First Book Poets in Conversation:
Cynthia Marie Hoffman & Rachel Richardson

Cynthia Marie Hoffman's first book, Sightseer, won the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry. Her second book, Paper Doll Fetus, is forthcoming from Persea Books in 2014. Hoffman has been a Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the recipient of a Wisconsin Arts Board Individual Artist Fellowship, and a Director's Guest at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Italy. Her work has appeared as an Intro Feature in Pleiades, an internal chapbook in Mid-American Review, and in Fence, The Missouri Review, The Journal, and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Madison, WI. (
Rachel Richardson's first book, Copperhead, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2011. She is the recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship to the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and five Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prizes. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Southern Review, New England Review, Slate, at the Poetry Foundation website, and elsewhere. She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with her family, and will be the 2012-2013 Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill. (

Cynthia Marie Hoffman: Our first books both deal with place, but in very different ways—not only in terms of location (your collection, Copperhead, is a portrait of Louisiana, and my collection, Sightseer, meanders through Europe) but also in terms of the speaker's relationship to place. While Copperhead is powerfully driven by a sense of inherited history and culture, the speaker seems often unsettled—in fact, we are reminded throughout the book that the speaker is "only passing" through—she even quotes road signs along the way. As you were writing these poems, how did you determine the best way to position the self in relation to place, and why was it important for you to use the speaker's conflict with belonging (or not belonging) as one of the central arguments of the book?
Rachel Richardson: It seems to me that it's hard to write about any subject that one fully inhabits—or in which one doesn't feel some sense of alienation. It's a question of perspective, I guess: we need a little physical distance in order to see things in their larger context, and perhaps to better understand them. And maybe more centrally, that conflict between being a part of something (a culture, say) and simultaneously being distanced from it is incredibly charged—it's a great position from which to write. (Maybe the only position?) In my case, the material I was drawn to was this landscape—rural north Louisiana—where I have spent a lot of time, but never actually lived. My father's family lived there for many generations, but he left and raised me in California. Talk about cultural disjuncture. On one hand, I feel completely a product of this history: the story of this place is my familial inheritance. On the other hand, I am a total outsider: I talk wrong, I forget to say "ma'am" to my elders, I question political views and the historical legends that have been created and are revered.

In early poems, and early conceptions of this book, I imagined that I would write in the persona of girl who's a Louisiana native. That didn't work, for what seem now to be obvious reasons: there was no tension, and I simply didn't know enough about who she was, and what would have shaped her. I came to realize that the poems I was writing weren't obsessed with the Louisiana landscape on its own, but rather that sense of conflict—belonging and alienation, family loyalty and treason. Odi et amo, as Catullus said. That's really what I was trying to get at: how can I love this tarnished thing? How can I hate what is part of myself?

I didn't think too consciously about the position of the speaker, except in literal terms. I wanted to physically position her as someone in motion—someone visiting and retreating from these places, and occasionally trespassing—hence the road signs as markers along the way. I hope they map the physical journey as well as point to the slow emotional revelation that is occurring, incrementally.

In your book, Sightseer, I was particularly drawn to the way you pinpoint objects—even address them directly—in the places your speaker travels. In a way it's a similar tactic to my road signs, and I wonder how you'd characterize its objective. You directly address items such as a starfish, a synagogue, and a sheep in a field. My first response was that this technique allowed you to influence the tone, bringing in humor and a lightness to the often heavy history you are describing. But it also seems that it might help you bridge the gap between your speaker (an outsider of the highest order: an American tourist!) and what she is seeing. That distance (especially between an American perspective and a foreign culture) seems one of the hardest things to write about, and I find your book very successful at approaching it. Did you think of these addresses as a strategy? Did the epistle form allow you greater access to these "foreign" sights?
CMH: As I traveled through Europe (and a little in the United States), I was continually confronted with all the tangibles that characterize the tourist experience. When you don't speak the language, and especially if you're traveling alone as I was, human interaction falls away. What remain are things. And oh how tourists are confronted—even at times accosted—with things! Not just the beautiful things we travel to see-the cathedrals and clock towers, but also the kitschy things-the souvenirs, the silly hats and refrigerator magnets. Also, as a photographer, my eye was trained on things for many months through the viewfinder, intent on seeing.

