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Being Cute, Being Funny: An Interview with Richie Hofmann photo

I had the pleasure of meeting the poet Richie Hofmann for the second time this February when he came to Bloomington to give a reading. We spent the afternoon laughing and touring the recently-reopened Eskenazi Museum of Art before catching up over coffee and cookies. Inside the towering I.M. Pei foyer we talked publishing, temporality, and the ekphrastic impulse.

***

Hofmann: …I was in a weird space during my MFA, I called it “Richie’s Path to Healing 2013,” where if I read something in a magazine that I actually loved, which you know rarely happens, you know, when you say “wow” and not “what are they thinking”—

Case: It’s often like “okay, okay, what, okay, wow, okay,” but the wow is worth it.

Yes, but the wow is rare.

But it’s the whole reason you do it, right?

Exactly. When I found a wow, I’d actually write a note to that poet. Just an email, and you shouldn’t overdo it, you don’t need to be effusive. They don’t need to take out a restraining order. But you can say “I read your piece in Ploughshares, or wherever, and I thought it was really great, and I appreciated reading it.” It wasn’t technical, it wasn’t craft oriented, it was just “I acknowledge you exist, and I acknowledge you wrote something that moved me, and you probably don’t get a lot of that.”

It’s sad how no one does that.

Unless it’s a super-huge magazine with a dedicated readership, sometimes publishing can feel like hiding a poem. Rather than opening it up.

There are a lot of poems I have where I felt I had to publish it in a tiny journal that no one is going to see, just so I can know it’s out there, so I can get it out of my house. Literally. You have to let some poems go.

That’s one of the reasons I would have never date a writer.

[laughs] Yes, that was a problem for me.

But once I fell in love with a poet, and it was amazing to experience my art form anew, with a lover, to have our multiple perspectives exploring the emotive import of the same events. But I also think being in a long-term relationship with another writer would cause a lot of problems, and specifically some unexplored problems for queer writers.

Yeah?

Well there isn’t the same cultural imperative for the man’s career to be prioritized. Which sadly so many couples in straight relationships have to contend with, as artists. There’s a different kind of wrestling match for gay couples.

I remember in a previous interview of yours you talked about how a lot of your writing is a present-tense catalog of your emotions. How important is that process to you toward your general view of the world?

I think it’s quite important. I’m obsessed with the idea of permanence, and what can stay. What dies? It’s one of the reasons I’m interested in art and in history, especially in poems. The poem has to be a space where we can record thoughts and feelings in the present moment. There are a lot of indignities that come with being a writer, but one of the privileges is that we have a record of thought and feeling. Some people write beautiful diary entries, but for me, poetry gives a window into some part of who I was. I don’t need autobiographical details—like, I’ll never write, “I was in Bloomington and we shared a cookie,” but this could still become a poem, about some feeling that maybe we couldn’t quite name. That for me is one of the functions of poetry.

How do you think about publishing within that context? Is that part of the process for you?

Publishing helps preserve it, and share it with a number of people. But I don’t think of publishing as adding to the process. It’s just part of writing it down. It’s like Bishop writing “write it.” That’s what’s important. It doesn’t have to be “write it, then put it in the New Yorker or something.” That’s a beautiful aspect of community and sharing, but I don’t think of it as contributing to the permanence. Magazine publication especially is impermanent. They’re put out and then they’re gone, meant to be replaced next month or next year. But that’s also why I love magazines. They make me feel promiscuous. I love being in them.

What about books?

It’s the opposite. It’s such a more permanent statement, and that sometimes gives me anxiety. The book is a gesture, to quote Henri Cole, “proof of my existence” in a more profound way. I keep books. They’re beside me at all times, when I might not keep old issues of magazines. Your house would be overrun, and your children would resent you for having to throw out all those old copies.

How do you feel being four years out from Second Empire?

I don’t know who wrote it. I’m proud of the book in the way people are proud of their books, but I don’t recognize the poet entirely. He’s changed. What animated my life, what scared me, what excited me, was different then. I find some older gestures to be tawdry or undignified.

That’s common. How have you seen your poems evolve since?

I think I’m always looking to be more direct, more uncluttered, more undecorative, more vulgar and visceral. I’m still very interested in the sonnet and the sonnet-shaped poem, but I think the texture of my sentences has changed. Rereading Second Empire, I feel I was really obsessed with similes. They’re kind of all over the place. And now I wouldn’t write a simile, or would only with a lot of concern and care. There’s a different texture. Probably everyone else who reads thinks they’re exactly the same, but I feel I’m changing. I’ve been reading a lot of French literature, and I think about the word frankness. I hope I’ve learned from some of that sharpness.

[looking over at notebook] You have so many questions. That!

Oh, I was going to lead with that. I was going to say, “Thank you for being here, hahaha, have you seen Cats?”

I have not seen Cats. I really wanted to. I’m a very deep and devoted fan of musical theater. I basically was a major in college. I would rather sing and dance on Broadway than be a poet, and I’m working on a book on Sondheim, who’s the rock of my life. Did you know I love Sondheim?

I did not.

