Richard Hoffman [photo: Robert Birnbaum]
Being a social media friend with poet/memoirist/university mentor /social activist Richard Hoffman was a pale and lifeless thing after I chanced to meet him at a judicial hearing in my current hometown of Newton Massachusetts. That occasion was the adjudication of Hoffman’s Emerson College colleague Professor Jabari Asim on a controversial (you can look it up) and to all appearances, except to the Newton constabulary, a dubious traffic citation. Richard was there as was Jane Unrue (director of Harvard’s Writers at Risk and author of Love Hotel
) The defendant was present as was his lovely wife and his attorney, NE PEN’s Tom Herman. Three hours well spent— the highlight of which was Liana Asim singing from the witness stand. Anyway, meeting Richard Hoffman made me receptive to Jane Unrue’s suggestion to ‘interview’ him—thus the conversation that follows.
Robert Birnbaum:You’re Richard Hoffman.
Richard Hoffman:That would be me.
Robert Birnbaum:Today is the 30th of whatever, 30th of the month.
Robert Birnbaum: Yes,October. Good. We’re now temporally located, geographically now in West Newton. An hour before you came to talk to me, what were you thinking about?
Richard Hoffman: [About] My students.
Robert Birnbaum:Are you worried about them?
Richard Hoffman:No, I’m thinking about what they need next. That’s what takes up my time and focus, most of the time.
Robert Birnbaum:That’s a good thought. As a mentor, do you really think we can teach anyone, anything?
Richard Hoffman:Sure you can. Keith Jarrett didn’t sit down and bang on the piano until he figured it out. People taught him how to play. They didn’t teach him how to make Keith Jarrett’s music, but they taught him how to play the piano.
Robert Birnbaum: Okay, so we can teach people skills. Did someone teach Jarrett how to sit down, clear his mind of all his previous instruction and knowledge about music, and then begin to play? Did someone teach him that?
Richard Hoffman:I can’t speak for Keith Jarrett. I would say that from what I have read about him that he did get those lessons from elsewhere.
Robert Birnbaum:From who?
Richard Hoffman:From elsewhere, from other teachers, teachers that had to do with meditation and mental hygiene if you will.
Robert Birnbaum:Again, that’s a skill.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, absolutely. I mean being an artist is not a mystery. I don’t believe it’s a mystery. I believe it’s a willingness to become so that you’re continually learning and then you’re weaving together all the things that you learn. You’re taking inspiration from people who have done and produced things that you admire.
Robert Birnbaum:I guess I need to refine what I’m asking you because … how about this, you’re a little younger than me, have you figured it out yet?
Richard Hoffman:That’s not a fair question.
Robert Birnbaum:Yeah, I know — so what. That’s why we went touche and crossed index fingers when we first met.Go on, give it a shot.
Richard Hoffman:No, I haven’t figured it out. I’ve stopped believing in explanations of the whole thing.
Robert Birnbaum:That’s part of what I’m questioning you about when I ask you about a teacher’s relationship to their students.
Richard Hoffman:Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Robert Birnbaum:I think you can teach some skills. I don’t know really if you can teach, for example, writing.
Richard Hoffman:I don’t think it’s a question of … that to me is a little bloodless in terms of a way of looking at it. I like what Theodore Roethke said about teaching. He said a teacher is one who carries on his education in public. And that makes sense to me. I’m continually …
.Robert Birnbaum: You’re learning from your students?
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, when I stop feeling like I’m becoming, then I’m not going to be very useful to my students anymore.
Robert Birnbaum:You learned something along the way.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, I guess. You asked me if I figured it out, I mean to me becoming is what it’s about. I’m still changing. I’m not interested in shoring up a position or even an identity. I’m interested in learning because that’s when I feel alive. I have to go with that.
Robert Birnbaum:[Would you think] one legitimate critique of modern civilization, as we know it here in the United States, is that there are immense and powerful forces that actually kill you spiritually, emotionally— or stunt your growth to some point where you are no longer interested in learning? Or changing? Or dealing with your environment and understanding your environment? There was a question in there I think.
Richard Hoffman:I think I basically agree with that statement although I don’t know what the question was, but the statement.
Robert Birnbaum:It’s a subtle expression of economic determinism.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, well I’m distrustful of that, although I lean in that direction. I’m distrustful of any kind of historical determinism. We’ve seen the whole 20th century go up in flames because of various historical determinisms. I do think that in a country that’s founded on a genocide that cannot be acknowledged or repaired, and built on an economy that relied on slavery and that has never been repaired, we are so deep in …
Robert Birnbaum:In the shit?
Richard Hoffman:… in the shit, in the denial— that we are alienated from ourselves. This is one of the things that you learn from James Baldwin. When he’s talking to his nephew about the forbearance necessary for him to survive in the white world, he’s telling him to have patience with his brothers, you and me, his white brothers, because we don’t know our ass from our elbow anymore— because we don’t know our history. We don’t know from whence we came. We can’t acknowledge the reality of how this country got to be what it is. What it’s wealth is derived from…
Robert Birnbaum:But we’re exceptional.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, we sure are. No, I guess we’re not in that respect. We’re most successful in the moment anyway, in this historical moment.
Robert Birnbaum:We’re successful at myth making.
Robert Birnbaum:Every nation has their myths. Ours are powerful.
Richard Hoffman:The question is what’s the purpose of the myth? Is it to cover your ass? Is that what the myth about? Is it a mythology that’s meant to animate people as a nation, as a people. I think there were …
Robert Birnbaum:…You can say about the Nazi’s that their myths were animation in the wrong direction.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, exactly. I think our mythology is first and foremost about hiding the truth. If the air you breath in your culture is that growing up, it gets awfully hard to fight your way out of that— you’ve been thrown down in this hole of untruth. To claw your way out of that is not easy.