So it was natural for me to populate the book with objects. And frankly, I had no one else to talk to. Buildings, dried starfish, even animals have no verbal language; they do not know what country they are in. And because of this I found them infinitely approachable.

I definitely felt a desire to connect, and yet I had the sense that I, as any outsider, was incapable of truly connecting with foreign culture. Despite the fact that some of the subjects I'm speaking to do not actually have a consciousness (as in "Dear Sunset" or "Dear Herzen Inn") let alone the ability to respond, the epistolary form creates the impression of intimacy between the speaker and the addressed. There's a wonderful falsehood of belonging there that intrigued me in the face of my isolation.

In regard to the tone of lightness you noted, I think the objects in the poems allowed me to be more playful than I could have been if I'd always looked at history dead-on. "Chipping Yellow Wall," for example, is a poem about the Holocaust, but it is also about buying and drinking a Pepsi. Tourism can be very consumer-based and superficial, but sometimes those very experiences can lead you deeper. Objects enabled me to look away from history and culture in order to access it.

Copperhead, though rich with the objects of the Louisiana landscape (snakes, prisons, gators, wisteria, Walmart, the Quick Stop, the banjo), is as a whole very peopled. Through the grandmother's evolving relationship with Lola Bell (the two of them crawling into bed together for comfort in their old age) and the speaker's haunting relationship with Jay (likening holding him "one minute more" to a stay of execution), you touch upon issues of culture, race, and the prison system integral to Louisiana. How did you settle on these figures (and others, particularly historical figures) as representative of the Louisiana you were trying to portray, and how did you overcome the difficulty of appropriating, inventing, or reimagining their stories for the purposes of making a poem?
RR: In a way, the answer to this question is easy: I try to tell the truth. I am interested in poems as being documentary as well as art. My grandmother and Lola were the central figures of the Louisiana of my childhood. And Jay was a pivotal figure of my early adulthood—someone who challenged the ways I thought about the South and about race. So they're central in the book because they were—are—central in my life and thinking. I knew I would write about my grandmother and Lola from the beginning. In fact, the first poem I wrote for the book was "The Refrain," based on a conflict between them in which I found myself caught in the middle. But Jay appeared in my life when I was in graduate school, and—stunningly—he asked me to write about him. That permission to write about another person was something I'd never received before, and something that made me feel both a greater sense of responsibility (that I'd better get it right) and also of freedom. He didn't see my project as telling other people's secrets, or passing judgment, but a chance to expand the record.

Jay—his presence in my life, and as the figure he became in the book—allowed me to broaden the book to talk more about myself, too. I could bring in more of the adult Rachel, my meditations on my family's stories and a longer view of history. The book had been mostly narrative, recounting childhood experience and perception, and this rounded it out. I was able to bring in a looseness: more fragmentary poems, more rambling lyrical musings. I hope that makes the book more layered, and the arguments that are considered and tested within it more complex.

As far as appropriation, well, I am taking these people's real stories and translating/borrowing/ reimagining them for my own purposes. I am certainly appropriating—there's no way around that. I had mixed feelings about this. Beyond the ethical issues, I simply questioned my ability to tell anyone else's story well. So I went about this with the tools of the ethnographer, with a clear methodology. I asked permission from my subjects first. And I tried always to use their own words, and to quote, so that it was not an act of ventriloquism but of documentation. I am making many of the choices, to be sure, in crafting the poem, but I am using only the materials and labels that my subjects volunteered. It became an exercise much like writing in strict forms—to find the poetry in someone else's words, and to weave them in with my own.

In talking about this, I realize I'm also talking about a weaving that makes a book come together—the disparate elements that interact and accrue to form a cohesive thing. And that's something I'm curious about in Sightseer—it seems very much a unified piece, a "project book," perhaps (to use a beleaguered label). Did you realize the book would have a clear theme, or subject, when you were beginning it? (Or, at what point did this become clear?) And what do you think binds your book together—is it primarily subject matter, or perspective, or voice, or something else?
CMH: Sightseer began with a triptych on St. Petersburg, Russia. Then three poems about Poland, three about Portugal. Before I knew it, themes were developing (history, tourism) that remained insistent across all the poems, and I knew I was building a book.

