Interview by August Smith, WTP Feature Writer
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.