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.]

{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff McMahon February 10, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Laura, I’d love to see a video of the tribute or at least of Dunn’s reading. Was it recorded?

And for readers wondering what AWP is: Association of Writers & Writing Programs, which just held its annual conference in D.C.

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Rebecca Lehmann February 10, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Laura, I missed both events because I was suffering from a sinus infection that incapacitated me Friday night. I’m sad to have missed the Dunn event, and was very sad to miss Rankine, whose work I adore. I have to say I read her essay re: Hoagland, and then read Hoagland’s poem, and I’m not sure how I could not agree with her points about the implicit racism of poem. Even more disturbing is Hoagland’s response that the poem is for white people. Um, what does that mean? I say kudos to Rankine for calling him out.

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Denise Lanier February 11, 2011 at 4:27 pm

My guess, being pretty familiar with Hoagland’s poetry & having heard Tony converse many times on this topic, is that when he said the poem’s “for white people” he means that caucasians are his target audience for that particular poem. As in, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking had a target audience of Americans. Why? Because the French already know what that particular book was sharing/teaching/explaining.

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Katie Riegel February 10, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Thanks for posting links and adding part of your review. This seems like one of those situations I want to get all the info on before voicing any opinions. In any case it seems like a good thing to be having a conversation, and not surprising that parts of the conversation may become heated.

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Kurt Brown February 14, 2011 at 10:40 am

As I wasn’t at Claudia’s panel, and I haven’t read her remarks yet, I can only make a general statement about Tony and his alleged racism. I know the poem in question, and I know that it is meant to be provocative, just as his poems about America, sex, politics, religion, and other taboo subjects are provocative. Tony is not content to write the charming poem, though he can do so easily and is a charming poet in many ways. Anyone following his work, though, knows he has more ambition than that. He will enter into areas other poets ill avoid, because he wishes poetry to have more relevance in our lives than mere pleasure or entertainment. I suspect that when he tells Claudia that his poem “is for white people,” he is poking a stick at her, implying that the exclusion many white people feel with regard to the “black community” or “black culture” works both ways. I’ve been around Tony enough to know that he is not a racist, but he IS a provocateur. I think he probably wanted to stir things up. And he did. But nothing excuses racism, if that is what it truly is.

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Livit Foreal February 26, 2011 at 3:07 am

Laura,

You assume it was a drive-by shooting? What an idiotic comparison. For one, it’s a racist thing to say. And “that hurled spear, racism”? Really?

And the drive-by shooting comparison besides the obvious, it’s my understanding that a drive-by catches the victim unaware (as if TH is the victim). Tony was given Rankine’s reading before she went to AWP and he wrote his response for her to read.

Where’s the drive-by shooting? Amazing no one get’s the lunacy of your writing.

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Laura McCullough February 26, 2011 at 11:14 am

Dear Mr./Ms. Foreal,

Your posting actually supports my larger concern about the uselessness and divisiveness of ad hominem attacks: by suggesting my comparison is “idiotic,” and by accusing my own work of lunacy and trying to insult me personally, you distract from your more interesting points, and there are two of them.

The first is your suggestion that Hoagland was a participant in the event even if he was not there. That would shift the way I perceive the event, but it is not what I understand happened. My understanding is that there have been exchanges between Hoagland and Rankine on this topic now for years (this is not a recent discussion), but I do not believe CR informed TH in some collaborative manner that she was going to give this talk and invited him to participate through that letter. I could be wrong, but don’t think so. And even though she legally owns the copyright to a letter sent to her, and hence, can make it public, it is still morally ambiguous.

The more interesting comments you made raise the issue of my own figurative speech and its effect. “Drive by shooting” = ad hominem attack. “Hurling a spear” = negative argument/unfounded attack.

In both cases, you don’t fully interrogate them or explain why you have a problem with them, but my own exfoliation would be this:

1. You’re suggesting that these figures of speech are racially charged in and of themselves.

2. Whether they are or are not and whether I intended them to be or not, the appropriation of idiomatic speech in an argument means that connotative elements have been
introduced into an argument and demand attention…and accountability for their use.

3. It also raises issues of who can use what idiomatic language: “drive by shooting:” is that urban? Black? Who “owns” this phrase? I would have argued — at first — that it is neither of those things (which I think is your implication, perhaps even accusation?) because it has entered the general lexicon and is a part of pop culture. I think this is a defense for the use of this phrase, but now, I see that it needlessly complicated the point I was making.

4. The other phrase “hurling the spear” seems innocuous enough to me until I consider the added word, “racism” as “in that hurled spear, racism,” and I think you’re right, it racially charged language. And I have to own that I should have understood that someone could read the phrase that way. However, I would also posit that your reading is a myopic one, through a very narrow lens that wants to be alert to racist issues; an alternate reading could have tapped into histories other than that of Africa, but, perhaps, the Greeks, who also hurled all kinds of spears while also thinking a lot about rhetoric. But I get your point, and thank you for it.

But where does that leave us Mr./Ms. Foreal? Am I a racist because I got trapped in the language? Not a racist because I am willing (even though you did it really rudely and almost did it in a way that would make me miss the more useful point you were making) to admit that the language was unintentionally racist and that I am now less of a lunatic for thanking you for helping me see it?

