Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Richard Hoffman about Remembering the Alchemists, a deeply meditative and probing collection of personal essays tackling moral issues from gun violence to shame to dynamics of family.
The opening essay of Remembering the Alchemists describes a William Blake painting, and your intense response to it. This image and your ideas in this first essay seem central to the collection, launching points into the heart of the book. How and when did you realize this piece of art might be central to the book, and that it should be the first essay in the collection? Have you worked with visual art in your writing before?
When I was putting the book together, it was always clear that “Like Never Before” would come first. It is, after all, William Blake’s painting of humanity’s beginning. The book itself is a miscellany, a selection of essays from thirty years’ work, but in the process of assembling it, I saw how it coheres, how it really is a whole: all the essays are facets of the same engagement with the world. So assembling them I kept catching glimpses of myself — there’s Waldo! — and I’m still discovering, mostly from talking with readers, other echoes and correspondences throughout.
I have worked with visual art before, in my poems. There’s a series about Matisse, another based on Andreas Alciati’s Emblematum Liber, from the 16th century, another on Rembrandt’s painting “The Rape of Ganymede.”
So you’re right to note that that first essay is central to the collection. It asks one of the key questions I’m pursuing here: whether a story that begins in murderous violence, in fratricide, can be amended, whether here in the 21st century, which increasingly feels like the 11th hour, we can wake from the long nightmare of cascading trauma.
What incited you to write this book? Was there one essay or a group of them that ignited this project?
I can really only talk about what incited me to write particular essays. The title essay was published in Consequence magazine, and won a Pushcart Prize and Fellowship. Soon after that Steven Harvey, editor at The Humble Essayist Press (and a magnificent essayist!) wrote and asked if I might have a book. It was that invitation that encouraged me to gather up essays I’d published over the years. I saw how they could build to a book, and in my excitement I finished two essays that had been languishing, and wrote four new ones. There is nothing like an invitation into print to motivate a writer!
The deeper motivation for the title essay, along with several others in the book, is a lifelong intractable need to try to understand why we accept cruelty, violence, greed, and corruption as normal. I keep looking for something beyond simple outrage on the one hand and a shrugging “’twas ever thus” on the other.
To essay is to try, to attempt, to search. You are also a poet, and a writer of fiction and memoir. What does the essay form allow you that the other genres perhaps don’t, or that the other genres allow in different ways? Why essays for this material this time? When did you realize, for example, that this was a collection of essays and not a memoir?
Mostly I write whatever I can write on a given day (some days I can’t.) Later, I gather things together, try to see what they are becoming. Whenever I set myself a project, I’m in danger of seeing it as homework. I always hated homework. So whatever anybody tells me to write — even me — I go off and write something else. It’s the rebellious Catholic schoolboy.
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. 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 a terribly short attention span, but it’s the only way I know how to work.
What is your definition of Americana? Does this book fit into that definition? How so?
I have, honestly, never thought about my work in relation to that term, not until you asked this thought-provoking question. The word Americana conjures a kind of nostalgia: falling down barns, outmoded tools displayed as art — rusty scythes, rakes, hoes, mowers — hanging on a wall. That’s probably a wrong-headed way to look at the term, but I want my writing to be an alternative to nostalgia; I want it to tear that veil and show us where we come from, so we might see where we are, for better and for worse.
That said, the preservation of the best of American culture is at least as important as pointing out what’s been and is still wrong with it. In fact, I think some of the best of American culture, whether books, films, plays, or music, is either implicitly or explicitly pointing to how we can improve. I’m thinking especially of music, that incredible and unique confluence of styles that almost any piece of American popular music is.
In “An Egg!”, the essay begins with and revolves around a word, “daresn’t”, which you say you’ve only heard two people utter — your mother and her mother. Where do you think this word originated? Is there a German counterpart? Are there other words or phrases from your mother’s Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing that color your childhood?
