WTP Writer: Richard Hoffman

WTP Writer: Richard Hoffman

I see my younger self in many of today’s young poets.”

Interview by August Smith, WTP Feature Writer

August Smith

Richard Hoffman has published four volumes of poetry: Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the Sheila Motton Award from The New England Poetry Club; Emblem; and his new collection Noon until Night. His other books include the celebrated Half the House: a Memoir, published in a twentieth anniversary edition in 2015, the 2014 memoir Love & Fury, and the story collection Interference and Other Stories. His work, both prose and verse, appears in such journals as Agni, Barrow Street, Consequence, Harvard Review, Hudson Review, The Literary Review, The Manhattan Review, Poetry, Witness and elsewhere. A former Chair of PEN New England, he is Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College in Boston.

Smith: I’d like to start this interview off with a random Boston connection: you and I read together at a poetry reading. It was a couple of years ago, as part of the Breakwater Reading Series hosted in the basement of the Brookline Booksmith. What I remember from that reading series—and that night in particular—was the wide variety of poetic styles and voices present among the MFA student readers. With this in mind, I’d like to ask you about poetry now. With regard to your teaching experience and your long-standing presence in poetry circles, where do you see the younger generation of poets and writers heading? What themes and styles of theirs pique your interest?

Hoffman: I see my younger self in many of today’s young poets—their earnestness and the urgency they bring to the work. There is a kind of panic you feel when you’re younger, panic that there is no place in the world for you, and you feel as if you have to write yourself a home in it, stake out an estate of some sort, clarify your politics and commitments. There’s a kind of insistent engagement I read in many younger poets’ poems: defiance, outrage, political solidarity with this or that community, which is all to the good, and that I see as part of that need to situate oneself in relation to the larger world.

If there is something I might warn against—and here I don’t want to play the old Polonius—it’s the anxiety over cultivation of a distinct voice. I think that can be a trap, another version of “marketing” your persona, your brand. I believe a poet’s voice emerges organically as the result of meeting the needs of many poems over time. I believe writing poems is more about listening than speaking. What is this weird thing taking shape at the tip of my pen? How do I help it become a poem? I think a poet’s voice is what we apprehend after reading the results, in the aggregate, of that process. A self-conscious style is not a voice. I even think it can be a hindrance to developing one. OK, Polonius out.

Richard Hoffman

Smith: Has your teaching experience and exposure to your student’s poetry informed the way you approach your own poetry? If so, how?

Hoffman: Well, in fact, at Emerson, I am strictly a prose writer. I teach nonfiction workshops and literature courses. I have taught poetry workshops at the graduate level in other programs, but not for years, and never at Emerson, so I have missed out on the influence of younger poets except for those I read.

Smith: I know Emerson has an MFA track for creative nonfiction. As someone who straddles the genres of poetry, fiction, and memoir with your own work, how do you define creative nonfiction? What does that term mean to you?

Hoffman:  I recall the title of a conference panel from a few years ago: Creative in Form, Nonfiction in Content. That seemed like a great formulation to me. Facts are inert. How they are deployed to convey what the author believes to be the truth constitutes the art. Most of what I’m drawn to is personal essay and memoir, which are essentially forensic: how did this come about? How did I come about? In the twenty-first century, we acknowledge that these are really complicated questions. What’s interesting to me is that this search for determinants branches into questions of history, politics, justice, culture, and psychology.

Smith: Your poem published in this month’s The Woven Tale Press, “November Suite,” takes heavy inspiration from nature; it contains the moon, the sky, the rain, “ragged birds of grief,” hibiscus flowers, etc. It seems to fall into the rich tradition of Romantic poetry, but the form, which unfolds organically and spontaneously, lends to it a contemporary edge. Are there specific styles, strains, or traditions of poetry that you align your work with? What kind of poetry do you gravitate towards?

Hoffman:  That poem, that sequence, marks a shift in my attention, from being taken up by the responsibilities of citizenship, poems of dissent, poems engaged with our historical moment, to more existential concerns that arise whenever I retreat, leave the city, slow down a bit. The poem took shape pretty mysteriously from the imagery around me, as if it were somehow time to reorient myself in relation to love and death, the two biggies. I’m trying in that sequence to take stock and to acknowledge getting older and perhaps convey some of my wonder at the way life thus far looks to me in hindsight.

Smith: The poem touches on the abstraction of memory (“So now I know memory/ has distance in it”), which is interesting considering your extensive memoir work. For you, what role does memory play in poetry?