Too easy on both counts. And I am not apologizing, either. White guilt is useless and changes nothing; it just perpetuates the problems of shame and victimization. Real discussion (read: civil discourse, friend) about race and writing IS worthwhile, and race is NOT the only problem. We need to talk about class (another major topic Americans wish to ignore) oppression, sexual minority oppression, and more. I have been on the other end of language used as a weapon or a suppressant against me (for class and gender issues as the two most prominent things, but also as an East Coaster, a New Jerseyian, as a red head, as a person with children, and more); the questions of “otherness” and empathy, “otherness” and exclusion, etc. and the effects of language (speech acts) on them are important. And while I am very concerned as a writer and a citizen about the issues of access to power and influence, I am more concerned about what makes a poem work or not work and whether it is art or not and why or why not.

Which is what I wish Claudia Rankine’s essay had really been about. Another look at her — now redacted — speech (on her site) reveals a rambling, personal essay that is more about how Hoagland’s poem made her feel (her responsibility) rather than really confronting his poem. Here’s the link for the letter TH wrote, btw:

http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/22120

Want to talk about it? Civilly? I am just lunatic enough to want to.

For example, what do you think of this graph:

“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.”

Bring it. Can I use that idiom? Show me what you got. And while we’re at it, let’s talk about how easy, cheap, and cowardly it is to hurl — insults — while remaining anonymous.

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Jamie March 1, 2011 at 9:08 am

Laura,

Kudos to you for not pointing out the glaring typo in Foreal’s original post: “Amazing no one get’s the lunacy of your writing.”

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Emily Van Duyne February 26, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Nothing about this is interesting. Legitimately. Nothing. Why is everyone turning this into some “he said/she said” nonsense? Why is it somehow bad that Claudia Rankine wants to open up a discussion about race & racism in America, and in American poetry? And why is it surprising? It’s part of what she does, and does well. Why not applaud her for it? Probably because the discussion of race makes white people feel icky, and freaks them out, especially liberals (which we poets all are– we’re also, at least in the academy, mostly white). Yet no one’s giving a second of credence to how icky that poem probably made Rankine, and a whole bunch of other black people, feel. I’ve yet to really hear that discussed by her critics.

Additionally, I’ve watched the contemporary American poetry scene from the sidelines for a long time now, and it’s hard not to see this as a bunch of people from one very swank club ganging up against the minority. Honestly, that’s what it looks like from the outside in. Contemporary American poetry, especially as contained in academia (oh wait, that’s right, it doesn’t exist outside of academia!) is not necessarily racist, but is about as classist as it gets. Tony Hoagland is a darling of that world, and Claudia Rankine is not. I know neither of them personally, and have no stake in this– I’m just calling it like I see it.

And one last thing– that poem is racist. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that Hoagland is racist. And I agree with Kurt Brown’s statement above, that Hoagland isn’t interested in writing the “charming” poem; that said, the poem doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t even “dance with the devil,” to use Hoagland’s own words. It’s not interrogative. It’s just racist. And in no way surprising. It’s like, “Oh, hey, wow, two American white guys with big incomes liked the hot blonde over the black girl. Shocking. Never woulda seen that one coming.” And all that end of the century shit is so obvious.

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Emily Van Duyne February 26, 2011 at 1:37 pm

And Laura, some figures of speech are racially charged in and of themselves– I wouldn’t say, “Let’s call a spade a spade,” in the middle of a lecture on race without acknowledgement of that truth.

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Laura McCullough February 26, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Dear Emily, On your second comment, I did a very quick search on the history of the “spade” phrase and got this from Wikipedia:
The phrase predates the use of the word “spade” as an ethnic slur against African-Americans, which was not recorded until 1928; however, in contemporary U.S. society, the idiom is often avoided due to potential confusion with the slur.

Notably, the phrase — which has to do with basin, a trough, and even “a bloody shovel,” and might very well be useful, is NOT used too much anymore because of White people’s fear of appearing racist because of the connection to the more recent use of the word spade as racial pejorative, and this IS absolutely interesting to me as a person who is fascinated by language, its power and limitations, and I agreed with Mr. or Ms. Foreal’s asking (sort of asking) me to think about the phrases I chose and reconsider them. Agreed.

I would appreciate hearing your explanation/explication of the Hoagland poem in support of your claim that it is racist beyond your worry that it makes Black people feel “icky.” Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” made people feel “icky,” as well, but we don’t take it that Swift was really going to eat children, though he used elements that Hoagland does to provoke and create consideration of difficult subject matter.

Hoagland is not the darling of anything. He is a writer struggling to perceive and recast the world he is experiencing with the only tools he has: language. You may not like it, but he has a right to it. And Rankine is not some ingenue, but a highly acclaimed poet and writer in her own right who used her Academy of American Poets reading to, not have a discussion about race and poetry, but really to mount an ad hominem attack that came across as decidedly un-rigorous and personal to some people, one that stepped over bounds of what is acceptable about using personal communications (hence, why I note that the letter TH wrote responding to her query –long before AWP–was a private exchange that CR has the legal right to make public, but perhaps not a moral one–isn’t that interesting? What about this blog post? What about private emails? What does it mean to live in an age of surveillance, when everything you utter is now documented, reproducible, and more worrying, excerptable and often taken out of context? Isn’t any of that interesting?)

