09 February 2011

The Condition of Being Addressable--A Response to Claudia Rankine at AWP

The following is a response to a “performance of sorts” (her words) that Claudia Rankine gave on February 4, 2011, at the AWP conference in Washington, DC. I took some notes, but not as many as I’d have liked, so know that much of this is recollection and paraphrase. Thanks to Tisa Bryant for filling in some gaps in her smart and moving response.

The room felt unfillable. It was wider than it was long, chairs and chairs. I sat in an emptyish row near the back; I was alone. I had come, solely, to see Claudia Rankine read. I knew Rankine’s work, primarily, from reading and teaching Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. It’s through teaching it that I have come closer to the book, in part out of defending it to students who find it confusing and strange, and in part because teaching has required me to read it more than once, which, in most cases, is the way to learn to love a text you’ve started out simply admiring. What I love about this book is the way that Rankine presents the relationship of the individual to the social, or the political, as both inevitable and embodied. In her writing I see the individual, the physical body, and the world—three elements that are never separate, but can often feel separate. Though these three elements comprise, in short, what it is to be alive, it is remarkably difficult to represent their relationship fully in writing, and with clarity. Or perhaps I should say because this is what it means to be alive.

Like writing, it seems to me that AWP is as politicized as you want it to be, or as you let it be. As I sat in the back of the room, watching people mill and settle, I surmised that the majority of people in the audience were there to see Charles Wright, the second reader. I surmised this, I suppose, because I saw mostly white people, but it was a very large room, and I, also, am white, and was there to see Claudia Rankine. An introduction, and Rankine came up to the podium. She explained that she would begin with a reading of a poem by Tony Hoagland, then read a response that she wrote to the poem, and then his response to her response. She called it a performance of sorts.

The writer Nick Flynn came up and read Hoagland’s poem, titled “The Change.” The speaker in the poem recalls seeing a tennis match between “some tough little European blonde” and “that big black girl from Alabama.” The latter has “some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite.” Some people in the audience laughed at that line. I didn’t laugh. Although the speaker’s friend is rooting for the black player, the speaker “couldn’t help wanting/ the white girl to come out on top,/ because she was one of my kind, my tribe”. Later, the black player is again described as “so big/ and so black,” and “so unintimidated/ hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation/ down Abraham Lincoln’s throat”. People laughed at that line, too.
The audience clapped—many people in the audience clapped—and Rankine began her remarks. She said, “I don’t like to use the word ‘racist.’” She discussed how using that word immediately catapults the speaker, if black, into an “angry black person” stereotype. She described her first experience of reading the poem as one of not even anger or offense but of shock, bewilderment; as she read she asked, “What? What?” If the “what” is a rhetorical question, it can end there, in the silence that answers it. But Rankine mobilized the question: Where was she supposed to locate herself in relationship to this poem? Was she the “big, black girl”? She contacted Hoagland, a colleague of hers at the time, to ask him about the poem. He said, “This poem is for white people.” And next in my notes I have the line, which Rankine may or may not have said immediately following Hoagland’s statement: “Who let America in the room?” The conversation was now about much more than an individual, offending poem.

Because of course, as Rankine went on to say, the book that the poem was in did not appear on the shelf with a “For Whites Only” sticker. And thus it became a text that someone for whom it was not “intended” could pick up and read. And the words in it, by being words in the world (in America?) could point and barb in ways that, whether or not they surpassed their original intention, could cause real hurt. Rankine quoted Judith Butler, from a talk she saw Butler give about hate speech: “We suffer from the condition of being addressable.” Addressable—both an opening up and a shutting down, a label that obscures and one that creates the very possibility for communication. Rankine talked about the ways that hate language makes the recipient both invisible and hypervisible. Rankine, as I understand it, found herself both everywhere and nowhere in Hoagland’s poem.

Next, Rankine read Hoagland’s response to her remarks. (She said that he had only had two days to respond, though she didn’t explain why.) Hoagland wrote, “Dear Claudia.” He wrote that he felt Rankine was “naïve about American racism.” He said, essentially, that everyone in America is racist, that it’s something we learn and are taught everyday. He said that too many white poets are afraid to deal with this reality in their poems, that almost all poems about race come from a person of color’s point-of-view. He also suggested that it was facile for Rankine to assume that the speaker in the poem is the same as the poet. He called her remarks “underconsidered.” He made a list of declarative statements, which I wish I’d written down: “I am a racist. I am a misogynist. I am a man. I am a lover of women. I am a single mother.” And so on up and over the fraught and complex rainbow.

