Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: My Love Affair With Tony Hoagland

I first fell for Tony Hoagland when I read What Narcissism Means to Me about 2 or 3 years ago. I read it at the suggestion of my thesis advisor, Erin Belieu, who thought I would enjoy and connect with his poetry and she was right. 

Hoagland is a very direct poet that writes using popular culture and social commentary. He is often funny, heartbreakingly honest, and always engaging. He doesn't rely on fancy imagery or figurative language. That's not to say his poems are "easy." Many examine central issues and questions of what it means to be a man in the 21st century. This is truly what draws me the most to Hoagland's work. 

For the most part I read poetry books by other gay men or straight or gay women. Why? Basically I find a good portion of straight, male poets to be rather boring (sorry). They often don't take on issues that I'm interested in and don't examine the idea of gender and masculinity very well. As one of my instructors once said, "straight, male poets need to stop writing about their fathers and lighthouses." I don't know if I could put it any better. Yes, this is a very general statement, and no, not all straight, male poets are like this, but many are.  This is why I was so surprised and taken by Hoagland's work when I first read it. He is straight, male, and a poet and writes about masculinity and the issues of being male in this culture and time period. He even writes about sex. He does it with humor, but also with a close and critical eye. 

Hoagland is also not afraid to write about gay people and to be open and honest about his feelings toward gay issues. He walks that line of the uncomfortable, but curious straight man so well. One of my favorite poems of his is from his book entitled Sweet Ruin. It is a poem called "One Season" and begins with these lines:

That was the summer my best friend
called me a faggot on the telephone,
hung up, and vanished from the earth, 

The poem goes on to discuss how he acted differently for the next year: "Probably I talked too loud that year // and thought an extra minute / before I crossed my legs." He is open and honest, yet never offensive. He also addresses gay issues in his poem "Mistaken Identity," where he imagines seeing his dead mother in a lesbian bar. This is not the work of most straight, male poets writing today and for this I love Hoagland's work. I even wrote him an e-mail saying so about two years ago and he responded quite nicely to it and said he was very relieved to know that young, gay poets liked his work. 

I bring all this up, because I just bought and read Hoagland's newest book, which is a chapbook entitled Little Oceans. I will be honest, because what is the point in lying, the chapbook let me down just a little and the cover art is bad. The majority of the poems don't strike me the way his work normally does. That's not to say this is a bad chapbook, but rather I don't think it is his finest work. However, there are many poems in here that remind you what is so great about his style and choice of subject matter. 

One of the stand out poems in this 39 page chapbook comes early on and is entitled "Playboy." Yes, it is about the men's magazine Playboy, but takes a very gentle look at the speaker's mother and wondering what she thought of the father always having the latest Playboy in the bathroom. The poem ends with these beautifully sad lines:

It was a big lonely world for a girl
just starting to get suspicious about the way
the world was stapled together;

--holding a boy's magazine in her hand, 
feeling the beginning of
her own invisibility,
and pulling her robe a little tighter.

Playboy in poems is nothing new, but this portrait is haunting and well-constructed. 

Other good poems in the chapbook include one devoted to Britney Spears entitled "Poor Britney Spears," one about being killed by stupid drivers in Texas called "Black SUV," and one about bears (not gay, furry men, but actual bears) entitled "Wild." 

If you have never read Hoagland's work I would recommend beginning with one of his earlier books first. He also has a new book coming out in the winter, I believe, which might include the best of these chapbook poems plus new ones. 

Regardless, Hoagland is a poet that always inspires me and reminds me to give straight, male poets a chance. 

-Stephen (Hoagland Lover)


  1. I haven't read Hoagland, but I have the book you mention on my shelf, waiting for me.

    I'm like you; I generally prefer to read queer writers or straight women writers. So often straight men seem so interested in objectifying women and in their own egos. I just feel so excluded from their work. But then that makes me worry, because a straight man once told me that queer poetry excludes "people like [him]" and that's a problem of queer poetry--that only queer people can relate to it.

    Obviously I disagree, but I certainly don't want people to feel excluded from my work.

    Anyway, I'll have to check out Hoagland. I think Erin told me I should read him, too.

  2. V-

    It is an important issue and proves we are all guilty of making assumptions about groups of people. If you haven't read many straight male poets Hoagland is a great place to start.

    I have also greatly enjoyed the Dickman twins, who both published books this year. I don't know if you have heard of them. They have gotten a lot of press because they are twins and both won first book contests in the same year from different places. It is Matthew Dickman and Michael Dickman. Both of their books are good. I preferred the one called "All-American Poem" but can't remember which one wrote it (but Hoagland picked the winner for that book award). I believe they are both straight, which I guess was my point.

  3. You know, you're blog is serving two purposes for me. 1) To identify elements of myself I didn't know were there (my preference for straight female or gay poets... hadn't ever realized this...) and 2) To make me spend money on things you endorse. Because I have to buy a Tony Hoagland book now.

    You're literally taking food out of my husband's mouth. "No, Chris. We can't get steak tonight. Stephen's recommended another book."

  4. Bryan-

    Please apologize to Chris for me. Perhaps I should try to market this as the poet's diet: find a poet to be with and they will spend all their money on books and leave you with very little to eat. Hey, there are crazier diet plans out there. I think this could sell and work!