Saturday, February 26, 2011

Your Father on the Train of Ghosts - Overture

Your Father on the Train of Ghosts – Overture’

Videos Four and Five from Your Father on the Train of Ghosts

John Gallaher
“Your Father on the Train of Ghosts”
from Your Father on the Train of Ghosts
co-written with G.C. Waldrep

John Gallaher
“Error as Beauty”
from Your Father on the Train of Ghosts
co-written with G.C. Waldrep

Friday, February 25, 2011

"Pain" & "Elegy" - Your Father on the Train of Ghosts

John Gallaher
“Pain Can Warn Us of Danger”
from Your Father on the Train of Ghosts
co-written with G.C. Waldrep

John Gallaher
“Elegy for the Most People”
from Your Father on the Train of Ghosts
co-written with G.C. Waldrep

Automated Town - Your Father on the Train of Ghosts

I’ve begun making videos of some of the poems from Your Father on the Train of Ghosts. The first one is for the opening poem, “Automated Town.”

John Gallaher
“Automated Town”
from Your Father on the Train of Ghosts
by G.C. Waldrep and John Gallaher

Albums 2011 that I like (so far)

Excellent Albums:

The Cave Singers, No Witch

David Lowery, The Palace Guards

Destroyer, Kaputt

East River Pipe, We Live in Rented Rooms

Radiohead, The King of Limbs

Good albums:

Banjo or Freakout, Banjo or Freakout

The Decemberists, The King Is Dead

Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean

The Low Anthem, Smart Flesh

Yuck, Yuck

Upcoming albums I’m looking forward to:

Peter, Bjorn & John, Gimme Some

R.E.M. Collapse Into Now

A couple big surprises so far this year:

First, I was certain the Radiohead wouldn’t be great. I just had a feeling. And then it came out and it’s absolutely excellent. It’s too short, and one song (“Feral”) is something of a throw-away, but the seven remaining songs are top shelf Radiohead. If it’s not my favorite album of the year, then something absolutely amazing must be heading my way.

The other big surprise was how much I really like the new albums from The Cave Singers and Destroyer. I really like them. Knowing both bands a little, I was interested in what they’d do this year, but I wasn’t putting them on my To Get Exited About list. And now, they’re right up there at the top. Go figure. Did they change or did I? (Probably a little of both. Certainly Destroyer changed . . . but The Cave Singers seem to be doing mostly what they've always done, I suddenly just like it a whole lot more.)

Other things:

The East River Pipe and David Lowery (Cracker / Camper Van Beethoven) were just what I thought they’d be. Very good continuances of the sorts of things they do. If you’ve ever liked either, you’ll like these. East River Pipe (which is really one guy, FM Cornog) is settling down a bit. The songs are a bit more relaxed, longer, and less absolutely drug-life soaked, so for me, this is probably my favorite ERP album. David Lowery plays mostly within the Cracker idiom here, but he allows himself a little looser, more casual delivery, which makes sense, as he’s been recording this album off and on for over a decade.


I’m not thinking as much about The Decemberists, The Low Anthem, and Iron & Wine as I thought I would. The albums aren’t bad, I’m just not rushing back to hear them again. Maybe that has more to do with how excellent the other albums are? They’re just being overshadowed? Maybe as time goes on, I’ll get more interested in them. The same with the new Lucinda Williams album, Blessed. And that's doubly too bad, because once again, when it comes to the music I listen to, it's very much a story of what white boys are up to.  This depresses me. Is it because of the genre?  Are women and non-whites not interested in making this kind of music?  Or is it somethign else?

(In a side note, this last week at The Laurel Review, we did a little research in the files and found out that yes, over my eight years here, 55 or so percent of the things we've published are by males, but we also found out that over 60% of our submissions are from males.)

On the near horizon:

Also I’ve heard several new tracks from Peter, Bjorn & John and R.E.M., which has me quite exited for what the albums are going to be like.

I’m looking forward to riding a meteor into a star . . .

and then what?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jean Valentine - Break the Glass

On the cover of Break the Glass is a shot of Antony Gormley's wonderful scultpures

For years, I had only one book by Jean Valentine, a hardback of Ordinary Things, that I got sometime in the mid 80s. I didn’t know much about her except for that book, which meant a lot to me.

Sometime in the 90s, she was suddenly everywhere. Her work was still interesting and I enjoyed catching up with her catalogue, but still, Ordinary Things was the book for me.

At AWP, I picked up a hardback of her newest book, Break the Glass, and I had a wonderful time reading it on the long trip home. It’s the first time I’ve read a book straight through in years.

It’s dedicated to Kate and Max Greenstreet, and that just adds to its charm, as I know Kate and Max as well. They’re very deserving of having a book dedicated to them, and I’m quite happy to see it’s this one.

I was working

I was working on cleaning up a house
before I left it.

The longest work every year was Clean the house
before we moved.

The mother as a child was always moving,
who knows why.

I, said the fly.
With my little eye.

If I clean up this house here long enough,
I can leave it.