Robert Birnbaum:How do people do it? How do you do it?
Richard Hoffman:I don’t know that I have done it.
Robert Birnbaum: You’re not exactly looking at the wall in the cave. People pay do attention to you—students, other poets and writers and politically engaged people… .
The School of Athens (detail)Rapahel Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, we’re back to Plato. I think that that is the myth that’s operative here. I think right now we’re not looking at shadows on the wall. We’re looking at a hologram, a technological hologram, where there’s video screens everywhere telling us who we are.
Robert Birnbaum: As in the grocery store.
Richard Hoffman:Little speakers coming through the ceiling.
Robert Birnbaum: As in the grocery store.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, can we turn that goddamn music off? I happen to like Bob Marley but ..
Robert Birnbaum:Right. Well I guess we should turn to the commercial part of our program because you’ve written another book. We should mention your book. I should testify that I’ve read your book.
Richard Hoffman:Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Gold Star Road by Richard Hoffman
Robert Birnbaum:You know what is a striking thing about your book? I was surprised to find citations of James Baldwin. Though occasionally I do see his name popping up and bandied about in recent public conversations— which is a good, good thing. Why is he a writer, a thinker, that you admire enough to … ? I think the epigram in your book is his and then there are 3 other citations.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, each section is headed with an epigram. He’s certainly the presiding spirit over the inquiry that the book is trying to make. That’s spelled out in that first epigram from when he talks about the assumptions that every culture rests on that are … Well here, let’s read it into the record.( RH reads):
“Every society is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people. Ours is now exception. It is up to the American writer to find out what these laws and assumptions are in a society much given to smashing taboos without thereby managing to be liberated from them, it would be no easy matter.”
I took that as a charge. One of the things I like to do with my students, and to me this is all, my writing, my teaching, is all part of the same thing. I don’t know if I continue to write so I have the bonafides to teach, or whether I teach to make the money that allows me the time and the resources to write. I often will say, “Why are we doing this? What’s this about?” We’ll brainstorm why do people write? Why have people written? Why is there this body of work we call literature? What’s it come from? Is it all people trying to make money? Do they want to write something that’ll be made into an HBO series? Are they looking for the movie deal? What’s the real motivation there? I think that a lot of times, in this culture in particular, it’s easy for somebody to start out with an impulse to write, because something they’ve read as a young person moved them, but then be deflected into some manner of careerism or pursuit of the dollar because that’s the only thing we value, or it’s the only thing the larger culture values. In fact, I would go further and say that I think that American culture is a byproduct of profit-seeking. If nobody can make money on it, it doesn’t exist, which is why nobody reads poetry.
Robert Birnbaum:Not nobody, poets read poetry.
Richard Hoffman:Well, people trying to keep it alive are reading it
Robert Birnbaum:Let’s take a current example because there’s always something—there is always a current writer, who has a flashy side story. Garth Risk Hallberg has published a 900 plus-page book which is the “it” book of, I don’t know what, of the next 6 weeks. He’s given a big advance. All of a sudden there are reviews every where. He’s everywhere talking. Is this because of word-of-mouth? If it is a legitimate piece of literature, shouldn’t publishers just let the readers discover it. Apparently,no one trusts that process.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, well I think that we’re at a desperate time when fewer and fewer people are reading books and publishers don’t know what the hell to do. I have nothing against big advances. I got a mid-4-figure advance for this book.
Robert Birnbaum:From Beacon Press? They have money? It’s part of a church, or funded by a church, isn’t it?
Richard Hoffman:I’m serious. It may as well be, yes. That’s a remarkable institution, is what it is. I’m really proud to be on that list.
Robert Birnbaum: I don’t agree with you. I have a theory which is impossible to prove (or disprove)which allows me to …
Richard Hoffman:Those are the best kind.
Robert Birnbaum:I was going to say, which allows me to continue to propagate a certain view of the literary terrain. The Jewish religion calls for a belief that there are always 12 honest men in the world. In the same way, I think there are 400,000 readers in the world. It’s a constant number. It doesn’t get bigger. It doesn’t get smaller. The problem when the market, or the economy, or economic factors determine parts of art, is that it requires [a fixed percentage of revenue ]growth.Every company, whatever they are, in order to be in business, has to forecast— I don’t know what the number is. Some industries, 2% growth. Some industries, 20% growth. They have to grow for shareholders. The book publishers and the media companies worry because there aren’t more readers assuring growth. They’re pissing in the wind.
Richard Hoffman:The reason they worry though is because they became part of conglomerates. Before that it was something like what you were saying— so that there was an [acceptable] narrow profit margin— that was what publishing was. It was the 5%, 7%, something like that. That’s enough to keep the industry going. Everybody gets paid, the thing goes along, and it’s an integral part of the culture’s discourse.
Robert Birnbaum: Right.
Richard Hoffman:Now the discourse itself is being pulled like taffy, in all kinds of directions, because publishers are being asked to come up with profit margins that other media products produce for their holding company. As a result, they’re chasing the next big thing, all the time, trying to make money in the short run. What it does to our discourse, is it dumbs people down. There’s a 1000 dog books published a year and 500 cat books. I’m being purposely cynical. There’s an awful lot of, “Well maybe this is the next big thing and maybe this is the …” It’s hard for a serious book, a book that has a serious inquiry in it, to get any traction.
Robert Birnbaum:I think it’s hard for anything that requires the consciousness beyond maybe a forest animal’s, to gain traction because we’re robots in training. I really do think we’re fundamentally altering our neurology by all sorts of technological innovations that we can’t really, at this moment, track what’s happening to our brains in order for us to function in a reasonable way. It’s impossible for people to match the tempo of the world around them. I think you’ve got to be a monk. You’ve got to be a Zen monk. And it’s making people crazy.I’m not a worrier, but I think about this when I’m going to go to a movie theater, or a high school gathering, or any gathering in which there are multitudes of people, because every day of the week you read about some mishugena and another mass shooting in the USA. Where is that coming from?
