Commentaries - July 2013
To mark the occasion of the digital reissue of Big Allis, editors Neilson and Grim have written the following introductory notes alongside commissioned reflections on the magazine by designer Jean Foos and a few of the magazine’s many contributors.
The idea of bringing Big Allis to a new readership occurred to me one summer afternoon last year while combing the Jacket2 Reissues archive. I am grateful to Danny Snelson for deeming Big Allis worthwhile to “go big” and be added to the J2 bill. Danny and Amelia Bentley have been artful and meticulous with getting Big Allis safely stored in a user-friendly repository.
For this archival launch, I wish I could reminisce awhile but the credits are long and roll they must. Big Allis packed small and played big. Thinking back over how I got there in 1989 to start a magazine with Jessica, and here now at J2, throws me back to my twenty-something undergraduate-self in headphones in the UCSD Archive for New Poetry in San Diego, where in the early 1980’s, I lurked for months at a time in my DIY residency listening to the Paul Blackburn tape collection and more. Sometimes I miss the days of wine and photocopies, of audiotape and roses, the memorabilia of high acid content. Buried at sea in an acoustic ocean. You can take the girl out of the archive but you can’t take the archive out of the girl.
In the mid-1980’s I found myself in NYC working at Scientific American Books, first in editorial and later in the art department on the 37th floor, on hard science textbooks like the 1,187 page Molecular Cell Biology. Coincidentally poet Peter Seaton worked in Marketing on the 35th Floor. Sometimes we would take the elevator down together. About this time I considered pursuing graduate study in film and applying to the University of Pennsylvania doctorate program (would they let me combine 20th- Century American Literature, Film, Poetry and Poetics?). I decided against it as I had recently completed an MFA in Combined Media at Hunter College and had been bored to tears. Instead I stayed put and conducted my own writing experiments producing work that would lead to my first book, Civil Noir. I continued working at Scientific American, going to the movies, and started Big Allis magazine with Jessica Grim.
Once again, Jessica got the show on the road by matching her lens of clarity and realism with my Sirk-esque “edited on the wind” visions swooshing up a marbleized mirrored elevator. Jessica thinks big and beautifully, with calm, marvelous efficiency and technical elegance. She’s Bacall to my Bogart. Most issues of Big Allis contained a thank you to Jean Foos and I thank her again for her independent eye, fierce consistency and personal generosity. A happy consequence of Big Allis was the beginning of a friendship with Jean. The project was also catalyst for adventures coast to coast with Jessica well worth the telling another time. Despite many changes in our lives, my friendships both with Jessica and with Jean have continued. The last two issues of the magazine came about in great part to the no-holds-barred commitment of co-editor Deirdre Kovac. With rebellious intelligence she contributed superb editorial and design work. As a guest editor, Fiona Templeton envisioned and produced the fine “14 from Great Britain & Ireland” feature for the eighth issue.
VERY FEW WORDS ABOUT EDITING BIG ALLIS
With the quirky charm of a user’s manual for the poet’s poet: how-to welcome newcomers and old hands. Peripheral editing is a perishable process. Expand the flow of new voices on an avenue of innovative practice. Improvisatory and curious, is the editor, the good reader, the good writer. We asked around for recommendations of people to ask for work. We directly and repeatedly solicited people whose work we felt was exciting and important to have in an issue. The Future Issue is ever only dark from outside. Leap into it on the run and lightness is built in. The issue always ends. Saved by the bell from an unhappy ending.
PACK SMALL, PLAY BIG
So until this Reissues launch got underway, I thought I was through with zines, that it was Big Allis or ‘no one’. But recently I got that old feeling and I decided, why not? I should announce my availability to guest edit or serve as a contributing editor. So there it is. Book me.
Finally, what a pleasure to dedicate my part in this archival launch to three essential supporters of mine: my two sons Roman and Martial, and my brother, John Neilson of Oakland—all keen poetry fans.
From my poem “Kings County Linewoman”
For whom the Highway Sings,
It sings for thee,
It sings it through the tire.
It sings endless he and she,
And the auto tires in motion are still on the line.
