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 20th Anniversary Edition last year, 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.
Previous American Poets
THW1: March 1, 2016
The High Window is pleased to introduce Richard Hoffman. Here he is in conversation with Anthony Costello:
This conversation took place at 7.pm, West Yorkshire (GMT) and midday in New England. Both poet and editor ‘not morning people’, this arrangement was a compromise with no siesta in sight.
Thank you for agreeing to feature as American Poet for the Summer issue of The High Window. The poems you have sent us, and the poems I have read in two previous collections – Gold Star Road and Emblem – show a wide variety of subject matter. Is variety the spice of life for you (as a poet)? AC
More the life itself. Or maybe that’s glib. But say more about that variety. I feel, when I’m writing, that the little larval poem I’m poking with my pen already has a kind of energy that’s trying to take shape. You know — does it want to be a this or a that? And I just go with it. Later on, making books of poems, I worry, after all, one reader’s appreciation of variety and range is another’s frustration: ‘jeez, this guy’s all over the place!’ So tell me a little more about what you find there. RH
No, not a glib answer, but a glib question, perhaps, to get us started! Yes, ideally, the poem itself must tell the poet what it wants to be. But if the poet is politically minded, which many of your poems are (there is an elegy in the four you sent us for Hashem Shabaani), perhaps the philosophy – maybe with some poets the notion of poetry as a propoganda tool – determines the subject matter and restricts variety? You write some political and social and humanitarian poems in Gold Star Road (Emblem from Dresden, for example, where you highlight the extent and reality of child trafficking), but in Emblem, the most recent of your books I have read, there is a more unified ambition, emblems and leitmotifs that focus the readers’ attention on the concentrated past, a specific era, or ersrwhile belief sytem that you want to revisit to perhaps show us there was something notable and good that is now lost. AC
I just read your question again, and it referred to subject matter. I suppose I should say I am moved to write by both internal and external events, that sometimes I am moved to write by personal, autobiographical events, other times by the need to witness or weigh in on the way history is pouring through the sluice of our moment.
The subject matter sometimes isn’t clear to me when I begin. Especially in poems of a personal nature, especially in poems of mourning or sorrow. In those poems, the poem, bodying forth slowly over time — and many drafts — teaches me what I am really struggling to know. The poem helps me sneak up on myself, helps me eavesdrop on the various personae that make up my identity. The comic Steven Wright once quipped that he sat down and read the dictionary — he thought it was a really long poem. That’s a laugh, yes, but it also seems to me true! In a poem I am trying to ‘come to terms’ with something, and those terms, words, are the English language, influenced by centuries of history, and inflected by my experience as a poet and lover of poetry in this time and place.
And it is a place and time that has become frightening, threatening to people I love. So the poems that rail against injustice come from a real outrage, a real fear of abusive power. I marry this to the personal in more specific ways in the two prose memoirs, Half the House, and Love & Fury. RH
I love the notion of the poem sneaking up on yourself, and for the generous answer as to subject matter and inspiration, and the honesty about this time and place of worry and fear. This may seem glib, also, but although I detect a wide range of subject matter in your work, I definitely feel that the two books I have read speak to each other (glib again), are connected in an essential way. I felt rereading the books again today that the poems at the end of Gold Star Road was continued with the inscription at the beginning of Emblem: ‘Words indicate, things are indicated, but things can also indicate’ – Andrea Alciati.
But I am conscious I haven’t read your most recent book (Noon Until Night). I am five years behind on your work! Perhaps you could offer a precis of your work to date for our readers? We are in a different time and place with regards to your work and its development, but we exist in the same world, and I share the fear and sadness at the state of world politics and the future (but sometimes I hide from this reality in Literature).
In a casual email exchange a few weeks ago to set up this conversation you reminded me of Adrienne Rich. She has a fascinating poem called ‘What Kind of Times are These’. I am not sure if it was written in the 50s or 60s (both politically charged decades in the United States), but it is prescient and contemporary, warning of the dangers in her own country, telling us it is necessary to talk about trees. It is a near (or pre) apocalyptic poem (the most confident poets, including yourself, have the courage to prophesise), which magically and humanely is humerous in part (don’t be fooled this isn’t a Russian Poem). Your work can be both political personal, sometimes in the same line. As can Philip Fried’s or Muriel Rukseyer’s poetry, two poets that use the rich and mixed registers of the English language for personal and political reasons. AC
Cold Star Road was written in the run-up to the Iraq War and then as that war continued. In composing the book, I was aware that I was raising questions about fathers and sons and war and violence and grief and a militarized masculinity. In the US, there is a Gold Star Road or Gold Star Street, in nearly every town across the country — and the change of street name after WWII was to acknowledge the street which had suffered the greatest number of combat deaths. It seems macabre, in a way, and a rationale for what America became after that war.
