Instructive Delight: an interview with Richard Hoffman – Midnight Oil magazine
Midnight Oil: You write in three genres; how do you know which genre is best suited to an idea?
Richard Hoffman: Poems seem to come to me as phrases and rhythms to be developed, essays as ideas, and fiction as characters. For me, writing is listening. When I’m writing a poem, that listening is a kind of musical sense, a listening for the right sound that also makes an interesting kind of sense, that takes me with the poem into something new, or if not new, then something I know I need to say. This listening also tells me when the poem has finished, when the shape is complete. When I’m writing an essay, that listening is really a kind of listening for ideas that grow out of one another, listening for the idea that branches off of the one I’m writing, that makes an interesting connection. When I’m writing fiction, I’m often listening for what a character says, either in dialogue or in his or her internal monologue.
MO: How aware of audience are you while you’re writing?
RH: I think I become aware of an audience only afterward. The truth is, I’m never really sure I have an audience! Mostly, I’m trying to meet my own standards, which are largely but not solely aesthetic. I mean to arrive, in a piece of writing, at something I think is important enough to the larger community to publish. We have enough distraction and ornament and gab. Writing’s much too hard to waste on trivia or decoration.
MO: What do you hope a reader takes away from your work?
RH: An experience that both delights and instructs. That’s what Aristotle said we ought to be doing, and he was no dummy.
MO: In one of the poems in Without Paradise, you rework Archibald MacLeish’s Ars Poetica? What was your intent in doing that?
RH: I once — a long, long time ago! — wrote an undergraduate paper on that poem, parsing out every nuance of its aestheticism. It really became the rallying cry of the late high modernists, that is, those writing just after WWII. Like abtract expressionism in painting, the New Criticism as it was called then, insisted that a poem is a self-contained objet d’art, not a statement or communication, and certainly not a vehicle for any social criticism or political commitment. The New Critics had some really wonderful contributions to make to reading poetry less naively, but as a programmatic approach that disallowed all but a few so-called pure intentions on the part of the artist, it asked poets to stand apart from other human beings, like priests, celibate in relation to things like history, economics, injustice, political struggle. When I started to explore MacLeish’s work, I found that Ars Poetica was a very early work, and the many anthologies that reprint it as representative of his poetry are misleading. He went on to write powerful poems against fascism abroad and against McCarthyism at home. Many of his essays, for example in A Time to Speak or Poetry and Experience, explicitly call for the poet to live and write as a public citizen.
MO: As a memoirist, how do you account for the unreliability of memory? What is the role of the imagination in nonfiction, especially memoir?
RH: There are such things as facts, events that we all agree happened. However, writers aren’t mere archivists, and when you dramatize and try to bring the facts alive for the reader, you are using your imagination. Is that fiction? I’d say it is nonfiction unless you deliberately change the facts. If you try to empathize your way into the facts honestly, and bring your writerly magic to bear on revivifying those facts, you are bringing memory and imagination together to try to approach the truth. I think a naive understanding of memory; i.e. how I remember it is exactly how it happened — and a total distrust of memory, i.e. it’s all relative, all fiction, really — are BOTH indefensible positions.
MO: In one of your essays, you’ve said, “after you publish a memoir, you learn a lot about people”. Can you talk more about that? How has what you’ve learned from the publication of Half the House affected the writings that came after it?
RH: What you learn, and I’ve heard this from other memoirists as well, is that most people are afraid of their own memories; most people have so many painful things buried so deeply that they say things like, “I don’t have any memories of my childhood.” Or “Those years are just a blur.” As a memoirist I’m aware of how little I’ve managed to recall and bring into the story, but readers take it as a whole. You also learn that most readers read for story; they read with their feelings. The argument that the story enacts is invisible to most of them. I think it does its job anyway though, that job being to shift the reader’s way of thinking about people.
Half the House taught me a great deal about the way that a book can mean in the world. How it can provoke outrage and encourage action. When you write a book that sends a man to jail, you have to step back and take stock. You look at your pen and think, “Man there is real power here!” And then you try to think about how to use that power responsibly. I don’t mean that you stop playing. You can’t make poems or stories without playing, and it can’t just be drudgery or you won’t do it, but I learned that we can’t just go off in the sandbox and play and pretend that writing has nothing to do with the rest of the world. Or we can, and then it truly won’t have anything to do with the rest of the world — and you know what? Then I don’t care about it because I live here where people love and rage and get sick and die. That’s where I come from, where I am, and where I’m going.
MO: What advice can you give to young writers who are trying to find their voice?
RH: Don’t call yourself a writer or a poet too early. Don’t create expectations. You can turn the world into a taskmaster always demanding that you write more and better, and I don’t think one develops that way. Live quietly and learn the craft. Read everything: old stuff, new stuff, verse, prose. Follow your interests, and never use your writing as a retreat from life. Enough said.