Tony Hoagland

“There is nothing escapist or diversionary about Tony Hoagland’s poetry,” says Stephen Young of the Poetry Foundation. Hoagland’s poems explore illness, death, beauty, sexuality, American society, and adolescence by walking straight into the locker room, supermarket, hospital or lesbian bar without looking shamefully at their feet. “There are three of us in the restaurant/ where I have dinner with a friend/ —me, him, and one of those diseases/ known by its initials.” The poem “Appetite,” like many of his poems, speaks to death’s physical appearance and its close proximity to life.

Marie Howe says Hoagland’s What Narcissism Means To Me (Graywolf Press, 2003) includes “hilarious, searing poems that break your heart so fast you hardly notice you’re standing knee deep in a pool of implications.” Each of his poems reveals not only the faults and humility of the poet, but the most popular indiscretions of the American public. “[A]nd if I can say so without sounding patriotic about myself,/there’s something democratic/about being the occasional asshole—/you make a mistake, you apologize/ and everyone else breathes easier.” From kissing a friend’s wife to bathing his mother, Hoagland’s voice is unfaltering and unashamed.

The author of three other volumes of poetry, Sweet Ruin (winner of the Brittingham Prize), Donkey Gospel (winner of the James Laughlin Award), and, most recently, a chapbook entitled Hard Rain, as well the critically acclaimed book of essays Real Sofistikashun, Hoagland is recipient of the 2005 Mark Twain Award from the Poetry Foundation for his use of humor in poetry, the O.B. Hardison Jr. Prize, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Academy of Arts and Letters.

Hoagland received a BA from University of Iowa, an MFA from University of Arizona and a fellowship to the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. He has been a frequent faculty member of the Warren Wilson MFA Program, and currently teaches at the University of Houston.

Poetry Center Reading: 

Spring 2008

Physiology of Kisses

The kiss begins                           in the center of the belly
and travels upwards                 through the diaphragm and throat
along fine filaments                      which no forensic scientist
has ever been able to find.

From the hard flower                  of the kisser’s mouth,
the kisses leave the body                in single file,
into the reciprocal mouth             of the kiss-recipient,
which for me is Kath.

What can I say? My kisses make her happy and I need that.
And sometimes, bending over her,
I have the unmistakable impression
that I am watering a plant.

gripping myself softly                by the handle,
tilting my spout                               forward
pouring what I need to give
into the changing shape of her thirst.

I keep leaning forward                   to pour out
what continues to rise up
from the fountain                         of the kisses
which I, also,                           am drinking from.

From SWEET RUIN (University of Wisconsin Press, 1993)

Mistaken Identity

I thought I saw my mother
in the lesbian bar,
with a salt gray crew cut, a nose stud
and a tattoo of a parrot on her arm.
She was sitting at a corner table,
leaning forward to ignite, on someone’s match,
one of those low-tar things she used to smoke,

and she looked happy to be alive again
after her long marriage
to other people’s needs,
her twenty-year stint as Sisyphus,
struggling to push
a blue Ford station wagon full of screaming kids
up a mountainside of groceries.

My friend Debra had brought me there
to educate me on the issue
of my own unnecessariness,
and I stood against the wall, trying to look
simultaneously nonviolent

and nonchalant, watching couples
slowdance in the female dark,
but feeling speechless, really,
as the first horse to meet the first
horseless carriage on a cobbled street.

That’s when I noticed Mom,
whispering into the delicate
seashell ear of a brunette,
running a fingertip along
the shoreline of a tank top,

as if death had taught her finally
not to question what she wanted
and not to hesitate
in reaching out and taking it.

I want to figure out everything
right now, before I die,
but I admit that in the dark
(where a whole life can be mistaken) cavern of that bar
it took me one, maybe two big minutes

to find my footing
and to aim my antiquated glance
over the shoulder of that woman
pretending not to be my mother,
as if I were looking for someone else.

From WHAT NARCISSISM MEANS TO ME (Graywolf Press, 2003)


Peter says if you’re going to talk about suffering
you have to mention pleasure too.
Like the way, on the day of the parade, on Forbes Avenue,
one hundred parking tickets flutter
under the windshield wipers of one hundred parked cars.
The accordion band will be along soon,
and the famous Flying Pittsburgettes,
and it’s summer and the sun is shining on the inevitable flags—
Something weird to admire this week on TV:
the handsome face of the white supremacist on trial.
How he looks right back at the lawyers, day after day
—never objecting, never making an apology.
I look at his calm, untroubled face
and think, That motherfucker is going to die white and right,
disappointing everyone like me
who thinks that punishment should be a kind of education.
My attitude is like what God says in the Bible:
Love your brother, or be destroyed.
Then Moses or somebody says back to God,
If I love you,
will you destroy my enemies?
and God says—this is in translation—, No Problemo.
Here, everyone is talking about the price of freedom,
and about how we as a people are united in our down payment.
about how we will fight to the very bottom of our bank account.
And the sky is so blue it looks like it may last forever
and the skinny tuba player goes oompahpah
and everybody cheers.
In the big store window of the travel agency downtown,
a ten-foot sign says, WE WILL NEVER FORGET.
The letters have been cut with scissors out of blue construction paper
and pasted carefully to the sign by someone’s hand.
What I want to know is, who will issue the ticket
for improper use of the collective pronoun?
What I want to know is, who will find and punish the maker
of these impossible promises?

From WHAT NARCISSISM MEANS TO ME (Graywolf Press, 2003)