But leave the eye next to where I
put my house, this way, that way—

“As with rosy steps the morn”

                                                  In memory of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

on the other side of the earth
standing upside down, listening,
Everyone on the reverse of the picture
on the other side of the measuring eye

The five notes, slowly, over & over,
and with some light intent,
And the whole air,
no edge, no center,

And the light so thin, so fast—


Don’t listen to the words—
they’re only little shapes for what you’re saying,
they’re only cups if you’re thirsty, you aren’t thirsty.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Hoagland AWP Email Transcript

In the interest of the historical record, and to allow the conversation around the AWP event that I was present at to remain as transparent as possible, I’m posting below the text of the email from Tony Hoagland that Claudia Rankine read.

I obtained the transcript from someone who had access to a recording of the event. From what I can tell, this is what I heard. If anyone wants to add anything or query anything in this, please feel free to comment.

I’m sure, from looking at the edited version that Tony Hoagland sent around, that this is not formatted properly. Other than that, though, it seems accurate to my recollection.

The second, revised version, can be found here:

Dear Claudia,

Thank you for inviting me to respond to your report on the subject of race in my poem “The Change.” To start off, let me say that I thought, back then, and I still think, that you seem naive when it comes to the subject of American racism, naive not to believe that it permeates the psychic collective consciousness and unconsciousness of most Americans in ways that are mostly ugly. The elements of that confusion are, as we all know, guilt, fear, resentment and wariness. Its sources are historical and economic and institutionalized. We drank racism with our mother's milk, and we re-learn it every day. That is one reason why it seems foolish and costly to think that the topic of race belongs only to brown skinned Americans and not white skinned Americans. But many poets and readers think that.

This is especially true in contemporary poetry where a poem is often presumed to be in the voice of the author. But I am not trying to dodge: of course I am a racist; and a sexist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a classist, a liberal, a middle class American, a college graduate, a drop out, an egotist, a Unitarian, a fool, a triple A member, a citizen of Texas, a lover of women, a teacher, a terrible driver, and a single mother. I’m an American; this software will not be undone by good intentions, or even good behavior. Let me challenge another one of your assumptions which seems under-considered: the idea that poems are not written for particular tribes of people, including categories of brown or white.

Is my poem written for white people? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. But can you believe for a moment that many many poems written by black Americans, from past to the extreme present, have been written for African Americans, from James Weldon Johnson to Amiri Baraka? Just as you find the posture of angry black person simplistic, I find the posture of apologetic liberal white person not just boring but useless. I don’t believe in explaining my poems to other poets; they are part of my tribe, and I hope they will figure things out, eventually. I want some of my poems to alarm people with their subjects and attitudes. In any case, I think poems can be not careful enough, but I also think poems should not be too careful.

When it comes to the subject of American race, it is something we all suffer, whether in our avoidance or confrontation. We need to be awakened and probably will need it for another fifty, or a hundred years? I would rather get dirty trying to dig it out of the ground, than make nice. I am easy in my conscience. Finally let me say that I think my poem “The Change” is not racist but racially complex.


Tony Hoagland

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dan Chiasson / Kent Johnson / Richards's [Fox's] LIFE

 Who's this guy?
The biggest picture is not always the big picture.

In which after a comment on this blog yesterday I go looking for Kent Johnson, and find him alive and well, reading a review of the new memoir of Keith Richards.

The review in question:

A relevant snippet: Dan Chiasson on Keith Richards’s Life:

“He is, however, also a marvelous sentence-maker, though every sentence seems cut short by the eruption (to the reader, inaudible) of phlegm from his lungs and the consequent coughing fit. This kind of spasm punctuates all of Richards’s spoken statements; you can hear it in any interview, and, in a book that feels entirely dictated, it also happens on the page.”

Well, it should feel dictated, because it was, and it seems exceptionally odd that Chiasson isn’t mentioning that. Over the span of five years, writer James Fox interviewed Richards, and then wrote the book from those interviews. It’s no big deal, of course. No shocking revelation there. Fox’s name’s on the cover and all . . . but still, Dan Chiasson, to all appearances, seems not to have noticed, as Kent Johnson says in a comment over at 3 Quarks Daily:

[From Kent Johnson]:


There is something really strange about this review.

Chiasson praises Richards's "writing" in distinctly effusive terms. He marvels at Richards's "sharpness" of phrasing, structure, and pace in wake of decades of heroin and whatnot. A few examples of Chiasson's esteem for KR's prose:

"You expect that his memoir would be written in the language-equivalent of those facial expressions, but Richards is and always has been a writer, one of the greatest songwriters in rock history."


"He is, however, also a marvelous sentence-maker [...]"

and concluding the review:

"[...] this splendid autobiography: sharpness, snarl, antisocial affability, immersion in music first, myth-making second, and above all (in prose, as on the guitar) a kind of virtuosity—a talent for life—that makes style beside the point."

Chiasson, even, fairly swoons over Richards's gifts for sculpting an overall tonal atmosphere appropriate to persona and "moral position," comparing him to none other than Thoreau:

"Richards elevates expertise, street smarts, tactical rather than strategic intelligence, industry, and adaptability over all forms of metaphysical cant... These are the Thoreauvian virtues, and Life is at times a kind of peregrine Walden."

Yet nowhere, so far as I can see, save in the heading beneath the title of the piece, is James Fox, the ghostwriter of Life, ever even mentioned. In context of a review that makes so much of the stylistic gifts of Keith Richards the prose writer, I'm not quite sure how on earth that could've happened.


