Our poetry editor, Michelle Watters, recently had this exchange with Mark Hoffman, who will be reading his poetry at the upcoming The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 book tour event at Shelburne Vineyard. Here’s what Mark had to say about his poetry and the inspiration behind it.
How long have you been a member of the BWW?
A couple of years.
Do you think the workshop has helped your writing?
Absolutely. It’s expanded my perspective on writing technique and the nature of craft, while giving me a real sense of the process of writing, helping me to understand my own process so I can use it more effectively. Of course all of these things only have value when you practice; you can’t learn to walk just by talking or thinking about it, and writing is the same way. The workshop gives you lots of incentive to keep writing, as well a safe place to trot out new stories and try them out.
Your poem “Saying Goodbye,” which is in this year’s anthology, is simply put a classic love poem reminiscent of W.B Benton’s book of poems This is my Beloved. When writing this poem, did you intend to leave the reader with a sense of loss and time?
Yes, it was written to a specific person. I’d had a three-year relationship with someone; the poem in last year’s anthology was written near the beginning of that relationship. “Saying Goodbye” was written near the end. I often use poems as a way to clarify my feelings; when I hurt or something’s bothering me, poems help to embody those feelings, so I can understand them better and let them go.
What are you working on currently?
I’m working on a novel and an assortment of short stories that I kind of ‘bounce around’ in. And I still write poetry; I think that’s something I just need to do from time to time. Most of my poems never see the light of day. But I don’t seem to have as much time to write as I used to.
Do you intend to put together a poetry manuscript in the near future?
No, no plans to do that right now.
What was your childhood like?
Pretty standard, almost a cliché, but it was great. I was the youngest of four boys and grew up in Minnesota. There were lots of activities to keep us busy; you know, hockey, Boy Scouts, camping, skiing, many attempts to keep us out of trouble. And we had a lot of pets; the standard issue dog and a cat that seemed to live forever, with a crow we raised that lived outside the house until it finally decided to fly away, some lambs we bottle fed in the springtime, and the usual assortment of hamsters, mice, and rats that would take up residence in cages in our rooms, until they were buried solemnly in the backyard. My mom was an artist and homemaker; she was the emotional heart of the family. She loved to tell a good story, and was insightful and down to earth, so she was the one who could cut through all the confusion and explain to the rest of us what was going on in the family. My dad was a doctor, a workaholic; he would come home from the clinic and then change his clothes and mow the lawn in order to relax, or work on the old car he kept in the garage. But he still had time to coach us in hockey, or take us camping or swimming. We would go on family ski trips and road trips from Minnesota to the Adirondacks; every summer we would drive out and spend two weeks at an old family camp in the Adirondacks. Growing up was like a cross between The Waltons and playing football for the Green Bay Packers.
At what point in your life did it occur to you that you were a writer?
I think I’m still trying to decide that. I started writing poetry when I was young; I actually wrote my first poem before I could spell that word correctly, not that any of my early work was much good. Poems have often been almost like songs in my life; they’re a place to put feelings so that you can sort them and understand them better, a way to express them clearly. Feelings don’t seem to make sense sometimes when you try to write them in prose; the form is too linear and logical, it’s hard to hold a feeling and it’s opposite both in a sentence at the same time. I guess that’s what images are for.
Who are some of your favorite authors or poets?
The first poet I discovered who really struck me as unique was E.E. Cummings; I mean, the guy didn’t capitalize stuff and his verse was free form! I think I was in elementary school, and he really opened my eyes to what poetry could do. That opened the door for greater things. Pablo Neruda was only a short step away.
As for fiction authors, well, my favorites have always been changing; growing up, there was HG Wells and Jules Verne, John Steinbeck, Ayn Rand, Conan Doyle, Asimov, Bradbury, Sinclair Lewis, Tolkien, Herman Hesse, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky. It was like visiting lots of different countries as you passed through adolescence; it’s hard to decide which ones are your favorite. Then I was an English major for a good chunk of college (sometimes I was biology major) so there was exposure to many of the classics there, and some of them stuck and hung on, with Fitzgerald, Joseph Conrad, Faulkner, Kafka, and James Joyce (Dostoyevsky and Hemingway again) all mixed with more contemporary authors like Pynchon, Borges, Brautigan, I.B. Singer, Umberto Eco, and Robertson Davies, with a steady diet of science fiction and fantasy stuffed around the edges (like William Gibson, Orson Scott Card, Le Guin, Clark, Stephen King, and whatever was on the shelf that looked interesting). I like a lot of different authors and I seem to need a great variety in my reading. It’s hard to choose favorites. Recently, I finished rereading Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey—Maturin series for the third or fourth time, while I’ve been revisiting some of Jack London’s classic short stories, trying to figure out just how he made them feel so simple, and rereading some of the 20th century existentialists, like Camus’ The Stranger and his essay collection in The Myth of Sisyphus. It’s all good, really. I don’t know who I would leave out.
Would you consider any of these inspiration for your own writing?
Everything I’ve read has been inspirational.
Where do you see your writing career in five years?
Writing is as much therapy as anything else. I’d love to finish the novel I’m working on and get it out into the world.
Do you believe in soulmates?
I would say yes that I do, but I believe in multiple soulmates and multiple lives. I believe that we bump into people through the many lives that we lead, and we discover many soulmates. And then we rediscover some of them. In the same way that a book can create a world that’s separate from the larger world, you step into a relationship with another person and it does the same kind of thing; two people create an emotional world together that has its own set of rules and its own emotional content, its own power. It’s like two people create their own Gestalt. And when the relationship ends that world breaks down and falls apart; one person can’t recreate it by themselves. But sometimes you feel the whisper of the past when you meet someone; you feel the power of the places that you’ve made together, even though you’ve never met them before. (Of course the scientist in me is skeptical of anything that can’t be proven, so most of this is just fantasy).
To hear Mark and others read their work from this year’s anthology, join us for the upcoming The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 book tour event at Shelburne Vineyard. Enjoy a glass of local wine while listening to local poets read their work: a perfect pairing for any Vermonter. RSVP now >
Mark Hoffman has been writing poetry and fiction since before he realized that e actually follows o in the word ‘poem’. His bachelor’s degree from Lawrence University and master’s work in Soil Biology and Microbial Ecology have helped a little, but mostly he’s been on his own. He currently lives and works in Burlington, Vermont.
About The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016
This book is the fourth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop series. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2016 edition is available for purchase on our website or in the BWW space at 110 Main Street, Studio 3C in Burlington. Buy your copy now >