Richard Hoffman:What’s even more frightening to me is that that unraveling that you’re talking about, there’s an unraveling of the social fabric that always precedes some strongman coming in with a, “Goddammit I’m going to fix this thing.” We know where that goes. We’ve lived through the last century. That’s the booby prize to live long enough to be an old fart and see all that and say … I think of the [Bob] Dylan line though, “What do I have to pay to get out of going through these things twice?”
Robert Birnbaum:I think what you’re intimating, although I don’t know if you mean it as that, that the popularity of some of these candidates who are just spouting stupidity is based on… rampant stupidity. People find appealing expressions that match their disappointments and frustrations.
Richard Hoffman:Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Robert Birnbaum:God, it’s so awful to see, to watch, so many people— who it’s clear how disappointed with their own lives. It’s carved into their faces. When you hear them talking, expressing themselves—how did they get ruined like that?
Robert Birnbaum:People don’t really have [meaningful]contact with other human beings. They have contact with names and one-dimensional forms and screens.
Richard Hoffman:Well this is no kind of critique. It’s just the observation that people are living in apartment buildings and they don’t know who lives next to them, on the other side of that wall or above their ceiling or below the floor, literally in the same building. I lived in New York for a long time. That’s the case.
Robert Birnbaum:How much time did you spend in your apartment?
Richard Hoffman:Well I was a young person, so I probably spent a lot less time than I would now.
Robert Birnbaum:Would you live in an apartment in New York now?
Richard Hoffman:I love New York. Yeah, I would, but I couldn’t possibly afford it.
love & fury by Richard Hoffman
Robert Birnbaum: Anyway, what do you call this book? What is this book, memoirs, short stories?
Richard Hoffman:It’s a memoir. It’s not a short story—that is to suggest fiction.
Robert Birnbaum:I know, right, it’s one of a couple of memoirs. It’s a shorter story. There may be more of this story?
Richard Hoffman:There is going to be more of this story. It will take a few years for that to work out and for me to write it, maybe many years. The reality is I think it’s a memoir but it’s comprised of 3 long essays that they’re interlocking. I saw the book very early as I had this structure. I didn’t have the form. The form is something that is more … You don’t know what the form is until you have coaxed it out from the material.
Robert Birnbaum:Because you have, I don’t want to say an infinite amount of information you can draw from, but you have a large body of information you can draw from. You can emphasize some events in your life more than others. You can dismiss some. It’s a little bit like a Rubik’s cube, yeah?
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, I mean there’s a way in which you’re looking for the through line of what sheds the most light on the period of time that you’re writing about. I was after some answers like what, like just scratching my … I said, “How could this be?”
Robert Birnbaum:Answers about your own life?
Richard Hoffman:Well answers about our life. Answers about— I think that the memoirs operates in history. If I were a, god forbid, if I were a refugee from Syria sitting on the border of Hungary right now, and then later I wrote a memoir, my view of history from there, and my bonafides would … I suffered. I was there. But because you’re an American, and your culture is prescribing an a-historical consciousness, it doesn’t mean you have to go along with it. We’re all in history. When something’s happening to me it’s coming at me for reasons that have to do with the past and have to do with the assumptions of the culture and all of that. I’m trying to look … I’m trying to see how the forces that were set in motion by history converged in a year or 2 of my life, that’s what.
Robert Birnbaum:Right, I get that . I’m thinking more … here’s my starting point. Americans are woefully , there’s a worse, I’m sure there’s a worse description— terribly, awfully disinterested and unknowledgeable about their own history.
Richard Hoffman:Or anybody else’s.
Robert Birnbaum:Right, history is not a topic that sings to people. How do we move people to be interested? You understand that your life is rooted in history and you recount that you were a kid in the, that you were at a formative age in the ’60s, in the roiling ’60s, and you mentioned that. Bringing James Baldwin in has to talk … You have to talk about the big struggle for civil rights. I think that people don’t understand or know that that stuff happened. My son, who’s a senior in high school, I had to give him a lesson about who Emmett Till was. We watched the FrontLine doc  on him. I asked what did you learn in high school that you don’t know …? If you don’t know Emmett Till you have to know that … It was because I was telling him about that incredible song, Strange Fruit. I showed those images of people hanging, burning bodies hanging from trees. You can see them on the internet.
Richard Hoffman:If you don’t know that stuff, then the murder 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland doesn’t mean anything except, “Oh, the cops overreacted.” It doesn’t mean anything beyond that. Of course it does when you put it in the context of history. Even when we talk about history and we call it a topic, we’ve already alienated ourselves from it. It’s like a school subject, history.
Robert Birnbaum:That’s right.
Richard Hoffman:I wasn’t good in history. I wasn’t good in math. If you take people’s history away from them, or you just convince them that they don’t need to give a shit about it, they become infinitely manipulable. Every thinker who’s worth his salt has pointed that out.[Milan] Kundara says, “the struggle of the people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” We can convince people to not know it in the first place. I don’t know what gets taught in history classes.
Robert Birnbaum: So I said to my son Cuba, “Look, I’m sure you didn’t learn this but I bet you you would be more inclined to pay attention if in the study of US history during the Revolutionary War you were told that George Washington is a real hound. He would send his junior officers out for missions in the night so they could boink their wives.” I don’t consider that to be a tawdry detail. I consider that to be an indication of the fact he was a real person. He wasn’t that guy on a pedestal. He was a man. He had motives. Politically, he did what he did. He’s man breathing and had faults and had wooden teeth. Talk about that. Talk about these historical figures as people. Nicholas Lehmann wrote in the New Yorker about the trouble with US history being that there’s too much of it. Meaning you force kids to learn treaty dates and boundary lines,etc—who cares?
