A Conversation with Richie Hofmann
BY DIVYA MEHRISH
Richie Hofmann is the author of two collections of poems, Second Empire (Alice James Books, 2015) and A Hundred Lovers (Alfred A. Knopf, 2022). His work has been honored with the Ruth Lilly Fellowship and the Wallace Stegner Fellowship, as well as a Pushcart Prize. His poetry appears recently in The Adroit Journal, The New Yorker, Poetry, The Yale Review, The Nation, and the New York Review of Books. He is a contributing editor of Kenyon Review and a Jones Lecturer in Poetry at Stanford University.
Divya Mehrish: Richie, thank you for taking the time to discuss with me your new poetry collection, A Hundred Lovers, which Jericho Brown describes as a collection of “erotic desire” that “hearken[s] back to Shakespeare’s sonnets.” Can you explain what inspired you to pursue this collection, and what emotional landscape you wanted to expose your reader to?
Richie Hofmann: I worked on this collection as I usually do, moving forward poem by poem. I had recently discovered the French writer Hervé Guibert, and his writing inspired me to go deeper with my own, to write more frankly and intensely, in a way that was more vulgar, to push my own poems forward. Guibert was a prose writer, not a poet, but I was interested in working out some of the craft questions of his work in poetry. The sonnet, for me, provides a perfect vessel for allowing things to transpire in a space. I love that you know when the poem is going to end. You have a sense of when things have to turn, when things have to move. The sonnet became, for me, a dynamic little box that could pressurize and dictate the overall shape of the emotions in a poem.
DM: You put that so beautifully. Had you been writing frequently in traditional forms before A Hundred Lovers?
RH: Yes, I think my earliest poems were in received forms. My early education was in meter and rhyme. There are vestiges of that in my current work, but I mostly don’t work in meter now. I do love the experience of working in a traditional form because it brings all of poetic history to bear on the present poem on which you’re working. In particular, I love writing in rhyme because I feel like I’m dramatically collaborating with poetic tradition. Certain choices are made for you, certain choices are made to give shape and music to your emotions and ideas. Traditional form, to me, always feels like a collaboration.
DM: In this collection you combine explorations of carnality and sensuality with lyric, almost musical imagery and allusions to the French language. How do you approach blending these elements together? In what ways do they speak to you in unison?
RH: I’m interested in ways of creating music with poetry. I feel like we’re limited in the ways we speak about music. We often mean mellifluous language, but any music lover knows that music is much more complex. It is about the management of silence and using juxtaposition as a force for energy. I think in these poems, I wanted to create this feeling of moving back and forth between moments that felt very sensuous and stark, moments that felt lyrical and vulgar or plain. The brevity of my poems, I think, allows this juxtaposition to feel more dramatic. I’m interested, musically, in how different kinds of language can inhabit the space of a short poem. I’m always thinking about what kinds of diction I can put into a poem, about how language from different registers, from different tones, from different realms can cohabitate in a short poem and create energy and verve.
DM: You have mentioned previously that you hoped your readers would read this entire collection in one sitting. I wonder, was that the intention driving the brevity of your pieces? Did that instinct drive your writing process, or was that a conclusion you reached after you had established a flow and organization?
RH: I think it was something I concluded after I put the poems together in a book. I feel like I never know exactly what I’m doing while working on the poems themselves. Putting poems into a collection reveals a lot about what you’ve been doing all along, which you might not have been aware of. I was interested in the diary form as a kind of counterpoint to the elegance of the sonnet. So, I knew that quality was driving the brevity of some of the poems. But the idea that the poems should be read in one sitting came much later. I felt a sense of personality emerging from the collection, from the gathering of these lyrical moments, which I personally believed was more potent in one sweep. That’s why I didn’t divide the collection into sections. I wanted to have one page flow into the next, so you could feel like you were moving forward, ripping out the pages of a sort of diary. I didn’t want my collection to feel too architectural or composed, you know, finishing Act I before you can go on to Act II. My first book, Second Empire, is highly architectural. There are four interludes that separate the four sections, establishing a kind of mood like an overture. But in A Hundred Lovers, I wanted the feeling to be more natural, more casual, more dashed off.
DM: When reading this collection, I felt deeply grounded in the sense of place you established, the intimate sense of a French landscape that imbues these pieces. I am curious to know where you wrote these poems, and how you approached weaving in these scenic elements?
