Dear Claudia: A Letter in Response
The following letter is Tony Hoagland's revised response to the essay Claudia Rankine wrote about his poem "The Change."
At the 2011 AWP conference, Rankine followed the reading of her essay by reading Tony's response, the audio of which is posted above.
Tony Hoagland: Dear Claudia,
Thank you for inviting me to respond to your AWP report on the subject of race in my poem "The Change."
To start off, let me say that I thought, back when we were colleagues, and I still think, that, to me, you are naive when it comes to the subject of American racism, naive not to believe that it permeates the psychic collective consciousness and unconsciousness of most Americans in ways that are mostly ugly.
The elements of that confusion are, as we all know, guilt, fear, resentment, and wariness. Its sources are historical and economic and institutionalized. We drank racism with our mother's milk, and we re-learn it every day, as we weave our way through our landscapes of endless inequality.
That is one reason why it seems foolish and costly to think that the topic of race belongs only to brown-skinned Americans and not white-skinned Americans. But many poets and readers think that.
This is especially true in contemporary poetry where a poem is often presumed to be in the voice of the author. I am not trying to sidestep—of course I am racist; and sexist, a homophobe, a classist, a liberal, a middle-class American, a college graduate, a drop-out, an egotist, Diet Pepsi drinker, a Unitarian, a fool, a Triple A member, a citizen of Texas, a lover of women, a teacher, a terrible driver, and a single mother. Purity is not my claim, my game, nor a thing remotely within my grasp. I'm an American; this tarnished software will not be rectified by good intentions, or even good behavior.
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.
Just as you find the posture of "angry black person" simplistic, I find the posture of "apologetic liberal white person" not just boring, but useless.
I don't believe in explaining my poems to other poets; they are part of my tribe, and I expect them to be resilient readers.
I want some of my poems to alarm people with their subjects and attitudes. I think poems can be too careful. A poem is not a teddy bear.
When it comes to the subject of American race, it is a set of conditions we all suffer, whether in our avoidance or confrontation. We will need to be rousted for another fifty, or a hundred years. I would rather get dirty trying to dig it out of the ground, than make nice. I am easy in my conscience.
Finally let me say that I think my poem "The Change" is not "racist" but "racially complex."
Listen to Claudia Rankine's poem, "We heard 'Health Care,' and we thought 'Public Option.'" which she read at AWP following Hoagland's letter to her.