It is also interesting to many, many Black writers as evidenced by the hundreds of emails, FB posts, etc. that have ensued. Would you simply ignore the concern of those exchanges as un-interesting? I believe in the right to have this discussion, but also want to see the level of rhetoric raised above the personal. I am asserting that Rankine mis-used her invitation to give a reading, and turned it into a bully pulpit.

Finally, Ms. Rankine attended Columbia, one of the top MFAs in the country. Another issue that is not being discussed is class, and in discussions on race, language, and indeed the small industry of poetry, one’s class and credentials are a real issue. Does everyone have equal access to Po-Biz? I’d say no, certainly not my community college students. Why have you, yourself, watched from the “sidelines?” Why do you characterize the poetry world as a “swank club” evoking (by connotation) country club, a classicist image, and who really is the minority who can’t get into that country club? Is it really about race, or is it about money and access to education and an educational path that will get you close into the system?

By the way, anybody in Jersey and Wisconsin having any trouble paying your bills, your mortgage? As those governors “gang up” on the middle class? I think it would interesting to see some poems about that. But not if they’re charming for charm’s sake or informative for information’s sake.

Poems that burn with their own internal conflicts are what interest me, and I hope both Hoagland and Rankine continue to write some. Even if some people are perturbed.

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Pat Sanders February 26, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Amazing that educated people don’t know that:

a. if you want a panel on race, you ask to have a panel on race. You invite people to join the discussion. What Rankine did was shoooting fish in a barrel. She was not invited to do what she did; Hoagland did not have ample time to prepare his response. Rankine’s move was low and unprofessional and wrong. She should know that. You should too.

b. The speaker is not the poet. Ever. I love how poets are censoring poets out of fear and some sort of bandwagon insecurities. Good luck with your own work.

c. These things ultimately hurt the one who throws the sucker punch. Would you hire Rankine to teach undergrads? Do you think people in the long term will seek to be near her? Won’t folks be afraid to even talk to her?

PS

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dwayne February 26, 2011 at 11:19 pm

Actually the speaker is often the poet – it just doesn’t matter in the long run, and is ultimately the most moot of points. We don’t remember Langston Hughes enough to see which of his poems “I” were him and which weren’t. But, if you knew Hughes and wrote with him, you would know. So the issue of is the speaker the poet is one that is only relevant to peers of the poet and during that era and only relevant in those situations if you truly are concerned with what a friend, associate, colleague may be revealing in a poem that you weren’t aware of.

To your second point – did anyone read Hoagland’s letter? He isn’t interested in defending himself to poets, which ultimately makes sense to me. It’s tiresome – and I’m not even certain Claudia was asking for his defense, but looking to discuss larger issues of race and what a poem is supposed to do. Again, the question here, the one worth discussing, is what should a poem about race do? What should any poem do? Is Herbert White a worthwhile endeavor? Why? How about Birth of a Nation? How about some 70s Baraka – at what point does a poem fail because it fails to attempt to do anything but reflect reality? Interesting questions that are rarely discussed – though I think our failure to do so is why poetry seems to be far less popular than it should be.

I personally don’t even care, and am just bored at the moment, but am a little startled at how the defense and/or castigation of either Hoagland or Rankine seems to fall so neatly along racial lines.

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Emily Van Duyne February 26, 2011 at 5:38 pm

I don’t see Hoagland’s poem and Swift’s piece as utilizing the same trope(s), really. (Although, if “AMP” makes you do anything but laugh, you’re grandly missing its point).

Of course it’s largely about class, that’s precisely the point I made. Although race and class tend to intersect in the US– that’s just a fact of our society, an outcome of our history.

I’m aware of Rankine’s credentials, btw. I may have watched from the sidelines, but I’m a fairly good watcher. But she does, from my perspective, seem like less of an “insider” in contemporary American poetry than Hoagland. Which is, of course, just my perspective. Also, your pieces do seem sort of swayed by a personal relationship with Hoagland– but again, for all I know, you may never have met the man. It’s just how they come off to me.

I meant the “Who’s to blame?” bit wasn’t interesting. Not language, not poetry, not whatever arises from that.

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Livit Foreal February 26, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Dear everyone,

If you like clarification on what happened at AWP then go to Ms. Rankine’s website.

She sent her piece to Tony in advance, offered to arrange his airfare and hotel room for him to come. He said he could not but he would write a piece that Claudia can read in response to her piece.

Yet some of you folks assume she somehow bushwhacked him? You should really look in the mirror and ask yourselves why this is your initial response to these events. And both Nick and Charles where aware in advance to exactly what was going to take place.

In in the matter of the initial class (Houston MFA program) in question where Tony read his poem, again a good deal of people tend to think she did the same there. The folks who believe this were not in that class. Ms. Rankine was asked by her students to discuss a poem they felt was racist. Ms. Rankine suggested they ask Tony to the class, that she wasn’t comfortable discussing his poem it that context w/o him present. Tony agreed to come to the class knowing in advance what the students felt.