I really don’t know where the word originates. I don’t speak German, but I have no trouble believing it has a German counterpart. One of those Pennsylvania Dutch expressions that sticks with me is the way the word “say” is used, as agreement or assent or underscoring. Somebody says something you agree with and you respond with “Say?” Meaning “Boy, isn’t that the case?” or “Don’t you agree?” It can be inflected lots of ways: without the questioning lift in the voice it means something more like, “Amen.” And spat flatly it means, “No shit, Sherlock.” I love it: one short syllable that can be stretched, shaped, shortened to express a whole spectrum of emotion under a wide range of circumstances.
Despite not speaking German, when I went there I heard my parents’ voices: in the pitch and rhythm, the lilt and punch, the music I guess you could say. Say?
Are there any memoirs you’ve read recently, or particularly notable ones of the past, that identify course corrections our world desperately needs right now, or that provide that felt experience of the past that seems particularly urgent today?
From the past, I would have to say Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by himself, published in 1845, the first and shortest of his three autobiographies. That is a complex work of art, driven as much by intellect as by passion, an indictment that still stands, and an analysis of the plantation system that still accurately describes the apparatus of oppression.
In the essay “To Hell and Back” I write at some length about the memoir After Long Silence by Helen Fremont. I called it one of “a handful of memoirs that successfully reckon with the consequences of the twentieth century’s atrocities and dislocations.” I’d add to that handful Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate, and, a generation earlier, Nadhezda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope. More recent memoirs that enact transformative personal encounters with history would include Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland, Dwayne Betts’s A Question of Freedom, and Leah Carroll’s Down City.
In several of the essays, you reference your first memoir, Half the House, and how your choice to use your abuser’s real name in the book ultimately led to his arrest and imprisonment, to the discovery that this man had raped hundreds of other boys. Can you speak about the risks and advantages to naming people in nonfiction? How did you decide to use your abuser’s real name in your memoir, and in what other situations have you decided against using real names?
I never had any sort of incendiary aim with that book. I had presumed, like so many other things in the past, that the coach who had violated me was gone. That assumption, it turns out, that the past is gone, is the foundational lie about the past, about history, that all the other lies we live with rest on. That book and its consequences are the way I found that out. It’s true what Camus wrote: “Freedom is the right not to lie.”
I decided I had to use that coach’s real name, because the city where I grew up has plenty of generous volunteer coaches who really help kids grow up. I knew some of them as a boy as well. One of them restored me after that abuse, gave me a lifeline, without even knowing it. He died before I understood enough to want to say thank you. I wrote about him in an essay “Pictures of Boyhood” now appended to the latest edition of Half the House. His name was Marty Romig.
You see what I did there. In this circumstance, I am not repeating the name of that predatory coach (who died in prison, likely murdered.) But I want to honor Marty Romig because, even posthumously, he deserves it.
As there are people deserving of infamy, malefactors who shouldn’t be protected, there are also people who are deserving of honor who mustn’t go unacknowledged.
One of my favorite essays in the collection is “Neighbors.” This essay was such a pleasure because, while it wasn’t easy to accept the truths with which it grappled, it took me to surprising places, expanding my perceptions. Toward the beginning, you say, “Art … can serve to direct our gaze, to somehow help us to manage our attention.” Talk a little bit about that and how you employed this essay to direct our gaze.
I’m glad you like that one. It’s about 20 years old. I don’t know how I’d write it now. It takes place during a particular commute on the Red Line from Cambridge to Boston. No one on the train has a cell phone. People are reading magazines and newspapers and books. I’m reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot while listening to Thelonius Monk on my iPod. (Tech just starting to become ubiquitous.) Now, Myshkin is a character who lives his questions, and he’s an “idiot” because he doesn’t understand why compassion, kindness, isn’t understood to be the ultimate good. I think of him singing Elvis Costello’s “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?” And I describe Monk’s music like this: “Thelonious Monk was just unraveling the melody like taking apart an elegant theorem while pleasurably demonstrating how the parts might be reconfigured to create a different mood, even a different set of premises from which to start over.” Which is what I think we have to try to do now: break things down and reconstruct them, revise our understandings. I think these two kinds of questioning are central to the whole book, to each one of the essays in its own way. I suspect that they represent the lub and dub of my own heartbeat; they’re me.