Johnson's observation reveals an interesting moment of reviewer glaze, where the facts of a book’s production don’t fit the theme of the review and are overlooked.

Just in case you want to look further, here’s an interview with Fox that talks about how the book was written:

[Here’s a snippet]

Getting Keith Richards to sit still was the first problem.

“I’d have to catch him like a salmon,” says James Fox, the British journalist who spent five years wrangling the legendary Rolling Stones guitarist in service of Life, Richards’ new memoir, which debuted this week to rave reviews.

The effort spanned two continents and included countless hours lost to procrastination, says Fox, who pieced together the memoir from free-form interviews with the famously clever, witty, and drug-addled rocker. But after this initial “approach resistance”—after Fox managed to trap Richards in front of a microphone—he settled into a candid, colorful, and surprisingly lucid recounting of his years on the road with the Rolling Stones.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


I’ve been sent Tony Hoagland’s email that Claudia Rankine read at AWP. It was sent to me by someone who got it from Hoagland and who had Hoagland's permission to further distribute it. (NOTE: This version is different than what I heard at AWP. In several places quite different.)

Earlier posts on this topic:

[Addendum: I've been sent a transcript of the original Hoagland email. It can be found here:]


Dear Claudia,

Thank you for inviting me to respond to your AWP report
on the subject of race in my poem "The Change."

To start off, let me say that I thought, back when we were colleagues,
and I still think, that, to me, you are naive when it comes to the subject of
American racism, naive not to believe that it permeates the psychic
collective consciousness and unconsciousness of most Americans in ways that are
mostly ugly.

The elements of that confusion are, as we all know, guilt, fear, resentment, and wariness.
Its sources are historical and economic and institutionalized. We drank racism with our mother's milk, and we re-learn it every day, as we weave our way through our landscapes of endless inequality.

That is one reason why it seems foolish and costly to think that the topic of race belongs
only to brown skinned Americans and not white skinned Americans.
But many poets and readers think that.

This is especially true in contemporary poetry where a poem is often presumed to be in the voice of the author. I am not trying to sidestep-- of course I am racist; and sexist, a homophobe, a classist, a liberal, a middle class American, a college graduate, a drop out, an egotist, Diet Pepsi drinker, a Unitarian, a fool, a Triple A member, a citizen of Texas, a lover of women, a teacher, a terrible driver, and a single mother. Purity is not my claim, my game, nor a thing remotely within my grasp. I'm an American ; this tarnished software will not be rectified by good intentions, or even good behavior.

The poet plays with the devil; that is, she or he traffics in repressed energies.
The poet's job is elasticity, mobility of perspective, trouble-making, clowning and truth-telling. Nothing kills the elastic, life-giving spirit of humor more quickly-have you noticed?- than political correctness, with its agendas of rightness, perfection, enforcement, and moral superiority.

Just as you find the posture of “angry black person”
simplistic, I find the posture of “apologetic liberal white person”
not just boring, but useless.

I don't believe in explaining my poems to other poets; they are
part of my tribe, and I expect them to be resilient readers.

I want some of my poems to alarm people with their subjects and attitudes.
I think poems can be too careful. A poem is not a teddy bear.

When it comes to the subject of American race, it is a set of conditions we all
suffer, whether in our avoidance or confrontation. We will need to
be rousted for another fifty, or a hundred years.
I would rather get dirty trying to dig it out of the ground, than make nice.
I am easy in my conscience.

Finally let me say that I think my poem “The Change” is not “racist” but “racially complex.”


Tony Hoagland

The Nine Senses - Melissa Kwasny

The Nine Senses

Melissa Kwasny
(Milkweed Editions, 2011)

Tag End

The ribbons tap like fingernails on the glass when the wind blows. I have hung new ones, from my gifts, on the crossbars. I have packaged an interior, a valley of chimes. Unlimited, is another way to put this. The days are finished and the new ones begin. Here, perhaps, a handful that have no home. If I had wings, this is how I’d fold them, my arms wrapped around you. You, then, would be my divinity. This is how it works: they, those we love, drop off the ends of the earth. Something in our aging, which approves it. Look, I have white hair and yet my parents are still here. Does that make us less committed to each other? I think of the Hopi, the Navajo, in the southwest, dancing so the deer will continue. I think, as I have thought since I was young. Bestiary. Aviary. Imaginary. We overwatch the world. How many plum seasons we have abandoned.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Keith Tuma / After the Bubble / Chicago Review

Now look at the mess you made.

There are several strands in Keith Tuma’s essay “After the Bubble” in Chicago Review, but one that he’s quite interested in drawing our attention to is the relationship between poets and universities. Below are a few of the relevant bits from his essay. I’m working up something on it this afternoon, but since I went through and pasted the bits together, I thought I might as well put them up without editorializing. I hear that Chicago Review is going to be publishing reactions to it in their next issue. The full essay can be found following the link.

And when it pops, yikes!

If only because it is published by Norton, American Hybrid should turn out to be a widely read anthology, valuable to poets and readers who want to make the case for a new paradigm in American poetry in which partisanship is muted, and in which the old avant-garde, now at home in the university, morphs into the swarm of less uniformly and self-consciously oppositional poetries known as “post-avant.”

