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


At 2/21/2011 8:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I understand TH's desire to edit his e-mail for a public debate, that moment presumably passed when he gave CR permission to read his e-mail at AWP (assuming he did). Editing out major components of the e-mail subsequently is just spooky. No? Yes? I know you've tried to be even-handed about both Hoagland and his poem on your blog, but this is just too weird. It reinforces my gut sense that having a serious conversation about race, poetry, or some combination of the two is not what this is about, to him.

At 2/21/2011 10:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Listen now that you are
dead we can be alone
you and I.
You're in my dreams
like a knife in a pillow
even though you stand
absentmindedly washing
a spotless plate in the dark
kitchen of my heart.
You taught me things.
Throwing darts
at the photograph
of the exonerated mayor,
drinking whiskey the color
of hopeless wheat,
your life was a chess
game missing a pawn.
You stood like a third
crutch forgotten
in a cripple's closet.
Your eyes were the green
of dimes the embalmer
doesn't find.
You sang like a man,
deeply and shy, but weren't
afraid to break your voice
like a lightstick.
Women loved you. I recall
the night two girls
arm-wrestled to see who
you were going to take home.
The smaller one won,
but you just drove her
down along the failed
levee. At the end
you said your belt
was becoming holier
and holier
until it was god
damn sacred.
You said, "I'd say
fuck death
if she wasn't
such a lame lay."
But the last thing
you said was,
"Life's a woman
crying over a tray
of darkroom chemistry
and we're none of us
quite in the picture."

- de Luna

At 2/21/2011 12:40 PM, Anonymous Daniel Casey said...

seems a long way around to not really address Rankine's reading but to say in that post-confessional sort of way, "yeah well, we all are, huh, go figure." nothing vital or intelligent has ever come from this stance. The stance mind you, not Hoagland, who I am very glad took the time to engage. Hopefully the conversation continues and evolves into a real discussion

At 2/21/2011 12:43 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I would like that. Have the conversation move on to something helpful. Rankine's trying to do that with her "Open Letter" project, though I didn't write anything for it . . .

At 2/21/2011 12:46 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Just glancing at the edited (and clarified?) version and this one, it seems to me that Hoagland realized he was dead in the middle of a minefield, but rather than tiptoe his way out (or call for a chopper), he'd rather bluster his way out. And maybe that'll work in some peoples' eyes. Doesn't work for me. I think Anonymous is right when s/he says that this really isn't about having a serious conversation about race or poetry or both for Hoagland, because if it was, he wouldn't be so quick to dismiss Rankine's criticisms. This feels a lot more like reputation defending to me.

At 2/22/2011 6:20 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


Yeah, I think that's what TH sees at stake here, so rather than offer any real constructive comments in his email, he chose to be condescending and dismiss her points as naive. After all, this is the Tony Hoagland who won two NEA Grants, a Guggenheim get the point.

At 2/22/2011 7:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What this is all really about is the fact that Tony Hoagland ripped off John Gallaher's cover art concept. Isn't it?

It's time to come clean. Full disclosure!

At 2/22/2011 4:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is Julio de Luna Sean Singer?

Thomas Brady

At 2/22/2011 4:37 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

To know how to answer that, I'd first have to know who Sean Singer is. As for De Luna, well, I recieved a little pile of papers at AWP stating that he died in a freak sledding accident in Carbondale . . .

Is Sean Singer much for sledding?

At 2/23/2011 6:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't play coy with me, Johnny. You know who Sean Singer is. The Singer sewing machine fortune? Maybe you've heard of it? The little pieces of paper...the little sleds...the singers out in the hall...?


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