More on Rankine and Hoagland at WritingJunkie.net
I've been trying to get a steady beat, nothing overly elaborate nor sedate, on the poetry controversy involving race at this year's AWP, the 2011 conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Writers met in D.C., February 2-5.
The controversy came to my attention when I received a message from poet Jericho Brown on Facebook that only had an open letter from another poet, Claudia Rankine, which you can read here at another poet's blog, Oliver de la Paz's space. (I'm linking you through Oliver in case you can't find the open letter when you visit Claudia's website, which is also linked below.)
The controversy involves Tony Hoagland's poem "The Change," a poem published in Hoagland's 2003 book What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf Press) that some people feel is offensive, even "racist" possibly, although nobody wants to use the "r" word these days for fear of ... oh, um ... fear. (Some people of color, it seems, shiver a bit at how being labeled an angry black person might throw off their social and career trajectories. Angry black people are passé.)
Others say the poem, in context of Hoagland's book and the poem's text itself--given that the speaker of a poem is not necessarily saying what the poet thinks--is actually "anti-racist," the poet's disapproval perhaps of the speaker's attitudes. The poem's speaker hopes that "some tough little European blonde," who is in a tennis match "against that big black girl from Alabama" with the "cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms" and has "some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite," beats the black girl on the court because the blonde is white like the speaker, a member of his tribe. Later, the poem's speaker laments how the world is changing. (You can also listen to Garrison Keillor read the poem, "The Change," on a 2008 edition of The Writer's Almanac on public radio.)
Well, Rankine has words for Hoagland about how that poem makes her, a black woman, feel.
For the time being, I have no long comment of my own. (On March 9, I added my final thoughts in a new post.) Here, I'm simply providing interested parties with links beginning with a summary from the Poetry Foundation, and I am pondering this slice of life in the light of Kenneth Burke's words from A Rhetoric of Motives (Make no mistake, poetry is a kind of rhetoric):
For this imagery, so long as it was humorous, would contain a dimension which essentially qualified the animus. The imagery could foretell homicide only in the sense that it contained an ingredient which, if efficiently abstracted from its humorous modifiers, would in its new purity be homicidal. And such abstracting can take place, of course, when conditions place too much of a strain upon the capacity for humor.I've been thinking lately that given the current state of America, her frazzled hair and ragged nerves related to race and political ideologies, evidence of her people's political polarization, some words may be too heavy a burden; they may strain the "capacity for humor" and love the way words sometimes do.
Would Rankine have had the same perception of the poem if she'd read it in 2003 before Barack Obama's 2008 win exposed the deepest phobias of skin color tribalists (that's what it takes to avoid the "r" word at all cost)? Would the poem have seemed less threatening before certain speakers of certain political parties clarified the distance between America today and anything post-racial? Would anyone on either side have felt differently eight years ago?
I'm sure when Hoagland woke up the day Rankine responded to his poem at AWP he had no idea that his 2003 words had been sitting all this time, a bomb rigged for 2011 explosion. However, as a poet, he may have hoped some day someone would feel fire from his words. In fact, based on his email response, as recollected by John Gallaher, I think that's exactly how Hoagland hopes his words hit people, like a thing that burns.
This is when he brought in the poem itself, by saying that people tend to read contemporary dramatic monologues as the voice of the poet. There is a difference between the voice of the poem and the actual poet. He then said that, even so, yes, he is a racist. But he’s also many other things, including a AAA member, a homophobe, a Unitarian, and a single mother, as all are personae.Given what I've said about the "N-word" and Huck Finn sanitization, my agreement with John McWhorter on the topic, readers who know my opinions on racism in this country can guess that I lean more toward Hoagland's assessment of himself and America's racial predicament. But like America's racial predicament, my additional thoughts about Hoagland regarding the rhetoric of his poem and how he chooses to leverage his privilege as a white male are more complex.
He then defended the idea of tribes, saying that many poems by African Americans are written for African Americans, he believes. But also, he believes that poets, who he also considers his tribe, will figure out what he means. ... His poem is not racist, he asserts. It is, like America, racially complex.
So, please read what you care to read about this matter at the links below, ponder our dysfunction, and pass on your thoughts via Twitter, blogs, and Facebook. American poets probably haven't had this much attention since the 1960s.
It came to my attention on March 17 that Claudia's response to "The Change" and Tony's response to Claudia are now available at Poets.org.
A summary from the Poetry Foundation: Tony Hoagland's Poem on Race Heats Up at AWP
Claudia Rankine's website: Click "AWP" and also "Open Letter."
From Nothing to Say and Saying It, John Gallaher's blog:
The Condition of Being Addressable--A Response to Claudia Rankine at AWP
Updated to include "The New Patronage Killed Social Activism in Poetry" by Seth Abramson, an excellently thoughtful take on this topic.
Also adding Tony Hoagland's Q&A with Major Jackson and Alicia Ostriker from Kent Shaw.
Updated March 9, 2011: My final thoughts on this thingy.