Talking to Tony Hoagland

Posted on: January 21st, 2011 by admin No Comments

Kurt Mullen:  As I said, in this project I’m talking to people about why they’ve chosen to do the work that they do. So I ask you: Why did you become a poet?

Tony Hoagland: Well, as you know, a question like that has a fairly complicated answer. Let me start like this: My family was an Army family; my father was in the military. We moved around, from base to base, every two years.

Then there were complications. My mother got breast cancer while we were stationed overseas, in Ethiopia; she wanted to own a home before she died…She had only lived in Army housing.  The result was that my father got out of the military and we ended up in a small town in southern Louisiana. Which, for me, was an awful place to end up.

I had a hard time in that culture; my family was a wreck, my mother was sick. I realize this all sounds like the material of confessional poetry. “My mother had cancer, my brother died of a drug overdose…”  But to me, such stuff doesn’t really seem freakish or sensational or exceptional — just the kind of things that happen to everybody. Everyone has tragedy, everyone has trouble. We crash into walls. That’s why people go to poetry.  

However, in high school, a friend of mine, Billy Barrios, gave me an anthology of contemporary American poetry. It made a huge impression; I was in an emotionally inarticulate world, but the poems I was reading were describing inner life — emotional difficulty, human nature, and what kind of perspective you might take on it in order not to be quite so totally the victim of your own inner chaos.

And so, for reasons that I can’t even really know now, those poems made a huge difference to me. Meanwhile, of course, I was writing my own atrocious poetry of adolescent unhappiness.  But really, my life as a reader was drawing me towards poetry all by itself. So that’s a big part of the story for me.

The other thing I’ve figured out, over time, is that I am a particular species of American. There’s even a word for it, not usually used a lot — deracinated. This word, deracination, means “to cut off at the roots.” It’s a word that describes being severed or exiled from your tribe, or being cut off from your race or ethnicity or your homeland. To be deracinated is to be an immigrant, or an emigrant.

My parents were also somehow deracinated. They had divorced themselves from the lives of their own parents. For whatever reasons, they cut their own ties to the past. Perhaps they didn’t like the families they came from. They were Fifties, so-called “liberated people,” their politics were allegedly liberal, I guess, though I remember — I have no idea why — they were happy when John Kennedy got shot. They had no religious tradition; they were fashionably agnostic. They had no consciousness of ethnicity. We were an Army family, which means that we had moved about every two or three years, so they didn’t have real continuity of deep friendships or continuity of community. My parents were cut off persons.

All those things make for a disconnected condition which, I eventually came to recognize, is one strand of American tradition. On the one hand it’s intrinsic to an immigrant culture; the historical transplantation of culture, faith, all that otherness into this country — but on the other hand it’s this sort of profoundly rootless Okie tradition too. Of drifters, people who are just passing through. People who are unknowable, people who don’t wish to be known. People who don’t have any sense of the past that makes a context.

It’s true that many military families actually have this … syndrome. But as I say, in a larger existential sense it seems very American, it is, in fact, one American tradition:  No, I don’t come from anywhere.  That’s why, when people ask, “Where are you from?” I often say, I don’t remember.

PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6 |