Interview with 2020 1/2 K Prize Judge, Tiana Clark

The 2020 1/2 K Prize is open for submissions until August 15th! In this interview with IR, 2020 judge Tiana Clark talks about concision, her favorite poets, and what makes a great flash piece.

Photo of Tiana Clark by Daniel Meigs from the Nashville Scene

Tiana Clark is the author of the poetry collection, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016), selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. Clark is a winner for the 2020 Kate Tufts Discovery Award (Claremont Graduate University), a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow, a recipient of a 2019 Pushcart Prize, a winner of the 2017 Furious Flower’s Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize, and the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. She was the 2017-2018 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing. Clark is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt University (M.F.A) and Tennessee State University (B.A.) where she studied Africana and Women’s studies. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, The Washington Post, VQR, Tin House Online, Kenyon Review, BuzzFeed News, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Oxford American, Best New Poets 2015, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. More about her can be found at tianaclark.com.

Your book, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood​, includes one- to two-page poems, as well as some poems of medium or longer length, like “The Rime of Nina Simone.” Thinking about your own process, what do you find most exciting and challenging about writing shorter poems in comparison to writing something longer, that stretches into four, five, or more pages? 

Concision is hard for me, which is funny, since I’m a poet, ha! Short poems are actually extremely difficult and rare for me to write. I tend to chase my poems to a point of breathlessness, which often means my poems are discursively long and wild and bombastic. I envy and marvel at Jack Gilbert and Kobayashi Issa’s short poems that nail the precision of feeling in so few lines. Oh, that singing cricket!

It’s another time, pre-COVID, and you and three authors of your choosing get to go out to a restaurant and talk writing! Who will you invite, and where would you go?  

Oh wow! I LOVE this question. I call pre-covid time “BC” for before coronavirus. I would select: Ross Gay, Ada Limón, and Gabrielle Calvocoressi. 1) Because they all have the same poetry agent, so I think it would be easy to book, lol! 2) They are some of my three favorite poets ever, and also some of the most generous humans on and off the page. 3. I think they all nail and encompass what Mary Ruefle calls in Madness, Rack, and Honey the “emergency of feeling” when I encounter their work. 4. I would want to go to Ross Gay’s house (if he would have us), and have us all cook things up from his amazing garden! I’m inviting myself over in my imagination! 

Across genre, whether for a micro-essay, flash fiction, or a short poem, do you see any commonalities in great flash pieces (however you define them)? 

I think no matter the genre you have to trust and chase your own imagination. I think all great writing takes some kind of risk in its execution. A great flash piece revels in its rebellious origin story and liminality. What’s great about flash is that it doesn’t have to be just one thing, but it needs to try do all the things well: the lyricism, the narrative (or is it trying to actively push away from linearity?), the syntax, the sentences, the heart, the duende, the secret, the stake, the surprise, the tension, all of it. All of it has to morph and shine and sway together. Or, it has to subvert all of those expectations in a fascinating way, which leads me back to my original thought about risking a new entry point into language and feeling. In all writing, I’m looking for something dangerous and desirous that pierces my attention, makes my want to dog-ear the page.   

What’s next for you? What are you most excited for this year?​ 

Ah! Right now, I’m focusing on my breath. Besides that, I’m working on my next poetry collection and a non-fiction book (which is all about some hybridity, baby!). I’m most excited about traveling (when it’s allowed again). I really want to marinate by a large body of water. I’ve been craving the ocean: the salt-smell, the sand, the metronomic waves.  Hopefully, I’ll get there somehow by the end of the year. I’m excited about taking a new risk with non-fiction by embracing failure and all the uncertainty ahead!

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