I knew the poems "fit" together because of their shared subject, but the harder question was whether the book would hold a reader's attention travel poem after travel poem. Looking at the poems as a collection, I found I had to break some of the rules I'd set for myself (many more of the poems were epistolary than remain in the book now, and (gasp!) all the poems were in couplets). These formal constraints, I realized, were vestiges from the writing toolbox and weren't serving any elucidatory purpose, so I let them (mostly) go.

But something deeper than variations in form must be traveling, no pun intended, through all the poems, some inevitable utterance that must be spoken. In Sightseer, I hope the complex tensions of the tourist experience transcend the structure of the book, or what's more, that the structure of the book itself is integral to the utterance. And, in terms of overcoming the potential monotony of a project, it also helps that some of the poems are serious, some of the poems are a little funny. Poetic sequence does not necessarily equal monotony of tone.

All my manuscripts have been written deliberately around a central idea, though each one is radically different in subject and style. One collection, Call Me When You Want to Talk About the Tombstones, is sort of a long poem in prose-y sections about researching my family's ancestors. Another collection, Paper Doll Fetus, is mostly persona poems that consider the unborn baby and the doctors and midwives who treated and mistreated the birthing mother through history. My current manuscript is also a project. And others have been written halfway and abandoned.

I'm not alone. More and more project books are hitting the shelves and the MFA thesis classrooms. Perhaps because there is the potential for a certain grandeur of failure, the idea of the project book can be polarizing, but I think this controversy signals that something important is happening. I'm fascinated by why the project book trend has arisen and what it might mean about us as a generation of writers who yearn for constraint, who seek to align ourselves with a tidy aboutness. Did it partly arise from the contest circuit which has powerfully venerated the cohesive manuscript? Does it suggest that we are growing restless with free-verse and turning away from traditional toward author-invented form?

I'm sure the experience of writing Copperhead for you was one of extended concentration on a compelling theme—essentially a project book. I was interested to learn that you had written the book not only outside Louisiana but also, at times, outside the United States. I imagine you in New Zealand, for example, conjuring the American South. How did that physical distance impact the poems you wrote while traveling, and was your subject more or less vivid to you from this radically different vantage? I'd love a sneak peek into your current work and how the importance of place has evolved as you move toward the next book.
RR: It's true that the Louisiana landscape was a particularly evocative and conflicted place for me, and one that I wanted to write about. And it helped, early on, to have a sense of something larger I was building toward, a central idea connecting the poems. (And, possibly, a certain grandeur of failure! If you're going to do anything, do it fully, right?) As I got farther along in writing, however, placing my book in that specific landscape also became a useful way to winnow material—all my daily perceptions and emotion—into a manageable container and serviceable metaphor.

At the same time, I didn't want a restrictive container. The landscape was, for me, fertile ground for metaphor as well as narrative. Almost anything would grow there. Okay, maybe I couldn't write a poem about New Zealand without it sticking out, but there was no limit to perception. I thought often of Faulkner saying that he would never exhaust the material in his "own little postage stamp of native soil"—it became, in its way, an exercise: how broad-reaching could I make this little place? How I could expand my understanding of it by writing about it from all these angles, rather than letting it become a set of limits I'd imposed?

And yes, I wrote many of these poems at great distance from their setting. In general it takes me a long time to process experience for poems—I admire those who can sit down and write a poem about the day they just had. I think I also benefitted from having geographical distance—maybe because I had the freedom to put images together from memory and scattered notes and invention rather than seeing the physical reality right in front of my nose all the time?

My second book will have to be different. Some of my new poems are about some international travel I did a few years ago, yes, but I am intentionally not allowing myself to be grounded in any geographic area, nor even to let geography take a central role. I'm trying to find other ways to bind material together, and I'm interested in looser structures. Perhaps my next book won't be classified as a project book, though I am always looking for the way ideas connect. I don't think I can speak totally coherently about my current work yet, but I can tell you that, so far, it is meditative and fragmented and, I hope, a little wild. There's still a lot of history in it—I can't seem to get away from all my tendencies—but also a certain immediacy and directness, I think, which comes from the fact that I had a child 18 months ago (just before Copperhead came out). In addition to the enormous shift in worldview, my entire writing process has changed. I think this will ultimately be a good thing for my poems, though I'm still feeling out where it will lead me.

