Gulf Stream staff member Ariel Francisco had an opportunity at the 2014 Miami International Book Fair to have a conversation with Tony Hoagland. The transcript of their conversation is featured below.
A.F.: So, I wanted to ask, as a poet what compels you to write essays or address things in essay form as opposed to a poem?
T.H.: Yeah. Well, you know, poems can’t do everything. Really, I started writing craft essays when I was in graduate school like you. I wasn’t that naturally talented, but I was a really really dedicated reader, and I wanted to figure out what I thought about this poet or that poet or how a particular effect had been achieved. So what’s the difference, for example, between a metaphor that goes ridiculously far away from the point of comparison, and a so called “normal” metaphor? There’s a poem I read not long ago by Jeff McDaniels. It’s about a guy taking a hit on a crack pipe, and the speaker says, “the smoke filled my lungs like Stalin coming out from between his mother’s legs.” Now, that is a long ways to travel for a metaphor and you’ll never make it back, will you? What would you call that kind of metaphor, as opposed to a metaphor in which you’re saying, I don’t know, the arms race is like walking into a room full of gasoline with a cigarette lighter? So some metaphors have a rational component and some of them are simply fantastic—and then there are a hundred different other kinds, as well. When I was a student, I just wanted to figure things out so that I could do them myself, really. And it’s still like that for me. When I really like a poem or a poet—like there’s a poet named Arda Collins right now. You ever hear of her?
T.H.: She has one book and, I don’t know exactly what to say about it, but you look at the poems and you think “…that’s not very fancy,” right? It’s very raw and almost non-grammatical, very intuitive; yet there’s something in the poems that is very mysterious, charismatic, and honest. And so, one asks, how does she do it? Why am I attracted, even though I am not “impressed” in the way that some poets impress you? The point is, there are always more questions to ask, and it’s often edifying and empowering to figure out why something works—Why do I think it’s cool, and could I do it myself?
A.F.: Very cool, yeah. I think, reading the book [Twenty Poems That Could Save America and Other Essays] that it’s evident that you sort of break down what different people do and you talk a bit about how some people take maybe the wrong things from certain poets and sort of these weird, intentionally elusive elements get perpetuated, but then become popular. How does that happen?
T.H.: Culture is a mysterious process — it has a random quality to its selection process. Take standup comedy, for example. I mean, it’s a true art form. It’s very close to poetry. It’s incredibly hot right now in American culture—but why is so much of the humor about farting, and coming, “women are bitches,” and all that stuff? Why is that so prevalent? I don’t believe that all standup comics are that misogynist, or that Neanderthal, or that stupid, or that crude. The real explanation is probably that such infantile jokes are just an inherited part of contemporary standup culture. So, they want to be successful and they are picking up on that particular mannerism in their art form, in the state of the art as it is now, and building a kind of platform out of it. But, there are much more interesting things that can be done with comedy. And American poetry can be like that too.
A.F.: That’s really interesting, and I love the comparison of poetry to comedy, but there’s definitely a lot more financial feasibility with comedy. Why do you think someone would sort of do a similar thing in poetry when the payout isn’t similar? Not literal payout, but the potential for success.
T.H.: I think that everything is connected. Economics, sociology, technology, psychology, postmodernism, the American Empire. And so, the last generation or so of American poets discovered, among other things, that they could publish their own books; they didn’t have to wait for the grownups to pick them. When Campbell [McGrath], and Denise [Duhamel] and I were coming up, you had to have a grownup say “I anoint you, and Farrar Straus is going to bring out your first book next year,”—that’s what happened to Campbell (laughs). That’s how it was. But then, an industrious generation or two later discovered that “wow, we can start our own magazines, we can start our own presses.” Fence Publishing, Wave Books, The Believer, Tin House, Jubilat, and a zillion other non-profit publishers arose. They said, “We don’t have to wait for the grownups to pick us. We’ll pick each other.” On the one hand, that’s an amazing, admirable act of autonomy and independence from the taste of the past, but there are also some consequences. Maybe today people can publish books before they should. Maybe people pick their friends. And also, maybe certain kinds of “cool” mannerisms become fetishistic. I was talking to a poet I know a couple of days ago. She’s reading for a big contest and she said the screeners for the contest are sending her the manuscripts they like. These are grad students screening for the contests, and they’re sending her manuscripts that have clever or obscure manneristic features— like manuscripts in which all the titles are parenthesis with nothing inside. That’s an example of what I would call a useless fucking mannerism, a highly useless fucking mannerism—The person who’s doing that, doesn’t even know why he’s doing it, except that they saw someone else doing it or because Jorie Graham did it once. Another manuscript my friend received was redacted, do you know what that means? Full of blacked-out phrases and passages.
