Tiana Clark’s poems aim to start a conversation: “I’m humming; I want people to hum too.” Subverting old forms and fashioning new ones with electric confidence, Clark is a natural innovator. Her mind draws poetic inspiration from idiosyncratic sources: from crossbites to volcanic eruptions to the image of pop-star Rihanna. As a child she used to talk to herself when alone in the apartment, stating that “this impulse to create, to dream, and to express myself vocally was grasping towards poetry before I ever put pen to paper.”
Hailing from Tennessee and southern California, Clark was an Africana and Women’s Studies major at Tennessee State University. In Nashville, she frequented open mic nights and began her own Sunday morning creative writing group called Poetry Church before working towards her MFA at Vanderbilt University. While attending Vanderbilt she served as poetry editor of the Nashville Review. Clark’s Equilibrium—an interrogation of its biracial speaker’s inner and outer opposing forces—won the Frost Place Chapbook Competition in 2016. Judge Afaa Michael Weaver wrote: “These poems negotiate the colossal movement of hearts figuring and being figured by history. This is a voice that knows the intelligence of passion, that moves through and inside the questioning of who we are in the structures of things we give the power to name us.” In Equilibrium’s title poem, Clark asks a question that she describes as “the seam” of the collection, a central line which holds its poems together: “What is left / whispering in us, once we have / stopped trying to become the other?”
The following year, Clark’s first full-length collection I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood won the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press. The collection echoes artistic protests of America’s past such as the poem and song “Strange Fruit,” which described the lynching and racism against Black Americans living in the south. “For me, trees will never be just trees,” Clark explains. “They will also always be a row of gallows from which Black bodies once swung.” The book realizes its work through a rich dialogue: vignettes of ballets by Balanchine and Stravinsky set the body in motion, Amiri Baraka’s work is rewound while the speaker “bite[s] John Berryman’s tail,” and even Phillis Wheatley and Nina Simone appear to ask their own questions. Clark’s poems scatter, divide, expose their gaps, and swallow their own tails, bravely tracing the rites of southern Black girlhood with vulnerability that poet Ross Gay describes as “a reaching toward.” Her craft reveals the tight bonds joining form and function, bringing to life “a small, soft egg floating inside / the scorching center of this moving hyphen—/ African-American, the dash exposing the break.”
Clark’s poems have appeared in the New Yorker, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, BOAAT, Best New Poets 2015, and elsewhere. In addition to scholarships to Bread Loaf, Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Frost Place Seminar, Clark is the winner of the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize, 2016 Academy of American Poets University Prize, and Furious Flower’s 2017 Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize. She served as the 2017-2018 Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing and currently teaches creative writing at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
is hot chicken on sopping white bread with green pickle
chips—sour to balance prismatic, flame-colored spice
for white people. Or, rather, white people now curate hot
chicken for $16 and two farm-to-table sides, or maybe
they’ve hungered fried heat and grease from black food
and milk—but didn’t want to drive to Jefferson Street or
don’t know about the history of Jefferson Street or Hell’s
Half Acre, north of downtown. Where freed slaves lived
on the fringe of Union camps, built their own new country.
Where its golden age brought the Silver Streak, a ballroom
bringing Basie, Ellington, and Fitzgerald. First-run movies
at the Ritz and no one had to climb to the balcony. 1968,
they built the interstate. I-40 bisected the black community
like a tourniquet of concrete. There were no highway exits.
120 businesses closed. Ambulance siren driving over
the house that called 911, diminishing howl in the distance,
black bodies going straight to the morgue. At the downtown
library, a continuous loop flashes SNCC videos with black
and white kids training for spit and circular cigarette burns
as the video toggles from coaching to counters covered
in pillars of salt and pie and soda—magma of the movement.
