I was born in California—the tiny world was just the ocean and Disneyland. When I was seven, my mother asked me if I wanted to move to Nashville. I replied, “Where is Nashville?”
Next, I was on my first airplane heading east away from the waves, metronomic and familiar, almost soothing if I remember correctly.
This next part my mother didn’t tell me until I was much older.
When we moved to a one-bedroom apartment off Old Hickory Boulevard someone hung two nooses on our back porch: one for my mom and one for me.
When I think about my single mother cutting down those ropes, I begin to shake.
My first creative writing class was at Hume-Fogg High School.
Bill Brown would begin each class with a contemporary poem. I will never forget when he read Sharon Olds and Li-Young Lee for the first time: pure storm, as the words changed and charged the electrons in our classroom—I was hooked.
Each class began with a sense of permission.
Sixteen years later I sit in another classroom at Vanderbilt University in the second year of my MFA program. We are discussing “Citizen” by Claudia Rankine. She writes, “Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.”
When I teach, I begin each class with a poem like Bill did.
The first time I read at an open mic, I was shaking the whole time. My poems rattled like thin maracas in my hands.
“Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind–even if your voice shakes.” — Maggie Kuhn
I am Nashville, but am I all of Nashville?
And that is why I applied for THRIVE funding earlier this year through the Nashville Metro Arts Commission to work with the LGBTQIA+ teenagers in the T.Y.M.E. program at the Oasis Center. I created and conducted, along with fiction writer Lee Conell, creative writing workshops and a reading event around the theme of Writing as Resistance.
Often the Western literary canon is missing voices from marginalized groups. If teenagers don’t see their lives reflected through literature then they are relegated to another form of hyper-invisibility. My hope was to provide a space for teenagers to share their empowering poems and stories with their peers and families—opening a much-needed dialogue around issues within our community. I truly believe that art has the capacity to spark social change.
Nashville is not just music city anymore, but a lit city as well. We are here. We are present. We are listening with our whole bodies, and we are writing stories and poems that reflect all of our lives.
I am here. We are Nashville. I keep cutting down the ropes with my poems.
Tiana Clark is poet, educator, and the author of the poetry chapbook Equilibrium, selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition sponsored by Bull City Press. She is the winner of the 2016 Academy of American Poets Prize and 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. Tiana is currently an MFA candidate at Vanderbilt University where she serves as Poetry Editor for Nashville Review. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Poets.org, Rattle, Best New Poets 2015, Crab Orchard Review, Southern Indiana Review, The Adroit Journal, Muzzle Magazine, Thrush Poetry Journal, The Offing, and elsewhere.
Tiana is a graduate of Tennessee State University where she studied Africana and Women’s studies. She has received scholarships to The Sewanee Writers’ Workshop, The Frost Place Poetry Seminar, and The New Harmony Writers Workshop. Find her online at tianaclark.com.