Tony Hoagland is the author of five volumes of poetry: Application for Release from the Dream; Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty; Sweet Ruin, winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry; Donkey Gospel, winner of the James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets; and What Narcissism Means to Me. He is also the author of two collections of essays about poetry, Real Sofistakashun and Twenty Poems That Could Save America, as well the chapbook Don’t Tell Anyone. His poems and critical essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, and Ploughshares. He is the winner of the 2008 Jackson Poetry Prize, awarded by Poets & Writers magazine.
Hello, Mr. Hoagland. Thank you for taking the time to speak with TWA as we celebrate National Poetry Month.
I called a local bookstore recently and asked if they had your latest collection, Application for Release from the Dream, in stock, and barely got the words out before the guy on the other end of the line exclaimed, “That is such a good book! We are currently out, but I’m going to order a dozen right now.” We were two giddy poetry fiends for a second, talking about your book with the enthusiasm of teens at a rock concert.
There is delight, anger, mercy, and, as always, a great deal of humor in this collection. Tell us about it. How long did it take to write; was it a painstaking process? Did you choose the cover with the photo of the rare white humpback whale rising from the water?
First of all, thank you for the story.
I just got back from the Florida Panhandle, near Pensacola, and to me it was something like poetry. On the one hand, the reality of the Arby’s and the parking lots and the tattoo parlors and the clam shacks. One hundred feet away, on the other hand, was the beach, the impossible sugar-white sand, and the turquoise, crystal-clear ocean. It was spring break and I know that, a block away, a sophomore named Nancy from Tallahassee was vomiting under a Ferris wheel, and some other kid named Todd was jumping off the balcony of his third-floor room into the hotel swimming pool, and the ambulance was already on its way, and the blue blue ocean was minding its own eternal business. That catches the coexistence of the sacred and profane, which makes the world and makes poetry too. That juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness, of the precious and the appalling, is really important to my poetry. It’s a description of the world, and, to me, also a description of human nature, of psychological reality.
A lot of my poetic fascination continues to be social and political; I have a love for the textures of the American zeitgeist. But in my more recent work, I have become more and more interested in what I might call “feeling-tones”; I would like to be able to convey the uneasy sense that we are in the middle of an experience that we can not name.
And yes! I did choose the cover photograph of the breaching whale, because it seemed to me a perfect image of the psyche, the Self that dives and rises through an element it has no name for; of the great, deep shapes of intuition coming up to the surface, and rolling over to show their undersides before diving down again into the mystery. If you’re a whale, I imagine that this is what you sing about; most of your songs are made up to entertain and console yourself. But some of them are to the ocean itself, and the sky, and some of them are to your fellow whales.
On The Writer’s Almanac, we featured a poem called “Fetch,” from Application for Release from the Dream. And maybe I’m prejudiced as the owner of a 13-year-old small rescue dog, but that poem never fails to put a lump in my throat.
How’d that poem come about? It’s the small details you manage: “holding out a little hotdog on a toothpick” and “barricades and bulwarks against human loneliness” that simultaneously break the heart and restore it at once. Have you always had an eye for detail?
I haven’t had a dog since I was a kid, and I never thought I would write a poem about one, either — but I spend time now with my friend’s dog, and I’ve learned something from hanging out with her. I’m a slow learner, but “Fetch,” is about learning to be human from a dog. And that’s one subject of poems, isn’t it — is how the heart you thought could not open, opens.
The poet Yehuda Amichai, one of my great heroes, says, “In the game, a child crying gives away his hiding place — but the silent child is forgotten.” And the psychologist Donald Winnicott says something almost identical: “It is joy to be hidden, but disaster not to be found.” What I mean to say is, that perhaps we can only be found out by weeping. In recent years, I think my poems reach more, and less ironically, for feeling.
As for the reputed attentiveness of writers, people imagine that artists are sensitive and “more present,” or more “in their senses” than other people, but in my experience, this is simply not true. I knew a writer once who stayed in his room all day, smoking cigarettes and eating Cheetos; but if you read his poems, you would swear that he was walking through the woods of Tennessee, harvesting chicory and dandelion, recording the plumage of the snowy egret and the cry of the whippoorwill. He had the gift of conjuring attentiveness.
It’s a paradox. The practice of language ironically draws you into contact with the world. It teaches you how to see, and it also makes your seeing more inventive.
You’ve said that “clarity, accessibility, entertainment, irreverence, and the idea of the poet as guide” are valuable to you. Can you say more about this?
Someone gave me a contemporary poetry anthology when I was 15, and reading it may have saved my life in high school. I felt like I was finally meeting the adults I needed, the ones who would tell me the real facts of life and human nature. But when I got to college I found myself surrounded by teachers and students and poets who were endlessly serious and dark and mysterious in their poetry. They wore black and looked perpetually unhappy. Depression was their dress code. This baffled me.