“Thriving center of alterity” also might work to describe the university at the time the anthology was imagined and assembled. One can’t call the poems in the anthology “academic poetry” because the term is beyond repair, as Swensen suggests, but most of the poets represented in the book teach creative writing at prestigious universities, with schools in California and the upper East Coast especially well represented. St. John teaches at USC, Swensen at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. From where I sit the anthology’s poets look like some of the most influential poets in the institutions currently most influential in shaping tastes, circulating opinion, and establishing value in poetry. If some of these institutions are thought to be better schools than others, or to offer easier access to forms of cultural capital, and if the university system is the most important site in American culture for defining poetic value, these poets are part of a hierarchy.

As the economy staggers, faculty and administrators in most American universities are obliged to cope with a reality where new resources are scarce and the organization of the university is under scrutiny. For the moment, MFA programs, which not long ago were growing like the real estate market, continue to crank out poets, but one wonders how long this can last. It might be that American Hybrid represents the end of an historical process that saw the poets and poetry of an avant-garde enter a university system that was itself expanding. One thing that the economic challenges confronting the university will surely do is pit the intellectual justifications for departments and their curricula against the realities of student demand and enrollment. At the moment, creative writing should be prouder of its success with enrollments than of its efforts to explain its value, while the opposite might be said of colleagues in literary and cultural studies. The little anecdotal information I have suggests that students increasingly view creative writing and literary study as distinct fields. That was not always the case. If they prefer creative writing, their reasons are various. Some have the idea that creative writing courses are more relevant to contemporary life because they study recent literature. Some students speak of what they take to be a greater focus on writing, which they see as a transferable skill. Fewer speak of the appeal of courses cultivating “creativity” as a complement to the analytical demands of other courses, fewer still of the pleasure of the text over and against the misery of historical and cultural criticism. GPAs in advance of graduate and professional school might figure too; it is easier to get an A in creative writing courses. In the future, creative writing could become part of a Department of Writing Studies, the cream on top of service courses in composition and upper-level courses in digital rhetoric, leaving literary studies behind. The Department of English could shrink to the size of the Department of Classics. Or maybe Media Studies will absorb literary studies as the location of a more pertinent, broader cultural analysis. Students just don’t read books anymore, I often hear; how long can the study of the book and literary history hold out? It is difficult to predict the outcome of the transformations now underway. But we can try to influence them.

Surging enrollments in creative writing surely contributed to the “bewildering precession of published titles” Craig Dworkin discusses in his introduction to The Consequences of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics, where he outlines options for the criticism of contemporary poetry. For Dworkin, critics faced with this much poetry can try to “graph and model the complex poetic ecosystem itself” in the way that Franco Moretti analyzed the novel in nineteenth-century Europe, or they can abandon “the dream of comprehensive knowledge altogether” in order to write about “isolated singularities” in a “local, focused, specialized, and ad hoc” criticism featuring “quick and rich descriptions of what it means for the text in question to be considered a poem” combined with “persuasive evaluation of its urgency.” St. John clearly recommends the latter as the proper path for criticism. The danger is losing sight of the institutions that shape poetic and critical practice. Giving up on the effort to characterize, however partially, the larger field, is exactly the wrong thing to do now, when the overproduction of poets combined with fewer good jobs in the university seems destined to change the map of the field.

Perhaps our reluctance to talk about poetry and the university is a new form of an older reluctance to talk about art and money. Most poets have not felt it necessary, or have found it pedestrian, to justify creative writing’s—or, for that matter, poetry’s—place in the university, though of course there are ways they might. Charles Bernstein has argued that scholars of literature work against the “backdrop” of current literary production: contemporary practice informs commentary about the poetry of the past. This view should be attractive to creative writers who teach poetry writing beside the history of poetry or view practice as a mode of inquiry. At least Bernstein has thought about what creative writing might be doing and how it relates to literary or cultural studies. Bernstein rejects the distinction between creative writing and cultural studies in favor of the transdisciplinary field of poetics, the study of signifying practices: “Signifying practices have only art from which to copy.” He suggests that experimental writing provides models to help academic writing combat “frame lock,” calcified disciplinary and discursive conventions that limit thought and expression. In 1999, Bernstein thought creative writing programs were “locked” in a “counterproductive antagonism with English departments.” Eleven years later there is not much evidence that his influence, whatever his own profile, has changed that situation, either in creative writing or cultural studies. In American Hybrid, Swensen indicates that poets now wonder whether creative writing would be better off in the fine arts, which would mean abandoning the English department and the humanities and perhaps the dream of mutual influence Bernstein describes. She does not propose a destination for the creative writing program, and instead argues that the “inability to fit neatly into any department or school…will keep contemporary poetry from ever getting subsumed by the academy, thus guaranteeing it a sufficient degree of autonomy to follow its own course while also staying informed on the intellectual issues of the day, which are indispensable to that course.” Her remarks clearly predate the worst of recent news about university budgets. The important question now is not whether creative writing will be “subsumed” by the university but to what degree, and in what forms, it will be supported. Instead of worrying too much about what constitutes a sufficient degree of autonomy, poets who want to work in the university would do well to suggest what would represent an effective engagement with the discourses of the university.

