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 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,
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,
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.