Claudia Rankine and her “slender, musical book that arrives like a thunderclap” are coming to Cleveland, the first major literary event of the year.
Thanks to the Big Read of the National Endowment for the Arts and the moxie of the staff at Cleveland’s Center for Arts-Inspired Learning, residents of Cuyahoga County will have eight weeks to soak up the brilliance of Citizen: An American Lyric.
The book, which reached the New York Times bestseller list in 2014, is “a well-timed amalgam of poetry, essays and Serena Williams analysis,” according to Boris Kachka in Vulture. It is poised to launch a thousand local conversations.
“Citizen,” as critic Parul Sehgal writes, “is an anatomy of American racism in the new millennium.” Megan Thompson, special projects manager for the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning, quotes Sehgal’s line as one reason the book is a good fit to citizen readers – especially students — in northeast Ohio.
“We are not going to change the world in eight weeks,” Thompson said. “But our hope is that art will change some lives. And Citizen, first and foremost, is a work of art.”
At last count, 26 schools have signed up to teach “Citizen” and more than 50 public events are clustered around it. A finalist for both poetry and criticism, the book won a National Book Critics Circle prize in the poetry category.
Rankine, born 56 years ago in Jamaica, is a Yale University professor, MacArthur “genius” grant recipient and the chancellor of the American Academy of Poets.
She will kick off the initiative with a reading and conversation with Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas at 7 p.m. January 23 in the Parma-Snow branch auditorium of the Cuyahoga County Library. Tickets are free; register here.
“Citizen began as a response to events happening in American culture,” Rankine says in her MacArthur interview in 2016. “The first piece in Citizen was written right after Katrina. I recorded all the CNN coverage and was fascinated by how racism colored the reporting. . .
“I call it An American Lyric because I see these pieces as a different kind of song,” she said. “Instead of ‘Oh say can we see,’ this is what I’m really seeing.”
Thompson said the brevity and discrete sections in Rankine’s book make it ideal for student readers. So does the author’s unusual – and arresting — incorporation of fine-arts photography, on museum-grade paper, so that images join her book’s investigation of racism in the United States.
The Big Read will spread to encompass library, museum and church book discussions and workshops, film screening and poetry slams.
Rankine’s kick-off will be livestreamed in multiple locations. And Lake Erie Ink will curate the original work of 20 student poets, finalists who will compete in a public poetry slam at the Cleveland Museum of Art Saturday, March 9.
And if you’ve already read Citizen, whet your appetite for the upcoming Big Read with this recent Krista Tippett interview, in which Rankine reveals the sentence that cost her most dearly in composing this work.