SOME HISTORY & SUCH
It was 1989 and Mel and I decided a magazine focusing on innovative writing by (primarily) women was sorely needed. However was publishing great work, but we felt there wasn’t a space for a lot of the women we knew about who were writing fabulous stuff, both in the U.S. and Canada… We wanted something charged with a presentness and vision around the importance of innovative and formally “experimental” women’s writing, a space in part for writing by women who were early in their writing careers, hadn’t yet had books, perhaps, or a lot of exposure.
At the time I lived up in Inwood, so most of the working meetings for the mag happened at Mel’s on Thompson St. I was working at NYPL in midtown, and would walk down to Mel’s after my workday. So it’s late one evening, early on – and we’re having the name conversation. Lots of possibilities, nothing quite sticking. The idea came up of place names as a field to mine, and I said “I have a big atlas at home” – Mel said “what?” and I repeated, “yeah, I have a big atlas at home” – we were both tired, I was thinking I needed to get to the subway…Mel said “I thought you said “big Alice!” I don’t think we knew at that moment about the power plant in Queens – nick-named Big Allis after Allis Chalmers Corp., the Midwest-based manufacturer of industrial machinery – but all that came together quickly (Big Alice wasn’t quite right, whereas somehow Big Allis was perfection). The first four issues had a small image of the factory on the last page. Turns out when leaving NYPL every day, heading down the steps onto 5th Ave, I could catch a glimpse of Big Allis itself, straight down 41st Street, in the distance.
Mel did her terrain-scanning magic and came up with the fabulous work of Jean Foos, who, happily for us, agreed to come on board for Big Allis cover design. The first issue was laid out and pasted up by Mel and me in her apt. So much hot wax, grid lines, tiny numbers. By the time #2 came out I had moved back to SF, and 2 yrs later to Ohio. Feeling distant, and pulled in too many directions, I stepped away from the editing in 1996 and the last two issues of the magazine were co-edited by Mel and Deirdre Kovac.
Looking through the issues of Big Allis again, after all this time, I’m struck by a lot of things. First, what a lot of great work, there; and how lucky we were that folks wanted to be a part of what we were doing. Then: we thought we knew what we were doing but the kinetics of it kind of barreled along on the energy and time we had “back then” – but really? The project – Big Allis – always out just ahead of the thinking I’d say, does, in fact, hold. I feel happy and proud about that.
Melanie and Jessica visited me at my art studio at 32 Union Square East and invited me to design a logo and cover for their new magazine. I was totally thrilled – as a painter, I was already intrigued by the painter-poet connection. I had never heard of any of the writers and was happy to be part of their experiment/adventure.
For the first two issues I used bold black and white photos by Hope Sandrow. She had shown her work at Gracie Mansion Gallery in the East Village and was kind enough to let me go through piles of her grainy prints until I found the right details to wrap around the covers. One was a portrait of artist Keiko Bonk and the other simply showed windblown hair.
For the tires cover, I saw a tiny image in a catalog from Anthology Film Archives and they were able to send me an 8x10 glossy print of the film still.
With no budget and no internet, finding images could be a challenge…
My mother sent me a polaroid photo of the new greenhouse that our dad built for her – and it made a rather striking cover. My sister, Alyssa, who had recently moved to Portland, Oregon and knew nothing of my work on Big Allis recognized the greenhouse on the shelf of her local bookstore. She picked it up to see that indeed it was our very own back yard.
OMG! — over 2 decades since the 1st Big Allis fireworks, our reading reimagined & shaken up (not shaken down, or recruited).
A cornucopia of new experimental poetry, Jean Foos’s spooky cover wrapping the anti-tranquilizer with its 3-D semantics – a rematerializing, multitorquing, postpatriarchal language-centered rebellion. So much starts to seem ‘former’: post-representation, post-narrative, post-sentimentalism of identity. We all “try to be uninfluenced by gender expectation” (Sally Silvers).
Frontal sensation with abrupt pingpong whiplash. A treasury of little bits, rhythmic zigzag & consonantal crunch. “How many dioramas? Can I be in them all?” asks co-editor Jessica Grim. Or Hannah Weiner’s “Drop signs on wrong”.
Take off your headphones. Poststutter undone alone, like Fiona Templeton’s theater audience of one. Affect tollbooth: post-coherent, depths all on the surface, crazy huddles of co-editor Melanie Neilson’s “sorted intricacies”: “all bang”. A nonstop transitive upending stereotypes. Unsolipsistic, the words get you lost. Don’t stop eating this chocolate.
Identity as volatilized tremor, a citizenship of the extraordinary. We get to be scathed pageant seekers. Imperative getting beyond “suture self” (Neilson) to Dorothy Lusk’s anti-monotony’s “angsty bits”. Post-atomic, overuninterpretable & multitongued trickeration, “critique is superceded by invention” (Silvers). Give Hannah the last question: “What is a yes?”
It is understandable if you confuse the poetry magazine Big Allis with the power plant by the same name in Queens, New York. Both are maintained by vast networks of energy. In the case of the magazine Big Allis, the grid is composed of numerous women celebrating the diversity of what it is to be a woman writer. On a grid, no mode of discourse can be self-contained and thus definitive. With Big Allis, the notion that “women’s poetry” is a confessional matrix defined by Sylvia Plath’s and Anne Sexton’s valorizations of suicide is laid to rest. Instead, Plath and Sexton are but two points on a complex mesh of feeders and fanouts. More than any other magazine, Big Allis has created a high voltage corridor upon which women can rely for connection to an interoperable world. Thank you, Big Allis.
The poetry desert. This is how I experienced the poetry landscape of my generation in the late 1980s/early 90s. Poets of my ilk found themselves sandwiched between the dynamic conversation of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing on one end, and the first seedlings of radical appropriation on the other. Don’t get me wrong… the desert can be a beautiful place. It has cacti, crimson hedgehogs, mesquite trees, mice, snakes, hawks, and post-lang, pre-web literary journals like Big Allis.
Big Allis was at the literary center of the 1990’s NYC experimental poetry world of the Segue Foundation and the Ear Inn readings. The journal had a clear vision to publish primarily women authors who were committed to progressive and innovative writing. The younger poets that the editors assembled started to present a concrete picture of future possibilities. Some of these poets included: Jeff Derksen, Andrea Hollowell, Stacy Doris, Bill Fuller, Steven Farmer, Kim Rosenfield, Andrew Levy, Rodrigo Toscano, Judith Goldman, and many others.
This moment of the desert poetry landscape was brief but fertile. Big Allis played a major role in both recording and constructing a pivotal moment in American poetry that has long been under-documented.
Big Allis was not the first of the women-edited literary journals of the period, but it was key in the development of our thinking about relationships between gender and genre, physiology and language. As “Big Allis,” it was a massive machine of agricultural production; as “Big Alice” (a sonic alternative that was obviously embedded in the journal’s name), monstrous magnanimous femininity offered its (scary) embrace. I remember being proud to be published under the journal’s auspices – Allised and allied with a group or writers, not necessarily all female but all engaged with a poetics of large-scale invention.
Big Allis was a supergenerator that I was lucky enough to meet in New York in the late 80s. I wasn’t aware of its 1000 megawatt turbine (Wikipedia had yet to be born) but I knew it was helmed by two poetic engineers of generous and raucous intellect. For eleven years it kept the lights on, publishing works that changed my world. I’m happy to say that contrary to news reports, Big Allis did not conk out – it was just cooling in wait for this electric reboot.
Big Allis. We loved her from the outset. We awaited each appearance with excitement. We were happy that Grim and Neilson had brought her into being as one of the best ongoing selections of contemporary American writing during a decade of major poetic experimentation. B.A. was always consequential; it was always fun. How wonderful that it is available now to new readers.
In the 1990s, a handful of literary publications stand out as seminal leaders. Many suffer from partisan sclerosis. Big Allis, on the other hand, focused on innovative women writers but not to the exclusion of men. Big Allis focused on language writing but included many other groups of adventurous writers. Meticulously edited by Melanie Neilsen and Jessica Grim, reading Big Allis allows us to breathe fresh air. Each issue shaped a unique poetics and extended the nine issue run; I remember looking forward to every issue and hoping they would publish a work of mine. Releasing a digital version of the full set of Big Allis gives the reader a broad perspective on a key decade in American poetry.
Big Allis, i.e. New York. I associate Big Allis with a particular heyday – the terrific milieu around the Ear Inn reading series of the late ‘80s & early ‘90s. There was this gang of us not-old-enough-to-be-language-poets working those low Manhattan poetic streets with a new style and flair, a boom and bust cycle all our own – Big Allis lifted us out of the gutter and planted us squarely next to the gutter, and did not ask us to apologize, or go back to the gutter, though we often did. We were: Lee Ann Brown, Kevin Davies, Stacy Doris, Rob Fitterman, Liz Fodaski, Judith Goldman, Deirdre Kovac, Andrew Levy, Bill Luoma, Sianne Ngai, Kim Rosenfield, Juliana Spahr, Rodrigo Toscano, Melanie and Jessica of course, & certainly many others I’m not thinking of at the moment. In any case, it was a small scene that seemed large. Hell, it became large – and Big Allis was a very large part of that effect. & affect. We rocked, and added another brick to the universal barricade.
AS THE SKY GOES BLACK
fixed in place
half a man
he feels himself
what he ran from
that looks out
at a street
with tiny birds
& always birds (Han Shan)
will raise himself
with our hands
as the sky
THE FLOW OF TIME
& to answer
with a further
but cannot stop
of time* *of rhyme
toward a hole
that lands him* * strands him
as the universe
rebuked * rebuffed
instance* * instant
A PERFECT CIRCLE
I seize it
a perfect circle
with its thousand
mice (for John Solt)
& strike you
& binds us
From Robinson’s introduction to a reading by Pierre Joris at Glasgow's Centre for Contemporary Arts on 22 May 2013: a consideration of Poems for the Millennium, volume 4, The University of California Press Book of North African Literature.
As one of the co-editors of the third volume of Poems for the Millennium, the book of Romantic and Postromantic poetry, I confess that when the sparkling image of PM4 appeared in an email, it confused me: on the one hand I knew that Pierre had been working on a massive anthology of Maghrebian poetry but didn’t know it would follow in the Poems for the Millennium series: I was thrilled by the idea of it but also a bit jealous of what almost felt like an intruder into what was a revisionist gathering and account of primarily Western poetry since the mid-18th century. But then I thought of the first entry in Volume Three’s “Manifestoes and Poetics” section, by Goethe: “If a world literature develops in the near future—as appears inevitable with the ever-increasing ease of communication—we must expect no more and no less than what it can and in fact will accomplish.” Or, among the pages of Poems for the Millennium, Three called “Some Orientalisms” we find such an accomplishment envisioned by Walt Whitman:
Passage to India!
Lo, soul, seest thou not God’s purpose from the first? The earth to be spann’d, connected by network,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage, The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.
A vision of a Weltliteratur informs all three previously published volumes of Poems for the Millennium; but this vision begins with Romanticism near the end of the 18th century, which therefore could be said to prepare the path naturally for the fourth volume that like lightening leaps out to a totally different centrism, a recognition that, parenthetically, jolted me completely out of my jealousy. By way of introducing this volume and the rest of the evening, I will characterize for just a few minutes this path that links particularly Volumes Three and Four as an expression of a subversive orientalism.
In the 19th century, “Orientalism” had a double inflection: control over non-European peoples mostly from the Middle East, North Africa, India, China & the Far East, meant the objectivizing of the exotic Other. Yet as the extraordinary late-19th-century French writer and cultural explorer of Asia Victor Segalen said in his brilliant “Essay on Exoticism: An Aesthetics of Diversity”: “Exoticism’s power is nothing other than the ability to conceive otherwise.”
At the end of the eighteenth century the plethora of new information about the East “put into doubt the basic legitimacy of the Christian state and cut to the heart of anxieties about European power and identity” (Nigel Leask). If governments thought of the outcome of colonialism as appropriation of other cultures & economies, poets, often inventing or emulating the Other’s voice, would typically seize the “orientalist” occasion as the horizon beyond the familiar, in Dickinson’s phrase the “unreportable place.”
In the hands of Sir William Jones, Gottfried Herder, Friedrich & August Schlegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, & others writing in roughly the 25 years before and after the French Revolution— the East, so-called, not only represented diversity, but also contained “the sources” of religion & language in the West. This turn toward origins fed the Romantic drive for the recovery of basic human energies, the sources of life made inaccessible through centuries of kings along with the growth of modern bourgeois society. Drawing on Indian religion, Friedrich Schlegel sketched a visionary Romantic poetics. The Indian “doctrine of Emanation” Schlegel wrote, includes “the eternal progressive development of the Divinity, and of universal spiritual animation.” “True [modern] poetry [emerges] when art has annexed so much to the original germ, becomes so only when it breathes a kindred spirit with those old heathen fictions, or because it springs from them.”
In other words, we can actually describe the visionary side of Romanticism in terms of its Orientalism as Segalen understood and promoted it, but only as a politically adversarial position: “Diversity is in decline. Therein lies the great earthly threat.” PM3 instantiates Romantic Weltliteratur across the 19th century, but in fact the entire Poems for the Millennium series is driven by a thirst to account for the most vital thematic and formal strains of poetry written over the last 250 years, with its politically aggressive assertions of inclusivity, diversity, and experimentalism challenging hegemonic accounts of literary history.
All four volumes act to lift a repression. At the beginning of Volume I, and anticipating its late-20th-century sequel Volume II, co-editors Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris compare the pinched view of modernism in poetry still rampant in schools and main-stream publishing to an imagined account of modernist painting that omitted futurism, surrealism, and cubism. Volume Three presents not only a radical expansion of the standard account of what constitutes “the Romantic” across poetry from many countries and classes, but also the articulation of a poetry of extremities of mind, voice, and body that emerge in experimental poetic forms. The present gathering of millennia of North African poetry and prose, heretofore uncollected to this extent, spectacularly redresses the editors’ observation that “The longtime neglect of such a major cultural area is part of a wider, now well-documented Eurocentrism.”
In conclusion, it is satisfying to imagine the following instance of trans-lation, or carrying across languages and ages as a sign of the connection between a 19th-century Western orientalist poetics and the full-scale realization of Maghrebian writing that is PM4. PM3 presents an “Arabian Ballad” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. This poem registers the mid-nineteenth century American orientalist enthusiasm and is in fact a translation of an early-nineteenth-century poem by Goethe which in turn translates or derives from what German scholars have named a “Lied der Vergeltung” or Song of Revenge by one Taabbata Scharran writing “in the time of Mohammed.” Collected possibly by Sir William Jones in the late 18th century but, more likely, by a German Orientalist Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Freytag in 1814, this song appeared to Goethe during the great early 19th-century Romantic upsurge in the discovery of the poetry of the east. Here are the first four out of 28 stanzas of this Song of Revenge, in Goethe’s German and Emerson’s English:
Unter dem Felsen am Wege
Erschlagen liegt er,
In dessen Blut
Kein Thau herabträuft.
Grosse Last legt’ er mir auf
Fürwahr diese Last
Will ich tragen.
“Erbe meiner Rache
Ist der Schwestersohn,
Stumm schwitz er Gift aus,
Wie die Otter Schweight,
Wie die Schlange Gift haucht
Gegen die kein Zauber gilt.”
Under the rock on the trail
He lies slain
Into whose blood
No dew falls
A great load laid he on me
God knows, this load
Will I lift.
Heir of my revenge
Is my sister’s son,
Mute sweats he poison,
As the otter sweats;
As the snake breathes venom
Against which no enchantment avails
After many stanzas recounting the brave comraderie between friends, his companion’s death, and the unremitting vengeance he takes upon their enemies, the poem ends in the spirit of Goethe’s notes about his protagonist--darkly glowing, lusting for and sated with revenge:
Die edelsten Geyer flogen daher,
Sie schritten von Leiche zu Leiche,
Und von dem reichlich bereiteten Mahle
Nicht in die Höhe konnten sie steigen.
The noblest vultures flew thither
They stepped from corpse to corpse
And from the richly prepared feast
They could not rise into the air.
Hardly an instance of Jones’s idealized Orient as an “Arabia felix,” this poem bears within it, in its several manifestations, migrations, or trans-creations, the vitality and extremity of what will eventually become Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four.
[EDITOR'S NOTE. It has long seemed to me that one of the unfortunate consequences of Edward Said’s otherwise justified & well documented attack on nineteenth & twentieth-century orientalism has been a failure by later writers to draw distinctions between what Said was singling out & the opening to non-western & subterranean traditions that pushed in a clearly opposing direction. Jeffrey Robinson, who co-edited Poems for the Millennium, volume 3, with me, here uses the occasion of a talk & reading by Pierre Joris from volume 4 (The University of California Press Book of North African Literature) to consider these vital distinctions & to introduce the concept of a “subversive orientalism” into the mix. Information concerning volume 4, co-edited by Joris & Habib Tengour, can be found at http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520273856, & continues the work of expansion & transformation announced by Joris and me in the first two volumes of the project. (J.R.)]
I want to talk about a poem published in a widely read book from 2003, a poem that was read by Garrison Keillor during his Writer’s Almanac segment on National Public Radio on January 11, 2008, one of what Keillor likes to term “pretty good poems,” a poem whose persona speaks of a tennis player he is watching as “one of my kind, my tribe” (“Writer’s Almanac”). This might strike a reader as something right out of the Black Arts era, a time when many African American poets wrote directly to a black audience and expressed open disinterest in what any white reader might have to say about their poems. In an email to one reader, the author of this poem, who in that same email states that he doesn’t “believe in explaining [his] poems to other poets,” asks, apparently rhetorically, “can you believe for a moment that many many poems written by black Americans, from past to the extreme present, have been written for African Americans, from James Weldon Johnson to Amiri Baraka?” (“Hoagland AWP Email”) It’s an odd question on many fronts, from the peculiarity of the term “extreme present” to the grammatical slippage at the end that would seem to suggest Johnson and Baraka were the people to whom the poems were written, rather than the writers of poems (though it is a fact that many, many poems have been addressed to each artist).
Now, of course the poet was speaking of a metaphorical tribalism when his persona thought of the tennis player, just as he is being metaphorical in his email when he speaks of poets as being his tribe. A tribe is a social construction. It is a construction that posits an inside and an outside. What I find worthy of lingering over is the way in which this poet constructs an inside and an outside of reading, a racially striated space that calls upon certain modes of operation on the part of his implied readers.
The poem that Keillor read is, what with being “pretty good” and all, not a product of the Black Arts, nor is it a poem by a black writer celebrating the prowess of the Williams sisters. It is a poem titled “The Change,” by Tony Hoagland, from his collection What Narcissism Means to Me. The email I have been citing was sent from Hoagland to fellow poet and putative metaphorical tribe member Claudia Rankine, as she prepared to speak of her reactions to Hoagland’s poem at a session of the AWP in Washington, D.C., in 2011. In the controversy following Rankine’s AWP presentation, few recalled that Hoagland had returned to this territory in a poem from his 2009 collection “Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty,” a poem titled “The History of White People.” When the two Hoagland poems are read in tandem, it seems fairly clear that they are, intentional fallacies aside, poems that attempt to chart transformations in the racial galaxy of American life, what might have seemed a noble task. The later poem, too, delineates a racial inside and outside, but with a curious difference. Both poems are in the first person, and yet the persona of “The Story of White People” describes his subject people in the third person plural, as if he is observing them from some poetic distance. Thus the reader is placed in the position of seeing white people as “a little / deficient,” as “being too far and too long / removed from the original source / of whiteness.” The speaker, albeit at one remove from the people he describes, characterizes their feelings about the change, portrays them as somewhat befuddled by it all, by this “mysterious” change in status. White people are metaphorically seen as long term “visitors / from the galaxy Caucasia,” raising the obvious questions of which galaxy the speaker is from and what planet this poet is writing from. The poem’s first person widens to plurality at poem’s end. This not so “dramatic or perceptible” change in whiteness “feels different,” none-the-less, and it feels so “to all of us.” At this point a critic might well put to the poem’s persona the question so pertinently put to The Lone Ranger by Tonto so many years ago: “What you mean ‘we,’ white man?”
The change that “The Story of White People” attempts to limn is “The Change” that has seemingly passed by the speaker of Hoagland’s “The Change.” In his responses to Rankine’s questions about this poem, Hoagland seems to think that readers have confused persona and poet, a problem he posits is especially acute “in contemporary poetry,” though he offers no explanation of why this would be more true in a reading of “The Change” than in a reading of “My Last Duchess.” One central problem confronting readers of Hoagland’s poem is its level of sheer incoherence. At one point the black tennis player is portrayed as “hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation / down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,” though I’m sure I am not the only reader who wonders why an African American would want to treat the Great Emancipator this way, and why that image comes to mind as this “black girl from Alabama” faces off with “some tough little European blonde,” who presumably has little connection to our racial history, apart from growing up a tad closer to the Caucasus Mountains, ground zero of the galaxy Caucasia in one ancient theory of racial origins.
It’s worth pondering the similarities between “The Change” and “The Story of White People.” Both present the shifts in racial history that have shaken our nation to its core as a seasonal thing, as something that has simply happened to us when we were attending to something else, perhaps tennis. Both poems, too, deploy the first person plural in a way that renders readers complicit with the personae’s insufferable speculations about race. In “The Change,” “we” are the speaker’s friend. We watched that championship tennis match with him on a big screen in a lounge, though why anybody other than perhaps Bill Cosby would remain friends with someone who makes jokes about Black people’s names eludes my powers of empathy. At least Hoagland puts the reader in the position of the person watching the game who loved Vondella Aphrodite’s “complicated hair” and her “to-hell-with-everybody stare.” “The Change” places us in the position of sharing a history with the speaker, but again, that history seems something that has simply crept up on us without our noticing. In the end, we were just there. The twentieth century was past us “and we were changed,” note the passive voice. Clearly, though, what bothered Rankine so much in her reading of this poem, and what has bothered so many about Hoagland’s defense of it, is that neither the persona nor the poet really seems to have changed at all, and the rhetorical vectors of the two poems would leave readers mired in the same stasis.
Hogland’s email to Rankine, after thanking her for the invitation to respond to what he calls her “AWP report,” starts out by condescending to Rankine in a breathtakingly offensive manner:
"To start off, let me say that I thought, back when we were colleagues, and I still think, that, to me, you are naive when it comes to the subject of American racism, naive not to believe that it permeates the psychic collective consciousness and unconsciousness of most Americans in ways that are mostly ugly."
While it is not impossible to imagine a black person who is naive on the subject of race, such a person must be rarer than visitors from the galaxy Caucasia, and the presumption of this sentence, hedged only marginally by such phrases as “to me,” is itself mostly ugly. Like his poems, Hoagland’s email is setting up an inside and an outside. Rankine, born in Jamaica, is naive on the subject of American racism, this despite the fact that nowhere in any of Rankine’s writings can be found anything remotely justifying the charge. Similarly, when Hoagland says that “it is foolish and costly to think that the topic of race belongs only to brown-skinned Americans,” he is absolutely as right as he is irrelevant. Rankine has never held any such costly opinion. Hoagland claims that “many poets and readers think that,” without providing a single instance of any poet or reader who in fact does think that. Given the history of white people’s involvement in the evolution of racial ideology, most of us would think them particularly well suited to reflect upon the topic. But then Hoagland is not really one for reflection. Turning again to the same rhetorical gesture of using first person plural to enlist us on his side of the lists, he writes “We drank racism with our mother’s milk, and we relearn it every day.” Well, no, many of us did not, and while we may learn something new about racism every day, as I did on the day I read this correspondence, we do not every one of us relearn racism every day.
This is a very old bit of sophistry that Hoagland relies upon. “Of course I am racist,” he writes, “and sexist, a homophobe, a classist, a liberal, a middle-class American, a college graduate, a drop-out, an egotist, Diet Pepsi drinker . . . “and his list goes on. This is the sort of insincere, white apologia that gives whiteness studies a sometimes bad name. By the time “racist” is placed on the same level as “a lover of women” the term has become meaningless. These are all subject positions Hoagland might occupy imaginatively in the writing of poems, but in his writing it seems a dilettantish visitation. The claim that everyone is racist has the effect of rendering racism unworthy of comment. In the end, Hoagland remarks that his poem is not “racist,” but “racially complex.” Where in the centuries since the commencement of the Atlantic Slave trade is the thinker who ever wrote that racism was anything less than complex? This, like the insinuation that everybody is racist at least a little bit, perhaps especially those “over-sensitive,” “politically correct” (and yes, Hoagland does reanimate that hoary term) black poets, is a move to dismiss precisely discussions of the complexities of race in our history and in our “extreme present.”
In her AWP presentation, Claudia Rankine tells of asking Hoagland about his poem and about his thinking while he was working on it. His reply was, “this poem is for white people.” I truly wish it were the case that these two poems taken together seemed to be doing the work of deconstructing racism in white readers. Whether that was Hoagland’s intent I cannot say. But we must attend to the structuring effects of his writing. In one portion of his email to Rankine, Hoagland claims poets as his tribe, and goes on to express his hope that “they” will “figure things out.” The one thing that comes across most clearly in his email is his belief that Claudia Rankine has not figured things out. What his poems and his response say most loudly to many of us is, “It’s not about you.”