I love Sondheim. Changed my life. I’ve never been a huge Weber person, but don’t be mad at me. Those pieces are impressive and singable, but they don’t always have the same richness that I like. Cats… I see movie musicals, but it looks absolutely horrible from the previews.

I won’t call it good, but I loved it.

Were you high?

No. Stone sober. Time of my life. I could not stop laughing.

The truth is, I take a lot of planes, and I thought I’d see it on a plane because it’s such a plane movie. But I don’t think any of the airlines have purchased it.

They wouldn’t.

Weber should be bankrolling the entire T.S. Eliot complex. He should be paying for conferences around the world for how much money he’s made off Eliot’s poems. You can print that. You can tag him in it: “Mr. Lloyd Weber…”

Is he on Twitter?

I don’t know.

There’s no way.

…What poem haven’t you written yet?

I have yet to write the poem about how my entire sexuality was formed by 50% Man in the Iron Mask and 50% Lawrence of Arabia. I tried to write a Lawrence of Arabia poem once, because as a child I was obsessed with him. I went as Lawrence of Arabia him almost every year for Halloween—I had a curved dagger and everything. But it hasn’t totally fruited yet into the piece I know it should be. It’s on the list.

I love fruited as a verb.

Thank you, darling.

In general a lot of your work engages with art, film, music… How do ekphrastic pieces happen for you? Is it intentional?

No, it happens because that’s what I love. That’s what I do. Like, we spent today at the museum. That is such a day of pleasure for me. When I reach for things to write about, I feel so engaged in art objects. I’m very enthusiastic about my objects. I’m passionate about certain paintings and I’ll defend them like a mother. I get really hurt if people speak ill of them.

I once gave my students an assignment to write an ekphrastic poem, you know, in a week, and it was a disaster. It was too big. They had to go to a museum—which alone is a big deal for them—find a painting to write about, and then have space to explore how that painting reveals something about themselves. I didn’t want them to just describe it. It had to constitute some piece of their subjectivity, and they were not able to do that. It was too big an ask in such a short time.

I don’t know if I could even do it.

No. But it taught me something about the ekphrastic impulse, which is that it’s about the way the art reveals something about you. Not your situation, but you. And then your poem has to be able to reveal something about its reader. Timelessly. I’ve already aged out of understanding the contemporary. It can’t be about Harry Styles, for example.

[laughing] That’s hilarious to me. “I’ve aged out of the contemporary.” You are the contemporary.

Well, you know…

[still laughing] Fuck you.

It can be hard to see, when I’m inside the moment.

Maybe not fairly.

But you understand.

I do.

And now I guess I have a Harry Styles poem to write.

I didn’t give him to you.

Fair enough.

You can have Zayn.

Who’s Zayn?

Lord. But the idea of the contemporary is interesting to me because a lot of your poems engage with the past, and try to understand the contemporary moment through the past.

Through the past, in contradistinction to it, and more often as an analogue. One of my subjects is that art is realer than life. It feels that way. I’m always thinking about that.

Do you ever feel like…I want to use the word haunted, but I’m not sure how.

Haunted, yes. I like ghosts!

What kind? What context?

I like the way that what has been said cannot be suppressed. That’s moving to me. I’m moved by echoes of the past. Other writers, other works, other places and times. They get to be made real again. “Ghosts” sounds kind of scary, but they’re more like Tutelary spirits. They’re not always dead, either. Many of my teachers are ghosts in my work. And my students now, too. They’re a part of it. We think of the solitary writer at her desk, but really the artistic enterprise is always collaborative. That’s moving to me. I don’t like to be alone at all.

Have you ever found a poem and felt like you’d read it before?

Yes, all the time, before I’ve read it. I actually have two examples. Tarfia Faizullah read my book, and she said, “Richie, do you know Thomas James?” Letters to a Stranger. I’d never read it before, but he has a poem describing the erotics of the embalming process, and I have the poem “Egyptian Bowl with Figs,” which is also about that. They’re somewhat different, especially the voices, but I read that poem and felt so understood by it. I must have read it in another life.

I felt similarly when I read Life Studies by Robert Lowell, which is one of those iconic books. I didn’t read it as an undergrad, miraculously, so busy with Merrill, but when I finally read it, I felt like I must have inherited and internalized so much of the aesthetics and politics of that book. I was staggered by it. It’s such an impressive book, and though I’m glad I didn’t encounter it sooner, but I must have, somehow.

I have the experience fairly often where I’ll start to read a book and I’ll put it down and say to myself, “No, not yet.”

I have that experience every day. It’s hard for me to read a book. It has to invite me. I’m very coy. There are too many books that seem so ugly. I hate ugliness. It’s hard for me to want to read them, and I’ll flip around looking for a portal through which to enter, and I can’t. I’m not so promiscuous as a reader as I am in other ways.

There are books that I’d gotten too young. I’m thinking of Louise Glück, who is now indispensible to me, but I wasn’t ready for her even five years ago.

I’ve always been attracted to her work, and more and more to her more recent books. A Village Life is one of my favorite books of poems. I feel lucky to get to spend time with her at Stanford. And I teach her work. She has a marvelous poem in her most recent collection, “A Foreshortened Journey,” a longer prose poem, and it’s such a beautiful meditation on the journey of one’s life. I’ve learned so much from it.

