Jaswinder Bolina: I want to offer my gratitude to everyone involved in this discussion. The conversation here and earlier ones with JMW, Patrick Culliton, and Nicole Wilson at the Edgewater Lounge and Simon’s Tavern in Chicago triggered a lengthy essay that addresses my broader perspective on poetry and race. I have all of you to thank for it. I titled that essay “Writing Like a White Guy” and took nearly three months to complete it. Turns out I had a lot to say. I’ve decided, though, that it’s simply too long to be included here, so I’m going to focus primarily on my reaction to the kerfuffle between Rankine and Hoagland, which might more accurately be described as my utter lack of reaction. It’s not that I find the subject of race and poetry uninteresting. I spent all summer writing about it and haven’t come close to covering all of my thoughts on the subject. I suspect many of you participating here feel the same way. No, it’s not the subject at all. Rather, it’s “The Change” and the ensuing tensions between Hoagland and Rankine that bore me.
The interaction between the two poets feels about as mind-numbing as watching the various charges of racism, sexism, and betrayal exchanged by black and white pundits and politicians during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. During that contest, suggestions that his sometimes vehement support for his spouse constituted Bill Clinton’s abandonment of the African American constituency that buttressed his Presidency or that Oprah Winfrey’s support of Barak Obama meant she had somehow betrayed women seemed histrionic at best and, to borrow a term from Hoagland, naïve at worst. It’s as if those involved couldn’t permit the possibility that their adversaries might have some rather complicated answers to the manifold questions of race and gender. With regard to the specific issue of race, accusations and counter-accusations made by party elders and media pundits rang particularly melodramatic largely because candidate Obama appeared the very embodiment of the “racially complex.” This didn’t seem to be a man interested in reductive arguments or inflammatory rhetoric. He was then and continues now to be a person more interested in complicating the issue rather than in genuflecting before the culture warriors of a prior generation.
Which brings me to Hoagland and Rankine. There’s something outmoded at work here, something overly simplistic and as such something not terribly instructive. The conversation between the two is inanely familiar: the liberal, white guy undertakes a foray into the craggy canyon of racism; he mistakes his honesty for complexity; and then he spends months fending off charges of bastardy as those who make those charges are rightfully fearful of being cast as “angry.” The whole event feels like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm if not an entire season. Trouble is, what Hoagland describes as racially complex in “The Change” isn’t actually all that complicated. Amy’s closing statement expresses my view on this fairly succinctly, and Timothy’s “Whiteness Thinking” offers a more robust but no less precise version. The poem is an expression of a sentiment we already know. Its finer moments, to my mind, are those that offer the perspective of the ambiguous “you,” but even these feel as though they’re included only to serve as counterweight to the closeted racism of the speaker, who I don’t for a second conflate with the real Tony Hoagland.
Full disclosure: I’ve met Hoagland, as no doubt others of you participating in this roundtable have. He’s a terrifically genial, passionate, and insightful poet in my experience, one who is able to rankle others with his opinions and writing, but one who is also able to contribute compelling perspective on the condition of contemporary American poetry. In this debate, however, I find myself inclined to agree with Timothy’s takedown rather than to defend Tony. The claim that Rankine’s perspective on the subject of American racism is naïve and that she doesn’t “…believe that it permeates the psychic collective consciousness and unconsciousness of most Americans in ways that are mostly ugly” seems absurd. I have no idea what occurred between the two as colleagues, but I can’t believe a Jamaican-born woman who’s spent time in the American South is oblivious to such facts. Hoagland’s assertion that she is oblivious simply rings hollow.