An Education in Ecstasy: An Interview with Tony Hoagland

Guest Article by: 
Erika Jo Brown

Tony Hoagland is the author of five poetry collections and two essays collection on poetics. He is an award-winner, a raconteur, and a dedicated mentor. I was thrilled to chat with him about his newest book of poems, APPLICATION FOR RELEASE FROM THE DREAM, this past July 4th weekend.

Application for Release from the Dream: Poems Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9781555977184
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Graywolf Press - September 1st, 2015

Brazos Bookstore: Knowing of your bemusement with the American experiment (“you big scary baby”), how are you spending Independence Day?

Tony Hoagland: I’m keeping my head down, and a big bucket of water at hand to put the rocket fires out.

BB: As someone who thinks and writes critically about poetry, you've spoken of the need for models (or archetypes) in order to more neatly discuss craft. Can you talk about the difference between associative and disassociative poems—and how you balance those tendencies?

TH: I would rather say that as writers and craft-persons we need aesthetic frameworks in order to make our own choices. Models are touchstones for such frameworks and choices—Auden versus Rich, for example. Critical language can also be useful as it provides means to make discriminations between types of poems.

The associative /dissociative split is a good case example, because the two kinds of poems can look very similar (and in fact they are different points on the same line). But the difference between them is also quite real and important.

The associative poem, even if quite wild and unruly, arises from a distinctively individual mind; it is part of the humanist tradition of joy in connection-making. The disassociative poem is a distinctly modern experiment; the disassociative spirit is more interested in representing how things do not connect, how they do not go together. The difference between the two aesthetics is the difference between a leap and a nonsequitur. Nonsequitur itself is a signature device of the disassociative tribe.

BB: Of the poets who write critically about poetry, who are some that you'd recommend?

TH: We have great observers and poet-analysts currently on the scene. My favorites—because I find them most useful in the long run—are those who make systematic grids for poetics—the way Pinsky speaks of diction, speech manners, and language as culture, for instance, taught me so much. Carl Dennis is also a great taxonomist of poetic structure and style. James Longenbach's essays are like clear, intelligent water.

Other writers are so good and so intellectually alive—like Hass and Gluck—that their incidental observations and remarks knock you back on your heels with enough to speculate upon for a year. Jarrell, of course, is the first great poetry critic of the twentieth century. Even in the midst of Modernism he saw it with frightening and celebratory clarity.

Seamus Heaney, Guy Davenport, and Milan Kundera have so much to say about form that applies to poetry—there are many good stewards of the art. The worst critics of course are the theory-driven self-reifying critics who write for other intellectuals. Curiosity is what makes great critics, not empire building or intellectual intimidation. The good ones teach us how to teach ourselves.

BB: On a scale of one to ten, how sad are you about the Grateful Dead’s farewell tour?

TH: I think the GD was kind of over when Garcia passed away. But I feel lucky to have had the education in ecstasy they provided. And they are still alive, like real art is.

BB: I know you encourage continual development over the course of a poet's career. In class and in REAL SOFISTIKASHUN, you cite poets like Transtromer and Gluck. I've been reading SWEET RUIN, and I was wondering how you'd describe the evolution (thematically and/or craft-based) or different tendrils of your own writing since then…which I guess is a fancy way of asking: What’s new about this book? What are some of the aesthetic challenges that you faced down? How does this compare to your earlier work?

TH: In SWEET RUIN, I had learned with great effort to cobble together a narrative and some metaphors into a humble psychological pressure-chamber. In WHAT NARCISSISM MEANS TO ME, I learned to field a chorus of voices competing for control of a discourse—and sometimes completing it together. In the new book—in some of the poems at least—I am trying to record the layered simultaneous dimensions of experience without hysteria, and without an ultimate judgment aside from "This is How it IS." The kind of poem I would most like to be able to write, and which is still rather out of my reach, is a kind of hybrid of collage and meditation.

BB: Some of your poems struggle with the idea of selfhood (“the wild imperative of”) and its attendant drama and pain. Do you think considering the “observable world” can act as an antidepressant?

TH: Yes, that's a good observation itself. The manifold world is our rescuer from the bottomless implosion of subjectivity and psychology. The external world, especially nature, is beyond us, beneath us and above us, and more real than us; thus it is a life preserver. To look closely is always to lose self-importance. Wonder is the drug of choice for the discriminating user. Good question, grasshopper. Thank you.


Originally from New York, Erika Jo Brown is the author of I’M YOUR HUCKLEBERRY (Brooklyn Arts Press). She's currently a PhD candidate at the University of Houston, where she serves as an assistant poetry editor for Gulf Coast.


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