Rankine closed by reading one of her own poems. Because I don’t remember it well, I’ll quote Tisa Bryant’s report of the event: “Ms. Rankine ended with a poem that centered on the unfulfilled promise of America.”

Does it sound as if I’ve been holding my breath? I was. It was breathtaking—the degree of bravery and boldness it took for Rankine to present this performance to an audience that, I imagine, was mostly expecting a “regular” poetry reading. The fact that she explicitly addressed a member of the poetry elite; that she publicly allowed herself the vulnerability of admitting that she found the language in Hoagland’s poem to be hurtful. And that she did, again, in this talk what I so admired—loved—in DLMBL: she spoke of her grappling with Hoagland’s poem as both an individual and highly personal process that she experienced as a black woman, and located that experience in relation to the wider poetry community, to history, and to the contemporary political moment in the U.S.

In Hoagland’s response, he ignored all but the first layer—the personal—of Rankine’s response to his poem. Rankine said, These words are hurtful, and Hoagland said No they’re not, because I didn’t intend them to be. He said, Because you’re making it personal, I’m going to tell you that you’re naïve about American racism. He said, essentially, he is saying that he has more authority to speak about race than does Rankine. When Hoagland writes, in whoever’s voice, that the speaker wanted the white girl to win the tennis match, because “she was one of my kind, my tribe,” he is (he thinks) boldly addressing race as a white person; when Rankine discusses the questions that his language raised for her, he tells her that she’s missing the point.

But I want to turn, now, to my own experience of hearing Hoagland’s poem, and reflecting on Rankine’s remarks and his response to them. Because what’s interesting is that Rankine did not, in fact, mention the line quoted above (“my kind, my tribe”) though that is the line that stuck out most for me—that made me, as a white person with a commitment to anti-racism, feel most uncomfortable. Because, undoubtedly, there were and are white people in the U.S. who don’t want to see a black woman win at tennis. Who see that as representing a “change” that they are not, and might never be, ready for. I fear and resist being grouped in with the speaker in that poem. But in fact I can’t simply shun those lines or shut them out, because at that point in the poem Hoagland does, in fact, lay bare the enduring legacy of racism in this country—a legacy that I participate in simply by the fact of being a white person. “This poem is for white people.” Not a gift, but a provocation. In the context of this poem, that provocation is valuable, but it’s also dangerous—because it threatens to obscure, at least it threatened to obscure for me, the actual disrespect, and, yes, racism in the poem.

Hoagland may be aware of the legacy of racism in this country, but he is unaccountable to the power that that legacy has bequeathed to him. And one aspect of that power is the power to name (“We suffer from the condition of being addressable”). In “The Change,” when Hoagland employed an array of racist, exoticizing stereotypes to describe the black tennis player, he flaunted that power. He used language irresponsibly and stridently, without regard for where it fell. If there is another language, an alternate discourse, that can possibly ever serve as a challenge to the dominant mode of careless naming, it is one that illuminates, at every step how connected we all are to each other, and to the institutions in which we live with, in, and in spite of. That is the language that Claudia Rankine practices and one that I was so grateful and moved to hear.

Good news, Rankine's talk is actually now online! http://www.claudiarankine.com/


  1. Interesting and sensitive. Thank you.

  2. Sara,

    I had heard about this at AWP, and yours is the first response I've read about the event from someone who was there. Thank you for your thoughtful post and for taking notes. I'm sure it was a lot to take in and I appreciate you sharing what you heard and thought. I am impressed with Claudia for speaking out. Thanks for continuing the conversation.


  3. I was in Claudia's class on the day she invited Tony Hoagland to discuss this poem almost six years ago. The class was one of all women poets. It was tense, to say the least. And when we wanted to continue the discussion outside of class with our mostly white male colleagues, we were largely shut down. To my shame, I sat bewildered and shocked and silent in my seat and let Claudia and the one other black student do all of the talking. I am moved that she was able to bring this back up and wish I had been there.

  4. I hadn't heard about any of this until after I got home from the AWP convention. I second Kelli's comments--thanks for sharing what you witnessed!

