In conversation with Columbia Journal’s Online Poetry Editor Brian Wiora, the poet Richie Hofmann discusses growing up in Germany, reading translated poems, and of course, his poetry. After reading this interview, we hope you will read a selection of his poems, published on the Columbia Journal website.
BRIAN: Before the interview, you were talking to me about how you’ve been writing a lot more recently. So, I wanted to start by asking: what has been inspiring you?
RICHIE: Since I’ve been at Stanford, I’ve had a community of writers that I have been in regular contact with, and that has been the most important thing in getting me thinking about writing. I feel like poetry is like living in a kind of language. That you get in a zone where you’re thinking in poetry, you’re dreaming in poetry, poetry becomes your world view. I write more, I write better, and I write more happily when I’m deep in the world of poetry.
BRIAN: You mentioned other students you interact with, but is it also what you’ve been reading?
RICHIE: It’s absolutely stuff I’ve been reading. Texts give you new devices, new areas of imagination to explore. This year I’ve been reading Hervé Guibert in translation. He’s a master of autofiction— his works feel part diary entry, part prose poem. They have a real sharp feel to them. They have an honesty about sexuality, desire, jealousy, and they inspire in me a new frankness about being an ugly human in my writing.
BRIAN: What are your thoughts about reading translated works?
RICHIE: It’s important for me to read translations. What I learn most from is poetry in other languages. Other linguistic cultures have other imperatives and obligations, in all kinds of forms. English language poems have certain ways of sounding, certain moves to end a poem in a certain way. In English language poetry, there’s a lot of emphasis on the ending, you’re supposed to end a poem with a bang. I don’t see that same obligation in writers from other cultures. Modern Italian poems, for instance, seem to me to hover much more freely on the page. They don’t have to end with a bang; they can just fade out.
BRIAN: Speaking of things you have read, who would you consider to be your poetic influences?
RICHIE: First and foremost, it’s been my teachers, like Natasha Trethewey, Mary Jo Salter, James Longenbach, Henri Cole, and Carl Phillips. I hear their voices in my head when I write. But I think in recent years, in a weird way, not to sound sentimental, it’s been my students. I’ve been teaching young writers a lot this summer, and they have such a bravery and such a brazen attitude in their writing. Most of them don’t know what they’re doing, and that’s why they’re so good. They’ve got passion, but they don’t yet have the discipline. That’s where I want my work to go: more passion, less discipline.
BRIAN: Let’s talk about you now. You mentioned to me that you’ve been working on a new book. I’m always curious when writers say that they’re working on something new, because I wonder if it’s a new book in the same style, or if they’re entering a new phase as a writer. Do you feel like your entering a new period or phase in your writing?
RICHIE: Yes, I do. I always want to be entering a new phase, a new style. What I mean by style is a harmony between the new things that I am trying to say and the ways that I have at my disposal. The periods of my life where I’ve been the most frustrated are the periods where I feel like my experience in a certain form, voice, structure, syntax, and sound cannot hold what it is I am trying to say.
I got very comfortable writing a poem with a certain kind of subtlety and delicacy. And when I turned to write a new manuscript, I felt like those “teacup” poems couldn’t fit the philosophical or historical questions I was asking. My skill level and ambitions are always in a race with one another. When I’m comfortable and in control is when the ambition and skill level are keeping pace with one another.
BRIAN: That’s one quality of your first book, Second Empire, that I love. Direct is probably the wrong word, but perhaps it’s more declarative, there’s less witness, especially in the last poem, “Imperial City” and its first line, “From the outset I hated the city of my ancestors.”
RICHIE: In a way, that last poem is a prelude to my next manuscript, which is an exploration of the city of my ancestors, both literally and figuratively. That poem was an invitation to meditate more broadly on the things that matter more to my second book, which I hope to call “Blackletter.”
A lot of my friends who were my age when they were working on their first books wrote about their childhoods. I feel like I missed that in my first book. So much of that book was about navigating the desires of my present. Now, I feel like I’m heading back into my memory.
BRIAN: What is the city of your ancestors?
RICHIE: My ancestors on my father’s side lived in Speyer, which was an imperial city on the Rhine. It was a very large imperial city in the Middle Ages, now it is a very small city.
When I visited first as a child, I was not of the age, back then, where I could appreciate it. For me, it was a dreary, and terrifying city. I hated the crypt. I hated the idea of the dead royals’ bodies being a layer of stone away from me. Even today, I don’t like being next to dead bodies. During that trip I had these genuine fears that I would be put in a dungeon, below a cathedral.
But I had a chance to go back as an adult, a few years ago. And I think my new manuscript, at its core, explores multiple time periods where I’m interacting with Germany. In my childhood, in my adulthood with a sober sense of history, and of course in an imagined sense in the lives of my ancestors.
BRIAN: Speaking of your new poems, I want to talk about four of them which can be found on the Columbia Journal website, all from your new manuscript. I want to start with a poem called “Lemon Swarm.” In this. piece, you make the declaration “Perhaps my need to appear happy at all times comes from a fear of my true thoughts and desires.” This line belongs in the realm of ideas that are literally swarming in your new work. Can you talk about that?