And Pat, you have know idea wtf you are talking about. See above and obviously you have never met or been taught in a class by Ms. Rankine. Your description of her is so far from anything that resembles who she is and how she conducts herself it’s laughable.

And Laura you are incredibly ill informed at least and possibly much worse in fact if you assume that Tony’s response was a private email. It’s simply untrue and there is absolutely no basis in your description of the events as “an ad hominem attack” is utterly baseless and you should be ashamed of yourself.

If you wish to be educated on the matter I urge you to go to her website and read:

1: Her piece
2: Tony’s response
3: How Tony’s response came about
4: The class in question.

The facts are there, all given in advance to Tony and printed on her website with his approval.

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Laura McCullough February 26, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Dear Livit (can I call you by your first name?),

I’ve been to Ms. Rankine’s site, which I am sure has enjoyed many, many hits since AWP, and I’ve read all the things you suggest people should read. I did so before posting my initial concerns (and I noted the link to her site in my initial post).

Somehow, I am not ashamed of myself, but thanks for being concerned about my moral condition. I’d love to hear an actual critical argument from you or a critically reasoned response to what I’ve posited or to the discussion that has emerged here rather than what continues to be knee jerk emotion-based hostility, a dialogue rather than an attack.

Finally, I’d like to point out that the book the poem, “The Change,” was published in, What Narcissism Means to Me,” came out in 2003, eight years ago by my count.

Funny, Rankine is just getting around to going public with her worries over this poem now.

For a really smart, thoughtful, nuanced, and engaging essay on poetry and race, please see Major Jackson’s, “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black,: from a 2007 issue of The American Poetry Review. It does mention Hoagland, but is far more concerned about its thesis than in personalities.

http://poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_jackson.php

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Livit Foreal February 26, 2011 at 7:30 pm

Laura,

“but really to mount an ad hominem attack” Please explain.

“the letter TH wrote responding to her query –long before AWP–was a private exchange that CR has the legal right to make public, but perhaps not a moral one”

Please explain.

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Laura McCullough February 26, 2011 at 7:33 pm

Dear Livit, I’ll be happy to answer an actual question. I do not know how to respond to “please explain.”

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Livit Foreal February 26, 2011 at 7:40 pm

I think I have my answer.

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Laura McCullough February 26, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Enjoy the hubris of your anonymity, Livit.

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Ru Freeman February 27, 2011 at 8:08 am

I agree with Dwayne: “but am a little startled at how the defense and/or castigation of either Hoagland or Rankine seems to fall so neatly along racial lines.” Much of the attack on Rankine does seem to turn on this notion that Hoagland was not an active participant which is not true. If Hoagland himself states – as he does in his response – that he welcomes the debate, how is it an unjust attack on him? Does he wish to have the right to offend, as he seems to offend so many people, but to be excused from being critiqued for the offensiveness of his work? I don’t think even he believes that so the real question is, why do so many others?

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Laura McCullough February 27, 2011 at 10:07 am

Dwayne Betts writes that he is a “little startled at how the defense and/or castigation of either Hoagland or Rankine seems to fall so neatly along racial lines.” Ru Freeman characterizes discussion about Rankine’s part in this as an “attack.” Jericho Brown and James Allen Hall weighed in on the FB discussion that is running concurrent to this blog. I’d like to offer another way to think about what has occurred: though Hoagland is white and Rankine is black, it does NOT seem to me that people are lining up behind either of them based on their race, rather the “supporters” if you will (and I think that is too simple) about whether the poem/poet/speaker is racist is causing a divide between critical lenses or world views, that of New New Critics and of New Historicists and that the issue may not really be about race after all, or else it is only symptomatically.

It also seems to me it is about the division between the empathetic vs. the educative.

And also raises profound issues about, not authorship, but about what we mean when we say a poem has authority vs voice vs trustworthiness in a narrator. This last issue, I think, being central to the matter.

I wrote in response to Jericho Brown that:
I deeply resist analysis (even of Frost, Eliot, Pound) of anything outside the artifact of the work. I know this is not what is happening in academia where every writer’s gastrointestinal cramp is examined in relation to the text, but it may in fact be this tension between critical lenses that is at play.

And I also raised the issue of how we define the “artifact.” Jericho Brown referred to what CR read at AWP as a lyric essay. That fascinates me, in part, because that is not how I would characterize it all. Before I can understand fully Jericho’s position, don’t I need to understand why we have very different views about what she read? I think so, and I would invite discussion about that as my own thinking on it is still emerging.

I also posted on FB today:
Now that I have raised the New New Critical lens, it seems that the biggest thing missing in all of the discussions I have read or been party to about this, is a thorough discussion of the poem in question. I wrote in detail about the poem, “The Hinge,” in APR in the fall, and one thing I noted was that other discussions of that poem seemed to ignore the end, seemed to focus on the middle, the elements some people had strong emotional reactions to. I think “The Change” is suffering from the same abbreviated reading. Let me post that last major gesture here:

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.

