The Change: Poets Expand the Dialogue on Race


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Dear Friends,

Despite all our differences — in race, region, gender, creed, and aesthetic — most American poets share a faith in the capacity of language to bridge these divisions. I said as much while introducing Claudia Rankine at the 2011 AWP Conference, and the point is worth reiterating — even though we all know that words can also trigger powerful emotional reactions.

The goal of the Academy of American Poets is to represent, as much as possible, a wide range of contemporary poetry exploring the whole of human experience. Claudia Rankine's AWP reading presented a dialogue about Tony Hoagland's poem "The Change," and what Hoagland referred to as its racial complexity. The reading sparked many conversations, so the source material — both text and audio — is crucial:

• "The Change," by Tony Hoagland, read by Nick Flynn
Claudia Rankine's essay
Tony Hoagland's response to Rankine's essay
• "We Heard Health Care," by Claudia Rankine

Art is about our lives, and poetic language can lead to confusion and misunderstanding as well as illumination. Literature has the power to alarm, to console, to provoke, to heal, and — we hope — to lead individuals on the path of discovery and engagement. In her essay, Rankine quoted Judith Butler saying, "Our very being exposes us to the address of another.…We suffer from the condition of being addressable."

Poetry, which is one powerful way we address one another, can help us understand who we are. We welcome discussion about the role of poetry in our lives — how tone, voice, persona, and charged language resonate in our imaginations. Any change we make in the world must begin there — in the imagination. Yours truly,
Tree Swenson
Executive Director, Academy of American Poets

P.S. Claudia Rankine invited responses to a series of questions and posted them at