Festival Poet Richard Hoffman: Letting the Story Unfold

by Charles Coe 
This is the sixth in a series of stories on headliners of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (May 1-3).
Attend Richard Hoffman's event at the festival.

Although he didn’t realize it at the time, the poems Richard Hoffman wrote as a teenager were the first tentative steps on what would become a life-long journey. “I started writing poems in high school,” he says. “I began by imitating, the way you learn a lot of things. The first poems I imitated were by Keats, with a lot of ‘thee’s’ and ‘thou’s.’ But it didn't matter because I couldn't show them to anyone anyway; I was trapped in a locker-room male sports culture in which writing poems would invite persecution."

Everything changed when he encountered modern poetry as a college freshman. “I thought it was amazing,” he says. “The verbal gymnastics, the wit, the occasional revelation. At that point language became for me not merely an instrument but a material, like paint or clay. That's when I started making poems that were my own. They weren't very good, but they were mine.”

Since those formative years, Richard has developed a strong and distinctive body of poetry—work that’s meticulously crafted and deeply humane. He is author of three award-winning collections: Without Paradise, Gold Star Road, and Emblem.

It’s hard for him to pin down his major influences as a poet. “I love the work of many, many poets, in English and in translation. I’m drawn to both the reckless and the formal, probably because each of those dimensions can be found in the other,” he says. “I have to mention Whitman and Dickinson. Pound and Auden. Ginsberg and Wilbur.”  Over time, he began to find his own voice. “I started to move beyond the young poet’s impulse to imitate by embracing what often seemed like opposite approaches,” he says. “That’s how I learned to write poems that weren’t just knock-offs of this poet or that.” 

In addition to poetry, Richard has written two critically acclaimed prose memoirs: Half the House and Love and Fury. He’s also authored the short story collection Interference & Other Stories. “I only halfway realized it at the time, but I was drawn to fiction to experiment with narrative prose that wasn’t grounded in the ‘love & fury’ if you will, of the ongoing memoir project,” he says. “I think that if you’re writing from grief and trauma, it’s important to have other things cooking on other burners. If every time you go to your writing desk you’re staring into the abyss, you will either make yourself sick, or you will quit writing.”

As Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College, he tells his students he doesn’t approach a project with a set idea of what it’s ‘about.” “I don't start with a subject,” he says. “Of course, I do have a subject, but when I begin I often don't know what it is, and I don't know what the writing might become until I start working on it. And even then I might not know for a long time. A lot of what I write doesn't become anything! Nothing that would be of interest to anyone else, anyway. For many reasons, my family is where I find the most compelling questions, and it's through the doorway of grief and loss that I find myself able to move back and forth from the past to the future—from the inner world of memory to the outer, shared world of the reader.”

A memoirist, whether working in poetry or prose, always faces one fundamental question: Why should anyone be interested in me or the people in my life? For Richard, the answer lies in helping readers connect with the writing. “I think a reader should care about the poem, the story, or the memoir only insofar as it raises questions or sheds light, or makes her laugh or cry, or feel something,” he says. “What in the writer's experience or in his way of inquiring into the memory of that experience serves to illumine the reader's life? A memoir is not an article you write about yourself. It's ultimately not about you, it's about what nourishment and/or delight it brings a reader.”

But Richard Hoffman offers his insights as guides—not rules. "Don't take advice from me!  Each writer has to find her own way to do it. Don't turn your life into ink. Turn it into art,” he says. “That's what I mean by language as a material, not just an instrument. All this stuff about ‘telling your story’ assumes you know your story. What you know is the story you have been telling yourself. But that story's all set. Why write it? Writing is an inquiry, a curious investigation, or nothing. And that means getting it wrong many times before you get it right, if you ever do get it right. Since it's all trial and error, you might as well just persevere in learning your own way.”

“I'm searching in the language for what I need. Wallace Stevens said it much better: ‘The poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.’ Writing is a practice I engage in to try to stay sane and ethical in response to the world's absurdity and violence.” 

Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents and Picnic on the Moon, both published by Leapfrog Press. His poetry has appeared in a number of literary reviews and anthologies, including Poesis, The Mom Egg, Solstice Literary Review, and Urban Nature. He is the winner of a fellowship in poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Charles’s poems have been set by a number of composers, including Beth Denisch, Julia Carey and Robert Moran. A short film based on his poem “Fortress” is currently in production by filmmaker Roberto Mighty. Charles is co-chair of the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, a labor union for freelance writers. He was selected by the Associates of the Boston Public Library as a “Boston Literary Light for 2014.” His novella, Spin Cycles, was published in November, 2014 by Gemma Media. In addition to his work as a writer, he has an extensive background as a jazz vocalist and has performed and recorded with numerous musicians throughout New England.