What Tony Hoagland Means to Me
Snow is a unique experience in Portland. Not the weather itself, but the reaction from the city and everyone in it. An inch or two can cause chaos. Threats of more than a few inches can mean widespread panic. Every once in a while we’ll get a decent storm, and it’s during one of those storms that this memory unfolds. Even though I’d had to go to work, and generally went about that day like normal, it had snowed enough for most of Portland to give up and stay home. With a thick blanket of white capturing the glow of the streetlights, the empty, muffled city seemed magical.
I’m fairly sure it was the start of 2014. I’d gotten a message from a friend of mine about volunteering last-minute at a literary event for the non-profit where she worked. I was underdressed for the occasion but I said I’d be happy to help. I showed up in my layers of fleece and Gortex hiking boots to hand out programs and guide people to their seats. As was customary, after the event I attended the reception held at an upscale hotel. This is where I got to meet one of my literary heroes: Tony Hoagland.
Hoagland had been an addition to the lineup of readers, someone else had dropped out due to the storm. I had been thrilled to find that that was the case. I adored his work and had even considered applying for the MFA program at the University of Texas, Houston (I was preparing applications for a variety of schools at the time), because he was part of the faculty there. When I finally gathered the courage to introduce myself at the reception, he was in conversation with Matthew Dickman, a local poet and another favorite of mine. This led to some fan-girling on my part. I don’t recall the specifics of the conversation but many jokes were made and the culmination was Hoagland laying “poetic hands” on me in a sort of poetry-gospel-church-tent ritual.
I’d had some wine. I was hanging out with my poetry idols. I thought it was the best thing ever.
I discovered Hoagland on Poets.org, a site I often perused while I was in college (and after), looking for new reading and inspiration. It was his poem “I Have News for You” that first caught my eye. The poem is about the possibility of people who somehow escape the selfish, greedy reality of present society. I liked the somewhat snarky tone, but it was the final lines that really hooked me: “I have news for you–/there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room/and open a window to let the sweet breeze in/and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies.” There was something painfully lovely about the simplicity of that sentiment. My life was a bit of a mess back then. I was dealing with selfish and greedy and yearned to find my way to that sweet breeze.
The first of Hoagland’s books I purchased was his collection “What Narcissism Means to Me.” I found it full of the same straightforward lines, and subversive tones I’d come to enjoy. His style is narrative, reflective, self-deprecating, and he often throws out first-name references to other characters in a way that reminds me of the Beats. It felt stripped down and to the point. No frills poetry.
Publisher’s Weekly offers an apt description: “In Hoagland’s third collection, as in the previous two, his speaker devotes considerable energy to unmasking this vulnerable self, revealing its ugliness, hatred and social sensitivity in articulate detail.” In a review in the New York Times, Emily Nussbaum begins, “Tony Hoagland’s disarming poetry collection WHAT NARCISSISM MEANS TO ME [...] has the appeal of a mean-but-funny friend, a smart aleck you can’t dismiss, he’s so entertaining and (most of the time) so spot on in his insights.”
I appreciate that Nussbaum throws in that little “most of the time” caveat. Because while I remain a fan of Hoagland’s work, after reading multiple books I never hung on his every word. Some poems fall flat for me while others hit home hard. It’s not always consistent, but when it’s good, it’s really good. I remember sending my friend a copy of his poem “A Color of the Sky” in a letter, underlining the last couple stanzas:
Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
and the police station,
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;
overflowing with blossomfoam,
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,
dropping snow white petals on the ground in clouds,
so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
It’s been doing that all week:
and throwing it away
and making more.
Those last few lines still slay me, and it remains one of my favorite poems – of Hoagland’s and in general.
Mike Schneider reviewed “Narcissism” in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette back in 2004. He
says: “If books are cold but sure friends, this one is zanier, zestier, and colder than most, the kind of friend – the best kind – who’s interested in what makes you tick and who likes to provoke, usually with a well-aimed wisecrack.” Another reference to Hoagland’s poetry as a friend. Which makes sense because if one thing stands out the most it’s that Hoagland doesn’t really try to hide behind his poetry. You get the sense that his first-person narrator is unquestionably himself. Something we’re taught never to assume.
In a way Hoagland actually turned me away from poetry (in my own work). His open, narrative, style was part of what put me on a path toward flash-fiction and short fiction. I found myself enjoying poems that were simply small stories, avoiding those that had to be picked apart, dissected for meaning. From him I learned that full sentences can hold as much power as more cryptic lines.
I was sad to find while writing this article that Hoagland passed away in 2018 from pancreatic cancer. I was a bit shocked by the news, but I’ve long been disconnected from what little poetry news I used to receive. It makes that snowy night all the more meaningful. The cozy atmosphere of a room full of people who wouldn’t let a foot of snow stop them from celebrating poetry. And Hoagland, cracking jokes and offering up to me his poetic power as a prayer. The silliness and generosity of that moment deserving its permanent place in my memory.