Last night, Tony Hoagland gave a reading at Stockton. Hoagland is one of my favorite living American poets, so of course I was there.

He was introduced by Stephen Dunn, another poet I greatly admire. Stephen looked well last night, and his intro was funny, warm and complimentary. He aptly summed up Hoagland’s poetry this way: “Hoagland likes to put himself in trouble.” And it’s true – Hoagland writes poems that are daring, poems that walk a fine line between bravely outspoken and politically insensitive. But, as Stephen pointed out, fans of Hoagland’s (like myself) start each poem eager to find out how he’s going to get himself out of the holes he digs. And somehow he always manages to do just that.

Hoagland in person is not really what I expected. On the page, his voice is loud and brazen and clear. In person, he is unassuming, cordial, self-deprecating. And his voice has that slightly nasal Midwestern twang – it’s a bit apologetically abrasive at first, but once I got used to it, it didn’t bother me at all.

He read for over an hour, covering twelve poems with some good intro to each. He started the reading with his poem “Snow Globe,” because he says good poems are like little snow globes; you can look inside and see little scenes, like a woman wringing a chicken (yes, he comes up with really odd examples). He followed that up with a poem about Britney Spears, which was initially inspired by Frank O’Hara’s poem about Lana Turner.

Side note: This was probably the high point of the reading for Donna. Before the official reading at 7, Donna was invited to sit in on a class with one of the professors, and Hoagland was also there. He read the Britney Spears poem (which is great) to the class, and Donna caught the O’Hara influence right away – and so quoted the end of that poem to him. During the official reading at 7, Hoagland introduced the Britney Spears poem by reading O’Hara’s poem – and then by name-checking Donna in front of everyone. He explained how “this brilliant student” called him out on the connection between the two poems, and then he pointed her out and called her a genius. Later, she got invited to the after-party, and was hanging out with him and Stephen Dunn and a few others. Zoinks!

Anyway, Hoagland is on a kick of socio-economic-political poems. He read some stuff about consumerism, two poems about race (including “Hinge,” which appeared in the March/April 2007 issue of American Poetry Review, and “Rap Music,” my favorite of his race poems), and some more personal poems as well, about relationships, personal reactions to culture, etc.

Some of my favorite lines of the night:

introducing the poem “Jazz”:
A friend who obviously thinks I’m cooler than I am gave me a CD of radical jazz. Which is a kind of punishment for me.

from “Rhythm & Blues,” an elegy for his friend about the reception after his funeral, at which his sister gave his shirts away:
It was pretty unpleasant to watch all of his possessions giving up his fingerprints like that.
Each time I put it on I felt my arm push through one of the holes he’d left.

from the poem “Confinement”:
I can’t recall the exact lines, but the sentiment was this: the Narrator sees his ex-wife and struggles with the urge to go over and tell her it [their divorce] wasn’t his fault, even though it was a long time since we were extinct.

on ending the reading:
I should end it with a happy, gentle poem – but I’ll just read this angry political poem.

Definitely one of the most entertaining readings I’ve been too, and well worth the drive.

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