How did you become a writer?
I honestly don’t know. I suspect that my love of reading led me to want to write. When I was very young, I wrote little story books with drawings and dialogue balloons that I colored and my mother stapled them together for me. So I must have had the itch to do this all along. I grew up in a macho, blue collar, locker-room culture in which the writing of poems would have triggered very dangerous homophobic responses from other guys, mockery being the least of it. I was the football player with a secret stash of poetry, a cache of penciled poems in a notebook hidden between the mattress and box spring.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Nonfiction inspirations: Baldwin and Orwell. Poetry: Theodore Roethke, Thomas McGrath, Muriel Rukeyser. Short fiction: Andre Dubus, Bernard MacLaverty, Frederick Busch. Behind those writers are the choirs of saints and angels, of course: Montaigne, Augustine, Donne, come to mind. My recent book of poems, Emblem, is inspired by two early Renaissance works, Andrea Alciati's Emblematum Liber and Sebastian Brant's Stultifera Navis (Ship of Fools). A book I carried around and read and reread for about 10 years is Elisabeth Sewell’s The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History. It’s out of print now, tragically. If I were a publisher, I’d bring it back. It’s eco-poetics on the grand scale, including the human organism in the matrix of creation. I'm an omnivorous reader, not much of a scholar, and half the time I don't recall from where I got a particular notion. I’m pretty lazy and trust in a kind of osmosis.
I’ve been blessed with wonderful teachers, especially the poets Barbara L. Greenberg, Stephen Tapscott, and Donald Hall, each of whom helped me in a different way during a crucial time in my twenties.
When and where do you write?
I try to be writing all the time. I mean that in the spirit of being “one on whom nothing is lost.” A lot of the time that means jotting things all day, writing a couple of pages in a notebook, not worrying what it is connected to. Then when I have time less encumbered by obligations — summers, vacations, those few times when I’ve been able to take some time away from home and work to devote to a book, I gather all that stuff and sort it and look for what I can make of it. Mostly I write whatever I can, whatever I’ve been given to write on a given day. Later, I gather things together. Whenever I set myself a project, I'm in danger of turning writing into homework. I always hated homework. So if I'm supposed to be writing prose (as I was recently, with a memoir under contract and with a deadline) then all I want to do is write poems and/or stories. It's the rebellious Catholic schoolboy.
Recently when our house was full with five 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 verse. 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 the 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. I have a couple of quiet places I like to get away to, the houses of generous friends. I spend the first two days fasting and reading and walking in the woods and remembering how to be alone, and I lay out the various things I’ve been tending: drafts of poems, essays, stories. I shuffle through the huge stack of note cards I keep, and I sort them in ways that seem right. I don’t really start working on anything until something starts working. I often finish several things during that time, but I refresh a number of things in the garden, too, and plant some new things. 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.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m assembling my fourth collection of poems. There’s an art to organizing a book of poems, but I’m beginning to think I don’t know what it is. I’m lucky to have other poets I trust, Peter Covino, my wife Kathleen Aguero, D. Nurkse, who’ll weigh in. It’s weird: you have to believe there is one right way to organize the book while at the same time knowing full well that there isn’t.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Yes, but I don’t call it that. I don’t want to reify it. I think it is just fatigue, or resistance to something I might be about to say that I am not yet ready to know, or fear of someone’s response to what I’ll write. The churning, the clenching, the sitting and staring, the self-doubt, it’s all writing. All of it. If I were not afraid I was getting it wrong, how would I know if I’m getting it right? It comes with the territory, struggle does.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Commit yourself to a long apprenticeship and do it in secret. Don’t hang out your shingle. Don’t print up business cards. It’s hard enough without putting external social pressure on yourself. Take Whitman’s advice: “Dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” There’s a great deal of bullshit around us.
Richard Hoffman is author, most recently, of the memoir Love & Fury, which was a finalist for the New England Book Award from the New England Independent Booksellers Association. He is also author of the celebrated Half the House: a Memoir, just reissued in a new 20th Anniversary Edition in 2015, with an introduction by Louise DeSalvo. His poetry collections are Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club; and Emblem. A fiction writer as well, his Interference & Other Stories was published in 2009. A past Chair of PEN New England, he is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College.