Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tony Hoagland

Tony Hoagland was born in 1953 in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His chapbook, Hard Rain was published by Hollyridge Press in 2005. His other collections of poetry include What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf Press, 2003), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Donkey Gospel (1998), which received the James Laughlin Award; and Sweet Ruin (1992), chosen by Donald Justice for the 1992 Brittingham Prize in Poetry and winner of the Zacharis Award from Emerson College. Hoagland's other honors include two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship to the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, the O.B. Hardison Prize for Poetry and Teaching from the Folger Shakespeare Library, as well as the Poetry Foundation's 2005 Mark Twain Award in recognition of his contribution to humor in American poetry. He currently teaches at the University of Houston and Warren Wilson College.


If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to help your enemy
the way I got to help my mother
when she was weakened past the point of saying no.

Into the big enamel tub
half-filled with water
which I had made just right,
I lowered the childish skeleton
she had become.

Her eyelids fluttered as I soaped and rinsed
her belly and her chest,
the sorry ruin of her flanks
and the frayed gray cloud
between her legs.

Some nights, sitting by her bed
book open in my lap
while I listened to the air
move thickly in and out of her dark lungs,
my mind filled up with praise
as lush as music,

amazed at the symmetry and luck
that would offer me the chance to pay
my heavy debt of punishment and love
with love and punishment.

And once I held her dripping wet
in the uncomfortable air
between the wheelchair and the tub,
until she begged me like a child

to stop,
an act of cruelty which we both understood
was the ancient irresistible rejoicing
of power over weakness.

If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to raise the spoon
of pristine, frosty ice cream
to the trusting creature mouth
of your old enemy

because the tastebuds at least are not broken
because there is a bond between you
and sweet is sweet in any language.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

The poem seems quite antique to me now, but it was written in a period of time in the early nineties—even then, it had been twenty years since the events reported on took place, caring for my mother during her last months of dying.

Of course it derives from real experience, one of those many many uncharted constellations of intimacy that constantly occur between family members, friends, and partners. I say "uncharted" with pleasure, since experience offers an ongoing infinity of such moments, each never before observed and represented.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

I had a lot of trouble with the wording of a bridge passage –I think the description of the bathtub scene—three quarters through, and I struggled with the economy of the phrasing for a year or more before getting it as close to right as I could.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I believe in such a thing as getting lucky sometimes. I also believe that one of the gifts we cultivate as working poets is the instinct for where a poem can be found—the coordination of details and dimensions, the angularity with which a tone can be established or how a story can be positioned, to best catch the light. In this poem, (to me) that special angle is the exposure of how Power—not gender or familial attachment—is at the core of the interaction.

The rhetoric of the poem, which is to say the opening sentence, was a rock-solid way to begin. But I remember I had a lot of trouble with other moments, like knowing that the last line was the last line. I'm sure I wrote well past it.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I solved some of the poem's necessary movements with rhetorics of phrasing, like the chiasmus ("punishment & love, love & punishment") two thirds through. In any case, I still think "Lucky" is a rather plain-Jane poem.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

Soon after finishing it, my friend Conrad Hillbery requested some poems from me for an issue of Passages North; at the time, I didn't think the poem was particularly special.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

Different for different poems. Some poems have taken years and years to finish, and by the time they are finished, they might not be interesting in terms of subject matter anymore. Some get finished and half forgotten, then turn up again looking better for the vacation. Yet I believe in laboring through the technical problems presented by almost any poem, even a mediocre one, because it has a long term technical benefit, like a callisthenic.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

The facts—I just now remembered—had been turned into a story years before the poem was written, when a woman I was dating asked me to tell her a story. So I told her the story of bathing my mother's ravaged body, and how strange it was looking down at her—the pale suture marks and scars, the gray-haired pubis. Because the facts had been turned into a story, years later it was there in the refrigerator of language-memory, ready for the poem.

Is this a narrative poem?

Narrative dominated (probably over-dominated) by rhetoric.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I learned many of the things I needed to know about narrative from Larry Levis's book Winter Stars. Some other influences were probably John Skoyles's elegantly straightforward book A Little Faith, and John Engman's book Keeping Still Mountain. Also Tess Gallagher's Under Stars. All extraordinary books.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

Someone willing to go along for the ride. I believe in The Ride, the poem as carnival concession.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

Over the years it has changed, but when I'm lucky, I have one or two keen, reliable friends.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Well, in retrospect, it is much of a piece; plain and urgent, trying to use both intelligence and feeling to get more deeply at each other. I try to do verbally fancier things now, but Force and Intensity are primary assets of poetry.

What is American about this poem?

Its merciless candor.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?



  1. Another wonderful "How a Poem Happens" Brian. Thanks for all of these, and all to come.

  2. A brilliant poem, and a wonderful insight into its origins, as always. Thank you!

  3. Wonderful interview with my favorite poet! he is reading in DC at the Library of Congress this Thursday- I'm trying to figure out a way to get up there from Richmond!

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