While getting her bachelor’s in Africana and women’s studies at Tennessee State University, Tiana Clark landed a summer internship at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
The born-and-raised southerner was deeply moved and inspired by the intellectual and artistic icons of 1920s Harlem, whose work the center curates. But the inspiration wasn’t for the research paper she was ostensibly writing about the Harlem renaissance.
“Every day I’m walking over Langston Hughes’ body,” Clark said. “I feel like he was just kind of calling out to me, ‘No, you’re supposed to be a poet.’”
In the years since then she has realized that vision.
From 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Clark will host a workshop titled “Singing in the Dark: Writing About Trauma and Healing” at Teton County Library. The workshop will include readings from poems that Clark has collected during her teaching career, writing prompts and time for attendees to share their work.
If Hughes was calling out to her, it may have been with the voice of Bill Brown, the high school teacher who first fostered Clark’s passion for poetry. Brown was the man who introduced her to the Beat Generation poets like Allen Ginsberg and contemporary poets like Sharon Olds and Li-Young Lee.
At a time when she was trying to find her place in the world, he recognized her raw talent and encouraged her to pursue it.
“When you’re younger, finding out that you have a talent in something feels really powerful,” Clark said. “Poetry kind of became this great filter and container for all the wild and unbridled feelings of that time.”
Although Clark was scared off from pursuing poetry in college because of the perennial narrative of the starving artist, she never really stopped being a poet. Her notebook margins were filled with verse.
Walking over Hughes’ ashes may have been a turning point, because, after college, she put historical analysis behind her and pursued a career in poetry with single-minded determination.
After a few years cutting her chops at the open mic scene in Nashville and building relationships in the informal literary community there, Clark got her MFA from Vanderbilt University.
As a result her work draws from a “hybrid of community-driven open mics — you know, the beat scene — and then also traditional academia.”
Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, The Washington Post, The Kenyon Review and The American Poetry Review, among others.
Much of Clark’s poetry deals with racial trauma, both personal and societal. The title of her prizewinning 2018 collection “I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood,” is a reference to her complicated relationship to the history of her homeland.
“I can’t look at or engage with the beautiful aspects of the South without looking at these trees and thinking which one of these were used for lynching,” she said.
After growing up in a community that experienced what she calls “Southern Amnesia” — the glossing over of human rights atrocities of the Antebellum South — Clark was determined to give a voice to the history that isn’t easy to talk about.
“As a writer we have our certain set of obsessions and that’s one of mine. Bearing witness to the past,” she said.
Poetry has provided Clark a scaffolding from which to witness her own trauma and “ask better questions about really hard human emotions.” At the workshop on Thursday she invites Jacksonites to share their own trauma through poetry.
“Everyone has gone through this life with trauma, you haven’t come out unscathed,” Clark said.
The workshop is for anyone and everyone, from aspiring writers to curious people who just want to sit in the back and observe. ￼