  5. Claudia Rankine is one of America's brilliant piercing intelligences. Her poetry breaks through frontiers in use of language and content. This is just one more border Claudia had the courage to push back. Grace

  6. Thank you for this. I was already a big fan of Rankine's--now it's true love.

  7. i think the point is that these subjects entered discussion at who's prodding? tony's. don't forget his bravery in this too.

  8. I am thoroughly grateful for (and impressed by) your thoughtful and incisive response to this. I wish I'd been there to hear the original reading and responses, but I'm glad to hear them this way, and with your comments. Thanks.

  9. Thanks for sharing this. I'm glad that this conversation is receiving attention near and far.

  10. Thank you for this, Sara. And bravo, bravo, bravo, Claudia Rankine. Truly.

  11. c. harris. stevens -- anyone can say a lot of things about Tony Hoagland but "brave"? -- no way. I can tell you from painfully personal experience as one of Hoagland's former students that he is perhaps the biggest coward I have ever met in my life. The fact that because he is now a major voice in American poetry means this to Hoagland: he can say whatever he damn well pleases in his poetry (not that it ever stopped him before in his everyday speech) and suffer zero repercussions for it other than more publicity for his work which I guarantee you he is relishing. Hoagland is an open racist and an open misogynist. That those two labels were in his own description of himself is no edgy political move to test the boundaries of free speech. They are simply the truth. If you have ever taken a class with him, you know this because you will have seen his racism and his misogyny in action. It's actually quite terrifying. That someone like him counts someone like me -- by virtue of our skin being the same color -- as part of his "tribe" actually makes me sick to my stomach.

    After so many years of dealing with the hurt that man caused me, I have to say it was both a relief and a vindication to know that other people could finally see him for what he is.

    I thank Ms. Jaffe for pointing out that Hoagland, in his response to Rankine, did not address the personal hurt he caused her. In fact, this comes down to a basic human interaction of speaker A saying, "you hurt me" and speaker B saying, "no I didn't." It is plain to see, like so many egotistical people in our world that Hoagland was never taught the basic decency of admitting personal responsibility for one's actions. It's actually called empathy and it is something that most children learn at a relatively young age. It absolutely makes no difference whether you MEANT to hurt someone. If you hurt them, you need to FEEL something. You need, at some level and in some way, to feel sorry for the fact that they are hurting. People who never learn empathy are not nice people though, I can just imagine Hoagland smiling enormously at the idea of being called "not nice" so I suppose if the shoe fits.... There are plenty of people in the writing community who aren't really concerned with "nice" at all and I agree that in our work/ our writing, "nice" shouldn't necessarily matter but if you want to be a good human being (which some of us do), "nice" matters quite a bit in the personal interactions that surround our work.

    At another AWP panel I attended this year, Carolyn Forche said that she didn't consider herself "political," she considered herself "awake to the world." She went on to say, "I don't know how anyone who isn't awake to the world could call themselves a poet" because, she argued, that's what being a poet is; being "awake to the world." Every poet -- even Hoagland, I must admit -- is "awake to the world" in different ways and to varying degrees. This is ultimately what creates our personal aesthetic. How "awake" do we want our poets to be? For my part, I prefer the wide-awake-ness of Rankine and the truly "brave" poets like her to the half-asleep racist misogyny of self-absorbed poets like Hoagland.

  12. didn't mean to post that under the tombstone project blog -- my name is JodiAnn Stevenson. jodianns777@gmail.com; www.bingepressandproductions.com

  13. Hey, thanks so much everybody for all the feedback--had no idea that this post would be viewed my so many, it's amazing! Excited that this conversation is continuing and expanding.

  14. An open letter from Claudia Rankine. Please consider responding.


  15. *Follow the "open letter" link on the home page.

  16. or:

    Dear friends,

    As many of you know I responded to Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change” at AWP. I also solicited from Tony a response to my response. Many informal conversations have been taking place online and elsewhere since my presentation of this dialogue. This request is an attempt to move the conversation away from the he said-she said vibe toward a discussion about the creative imagination, creative writing and race.

    If you have time in the next month please consider sharing some thoughts on writing about race (1-5 pages).

    Here are a few possible jumping off points:

    • If you write about race frequently what issues, difficulties, advantages, and disadvantages do you negotiate?

    • How do we invent the language of racial identity--that is, not necessarily
    constructing the "scene of instruction" about race, but create the
    linguistic material of racial speech/thought?

