The Chautauqua Poets & Writers series is bringing another great poet to Ashland. Tony Hoagland will give a reading and talk at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, at Ashland High School's Mountain Avenue Theatre.
Chautauqua events are always lively and informative, and I have high hopes for Hoagland's visit. He is the author of four volumes of poetry and a collection of essays about poetry and is a winner of multiple awards. He is also one of those poets I can easily recommend to my non-poetry-loving friends.
His second book, "Donkey Gospel," is rich with poems both funny and insightful about being a confused man in America. Hoagland's poems have titles that live up to their interesting promise, such as "Fred Had Watched A Lot of Kung-Fu Episodes," about a man who hasn't quite escaped his teenage life and speaks in kung-fu dialogue.
Then there's the poem "Mistaken Identity," which opens with, "I thought I saw my mother in the lesbian bar." It's an unlikely start to a sweet love letter to both the poet's deceased mother and to all mothers.
Hoagland's work can be funny, candid and often quite touching, though with just enough controversy to make for a fun discussion afterward. Poets and writers such as Hoagland, says Amy MacLennan, who serves on Chautauqua's board of directors, are exactly what the Chautauqua Poets & Writers series aims to bring to Ashland.
"We look for the country's best writers, with the broadest appeal. That's Tony Hoagland. His reading will be a memorable event," she said.
A couple of years ago, I read Hoagland's third collection, "What Narcissism Means to Me," and thoroughly enjoyed it. His work is thoughtful with a keen and sometimes cynical look at society, yet also clever and funny. Hoagland strikes a careful balance between biting commentary and humor, and the Chautauqua folks say he is great fun to talk with as well.
"Tony Hoagland is captivating. He's a wonderful modern poet who pulls people in. He's intelligent and funny, and he'll appeal to people who aren't even into poetry," MacLennan said.
Hoagland's latest book, "Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty," is getting loads of positive reviews, again for his sharp observations of the American experience. One of my favorite poems in the collection is titled, "Romantic Moment," about the bafflement that hits most of us on a first date.
In this case, the speaker and his date have just left a nature film and the speaker is wondering what to do next. Hoagland writes, "If I were a bull penguin right now I would lean over/and vomit softly into the mouth of my beloved." Yes, I giggled, too, at first, but in its entirety the poem says a lot about human dating rituals and our eternal confusion regarding the opposite sex.
Hoagland's poems often contain hooks like this, startling sentences or skewed images, designed to reset the reader's perspective, but it's his perception and honesty that make his poetry so enjoyable and thought-provoking.
In addition to his reading, Hoagland will offer a writing workshop for high school and college students. Fans and potential fans can hear him on JPR's Jefferson Exchange radio program at 9 a.m. on Oct. 18.
The Mountain Avenue Theater is at 201 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland. Tickets are available at Bloomsbury Books and Bookwagon in Ashland, or online at www.ChautauquaWriters.org. General admission is $15 and reserved seats are $20. Student tickets (sold at Ashland High School) are $12.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.