Turn Up the Ocean: Poems by Tony Hoagland
Graywolf Press | 2022 | 83 pages
Hi, Derek! Thank you for having this conversation with me about Tony Hoagland’s latest collection of poems, Turn Up the Ocean. I’d like to begin with a favorite poem of mine from an earlier collection because I think it shows the evolution of Tony’s thought process and how his themes continue and expand in this new book. The poem, “America” (2003), has a theme of turning up the volume in our heads to gaze more closely at who we are as a country comprising people who misunderstand and destroy each other as we abuse and contaminate the environment:
And I think, “I am asleep in America too, (…)”
When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you
And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river
Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters
And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher?
What are your thoughts, Derek? Do you find this earlier theme resonating in poems from his new collection?
Hey, Elizabeth, yes, I definitely see what you mean about how he continues his interrogation of us as Americans (himself always included) and this American life in Turn Up the Ocean, as the titles of these poems surely reveal: “The Reason He Brought His Gun to School: A Blues,” “American Story,” “The Power of Traffic,” “The Decline of the Roman Empire.” But perhaps since this way of life, what singer Greg Brown describes as “the comfort that kills,” has been plastic wrapped and shipped out all over the world, I also see the grappling broaden at times, as in this passage from “Bible All Out of Order”:
In Italy the tabloids are talking L’Ambulanza della Morte,
the ambulance of death;
a medic who was killing his passengers
to provide business for his brother’s funeral parlor.
Or this one from “Disclosure Agreement”: “I have plenty to tell the tabloids if they ever show up: / about the nasty infection called ‘achieving success.’” Or this one from “Gorgon:” “Now that the human family has turned out to be a conspiracy against the planet.”
This cultural critique, as you say, has always been there and has always been one of many meaningful things about his poems that keeps me coming back for more. His critique of American masculinity helped me along on my own way. I had discovered Tony’s work when I was doing graduate work at the University of Washington. I remember bringing in my new favorite poem to classes taught by David Wagoner and Heather McHugh, Tony’s “Dickhead” from Donkey Gospel:
To whomever taught me the word dickhead,
I owe a debt of thanks.
It gave me a way of being in the world of men
when I most needed one,
I knew I had found a kindred soul, one who like myself had somehow managed to survive the same “steamy / skies of locker rooms,” where “wild // jockstraps flew” and “everybody fell down laughing // at jokes I didn’t understand.”
There is so much for us to talk about. My god, his particular cocktail of humor, perception, vulnerability, expression, heartbreak, and wisdom… Yes, please. Another round. Keep them coming. And the way he is always trying to wake us as if he were a contemporary Merry Prankster. Do you feel that, too? In this respect, he puts me in mind of Denise Levertov and William Stafford. In particular, Stafford’s poem “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” which begins:
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
And now I’m thinking of the end of Tony’s masterful, “Gorgon”:
You have arrived at the edge of the world
where the information wind howls incessantly
and you stand in your armor made of irony
with your sword of good intentions raised—
The world is a Gorgon.
It presents its thousand ugly heads.
Death or madness to look at too long
but your job
is not to conquer it;
not to provide entertaining repartee,
not to revile yourself in shame.
Your job is to stay calm.
Your job is to watch and take notes,
to go on looking.
Your job is to not be turned into stone.
What do you think of this aspect of Tony’s work, Elizabeth? Is this something more present in Turn Up the Ocean or has it always been part of his presence on the page?
Absolutely, Derek, I love what you say, Tony was a merry prankster! Especially in his younger days. He has an astute power to see into the depths of human nature and to show us exactly how comical we are, often in an ironic, poignant, and meaningful way. And the flip side of that—he lets us know how foolish we can be, often bestowing his speakers with a humorous, sardonic voice. In “Nature is Strong” from Turn Up the Ocean he juxtaposes stark, raw American imagery with the intuitive wisdom of nature:
Put a bald truck tire in the top of a cypress tree in Florida
and soon an osprey will arrive to build its roost
of sharp dry twigs and torn-up winter grass.
Is this a good use for an old tire? Maybe, but the tone here, for me, is finger wagging. The poem continues:
The humans will whisper that the end is near;
the young mother pushing the stroller through the mall
will feel an inexplicable despair.
The linguist will read a book called How to Be Happy,
turn the last page, and be no happier.
The cities may be underwater,
the drowned still adrift in their cars,
but the monkey will go down to the river,
find a rock shaped like a spatula,
and start to dig in the sand,
I also see that there has always been a quest in Tony’s poems to identify and to make sense of the inner life of his speakers. In this new collection, as well as his two previous ones, Recent Changes in the Vernacular and Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God, I see the fine points in the evolution of Tony’s sensibility moving a little away from the role as merry prankster, still always trying to poke us to wake up, but with a more spiritual or Zen type of awareness. Maybe people are not familiar with the fact that Tony was a Zen practitioner and enthusiast. “Entangle,” for example, the opening poem in Priest, is a poem that shows us the speaker’s inner life through contemplation and metaphor. The entanglement of blooming vines, the separate but inseparable strands ambiguously supporting and strangling each other in this poem, which is about deciding to let go of the nonstop struggle of trying to control the tangle of things that is life, the different veins of a self, and to take what comes as it arrives, committing to a sort of Be here now philosophy, to use Ram Dass’s impeccable and concise phrase.