RH: I’m very inspired when I travel. I feel like my emotions and senses are heightened, that I’m even more aware of my surroundings and language when I’m in a foreign place. I think landscape, for me, is tied closely to emotion. I’m constantly looking to landscapes to be symbols of emotional states. I’m very interested in the ways landscapes both comply and refuse to be used that way. I feel like objects and rooms are important to my poetry. I love sensuous details from interiors. I think that is where emotion often lives, and a lot of the objects I come across in my life feel like they’re throbbing with feeling and ideas. One of my goals as a writer is to capture this sense of the way objects, landscapes, and rooms leave their fragrance on us and carry the narrative interests of the people who lived there, of the people who encountered these impressions. I’m always thinking about how I can tap into that sensuousness.
DM: Leaping off that, I want to point to the precise and empathetic attention to detail you demonstrate in every image you create and in the juxtaposition of your words, which create vibrant, bursting scenes in the short space of your portrait-like poems. In your poem “Street of Dyers,” you write, “the widow with a Hermès scarf tied around her head / walked her ugly-beautiful dogs.” Do you handpick your words, or do you find that the language floats to you once you have envisioned the scene you want to paint?
RH: I feel like it’s a process of selection. There is a curatorial element to poetry: it’s about selecting and excluding details. You can’t put the whole world into a poem, and so you have to select the most resonant images very precisely. In terms of my process, my drafts often begin as much longer, jam-packed versions of themselves. My job is to chisel away the excess, to leave just the most salient details.
DM: I love how you describe revision as a kind of sculpting process.
RH: I’m obsessed with sculpture; it’s the art form I feel most drawn to as a viewer and appreciator of art. I write a lot about statues, about how we create bodies in space. I love how their artistry is coextensive, inclusive of the viewer. For me, sculpture always feels like the primary metaphor of what it means to write a poem. You start with a block of marble and chisel away at something shapely. The sonnet stands in for this; it has a pre-prescribed shape at the outset. It has a figure, a shape. And by removing the excess, you find what reigns, what feels most powerful. Very often, less is more. By chiseling away in the revision process, you get to juxtapose new elements and see how they absorb each other’s energy. I feel like that’s the magic of making poetry: when all of a sudden, two pieces you hadn’t designed to be next to each other are put starkly into proximity. Immediately, a new chord is struck.
DM: Would you say this chiseling process extended into your choices to intentionally juxtapose or separate the pieces in your collection?
RH: Oh, yes. I would say the book came together the same way. I wrote more than a hundred poems for the collection. With the help of a trusted poet-friend of mine who is always by my side through my projects, I threw out more than half of the poems so I could keep something that felt stark, that felt just right. It feels very good to cut lines and be rid of them, to cut poems and be rid of them. I’m not one of those poets who feels precious about drafts. I love knowing a poem will never make it into the book. I love knowing that a draft is no longer a part of a project. Once that happens for me, I keep the drafts in the trash forever. I won’t dig up those old bodies later to reanimate them into some Frankensteinian manuscript. Once something has been cut, once it’s been freed, I almost never feel the urge to bring it back, to revive it.
DM: I want to return to your discussion of sculpture. Your collection embodies a waltz of sculpture, painting, and music. In your poem “The Toilet of Venus,” you explore the notion of how our bodies become art, how art becomes our bodies. You write: “When he saw me naked, / he said, you look like a grown-up Cupid.” How did you approach this process of blurring the lines between the physical self and artistic representation of human form, of human emotion?
RH: It’s such an eloquent question, and I’m glad you brought up this poem, which is one of the last I wrote for the book. I’m fond of this kind of Rococo painting, with its particularly sensuous bodies. I think you’re right: this poem is about the kind of exchange between life and art, the way paintings can be full of erotic promise, of figures about to become couples, springtime pictures full of life and reproductive potential. And in this poem, there’s also the love story between the speaker and the friend, who gives him the book of these paintings. It’s an old book, and the pages are still uncut, so it’s not really a book that can be entered. Of course, they don’t kiss, in a moment of romantic deferral. At the end, when the friend sees the speaker naked, he remarks that he looks like a Cupid, hearkening to one of the artistic representations of Cupid as a soft, pink body. This is another one of my poems that, I think, works by juxtaposition of statement and narrative. The ending felt right to me: the speaker becomes the painting while embodying the energy of the God of Love: a promiscuous toddler deity that seeks chaos and pleasure. To me, Cupid felt like one of the tutelary spirits of my collection, alongside the messenger god Mercury, who appears elsewhere. Of course, this is the other side of the speaker: this indecisive energy shuttling back and forth between lovers and partners and husbands and friends. He can never fully make up his mind or fly in one direction.
