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The City and the Writer: In New York City with Camille Rankine

By Nathalie Handal

Special City Series / New York City 2012

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of New York City as you feel/see it?

A little bit frantic. When I return to New York City after a trip away, it seems as if everyone around me is trying very hard to be.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Once I accidentally left a bag of groceries on a bench in a subway station. There were cupcakes in that bag. That was pretty heartbreaking. I hope someone enjoyed them.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

There’s a graffiti artist who goes by the handle Revs who’s written hundreds of little diary entries on the walls of the subway tunnels. They’re like a memoir scattered underground for miles and miles. Sometimes you can see them rushing past the windows of a subway car, but to really read them you’d have to walk through the tunnels.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Is anyone actually from here?

Is there a place here you return to often?

I think I spend more time finding new places than returning to old ones.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I live near Langston Hughes’s house in Harlem. But I must admit I’ve never been there. I don’t think it’s been very well kept up, and, as far as I know, it isn’t currently open to the public.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There are so many cities within this city! Lately I’ve been a little in love with Vinegar Hill, a tiny neighborhood in Brooklyn that’s right next to DUMBO. It feels like the land that time forgot. And there’s a mysterious mansion with fancy vintage cars parked out front.

Where does passion live here?

In the people! New Yorkers are a passionate bunch.

What is the title of one of your poems about New York City and what inspired it exactly?

I’ve only written one poem about the city, really. It’s called “Still Life Mechanical,” and I wrote it when I was feeling homesick for the natural world.

Inspired by Levi,“ Outside New York City does an outside exist?”

Outside New York City is the only place an outside exists! When I’m in New York City, it’s sort of like being indoors all the time. I have to leave the city to see the sky again.

Camille Rankine is the author of Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship. The recipient of a 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, she was featured as an emerging poet in the fall 2010 issue of American Poet and the April 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. Her poetry has been published in several magazines and journals, including American Poet, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Indiana Review and POOL: A Journal of Poetry, and was commissioned by the New York Botanical Garden for their Literary Audio Tour. She received her BA from Harvard University, and her MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. Rankine is Assistant Director of the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Manahattanville College.

Published Nov 19, 2012   Copyright 2012 Nathalie Handal

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