Barrett Watten seems almost alone in his recognition of mutual influence between the academy and contemporary poetry. He dismisses the naïve, romantic idea that the professoriate has no role in shaping taste or poetic practice, and the idea that poets working as professors are not influenced by academic discourse. The university matters whether we like it or not, and many of us seem to like it, a lot. Discussing his own career and work in volume nine of The Grand Piano, Watten writes, “As a poet, I worked to achieve my professorship, and changed in the course of doing so. This took place in real time and space, in a sequence of stages.” Watten changed, or his work changed, because the “offer of legitimacy” attached to his professorship required him to take a position “within their discourse.” (It may not be surprising that the offer of legitimacy was tendered when it was—given the proximity between the foundations of Watten’s poetics and the dominant academic discourse of the 80s and 90s). And yet, for Watten, taking a position within the academy is not the same thing as fully accommodating its discourse. One always has the opportunity to resist its influence or try to redefine its terms. Watten directs a withering irony at the idea that “poet and philosopher are of superior rank, as opposed to the deficient status of the professor.” Being a poet and being a professor are “respective capacities,” he allows, and the “differential” between them serves both well. But in order for this differential to have value, one needs some account of where and how the interests and projects of poets and professors might diverge, as well as where they overlap, and therefore some account of what these interests are in the first place.

It's not just work, it's a fashion statement!

For Watten, the “legitimacy” of his professorship properly “stems from the moment of [an] encounter” with his students, an encounter that allows him to learn about “the world my students come from and the world I am in.” Similarly, “The origin of poetry is its encounter with the other, generalized as the othering of oneself.” The counter-example Watten mentions is Ron Silliman, whose “disclaimer of legitimacy” is evident in his nonhierarchical, inclusive practice as a poet, if not always in his remarks about poetry. But Watten notes that Silliman’s position on poetry and the university has changed. An earlier claim that “the MLA can’t read” and sense of an “unbridgeable gap” between poet and university has been replaced by a “more cautious account of hegemony from the multiple sites we struggle in, including the universities where many of us work.” Watten notes that Silliman also continues to argue that poetry is “accountable first to the public judgments of poets before those of canonizing institutions.”

This bubble is worth waaaay more than yours.

Swensen’s understanding of the role of creative writing in the university is suggested by her citation of a modernist discourse about precision—the discourse of Mallarmé, Pound, Eliot, and others. Poets work on behalf of “the integrity of the language in the face of commercial and political misuse,” she writes. Poetry refines the “language of the tribe.” This line is a little thin by this point, and Swensen doesn’t say how studying poetry is better suited for such therapy than the writing of geographers or botanists. Nor is it obvious that a modernist cult of precision serves either poetry or politics all that well. I don’t have a better rationale for creative writing’s role in the university to offer and want for the moment only to note what appears to be weak interest in debating the issue.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Radiohead - The King of Limbs

NEW YORK (AP) — Radiohead is releasing its eighth studio album, this time with a price.

The band announced Monday that its latest release, "The King of Limbs," will be available as early as Saturday. Unlike its last pay-what-you-want album, "In Rainbows," this one will have a price.

Fans can pre-order an MP3 download for $9 or a higher-quality WAV version for $14. For approximately $50, there's also an extensive "Newspaper Album" that includes two vinyl records and deluxe packaging.

The band didn't explain its pricing philosophy this time around. Its "In Rainbows" release in 2007 was seen as radical at the time, and was generally viewed as both lucrative and popular.

Lotus Flower

I've listened to The King of Limbs a few times now, and it's really quite good. It's very easy to listen to, even as it has moments (as radiohead albums tend to after OK Computer) where it seems like each member of the band is trying to break into a different song.

The drawback to the album is, well, the fact that it's only eight songs long, and one of them, "Feral" is a kind of cut-up instrumental (with vocals) that isn't nearly as intersting as "National Anthem" was. So then, for me at least, it's seven songs long. Just over 30 minutes.

But that's maybe a good quibble. Those seven songs are quite good. A few of them, "Lotus Flower," "Give Up the Ghost," and "Separator" are really quite excellent and fresh sounding. At its best, it's a subtle album. And even kind of upbeat and happy (in a Radiohead, downbeat and unhappy, kind of way).

I added the song that was floating around a year or so ago, "These Are My Twisted Words" to my playlist for the album, and that helped fill it out.

The Changing Times / Craig Morgan Teicher / Cradle Book

Craig Morgan Teicher
Cradle Book (BOA 2010)

The Changing Times

There is not much to say now, though of course there never was.  Whatever was said was just a repetition, perhaps a slight rephrasing, of something someone already said, as this is, and as whatever is said after this will be.  No one is fooling anyone, though that does not stop most people from pretending they’re fooled, because pretending feels much better.  Even if no one now feels much better than anyone ever did.  It’s not even hard for anyone to think things are different.  In fact, the most amazing thing is how easy it is to think anything at all. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Rankine at AWP Part 3: Tony Hoagland's Email Response

After Claudia Rankine read her response to Tony Hoagland’s poem, “The Change,” she then said that she was going to read an email response from Tony Hoagland to her response to the poem.  She said that she sent him her response that she intended to read at AWP, and that he was welcome to respond.  She told the crowd that he only had two days to respond to her, and thanked him (or something to that effect) for graciously sending something along. 