I’d like to invite my friends to talk about what they think is going on here in the closing of the poem. It’s tone is far more quiet and subtle than the middle section of the poem (tonality and textural juxtapositions being a major Hoagland strategy) and has a different diction. Though I obviously have a critical viewpoint of this, I am not trying to shove it down anyone’s throat, and invite an exchange about the poem. If inclined, share your critical view, but what I am asking is that we stay within the poem itself (although I am open to making connections across poems in the poet’s oeuvre).

_________________________________________-
Finally, if I had the platform, or was at an institution where I could make this happen, I would hold a symposium on Race, Class, Gender: Poetry at the Center of Self and Society. A list of 50 terrific poets and thinkers on poetry comes easily to mind, some of whom are right here in this virtual discussion. It would not be a symposium to solve a problem, but to unpack the complexities and consider them in good faith and in the service of what we all love, which is our art. One of my concerns is how often we wish to engender empathy, but in the effort to do so, we use educative means which can polarize, demonize even, become polemic. What is empathy, however, and how does it manifest?

And how do we not impose silence on others in our efforts to create empathy?
For me, it means talking about the work, not the person, yes, but it also means we need to explore the changing nature of communication, our ever more flexible notions of privacy, the velocity technology has made possible of interchanges between us all. How to have responsible, reasoned discourse in the slippery, heightened, highly surveilled collision of the virtual and the physical? The fact that I have concerns about how Rankine has made this debate between she and Hoagland public is also symptomatic of larger differences in world view.

For example, we would probably agree that of the many public discussions that have ensued since AWP, there are many, many private ones. In the last 48 hours alone, I have had close to twenty private email or FB messages about the more “public” conversation on FB and on Contrary. What really is the difference? Each email or message I send legally belongs to the receiver who can then make my “private” comments public. Similarly, I can do the same. Yet we are all operating as if these private discussions have some protection. They don’t. Tomorrow, could I go to a conference and read a “lyric essay” in which I weave the things people have said to me privately and feel morally, artistically okay about that?

This relates to the New New Critical vs. New Historicist view in that the latter seems more open to ancillary materials in apprehending a poem (or a topic or subject of inquiry) and may have a more post modern (I am defining that here to mean open to mash up, to re-assemblage out of broken or deconstructed things to create something different than the original components accrued to in their original and separate forms) tolerance for what can be appropriated. Which means to me this:

The New New Critical position has to understand the New Historicists and vice a versa.

This isn’t race, but critical paradigms in collision with techno-historical moment.
What do you think?

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Pat Sanders February 27, 2011 at 10:33 am

Livit (sounds a lot like Livid),

Your agenda is showing.

You have no idea how Rankine approached Tony, how long he had to respond and if that “offer” is true or reasonable. You have no ideas basically.

That poem has been published and ready by Ani Defranco, Garrison Keillor, read at major conferences for years. Now Rankine wants to discuss it? 8 years later? Please. Sounds like Rankine needed something to do, something she knew would get her some attention. Sounds like Rankine needs to get back to her own work.

PS

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Pat Sanders February 27, 2011 at 10:46 am

I also think Rankine knowingly starting up this debate and then calling for “peace” is schoolyard bullshit. It’s like starting a fire and then wanting credit for putting it out.

Who would want that in a classroom? Department? University?

PS

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Laura McCullough February 27, 2011 at 11:23 am

Hey Pat, I know you’re feeling strongly, but flaming in response to a flame doesn’t work, and Rankine well educated, well credentialed, and though I have never heard about her teaching, she is probably a good one, and though I agree with you that the way she handled this is problematic –and I have tried to suggest a way to comprehend why she and many others don’t see it that way and look for a way to understand it — she has not “created” a fire storm, so much as given voice to something felt by many, and the discussions ensuing from this ARE worth having…
if we are willing to stand inside the discomfort and seriously engage. Take a breath everyone.

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Leslie McGrath February 27, 2011 at 11:28 am

Hi Laura,

I appreciate your willingness to keep a thoughtful eye on this, despite the vitriol being tossed about by a few posters. This conversation seems to have a kind of cyclonic action, drawing in more and more topics– the private v. public speech topic being the latest of fertile grounds.

I’m most interested in these points– about empathetic v. educative stances and about how varying critical lenses might impact the discussion.

Looking specifically at what you said here:
“though Hoagland is white and Rankine is black, it does NOT seem to me that people are lining up behind either of them based on their race, rather the “supporters” if you will (and I think that is too simple) about whether the poem/poet/speaker is racist is causing a divide between critical lenses or world views, that of New New Critics and of New Historicists and that the issue may not really be about race after all, or else it is only symptomatically.

It also seems to me it is about the division between the empathetic vs. the educative.”

One of the reasons I’m so adamant about identifying myself as NOT from the academy (though I do teach as an adjunct) is that my stance as a poet is empathetic rather than educational. This goes to questions of “who are my readers?”, “why do I write?” etc. I’m the first woman in my family to graduate from college. I know well the polishing, and potentially distancing, effects of multiple years of graduate training. The poems and poets I most admire are those who write toward our shared humanity– across race, time, gender and the rest. I look at all poems, including Hoagland’s, through this lens, asking, “what does the poem reveal about what it means to be human at this place and period of time for this speaker? Do I feel let in? Lectured to?”

Laura, your description of the New Critical v. New Historicist lenses opens up yet another way for me to negotiate this subject critically. I’d like to see more discussion about this….from better minds than mine.