T.H.: You know, like all crossed out. Odd features are certainly defensible in poetry if you can explain why you’re doing it, or if somebody who’s reading your poem can say “oh, I understand the implication of that effect,”—But probably the poet is really just [doing it] for the sake of cool. We have to remember that there are such things as wisdom, truth, beauty, and poetic power to be achieved through this technology, this English language, through grammar, through image, through metaphor, through intellectual history, through the use of current events. There are so many things that you can do. So why do something in your poetry that by definition has the narrowest possible audience, and in a certain way is already intentionally limiting, sort of excluding a big part of the audience? It’s crazy and it’s bad for our business, it’s bad for art, you know.
A.F.: Totally agree.
T.H.: (laughs) Anyway.
A.F.: Campbell always says there’s no poetry jail or there is no jail in Poetryland. Should there be? Or time-out, perhaps?
T.H.: (laughs) That’s good, yeah.
A.F.: So you talk a lot about influence in the new book, and you have the piece about Robert Bly and how he’s sort of been this tremendous influence on multiple levels in American poetry, and I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition to when you talk about the New York School poetics who also had this huge influence, but in a sort of different way. If you were to ask all the poets here at the festival who their biggest influences are you’d get a lot more Ashbery and O’Hara than you would Bly, I think. Why is that? How can two elements be so huge and yet one be so [much more] overwhelming than the other in individuals?
T.H.: Well, you know, memory is a funny thing. In fact, we’re all influenced by Bly, because Bly translated the South American poets— Lorca, Neruda, Vallejo, Machado,—and he translated Transtromer, he translated Rilke, he translated Rumi and all those Persian poets. So he brought those influences into American poetry wholesale. We sort of assume that they’ve always been here, existing in English, but they haven’t and they’ve had an enormous amount of influence on American poetry. We just don’t remember that Bly was the translator and bearer of those poets. Bly’s influence is huge, but invisible, like most influences. In our time, memory is shorter and shorter. Amnesia is a condition of the 21st century in American culture, because everything moves so fast and things get replaced so quickly. When I write an essay about an older poet, to me it’s like writing about my grandparent, or it’s like writing about an ancestor in American poetry; I’m really doing it to say this [poet] was a giant, and that we should remember the breadth and the depth of the accomplishment. I feel that way about the New York School too. Whenever I get unhappy or sad about poetry or about myself, I always know that I can get in the bathtub, and I can take my collected Frank O’Hara poems or collected Kenneth Koch poems, take New Addresses or that last book of his, and they’re going to remind me of pleasure. Pleasure was our starting place in poetry, and pleasure is the place you go back to to remember why you liked poetry. It isn’t because you wanted to be important or it isn’t because you’re like, “I like MY poetry,” you know. But, it’s because poetry is so beautiful and so fun.
And so, the New York School, as I say in the introduction to that essay in my book, is a really influential school. Its style has infiltrated the common water. Almost any popular young poet has been somewhat influenced by the New York School, most often by O’Hara. There’s a lot of style and energy there and I’m also hugely influenced by O’Hara. I’m not saying we should stay in the past. Of course, poetry has to keep moving around. In contrast to O’Hara, there are the formal powers of someone like Wallace Stevens. We have to remember in alternating directions. If memory is the back half of an animal that is still sending signals to the animal’s brain, then, when those signals stop coming,—the reservoir of resources and the variety of possibilities, even the analytical capacity of our poetry declines. Without a knowledge of the past achievements and modes, the choices that can be made, whether it’s in an individual poem or whether it’s in a whole culture, are just so much more limited. Lately I have been thinking of the generation of American poets born in the 1920’s, a giant generation, Bly was one of them. It’s a heroic generation, and I don’t think that, for the most part, poets of your generation are very aware of them—teachers aren’t teaching them anymore. Everybody is teaching Harryette Mullen and Ben Lerner instead. Everybody is teaching the latest sensation. Understandably—it’s a real temptation as a teacher to teach something that’s just off the press, and it’s a real temptation as a curious reader to read what’s just off the press. But the generation of American poets born in the twenties is like a whole forest of giant Sequoias— that’s Adrienne Rich and James Wright and Frank O’Hara and Galway Kinnell, who just died, and Philip Levine and Robert Bly, and I’m forgetting ten of them. They were all born in about these three years…
A.F.: W.S. Merwin, I think.