The rest is just going to be from notes (mine and others’, complied) and memory.  If anyone has any recollections they would like to add, please do. 

He started off with “Dear Claudia.”  And then thanked her for inviting him to respond to her report on his poem.  I’m quite certain he used the word “report.”  And that, I think, is part of the reason why people are characterizing his response as condescending. 

Adding to that, the very next thing he wrote was to the effect that when he was invited to her class to talk about the poem, he felt that she seemed naïve regarding the subject of American racism.  He added to that that he still thinks that way.  Racism, he wrote, was ingrained in the collective experience and collective unconscious of most Americans in mostly ugly ways, stemming from various forms of guilt and fear and resentment and lack of trust.  The causes of this racism have been with us since the beginning of the country and are now written deeply into the economic and institutional framework of our society. 

Because of this large, steamroller of an issue, it seems to Hoagland foolish that the topic is only allowed to be seen through the eyes of brown skinned Americans. 

This is when he brought in the poem itself, by saying that people tend to read contemporary dramatic monologues as the voice of the poet.  There is a difference between the voice of the poem and the actual poet.  He then said that, even so, yes, he is a racist.  But he’s also many other things, including a AAA member, a homophobe, a Unitarian, and a single mother, as all are personae. 

He then defended the idea of tribes, saying that many poems by African Americans are written for African Americans, he believes.  But also, he believes that poets, who he also considers his tribe, will figure out what he means. 

He feels that, just as Rankine finds the dichotomy of the old black person and the new black person to be reductive, he also finds the counter idea of the apologetic white person to be a waste of time.  He wants his poems to alarm people, at least some of the time, and that poems should not be too careful in approaching sensitive subject matter, like race.  We all have to deal with the subject of race in America.  We can deal with it by confronting it or by running away from it.  And his conscience is clear for how he’s dealing with the issue.  His poem is not racist, he asserts.  It is, like America, racially complex. 

Addendum (2/19/11):

I've been sent a revised version of Hoagland's email with permission to post it. It can be found here:

Rankine at AWP Part 2

After Nick Flynn’s reading of the Hoagland poem, there was scattered applause.  As well, during the reading, some of the laugh lines (the dummy bit, and the Vondella Aphrodite bit) got laughter as well.  Having read the poem before, and having had conversations with friends about it and the complex tonal relationships Tony Hoagland has with subject matter, race, especially, I knew what was about to happen, but looking around at the crowd, it seemed that most of them hadn't realized yet. 

Very quickly, though, as Claudia Rankine began her response, everyone snapped to a different sort of attention.  Instead of a response poem, she read the following.  She’s since posted it on her website, (, under the CRITICISM link, there’s one called AWP.  If you click on that, you’ll go to the following:

I don’t like using the word racist because if you use it it means you are an angry black person. Angry black people are the old black and everyone knows that’s pathological. The new black is accomplished, assimilated, and integrated. The new black reaches across the aisle. The old black is positioned in a no-win situation where to express an opinion based on what you see, experience, fell or deduce risks falling right into some white folk’s notion of black insanity.

It’s not a chance to take. The path is preordained: to think this is to be that. Don’t go there. Don’t be like that. Supreme Court Justice Roberts simply forgot the right words to swear in our first black President. He was probably nervous. Don’t go there. Don’t be like that.

So if white people are not allowed to use the n-word, and we know that is an understanding rarely disregarded, then apparently black people are not allowed to use the r-word or, in news jargon, play the race card. But sometimes, I have found, you have to hazard a little insanity.

I once had a colleague who wrote what some readers perceived to be a racist poem. “When I first read it I thought, “What?”


Why I stuttered I don’t know but sometimes the purity of an emotion gets tripped-up thought: This poem is an exploration of narcissism in our society, perhaps. Nonetheless, certain phrases from the poem stuck in my craw. Phrases like “I couldn’t help wanting/ the white girl,” this “tough European blond,” “to come out on the top, /because she was one of my kind, my tribe,/ with her pale eyes and thin lips” were being “pitted” against phrases like “so big and so black,” “big black girl from Alabama” with “cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms” and “some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite.” Were these phrases intended as a performance of the n-road?

I let the book close on the desk and stared out the window through non-existent trees. There is a parking lot out there. And through my emotions can at times feel wrongheaded, sometimes you just have to say it – what the fuck? It took me a minute, the kind that folds out into months, to get over the actual words on the page.

When I brought my gaze back to the poem, rereading it, it occurred to me the poet was outing a certain kind of white thought. I already knew the nice white lady and her husband who always held the door open for me (thank you )might be thinking of me as the “so big and so black,” “big black girl from Alabama,” but I wanted my colleague to tell them right there in his poem that that kind of thinking.. well, it’s just not right. But his point, it seemed, was this whiteness thinking, surely not all of whiteness, and the black girl as “unintimidated” as she was simply a sign of the end of the twentieth century. Lord, the times they are a changing. And for this brand of whiteness that is where that thinking stopped.

When asked what his thinking was while working on the poem, my colleague said this poem is for white people. Did he mean it was for white people to see themselves and their thinking? He did not say that. He said it was for white people.