On I-65, there is a two-tone Confederate statue I flick off
daily on my morning commute. Walking down Second Avenue,
past neon honky-tonks playing bro-country and Cash
and herds of squealing pink bachelorette parties—someone
yelled Nigger-lover at my husband. Again. Walking down
Second Avenue, I thought I heard someone yelling at the back
of my husband. I turned around to find the voice and saw
myself as someone who didn’t give a damn. Again. I turned
around to find that it was I who lived inside the lovely word
made flesh by white mouths masticating mashed sweet potatoes
from my mother’s mother’s mother—Freelove was her name,
a slave from Warrior, North Carolina, with twelve children
with names like Pansy, Viola, Oscar, Stella, and Toy—my
grandmother. There is always a word I’m chasing inside and
outside of my body, a word inside another word, scanning
the O.E.D. for soot-covered roots: 1577, 1584, 1608 . . . Tracing my
finger along the boomerang shape of the Niger River for my blood.
1856, 1866, 1889 . . . Who said it? A hyphen—crackles and bites,
burns the body to a spray of white wisps, like when the hot comb,
with its metal teeth, cut close to petroleum jelly edging the scalp—
sizzling. Southern Babel, smoking the hive of epithets hung fat
above bustling crowds like black-and-white lynching photographs,
mute faces, red finger pointing up at my dead, some smiling,
some with hats and ties—all business, as one needlelike lady
is looking at the camera, as if looking through the camera, at me,
in the way I am looking at my lover now—halcyon and constant.
Once my mother-in-law said Watch your back, and I knew exactly
what she meant. Again. I turned around to find I am the breath
of Apollo panting at the back of Daphne’s wild hair, chasing words
like arrows inside the knotted meat between my shoulder blades—
four violent syllables stabbing my skin, enamored with pain.
I am kissing all the trees—searching the mob, mumbling to myself:
Who said it?
Who said it?
Who said it?
My braces cut you—
nicking your bottom
fat lip into another
ruby mouth drawing
three beads dripped,
spilling a tiny
and burning raspberries
on a stove. I felt your
dolphin arcing the pink
muscle in my mouth
to undulate. Years later,
I would see your cherubic
face again, this time lit
inside a box—frozen
bright from a mug shot
on the news, wanted
by the police for kidnapping
a black woman. A black
woman you thought stole
the drug money hidden
inside the cotton lips
of your mattress and bed
frame. They said you tied
her to a chair and I won’t
say what you did next. It’s
too unbearable to say here—
inside a couplet that can’t
stop the shattering glass
you broke inside of her.
I won’t say what you said
to me—after I made you
bleed, opened you rare
as a new wound. I won’t
talk about the scar I
scraped into the velvet
puckering of your lip
or how you called it
your love nick—looked
like a thin piano key
that you once tapped
like a sharp note
with your index finger
and I kissed you again
because I felt bad
for cutting you in this
manner. It takes a special
kind of cruelty to damage
another in this way. Lil’
Chris, do your lips still
itch for me or the dope?
—knocking and unknocking
your mouth for more
and more blood.
“You can’t write poems about the trees when the woods are full of policemen.”
A video looping like a dirge on repeat, my soul—a psalm of bullets in my back.
I see you running, then drop, heavy hunted like prey with eight shots in the back.
Again, in my Facebook feed another black man dead, another fist in my throat.
You: prostrate on the green grass, handcuffed with your hands tied to your back.
Praises for the video, to the witness & his recording thumb, praises to YouTube
for taking the blindfold off Lady Justice, dipping her scales down with old weight
of strange fruit, to American eyeballs blinking & chewing the 24-hour news cycle:
another black body, another white cop. But let us go back to the broken tail light,
let’s find a man behind on his child support, let’s become his children, let’s call him
Papa. Let us chant Papa don’t run! Stay, stay back! Stay here with us. But Tiana—
you have got to stop watching this video. Walter is gone & he is not your daddy,
another story will come to your feed, stay back. But whisper—stay, once more,
with the denied breath of his absent CPR, praise his mother strumming Santana
with tiny hallelujahs up & down the harp of his back. Praise his mother hugging
the man who made her son a viral hit, a rerun to watch him die ad infintum, again
we go back, click replay at any moment. A video looping like a dirge on repeat—
From I CAN’T TALK ABOUT THE TREES WITHOUT THE BLOOD (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018)