RICHIE: I thought of this poem as a back-and-forth dialogue between two poetic ideas: the particularities of a landscape, with all of its sun drenched European beauty, and an inner landscape, which is much more tumultuous and anxious. It’s also an interrogation of the beauty in the natural world. Is the beauty and happiness of appearance an elision of my darker, more problematic desires? In the end, I wanted to reverse it: I crave verbal affirmations of love, and maybe that is my foundation as a writer.
BRIAN: The next poem is, “Black Paper.” In here, you play with white space. Can you talk about the form of this piece, and how you think of spacing in poems?
RICHIE: I don’t know if I can answer that with a grand, theoretical response. The spacing in this poem feels intuitive to me. It feels “raw” to me, compared with regular punctuation. It allows different entities to flow in one space. It is a poem inspired by song in some sense, and I love the way that song plays with our notion of line— music lets things linger together in a way that sentences don’t.
BRIAN: When you wrote the original draft of this poem, did it include this spacing or did that come in the editing process?
RICHIE: They were always there. That was a period of my writing life when I was interested in spaces. I have a somewhat formal voice as a poet: I am drawn to sentences that aren’t speech-like. There is a formality and otherworldliness that I hope to cultivate in my poems. And the spaces help cut against that.
It’s the same reason I like jagged poems. I never write poems that are perfect geometric shapes. I love the sonnet-length poem, but I love the lines to be wildly divergent in terms of a length. I like the push and pull that has an organic feel in a formal space, and the gaps are akin to that.
BRIAN: The next poem, “In Town,” in part of a sequence called “The Prince.” How does this segment of the poem fit into the sequence?
RICHIE: “The Prince” is a seven-part poem in an unnamed 18th-century aristocratic woman’s voice, the voice of a courtesan. I wrote all of them in a month, and I felt like I was living in that voice. I imagined an older woman looking back, as if each section was an interview. I wanted to cultivate a voice that was funny in its over-the-top diction, as well as her being a horrendous person. I’m obsessed with the dark underbelly of privilege, the ways that underneath the most splendiferous culture lurks real violence.
In this poem, “In Town,” I was meditating on her travels and her cosmopolitanism. She is complaining how exhausting travel is when she makes an accidental confession about her deep loneliness and the ways that her love for superficiality have eroded her ability to love others.
BRIAN: The final poem in this selection is, “Pre-War Apartment.” This poem ends with a quote. I was wondering where the quote came from and what it was like ending on a quote.
RICHIE: The quote comes from the New York Times and the poem was an assignment from a workshop with Carl Phillips at the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop in 2013. It’s a very technical quote and adds a texture of reportage to the poem. It wasn’t always at the end, originally the quote was in the middle of the poem. It was a suggestion of a friend that once that kind of language enters the poem, the poem has to be finished.
The poem reflects about an erotic relationship in time, in a place marked by time. There are all these ways of naming time periods—we’ve been together for seven years, we’re here in this prewar apartment. I’m obsessed with naming time periods. It’s why my first book is called Second Empire.
BRIAN: That transitions perfectly to my next question, which is about this time period. What do you think it’s like being a poet today? What is poetry like today?
RICHIE: I think there’s so much vibrant writing in poetry today. Social media, for all of its many faults, does allow more connection between poets and readers. There are so many writers whom I interact with online before we meet in person. Yes, there’s always going to be controversy, that’s not specific to our time, but I love the attention that poetry is getting. Is it reaching a wider audience? I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. In times of uncertainty, whether personal or as a society, people turn to poetry.
BRIAN: Do you think technology has changed the way we write poetry?
RICHIE: I think the writing process is the same. It’s solitary. It’s analogue. It demands our attention. I write on a word processor, although I would love a feather pen. But the art is the same. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
BRIAN: What are you looking forward to in terms of the future of poetry?
RICHIE: I think there’s been a flowering of queer poetry. Maybe it’s because all of my favorite poets are queer poets. Maybe it’s because I’m a queer poet. Or maybe it’s because queer poets are writing the best poems.
BRIAN: I wanted to wrap up this interview with several popcorn questions, just sort of quick answers to fun questions. First off, what are you working on right now?
RICHIE: I’m working on all new poems. Just writing.
BRIAN: If you could have dinner with any dead writer, who would it be?
RICHIE: Constantine Cavafy. And it would be more than just dinner.
BRIAN: If you couldn’t write or teach, what would you do?
RICHIE: I would be a concert pianist, and I would be world famous.
BRIAN: If you could be any animal what would you be?
RICHIE: A hawk.
BRIAN: If I could give you an all-expenses paid vacation anywhere in the world where would you go?
RICHIE: Antarctica or somewhere quite remote. Somewhere I could never go myself.
BRIAN: Are you a coffee drinker or you a tea drinker?
BRIAN: Lennon or McCartney?
RICHIE: …Lenin or McCarthy?
BRIAN: No, (laughs) John Lennon or Paul McCartney?
RICHIE: I thought you meant Vladimir Lenin or Joe McCarthy… Oh, John Lennon.
BRIAN: Are you an early bird or a night owl?
RICHIE: Early bird.
Image Credit: provided by author