What I Learned at AWP

"Active prayer": It's what I would term Claudia Rankine's response to a poem by Tony Hoagland that angered and offended many readers with a racist worldview and language.
02/14/2011 12:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

When I was a 24-year-old mess of the privileged, educated, and underemployed variety, I lived for five months in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, working as an event bookseller all over New York, meeting middle-aged authors and drinking too much with them. When one of them said, "Well, shall we go to my place?" I couldn't think of a good reason why not. I was that kind of mess: thoroughly unnecessary in that I could have made different choices, but necessary in that without the mess-periods I wouldn't have learned that one indeed can make different choices.

The story by which life is something that happens to you is one we pick up early on, and it's addictive, as addictive as picking the scab of heartbreak. It's possible to stay down there a long time and suffer unnecessarily as a result. I spent a while living under that sky after college. But no wise person I know lived through their twenties without some stark episodes of falling on their face.

There with my cheek to the sidewalk is where I, at least, had to be to develop a personal reading of Dean Young's poem "How I Get My Ideas," when he wrote "You bend the nail / but keep hammering because / hammering makes the world." What if reactions and interpretations are the hammers we use to make the world? What if that feeling in our bellies -- infatuation, anger, fear -- were something we interpreted as an arrow toward some act of generosity, growth, or positive change? This idea has been around a long time; I just had to face-plant to learn it viscerally, and it seemed to me, a religionless agnostic, the closest thing to what might be termed "active prayer."

It's certainly what I would term Claudia Rankine's response to Tony Hoagland's poem "The Change," a poem which angered and offended many readers with a racist worldview and language. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) yearly conference took place February 2-5 in Washington, DC, and Rankine's "call out" quickly became a hot topic after she spoke her response to Hoagland's poem at her reading there. She has now invited anyone to contribute to the discussion via email with thoughts on race and writing that she will post on her website on March 15. She explicitly asks in her solicitation not to mention her name or Hoagland's: "We both served as the catalyst for this discussion," she writes, "but the real work as a community interested in this issue begins with our individual assessments."

In New York I thought I was headed to grad school. The assistance from Columbia University's MFA, while generous, wasn't enough, and I had to turn them down. I chose, without knowing I was choosing, to receive that information as tragic, left New York and went abroad to work for a couple months, and washed up stateside again, this time in Seattle. I lived at my generous aunt's invitation in her grown kid's old room and reapplied to school. I catered on a boat. I tutored in a suburb. I beta-tested a life coach who lived in Connecticut.

He might actually be a career consultant, but I was too existentially pained for Michael, a sensitive and observant listener, not to notice on a human level. He was the one to call me out. "I think if you wanted a nine-to-five job, Ming, you could get one," he said. "I don't think you want one, because you want to go to graduate school in a few months. That's not what this is about."

He was right. That mess-period was about the transformation that occurs when you look down at your hands in the lucid dream, when you realize you're holding the hammer. I told Michael about the butterflies: I had a crush on someone during my Seattle mess-period, only for the close observation that is romantic infatuation to make obvious to me that person's love for a mutual friend. That's when I figured I'd do something different than cry into my navel. I took each friend aside. Don't wait too long, I urged one; I'd love to be in your position, I told the other. What if this butterfly feeling in my tummy were an arrow, and the arrow didn't lead to a storyline that exacerbated the pain? "This concept of 'active prayer' is a teaching, Ming," Michael encouraged.

So is Rankine's response to her outrage over Hoagland's poem, and much, much more so. Rankine began with a feeling of outrage and has done something more expansive with it than the easier satisfaction of taking personal offense. She chose not to leave it that small. She prayed bigger, more actively, than that, and I applaud her for it. More than that, I learn from it. Rankine is less interested in putting Hoagland in his place than she is in creating a place for discussion -- about bigger issues than one poem, and between many more people.

You can find Rankine's letter on her website by clicking the "Open Letter" link on the right.

"The Change" is not the only thing Hoagland has written; he also wrote this appeal in order to help Dean Young, the poet I quoted above, whose health is in danger.