What I heard was, I don’t need to explain myself to you, black girl. And though the last time I looked in the mirror I looked like my black mother, and not how she looked when she was a child, I was transporting the language of the poem, black girl, to refer to myself and getting even angrier and though I realized this was me thinking as him, and not in fact him speaking, when offense is being taken offense is heard everywhere, even in the imagination.

And because I could taste the vomit of Reconstruction and slavery in the back of my throat, I wasn’t saying much, but he was starting to shout at me so in his imagination somebody else must have been speaking. Needless to say, before our conversation started it was over. I cans still see myself back then confused at the rate of escalation, given that I was so used to everyone reassuring everyone that everyone accepted everyone and race didn’t matter. Who let America in the room? How did things get out of hand so quickly? I sometimes wonder if one of us had had the presence of mind to say, easy slave girl, slow down grand Wizard, could anyone have laughed.

As I walk across the parking lot I wonder why he didn’t just say his poem is for white people because it is calculated to make them feel uncomfortable in the grey areas. No one was calling for a lynching in this poem, which we all know as criminal, racist behavior, but this other thing, this lack of support for the American tennis player, this identifying by skin color with anyone else across the Atlantic simply because the one right in front of you has black skin and claims all the same rights, was that not too racism? I imagine there were a trillion ways to worry my question, whish is to say, he might have treated me like a friendly colleague asking a real questing since the book was in the bookstore without a Whites Only sticker.

I was black people and I, as his colleague, had taken the time to read his book as an act of collegial support and respect. Instantaneously, my collegial assumption, the visibility I was claiming, the shared space, seemed like his moment of what? What! In short, his answer sounded like fighting words. And they were. And they weren’t.

As I turn his answer around and around like an object I am trying to find a place to store, I see it burns at both ends. Perhaps by invoking the “whites only” language of Reconstruction, he was suggesting his poem, as a language act, lived in that place. But even with this positioning, it’s not clear he wasn’t also directing historically exclusionary signifier at me – he was after all speaking to me – but I really can’t speak for him.

Not long ago I was in a room where someone asked the philosopher Judith Butler what made language hurtful. I could feel everyone lean forward. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she said. We suffer from the condition of being addressable, by which she meant, I believe, there is no avoiding the word-filled sticks and stones of others. Our emotional openness, she added, is borne, in both its meanings, by our addressability. Language navigates this.

For so long I thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase me as a person, but after considering Butler’s remarks I begin to understand myself as rendered hyper-visible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that I am present. My alertness, my openness, my desire to engage my colleague’s poem, my colleague’s words, actually demands my presence, my looking back at him. So here I am looking back and as insane as it is, saying, please.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Rankine at AWP Part 1

To understand the call for open letters that Claudia Rankine sent out earlier today, I feel it's worthwhile to attempt to reconstruct as much as possible the event at AWP that she refers to.

Part one, then, is the poem in question. It was read by Nick Flynn. The event started with Claudia Rankine going to the podium and then saying (I'm going from memory so I might get things wrong) that as she's been writing plays recently she's not in much of a poetry space and that she was going to do something more like a performance rather than a poetry reading. Or something to that effect. Then she said that Nick Flynn was going to start things off by reading "The Change" by Tony Hoagland.

One additional bit.  Tree Swenson, who did the introductions of Claudia Rankine and Charles Wright, had an odd tone to her introductory remarks. She started with some comments about AWP as a place where we can all come together, from our positions of disagreement and difference.  It seemed odd, but then once Rankine began, it made more sense. Swenson was very neutral in her tone, and after Rankine's performance, she [Tree Swenson] got up and introduced Charles Wright directly, without commenting on what had just happened. Wright, as well, gave his reading without any comments about Rankine or her performance.  Not that they should or shouldn't have. I'm just reporting.

Part two (the response from Rankine) and part three (the email response to her response from Tony Hoagland that she read [as best as I can remember/reconstruct]) will go up tomorrow.

The Change
Tony Hoagland

The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.

Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—

The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
and the new president proves that he's a dummy.

but remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes

some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—

We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,

putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,

and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
and I,
I couldn’t help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,
because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips

and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
so unintimidated,

hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,
like she wasn't asking anyone's permission.

There are moments when history
passes you so close
you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
and touch it on its flank,

and I don't watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,
but I could feel the end of an era there

in front of those bleachers full of people
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes

as that black girl wore down her opponent
then kicked her ass good
then thumped her once more for good measure

and stood up on the red clay court
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.

And the little pink judge
had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,
still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing

and in fact, everything had already changed—

Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,

and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.

Claudia Rankine / Open Letter

Dear friends,

As many of you know I responded to Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change” at AWP. I also solicited from Tony a response to my response. Many informal conversations have been taking place online and elsewhere since my presentation of this dialogue. This request is an attempt to move the conversation away from the he said-she said vibe toward a discussion about the creative imagination, creative writing and race.

If you have time in the next month please consider sharing some thoughts on writing about race (1-5 pages).

Here are a few possible jumping off points:

• If you write about race frequently what issues, difficulties, advantages, and disadvantages do you negotiate?

• How do we invent the language of racial identity--that is, not necessarily constructing the "scene of instruction" about race, but create the linguistic material of racial speech/thought?

• If you have never written consciously about race why have you never felt compelled to do so?

• If you don’t consider yourself in any majority how does this contribute to how race enters your work?

