As a kid in grade school, Angie Hogan began writing poetry for the same reason her peers wrote in a diary or passed notes in class: She wanted privacy.
“I felt the need to express myself, but I didn’t want to express myself straightforwardly,” she says. “I was definitely writing things that were extreme metaphors. Not to go so far as to say coded and secret—but kind of.”
Now a multi-award-winning poet with an MFA from UVA’s creative writing program, Hogan pauses as she thinks back.
“They were bad,” she says with a laugh. “They were really bad mixed metaphors. Lots of stuff about the natural world, but also ships and rocks and things, and always protective in some way. You know, ‘I’m strong as a rock,’ or ‘The shipwreck can’t destroy me.’”
Perhaps that’s why, years later, she points to confidence and calculated risk-taking as some of her biggest lessons learned.
“Having Rita Dove as a mentor [at UVA] helped a lot with that, actually,” Hogan says. “One time she defended my work to a critical male, to a somewhat haphazard response to one of my poems that I put in the workshop, and that really taught me how to stand up for my own work.”
By the time she graduated, Hogan knew how an audience would respond to her work. “I could make my own decisions about whether I was going to revise the poem based on that or whether I’d just as soon take the risk and do what I wanted.”
While her first manuscript involved “a lot of autobiographical things” but “plenty of fiction too,” ranging on topics like identity, performance, role playing and multiple selves, she says her recent work is different.
“It’s more historically informed, layered in terms of other people’s thinking over the course of history,” says Hogan. “…The risk here is that I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m writing from what I’m trying to understand, as opposed to just writing what I know.”
Sharing Hogan’s appetite for historical exploration is Jeffery Renard Allen, the celebrated author of two poetry collections, two works of fiction, one collection of short stories and countless essays, who spends his days teaching at the college level, most recently as a professor with UVA’s creative writing program.
The writers, both of whom will read from their newest work in this month’s Charlottesville Reading Series, share more than their interest in reference material.
Like Hogan, who grew up in Tennessee and learned to love words because her father constantly read children’s books out loud to her, Allen began to write because he loved to read as a child.
“When I was 8 or 9 I started trying to write stories that were based on the stories that I read,” he says. “From a young age I saw myself as a writer, something I would like to do as a career someday, even if I didn’t really know what that meant.”
Educated in Chicago public schools, and the first in his family to attend college, Allen says he feels fortunate to have teachers who supported him along the way.
“In the very first writing workshop I took, I wrote a terrible story, but the professor pointed out one word and one sentence, and he said something like, ‘That’s the way a writer uses language,’” says Allen. That single boost of confidence was so tremendous, that he began to take writing seriously.
He went on to receive his Ph.D. in English (creative writing) from the University of Illinois at Chicago, then he taught by invitation at writing programs around the globe and co-founded a writing conference in Ghana. He says he spends a lot of time talking about inspiration, how writers think and exist in the world.
“I don’t feel that a writer has to be a public figure, to be a political voice or a social voice,” he says. “Writing might be the only medium of art that allows this type of empathy, this ability to be in someone else’s shoes. As writers, we show something about our common humanity, despite whatever kinds of cultural, racial or gender differences and sexual differences might separate us or distinguish us.”
He finds himself concerned with questions of family and levels of reality. Though he often uses historical subject matter as source material, “I’m drawn to doing stories that somehow broaden our sense of reality, of possibility,” he says.
“There’s a lot that’s said about African-American boys or people in terms of their feelings of being limited, but truth to tell, as a kid, I always believed that I could do anything. I never saw race as a barrier, even though I lived in a segregated city like Chicago. I really feel that reading encouraged me to believe that I could go any place and that I could think about anything and that I could do anything. I think I still feel that way.”