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:
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.