    • If you have never written consciously about race why have you never felt compelled to do so?

    • If you don’t consider yourself in any majority how does this contribute to how race enters your work?

    • If fear is a component of your reluctance to approach this subject could you examine that in a short essay that would be made public?

    • If you don’t intend to write about race but consider yourself a reader of work dealing with race what are your expectations for a poem where race matters?

    • Do you believe race can be decontextualized, or in other words, can ideas of race be constructed separate from their history?

    • Is there a poem you think is particularly successful at inventing the language of racial identity or at dramatizing the site of race as such? Tell us why.

    In short, write what you want. But in the interest of constructing a discussion pertinent to the more important issue of the creative imagination and race, please do not reference Tony or me in your writings. We both served as the catalyst for this discussion but the real work as a community interested in this issue begins with our individual assessments.

    If you write back to me by March 11, 2011, one month from today, with “OPEN LETTER” in the subject heading I will post everything on the morning of the 15th of March. Feel free to pass this on to your friends. Please direct your thoughts to openletter@claudiarankine.com.

    In peace,

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. this is the post i removed:

    Thanks cooler bandits. I just read this on Rankine's page before coming back to this blog. Of course, she's right -- and so generous to offer time and space to us all to consider the larger/deeper implications of this incident (and there are many). -JodiAnn Stevenson

    this is what I wanted to add to the post I removed:

    the smartest thing written on this topic so far -- no offense to Sara Jaffe whose work is also absolutely wonderful -- Hartmark actually directly addresses the issue of cowardlyness vs. bravery: http://lhdwriter.wordpress.com/2011/02/07/tony-hoagland-doesnt-change-shit/

  19. I'm sorry your personal experiences with Tony were so difficult and fraught. He's caustic and confrontational, and that's his style. He's that way from a source of defense of poetry as a wound. If he doesn't see your wound - he's damn good at spotting it - or feels a dysesthesia in you claiming the coordinates of that wound, he prod you on into that crevice of skin. He's a teacher, not a therapist after all, and his ethical liability as poet speaks volumes about how you feel poetry should perform public work versus how you feel it should. It's just a difference.

    Its difficult to dismiss tribalism while using tribalism as a tool of assault. In the end, it supports his argument in the poem: we all find a common denominator in which to defend. And so here you are, defending. A good poet has broken your shattered sea. You responded! You came from the sleep of silence and committed yourself to a public speech act! Now you have the responsibility to ask why? How? Justified, etc? The last thing a poet should do is apologize. Our colloquial assumptions about 'tolerance' (please google 'zizek' 'tolerance'), difference, and equality hide some very very grim socio-economic gaps which will never be directly addressed by media. Tennis is funny in several ways. Its a tool of social mobility within groups. Golf is the other one. They are proper and associated with social elite. I'm borrowing from Gumbrecht's "In Praise of Athletic Beauty". To put a racial battle in a tennis court, the movement is permissions of movement (Rankine's focus) within this white structure of social mobility. That's why he hitting the foul lines so hard. The poem is a construction of how you can hit at someone and still remain in fair ground of publishable speech. My discussions with african american artists unanimously claim he hit out of bounds by a wide margin while discussing the black body. And aren't we still measuring in terms of "first black president, first black woman to win the wimberlly, etc?" that it still is a point of reference both dismantling and fortifying a terrible history? Rankine attacks the usefulness of such language, and is honest in her personal responses. She didn't attack Tony directly, but I don't know if Tony consented to a private e-mail being read in public. That's a different story. I'm going to be writing on this for a couple of weeks it seems and I can't see anything but constructive dialogue coming from it. Tony is a fearless writer - via John Gallaher. Sensitive? Hell no. That's his brand.

  20. i'm sure you can fill in the little grammar gaps. sorry about that!

  21. Many thanks to Ms. Jaffe and Ms. Stevenson for their eloquent and thoughtful responses to Claudia Rankine's performance. In my opinion, this is an essential dialogue.

    Joe Ahearn

  22. To c.harris.stevens:

    You wrote:"but I don't know if Tony consented to a private e-mail being read in public."

    If you are referring to the TH comments she (Ms. Rankine)read following her AWP piece, those were Tony's comments that he wrote specifically to be read at AWP in direct response to Ms. Rankine's piece.

    Not sure where you got the "private email" notion?

