Congeries poet Reginald Dwayne Betts wrote about his experiences with Hoagland in an eloquent Facebook post on October 24th:
Tony Hoagland has passed. And this is what I want to say. When I was in prison, he wrote me a letter. He typed that letter, and fixed multiple mistakes. He sent me the carbon copies and all of his flaws were revealed to me. I guess he didn't mind. This is the Tony Hoagland I'll remember. People will say whatever they want, but all of us will die. And if you made a single person feel how Hoagland made me feel when he sent me that letter, a letter to a young convict in a state prison, you're winning.” Dwayne goes on to write, “Much of who I am as a writer is because Hoagland wrote me back. I wrote more than a dozen writers from prison and none of them wrote me back. Hoagland did. So, you know, I'm basically going to defend him until I die. And am quite okay with you not liking that. And, more importantly, am quite okay with defending a man who doesn't deserve defending, cause last I checked, none of us deserve to be defended.
This experience isn’t isolated. My own interactions with Tony are limited, but they are important to me and memorable. I first spent time with him at the West Virginia Writers Workshop a number of years ago. We were both on the faculty that year, and I remember an amazing hour or two in the company of, among others, Tony, Peter Makuck, Jim Harms, and Renee Nicholson. We were shooting the poetry breeze, and Tony and Peter took turns reciting—from memory—poems in French. His kindness and amiability were noted by the students with which he worked that summer.
In 2011, I emailed Tony to ask if he would contribute a question I could ask of Donald Revell for an interview, published here that May. He kindly agreed. There’s some good news about that interview, but I’m not at liberty to reveal it yet.
Of course, some of Tony’s poems are featured in A Poetry Congeries (see below). Asking for those poems and accepting them was my last email exchange with him, January 12th, 2016. I knew he was slipping fast, and I thought to write him once or twice afterward. But day gives way to busy day, and I failed to do it. I’m sorry for that.
I realize that Tony raised an uproar with his Venus Williams poem, and maybe one or two others. “The Change” made things happen. It opened up a conversation in the poetry community, one that needed to be had. As Daisy Fried writes at the Poetry Foundation web site, the poem “has been praised by African-Americans and whites, and attacked as racist by almost as many—or maybe more. That readers find the poem painful is understandable. Hoagland probably intended the poem to cause pain. But ‘The Change’ . . . is a narrative poem about the inevitability of political change. It is also is a poem which believes that white liberals’ relationship to race is more complicated than our consciously held and universally agreed-upon opinion that Racism is Bad.” She goes on to note that “’The Change’ is no exaggerated satire of racist America: The speaker is not white, working class, uneducated, reactionary and ignorant. On the contrary, Hoagland’s unnamed speaker is by affect moderate, cultured and middle-class. He uses racial stereotype as if having a “what, me racist? I’m only an observer” chat at the office. Because the poem obscures the boundary between poet and persona, it’s a deeply uncomfortable poem.”
Tony could make us cringe, and that cringing begat the very public debate between Tony and Claudia Rankine in 2002. Was it stupid of Tony to write that Rankine was “naive when it comes to the subject of American racism”? Of course.
However, that begat Rankine’s National Book Award-nominated volume Citizen and a lot more discussion about racism within and without the world of poetry. Isn’t that what poetry is supposed to do?
I may take heat for this, but so be it. I was at the Dodge Festival in 2002, standing next to Gerald Stern as it turned out, and listened to Amiri Baraka recite his infamous poem about September 11, “Somebody Blew Up America.” Like Hoagland’s, it’s a persona poem, and like Hoagland’s, Baraka’s poem took all sorts of heat for his having uttered it. Jewish groups claimed it was anti-Semitic. He was relieved of his duties as New Jersey poet laureate. Stern, a Jew, later remarked that he was "shocked at the stupidity of [the poem" and suggested the response to it was difficult to weigh, saying, “we don't censor poets . . . [but] lies never serve good, and there was hate in it." In the end, that poem begat spirited discussion about anti-Semitism within and without the world of poetry.
One need not dig deep to find other poems by Baraka that seem anti-Semitic, anti-white, anti-gay, anti-woman and anti-all sorts of other things. That’s what he was as a poet, and he made no excuses for it. Yet, many of those who’ve excoriated Hoagland for his poem were silent then and have remained silent about Baraka and others. Rankine, in her 2016 New York Times review of Baraka’s S O S: Poems 1961-2013, could have complained about these poems, she could have placed them in a larger socio-poetic context, but she does little more than mention “Somebody Blew Up America” is in the book. I’m not suggesting Rankine should have remarked about this poem’s complicated nature. That wasn’t the time or place, perhaps, but she has had her opportunities.
Are these cases so different that we are comparing apples and oranges? I don’t think so, but I can only project from the admitted limits of my own situation. Is Tony’s poem a “white” poem, as Hoagland claimed? Are Baraka’s poems “black “poems? I don’t believe it true. If it is, we’re all more fucked than we realize.
We poets often wring our hands and moan about whether or not poetry matters, is read, makes anything happen. Tony Hoagland’s body of work, as with Baraka’s, Rankine’s, and Ezra Pound’s, for that matter, have mattered, are read, have made things happen. What else you want?