Tiana Clark is a writer, poet and professor at Vanderbilt University. I was introduced to her work amidst Covid and began an absolute deep dive into her poetry. She is a writer with super intentionality in her words and has a true sense of the gift God has given her. She naturally speaks with positive reinforcements that will have you saying amen and nodding in agreement all at the same time. Her pursuit of becoming a poet and crafting a purpose-filled career is definitely one to applaud. Here is Tiana’s Nashville story.
What are you creating right now in Nashville?
I’m currently working on my third book of poetry as well as a nonfiction project. I’m really excited about the new book. It’ll be a collection of longer poems investigating desire and longing. It’s my first foray into nonfiction writing. I started writing essays a few years ago. I actually wrote an essay a while ago that went viral on Buzzfeed about Black burnout and I got some interest from agents wanting me to do more projects and essays. So this new project will kind of be in the same realm. I feel very fortunate to be able to live my passion and have my career align with my passion.
What led you down this path of creative writing and poetry?
I had an incredible creative writing teacher at Hume-Fogg High School in downtown. There are not many high schools with creative writing programs anymore, which makes me sad. At Hume-Fogg, you can take two years of creative writing. My teacher was this older poet who was writing during the beat generation of the 60s and 70s, and he introduced me to contemporary poetry. When you’re 16 and so full of emotion, you don’t really know how to handle poetry and decipher through all of those abstract feelings, but it was something that I actually felt I was good at. When you’re young and you find that one thing, it feels very powerful. Of course, at that time, I didn’t know that I could do anything with poetry. It was just this personal hobby that was really rewarding and cathartic.
I went off to TSU and had an internship one summer at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture in Harlem. I was studying the Harlem Renaissance and all of these poems kept bubbling up in my mind.
Fun fact, Langston Hughes’ ashes are actually spread underneath the Schomburg, so it felt like he was speaking to me and telling me I was meant to be a poet.
Honestly, I was kind of afraid because I didn’t have a road map of how to pursue poetry as a career. I Google’d all of these different things until I found these Masters in Fine Arts programs and the top result was a program at Vanderbilt and they actually pay you to go! It’s one of the top programs. The program only takes three poets and three section writers a year. Long story short, my high school creative writing teacher helped me with my application, I took the GRE and didn’t get in. I was crushed of course, but decided to just keep plugging into the Nashville community. I found this group at the Global Education Center of Women from all different ages and ethnicities that met once a month to write poetry. I plugged into that group and found this fellowship amongst other woman writers. I decided to create my own sort of DIY MFA program for 3 years and was involved in open mic nights, and readings. I also created my own workshop group.
I had this new edge now and decided to try Vanderbilt one more time. It had been 3 years, so I’d grown as a writer. In the application, I wrote that I applied once before and didn’t get in, but the difference is that this time, I didn’t need Vanderbilt to really pursue poetry. And, this time, I was accepted into the Vanderbilt program and my career kind of took off from there. It was all in God’s timing. I needed those three years to really find my community and that fellowship. I think a lot of people wait for others or another institution to give them permission to do something, when you can give yourself permission.
Once you go into Vanderbilt, did you feel like it was worth the wait?
Absolutely. I think the timing was perfect. It’s interesting because I was married at the time when I got into the program, and my husband got me these sort of prophetic Vanderbilt pajamas as a way of saying “‘you’re gonna get in.” It was perfect because I think I needed to find my voice outside of graduate school. So often, what you think is your dream, you get to a new step and then there’s another mountain to climb. When I got to graduate school, the program was not easy, but luckily I had already built this community outside of academia where the people knew me and loved me and there was no competition. I had a source of support and validation that I needed when I got to graduate school. If I had gotten in the first time without that community behind me, graduate school would have crushed me. Also, I had already grown as a writer. By the time I got to Vanderbilt, I already had about 40 to 50 poems and was working toward shaping the idea of my first book. When I graduated, I already had the draft of my first full-length collection. People say “success is when preparation meets opportunity.”
What does your writing process look like?
There’s a couple things. I believe that when you’re any type of writer no matter the genre, you’re interested in people’s stories and you’re paying constant attention to the world. With that being said, I’m always attuned or taking notes in my phone or listening to clips of conversation or whatever. I think when you’re a writer, you’re open to every single detail. And I think the difference between an amateur and a professional is the follow up on those leads. I also don’t really believe in writer’s block. I feel that when you’re in a capitalist society as a writer, your worth is tied to your product and output.
Every time I write doesn’t have to be a poem or story or a blog post. I look at writing as a form of experimentation and play. That might be me freewriting, or jotting down notes, or journaling. I also think reading is writing. It doesn’t have to be physically writing all the time. When I do feel that block, it’s a sign that I need to rest. I don’t think we place enough value on the process part of writing. Sometimes a lot of writing happens before it gets to the page. Sometimes you have to let those ideas ferment in darkness before you put it on the page. I often tell my students to not force those ideas. I think for many of us, especially black women, we push ourselves to the point of exhaustion. When I’m running on fumes, nothing good comes from that. Of course there are deadlines to meet, but in the grand scheme of things, we should value rest more.
Do you think being in Nashville helped fuel your career trajectory?
Absolutely. I like to think that if you have a calling, it’ll happen no matter what, but Nashville was extremely integral in my creative life because of Hume-Fogg High School and my amazing creative writing teacher. Teachers don’t get enough credit for their impact. Also, my awesome creative writing community. I met so many amazing people here and the experience was just really beautiful and so supportive. I felt so uplifted by that community. Then the Vanderbilt community basically launched my whole professional career. I’m very much made and bred by the Nashville community and I don’t think I’d be the writer I am today without it. So much of my writing centers around Nashville. One of my most famous poems was featured in The New Yorker and is called “Nashville.” This city is very much tied to me and I am tied to Nashville. It;s funny because I keep trying to escape Nashville and it keeps bringing me back, so this is definitely home.
Do you have an affirmation for anyone who may be inspired to write?
My biggest affirmation is always to trust and shape your imagination.
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