Emblem is studiedly looking to the past for help, from the grandma in the first poem, through Andrea Alciati’s emblem book from the Renaissance. I felt that in some ways we are in a kind of explosion of new knowledge and technologies, like the Renaissance, and that like the Renaissance, we need to look backward (as if history had a direction, ha!) to see what understandings we have been bequeathed that might be a steadying hand on the tiller as we head into uncharted waters. Alciati and others had the newly rediscovered Greek Anthology to help them make sense of human conduct, and Alciati, a jurist, an urbane skeptic, wrote in imitation of the portrait of human nature he found there. So I wanted to try something like that because I felt the need for it. It’s also a kind of dissent: American culture has been completely overtaken by commerce so that our understandings of human nature have become sentimental on the one hand and cynical on the other, and only art or even discourse (including poetry) that can be monetized for profit is valued.
My new collection, Noon until Night, continues the personal/political dialogue, but because I’m getting older, I am looking at things from a more philosophical perspective, considering mortality and what it means to me that time’s winged chariot has become all too audible.
A friend once described my poems as having been written by an atheist with a religious imagination. I laughed and said, ‘You’re just describing a cradle Catholic’. RH
Thank you for that astute and erudite precis and appraisal. Yes, there is a philosophical aspect to your work (one of the advantages of getting older!) and vibrant conversation keeps winged chariots at bay. I am sure someone said all Catholics are writers, or frustrated writers!
I am with you on the importance of going back (if history had a direction) for the lost way of truth and certainty, emblematic or otherwise (more truth, less dread). This is unrelated, but I have been banging on about the wisdom of Ernst Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful for years but no-one listens!
We are near to ending our 2 hour continuous talk that, with diminishing battery life on my iPad and a late start, fell shorter. I wonder, then, if you could flesh out the remaining minutes? If you could say a little about your dual role in life as poet and teacher? Or what poetry has meant and means to you? Or leave us with a recent poem of yours… for pleasure, for seriousness’s sake, or for kicks? AC
Of course, you know Brecht’s “Bad Time for Poetry”, which ends:
Inside me contend
Delight at the apple tree in blossom
And horror at the house-painter’s speeches.
But only the second
Drives me to my desk.
A lot of what we’ve been talking about is really the struggle to bridge the spiritual or aesthetic with the need to witness, in both cases, I take on the responsibility to try to say, first for myself but also for others, what seems to need to be said. I lately wrote a vignette about Brecht and Rilke meeting in a dream I had. I’ll attach it, just for kicks. Print it if you like or just enjoy it as a corollary to this conversation.
In the dream, Brecht and Rilke are having lunch and I’m their waiter. I recognize them Rilke’s doe eyes and moustache, Brecht’s balding bowl-cut and glasses. I try not to show my excitement.
I only understand, from hearing it in childhood, a little bit of Deutsch. Brecht keeps trying to turn the conversation to something about an apple tree in blossom but Rilke, panicked and very near tears, is begging Brecht to fill him in on all that happened.
Rilke keeps shaking his head, saying ‘How is this possible? How could this happen?’
The old woman in the kitchen putting up the steaming plates of wurst and schnitzel is my German grandmother. I tell her what little I understood.
She wonders, aloud, what in Gott’s name these poets are doing in Pennsylvania.
Wiping her hands on a towel she goes to the doorway and listens. Soon she rocks back into the kitchen in her heavy shoes, shaking her head. ‘Goethe!’ she says, ‘Ach! Get out there! Offer them something. Anything. On the house. Don’t let them get started on Goethe or we’ll never be rid of them!’
As I approach the table, I see that Rilke is weeping. Brecht offers him a handkerchief from his canvas coat. ‘There, there, little bird,’ he says, ‘You needn’t worry. This is the future. We’re in America now.’