T.H.: W.S. Merwin! I mean, the two greatest living American poets—I know you’ve been waiting for this pronouncement, weren’t you?—are Louise Glück and W.S. Merwin. They’ll be read a hundred years from now. But on the other hand, who cares. I’d rather hang around with Frank O’Hara, probably. The point is, power is a real thing in poetry. To read poetry which is, in some ways, verifiable in its ambition, matters. And poetry is more than Personality. It also springs from strength of mind, courage and knowledge. Poets are not exempt from erudition. To know something of history is important for a poet. You have to read about France in the 30’s and World War I and World War II and the McCarthy Era to see what really was important and in a way informative. And to read a generation of poets who, among other things, have a deep grasp of culture is valuable in itself. Without reading the elders, how are people like you and I going to understand something like the ways Catholicism and existentialism and surrealism have influenced our culture today?
T.H.: What does it mean to you, Ariel, when I say that one of the things I like about Tomas Transtromer is the existentialist streak that runs through his work? That places on you the burden of finding out what “existentialism” implies in that poetic context. It means, that you have to go read Transtromer, and you have to get a better handle on what existentialism is. And how does that play out poetically? Poetry is not just a matter of inventiveness and ingenuity, but is an intellectual discipline. Our poems absorb and carry certain understandings into the future, and they make the claim that those understandings are of import. So, poets should be taking full responsibility for their literacy and all the rest of it. I really sound like a grownup, don’t I? (Laughs).
A.F.: (Laughs) Ok, yeah. So, just one more just to kind of wrap up.
A.F.: I think it’ll wrap up everything you’ve been talking about and the book, because I wanted to ask you about the title essay, “Twenty Poems That Could Save America.” It comes at the end of the book, obviously, and the title itself implies that we need saving, so how deep are we? How…
T.H.: …–lost are we?
A.F.: Yes, how lost are we? Can we be saved?
T.H.: Yeah, well, things are not looking good. Things are especially not good in the American education system. We don’t value memory. Our values have been replaced by the ethics of immediate gratification, the culture of consumption as entertainment; our self-reliance has turned into narcissism, and so on.
A.F.: Pop culture?
T.H.: Um, gosh, it’s such a big question. I have a recent poem, which I might read at my event in a minute, which sort of answers this question. It expresses gratitude that the American empire is in decline and how, in the not too distant future, the United States will happily no longer have so much power, because we aren’t doing good things with it. The same thing goes for our individual lives. We may have good intentions, but the degrees of our indulgence and our you could say, our spiritual poverty—I’ll use that term, spiritual poverty, is vast. —We don’t have many true figures of authority reminding us that all of this is precious, that we’re responsible for it, or that a life that is not soulful is worth little. Poems can remind us that the deepest and hardest parts of our experience are something that we share and something that we need —they are our initiation. There’s no way around tragedy. There’s no way around disappointment and disillusion, and having to accommodate your own grief and your own sense of separateness. All of those truths are truths that religion and philosophy and parents and extended families once held in place in culture. But those many cohering structures have pretty much been dissolved. About all we have left now is therapy. Poems, however, can be a kind of receptacle, a reservoir for testimonies and articulations about the depth of life. Perhaps it’s just a little art form, but it’s our art form, and it has an enormous resourcefulness. Plus, it’s so much fun. That’s why poetry should be part of mainstream American culture and the educational system, because we need the help they provide. Poems are like clues that have been left for us along the road, little packages that have been left which anybody might find. You might read a poem, like I did, by W.S. Merwin, many years ago and say, “this man knows what I’ve been looking for, and he’s saying what I’ve been waiting for somebody to tell me.” Our contemporary poems have the obligation to do that too. Yeah, so, things are not looking good, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t responsible for trying to make them better. Even though I disapprove of talking so morally and ethically and sort of self-righteously—unfortunately, I believe everything I’m saying.