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Poetry and race

By Alan Gilbert

I’m kinda surprised that there hasn’t been any commentary on Harriet this month about the biggest and most heated discussion in the poetry world this spring—Claudia Rankine’s public questioning at the most recent AWP conference of Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change.” Daisy Fried contributed a post just a few days ago that analyzed Hoagland’s poem, though she doesn’t mention the debate.

Briefly: While a colleague of Hoagland’s at the University of Houston, Rankine sought some clarification from him concerning the racially charged language and imagery contained in “The Change.” Dissatisfied—in fact, angered—by his reply, Rankine (now at Pomona College) wrote a response that she sent to Hoagland, and to which he responded in turn. His poem and both her and his response were then read at her headlining AWP reading with Charles Wright (Nick Flynn read the poem; Rankine read her response and Hoagland’s), though she described this reading as more of a performance. Needless to say, it became the talk of the conference and on Facebook and various blogs in the days and weeks after.

Rankine writes: “For so long I thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase me as a person, but after considering [Judith] Butler’s remarks I begin to understand myself as rendered hyper-visible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that I am present. My alertness, my openness, my desire to engage my colleague’s poem, my colleague’s words, actually demands my presence, my looking back at him. So here I am looking back, talking back and, as insane as it is, saying, please.”

This material has been archived at Rankine’s website and the Academy of American Poets’ website, poets.org, and was also reported on by Harriet on February 10. As Rankine stressed during the reading and afterward, Hoagland participated throughout the process and approved of her public reading of his response and, later, of her narration of the events.

Rankine then sent out a request for responses from various writers, which she’s collected on a website to which more than one hundred people have contributed (including Fried), and Rankine has promised to post further contributions to the dialogue. There’s not enough space here to do justice to the range and variety of responses, so for my final post this month, I’d like to encourage Harriet’s readers to visit the website and extend and expand this important discussion.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, April 30th, 2011 by Alan Gilbert.