I’ve had many discussions with writer friends of a number of races (beyond black and white) about this. My experience is that opinions of intelligent, feeling people are subtle, complex, and do not fall along racial lines in private discussions. But there’s something about the nature of public discussions– perhaps even more so about conversations on the internet (which combine the immediacy of speech, the lastingness of the written word, and that bugaboo, anonymity) that sucks the subtlety out. Like a marrowless bone, the richer stuff’s gone. It’s deeply frustrating.

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Ru Freeman February 27, 2011 at 12:24 pm

I misused the term attack. I should have said criticism? The second use of the term was in reference to your own description of what CR said at AWP. And what you did say about it certainly would fall in my book as an attack, not a mere criticism. However, I will step out of the way of the poets on this blog – as someone who merely buys and reads and appreciates poetry rather than one who produces it, I fear that I have nothing to add to this forum which is filled with people who know the jargon much better than I do. However, I will certainly stop by to read and understand and sometimes, I’m quite certain, to be both baffled and upset.

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Leslie McGrath February 27, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Ru, please stay. You add to the conversation *because* you’re an interested reader of poetry. Hell, I don’t know the jargon either. Let’s not let that make us step away from the discussion.

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Jawanza Phoenix February 27, 2011 at 12:45 pm

dear

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Laura McCullough February 27, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Jawanza, Nice to see you here, but your post got cut off!
Ru and Leslie, please help me understand what you mean about jargon? Is what I am bringing to the table by calling on New Historicism and New New Criticism? Or something else? If the latter, tell me, and if the former, should I explain what I mean by them? Or at least as much as I know?

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Shaindel Beers February 27, 2011 at 2:05 pm

I haven’t read enough of the background on this issue to be fully prepared to comment, but I do agree with some previous posters that it becomes dangerous when the speaker of a poem is assumed to be the poet and when poets are supposed to “self-edit” their writing, lest they say something offensive. One can certainly write a poem that explores issues of race in ways that might make readers sqeamish but not be a racist *poet*.

Isn’t the point of provocative poetry to get us to think about our ideas, whether or not those ideas are ones we’re fully willing to own? What about James Dickey’s “Slave Quarters”? The whole point of the poem is to get (I’m guessing) “white, American readers” to think about their current issues with race, given our country’s troubled past.

At the top of my poetry writing syllabi, I have an Allen Ginsberg quote: “Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.”

Let’s not take that freedom away from poets. We have our freedom because we (most of us, at least), don’t make money, so we’re not controlled by the marketplace; let’s not be controlled by the political correctness police, either.

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Jawanza Phoenix February 27, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Dear Laura,

I have read this discussion with interest. You have made many strong points which I agree with. However, like Emily Van Duyne, I am curious about you personal relationship with Mr. Hoagland. In the interests of full disclosure, I believe you should say if you are friends with him, and if so, how close. I am not friends with either Hoagland or Rankine, but I am familiar with the work of both of them.

I also agree with Emily’s points that contemporary American poetry, especially as contained in academia, is about as classist as it gets. As a poet who does not have an MFA, PHD, or a book published by a traditional publishing house, I have learned the hard way how exclusive the academic poetry club can be. It seems the only place where poets are treated equally is in the spoken word and slam poetry communities where people can go from being nobody to somebody, almost overnight.

I strongly agree with you that it is strange that Rankine is just getting around to going public with her worries over a poem written almost ten years ago. In spite of the validity of some of her points, I suspect she might be somewhat jealous of Hoagland’s popularity or trying to draw attention to herself in order to either sell more of her own books or find a plush job at an academy which is more reputable than the one she is currently at.

Finally, I would love to comment on TH’s “Hinge.” However, I refuse to comment on a portion of it which may be taken out of context. I have not read either the whole poem or the whole book where it comes from, which might be a prerequisite to fully “getting it.” I have bought and own two of his previous poetry books (as I have three of your books Laura). But due to hard times, I do not own his new book which contains “Hinge” and I cannot find it re-printed on the internet. Perhaps I will check my local library.

Jawanza

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Leslie McGrath February 27, 2011 at 4:55 pm

Hi Laura,
Yes! I’d really appreciate it if you’d describe what you mean by The New Historicism and The New New Criticism. I’m intimidated by this kind of thing– and it looks like I’m not the only one.

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Laura McCullough February 27, 2011 at 5:14 pm

I will be posting a new entry that speaks to this, Leslie.

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Laura McCullough February 27, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Jawanza, As a person who came up from the lower middle class, got a poor education, and has worked sometimes two jobs while raising kids and going for my MFA, and then worked for 6 years as an adjunct teaching sometimes at as many as 3 schools running as many as 11 classes a semester, so I could feed my kids and wait out finding a full time job, so I could then start really trying to write, and now ten years into my full time teaching gig (5-7 classes a semester), barely affording my life in central Jersey, watching my salary reduced by the current governor and still working to participate in the life of letters, I get how classicist it all is, how many doors just don’t open unless you knock and knock, and then, if it opens, you better have done your homework and have something to say (the latter the real issue, I think).

