Saturday, February 12, 2011

"Our Addressability": Claudia Rankine's Intervention @ AWP

One event that continues to reverberate now that the 2011 AWP Conference has ended is author and critic Claudia Rankine's "performance of sorts," as she called it, or intervention, as I and others have chosen to call it, concerning Tony Hoagland's racist poem "Change," at the Academy of American Poets' reading (with Charles Wright) on Thursday, January 5, 2011. I was unable to attend, but almost immediately afterward I read Tisa Bryant's short but moving report on it. Several days later, Rankine posted her remarks on her website, and so I will link to them here, and then post Tisa's report. Let me begin by saying I am a huge fan of Rankine's work, but have never had the opportunity to meet her. I hope to someday soon. I also should add that before this I had never read Hoagland's poem, and in general know little about his work, though I have seen his book of essays.

Rankine's powerful, cogent remarks and intervention (click on AWP).  The final two paragraphs:

Let me just say, Claudia Rankine, thank you.

Tisa's original report of the event, which originally appeared on Facebook. I won't excerpt it, since it ought to be read in full, and has been reposted, so I think it's okay to post it here. (I have not included Hoagland's poem, which you can reach via the link above.) Tisa, thank you.

Claudia Rankine at AWP: Afterthoughts on an Emotional Experience

by Tisa Bryant on Sunday, February 6, 2011 at 9:59pm

At the start of her reading at the Omni Hotel, Claudia Rankine said she would have writer Nick Flynn read the following poem by Tony Hoagland, respond herself to the poem, then read Mr. Hoagland's response to her, then end with a closing poem.  And that's what happened.

Context & Notes:
I am not able to fully reproduce Ms. Rankine's response to the poem, or his response to that, so those who were there, or who spoke to Ms. Rankine afterward (I didn't), please add your voices to this.

Mr. Hoagland was Ms. Rankine's colleague at the time "The Change," was published.  Ms. Rankine's response deftly asked questions about what this poem said and meant, to her, to others, said about her, or others.  She began by saying something like, "I don't like to use the word 'racist'..."  but went on to unpack the images of big, black, girl, monstrosity, wrongness, whiteness, paleness, tribalness, Americanness, womanness, collegiality, and more, with the big question, "What the fuck," in trying to make sense of Hoagland's imagery.  She asked repeatedly, "Am I that Black girl?" At some point, she asked Mr. Hoagland what he meant by the poem, and he said that "the poem is for white people."  Then Ms. Rankine began questioning what that meant, or could mean, but was clear that this was her speaking for him in her imagination.  That she could not know for sure.  So she did what perhaps we don't do as often as we should (because we are often shamed for it, somehow.): she asked him what he meant.  I felt it, because it so mirrored my thought process in trying to figure out, "Is that person a racist, or am I...being emotional? Not thinking right?"

For some reason, Mr. Hoagland only had two days, prior to this event Friday, February 4, to respond to the poem, though it was clear to me (though I'm not totally sure now) that Mr. Hoagland was fully aware of and consented to his role in this dialectic in absentia.  He responded that Ms. Rankine was naive in her thinking about race and racism, that it's much worse than she seems to believe or know, that it's a problem how interrogations of race in poetry are often from a brown POV, it's a problem how readers of poems assume the speaker of the poem to be that of the poet, and it's a problem that liberal white guilty people's poems are ineffectual, dishonest and boring.  He said he'd rather get dirty up to his elbows in the muck of humanity (or racism, can't remember) than try to keep himself polite, neat and clean.  He called himself a racist and a misogynist, as well as a single mother, and a string of other identity markers I can't recall now, but were provocative in their complex contradictions.  He also said, "Is this poem for white people?  Perhaps."

Ms. Rankine ended with a poem that centered on the unfulfilled promise of America, and, it seemed to me, our current administration under President Obama, using the same phrase to start each line.  The poem, as did her initial response to Mr. Hoagland, made explicit reference to genocide of indigenous peoples in North America.

Charles Wright followed Ms. Rankine, he being the headliner of the evening, apparently.  In reading his second or third poem, he named a Chinese poet from a particular dynasty.  He said, "I took a line from this Chinese poet's work, then I laundered it.  Then I scalped it."

