Tony Hoagland: On Race, Risk, Recklessness

Interviewed by M.L. Lyke, March 16, 2012 

When I recently caught up with festival headliner Tony Hoagland, aka “The Poet of Risks,” he was at work on a politically incorrect play about a U.S. history teacher who gets in trouble for doing Martin Luther King imitations in class. Hoagland had also just sent off a volley of emails to his graduate students in the University of Houston creative writing program admonishing them for being too safe in their poems. He advised: Be wild. Make me care. Get my attention. If you can’t impress me or shut me up, then you just aren’t trying hard enough.

Safety’s dull poetic territory for the ironic, reverently irreverent artist, who has written an essay on the importance of “meanness” in poetry and has more than once landed in hot water for his frank poems on race, a topic he says has been well-addressed by African-American poets and pretty much ignored by poets from what he calls the “galaxy Caucasia.”

“White poets have not stepped up to do their part in the conversation on race, to open up the subject, to get into it and get dirty – and that’s something that art does. It can’t be self-righteous. It needs to get dirty.”

Hoagland – who writes that he was conceived in the decade between “far out” and “whatever” — has published four volumes of poetry: Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty; Sweet Ruin, winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry; Donkey Gospel, winner of the James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets; and What Narcissism Means to Me. a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Q. You’ve won numerous awards, but the one that caught my attention was the Mark Twain Award for contribution to humor in American poetry. Why do you think humor is important to poetry?

One benefit of humor in poems is that it un-intimidates audiences. One of the biggest obstacles to a popular appreciation of poetry in America is people’s fear of it – their idea that it is overly intellectual, that they aren’t smart enough for it, that it’s too highbrow or abstruse for them. As soon as a poet makes an audience laugh, the collective level of anxiety goes down. They become more open and more permeable to the things that you really want to say.

Likewise, humor has the capacity to express many things at once. When we joke about topics that are sensitive – like sex, or death, or race – it doesn’t mean that we deny their seriousness, it means we have ambivalent feelings about them, for example, anxiety, and a simultaneous desire to confront. Humor helps us unearth and express that ambivalence.

Q. You wrote an essay about the importance of “meanness” in poetry – calling that meanness “thrilling and valuable,” a kind of “literary endorphin.”

Meanness, frankness, candidness, pushiness, kindness, mercy, compassion, understanding, wisdom – all those dimensions work in counterpoint in a poem. When a poem of mine turns “mean” at some point, my intention is often just to get the listener’s attention – and meanness really does get our attention. It makes people wake up a bit.

In my poem about Britney Spears, for example, at one point the speaker says, “Jump, jump, you little whore!” A moment later, in another voice, he says, “Put on some clothes and go home, Sweetheart.”

Perhaps that moment is somewhat shocking and misogynist, but it has the shock of the culturally true, and I believe that it’s healthy and interesting for people to be shocked when they encounter art.

The most criminal offense that any form of art can commit is not the sin of meanness, but to be boring or obscure.

Q. You’re called a ‘poet of risks.’ Should poets risk everything? How far can – and should – they go?

Part of the job of a poet is to be reckless. That means you are going to be wrong, if not often, at least sometimes. It means that to write a good poem or two, you probably have to write quite a few bad poems, not just bad, but offensive – you occasionally have to trample the standards of good taste.

We have so many speakers in public life who are devastatingly careful and dreadfully dull; our cultural fearfulness of censure and error has effectively eliminated all ambiguity, complexity, and nuance from our conversation. But as we know, life is ambiguous. Right and wrong are never simple, never monolithic, and nobody has a corner on the truth market. But when we make it scandalous to be wrong, when we make reckless speech completely forbidden, what we lose are all kinds of opportunities for earnest, candid ‘truth speech.’

I often quote the Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, ‘The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person.’ Poetry is supposed to evoke and articulate the chorus of inmates in our individual asylums. That cannot happen when speech is entirely careful. But no presidential candidate now says: ‘We know that war is always an act of insanity’ or, ‘We know selling arms to anyone is intrinsically evil.’ No politician, apparently, can manage to say such an obvious truth – even though such truths desperately need expression.