Richard Hoffman:Orwell writes about this in Such Were the Joys. [2 ]Do you know that essay?
Robert Birnbaum: No.
Richard Hoffman:It’s an amazing essay. It’s about his time in boarding school. He points to the curriculum. He points to the hierarchy of the teachers and the headmaster and all of that, and the pecking order among the kids, all of it. It’s a microcosm of the British Empire. Of course it is because they’re being socialized to that. You see the formation of this ferocious conscience that we know as George Orwell back then.
Robert Birnbaum:Where do people like Orwell come from? Where do people like [IF] “Izzy” Stone come from? Where do people like you come from? That you can emerge …
I F Stone by David Levine
Richard Hoffman:You poke your head outside the bubble …
Robert Birnbaum:Is that happenstance?
Richard Hoffman:… or you go back to Plato’s cave or something, I think you’d get thrown out of it. I think I was thrown out of there.
Robert Birnbaum:Because of the things that happened in your youth
Robert Birnbaum:Let me ask … You write a memoir, does that leave you open to me asking you anything I want to ask you?
Richard Hoffman:I’m a big boy if I don’t want to answer you, I’ll just tell you, “Sorry, we’re not going there.”
Robert Birnbaum:Are there things that you would not feel comfortable revealing? Are there secrets that you’ll always keep?
Richard Hoffman:I don’t think I have led a life that requires me to keep a lot of secrets. I don’t mean any disrespect to anybody who does feel that there secrets they have. That’s not a … I think that there is just a question of manners that sometimes people forget their manners when you’ve written a memoir.
Robert Birnbaum Referring to a notion of privacy?
Richard Hoffman:It’s as if its okay— wait the book ends here, and now what happens? Did your wife this? Did your kids that?
Robert Birnbaum:There’s that but there’s also …
Richard Hoffman:I didn’t ask you into my life. I made a book.
Robert Birnbaum: I think you did.
Richard Hoffman: No, I asked you to, in a way, look at your life.
Robert Birnbaum: I think that part of a memoir is that the author is establishing their veracity about themselves. Then maybe the question of do I want to ask you if you ever had any affairs, or how many times a day do you masturbate, they might want … Those would not be good questions. I would want to ask you things that sort of indicated how truthful you might be as opposed to … You could say, “Well the whole book, read the whole book and see if it all jives.” I ‘d go, “Well, a well-written novel is coherent. It may not be true, but it holds together. It’s plausible.”
Richard Hoffman:My feeling about that is always that when a reader is stuck on that question, it’s a way of avoiding the questions the book is really asking. In other words we live in America in the 21st century. We are being lied to 24/7.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, and it sometimes feel to me that memoirs are the whipping boys where nobody else is called to account, but if you write a memoir it’s “Aha, are you telling the truth?” Instead of saying, “Okay, here are the questions this book raises. The first among them is not, ‘Can I trust this guy?’ If you’ve read the whole book … “I’ve read James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces standing in the bookstore. After 20 minutes I put it back on the shelf and said, “This is a crock of shit.” The reason you know that is , you never see him interrogating himself. You never see him second-guessing himself. You never see him reflecting on what just happened, what he’s afraid is about to happen— any of that stuff. What you get is a raconteur, spinning yarns.Yeah, I mean every drunk on a bar stool can do that. I mean seriously, as long as you keep buying them drinks, they’ll keep talking.
Robert Birnbaum: There’s a more innocent view of that —which is that everybody has a story to tell and that some can tell it more skillfully than others.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, but also the story that you think you have to tell is probably not the story. That’s what writing is. Writing is you get down under that crust.
Robert Birnbaum:A story as opposed to the story.
Richard Hoffman [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum]
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, you get down under that crust and say, “How do I know that? Who told me that? How did I … Why doesn’t that line up with this?” That’s why memoirs take so goddamn long if you’re doing an honest job. You can write a novel every 2 years, some people do, because you can invent it. It’s hard to write a memoir every 2 years because you’re asking these questions like, “Well wait a minute. This seems to be so, and also this seems to be so, what’s the connection between those?” How do I account for the fact that I was there. I saw this. I feel absolutely certain of this, and somebody else who was there says, “No, no, that’s not how it was.” If you’re doing an honest job, you include all of that and discuss you’re reflecting upon it. That’s where this skill comes in or the craft is —that somehow you have to keep it interesting. You have to make that part of what’s interesting about the book.
Robert Birnbaum:The difference between memoir and autobiography is what?
Richard Hoffman:I think autobiographers are not inside the story in the same way a memoir just is. A memoir is not generally about your whole life to date for one thing. I think the memoir is just in the story in a way that an autobiographer has stepped out and is writing about his or her own life as a biographer. I’m writing as an essayist. That’s a different perspective and position.
Robert Birnbaum:Is your sense that, am I overstating it to say, [that the publication of] memoirs has exploded? More memoirs have been published these days than 10 years ago.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, it ebbs, the tide comes in and goes out.
Robert Birnbaum:When was the last big flood?
Richard Hoffman:In the late ’90s. I was one of the first with …
Robert Birnbaum: Mary Karr.
Richard Hoffman:Mary Karr, in fact, our books came out the same season.
Robert Birnbaum:Now she’s got a book called The Art of Memoir which is sort of a meta memoir with an extensive bibliography.
Richard Hoffman:Now I actually don’t know this, but I think that that was at the publisher’s behest and why not? Okay, it’s a job. I’m going to write this and maybe it’ll … it’s an honest buck. That’s great. I’d much more …I’m mostly interested in books that feel urgent to me. They have some sort of necessity that’s compelling a writer.
