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


At 2/19/2011 12:21 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

This text seems to me slightly different than what I heard at AWP.

At 2/19/2011 1:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you mean that Rankine edited the letter in a self-serving way when she presented it?

At 2/19/2011 1:09 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I doubt Rankine edited the Hoagland email for AWP. For instance, there was something in it about tribes, where he defends the idea of writing a poem for white people. I can't imagine she would add that.

What I'm guessing is that Hoagland is distributing a revised version.

At 2/19/2011 1:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, this is getting VEeeery interesting...

This is an important topic, obviously enough, and I'd say the discrepancy needs some bibliographic clarification by those involved.

Two other important recent cases where the issue of race and poetry reached fever pitch: Araki Yasusada and Michael Magee's Glittering Asian Gay Guys flarf poem. In the latter case, the vitriolic reaction Magee was subjected to (the poem was totally misunderstood, I think, perhaps in ways similar to how Rankine is misreading Hoagland?) led to his withdrawing from the poetry scene, and to my knowledge no one has heard from him since. The other Flarf poets more or less left Magee hanging, clearly cowered by the attacks. A shame, as Magee is a brilliant man, as poet, critic, and editor. This stuff has its consequences, let's keep in mind.

At 2/19/2011 1:30 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Claudia Rankine has posted this same email response from Hoagland on her website with an explanation about the discrepancies at :

“Those of you who heard his original AWP response will notice additions and deletions in this revised version.”

AWP will be posting at some point an audio version of the event. At that time people will hear the original Hoagland email.

I wouldn't call Rankine's reading of Hoagland as misreading, though I can understand how one might call it that. Hers is an available reading, but there are also other available readings. It's similar the the Magee moment (I don't remember the Yasusada moment clearly enough to comment), in that tone and stance are being played with. That a key feature of poetry, and Hoagland and Magee both make/made that a key feature in their aesthetic. It's loaded material, and sometimes that material explodes.

At 2/19/2011 1:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's interesting that he mostly lineates it. He's making it look like a poem? Why?

- Chris

At 2/19/2011 1:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Can you say anything about the specific differences you remember between the two versions, just provisionally?

It would be weird if Hoagland is presenting a santized version of some kind without saying so.

As for the Yasusada controversy, there's lots of stuff available on the web. Kent Johnson has mentioned there's a book of essays coming out about it. Are you there, KJ?

At 2/19/2011 1:56 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Good idea. I'll email KJ about it. But I think he's sworn off blogs after that misunderstanding a few weeks back.

As for the Hoagland. I can understand his desire to revise. He only had a couple days to work something up, and he's trying to walk a tricky line here between/among/within social actions and aesthetic considerations.

Mostly the deviations are to soften the tone, but there is one big moment, about tribes, that is now completely missing, and it played a large part in the AWP moment. Here it is as close as I can piece it together (I'm putting it in quotes even though it's not going to be exact):

"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 the past to the extreme present, have been written for African Americans? from James Weldon Johnson to Amiri Baraka?"

That seems an important point. As for the form of it. I’ve no idea why he would lineate it. Maybe that’s a comment on the occasion? Some prose vs poetry conversation? Who knows?

At 2/20/2011 12:52 PM, Blogger c.harris.stevens said...

that's just how he writes emails. negative capability, meet syntax. may you have many children and linebreaks.

At 2/20/2011 1:58 PM, Blogger poetperson said...

Dear John,

Tony Hoagland's response was posted on Claudia Rankine's website on February 17th (2 days before yours). It was given directly to her by Tony and with his approval. The revision was entirely his.

I understand why this "Anonymous" idiot would assume Ms. Rankine edited Tony's response. "Anonymous" is just an electronic version of a white hood.

You should reflect why people like this find comfort in a blog like yours. Your blog is filled with people who bend over backwards to try to understand and explain Tony Hoagland's motivations while calling into question Claudia Rankine's. You might want to ask yourself why this is?

All the facts are out there only the lies and idiot assumptions remain.

At 2/20/2011 2:20 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hi poetperson:

I disagree with your characterization of the comments on this blog. If you read through the full 50 or so comments on the previous post, you'll find the great majority criticizing Hoagland without making any (or little) mention of Rankine.

Yes, there are some who defend Hoagland's poem (and maybe, by extension, his email as well), but they by and large do so by saying he's performing an anti-racist action by shoving this "racially complex" speaker in our faces.

It's a difficult conversation to maintain without it getting heated, but I'm taking very seriously Rankine's call for a real conversation (her "Open Letter" call). One must allow everyone to the table if one is to have a conversation.

My own position on the issue is already clear on the previous post.

I believe the Anon you are pointing at had a real question. S/he was wondering what I was insinuating. And I answered that I felt Hoagland revised his email, which was then confirmed when I went to Rankine's website.

At 2/21/2011 7:46 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I've been sent a transcipt of the Hoagland email. It can be found here:

At 2/22/2011 7:46 AM, Blogger Gary said...

I don't know enough about the Hoagland poem and Rankine response to comment on its relationship to Michael Magee's poem and the response to it.

But I do want to say that Michael was not abandoned by the other flarfists, nor were they cowed by the response, as Anonymous suggests in his/her comment above.

For one thing, nearly everyone on the flarflist participated in the initial debate, offering their own thoughts about the poem and the way it was being interpreted:

Two years after the initial controversy died down, Small Press Traffic hosted a conference on "Aggression," wherein Michael's poem (and other work) loomed large.

I commented very publicly about it in Michael's defense:

Michael also participated in the 2008 Flarf Festival, again two years after that controversy died down.

Nada Gordon and I also had Michael read at Segue in October of 2006.

This is not to suggest that Michael hasn't kept a relatively low profile since then; he has, more or less, done that.


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