DM: I love how you’ve described these dynamic energies. I am also intrigued by your artistic approach to white space. You treat the space between each of your lines and stanzas tenderly, whether your words braid around each other or are stacked together, with gaps that allow your reader to catch their breath. In your poem “Spring Wedding,” you create an aperture between the line “and hairy / with saliva on our skin” and the line “we were men again: ironed shirts, knotted,” which are looped together by the standalone phrase “the next day” that is isolated on the far-right side of the page. How do you believe your use of white space contributes to the artistry and musicality of the storytelling contained within these poems?
RH: It’s really interesting; this moment feels like a strong turn in the sonnet. We get the turn at the ninth line, and then again at the final couplet. This poem, more than some of my others, has these true Shakespearean fractures. “White space” is not a phrase I use often, but I’m very invested in the ways lines distribute energy. There are so many other poets who are much more inventive with the space on the page. But most of my forms are more compact-looking, though I do love a poem that feels jagged as opposed to perfectly boxed in. I enjoy variation in line length, so I can feel like every line in the poem is a poem itself. Even if it’s not a complete sentence or thought, I want to create a sense of integrity, of balance, of harmony. Some of my friends think the jagged edges of my poems make them look messy, but I feel like this dynamism gives my poems energy and tension.
DM: Yes, I think it’s the multifaceted, artistic quality of your poems that got me thinking about the white space of a canvas, the way you can imbue these regions with life. In your poem “History of Pleasure,” you write, “…even / a fragment of a man could undo me. / I bought herbs wrapped in paper. / Light shone through the glass of our apartment… / the smell of mint invaded the room, your hair was wet.” Your attention to the senses, to the experience of being so acutely aware of your surroundings, of the way the world is touching you and you are touching it back, is so profound. This poem feels like a gracefully rendered portrait of a moment in time or a refraction of light, one constantly shifting but held silently in place for us, your readers, to marvel at. When we finally catch our breath, what meaning do you hope we will draw away from this portrait?
RH: I think it’s an emotional portrait, one about the threat of being ruined by pleasure. This classical landscape is full of broken bodies, and there’s this strong sense that even a piece of a man has the power to undo the speaker, to turn him liquid before the possibility of pleasure and ruin. And then, when the speaker goes back to the apartment, there is a real body there, of his lover showering. The smell of mint is overwhelming; the speaker is so enveloped and undone by the living body in a room full of fragrance and wetness that he doesn’t even know if the mintiness is coming from the herbs he’s carrying or from the shampoo. I think that’s why I chose such a grandiose title: “History of Pleasure.” The whole history of pleasure plays out in these small but overpowering moments.
DM: As a follow-up to my last question, where does the body end, do you believe, and where does the poem begin?
RH: That’s such an interesting question. I truly don’t know, but I think the question is what draws me, as a writer and reader, to love poems. I think about Sappho, of Fragment 31, of the love triangle between the poet and the man sitting next to the object of desire. I think all love poems do create a triangle with us, as readers. I’m intrigued by why we are interested in other people’s love poems. They’re not written for us or to us; we’re not really implicated in these narrative premises or lyrical articulations. But, ultimately, we keep coming back to them. Where do we exist in relation to love poems? As the reader, we’re not the beloved, or the speaker, or the poet. We are this strange, interloping, eavesdropping participant. What is the relationship of our bodies, as readers, to those poems? How do they affect our bodies? By reading and memorizing them, these words become part of our flesh and blood. There’s usually an absent lover, and very often, readers will fill themselves in, at least in the time space of the poem. And then, suddenly, we’re released. The love spell is broken. Or is it? I’m not sure.
DM: I love that answer. I felt, in your collection, that reading each poem was an embodied experience. The brevity and musicality of your pieces, juxtaposed with moments of silence, helped emphasize this wordless interaction happening between the reader and the speaker and the beloved. As your reader, I felt implicated; I, too, had to tread delicately. Shifting gears, I’d love to know what you are currently working on, and what questions you want to pursue next in your writing?
RH: I need to challenge myself. I don’t want to do a second version of A Hundred Lovers. I’m beginning to write much longer poems. I’m interested in the one-line stanzas you see in “Mummified Bird,” that kind of elongated poem that gets to have stanzas but also gets real breathing room between lines. That structure has been generative for me. I’m also trying to relocate my poems to childhood, to think about what it means to grow up as a queer kid. It’s interesting: a lot of people’s first books are about their experiences growing up, but I never did that. My first book was about anxiety around love and sex, and my second book was about anxiety around love and sex. I never really quite considered where I came from or what my childhood was like, so those are questions I’m interested in taking up in a new project. I still think it’s going to involve anxiety around love and sex, since it’s such a defining artistic and embodied question for me. But I want to relocate my poems from the hot and urgent present tense into something a bit more distant and song-like and mythical.