Earlier this month, Claire Schwartz ’10 received the Whiting Award in Poetry, a prestigious literary award for outstanding emerging writers of fiction, drama, nonfiction and poetry with a $50,000 prize. Previous winners include notables like 2016 winner Ocean Vuong, 2000 winner Colson Whitehead and 1990 winner Tony Kushner.
the next collection of poems by Schwartz, Civil service, expected to be released in August. According to the collection summary, “Civil service probes the fine lines between ally and accomplice, surveillance and witness, carcerality and care – the lines we draw to believe ourselves Well.”
For Schwartz, it’s important to stay grounded in her work and in herself after success. “I’m very lucky to have been called alongside people I greatly admire,” she wrote in an email to Record. “But if price becomes the thing itself rather than a tool to something that is fundamentally antithetical to a price economy, labor will have been cut off from its raison d’etre.”
The process of securing the resources needed to create art can be dangerous because of their potential to alter the artist’s relationship to their work, according to Schwartz. “So much of trying to find material support for making art requires translating the meanings of the work into more readable forms for the people and institutions where the capital is consolidated – grant applications, artist statements , declarations of intent, etc.,” she said. “There is a serious risk that the prevalence of this form of appeal could, I think, change its relationship to the broad possibilities of the work itself.”
“What I thought was particularly lucky with the Whiting was that there was none of that,” she continued. “Someone was paying attention to work while they were doing [its] way in the world and felt that was enough to stress his future. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity and for the gathering [of artists]while considering that the particular strength of my gratitude also has to do with living in a world that manufactures scarcity for the greatest number.
Schwartz began her book while pursuing her doctorate in African American Studies, American Studies, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University, where she found herself studying at an institution that “has a deeply extractive relationship with its surrounding communities”.
“We were getting, for example, these emails telling us that someone had been assaulted on campus,” she said. “It produced a lot of fear, and there was, of course, nothing within the university that would adequately explain the larger context of police violence and surveillance – nothing enough to reflect on. what that fear allowed. On the contrary, much of what happens within the university is about making the structures of violence “human”, necessary, in the service of a “greater good”.
At the same time, she faced a tightly regulated epistemology — an epistemology she says is often described as “mastery performance” — as she began to prepare for her oral exams. “In many ways, the poems [in Civil Service] were a record of discomfort with this kind of disciplinary structure of knowledge,” Schwartz said. “They became the place where I could go further into my not-knowing, to construct the questions without having to correlate them to answers, which too often closed not only a given question, but an interrogative position where the inquiry becomes a hold-open mode.
It is in this environment that Civil service and his questioning of “the everyday where political regimes maintain themselves in a diffuse way”, as described in his summary, were born. “I was really starting to ask questions about what violence looks like, where I was taught to see urgency, and how my own fears and desires were produced,” she said. “These are ultimately the questions Civil service is concerned about.
This conception of knowledge and poetry also finds its roots in Schwartz’s time at the College where, despite her official degree in political science, she found her “academic home” in African studies (which did not exist as a as a department at the time) and new methods of learning through professors and peers. One such teacher was then African studies professor Stephane Robolin, who treated her as a “thinking partner” during a memorable meeting in Tunnel City, she said.
“Something changed for me in that conversation,” Schwartz said. “I started to take responsibility for my ideas in the world as a way of contributing to a social space. This deep attention – the transformative possibility of taking yourself seriously – is something that I try very hard to push forward.
“Africana studies have taught me to reject the idea that the current order of things is natural or inevitable,” she continued. “Poetry is also a place where I can practice generative distancing – where I can refuse to take language, the ordinary means of my life, for granted.”
Ultimately, Schwartz said she would always return to reading as the foundation of her work. “What I try to cling to is first the sense of myself as a reader – as someone moved by the long stories and the wide [presence] from the work of people who paid attention to what is and imagined what might be otherwise,” she said. “I want the practice of writing to remind me of the fact of my togetherness and to expand, in some way, the possibilities of our unity.”
When it comes to reading Civil service, Schwartz said there is no one way to read the collection. “This question about readership – how meaning is created and re-created in collaboration [process] — is really at the heart of the collection, but ultimately I don’t think that’s my question to answer; it’s a question I hope every reader will keep asking,” she said. “The reader’s questions will continue to change the meaning of these poems.”
It is with this identity as a reader that Schwartz approaches the future with measured hand and pen. “I think some things can take shape, but it’s important not to intercept the vast possibilities of their becoming with a name,” she said. “It seems particularly important to me to give the work time to find its form as I move from relationship to Civil service as an author – someone who can move the language inside the book – to a reader among readers.