• If fear is a component of your reluctance to approach this subject could you examine that in a short essay that would be made public?

• If you don’t intend to write about race but consider yourself a reader of work dealing with race what are your expectations for a poem where race matters?

• Do you believe race can be decontextualized, or in other words, can ideas of race be constructed separate from their history?

• Is there a poem you think is particularly successful at inventing the language of racial identity or at dramatizing the site of race as such? Tell us why.

In short, write what you want. But in the interest of constructing a discussion pertinent to the more important issue of the creative imagination and race, please do not reference Tony or me in your writings. We both served as the catalyst for this discussion but the real work as a community interested in this issue begins with our individual assessments.

If you write back to me by March 11, 2011, one month from today, with “OPEN LETTER” in the subject heading I will post everything on the morning of the 15th of March. Feel free to pass this on to your friends. Please direct your thoughts to

In peace,


"Egypt is free!"

"Egypt is free!"

Now comes the hard part.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Claudia Rankine / Albums of 2011

I’m back after the big yearly trip to the AWP Bookfair. And then coming back to the disaster of catching up. So I’m slowly catching up, and I’ll be posting soon on several things/thoughts I had or saw while in DC.

Claudia Rankine’s reading was quite interesting. If you haven’t heard about it, she started off by having Nick Flynn read Tony Hoagland’s poem “It Changed” (I think that’s the title?), and then she read her reaction to its depiction of race. Then she read an email reaction to her reaction from Tony Hoagland (wherein he calls her thoughts on race naive). Finally, she read her reaction to Hoagland’s reaction. I hope the whole thing gets put up somewhere.

Other things: The idea that somehow irony and sincerity are an opposing binary. I’d like to think more about that. And then various other ticks and tocks, including a new season of albums that are out or coming out over the next few months.

Already out

British Sea Power - Valhalla Dancehall

Destroyer - Kaputt

John Vanderslice – White Wilderness

Deerhoof - Deerhoof Vs. Evil

Apex Manor (ex-The Broken West) - The Year Of Magical Drinking

Robert Pollard - Space City Kicks

Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde

Tennis - Cape Dory

Hands & Knees - Wholesome

The Decemberists - The King Is Dead

Death - Spiritual, Mental, Physical

Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean

The Radio Dept. - Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002-2010

Mean Creek - Hemophiliac EP

One Happy Island / Standard Fare - Standard Fare on One Happy Island

David Lowery – The Palace Guards


Asobi Seksu – Fluorescence (2/15)

Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots (2/15)

Bright Eyes – The People's Key by (2/15)

Cowboy Junkies – Demons (Songs of Vic Chesnutt) (2/15)

Sonic Youth — Simon Werner a Disparu (2/15)

Eksi Ekso – Brown Shark, Red Lion (2/15)

Lifeguards (Robert Pollard & Doug Gillard) - Waving at the Astronauts

East River Pipe - We Live In Rented Rooms (2/15)

Jonny (Norman of Teenage Fanclub & Euros of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci)

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Telekinesis - 12 Desperate Straight Lines

Yuck – Yuck

Twilight Singers - Dynamite Steps

Beach Fossils - What a Pleasure EP

The Low Anthem – Smart Flesh


Lucinda Williams – Blessed

Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer

Middle Brother – Middle Brother

Buffalo Tom - Skins

R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now

Wye Oak - Civilian

Brave Irene (featuring Rose Melberg) - self-titled debut EP (3/15)

Eleventh Dream Day - Riot Now! (3/15)

The Joy Formidable - The Big Roar (3/15)

J. Mascis - Several Shades of Why (3/15)

Acid House Kings - Music Sounds Better With You (3/22)

Eldridge Rodriguez (of The Beatings) - You Are Released (3/22)

Mars Classroom (Robert Pollard w/Gary Waleik of Big Dipper) – The New Theory of Everything

The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck (3/29)

Obits - Moody, Standard and Poor (3/29)

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Belong (3/29)


The Feelies – Here Before (4/12)

Low – C’mon (4/12)

Jonny (Norman of Teenage Fanclub & Euros of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci) -- self-titled debut (4/12)

The One AM Radio - Heaven Is Attached By A Slender Thread

Bill Callahan (Smog) - Apocalypse (4/19)

Explosions In The Sky - Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

Centro-matic - Candidate Waltz

Other Things

Idaho - "Revoluta" (May?)

Fleet Foxes - "Helplessness Blues" (May 3)

Crooked Fingers - TBA

LoveLikeFire - "Dust" (physical version in Spring, out now digitally)

Southeast Engine - "Canary" (Spring)

David Bazan - "Strange Negotiations"


Wild Flag – full-length TBA, 7-inch in March

The Wooden Birds - TBA

Hallelujah the Hills - record album III

Beach Fossils - TBA

Thurston Moore - Benediction

Pinback - TBA

Ladybug Transistor - TBA

The Sheila Divine

The Rationales - "The Distance In Between

M83 – full-length TBA

Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee, Vol. 2

Death Cab For Cutie – TBA

Kate Bush - TBA

The Maybes

Big Dipper

Gary Waleik (of Big Dipper) and Bob Fay

You Can Be A Wesley

Camera Obscura



The Shins

The Long Winters

The Wrens