  23. i just heard it was an email, and that's a private discourse, no a public one. its the first i've heard of its intent being public. a reporting error from what i've been gathering. thank you for filling that major gap.

  24. Man I wish I was there, everything about Hoagland's poem and the fact that Ms. Rankine directly addressing racism and a racist is so new and sensation, is precisely why I had no desire to go to AWP. It's so hard for me to think clearly about race and racism in the elite poetry institution--as an MFA student right now it's constantly in my face and so many whites, and people of color, lack a critical, thoughtful and self-reflexive bone in their body either as a matter of survival or so maintain that legacy. Reading this helps me articulate my own experiences. Thanks.

  25. I rambled on without ever thanking you, Sarah, for your thoughtful inquiry and presentation of the events. Thank you very much.

  26. Provocative and careful post. I was pleased to link it at my personal blog.

  27. Excellent, careful post. I'm curious as to what further insights might be provided by comparing Hoagland's poem with Patricia Smith's "Skinhead" - which takes up a similar persona-based rhetorical strategy. Arguably, Smith's poem is more offensive, if offensiveness is judged based on how extreme the language is, and how absent is any explicit condemnation of the portrayed attitudes. And yet, it seems to me that that very explicitness is what makes Smith's poem successful where Hoagland's is problematic: the problem with Hoagland's poem (which is separate from problems with the poet's personal response to others' responses to the poem) is not in itself its rhetorical strategy - of using offensive language as "witness" of evils that remain in society, and to provoke critical examination of those evils, that society, and the self - but the flawed execution of that strategy, insufficiently framed by the poem (though perhaps the context of the book provides more? I have not read that collection) as a critique-serving performance of racism.
    To unpack a little further, in response to your comment: "Because what’s interesting is that Rankine did not, in fact, mention the line quoted above (“my kind, my tribe”) though that is the line that stuck out most for me—that made me, as a white person with a commitment to anti-racism, feel most uncomfortable." It seems to me (perhaps consider it a charitable reading of the poem) that this response is the rhetorical goal - to provoke the reader to confront such notions, to confront whether s/he has any sympathy for them - conscious or unconscious - and also to confront the degree to which s/he is willing to tolerate their utterance or even silent existence in society. It seems to me that the larger problem is with the less 'transparent' performances of racist seeing/address at other points in the poem, which Rankine focuses on. Perhaps Hoagland's rhetorical strategy was to test the reader's awareness sensitivity by trying to slip by more subtly racist comments - to trick the reader into being complicit, and then force her/him to recognize and confront that complicity - this is the sense in which the poem would be 'for white people.' The problems being 1) the potential failure to make that strategy clear, so that the performance slips by as un-self-criticized, and 2) the hurt such performance may cause to readers without or, importantly, even with the clear framing as meant for criticism. In Smith's poem, the offensiveness of the language is clearly part of performance and critique - but then, her poem is more "for" American society "right here" as a whole than "for" a reader who might feel 'tribal' inclinations or tolerate/fail to notice more subtle linguistic acts of racism.

  28. Sorry, forgot to include the link to Smith's "Skinhead" - http://www.bu.edu/agni/poetry/print/2002/56-smithp.html

  29. For those who wish to read Tony Hoagland's response to Claudia Rankine's AWP talk it is available on Claudia's site under the AWP link:


  30. I would like there to be at least one response from a "white person" (Jewish girl) that rants wildly that I feel a fierce kinship with my black friends, relations, and compatriots such that I'm going to loudly reject someone saying things like "zulu bangles" and "outrageous name" no matter what his intentions are. To read more rant jump to the middle of this post on Best American Poetry. Sorry I am so late on this, I have two little kids and am a philosopher and poet. It's time consuming! http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/the_lion_and_the_honeycomb/
    Jennifer Michael Hecht

  31. JMH! I'm white! I'm with you all the way! But you know what MY most feared label is?--I even confess this publicly in a damn-well-better-be-printed-soon essay--"Southern White Female Poet." I immediately think of iced tea, silver spoons, trailing wisteria, and doilies. Mrs. Compson and her endless sick headaches. The white women in the Compson saga are either pathetic or crushed as they try to flee social constructs equivalent to Chinese foot-binding. That's why I made a post on my FB page about the women of Japan and the culture of submissiveness in which THEY, too, are raised. And, cross my heart, I've been fired more times than Erin Belieu for refusing to be anything than what I am. UPPITY! And Proud of It!

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