…If you could be stranded on a desert island with Keith Leonard or Edgar Kunz, who would you choose?

[long pause] Keith. He makes furniture.

[laughs] I didn’t know he makes furniture.

In my head he does.

Interesting. I also asked Sam Ross this question, and he picked Keith but upon printing regretted it.

I also love Edgar, but I worry he and I would have too many overlapping skills on an island: being cute, being funny. I need someone who could build me beautiful furniture.

I should apologize to the boys. I won’t ask this again.

Yes you will.

Who am I kidding. Buy their books, Hobart!

…I was glad you brought up Merrill because he comes up in the book, especially in the context of the erotics of place. “Erotic Archive” is the poem.

That poem is the best summary of my project as a writer.

What initially drew me to your work was the idea that everything’s erotic. Everything in your book vibrates with its own energy. Everything is very there.

I love that you say that. That’s what a lyric poem can create, a hyper-activated space where things are alive with possibilities for pleasure and sadness. Sex is often the least erotic part of the experience. I often find the idea of sex is more tantalizing than sex itself. The idea of sex gives us a world of possibility. There’s a formula for the journey in most narratives of sex, especially for males, when the orgasm is the climax of the experience, but what makes it tantalizing isn’t the orgasm but what leads up to it, and all the possible pleasures and denials of pleasure that we experience. In a poem that happens in the landscape. That happens in the objects.

In the colors.

Yes. I want the everyday to become imbued with it, because it’s how I experience the erotic. When someone is in that kind of state of lust, with its anarchic pull, everyday things become deeply implicated in the pursuit of pleasure. Details are the hottest.

I wanted to talk about colors specifically, because I feel like your use of color—

I was just looking at paint colors this weekend. I’ve had them on my mind.

What are you leaning toward?

White for the bedroom. Green for the dining room.

Have you read Dorothea Lasky’s essay on color? It’s in her new book, Animal.

I haven’t yet.

It changed a lot of things for me. She talks about the vibrations of color, describing it as a corkscrew. There was one line I wrote down—“Color is a kind of conduit that connects the spiritual and material worlds.”—and I felt that so strongly with some of your new poems, especially in “Coquelicot.”

A beautiful word. I say “penis” in the poem but “cock” in the title.

I was so happy to see “penis” in the poem.

Oh, you know, whatever brings you to poetry, Doug. [laughs]

You know, I have a line in a poem, not published yet, that goes “nothing I’ve ever said has been a surprise to anyone,” and it’s real.

Well, that’s true in 2020.

In what way?

It’s hard to be surprising or shocking.

That’s true. But I feel like I’m easily readable.

[pause] “Coquelicot” also has “violet graffiti” in it, which everyone, myself included, almost misreads for “violent,” because I put it at the end of a line. 

When I read the poem I’m picturing you on a train through the poppies.

[laughs] The speaker.

The speaker. Sorry. Your poem’s speaker, in my brain, looks and talks remarkably like you.

Yeah, for me too.

Do you write a lot while traveling?

Yes, all the time, out of necessity. I’m always in transit, and I like that being—

***

I recognized the art historian Julie Van Voorhis in the lobby and waved her over. While earlier wandering through the museum’s galleries, Richie and I had discussed her tongue-in-cheek idea for a commercial coffee table book.

***

Julie, hello! This is Richie, he’s giving a poetry reading tonight.

Van Voorhis: Oh, cool.

I told him about your butts-in-art book idea.

Yes?

I’m a fan. I’ve already pre-ordered it.

[laughs] That means I have to write it!

If it’s curatorial, you just need a good intro.

You’d have the best intro. I mean, Taschen would be all over that.

Mhmm. Or perhaps a poetic intro?

Yes! I’d be happy to help. Butts are one of our embodied subjects.

[all laugh]

We were looking at the window they put in the corner of the museum, where you can see in from the outside—

Yes, with the two butts right there.

The two butts!

Do you know if that was always part of the plan?

I like to think it was, or a happy accident, as Bob Ross would say.

Likely, as there aren't many butts in this museum, but I’m so glad the Roman torso is back.

That’s a beauty.

Dearly missed.

Do you just read, or do you read and talk?

I read and talk. It’s part of the job. I chat, but I try not to let it go out of hand. The poems are kind of serious and intense, so I feel like it’s part of my job to relieve the pressure in the room through the chatter. Does that make sense?

It does. I’m trying to equate it to my world of teaching, of lecturing, but it doesn’t match up because I talk to people and they fall asleep.

[laughs] They do not!

But sleeping is better than disrupting.

That’s right. Part of my new manuscript is about the erotics of sleep.

In the Hellenistic world they loved the erotics of sleep. Huge topic. Lots of sculptures. The sleeping hermaphrodite, all those sleeping Eros figures—

Do you think the museum would let us borrow the laurels for his reading?

[flatly] No.

I wanted to wear them for my entrance, but I’d have to take them off.

You would never take them off.

One of my former graduate students started to make laurel wreaths.

Get her on the phone. We need a wreath!

 

image: Doug Paul Case


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