Farid Matuk (continued):
I understand this roundtable intends to advance a conversation on race and poetry begun by Claudia Rankine's intervention at the 2011 AWP conference in D.C. I want to honor the impulse to extend beyond Rankine's questioning of Tony Hoagland's "The Change," but I want to focus here on Hoagland and his response to Rankine as a way to ground some broader questions on race and poetics.
First, two claims about poetry and poetics by white poets I much admire: In an interview with Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand, my friend, the poet and critic Dale Smith, speaks of Amiri Baraka's poem in response to 9/11 "Somebody Blew Up America." Dale says, "I’m drawn to poets who are actively imagining an audience, and who go beyond expressions of social or political values on the page. It’s important for me to think about how poetry can be used to change attitudes or to provoke action in some way " ("Poetry and 'enactments of public space'" in Jacket 2).
Robert Duncan, in his correspondence with Denise Levertov, said, “[t]he poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it,” and he asked, “[i]s it a disease of our generation that we offer symptoms and diagnoses of what we are in the place of imaginations and creations of what we are?” (The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov 669).
And then there's Hoagland, again from his response to Claudia Rankine as archived now on the Poets.org website:
"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…
"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."
By the time I get to Hoagland's final line there about complexity, I'm drawing on whatever yogic breathing and meditative practice I've had to temper my anger. Many online commentators writing about "The Change" in the wake of Rankine's AWP presentation have asserted that there's nothing complex or brave about performing white racism. And while I agree with this sentiment at first blush, I stumble here, I'm troubled. Duncan and Smith's articulations of what they value in poetry have guided my own practice. Moreover, Hoagland's desire for "elasticity, mobility of perspective" and even for "trouble-making, clowning, and truth-telling" provoke much sympathy, even a sense of affinity from me. How are my own poetics different than Hoagland's? Is my work like his, or is my work Hoagland adjacent?
Is it the basic fact of Hoagland's whiteness, then, that troubles me when I read his treatments of race (What Narcissism Means to Me, in which "The Change" appears, has one or two other poems that also try to address racial difference)? I guess this is a naïve question for our roundtable, but I think, an important one to get out early. Who gets to make trouble with race? I'm asking to figure out my own position on this, hoping some of you might offer your own sense of boundaries and/or permissions on this question.
I think of Ronaldo Wilson's first book, Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man, which I love. Wilson crafts a protagonist of color who is difficult to like. The brown boy is vengeful, indulges in violent fantasies, and revels in his own beauty to the point of, indeed, narcissism. All of these gestures are wonderful, they provoke in me consideration of the ways we construct self via power, seduction, ownership, property, they make me question how the self can slide between subject and object. It's just a fantastic book! And it achieves so much of what Duncan and Smith seek in poetry – consideration of and provocation of an audience, exploration and enactments of our darker natures, etc.