I think I decided then that if I was ever able to write real poems, they would be entertaining, and elastic, and full of a living, American conversational voice. I like the wild, mercurial quickness of a poetic speaker; I value the reckless directness of poetry. I also value clarity enormously — I hate that ordinary citizen-readers have been made to feel intimidated by poetry, when in fact it can be so much fun, and so lucid, insightful, and contemporary. In this I am very much on the Garrison Keillor culture-team. A poem is a conversation or an encounter with a deeply committed, highly entertaining friend.
Your poems are not dusty, stale relics of the past. They are contemporary and happen in real time. You tackle the complexity of life with artful precision — but aren’t afraid to throw a La-Z-Boy chair into the language, or to include subjects like Britney Spears alongside poems about the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, or to examine a hungry bear looking for a spaghetti dinner in a housing development after coming down from a nearby mountain — and the unexpected result. The variety of topics is exhilarant. You’ve taught for many years. What do you tell your students to write about? How do you approach teaching? I think a lot of students start out thinking poetry and writing in general have to be deadly serious.
I love teaching, and I feel lucky to have found a vocation in it. One thing I try to teach my students is that there is an endless supply of reality that has never been put into a poem. There are bootleg Viagra factories in Mumbai, cranking out sex pills, and Syrian cab drivers in New York who want to be professional Elvis Presley imitators; and there are also feelings and states of mind that have never been named. It’s all there if you can teach yourself how to look for it. We have a deep need to know both the outside and the inside worlds. It is a deeply serious, deeply gratifying enterprise whose results can never be entirely predicted or controlled. The other thing I suppose I try to teach is that our personal suffering is our guide toward what we need to know.
You’re an Army brat, born at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I can relate, since my father was in the Navy and was stationed in many of the same places that have been mentioned in your biography. I went to a different school every year, sometimes several in one year. Do you think being transitory in your formal years has influenced your writing in any particular way? Is it hard to stay one place for any length of time as an adult? Your poems reflect a talent for observation that seems connected to displacement.
Yes, I see what you mean. I think that this nomadic, dislocated kind of background probably connects to poetry in many ways — being a stranger teaches you vigilance, and how to imaginatively make connections, and to read the behavior of other people. It also probably makes one a permanent “insider-outsider” in perspective, which is a textbook description of the social function of an artist. I also think of the nomadic, unanchored character as being a distinct bona fide species of American; the Huckleberry Finn, Lewis and Clark type of American who belongs nowhere; reluctant to stay in one place, reluctant to be identified or to belong. Charming and observant, capable of ruthless honesty, a little unreliable. You know the type.
What were your parents like and how did they meet?
I think they were clueless people who reached adulthood in the early 1950s, and who unconsciously subscribed to a lot of Eisenhower-era assumptions; the four-child family, the churchless, liberal, sort-of literate suburban mindset — a middle-class, kind of John Updike set of assumptions. My mother dropped out of college to help put my father through medical school, and then they were in the Army. But they both came from broken families themselves, and I don’t think they understood how unprepared they were for travails of the long haul. Being an Army family was a good solution for them, but when my father got out of the service, they were contextless — it was hard for them. In their own ways, they were alienated people who didn’t recognize it until it was too late. That probably tells you both less and more than you wanted. I don’t know! Who were they?
What are the last three novels you read?
Let’s see: The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride, The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, and a detective novel. I read much more nonfiction now than fiction; nonfiction seems like the essential genre for adults in our time, and I would mention The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison, as a collection of essays I greatly admire. I would and do read anything written by Vivian Gornick. I read vast amounts of poetry, of course.
What is outside your window today?
There is a dogwood tree with thick combs of white blossom on it, because it is spring in Houston, Texas. To that, you would add the trucks and tribes of Hispanic yard keepers and gardeners with leaf blowers that are also part of life in Houston. The air is moist, still-cool, but just on the edge of warm. You can always hear the interstate and the traffic, like a kind of surging, breaking surf, and each morning offers a fresh bouquet of petrochemical products on the wind. But plant life is very strong here, and day by day, there are dozens of species of moistness in the air here, so various, and different from each other, they have probably never been described.
And finally, lasting words of advice to aspiring young poets?
Contemporary American poetry is great; immerse yourself in the best of it. Don’t be afraid to spend a lot of time alone. Memorize poems that you really love; it will make you a better writer, a more honest, awakened person, and if you go to jail you can say the poems to yourself and be comforted. Find work and culture worth loving and become a passionate evangelist for it. Be restlessly, recklessly wonky. Notice the things that no one is talking about. Good luck.
Interview by Joy Biles