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.