June 18–24, 2018
Carlie Hoffman’s poetry has appeared in journals such as the New England Review, TriQuarterly, Bennington Review, Boston Review, Narrative, WomenArts Quarterly Journal and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 92Y Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. This past spring, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Jason Koo’s Blank Verse workshop.
Learning to Be Still
All afternoon it rains on the traffic
outside my window. It’s nothing new,
but I can’t get the thought of pigeons,
strange magistrates of sickness and beauty,
carved away from me, or how it’s been two years since I’ve
stood in a line of waitresses at the hot food window
of a restaurant in Hackensack, New Jersey,
the row of us identical in black slacks and kitchen shoes,
like pigeons stacked along a telephone wire, waiting
to serve fish and curry rice to strangers.
I was so young before New York that I believed
loving myself each day
would be easier there. But lying
in bed, I can hear the wind, and the trees shaking
because they have no choice,
and I want to go someplace where the trees grow apples
shiny and persistent as stars. Of course it hurts
knowing how this is all so wrong of me, this constant need
for movement, even backwards, like my desire,
just now, to enter the bathroom
of some North Jersey diner after
licking the gravy bowl clean,
after so much hunger, and return to the dinner rush
wearing an apron again, coffee pot in hand,
to walk in circles until there becomes
no here or now to speak of.
—Originally published in Narrative, January 2017.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
Around two years ago, I was sitting at the counter of Tom’s diner in Morningside Heights eating my usual medium-rare, plain hamburger with ketchup and a side of well-done fries with a bowl of gravy for dipping the fries (I am from northern New Jersey and I love diners). I was looking at the gravy bowl while texting with Catherine Pond, a dear friend and an amazing poet, and I told her how sometimes food makes me sick and I can’t eat at all but other times I get so hungry I want to lick the gravy bowl clean. She said I needed to put that gravy bowl in a poem. A few months later I was lying in bed in my rented room in Washington Heights, listening to the rain and trying to write a poem, trying to understand my desire and hunger and nausea and the gravy bowl, and used a quote I had found on a photo of a hand-drawn picture of a dragon and knight as the first line: “Anyone can slay a dragon, he told me, but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again.” After an evening of countless revisions, the first polished draft of “Learning to Be Still” finally happened and in the coming weeks I made some minor editorial touches before sending it out for publication. I actually just made a tiny edit to it the other day. I love revising and am a bit obsessive in my revision process.
What are you working on right now?
I just reordered my manuscript of my first book of poems and am in the process of submitting it to first book prizes and open book competitions. I’ve started a second collection, very slowly, but I recently had a tiny breakthrough and I am starting to see a shape to the new manuscript. I work a 9–5 job and teach college writing in the evenings so it’s challenging to have the energy and time to write, but I keep a notepad and pen on me at work and in the world and when I feel the poem, I bow to the impulse and write regardless of where I am. I’m excited my new work is slightly curving into some glimmer of form. I’ll need to apply for a short residency in 2019 to get down to it, though. I have this urge to write an essay, too, and have been taking notes for an outline draft.
What’s a good day for you?