Q. Your poem, “The Change,” which talks about “that big black girl from Alabama,” sparked a blog-storm after African-American poet Claudia Rankine read it at a conference. Can you talk about the poem?

It’s a poem that tells the narrative of how Venus and Serena Williams first appeared in tennis. A ripple went through American culture. Because of our awkwardness and shame and complicity and anxiety about race, you could hear sportscasters not being able to address this sense they had of a sea-change. So I wrote a poem, in the voice of a white speaker that embodies our anxiety about The Other about blackness and whiteness, trying to articulate white America from the inside.

I feel that white anxiety about race is an under-represented, under-articulated part of American society. It’s one thing to pretend to be nice, to strive to be colorblind, to apologize for the inequities in American culture – it’s another to say, I am afraid, I am guilty, and if I am guilty I am ashamed, and if I’m ashamed, I’m silent, and if I’m silent, nothing changes.

(Listen to Garrison Keillor read the “The Change“ on a 2008 edition of The Writer’s Almanac.)

Q. What was the outfall from the blow-up?

What happened – and this was long after the poem was written – was that it provoked a little poetry discussion about race. White poets apologized for it. Some black poets denounced me. After all, I wrote the poem to push some buttons, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that it created a reaction.

There were lots of blogs, and such. I think it took the whole dialogue backwards instead of forwards. Nonetheless, it was interesting and disturbing.

Q. So, are you backing off the topic?

No. I hope to get in trouble again. Each year, I try to do at least one thing that is impolitic.

Q. You’ve said you’ve moved on from the confessional to the social in your work. How do you see your poetry in relation to society and politics?

I’ve become progressively less infatuated with direct autobiography and using the first-person singular. In the same way that non-fiction becomes more interesting than fiction as we get older, one eventually realizes what an extraordinary place the world is and that your inner life is only one kind of interesting, and that you, being a citizen of an empire, of a mass culture, a material culture, can examine the amnesia and hyper-stimulation that is so much a part of being an American.

I believe a well-written poem can break the great, post-modern hum-down and assign values – not simply to say how confusing and post-modern it all is, but also to declare that some of it has worth and some of it is utterly worthless. A good poem can separate the counterfeit from the real and the valuable.

Q. Can you describe your methods?

I do first drafts on a manual typewriter. It just doesn’t feel the same on a computer. And I keep a big folder of first drafts. I like to sit in my long underwear, sipping my morning tea, and open up the folder and see what I can hook into today. Then I put it in the computer, print it out, and start marking it up.

Q. Your background suggests you were a restless kid, moving from military base to base, then a restless academic, dropping in and out of college. Also a Grateful Dead devotee. Talk about the role of error, trial, failure, experience, suffering, and Deadhead madness in the voice of a poet.
Failure is a very under-advertised and under-celebrated part of our lives. We tell our children and high school kids that if they work hard they can succeed and get ahead. We should be telling them that they will fail repeatedly, and that there is nothing wrong with that; in fact, your sense of meaninglessness and your humiliations will teach you empathy compassion and insight – if you survive them.

Certainly that’s what turned me into a human being: failing, and falling apart, and making mistakes. My mythological archetype is definitely the phoenix, the pattern of ruining everything over and over again, and then starting again from scratch.. All my credibility and humanity comes from my failures and my ongoing humiliations.

It’s so easy to lose touch with the fact that you are an idiot – that you’re just as crazy as everybody else walking around.

Q. Can you talk about the audience reactions to your razor-edged poems when you read them aloud?

When you’re reading a new poem, working it out, and read it in public for the first time, there is sometimes an audible moment when the good taste barrier is breached – POP! There’s a sudden pressure drop, a held breath in the room and it can be artistically very satisfying, because you know you really have caught the audience’s attention.

At other times, depending on where you are, it can be quite unpleasant if you are reading and suddenly the audience goes blank. They may all just start shutting down, because they don’t feel safe reacting to a poem. They don’t know if they’re allowed to laugh, and don’t know if they should be offended.

Q. How do you think our festival audiences in our corner of the country – the land of the polite – will react to your poems?

I hope to catch them off-guard.