My ferocious love, and how it repeatedly is trapped
inside my fear of being sentimental;
my need to control even the kindness of the world,
rejecting gifts for which I am not prepared;
my apparently inextinguishable notion
that I am moving toward a destination
—I could probably untangle it
yet I prefer to walk down Reba Street instead
in the sunlight and the wind, with no mastery
of my feelings or my thoughts,
purple and ivory and green, not understanding what I am
and yet in certain moments remembering, and bursting into tears,
somewhat confused as the vines run through me
and flower unexpectedly.
Alternatively, a Buddhist prayer “May all beings be happy and free” is used somewhat ironically and playfully employed as the title of another poem, “Happy and Free,” also from Priest, again re-enforcing Tony’s role as both merry prankster and spiritual guide:
I should not have gotten the tattoo that says
May All Beings Be Happy and Free on my left arm,
running from the inside of my elbow to the wrist
in 20 pt. Verdana sans-serif type.
My serotonin level that day was so elevated
that it deceived me
into an optimistic feeling that I was finally
ready to be pure. I have been happy in that way before
and you would think I would have learned by now
that I inevitably return to earth
like a leaky, gradually deflating helium balloon.
And toward the end of the poem:
May All Beings Be Happy and Free—what a fitting punishment
for the hubris of my passing and unstable self-esteem!
And yet, it is my life, mine to squander as I will.
—That is a kind of freedom, I suppose.
As a student of Zen myself, this poem resounds strongly for me with the cautionary line vocalized at the end of the Night Chant: Do not squander your life.
I knew Tony very well. He lived in Santa Fe, and when I met him in 2012 he invited me to join him in a poetry group with another friend. We met several times a month when we were all in town and up until his death in 2018 he was the dearest of poetry companions. During the last three years of his life, while he was in treatment for pancreatic cancer, his focus on writing and finishing his poems and essays was immense. He completed those last two books mentioned above and left enough work to be collected for Turn Up the Ocean. He finished two essay collections, The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice from Norton and The Underground Poetry Metro Transportation System for Souls from University of Michigan Press, both published posthumously. He sent me a picture from this time; it is of him in his room, a joint in his mouth for pain relief, stacks of drafts in hand with a pile of books spread around.
Many of the poems from Turn Up the Ocean were written at the end of Tony’s life, those last three years, and I treasure a new type of wisdom that I discover in them. For instance, “Peaceful Transition” is a strong comment on how we have wrecked our planet. It is a prayer to the greater natural world, a blessing in a sense for it to please take back what has been wrongfully destroyed. Moreover, in terms of what I said originally, it is a comment on how humans have wrecked the planet. And yet, there is a calmness, a resignation to live now as things are. The metaphor of the vine reappears here. This poem exemplifies everything a great Hoagland poem can do, including the ironic humor and the thoughtful intelligence. Additionally, in the tradition of Zen masters composing their own death poems as they are dying, this is perhaps Tony’s death poem. The New Yorker published it a few weeks after Tony died. Here is the poem in its entirety:
The wind comes down from the northwest, cold in September,
and flips over the neighbor’s trash receptacles.
The Halifax newspaper says that mansions are falling into the sea.
Storms are rising in the dark Pacific.
Pollution has infiltrated the food chain down to the jellyfish level.
The book I am reading is called “The End of the Ascent of Man.”
It says the time of human dominion is done,
but I am hoping it will be a peaceful transition.
It is one thing to think of buffalo on Divisadero Street,
of the Golden Gate Bridge overgrown in a tangle of vine.
It is another to open the door of your own house to the waves.
I am hoping the humans will be calm in their diminishing.
That the forests grow back with patience, not rage;
I am hoping the flocks of geese increase
their number only gradually.
Let it be like an amnesia that we don’t even notice;
the hills forgetting the name for our kind. Then the sky.
Let the fish rearrange their green governments
as the rain spatters slant on their roof.
It is important that we expire.
It is a kind of work we have begun in order to complete.
Today out of the north the cold wind comes down,
and I go out to see
the neighbor’s trash bins have toppled in the drive.
I see the unpicked grapes have turned
to small sweet raisins on their vine.
I see the wren has found a way to make its little nest
inside the cactus thorns.
Tony was always exactly himself, and at the same time, there are many of these selves as we have already identified: the merry prankster, the wise dude, the finger wagger, the soul searcher, the truth teller, the understander of misunderstandings, the reporter of ironies, the voice that is turning up the volume in our heads as it is simultaneously calling out our species. Tony said, “That’s what a voice poet wants to do: hook us and then escort us into the interior of the poem which is also the interior of the poet which is also the interior of the world.” How do these voices/selves manifest for you in Tony’s work? How does his wisdom reveal itself? Derek, do you find something new and different in these later Hoagland poems as well? I know Tony was really saddened by what he understood to be the effects of climate change. He once said, “The deep self is always an endangered species, and poetry is the wildlife preserve where it is protected from the noisy violence of the outer world.”