The essay is about a number of things, but mostly about attention, about the power of art to capture our attention, to occupy our frighteningly curious imaginations. The novelist and composer in that essay are trying to give us an infusion of what we need: awe, humility, complexity, beauty, in return for our attention. The subway is also full of advertisements. Advertisers do that as well, but for different reasons. And of course I am trying to direct your attention, too.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what we mean when we say a work “moves us.” Do we just mean that we felt something? I think a good piece of art moves us because it maneuvers us into looking from a certain vantage not usually our own: to understand it we have to move.
“Maybe to think there can be such a thing as moral imagination or any such way forward is foolishness. I don’t know, but there is nothing left for us to do now but search for it” (99). What does it mean to search for a way forward today? What does that search look like, tangibly? What does hope look like in action? Is it, as you say earlier in the essay, writing itself?
For me, yes, it’s writing itself as it is for most poets and essayists: it’s in the search. The search is the hope in action. Hope is only hope then, when it isn’t inert. Hope isn’t wishing, it’s concentrating on the baffling maze of untruths we’re lost in. “There must be some way out of here/ Said the joker to the thief,” as one recent Nobel laureate put it.
In “From the Depths,” you admit your tastes in popular music: Blues, Jazz, Classical. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, was there music that inspired the drafting (or revision or ordering) of the essays in this book?
I do listen to music when I write, but it’s not the music I listen to when I’m not writing. When I’m writing, there can be no lyrics. I usually need to slow down to write. For a long time, I only listened to John Fields’ Nocturnes when writing, and never when I wasn’t writing, and I always resumed, at my next writing session, wherever I had left off. It was a way to reintroduce myself to the writing that had been interrupted. These days I listen to jazz, classical, and contemporary classical music. Sometimes movie scores.
But all the rest of the time I listen to blues, folk, roots, and rock and roll. I was so happy when Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In the years leading up to that, I was Chair of PEN New England and, largely at Salman Rushdie’s urging, we instituted an award for Lyrics as Literature and gave it to Leonard Cohen, Chuck Berry, Randy Newman, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Waits, and John Prine. The whole point was that for most of human history, literature was sung. And right beside the printed word, it still is.
Do you have projects in the works? What are you working on now?
I have a new book of poems just about to come out called People Once Real. I’m not sure what’s after that. The writing continues, including tending that garden of things in the notebook. What I’m mostly working on, working at, is trying to find ways to write about being a grandparent, the ontological change it seems to be, the beauty of having the leisure to watch personhood happening, to participate in the lives of children. It’s hard to do! You have to somehow write only what’s genuine and not be pulled this way or that into one of the existing tropes about grandkids: “aw, so cute!” That means not relying on the ready consolations and sweetnesses, although they are real. I want to write more about my responsibility to them than merely about my enjoyment of them, as real as that is. That starts with describing what I think are the important questions they will grow up to seek answers for. I’m writing from my experience in horizontal time, but I’m also trying to be mindful of vertical time, generational time, the time that contains history and that conveys its consequences into the future. It won’t be long before I’ll be leaving one for the other, so it only makes sense.
Richard Hoffman has published four volumes of poetry, Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the Sheila Motton Award from The New England Poetry Club; Emblem; and Noon until Night,winner of the 2018 Massachusetts Book Award. His other books include Half the House: a Memoir; the 2014 memoir Love & Fury; and the story collection Interference and Other Stories. His work, both prose and verse, has been appearing regularly in literary journals for fifty years. He is Emeritus Writer in Residence at Emerson College in Boston, and nonfiction editor of Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices.