Tony Hoagland is a poet of deep humanity and true empathy. His work eschews the obvious so that he might delve deeper into the uncomfortable unknown, yet he construes his meditations in such a way that they maintain accessibility. Tony’s preoccupation with humanity and the way we navigate the strange cult of nationalism marks him to some as an American poet, but he reverberates beyond that. We were able to chat on an early June morning in anticipation of his new collection, Application for Release from the Dream, which is a collection that never rests on its laurels, but rather raises up on its hind legs to further roar on about the stark truth of life. Many poets would be phoning it in after twenty plus years of releasing collections, but Hoagland is different and that’s what makes him a vibrant poetic voice, even after all of his success.
The Rumpus: At this point, with all the work you’ve put out, would you rather be engaged in conversation about a new collection or how that collection fits into your other work? Do you view your output as aspects of a unified image?
Tony Hoagland: Well, while I’m happy to discuss my work, really, I’m just happy to talk about poetry itself. Part of the journey of poetry is figuring out what you are, and what you aren’t. While my poems have plenty of personal elements, of course, over time I’ve gotten quite obsessed with how personal life and our cultural life—21st century first world consumer culture—connect. That said, I struggle to make one poem at a time—I don’t have a “project.”
Rumpus: I was pleased by the chances taken in your new collection. “Wine Dark Sea” and “Don’t Tell Anyone” stand out as darker works, and there’s a sense of going for it that maybe had more emotional padding so to speak.
Hoagland: I don’t think they’re darker so much as indicative of a stage of life. We age, all of us, and to ignore the time machine is impossible. One’s view is tempered and darkened. It’s a disservice to readers and poetry not to seek lucid contact with those darker facets of life. Poetry can speak from the shadow to the psyche; life obliges us to be uncomfortable, and to form new stances. The issue is not that there are dark subjects, but that there are so many to choose from. Duende is part of the game.
Rumpus: You and a handful of other poets employ an often-heightened diction that lends your work crispness, but just behind it there’s a levelness of sensibility that maintains accessibility. How much time do you spend developing that balance, line by line?
Hoagland: I’m always deeply concerned with clarity, smoothness, and full range of sensibility and style—a full manifestation of voice. I place a high value on continuity, the way the poem flows. Even when the poetic voice is mercurial, I want the tone changes of a poem, as well as the plot, to provide a good ride for the reader. The magic of a good poem is that rollercoaster effect. This is why it’s valuable to make good, athletic sentences. In poetry, they function as manifestations of the fluency of human consciousness.
Rumpus: Does that lend itself to the high-wire act in “White Writer”? You’ve dealt with race in prior collections, but this is sort of a showstopper. It’s like Woody Allen needed to get “Manhattan” out of the way in order to make his masters thesis of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”
Hoagland: Let’s not get carried away. To me, “White Writer” was an easy poem to write, and I’m unsure if I wrote it well enough. It tries to dialogue with our self-consciousness about race. You need an indirect strategy to handle certain topics, one that allows the work to be penetrating and artful. Playing with language and stereotype, as “White Writer” does, makes for interesting resonances. Such poems challenge the reader. When one mocks the speech of the cultural wars, you make its deformities apparent, as well as its relevance.
Rumpus: There’s a deeper sense of knowing here, too. One of the things that I think makes your work exciting for new readers is the way the poems have a strange bardic humility to them, they’re wise and yet they find it strange what they’re sharing. Now though, the tone seems to be wise and more resigned, maybe even angry. How natural does this feel?
Hoagland: When you’ve thought through an issue one hundred times, you know that terrain pretty well, perhaps too well. I used to say that wisdom poetry was bullshit, but at the same time we all believe that poetry is capable of showcasing wisdom. Stanley Kunitz writes, “I have made a tribe of my affections, and my tribe is scattered.” That’s a pretty memorable formulation of human experience. I also think all “wise” poems should have a small disclaimer inside them, a footnote that in essence states, “And by the way, I’m a fool.”
Rumpus: What influences the work? I don’t mean where you get your influences, but more exactly, what factors into the shape of the poems, be it music, or time of day, or film. Are your poems reactionary?
Hoagland: Stevens said a that a poem “is the cry of an occasion.” The friction of experience should serve as the ground poems arise from—a poem is a reaction to experience. When you’re younger you may write terrific sex poems, but then the fires cool and you change a bit. Other kinds of occasions and nuances make themselves available. This gives way to other types of poems, other shapes, other registers and observations. There’s always something new to write about, something that has never been described before. Staying alive is about the perpetuation of curiosity, and there’s always something new to be curious about.
Rumpus: There’s an abundance of humanity in your work that couples with—and this is strange to say out loud—a sense of what one might call “American spirituality.”
Hoagland: Haha, yeah. Isn’t that a funny formulation—American and spirituality? But it’s a fact that people are drawn towards poetry from woundedness and a need for wiser voices than those around them. In your teens, when you’re seeking your first poems, you’re really seeking out a form of adulthood. Those early poems are carved out of desperation to know, or some crisis. It’s important for poets to create empathy, a sense of pity and tenderness for the human condition. All spirituality comes from that place.
Rumpus: Right now, what do you find interesting to write about? Are you excited about honing deeper in on what you’ve been exploring, or has that run its course?
Hoagland: Well, I’ve been reading a lot of Tomas Transtromer lately, and Sufi poets in translation. Hafez translated by Bly is a current favorite. I guess what I find myself interested in are the composite poems which feature long lines, often in couplets, that are loosely meditative but not discursive. I’m trying to write things that are ambitious in how much experience they can gather into them while still feeling like they offer cohesiveness. At the same time, I’m trying to look at the poem as a quadratic equation, so that it has room to breath and work while still maintaining simplicity. Poetry has a freshness and spirituality that can never be counterfeit or tarnished, and in working on these poems I’m trying to remind myself of that.
Rumpus: How much thought goes into the tension or tautness of the poem? What I mean is that your voice on the page seems so natural, and conversational. In “Fortune,” for example, the poem does a terrific job of mimicking the slow sumptuousness of both the ritual and eating of the cookie. Is this part of the labor or does it just happen as you’re working out different logistics of a piece?
Hoagland: A poem does have to stay taut in plot and in proportion. However, at the same time, it has to speed up and slow down and change register—all in the name of keeping the reader alert and attentive. In that sense, like a song, or music, it has to have a melody which keeps developing, and a rhythmic regularity underneath, which stabilizes and carries it forward. The reason why a good poem is such a little miracle is that it provides both its own supporting music and its improvisatory verbal surface. I especially like poems that shift their register from mode to mode, from the narrative to the psychological to the metaphysical, or existential—the elevation of a poem’s stakes are part of its drama. Ideally, it is not just the speaker’s happiness which is on the line, but the speaker’s soul.
Rumpus: I wanted to very quickly ask you about your thoughts on your being a “household poet.” You’ve achieved a certain amount of cultural fame and high regard. Judd Apatow put your work in his collection, I Found this Funny. Ron Livingston gives Anna Kendrick a copy of What Narcissism Means to Me in Joe Swanberg’s film “Drinking Buddies.” Do you ever feel any of that notoriety in your own life? Do you think it has the potential to make a poet soft or cater to expectations of voice, and what’s the best way a poet can combat that?
Hoagland: Personally, I feel in no danger of overconfidence or smugness. Experience can be counted on to administer regular doses of deflation and humility. Nobody knows what a poem is, anyway, and therefore the challenge of writing one is always difficult—impossible—enough to remind you what a hacker you are. It’s true, some poets achieve a kind of technical “competence” which allows them to fire off poem after poem, but the best poets are disconsolate, searching, and restless. The human predicament—to be splintered off from creation—is insistently demanding new kinds of effort and inquiry.