The Sunken Garden Poetry Festival
June 8 through August 3, Hill-Stead Museum, 35 Mountain Road, Farmington, hillstead.org

To open the new season of the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, organizers have turned to Tony Hoagland, an award-winning poet acclaimed as one of the sharpest, funniest writers in America today because of books like What Narcissism Means To Me. Hoagland was the second winner of the Mark Twain Poetry Award for humor — the first recipient being one of the festival's favorite poets, Billy Collins — and Hoagland is proud to place himself in a line of funny poets including W.H. Auden and Frank O'Hara. “I think life is tragic,” Hoagland said, during a recent interview with the Advocate, “but humor and irony are our ways of handling it.”

“I feel very lucky to be a poet of humor because I can disarm the audience,” Hoagland said.

“Once people are disarmed and once people are un-intimidated about their relationship with art — whether this art is going to be boring, punishing and over their heads — then they relax and they start to listen. They start to expect to be entertained. While they're being entertained, they can also be challenged and provoked and frightened and troubled. … When we laugh, your body actually shakes and your diaphragm shakes. We like it for physical reasons and the way that works to the advantage of a humorous poet is that the body of the listener actually relaxes.”

The opening lines of the title poem from What Narcissism Means to Me demonstrates Hoagland's sensibility.

“There's Socialism and Communism and Capitalism,/said Neal,/and there's Feminism and Hedonism,/and there's Catholicism and Bipedalism and Consumerism,/but I think Narcissism is the system/that means the most to me;”

Hoagland, who by his own estimation averages about one reading each month, feels that public events are a great opportunity for poetry. “In our society which is so deluged with information and so ramped up in terms of speed, hearing a poem read is a kind of exquisite slowness. I think that's why people who like to read poetry like it, because you're very much inside the moment. As a poet it's a great opportunity for the poem to make itself new.”

Hoagland has long been aware of the festival from other poets and from the NPR broadcasts. “I know that there's a community of art lovers who include poetry in their art diets,” he said, “and that's not always common.” (The festival, for which I've been a long-time volunteer, runs through Aug. 3, and this year, in addition to Hoagland and many others, it also features the award-winning poet Mark Doty, who closes the festival.) 

At the same time, Hoagland is aware of some pressure. “When I read, I feel like I'mrepresenting poetry because some people are at their first poetry reading and some [people's opinion of poetry will] be shaped by whether or not they have a good artistic experience,” he said. “You want them to have a rewarding experience … otherwise next week they'll stay home and watch ‘Law and Order' like they really wanted to.”