Robert Birnbaum:I don’t know if saw this but Mary Karr gave a .. the commencement speech this year at Syracuse. I’ve come to see many of them [graduation speeches], as pieces of literature.
Richard Hoffman:Right.Doesn’t she teach at Syracuse?
Robert Birnbaum:Yes, as does George Saunders.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, I mean another kind person. For a satirist, that’s a neat trick to be a satirist and …wield that compassionate sword. That’s really interesting. That’s what to me is the appeal of his work too.
Robert Birnbaum:He also gave, a very sweet commencement speech at Syracuse.
Richard Hoffman:For myself, I’m always scratching my head in relation to my students trying to say something like, “What do I wish I had heard when I was there?” I think that’s probably what animates a good graduation speech. It’s like, “Wow, what do I wish somebody had said to me at this moment?” If you came up in the ’60s, there wasn’t anybody telling you the truth about anything then.Johnson was lying to us.Nixon was lying to us.Timothy Leary was lying to us.
Robert Birnbaum: Leary really wasn’t lying to us was he? Did he know he was lying?
Richard Hoffman:No, well no he didn’t know. Let’s just say that we were swimming in untruth there. There was no running lights, no buoys…
Robert Birnbaum:I’m unrepentant about my life in that period, I have to say.
Richard Hoffman:Me too. Me too. In a way I think it is a generation that stepped outside that cave, that Plato’s cave that we were referring to.
Robert Birnbaum:We read Plato?
Richard Hoffman:Some people did, some people try to go back in the cave.
Robert Birnbaum:It’s not so bad there.
Richard Hoffman:That light hurt my eyes, anyways. I didn’t like it out there. I think there’s a critical mass of people that are still doing work in the world to try to coax people awake to wake people up.
Robert Birnbaum: I think it’s like readers, that are a finite number of whatever it is, in the world, that I suspect they’re always going to be— honest, angry people who don’t want to succumb, who can see above the pit that they’re in, or the cave opening. How we can propagate that impulse?
Richard Hoffman:It’s also there’s a deep misapprehension I think about joy and a confusion of joy and pleasure.
Robert Birnbaum:Why is that?
Richard Hoffman:Joy and comfort. I can’t have joy. I’m going to settle for comfort. I don’t know who convinced people they couldn’t have joy. Also, that to me is a, I mentioned it in here, that’s a recipe for addiction when you can’t tell the difference between joy and pleasure or you can’t tell the difference between joy and hilarity. That’s one thing. I came back a few months ago from a conference, an international conference, on sexual violence in Cambodia. There were 29 countries there. I was in the presence of heroes. I was really with people from various NGOs and little groups that were doing amazing work in these countries that were ripped apart by civil war. Kids were orphaned and on the streets. They were being scooped up by pedophile rings and sold around the world and all this shit that goes on that we know goes on. They were in there fighting this fight in Afghanistan, in the middle east, and all throughout these conflict zones in Africa. Working with refugees who are both men and women targets.Then it goes to the heart of what I’m trying to get at. When I tell people that, something happens to their faces. It’s like an international conference on sexual violence?
Area of many Henry Kissinger war crimes
Robert Birnbaum:In Cambodia?
Richard Hoffman:They say, “Oh, how was Cambodia?” They think I’m going to look at the temples. I did a little of that. Then they will say it like, “Oh, my god, wasn’t that depressing?” It’s like, okay what does that word mean? Depressing is when you pull the covers over your head, and you go back as far into the cave as you can, and you live in fear and you shut down. People who do this work, who had death threats, and are out there every day not knowing if they’re actually going to make it to dinnertime because they have made enemies doing this, they’re full of joy. They made their decision about what their life is going to be about. They’re not hanging back. It’s the hanging back that is … the idea that if something isn’t pleasant it must be depressing. First of all it’s just hugely sloppy language, and is part of this whole business of if you are feeling low and sad, the thing is not therefore maybe you need to grieve. Maybe you’re grieving over the state of the world. That’s what artists do. A lot of people won’t do it. They’re just like, “I’m holding my shit together here.” I think it’s really a question of … of being alive emotionally. The idea that if it’s unpleasant you should avoid it, that can only end in depression.
Robert Birnbaum:I believe we were given a way out, or a cultural excuse when somebody claimed the phrase, “disaster fatigue.” Oh, we can only handle so many and then … Oh, there’s only one earthquake and one riot we can handle, the rest is too much.” I never got that.
Richard Hoffman:I wrote a whole book about that. The book whole of poems, Gold Star Road was really about that.
Robert Birnbaum:Who reads poetry? I’m still stuck in 3 or 4 poems that I read as an undergraduate… I like Frank O’Hara. I like some of Alan Ginsberg’s stuff just because it was topical and who could resist Howl at the age of 18. And because I’ve talked to him a few times. He sort of stands out in that era as a personality. Who else do I read? David Ignatow, Karl Shapiro but other than that not many. Are your students interested in reading poetry?
ALLEN GINSBERG, NEW YORK CITY, 1966. PHOTOGRAPHY BY ©FRED W. MCDARRAH.
Richard Hoffman:They are by the time I get done with them.
Robert Birnbaum:Maybe I should audit your class.
Richard Hoffman:Whenever I teach, wherever I am, that could be a grade school, or a graduate school, or a prison, or a senior center, or a conference, I always begin with a poem. For one thing, literature begins with poetry. Prose is a very late development. Anything that we might call literature is about connecting this to this with language so you can see out as a whole person. That’s poetry. It happens in prose. I tried to make it happen sometimes here. The difference to me is between prose and verse. I mean I think that the literary writer is aiming for a kind of poetry all the time. It takes different forms. I think you’re a poet in as much as you’re considering what’s the right kind of sentence to write here? What’s the right way to say this? You’re not just re-camping this. You’re cresting something. I don’t want to put too fine a point on what kind of making constitutes a poet. As somebody who’s writing across genres, I don’t decide what a thing is going to be, I ask it what it wants to be.
