Richard Hoffman on Writing in Several Genres

This is the first of a series of postings on poets who write prose. We’ll be exploring how the prose mind can be beneficial to the poetic mind. Richard Hoffman, who has just published a memoir titled Love & Fury , is the author of three volumes of poetry.

Richard Hoffman

Richard Hoffman

I have been writing in several genres for a long time now, and I cannot for the life of me see the point in privileging one over another.

Mostly I write whatever I can on a given day. Later, I gather things together. Whenever I try to plan more than that, whenever I set myself a project, I’m in danger of seeing it as homework. I always hated homework. So if I’m supposed to be writing prose (as I was until recently, with a book under contract and with a deadline) then all I want to do is write poems and/or stories. I am ever the rebellious schoolboy.

A few years ago, when our house was full with 5 adults and a baby (my grandson), I rented a studio because I had no place to write. It had three walls; a little wedge of a room made of leftover space in an old industrial building. No one else wanted it so it was cheap, but it seemed perfect for me! I set up tables for fiction, nonfiction, and poems. I worked in a desk chair on rollers and whenever I’d get stuck for more than a half hour or so, I would push off across the hardwood floor — whoosh — and see if anything was happening at one of the other tables, if any of my other projects seemed “alive” that day.

I’m always working on several things at once, as if I’m gardening, tending several different kinds of plants growing from the same soil, and when I finish anything it has probably been in the works and carried forward, draft after draft, in my notes for a very long time. Maybe I’m just making the best of what would otherwise be called ADD, but it’s the only way I know how to work.

My first book, the memoir Half the House, began as a series of prose improvisations on the fourteen Stations of the Cross, iconography I grew up with as a blue-collar altar boy. Now I had never written prose except for school assignments, and this was one of them: my MFA mentor, Stephen Tapscott, had insisted I do it. At the time I was writing poems, poems about nothing, poems that were studiedly about only how clever I could be in the process of thoroughly puzzling my reader. Stephen was sick of reading them, and I was too locked in my cerebral — and defensive — conception of a poem to know what else I might write. So when I took out my Sunday Missal from grade-school and turned to The Stations of the Cross, I was looking to reconnect with that affective layer of my past, not what happened, but the feel of that mid-century, American, working class, Catholic world, all in order to excavate material for poems. But as the pages began to mount and I found myself typing and typing, always in pursuit of something just beyond my reach like the proverbial carrot on a stick, I began to enjoy myself, even as I wrote about things I’d sworn I would never speak of, grief and abuse and violence and dread. Imagine enjoying prose, I thought, which seemed at the time somehow strange, especially given the ever darker subject matter I was writing about. But I also came to realize, as these improvisations began to suggest a story, that I could write that story the way I knew how, i.e. like a poem, not like a “biography,” that I could focus, as I was doing with The Stations of the Cross, on one image, one moment at a time, and then assemble these into a narrative. The demands of that assembly kept raising important questions, both literary questions and life questions, and I kept at that project for the next fifteen years.

Flash forward to about six years ago: I was working on an essay, a short essay I thought, about my father, in the months after his death. I was feeling some guilt at what I thought had been the inadequacy of my eulogy. At his funeral I’d spoken off the cuff and only briefly, and I hardly remembered what I’d said. So I resolved to write an essay that would be an act of mourning, a tribute, and a good-bye. I went away on a writing retreat, staying alone in a friend’s house in the woods for a couple of weeks, determined to come home with the essay. On the eleventh day of wrestling with it, on all fours on a carpet strewn with handwritten pages, notecards, printouts, a newsprint pad in front of me where I’d tried to make my thoughts and feelings cohere in headings, sketches, diagrams, boxes, circles and arrows, I rocked back — I recall this despair vividly — and cried, aloud, “Oh fuck! It’s a memoir!”

George Orwell said “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” I don’t take that as an overstatement. Orwell was not given to overstatement. Here is a photo of the work about four years into the process of figuring out how to tell the story:

 

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A long bout of some painful illness? A mental illness, maybe; a few people who saw that wall thought I’d gone off the deep end. In any case, I agree with Orwell. Now, six years after that bout of illness began, that book is coming out. It’s called Love & Fury.

It’s my attempt to understand as deeply as possible the life I have lived, not just to savor it like some epicurean dandy — although I do a bit of that — but to understand what meaning I might derive from it, what I can learn by deeply considering my life and times, our life and times. That, of course, means examining war and violence and patriarchy and family and marriage and money and misogyny and sexuality and class and all the ways these things intersect.

For me, the model was some kind of fugue, or maybe — to put it in three dimensional terms — a kind of dome that these themes have been set bouncing inside like so many rubber balls, intersecting, changing trajectory, each acting on and affecting the other.

All while compromising with the need for a narrative of some kind, some sense of a story unfolding. Fortunately, I was in fact living in a story and it was questioning the story that offered me the themes in the first place.

So, without giving away the story, I will say that Love & Fury is centered on a year in which my father died and my grandson was born. I felt that the events of that year afforded me a certain vantage on our common life, and I wanted to articulate, as compellingly as I could, what I felt I was able to see from there. I hope it is both beautiful and useful.

 

 

Trackbacks

  1. […] An essay written for the Mass Poetry Festival blog […]

  2. […] is the second in our series of essays on Poets Who Write Prose. Last week we featured Richard Hoffman.  See more on J.D.’s musical “Only Human” on […]

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