Speaking of exercises, I was curious, when reading Sightseer, about your use of research. Your poems don't read as explicitly didactic (thank goodness), but I did find myself learning a lot from them, and marveling at your ability to make use of such detailed information. I'm also interested in whether you are unlike me and can take recent experience and quickly begin to find the material in it for poems, as the book makes it seem. Can you talk about your writing process a bit, on an individual poem level? Do you find restrictions or prompts helpful in getting you started?
CMH: The act of researching brings me closer to a subject but also, though it may seem counterintuitive, creates a degree of distance from the subject which, like you, I find necessary. Research populates my mind with ideas that are not my own, and it forces me outside myself and outside my own available vocabulary. Write what you know? I say know more.

For me, there are two types of research. The first is that which is required to get the poem written. In Sightseer, of course, the facts had to be right, and there was quite a lot of explication required which was particularly challenging in a letter poem—how would I tell the reader what she needs to know without breaking the form by telling the subject something it already knows? I couldn't just tell the monastery, "247 years after you were built, you were destroyed." I had to sneak the information into a more critical message: "Dear Athassel Priory,/ You were only an infant/at the age of 247 years;/ there was no way for you/ to defend yourself." How the information is used is essential: if the facts themselves were the point, you'd have a pretty dull poem.

The second type of research is more an external sourcing of vocabulary and ideas. In Sightseer, I had to use the most appropriate words—ceiling or cupola, birds or jackdaws. From there, I started hearing the music of the poem. The idea is not to just steal a word to insert into your poem but rather to allow that externally-sourced language to bend your ideas about the subject before the course of the poem has been determined.

Whereas research opens my mind, restrictions and prompts shut it right down. But ironically, Sightseer was born from a prompt. I was attending Sandra Gilbert's workshop in Russia (through the SLS program) when she assigned us to write a St. Petersburg poem. That's a pretty loose constraint, but being obligated to write a certain kind of poem flustered me. And I had trouble with the concept of a singleton poem—if I wrote a poem about Russia, where would it belong? So I wrote three. Once I took ownership of the constraint, it no longer impeded my creativity, and I simply could not stop writing travel poems. (Thank you, Sandra.) I suppose a project book is itself one grand, self-inflicted Prompt.

There's still so much I'd love to ask about Copperhead, but perhaps the best way to close is with a poem. I was slammed straight away by the perfectly surprising syntactic arrangement of the lines "On my windshield, the tiny backs/of insects break" in just the second poem "Natchez Trace, Southbound." There are many ways you could have written that line without first causing me to envision tiny bodiless backs on the windshield before revealing them as the backs of insects, and only then do you break them. You have a way, throughout the book, of telling a story. And story-how it is used to document or imagine the past—is an important idea in Copperhead. The speaker seems to desire to go back in time to witness events she has missed, even to change the past by the very act of writing. But the speaker is aware of the limitations of language. In the poem "On the Morning of ________'s Execution," she says "a story is not the way to end a story/ that tries to unstrap a man from a chair." This is the final poem in the book.

And that is why I loved even more returning to "Natchez Trace, Southbound." This poem so beautifully sets the stage for the speaker's arc of discovery throughout Copperhead. This poem paints the animals, "each a study in vanishing," as figures of the past. And the speaker, although she alters the present and costs an animal its life with her car, is equally transient. She is not just "passing" through Louisiana but also through history. She is neither blamed nor remembered. It is a haunting preface to a book that urgently names and dates, seemingly working against this inevitability.

Could you talk a little about this poem, how it came to be, and how you envision it fitting into the overall argument of the book?
RR: Sure, and thanks for those kind and astute words. It's interesting that you point to these lines in "Natchez Trace, Southbound" in particular. I spent a long time on those linebreaks and on the wording of the ending. For me, the word "passing" was key—not just for passing through Louisiana and history (though certainly both are true), but also for passing as or for something. The racial connotations of the term resonated loudly for me, as well as the broader idea of being an unknown person, a stranger, maybe even a traitor to one's family or heritage.