Robert Birnbaum:When you sit down with a blank piece of paper …
Richard Hoffman:This morning.
Robert Birnbaum:… and try to start— a few words pop out?
Richard Hoffman: Yeah, more often than not, the way I work is I have a pile of journals that I have filled over the last 30 years. I dive into those unless something has recently struck me. Or because things that seem too pedestrian when I wrote them, have a different …
Richard Hoffman:… weight now, yeah, a different resonance to them. I could look at that same notebook and go through and pull 3 things out of there that actually are going to work into something, that I see them coming together to become something. I’ve looked at them a dozen times before and that didn’t happen. I don’t know.
Robert Birnbaum:I believe that’s true of so many things, our subjectivity about rereading a book, or seeing a movie again.
Richard Hoffman:Absolutely.I’m always mining those notebooks and then continuing the present notebook as an investment in the future like a squirrel burrowing nuts or …
Robert Birnbaum:You’re not at all troubled as you write by, I don’t want to say your career, but …
Richard Hoffman:I don’t have one of those so I don’t have to worry about it.
Robert Birnbaum So what’s the function of your body of work? Are you looking back but you’re not looking back? You’re seeing old things you’ve written. When you find something you’ve written in the past, and you think about it, do you then further think about whether you’ve written something even further in the past that was like this[an infinite regress]? How much do you spiral into the past?
Richard Hoffman:Probably more than I know. I don’t do it deliberately. I don’t know. That’s interesting.
Robert Birnbaum:When you look at something that is pinned to a specific time, does all of the surround of that time become immediate and vivid for you? When you read something you wrote do you remember where you wrote it?
Richard Hoffman:Yes, absolutely.
Robert Birnbaum: What something smelled like and what you …
Robert Birnbaum:That’s cool.
Richard Hoffman:Sometimes that’s the thing that I end up writing about not what I wrote. On the other hand, one of the other sort of magical properties of going back to something like that, is that it’s not me, it’s almost like somebody else could have written this. I’m looking at the language. I’m seeing “wow, listen to that”, in the middle of a long piece about a class that went badly or something that I was writing when I got home, there’s a line, or a sentence, which just has some kind of melody to it or some kind of … I’ll pull that out and start playing with it.
Robert Birnbaum:There are musicians, I just saw a pianist [Fred Hersch] last night, I think he actually has a recording called Songs Without Words, and it just made me think, as you were talking, and so maybe poetry is words without song, that there’s a musicality to it, but that is not primary?
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, well I don’t know. I think that poetry, I can only speak from my own way of going at it because there’s so many different little schools and sub-genres of poetry, but that it is written for the ear and it is song. It’s song in that it’s a deliberate sonic structure. It’s operating within the bounds of normal speech. When you introduce melody, then you’re going beyond the bounds of normal. You’re stretching things up and down. In terms of timing, in terms of the re-cursive sound, that’s all very conscious on the part of the writer, on the part of the poet, as a part of the effect.
Robert Birnbaum:I discovered … I come from Chicago as you may not know. I may not have mentioned it 50 or 60 times to establish myself, my hard guy bonafides, but I come from Chicago as you well know. Curtis Mayfield was a great musician in my mind. He was, for me being from Chicago, he was the guy, I loved his music. I always loved his music.
Richard Hoffman:He’s not Buddy Guy?
Robert Birnbaum:Right, don’t let me finish. I discovered these recordings by Wiliam Parker a jazz bassist, of Curtis Mayfield songs, with a large ensemble. A number of the pieces have Amiri Baraka aka Leroi Jones reading his poetry against the music of Mayfield and it’s astoundingly great. I mean Leroy was never someone I read … I never read his poetry except for Black Dadanihilimuss.He was an interesting musicologist. I suppose a lot of classical, much classical music, is based on putting poems to music. I think that’s something that I find really attractive. I could listen to more of that although I didn’t like the Beats doing it. Somehow it seemed artificial.
Richard Hoffman:I did a little stint as a faux beatnik. I spent time when I was in my 20s in New York polishing my persona. I had these pointy velvet boots and a gendarmes’s cape with a glass lion’s head clasp on it.
I was a poet.
Robert Birnbaum:My uniform was work shirts and jeans and Frye boots.
Richard Hoffman:That was the progressive labor party uniform. Yeah, I …Where was I going with this?
Robert Birnbaum:You were talking about music, Beats doing music.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, so I showed up to read at this bar in the East Village called Sabazics, on 3rd Avenue.They had a little stage there. I was getting up to it and suddenly there’s 3 people jumped up on stage with their instruments. I was like, “What’s going on?” He was like, “Well they asked me to back you.” I said, “But we hadn’t rehearsed or anything.” They said, “You just start to read and we’ll pick it up.” It was awful. It was awful. It was incredibly distracting.
Robert Birnbaum:And pretentious probably.
Richard Hoffman:Maybe it works because the poems were certainly pretentious and awful too. Nothing I would ever publish. I thankfully don’t have to look back and regret publishing them.
Robert Birnbaum:What do you make … I’ve never understood poetry slams. I’ve never attended one. I’ve certainly read about them. What are they? What form is that?
Richard Hoffman:Well I had not participated in one. I really don’t want to say. I don’t want to pass judgement. I don’t know anything about them.
Robert Birnbaum: It’s one of those things that it’s something of a cultural phenomenon that I have almost no curiosity about it except at this moment.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, I think it’s generational too. I have seem some remarkable poets come out of the spoken word movement and out of the slam movement. For example, Patricia Smith, as one of the stellar examples of that. I’ve been moved in situations where at a poetry festival somebody who’s identified as this spoken word poet gets up and does something really remarkable. My wife, Kathleen Agwaro, who is a poet as well—we’ve often said to each other, you know if we had been born later, we might have caught that wave.