Before I get to the other two questions, you just made me think about why many poets dodge the political, especially questions of economic justice, which is how moral crises become political in our lives now, in late capitalism’s nightmarish organization of human energies, a kind of global plantation. It was Pound! Pound! After him, what poet in his right mind would say, ‘I’m a poet, and I want to discuss economic theory. Do you have a minute?’ People will slam the door on you faster than on a Jehovah’s Witness or a vacuum cleaner salesman! But of course it is the life of the poet, or maybe the artist in general, that still remembers what words like ‘value’ and ‘enough’ mean. Good luck.
About teaching and writing: the poet Theodore Roethke said that teaching is the last of the professions to permit love. I agree with that. I love guiding and encouraging young people. Roethke also wrote, ‘A teacher, I exist to save the young time.’ My pedagogy is encouragement. Period. I am no gatekeeper. Oh, and the offering of relevant examples. Oh, and the communication of my love for an art that in many ways saved my life. A lot of programs operate on the workshop model. Without turning students into mere consumers, I am aware that they are investing a good deal of money in this phase of their education as writers. Roethke said, ‘A teacher, I exist to save the young time.’ I have content to bring to our conversation. I am not merely the chairman of a meeting called a workshop. I hate the word facilitator. We wouldn’t just hand medical students a scalpel and a cadaver and let them decide together what this thingamajig is and what that whoozeewhatsis is for; writers are cultural doctors. There is a body of knowledge to be imparted.
My boyhood had little or no poetry. I was raised in a working-class household with two of my three brothers dying of muscular dystrophy. I was beaten at home and raped by a coach. I started writing poems in high school, but I had to hide them. It was dangerous in that place and time. There was an inordinate fear of any such thing, a fear related to an intense and intensely ignorant homophobia. I was quarterback of the football team, for crying out loud; I couldn’t be writing poems! But I did write them and hid them between the mattress and box spring, next to my secret copy of the Bantam paperback edition of The Poems of John Keats. Keats legitimized joy and sorrow and writing about feeling. I think that hidden book was the only book in the house.
When I got to college, the first in my family to go, my first class was in Modern Poetry. It was electrifying as rock and roll. I never looked back. I discovered poets who used words as a medium, like paint or clay. Every time I read a poem I liked, that excited me, I said, ‘I want to do that!’
This has been a real pleasure! Thank you! RH
Wow! I have just been enthralled and impressed with your conversation, and to finish with moving, truthful and inspirational words of wisdom. That image of the Keats book between the mattress and the box spring. Looking at your bio, knowing your poems, having this conversation, knowing something of your struggle, it feels your life, to invoke Shelley, is a triumph. And poetry integral to the life. Thanks, Richard. AC
And here are four poems by Richard Hoffman
WHAT REDON KNEW
Odilon Redon, 1840-1916
To chain an angel you only need
a frightened animal, to ride a chariot
anemones and poppies;
and if you allow the apparition
(a simple trick of the aurora) it is possible
the pair of figures in the small boat in the foreground
leaning toward each other are talking of the very time
that you are living through right now,
though they are far out on the water.
Or perhaps the chalice was never meant for you,
and all along you were only a knot of fear and yearning,
a thorny wish the world would cooperate, and after
you had closed your eyes awhile, look different
enough, for a moment, to compose a vision all your own,
something only nearly true, not true, a comfort, a truce,
a prayer to a god who climbed to invisibility, ascending
like the balloon the child was warned not to let go of,
and not the frightening teeth in the dark,
the chimera, the apparition in the window.
After all, things germinate because a spirit is in them,
whether or not we choose to think we can name it, and because
they are preparing to die. Orpheus was only able
to sing the creatures into harmony, not change their natures.
The well will always have only your undulant face in it,
perplexed and blank as any creature of the sea, or as an old self
you no longer know what to make of, and which certainly
does not know what to make of what’s become of you.
The Buddha in his youth was wealthy, gifted, and ignorant
as a man asleep among flowers: the family bonsai, groomed
and twisted, he didn’t even know he was in pain. How could he,
kept from anybody else’s suffering? Closed eyes, closed eyes,
closed eyes everywhere he looked, but his were opened.
All those years of his blindness a kind of chrysalis,
perfecting his foolishness, protecting his tenderness,
so that, shocked as an infant, pained as a child,
but older, he was able to ask the question
the rest of us, for several thousand years, could not recall.
