Pomona College English professor Claudia Rankine has been named
the eighth winner of the $50,000 Jackson Poetry Prize. Rankine, whose writing focuses on injustice and human vulnerability, is the author of
four collections of poetry: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), Plot (2001), The
End of the Alphabet (1998), and Nothing in Nature is Private (1994). Her newest collection, Citizen: An American Lyric, will be released later this year.
The Jackson Poetry Award is given each year to an “American poet of exceptional talent who deserves wider recognition,” according to the official press release.
Poets Tracy K. Smith, David St. John, and Mark Strand, who served as this year’s judges, cited her “moral vision” and praised her for tackling challenging topics.
“In a body of work that pushes the boundaries of the contemporary lyric, Rankine has managed to make space for meditation and vigorous debate upon some of the most relevant and troubling social themes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” they wrote in their decision, as reported in the press release.
Colleagues at Pomona attested to Rankine’s talent as well.
“Those of us who know and admire Claudia are excited to
see her poetry getting all the public recognition it has of late,” wrote Kevin J. H. Dettmar, chair of the English department, in an email to TSL. “It’s not ‘easy’
poetry, but it rewards a careful reader with great gifts. And in her person,
she’s a great gift to
her colleagues and students at Pomona.”
Rankine, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, said that she is interested in exploring what
it means to feel and to react to injustice or any kind of devastation.
“If you are a black person, often the most direct injustice comes because
of the color of your skin,” Rankine said. “Because of that, I write about those moments. But it’s how that affects
the body, how that affects the kinds of feelings that brings forward that I am
more interested in.”
She added that it is crucial to question the origin of biased beliefs.
“It’s so ingrained in us that until we start questioning where the beliefs
come from, we won’t be able to dismantle them, so I am really interested in locating them,
in looking at them, in thinking about those moments,” she said.
Conner Douglas Bouchard Roberts PO ’16 wrote in an email to TSL that Rankine is “extremely gifted at viewing poetry as a dynamic system in itself.”
He also wrote about his positive experience with Rankine in an advanced poetry class.
“Claudia really has the ability to dig deeply into a work without casting a judgmental eye on the petty things,” he wrote.
Rankine added that for her, writing poetry is a way to explore difficult topics.
“Working on the poems allows me to see more complexly the issue I
am looking at,” she said. “It is the activity of exploration for me.”
Rankine also commented on the recent case of Donald Sterling,
the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who allegedly told
his girlfriend not to bring any black people to any Clippers games and who has been banned from the NBA.
“On one hand you think he’s an idiot, but on the other hand, you know he is
expressing something that for many people that’s an OK thing to say,” she said. “What does that mean in relationship to a team that is made mostly of black
players? You want a white audience for these black players. Those are the
questions that I find fascinating and my poems tend to explore.”