On “The Hinge:” it is not a poem whose portions can be taken out of context, I agree, and I had a close of 5000WC essay in the Sept. issue of APR that in part addressed it. I bet they won’t mind if I send you it by Word file, and if you want it, email me privately, and I will send. And the new book has several poems that concern themselves with race, and I think they are worth taking together which no one has done.

On whether I have a relationship with Hoagland, I know him the way I know a lot of writers — from cocktail parties at AWP, from readings, from talks here an there. I never studied under him, and we are not more friends then any other writerly relationship I have — and I have many — but I do know the work very, very well, and am able to speak to his work better than the average person. This past year, I have had two major essays in The American Poetry Review, one on Stephen Dunn, with whom I do have a long, close personal relationship, Tony Hoagland (and I have written three other essays on his work), and I have another long one on Bob Hicok’s newest book forthcoming in APR in the next few months. I have interviewed Stephen, Tony, Bob, and Andre Dubus III over the last few years for various publications as well.

Stephen Dunn, Tony Hoagland, Andre Dubus, Brian Turner, Fred Marchant, Kathleen Graber (we became friends a couple of years ago, and recently, I think, became close friends), Michael Waters (with whom I have recently become friends) and Michael Collier all have blurbs on my two most recent books.

Would you like a list of every poets and writers I have exchanged an email with in the last 60 days? It’s quite a list including quite a few knowns and lesser knowns. There’s something just a little smarmy about the request to “disclose” “a relationship” with TH. Like the fact that I am a thinking person who is knowledgeable about contemporary poetry is simply insufficient to explain why I would be interrogating this issue and trying to understand it and offering my critical reasoning about it.

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Jawanza Phoenix February 27, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Dear Laura:

Nobody is neutral and I am not sure anybody should be. If more than one participant in this discussion felt you were slightly biased towards TH, then it reasonable to infer that many more silent readers felt the same way. Hence, it was a fair question. Your initial post is not about any of the people with whom you have exchanged e-mails. Hence, your connection with them is not relevant.

As to the issue of classism, I respectfully disagree that knocking on doors and having something to say are enough to get in. Those are important, but you also have to write in a particular way (e.g. in a way that is not offensive to the gatekeepers), have the money to afford numerous writing conferences and writing programs, and/or know somebody important who can make things happen for you.

JP

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Laura McCullough March 1, 2011 at 9:36 am

Jawanza, The poetry world is so small that it is unreasonable to assume that Th or CR, their work, this event at AWP can be discussed by people who don’t know them. Rankine is speaking on March 2 at Princeton, btw, if you’re free: a 4:30 at Lewes Center with Elizabeth McKracken.

And, yes, credentials do open doors easily, but, as opposed, for example, to the law, one can get inside Po-biz without an MFA. You can’t practice law legally without the study and the degree that declare you credentialed to do so, but you can practice –and have published — poetry without an MFA. However, it is very less likely that one will have the level of craft and skill that one should get by graduate study in writing.

There’s an interesting debate going on over on Mark Doty’s FB page in response to a post he made about the concept of “the Academy” that you might find interesting. One comment, by Thomas Sayers Ellis: “Without a MFA, a Confessional Poet is just a snitch, one who snitches on his/herself, one who rats out the Soul.”

I don’t always agree with TSE’s views, but this one bears some thought. And the rest of the discussion is pretty fascinating. Pop on over and check it out.

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Adelphia June 22, 2011 at 5:31 am

I really neeedd to find this info, thank God!

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Ru Freeman February 28, 2011 at 8:31 am

Thanks, Leslie. I do want to suggest – though I do not know – that perhaps it is not that CR’s criticism is “new” but perhaps that it is “new” to a certain population. When I read the conversations going on between writers of color, many of them state that this is a point that has been made repeatedly for a long time even by CR. Maybe the only reason it seems “new” is because it was offered up at such a public venue and one which, among all the other fora going on, was particularly prestigious? Which begs many questions, all of them obvious.

Laura – I don’t think you need to deconstruct the jargon for me. The most important elements of this conversation are between poets. I can certainly make the effort to follow along if I’m interested enough to be here!

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Laura McCullough March 1, 2011 at 9:39 am

HI Ru, I hear you.
I am going to post a new entry re: why I am raising critical lenses in relation to this (and Lit Crit is a rough and tumble all on its own, and not just related to poets and poetry, so you might find it interesting, or at least I hope so), though I am writing, too, about some more specific craft issues having to do with how we view the speaker of a poem, which I think may be part of the complex reactions to the TH poem.

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Leslie McGrath March 1, 2011 at 4:28 pm

I think Ru makes a great point about the broadened attention CR got because of the venue in which her critique of Hoagland’s poem was given. She’s a well-regarded teaching poet whose business it is to look critically at poems written in any age. She followed protocol in letting Hoagland see and respond to the essay, of telling him where it would be presented, and in inviting a response.

Thinking people can agree or disagree (and both to a great or lesser extent) with Rankine’s thoughts on the poem. I fall into the “tend to disagree” camp but am very grateful to her for bringing this discussion out and for following up with her open letter.
Laura, I know the work week is crazy, so when you have the time, I’m still very interested in exploring the issues around the speaker– which I agree are the heart of the matter.

