Jaswinder Bolina (continued): In this country, there is no poem published in any mainstream literary venue that can rightly be claimed exclusively for white people—or for black and brown peoples for that matter. In this country, there’s only the American poem. Hoagland is dead right that the topic of race belongs to brown-skinned and white-skinned Americans, but this is exactly what makes his a poem for all of us, brown and white, naïve and erudite. Because it is fundamentally an American poem, though, he simply can’t expect a free pass when his work falls short of its desired effect. While I think there’s something enjoyable, interesting, and genuinely complicated going on in the poem where it takes on the experience of impermanence, change, and humility, there are also some serious misfirings as a number of you have eloquently pointed out. I mean seriously, “…that big black girl from Alabama, / cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms, / some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite”? Why not just call her Venus Williams at least? What’s the intention of the caricature? Is he simply inventing a player? If so, the move undermines the authenticity and credibility of the experience the poem describes. Worth noting is that the Williams sisters grew up in a relatively affluent version of California, and more to the point there never has been a top-seeded, black WTA player from Alabama. Further, I can’t imagine a professional athlete wearing bangles during a championship match. Returning a 95 mph serve is difficult enough without them.
Okay, so I’m piling on here, but the fact is I deeply appreciate Hoagland’s ambition and intention in writing the poem even though I feel it comes up short. In spite of this, my final issue isn’t strictly with him. It’s directed at both poets and is the source of my general lack of reaction to the exchange between the two. Truth is, I don’t walk away from Hoagland’s poem, Rankine’s talk, or Hoagland’s response having learned much about race relations in America that I wasn’t aware of already. This roundtable has far more to offer that project than does the event that was its impetus. Excepting the discussion here, all I’m able to take away from “The Change” is, Yes, racism exists; all I’m able to gather from Claudia Rankine’s reaction is, Encountering racism is lousy, and yes, we should be angry; and all I learn from reading Hoagland's response is that I better damn well remember to be respectful when I’m writing an email.