something new to think about. Our brains try to fit it in with our understanding of what we’re reading and make the two things make sense. It offers a new perspective. Let your poetry dialogue with images and art. The image and the written word can be a powerful pairing.

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Citizen-an-american-lyric-book-cover Hannah-Haney-writer

Column by Hannah Haney, a regular contributor to the GLA blog
and to Writer’s Digest. She is the Managing Editor for Relief Journal
and has been published in The Cincinnati Enquirer and Writer’s Digest.
In her free time, she reads good books, 
eats good food, and writes bad
poetry. You can follow her on
 Twitter or on her blog.

2. Be creative with the page.

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The point of this photo is less about the poem itself and more about Rankine’s use of white space. This is all that appears on the page. Just these five lines. The rest of the page is completely white. This factors into Rankine’s larger theme that black is seen the most strongly when placed against a white background. Our eyes are drawn to the black text, not the vast expanse of white space. Rankine creatively uses the page to make a point throughout her whole collection. Poetry is meant to explore the page. Don’t feel like your poems must always be right-justified. Play with lines and stanzas. Use the whole page, or barely any of it, like Rankine. Explore.

3. Be deliberate.

“Neither you nor your friend bothers to ask who is making her feel uncomfortable” (69).

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The poem this line comes from is only 6 lines long. Every word Rankine uses here counts for double. She must set the scene, give us conflict, and some sort of release. She uses the first sentence (the first 4 lines) to set us up. This last sentence, the end of the poem, is both conflict and release. The woman “you and your friend” are referring to is uncomfortable, even though she keeps saying she isn’t. The reader is forced to assess who is making her uncomfortable. Is it “you and your friend”? Is she uncomfortable at all? Why is she uncomfortable? The reader sits in the white space following the end of poem and thinks on these questions. Rankine doesn’t give us the answers in the poem. She lets us find our own answers. Make these kinds of deliberate choices in your poetry. Make your words count. Be as precise as you possibly can and then a little more.

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