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Laura McCullough March 1, 2011 at 9:20 pm

HI all, I’ve posted a lengthy essay on this.

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Robin Coste Lewis March 15, 2011 at 1:40 pm

“Drive-by”?

My god.

Claudia Rankine performed a drive-by?

I don’t know what’s worse: the unconscious racism in your own statement, Laura, or the level of comfort you assumed using it.

I grew up where drive-by’s are normative. It’s disgusting you would choose to use such a term to describe the meticulous work Rankine read at AWP.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? No matter how we say what we say (mostly, “I hurt…”) we are the ones positioned as criminal.

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Laura McCullough March 15, 2011 at 7:27 pm

HI Robin, Please take a look at the rest of the discussion that happened after my initial post to see how the thinking, mine and others’, progressed. And you might be interested to know about this update I sent out on FB today to a call I made a few days ago to hold a symposium on race, class, sexuality, gender, and the body in poetry:

Symposium on CRSGB (Class, Race, Sexuality, Gender, and the Body) in Poetry

A week ago, I sent out a call for partners to plan and hold a symposium that would move the dialogue on race and gender that began at AWP 011 forward.

To date, over a hundred poets, editors, presses and journals, and literary organizations have responded. This email is an update to those who have responded as well as an invitation to additional people to join this initiative. If you’re receiving news of this for the first time, the original call for partners is pasted after the update.

The Plan: a one day symposium of panels, talks, papers, and readings related to issues of class, race, sexuality, gender, and the body to be held in spring 012. Some of the panels would be convened to specifically respond to texts that the panelists will have read in advance and written and submitted responses to which will be distributed to the entire panel before the event, so a serious, close discussion can be held. Some of the panels will address the collision between socio-political and identity issues. Some of the panels will be very craft-drive addressing the speaker and the poem. These are just some possibilities. The core planning team for the Symposium will collaborate on a list of topics and for calls for papers and panelists. There will also be readings (Major Jackson suggested we follow VIDA’s lead from AWP and read outside our own identity “markers,” and Dwayne Betts suggested we do community readings: cafes, libraries, coffee shops, beauty salons, grocery stores—real community connections). We will also oster satellite events across the country.

Several things are in discussion, but here are the actions that need to be taken next:

1. Determine a host site and get a commitment. Kyle Dargan has suggested we explore doing this at American University. Major Jackson said it is possible it could be held at U. of Vermont. I have sent a note to NYU to see if they are interested. There are several people on this email list with institutions that might be good as the central event site or who might wish to hold a satellite event (reading, talk, local panel). Talk to me!
2. Establish a core planning committee. The person on the ground at the host site will be central to the planning team, but a core team of people representing the identity spectrum who also have, 1. The time to dedicate to planning and organizing, and 2. Resources to bring to the table needs to be formalized. Several people emailed to say they are interested in participating, but can’t be part of the planning process: Kathy Graber, Terrance Hayes, Bob Hicok, Ellen Bass, Patrick Rosal, for example, all have offered support of the idea and hope to be involved in the actual event; Major Jackson, Kyle Dargan, David Daniel, Jeffrey Levine, Leslie McGrath, Ching-in Chen, Dwayne Betts, Tony Valenzuela, Tarfiah Fazuillah, Angela Veronica Wong, Crystal Williams, Nickole Brown, and Jeff Lee have all offered to assist in some way. Now, we need to widen our communications and establish a team, goals, timeline, and actions.
3. It would be great to official representation from Cave Canem, VIDA, the AAWW, and Kundiman. Vida has responded; some members of the other organizations have responded. It would also be good to have the ALSCW involved, and I hope Poet’s House in NYC might be interested. We will ask the literary journals that participate to advertise the event and also to possibly publish papers or excerpts or portions of what comes out of the Symposium. We will ask the presses that have responded if they would be interested in publishing an edited collection of the papers/essays that come out of the Symposium. We will also explore video documentation of the event/readings.

If you have any feedback or suggestions, please send them. I have been collecting people’s ideas as they send them in. This is still in development. If you wish to be a core planning team member, talk to me. The first step is to know where we will hold the event.

Thank you, and please send this on to anyone you think would be interested,
Laura McCullough
lmccullough@brookdalecc.edu
http://www.lauramccullough.weebly.com
http://www.Meadmagazine.org

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Robin Coste Lewis March 15, 2011 at 9:01 pm

I’m not really interested in what developed. I’m interested in the tragedy of language. And I’m interested in the role history plays in word-choice. A spear? A drive-by? Three centuries of colonial violence strung on a line. I just wonder if you were not engaging in a so-called discussion of race, or were you not talking about a black person, would you have so easily found these terms on your tongue? I’ve never thought about Claudia Rankine as a Crip or a Blood, sorry. Her work is too brilliant and elegant and compassionate and complex for so lazy a word. And a spear? Well, that doesn’t require a response. Please, next time, consider taking better care with our work.

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KB March 20, 2011 at 4:57 pm

These flame wars are really disappointing. I don’t know that I am qualified to comment on Hoagland’s poetry, and I’m certainly not in a position to judge anyone’s character, but I wish someone here were more willing to consider the remote possibility that they are wrong about something. Jeez.

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