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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Events February 17, 2015

Painful, Powerful Work: Poet Claudia Rankine Reads from “Citizen: An American Lyric”

Claudia Rankine

The first thing you may notice about poet Claudia Rankine’s new book is its cover: a photo of an empty, gray hoody against a stark, white background.

No, you can’t judge a book by its cover—but still, the image is striking.

And it’s a good indication of what’s to come in Citizen: An American Lyric. Published in October 2014, the book is one of the most talked-about works in poetry right now. The first book ever nominated for two National Book Critics Circle awards—in the categories of both poetry and criticism—Citizen is currently in its third printing with Graywolf Press. And with every printing Rankine quietly revises the text, updating a list “In Memory Of…” to include the names of new victims of race-tinged shootings around the country.

Ellen Doré Watson, director of the Poetry Center at Smith, notes that the book “exposes and wrangles with not only physical violence but the violence inherent in our everyday language. It is a profoundly painful book—and one that we need, and deserve, right now.”

Claudia Rankine reading to an audience in Weinstein Auditorium

Claudia Rankine read from her work and answered questions in Weinstein Auditorium.

Rankine will read from her work and answer questions in the first Presidential Colloquium of the spring semester at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 23, in Wright Hall. The event is open to all at no charge. Audience members who wish to stay after the reading will be invited to participate in small-group facilitated discussions about issues of race and violence as raised in Citizen, as part of a college-wide initiative to strengthen campus discourse on challenging issues.

This is not Rankine’s first visit to Smith; Watson recalls a memorable 2005 reading at the Poetry Center and says that Rankine’s voice “is one of unflinching and unrelenting candor.” Watson is particularly pleased that this year’s visit coincides with the publication of Citizen, a book that “stretches the conventions of genre in order to avoid at all costs—in fact to call out—simplistic thinking, knee-jerk reactions and veiled denials.”

Citizen is Rankine’s fifth collection of poetry. Her fourth book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, was a long prose poem interspersed with photographs of televisions. Her third book, Plot, was a dialogue about pregnancy and childbirth.

Always unexpected, her work has been described as “bold″ and “beautiful,” and “rendering the black experience in America darkly crystalline.”

Born in Jamaica, Rankine has served for the past four years as the Henry G. Lee Professor of English at Pomona College. She earned her B.A. degree at Williams and received an M.F.A. from Columbia.

Additional information about Rankine, including audio of her poems and video essays created with her husband, John Lucas, can be found on her Web site,

Claudia Rankine reading at the podium

Rankine’s reading was the first Presidential Colloquium of the spring semester.