Post AWP Buzz: Dunn and Hoagland and Rankine

by Laura McCullough on February 10, 2011

The end of AWP (Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference) is always charged, and certain events stand out: two that did this year are, first, The Stephen Dunn Tribute (disclaimer: I ran it) with over 400 in attendance and rousing panel presentations by BJ Ward, Kurt Brown, Kathy Graber, Peter Murphy, Andrea Budy, and myself, followed by Stephen reading, a standing ovation, an encore poem, and a second standing ovation. There was weeping. For Dunn-ophiles, a fabulous moment. The feedback has been vivid and intense. One example: a young poet, under thirty, said to me, “I’d never heard this guy read, and you guys on the panel really hyped him, and the expectations were so high, and then Stephen Dunn read and blew past all my expectations. He was just awesome.” Did I say there was weeping?

The other event that everyone is talking about is what might be called  a drive-by shooting by Claudia Rankine of Tony Hoagland by some people and by others a necessary response (disclaimer: I wasn’t there; I was running the Dunn Tribute), but judging by the Facebook comments since and fury in the bar following the event, man, she got him good. Racism. That hurled spear again (disclaimer: in the Sept/Oct. issue The American Poetry Review, I have a large, around 5K WC, essay on Hoagland’s latest book in which I address the issue of perceived racism in TH’s poems among other things, so I have had much to say on how I think those poems have been misread; see excerpt below).  I wanted to know know what Rankine’s real comments were before judging them and not just  go by the the frenzied responses that may or may not really represent what she said.  Here’s a link to her essay (where it says “criticism,” click below on *AWP).

I’d like to know what you all think.  Here is a link to a blogger who was there for Rankine’s comments.

Here’s the excerpt of my essay in Sept/Oct 010 APR (another disclaimer, the Nov/Dec issue of APR had a letter from Dwayne Betts in response to my essay; the Jan/Feb 011 issue has an essay by Jason Schneiderman in which he mentions my essay and the unresolved issues of race and identity in poetry) The excerpt deals with another of Hoagland’s poems that caused some stir:

The Mortal Coil is Sprung: A review of Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty by Tony Hoagland

By Laura McCullough

The spring 07 issue of The American Poetry Review ran eleven poems by Tony Hoagland, and that summer the Bread Loaf Writers Conference was abuzz with the things it is always abuzz with, but with one notable theme: the passionate debate about whether “Tony Hoagland is a racist.” Brigit Pegeen Kelly held a talk on his poem, “America.” Dwayne Betts held forth that he wanted to study with Tony even if he was a racist. Natasha Trethaway said she wished more white poets would write about race. Major Jackson wrote a piece that appeared in the fall issue of APR that year in part in response to the raging Internet “conversation” on the “question of Tony.” In the rangy and very thoughtful essay, “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black,” Jackson wrote, “Tony Hoagland is probably the most controversial white poet writing about race today.” He was largely referring to some of the poems that had appeared in Hoagland’s previous full length collection, What Narcissism Means to Me, but what really seemed to pop the lid off the can was his poem, “Hinge” in the March/April APR issue.

“Hinge” begins, “Last night on the TV the light brown African American Professor/ looked at the printout analysis of this own DNA/ and learned that he was mostly Irish.” Hoagland was, of course, using as his “triggering town,” ala Richard Hugo, the famous Henry Louis Gates, Jr. famous for, well, a lot of things, including his own public outing in his second DNA test sequence (the first having shown he was of African descent), the second, shockingly, revealing mostly European (read: white) genetics. Gates’ fascination with genetics and lineage are explored in the 2006 and 2008 PBS shows, African American Lives and in a book of the same name in which he explores the subject of race, African American specifically, genealogy, and new technologies to trace such things. Gates is an important thinker and public figure, there is no question about this, but the problem became whether or not, through appropriation and alterity, in the second stanza of “Hinge,” Hoagland was outing himself as a racist. This issue seems to continue, most recently being raised again by Peter Campion in his review of Hoagland’s new book in the May 2010 issue of Poetry magazine.

Campion does not claim Hoagland is a racist; he skirts the idea of political correctness in a strained accusation in which he suggests Hoagland abuses the “famous” (he builds this argument by calling on Hoagland’s treatment of another public figure, Britney Spears, in a different poem, inferring that public persons are not fair game which is an absurd argument on its face, doubly so given that  American culture is one of the book’s themes, indeed, a trope). Campion colors his argument by suggesting Hoagland failed the poem, that Hoagland’s “mistake” is that “the narration operates at a supreme distance from the material.” He further says of “Hinge” that it is the “performance of a joke.” This is a sideways attempt at criticism that reveals sloppy reading; Campion has stopped reading mid way through the poem when he has a knee-jerk reaction.  In the review, he only excerpts the first three stanzas and seems to miss that the speaker of the poem is revealing his collusion in the silencing of any discussion about race in this country, certainly in poetry.

The speaker tries to say why he is affected, what he knows or does not, thinking and feeling and  shifting the way the character of the professor is shifting in his thinking and being in response to what has been revealed about his ancestry. The speaker says he is “eavesdropping” and “pressing [his] ear to the wall,” and this wall—border, boundary, what separates and can conceal—has to do with race and history, the particularly messy and uncomfortable American history in which “the hinge on an 18th century door/ between the kitchen of the Massachusetts merchant/ and the southernmost room in where a slave-woman slept” is at the core of what the speaker has, until now, been able to ignore. The speaker is simply acknowledging what he can not fully know, and is trying to enter the room—the subject of racial injustice (and even that is reductive) that has been the legacy handed down by that “merchant raising a tiny oil can, and tilting it/ to squeeze three drops/ into the hinge to keep it quiet.”  The speaker is indicting not just slavery and sexual exploitation, but the silence, the secret, and in doing so, he is indicting not just the white forebears, but white culture, and indeed the speaker himself. Further, this poem in some ways is the squeaky hinge by which we can hear our way into the book: it is about unsilencing and about describing. The last stanza is worth considering.

The merchant raising a tiny oil can, and tilting it

to squeeze three drops

into the hinge to keep it quiet.  (emphasis mine)

The issue here is about the silencing the speaker feels about this great American secret and his own complicity in it, a concern Hoagland exfoliates in other poems [in the book.]

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