Here is the poem:

Natchez Trace, Southbound

On my windshield, the tiny backs
of insects break. The bleak
gravel heart of the crossroads
lifts its diamond sign, yellow,
its cross a split black eye.

Startled animals gleam
at roadside, each a study in vanishing.

When a squirrel darts
into my path, its eyes too low to warm,
I hear my breath more
than its crush. Barely a noise
to name me for certain.
But I am only passing;
the world keeps its silence.
No one blames me for a thing.

I haven't thought about it quite this way before, but since you parallel this poem with "On the Morning of ________'s Execution," I'm realizing that another way to describe my aim in the book is to make known and to memorialize those things that go unknown and unremembered. The speaker is outing herself—for better and worse—at the same time she is urgently, perhaps futilely, naming all these momentary stories around her. Insects die all the time, and so do men on death row. I guess my hope is that to look at them head on and name them at least makes us—makes me most of all—pause for a moment and take stock of those facts, and what they say about us.

I was similarly struck by several of your poems, Cynthia, and how they seem to work through questions about history and identity. And since you chose "Natchez Trace," my squirrel-killing poem, I'm going to ask you to share your own, much more life-affirming, squirrel verse. Your short poem, "In the Russian Graveyard, a Squirrel," seems to encapsulate many of the conflicts at the center of your book—native versus tourist, living versus dead, present moment versus historical understanding. The squirrel is completely absorbed in his own life, unconcerned with his surroundings. In that way he is anathema to the speaker, who is highly conscious of her outsider status. Yet she seems to identify with him, even to see him as a totemic figure. The poem, in its brevity and focused observation, seems to function almost as an objective correlative for the book as a whole. Can you talk a bit about this poem and how you see it fitting into the book's central concerns, and particularly your take on tourism? Also, perhaps you could say a few words about animals—I notice that they pop up frequently in the book, and often seem to provide solace or new ways of understanding.
CMH: I love the idea that we each have a "squirrel verse." Here's mine:

In the Russian Graveyard, a Squirrel

stands at attention, flashing his white chest. Here we are,
the tourist and the small red creature

that skitters along the path leftright, and into
the leaves, a sound like a small crackling fire. The impassive

sky hangs in the trees. We are surrounded by concrete:
concrete grave beds bursting with little stabbing leaves,

this concrete wall and on the other side, street, apartments.
Look, he overturns a nut, spins it with his slender toes

as a god spins a planet, smooth, round, dark.
He picks at the leaves. This one, long and curling,

the ear of my sister's horse. This one, golden.
He takes them into his mouth and up, ears pointing, makes

a bed in the sky. What interests a squirrel?
Acorns, hazelnuts, chestnuts, beech flowers.

He stands, wrists slack against his body,
the opposite of prayer. The opposite of the dead.

Outside my home country, I wondered about animals differently: did they have their own Polish pigeon culture or their own Portuguese cat mannerisms? I petted many a stray cat and a few friendly dogs on my travels, and none of them seemed to detect me as a foreigner. And their sameness to the cats and dogs I was used to was a reminder, during a very lonely time, that it is the same with people: there is something at bottom essentially human that connects us, regardless of culture and geography. This isn't always immediately apparent when the barrier of language is between us. But with animals, the deeper connection between living beings, souls if you will, was palpable.

This poem does seem to encapsulate my view of tourism. There is an expectation that the tourist maintain a mindful appreciation of history, and I often felt that I was looking at two versions of the city at once—the past and the present. In this way, tourism can be like standing among the dead. Not unlike a graveyard.

But despite history, there is always the chugging forth of life. and in the case of this poem, the squirrel epitomizes that life force. So to respect and remember the dead but still to live vibrantly, urgently—that is the final message.

Rachel, it has been such a pleasure corresponding with you these past several weeks. Thank you for sharing your process with me and for your eloquent insights into my own work. I also want to thank Boxcar Poetry Review for providing this venue in which we could properly meet.
RR: Thank you, Cynthia! I've enjoyed our conversation immensely, and am coming away with many new prompts and directions. Many thanks also to Boxcar Poetry Review and Eduardo C. Corral for providing this venue and invitation.

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