The Review was honored to speak with Richie Hofmann—whose poems “Museum” and “Male Beauty” appear in our Summer 2020 issue—about using various forms of art to express drama, desire, and loneliness. Hofmann is a Pushcart Prize winner and author of the poetry collection Second Empire.
SR: In both “Museum” and “Male Beauty” you describe ancient objects, like “ruins” and marble statues of the “gods . . . becoming younger” alongside the speaker’s disintegrating love: “I worry our hearts are growing cold.” What’s the relationship, for you, between desire (which seems so ephemeral) and these images that are timeless, everlasting?
RH: These ancient objects may seem everlasting, but they are also images of change and decay. “Museum” was inspired by the representation of gods in sculpture from different time periods; sometimes they are depicted as wise old men and sometimes they are idealized youths. I felt the tension between the vagaries of desire and the permanence of art most powerfully in a marble Mercury, whose name is synonymous with caprice.
SR: Much of your work, especially your collection Second Empire, includes classical or Baroque images and themes. Statues and myths appear in “Museum,” and “Male Beauty” contains a still-life’s “bag of hard green pears” along with “solo piano, things from France, from the beginning of the century.” What draws you so consistently to these themes? (And why such frequent mention of the piano?)
RH: Art and music give my life meaning, richness, and texture. I’m moved to think of the expressiveness, inventiveness, and endurance of some works of art I love, and the way they generate imaginative possibilities in me. I’m not surprised my poetry is a space where I seek to explore and understand them. I want to live a life immersed in the arts and their long histories.
As for solo piano, in particular, it is the presiding music of my manuscript-in-progress, as the operas of Benjamin Britten were the presiding music of Second Empire. French piano works—Ravel, Fauré—are the soundtrack of the book.
SR: “Male Beauty” reminded me of another of your poems, “Coquelicot.” Both express a loneliness contingent on sleep—the unconsciousness creates the speaker’s separation from the subject. Why use sleep to convey isolation instead of space or distance? And in articulating themes of separation, why use the sonnet form?
RH: I think this speaker is interested in the distance we can feel even in close proximity to the other. I suppose sleep dramatizes that tension—maybe all the more so because there is an eroticism to sleep in these poems: the bed as a place of intimacy and as an emblem of marriage; dreams as a place of fantasy and departure; sleep as a sort of symbol of submission.
I am interested in drawing on the sonnet’s tradition as song and love poem: a fourteen-line poem feels somehow endlessly flexible, expressive, complete. I am also drawn to one definition of poetry proposed by Auden, that poetry might be “the clear expression of mixed feelings,” and I love how a sonnet’s turns and breaks allow conflicting elements to inhabit the same space, not in perfect balance maybe but in a kind of détente, a kind of harmony.