For two months, starting Labor Day weekend, a bus will depart from Spanish Harlem and make its way into and around the South Bronx. Those on board will be listening through headphones to a narrative written by poet Claudia Rankine, who has published multiple books of poetry, had poems featured in numerous literary journals, and was awarded an American Academy of Poets Fellowship. The piece, titled The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue, was created by Rankine and Melanie Joseph, the Artistic Director of the Foundry Theater, and touches on many of the tensions that surround the history and experiences of those who live and work in this often maligned neighborhood. I took some time to speak with Rankine about how she, as a poet, approached her first performance piece, her relationship to the Bronx, and what ideas she and Joseph were interested in exploring in the work.
The L Magazine: To start off, tell me how you became involved in this project. I know the Foundry has worked with a poet once before.
Claudia Rankine: Melanie Joseph called me up and asked me if I was willing to work on a project that had to do with cities. It was a very open invitation.
How did it evolve from that initial conversation to the travelogue on the bus?
In the initial stages I would come to New York for two weeks at a time and the Foundry set up interviews with different people in the Bronx. Those people took us on tours, they took us to places in the Bronx that meant something to them, or places they thought we should know.
Who were these people, and how did the Foundry get in touch with them?
They might have been people that they knew of through the arts. The Artistic Director of Pregones Theater Rosalba Rolón took us around; Arthur Aviles of the Typical Theatre dance company at BAAD [Bronx Academy of Arts & Dance] took us around; Nicer, who is a member of the TATS Cru graffiti collective, he took us around. Most people when I was in attendance were associated with arts organizations. But I think that when I wasn’t there Melanie met with other people. We also did an interview with a woman, Mrs. Ross, who has lived there for 60 years. So there were a couple of other people who were pointed out to us by the ones who took us on the initial tours. Mrs. Ross, I think we met through Arthur Aviles. It sort of began to evolve like that. Sometimes Mel and I just got in the car and went up there, walked around and talked to people. There are direct quotes [in Provenance] from some of the people we met.
Were you recording these interviews throughout or taking notes? It sounds like a tremendous amount of material.
Mostly I took notes. Because, outside the interviews with the arts people, everything else was very casual. And often sort of unclear whether or not we were even allowed to be where we were.