Robert Birnbaum: It’s rare to come across a public oration or declamation which is really captivating I can think of about a handful. I think that was one of the attractions of Obama, in a time when people can’t utter a complete cogent sentence.
Richard Hoffman:He’s an orator. He began as a writer and became an orator. We’re back to James Baldwin. My students will say … There’s a wonderful film that I show called The Price of the Ticket , James Baldwin, It may be the best film about a writer that’s ever been made. People’ll say, “My god, he’s so articulate.” I say, “Yes, but if you read the collected essays, as you realize he wrote all this stuff already.” In a way, when you sit with your notebook, or your laptop, or whatever it is, 2 hours a day, articulating your thinking, when the moment comes, as often happens in the culture we’re in where somebody sticks a microphone in your face, you’ve already thought this stuff. You’re not ‘hamina, hamina, hamina.’ You’ve kind of thought it out. It’s not as if you’re remembering what you wrote. You’ve incised that little track in your brain following ..
Robert Birnbaum:This reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s saying ,’if you never lie, you don’t need a memory.” Somehow you can always remember the things that you think about that are true.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah. I think when you’ve really struggled to articulate something on paper, when you’ve got it, you’ve got it. It takes a while to get there. Then when you’re speaking off the cuff, you’re relying on that. I’m doing that right now. There’s an interplay for a writer between speaking in public and writing in private that is really …Baldwin came out of the pulpit, as did Emerson . There’s something to be said about that. I’ve often thought that I became faded, doomed, to be a writer when I moved from being an alter boy to being the lector who got up and read to the congregation. When I stood at a lectern and I read the Gospel or I read the Epistles, I was like, “Wow, there’s a whole bunch of people listening to me.” That felt really good. When you’re 14, 15 years old, that feels really good.
Robert Birnbaum: ‘Lector’, in Cuba, there was someone who sat in front of the cigar rolling rooms, reading classic literature to the rollers.
Richard Hoffman:That’s right.
Robert Birnbaum:There’s something really charming about that. Give me a short list of some of the writers, essayist, memoirs that you admire, that you’d want other people … ?
Richard Hoffman:I teach a graduate seminar. It goes back to what we were talking about before locating yourself in history. It was a response to the a-historical consciousness of my graduate students who are the next generation of nonfiction writers. I said, “How can you not know where the things we’re contenting with came from?” That course is a literature course called the 20th Century in the First Person. It starts with Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That. It goes from there to Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate.. It’s about an American kid in an assimilated Armenian family discovering …
Robert Birnbaum:Armenians don’t assimilate…
Richard Hoffman:..Discovering who he is.
Robert Birnbaum:They’re pretty clannish, Armenians.
Richard Hoffman:Clannish is different from owning your history. His beloved grandmother was one of the few survivors of the Armenian genocide.
Robert Birnbaum:Which is still being argued about.You know what really gets me is the arrogance of my tribesman about their holocaust —as if it was a better holocaust than other holocausts.
Richard Hoffman:Right, shall we compare the Jewish genocide with the North American …
Robert Birnbaum:We had bigger numbers.
Richard Hoffman:Not to mention the Middle Passage.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, but in that course we go from there to Primo Levi.
Robert Birnbaum:His complete works in a three volume set was just published.
THE COMPLETE works of Primo Levi
Richard Hoffman: We just do Survival in Auschwitz.
Robert Birnbaum:We talked about the commercialization of publishing and then you see that. I assume libraries are going to buy it?
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, they will. Then we’re just reading Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope about the Stalin years in Russia. It was a remarkable coming together of … We were going to discuss that book a week ago, Wednesday night. I was asked to read as part of this Pen New England ACLU program on surveillance. I said, “This is what this whole book is about. We’re going to put the discussion of the book off until next week. I want everybody to come to MIT for that event.” It really fueled our discussion. It made it much more about where are we in relation to this continual surveillance
Robert Birnbaum:I have to thank you for clarifying for me something about memoir that I just haven’t even thought about that is to be placed in a historical time and to make it cognisant of that historical time that the focus isn’t just the person in the memoirs, or your habits, or your accomplishments. It’s about what’s happening around you.
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, honestly, my go-to quip with this book was I’d start out by saying, “I wrote a memoir. It’s not about me.” Then people want to know what the hell you mean by that. That gives me an opening to talk a little bit about what I do mean by that.
Robert Birnbaum:When you’re at a party and you meet, and you look like a partier, you look like you’re partying a lot, and you meet someone for the first time, and they, inevitably, ask you what do you do— you say what?
Richard Hoffman:It depends who asks, what the situation is.
Robert Birnbaum:Someone you don’t know
Richard Hoffman:Well, it also depends on the situation.
Robert Birnbaum:A beautiful woman.
Richard Hoffman:No, but I move up and down the class ladder a lot. I don’t say, “Well I’m a professor.” That’s the kiss of death. God forbid, “Oh, I’m a poet.” Saying you’re a writer is always awkward. People say, “Well would you have written anything that I might have read?”
Robert Birnbaum:There is a standard conversation isn’t there?
Richard Hoffman:Yeah. “How the fuck would I know? I don’t know. Let me come to look at your bookshelves.” Probably not, I’d say. I try to change the subject to whatever— the election, sports.
Robert Birnbaum:Given that it’s mostly an awkward beginning of a conversation, does such a conversation yield any fruit? Or do you just basically try to bail out as soon as you can?
Richard Hoffman:I try to bail as soon as I can. That’s an awful indicator of where we are as a culture.