Ms. Rankine's presentation was bold, inspiring, very calculated, artful.  I was upset, shaken on many levels, by the entire evening, including Charles Wright's reading, but also heartened.  And confused.  As I read back, I find it disturbing how inexact my recounting of Ms. Rankine's words are, in comparison to my recall of Mr. Hoagland's.  The elegance of Ms. Rankine's interrogation of the poem, the context in which she read it, and trying to make meaning of it all, is something I felt as much as heard.  I'm reminded of one of my favorite sayings, about how nothing erases a Black woman's righteous anger faster than a white woman's tears, and here, I can replace tears with "cold, hard logic" or "objectivity," as Mr. Hoagland's response was short, terse, declarative, inelegant.  Or, I'm just a bad listener and can't remember specifics of Ms. Rankine's first response to the poem.  Still, in the construction of her presentation, her response and his, I think, I feel, that there's something quite intentional being performed here, about race and racism, authorship and authority.  I am struck by how quickly the people I was there with dispersed, also in silence, or to a safety.  In hindsight, for myself, silence was safest.  Perhaps still safe.  I hazard here to speak.  Therefore, please note that I am still processing.  So.

Should I, as in Ms. Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely, take the "I" to be a fiction, a construction, the speaking voice of a creative piece, not the author herself?  Are Ms. Rankine and Mr. Hoagland in fact in agreement, that Mr. Hoagland is not a racist, but that the poem should be understood not as his voice, but as a simple act of mimesis, the amplifying mirror of white people's racism?  Does his saying "I did it on purpose, it's all intentional," absolve him of responsibility, or free him from any charge of racism, because he calls himself a racist?  Or was he, in my emotional first estimation, responding to Ms. Rankine in a patronizing way, as if she was being an emotional little girl who just wasn't thinking right, seeing right?  Ms. Rankine's presentation certainly made these questions clear, and totally subverted the down home western pastoral romance (my view) of Charles Wright's poems.  Or, I just couldn't listen to them without populating his landscape with Chinese launderers, bloody scalps and hanging trees.
Here is Sarah Jaffe's response, "The Condition of Being Addressable: A Response to Claudia Rankine at AWP." Thank you, Sarah Jaffe. A quote:

Hoagland may be aware of the legacy of racism in this country, but he is unaccountable to the power that that legacy has bequeathed to him. And one aspect of that power is the power to name (“We suffer from the condition of being addressable”). In “The Change,” when Hoagland employed an array of racist, exoticizing stereotypes to describe the black tennis player, he flaunted that power. He used language irresponsibly and stridently, without regard for where it fell. If there is another language, an alternate discourse, that can possibly ever serve as a challenge to the dominant mode of careless naming, it is one that illuminates, at every step how connected we all are to each other, and to the institutions in which we live with, in, and in spite of. That is the language that Claudia Rankine practices and one that I was so grateful and moved to hear.

Here is Laura Hartmark's response, "How Tony Hoagland Renames Hate as Change." Thank you, Laura Hartmark.  A quote:

A poem that addresses race and racism by accurately depicting a reality and asking what can be done to repair what has gone wrong may appropriately be entitled, “Change.” Hoagland’s poem is more appropriately entitled, “Hate.” But to call it what it is, there would have to be an admission of racist hatred, and said admission is sadly absent from the poem.

Lastly, there are some readers who defend the poem by stating that it exposes how things are. To that, I can only quote Anaïs Nin: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
I am still thinking about all of this, though I think the core of Rankine's response, and Hartmark's critique, offer valuable ways of approaching a work like Hoagland's poem. Claudia Rankine has since posted this open call for responses on her site, so this might be a way of responding:

Dear friends,

As many of you know I responded to Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change” at AWP. I also solicited from Tony a response to my response. Many informal conversations have been taking place online and elsewhere since my presentation of this dialogue. This request is an attempt to move the conversation away from the he said-she said vibe toward a discussion about the creative imagination, creative writing and race.

If you have time in the next month please consider sharing some thoughts on writing about race (1-5 pages).

Here are a few possible jumping off points:

- If you write about race frequently what issues, difficulties, advantages, and disadvantages do you negotiate?

- How do we invent the language of racial identity--that is, not necessarily constructing the "scene of instruction" about race, but create the linguistic material of racial speech/thought?

- If you have never written consciously about race why have you never felt compelled to do so?

- If you don’t consider yourself in any majority how does this contribute to how race enters your work?

- If fear is a component of your reluctance to approach this subject could you examine that in a short essay that would be made public?

- If you don’t intend to write about race but consider yourself a reader of work dealing with race what are your expectations for a poem where race matters?

- Do you believe race can be decontextualized, or in other words, can ideas of race be constructed separate from their history?

- Is there a poem you think is particularly successful at inventing the language of racial dentity or at dramatizing the site of race as such? Tell us why.

In short, write what you want.  But in the interest of constructing a discussion pertinent to the more important issue of the creative imagination and race, please do not reference Tony or me in your writings.  We both served as the catalyst for this discussion but the real work as a community interested in this issue begins with our individual assessments.  

If you write back to me by March 11, 2011, one month from today, with “OPEN LETTER” in the subject heading I will post everything on the morning of the 15th of March. Feel free to pass this on to your friends. Please direct your thoughts to

In peace,

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