Oh, I love hearing this: “Tony was always exactly himself.” And I’m smiling. I looked over my notes on that final poem in Turn Up the Ocean, “Peaceful Transition,” and I see that I’ve written “his end AND humanity’s” and “To Autumn” and “prayerful” and “deeply ecological poet.” Yes, like you, I feel a more sincere Zen-informed resignation in these final poems. It’s not that he’s doing nothing about the wreckage of our planet, nor is he advocating others to just stand by and watch. But I do feel an acceptance of the upcoming planetwide changes that we’ll be seeing that, alas, we are already experiencing.
As for Tony’s voice, I feel like the Zen has been there a long while but is perhaps more sincere and overt in Turn Up the Ocean. I’m chuckling now at these lines from this second book, Donkey Gospel:
Fred Had Watched a Lot of Kung Fu Episodes
so when the policeman asked
to see his driver’s license, he said,
Does the wind need permission
from the hedgehog to blow?
I appreciate his sentiment about the deep self. I think this is partly what another sage, Thoreau, meant when he famously wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” He meant the wildness within as much as without. And yes, I am drawn to Tony as a wisdom poet but also his wildness feels especially brave and fun to me. His voice is Whitmanian in a sense of the cosmic self but all his own in the sardonic way he, to paraphrase one of his lines, salts his grief with his mirth. I marvel at and aspire to his unflinching self-scrutiny as a way of speaking to the “blithering whirlwind of wonder” that is life. In this soul-stripped honesty he is more like Dickinson, another fearless American poet.
Now I’m thinking about the 2010 AWP Conference in Denver, when I stood along the back wall of a jam-packed, stuffy conference room between poets Amy Fleury and Gary Short and listened to Tony argue with Donald Revell about the future of poetry. Fortunately, the other members of the panel, which was called “Poetry After the ’00s: What Comes Next?,” hadn’t been able to make it, leaving Hoagland and Revell to a magnificent, swift-witted duel. I know I’m not alone in thinking that this was one of the most exciting events in AWP history. As Revell argued for a post-human poetics by “shedding language” to reach “another shore” beyond our humanity, Hoagland spoke in favor of poems that would resuscitate and nourish that deep self. I was still becoming as a poet (actually I don’t think that will ever end) and was fascinated with both lines of thought. I turned to Amy and whispered, “I think I’m on the fence.” She looked up at me and said, straight-faced and with great certainty, “Well, I’m not.” Since that time, I’ve toppled off the fence and into the cow-patty-filled pasture with Amy where I can hear Hoagland saying, “The new poetry is in love with its own cleverness,” and “Poetry isn’t born. It comes from the constant factor of our suffering. We constantly try to figure out why life hurts so much.”
Even as he wrangled with suffering and attachment, even as he quested for answers, he embraced the questions in epiphanic ways that make me laugh and weep and want to go deeper, ever deeper, and get better. I am so grateful to have Tony Hoagland’s poems in my life. Thank you, Elizabeth, for inviting me to do this review with you. I’d like to close with his words, a passage from Turn Up the Ocean:
My father said he hated literary stuff
because it never says directly what it means.
But what about and how to say
these thousand mysteries that we live among?
Thank you, Derek, it has been a delight to have this conversation with you, and I very much appreciate your lively and thoughtful insights regarding Tony’s work! His somewhat brief presence on this planet as a poet and a poetry shaman was abundant, his generosity far reaching. As you fittingly mention, through his work, Tony was continuously trying “to figure out why life hurts so much.” Not only for himself, but for the rest of us, too. I think that this process was necessary for him. It must have also been an amusement for him to imagine that he was charming his audience with his own pathos and catastrophe, that this might be, overall, helpful for his species!
As you say, Tony was a brave poet. He took running leaps off ragged cliffs, plunging deep into the American psyche where he rummaged around, surfacing with poems that I consider some of America’s most intriguing. He was an instigator as well, and this was rooted in an authentic curiosity of wanting to uncover the truth. I’ll close with a few of Tony’s spirited words about poetry from an interview he did with Miriam Sagan in 2003, for her blog Miriam’s Well:
To me, a good poem threatens the reader a little, crosses over some line of the social contract, or the poetic contract, which sets off alarms. A really good poem is the poem which breaks through the television screen into the world and reminds the reader that reading or listening is not a safe living-room-lazy-boy-museum-tea-party experience, but that poetry is about open heart surgery, being woken up, or taken somewhere unexpected and dangerous.
With Elizabeth Bradfield and CMarie Fuhrman, Derek Sheffield is the co-editor and co-writer of Cascadia Field Guide: Art, Ecology, Poetry. His other collections include Not for Luck, selected by Mark Doty for the Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Prize, Through the Second Skin, finalist for the Washington State Book Award, and Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy. He teaches in Western Colorado University’s low-residency MFA program, edits poetry for Terrain.org, and can often be found in the forests and rivers along the eastern slopes of the Cascade Range near Leavenworth, Washington. Catch up with him at www.dereksheffield.com.
Header photo by Dimitris Vetsikas, courtesy Pixabay.