It’s difficult for me to articulate how grateful I am for what poetry has done for my life. I probably would still be waitressing in New Jersey and crying a lot if not for poetry. Grad school was such a unique and special and sacred experience for me, for which I am so thankful, regardless of the debt. Every day is a good day to me, so long as I have poetry to read or write, so long as I can still find a way to teach writing in some capacity, and I mean that sincerely. I don’t believe in perfection and I’m not a person who is consistently happy, I’m very critical of people and the world, but I love a lot. Even though I have to spend a majority of my time working because of my student loans and most of my paycheck is spoken for by debt and rent, etc., it all is a matter of accumulation to me, being able to write and live in this city that makes me feel like I belong, and that’s a very good thing.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
When I moved to Washington Heights for my MFA, I had no idea what I was doing in New York. I’ve lived close by my whole life, but Bergen County, New Jersey, is definitely not New York City. I knew Brooklyn was where a lot of artists and writers were living, that there was a lot to be inspired by. But Brooklyn honestly terrified me. It’s so astonishingly otherworldly, how much there is to do and see and explore. I found a cheap-enough room in Washington Heights, which was a few stops from Columbia, and the landlady let me pay my summer rent in the fall when my loans and fellowship money came in, which was ideal. I had something like fifty dollars left in my bank account when I moved to New York. All I cared about (and still care about) was learning poetry. I wanted to be smarter and I wanted to know how to talk about poems and not feel stupid. I wanted to teach. If I lived in Brooklyn then, I would have felt so intimidated and probably would not have been able to focus on school. This sounds dramatic, but I know my tendencies and myself. Now that I have graduated and accomplished my goals from grad school, now that I’m grounded in my vision and have a steady job and steady side-gigs, I found a home in Brooklyn. I live in Williamsburg with my boyfriend in a little railroad-style apartment on Graham Ave, and it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I adore my neighborhood. I moved in last winter. Graham Ave has the kind of low-key subtlety that I like. I can’t handle places that are too decked-out or done-up. There is a little coffee shop across the street, a fish market a few blocks away that I’m obsessed with (I love fish markets: fish heads, fish smells, fish skin). There is so much light streaming into my bedroom window. I love the way people walk and dress; I love everyone’s different pairs of shoes. The thing that saddens me is that there was a diner next to my apartment building, with a counter, but it closed down because of issues with high rent. It’s gutted now, and I cringe walking by it every morning on my way to work.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I don’t feel I’ve lived in Brooklyn long enough to have a defining experience, but I will share a story a poetry teacher told me recently. When he lived in Brooklyn and had to take the L to work in Manhattan, there was this person dressed up like a clown on the subway. Like every day or something. And so, he would be freaked out by this clown, but then grew to love the clown because the encounter became symbolic of his Brooklyn life. And it stuck with him. I guess I’m just waiting for my clown.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Poetry community is everything. It’s saved my life, really. My closest friends and readers are poets I met six years ago at a writers’ institute at Skidmore College. Most of us from that summer are now in Brooklyn, finally, and it’s incredible to me. I think Brooklyn Poets has cultivated such a beautiful community of writers, of which I am grateful to be a part.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I love Walt Whitman and the longer I live in New York, the more I come to understand why someone would want to roll around in grass and rub the blades all over their chest hair. Hyam Plutzik has become very important to me as of late.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Timothy Donnelly, Lucie Brock-Broido, James Hoch, Alan Gilbert, Josh Bell, Binnie Kirshenbaum, Rob Ostrom. I have so much respect and admiration for what they’ve taught me and done for my life.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I am fascinated by Les Murray’s “The Cows on Killing Day.” I learned about it in February/March and now I have it pinned to the wall of my cubicle. It’s an astonishing poem. The skill of the pronoun shifts and how “all me” throughout makes sense as the cows experiencing both whole and individual slaughter. I read it weekly and have discovered something new within it each time. I wish I wrote it.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Lolita. I have the urge to start, and then, for whatever reason, I close the book.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
If someone were to watch me reading, they would probably think I wasn’t reading at all. I don’t read cover to cover in one sitting (unless I’m grading a paper or reading to teach a class, that’s a different process). But in one sitting, cover to cover, I can’t. I need to stop and think about what I’m encountering. I need to write down a word or sentence I’ve read on a Post-it. I need to go get another book that reminds me of something I just read in the current book and see how they connect. I need to walk around or go outside and get a coffee and think some more. All of this is reading. As I tell my students, all of this counts.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I really want to write a long sequence poem separated by numbers. Like Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” I just read Richie Hofmann’s poem “Feast Days” in the Hopkins Review. It’s so lovely.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love reading and writing at home now. I enjoy being around all of my books and the colors of the furniture and rugs and bed sheets. I like writing in restaurants when I’m out to eat alone, too.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Guernsey St between Meserole and Norman Aves. The locust trees that line the street are striking. I recently walked down all of Starr St from Ridgewood and the cemetery through Bushwick and Maria Hernandez Park. The park reminds me of Highbridge Park by my first New York home. I loved sitting on the rocks in Highbridge Park to read or drink bodega coffee.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the pigeons,
and what I thought you couldn’t
love in me, you ostriched your heads
and disagreed, for every strangeness
in me is you and as good
and re-useful as an apple
thrown in the street to you.
It avails not, time nor place—