Eventually we will climb in the red boat with blue sails
because we find it beautiful, no matter if that means righteousness
or calm, adventure or repose, a promise or fulfillment of a promise.
No one has ever yet been able to resist, and you may choose
to believe therefore that no one has ever wanted to.
If you prefer the yellow boat it will come for you
one day when you discover the wheel of fortune, compared
to flames and flowers, seashells and trees, the faces of the living,
and even silence, is a toy that you, an aged angel, have outgrown.
FOR A SLAIN POET
i.m. Hashem Shaabani
Your killers drew the zipper across the black bag like
the sign friends made across their mouths
when you opened yours in the wrong company
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxand carried you out of there.
Kings, we all know, build palaces,
hoard riches, gather armies of impoverished
and fierce young men, and make war.
But a king who will kill a poet out of fear?
There remains no evil on earth he will not do.
You, however, who have reminded us
of the truth of the lovers we are, you are
already in paradise
where, solely for your pleasure,
the one god has bestowed upon you twenty-seven
and your favorite pen,
along with a whole new alphabet
made from the shadows of birds in flight,
the flash of ripples on the lake in sunlight,
letters in the shapes of the many intersecting shadows of the grass,
and the sheen of blown sand, sheared from the crest
of a shifting dune by the Khamaseen,
marks to represent the sound of weeping,
signs for the sound of laughter,
but nothing too clear, none of them
just right, nowhere the once-and-for-all expression
that would obliterate desire. If I thought
what you wanted was rest, if any of your poems
could be so construed, I would wish you rest.
NOTE: The poet Hashem Shaabani was executed on January 27th, 2014, by the Islamic Republic of Iran for Moharebeh, i.e. ‘waging war on God’ and for opposing the republic by promoting Arabic culture.
A SCAR. A FEAR. A WAR. AN EAR.
Back when the scar was becoming,
back when the cut, back when
no one can remember, then
(we’ve been assured by countless
generations) a perfection was.
You may believe it, may even
know a story of the hand and blade,
and whose, and music with it,
but the scar cannot afford such.
The scar prefers to travel light,
sometimes disguised as pleasure,
or even a special kind of gesture.
Its favorite ride is the exquisitely
designed nerve along the tongue,
which carries it, pollen, across
old understandings, pages, images
and rhymes, from time to time
gathering itself in silence,
refreshing itself with opened flesh.
A fear sat in the moonlight,
sad and confused: “I am a fear
of what?” he asked himself.
“Don’t I have to be a fear of
something?” He worried he had
never grown up, that he was
only pretending to be an adult
fear. All the other fears seemed
defined, themselves, real.
In the moonlight he remembered
nothing of his origin. “Maybe
if I knew where I came from….”
Men? Women? Fire? Flood?
The dark? The cold? Spiders? Blood?
Who were my mother and father?
He feared the moonlit answer.
A war was walking down a road
between two neighborhoods. He
stopped from time to time to give
candy to children on either side.
The children were hungry and
the candy made them hungrier.
That’s the kind of candy it was.
The war liked their little bellies
and their high voices and thin
limbs, and he liked to walk back,
when he had no candy and listen
to their tiny begging, please Mr.,
and how by morning the lovely
green jewels of the flies flashed
swarming on their still wet eyes.
An ear lost the knack of knowing
a threat from a song. A mosquito
(although there was no mosquito)
was busy in it day and night. Loud
noises: explosions, sirens, shouts,
made the little hairs in the ear curl
and shrivel as if burnt. On the train
between the heart and brain the ear
rode, rocking from side to side in
the deafening tunnel, wondering
if ear is to hear as earth is to hearth
holds up or is false and useless.
There was a voice, from somewhere,
singing about futility, or maybe
threatening to ring every bell at once.
Rain, rain, go on
and rain. I’ve been given
this time by my mother.
I’ve known about water
forever, and fear
is no stranger either.
Rain. Go on. Rain.
The fires burn
no matter what I do,
the fires of my fathers,
and will sear me
one day, maybe soon,
and also you.
Burn, go on and burn.
We are not much —
light, ash, particulate
of the erotic and such
as interrupt it. To call us
seeds would serve,
or waterbeads, or sparks.
Go on. On and on.