Robert Birnbaum:The question, asking you …
Richard Hoffman:If you said, “My name is John Grisham.” They’d say, “Oh, the writer?” They’d talk to you for 3 hours. Or someone else who is part of the popular culture. Otherwise, people are scared to death of writers, especially poets. Muriel Rukeyser wrote about that in the Life of Poetry a long time ago, the fact that poetry scares people, because basically you are trying to pull people out of that cave. You’re going to bump them out of their comfort zone. When people say, “I don’t understand …”
Robert Birnbaum:That would be why Plato said to distrust poets
Richard Hoffman:Yeah. They’re going to continually be destabilizing. If a poem isn’t destabilizing in some way, whether that makes you well up with tears or say, “Goddammit,” or if it doesn’t do any of those things, then it’s decoration.
Robert Birnbaum:We could go on endlessly which might not be bad but we’re old men and have many roads to walk.
Richard Hoffman:… and miles to go before my afternoon nap, and miles to go before my afternoon nap.
Robert Birnbaum:… and then the evening nap. Does it strike you that, I find myself not even want … When somebody says, “What do you do?” I find myself torn between just shrugging or actually thinking bad thoughts about the person that asked me that. It’s lack of imagination.
Richard Hoffman:You have the out of being able to say, “I’m a journalist.”
Robert Birnbaum:I do? I don’t want to answer that question because I’m also a ‘dialogist’. And I’m also a little league umpire. I’m also …
Richard Hoffman:I know what a little league umpire is, but what the hell is a dialogist?
Robert Birnbaum:It’s someone who talks.
Richard Hoffman:I know.
Robert Birnbaum:Ok, I made it up.
Richard Hoffman:It’s better than being a monologist although there’s more money in being a monologist.
Robert Birnbaum: Well, ultimately this conversation is my monologue. You’re just here to give legitimacy to my publishing even more of my opining about the world. No, I don’t know—here’s how I see what I do— I like to talk to people who have big and well used vocabularies and have a sufficient amount of experiences that can talk about those and keep me interested.” So what do you call that? Think about it. Please get back to me and tell me.
Richard Hoffman:(laughs)I will. I’ll send you an email.
Robert Birnbaum:I need to new descriptor
Richard Hoffman:A new moniker…
Robert Birnbaum:What’s up for you in the fullness of time?
Richard Hoffman:Well in the short run there’s a new poetry collection coming together.
Robert Birnbaum:Who’s publishing that?
Richard Hoffman:Barrow Street Press.
Richard Hoffman:Barrow Street Press. They had published the last 2 books. It’s a pretty wonderful press, actually. The question right now is do I want to do a New and Selected Poems, which is one of the options on the table, or do I want to put together a new collection? A new and selected poems, you’d probably put maybe 20 new poems in there with greatest hits from the other 3 books. That would be nice. I’d like that.
Robert Birnbaum:How many poems would be in there?
Richard Hoffman:There’d be a 90 or a 100 page book.
Robert Birnbaum:At what point, after you wrote your first memoir, did you understand that it was going to be an ongoing process here?
Richard Hoffman:I didn’t. I absolutely didn’t. I had never thought I’d write another one.
Robert Birnbaum:Then you came down to this …
Richard Hoffman:I didn’t want to write that one. It took 17 years of …
Robert Birnbaum:This is the 2nd one?
Richard Hoffman:Yeah, I speed it up, it only took 6 1/2.I’m, of course, a lot older so I do have a sense of the trajectory of my life and what it’s about and what matters to me. It’s in some ways easier to divine what the shape of the story is. It’s not easy. It’s easier to feel your way, “Oh, I got to go this way and not that way.” I mean, the first 2 books were very much about being the first born son of a very powerful father in a blue collar patriarchal Catholic family . Just trying to parse that out. Understand what all of those influences meant. It was really about what both the first 2 books are about. This 3rd one I see as about trying to reclaim my connection to my mother.
Robert Birnbaum:Who died early.
Robert Birnbaum:Yeah, do you have any sense of your son and daughter having any interest in writing about their lives.
Richard Hoffman:I hope not. There’s that old saying, “If there’s a writer in the family, the family is fucked.”
Richard Hoffman:I’ve definitely proved that.
Interface & Other Stories by Richard Hoffman
Robert Birnbaum:I just saw a film—the beauty of Netflix is the discovery of these things that never make it because there are not enough movie screens—a film called Middle of Nowhere. It’s a story of a black couple. He gets busted. She gives up medical school and takes a job as a nurse so she can see him every week, basically suspends her life, with the hope that the 8-year sentence he got, would be reduced with good behavior to 4 years. Which, somehow in their minds, is manageable. I mean there’s a bunch of plot twists, but just the sense of the dreariness of this, the awfulness of it and the provocations that are systemic
Robert Birnbaum:It’s really compelling. You just never …
Richard Hoffman:When you multiply that by … That’s why, I called us, sitting in the waiting room at prison, the Le Miserables. When you take that, and you understand that people are all the same and that hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of thousands of families are impacted by this insanity [of mass incarceration]that we have, where we don’t know what to do. We put people in boxes.
Robert Birnbaum:Then we privatize it.
Richard Hoffman:Well yeah, that too.
Robert Birnbaum:I hope that we speak again in the fullness of time when you come out with part 3 of …
Richard Hoffman:After this I will never speak to you again.
Robert Birnbaum:I’ll find someone with the name Richard Hoffman, another Richard Hoffman and record him. Thank you, thank you very much.
Richard Hoffman [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum]
1 The complete The Price of the Ticket
2 George Orwell’s Such Were the Joys PDF
3 Re: I.F. Stone
4 OMiB conversation with Mary Karr
5 OMiB third conversation with George Saunders
6 Amiri Baraka reads Black Dada Nihilismus