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'The afterlife of words'

Everett Hoagland admires poets who 'distinguish themselves in the afterlife of their words.'
By Christopher L. Walton
September/October 2004 9.1.04

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Everett Hoagland, retired professor and active poet, native of Philadelphia and resident of New Bedford, Massachusetts, wrote this sequence of poems as a result of two trips to Africa two decades apart. They appear in his 2002 collection, . . . HERE . . . New and Selected Poems. In an interview with UU World's Christopher L. Walton, Hoagland spoke of poetry and Unitarian Universalism.

Q. How did you become a poet?

A. Langston Hughes met student poets at my college, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, which was also his alma mater, and told me there were a couple things he liked about my manuscript. I took his suggestions very seriously, put them into effect, and graduated with one of two creative writing awards. So I said, you know, if this great man, this poet laureate of the Negro race, the most popular black poet who ever lived, could take my poetry seriously, maybe I should take it more seriously.

I like to keep it real, and talk about the dynamics and tensions that have been America. I have a blues ethic, an appreciation of irony, a blues humor. I really feel most poems should be accessible, even colloquial. I think that they should be direct if long, concise otherwise, and concrete, evocative, affirmative, memorable. That's my recipe for good, short lyric poems. It so happens you're publishing the longer poems!

Q. Your poetry often takes a political bent. What do you see as the pressing need either in the African American community or in the larger society today?

A. Genuinely revolutionary change. This country never really had a revolution; it had a turnover from British colonial rule whereby Anglo males, particularly those of the upper class, made out like bandits, but they turned around and continued oppressing women of all kinds, including white women, and all people of color, brutally. It wasn't an American revolution for those people.

My book begins and ends in nature, as do we, and all the squabbles and the skirmishes and the conflicts and the chasms among us are going to be irrelevant if we don't take safeguarding the biosphere seriously. It's important people know that black poets write all kinds of poems, including nature poems.

Q. Tell me about your involvement with Unitarian Universalism.

A. I love classic African American music—spirituals, ragtime, blues, and jazz—and I also love classical organ music. When I came to New Bedford I learned that there was a Flentrop tracker-action organ at the First Unitarian Church, the kind of organ the young Bach played, and I went to hear some music and met some very interesting people, and I became a regular visitor.

I had been a Baha'i for the better part of a decade. In Unitarian Universalism I found the same worldview in terms of the oneness-in-diversity of humanity, the interconnected web of existence, and universally equal human rights, but with no proscription against political activity. So it was all there for me.

I was active in my church from the time I joined in the late 1980s through the end of the '90s. I'd also given many a presentation there the decade and a half I was a regular visitor before joining. I gave a “UU Principles Poetry” reading to a very appreciative capacity audience at the General Assembly in Rochester, New York, in 1998. But, to be honest, I've only been to church a few times in the past several years. I've been very much preoccupied with other things. I do hope to reenter my spiritual community, and I believe I've continued to think, write, teach, and live my life according to our UU Principles.

Q. Who are your models as a poet?

A. I admire people, especially poets, who distinguish themselves in the afterlife of their words, that is, in Source-seeking, righteous social-justice-seeking action. The purposeful, committed careers of Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka have had the most influence on how I try to live as a poet.


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