Hoffman: I’m not sure I can say. Sometimes I think I am merely the intermediary between memory and language. Only a few of my poems arise from a specific personal memory, but I’m sure that memory informs all of them in some way; that’s probably a truism. Maybe this is just a way of saying what the ancients understood: Zeus is the father of the nine muses, but Mnemosyne, memory, is their mother, the mother of all the arts.

But your question has me thinking. It occurs to me that in another sense, memory is the very stuff the poem is made of—I mean, any repeated sound, or pattern, or recurring image, or rhyme, or any other sonic or thematic echo is really something that you have arranged to happen in your reader’s memory, isn’t it? 

Smith: I’m interested in how you view poetry and memoir. Are they totally distinct? Do they overlap, and how?

Hoffman:  Well, sometimes. Sometimes they overlap. Many of my poems seem to me to arise from the English language itself, from its possibilities and associations and the pleasures of its various registers. No matter what the instigating circumstance or prompt, the poem is made of its language the way a painting is made of paint. Sometimes the starting point is a memory, but the poem still has to be accomplishing something new and interesting in the medium of the English language.

Smith: You also have sojourned into fiction writing, with the publication of Interference and Other Stories in 2009. How much do you consider this to actually be a sojourn?

Hoffman: If by sojourn you mean a digression, yes. I doubt I will write many more stories, and I have definitively made clear to myself via several failures that I’m not a novelist, so I’m not tempted to go in that direction. I’m proud of that little book. I managed to say some things of importance in it, especially in the title story, but I’m just not itching to write stories. I’m itching to write poems and to work on a third memoir to complete what I now see as a trilogy: Half the House, Love & Fury, and the new one, whose working title is The House Itself, a title that comes from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon where, at the very beginning of the play, the messenger runs on stage and says:

The house itself, if it had a voice,
would speak out clearly. I speak
to those who would understand.
If they fail, memories are nothing.

Smith: You’re primarily known for your memoir work, but I’ve also seen you comment in other interviews that “poetry comes first” for you. Do you personally consider yourself a poet more than a memoirist? Does it matter to you?

Hoffman: It matters to me, yes. I’m a poet who writes memoir, not a memoirist who writes poetry. I’m also one of those thick-headed types that believes that poetry can be written in both verse and prose. There is verse that isn’t poetry. And prose that assuredly is. I aim at the latter: I try to manipulate the resources of prose so that it can mean in ways that people usually associate with poetry. I write for the ear, for example.

Smith: Your new book, Noon Until Night, is full of poems that feel grounded in direct, gritty realism, but speak universally through their subject matter and imaginative content. Can you talk a bit about the development of the book? How do you see it communicating with your past books and your memoir work?

Hoffman:  Each book is different, of course, but it’s fair to say that I’ve been chasing certain themes across books and across genres: patriarchal violence in the form of sexual violence, violence against children, and military violence. And trauma and its bloody cascade down the generations, its transmission from parent to child. That’s how I engage the social and political in my work. But of course the poems and stories and memoirs are also rooted in what I earlier called the two biggies: love and death. Or perhaps more accurately desire and grief. So in the poetry collections there are poems grounded in autobiography, poems that are searching for an understanding of our common history, and poems that explore our creaturely predicament, our frailty and animality.

Noon until Night is built on its title poem. All the themes taken up elsewhere in the book are being worked out in that long poem which moves through the twelve hours from noon until midnight. In Gold Star Road, the long sequence Suite: In Lieu of a Legacy takes up the themes of all the book’s other poems and reprises all the formal elements of the book in its fourteen sections. Generally, for me, a book comes together in relation to one or two key poems, usually longer substantial poems or sequences. My editor at Barrow Street Press, Peter Covino, is a great help in that process. The poems, after all, are written in response to a broad variety of things and it isn’t always easy to see how they work together; but when you do, it’s often a powerfully clarifying moment of self-discovery. And often when that happens, I find myself writing more poems that will be part of the book, sometimes replacing others that by then seem like outliers.

Smith: What’s next for you—what are you working on these days?

Hoffman: New poems, certainly. And, as I mentioned, that third memoir. I’ve just finished two essays about family, and I’m working on one now that meditates on Blake’s painting, “Cain Fleeing the Wrath of God” or “Adam and Eve Discover the Body of Abel,” which I was able to sit with in a study room at The Harvard Museums. I was absolutely transfixed by it, sitting open-mouthed in front of it for an hour and a half. To me that little painting tells the whole story of the human species so I am trying at least to clear a trail up the huge mountain of it. I’m a very slow writer, though, so I don’t expect to finish that one for a good while.

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