Poet Ava Hofmann talks process, her collection […], questioning your beliefs, and transness.
Last week, poet Ava Hofmann provided a step-by-step guide to approaching her beautiful new collection […], available for pre-order October 1 by Astrophil Press. This week the interview continues as we discuss creation, inspiration, and the process for creating a work like […].
When asked about what the most challenging part of writing was for Hofmann, her answer, just like her poetry, is nuanced, thoughtful, and thorough.
“I write a lot about being a trans woman. I do this because I believe there needs to be more literature in a wider variety of forms and styles about transness, and the lives, experiences, emotions, and culture of trans people. The hardest part of writing is, at a certain point, knowing what you actually want to say, or having an actual idea for the things you’re writing. You can only say ‘trans liberation now’ in so many ways before you start to feel like you’re unproductively repeating yourself.”
When approaching the creation of her poetry, this repetition of trying the same thing over and over again has forced Hofmann to consider any implementation of her work: “This [repetition] problem is what prompts me to find weird new ways of writing things, or to devote myself to poetry inspired by research projects […] When you do have an idea, oftentimes the writing will take you alongside with it. […] And because with the type of poetry I do, I can’t really rely on mainstays of poetic technique, I often have to invent a new poetics of tactics of language in order to create something that works.”
When asked about what the most joyful part of writing is, she replies “[t]he best part of writing is the part where you actually write. When I’m not writing, I get itchy, anxious. I start to loathe myself for not doing this thing which has basically rescued my life from contexts which go out of their way to squash trans self-realization. I become convinced I’ll never write again. But when I actually sit down to write with a good idea and coherent goals, however, it all comes back. Even if writing is hard work, it’s one of the most fun and engaging kinds of work that I can do.”
Having to create a new language and process for poetry is no small undertaking, and a method that encompasses both visual and written components the way Hofmann’s pieces do requires a blending of multiple influences. “The biggest influences on my writing have been visual/experimental poets like Hannah Weiner, Douglas Kearney, M. NourbeSe Phillip, Never Angeline North, Jos Charles, Porpentine Charity Heartscape, and Susan Howe” says Hofmann. “These writers all pushed my ideas of what I thought writing could be further than before.”
Additionally, Hofmann credits “watching documentaries and doing research into the realm of painting and visual art” as huge sources of inspiration for her. She says that “understanding the more open-ended and open-minded approach” of the visual arts fields in publishing and their “prioritization of process over craft” has “greatly expanded the way [she] thinks about writing and the things that [she] will allow [herself] to consider ‘good enough’ writing to create and publish.” Hofmann’s ability to think outside the boundaries of poetry and her ability to remain open to moving away from the expected have managed to create poetry that is singularly beautiful and unique.
I found Hofmann and her work on Twitter (@st_somatic), a place that lends itself to a pairing of short written pieces with image-based content. Hofmann’s Twitter account is full of thoughtful and often funny commentary on a broad range of topics. Recently, she commented on the line that is drawn in a usefulness/uselessness distinction, and what it does. Her astute way of bringing together large-scale concepts like these and grounding them in a tangible, concrete way shapes her everyday work, so I asked Hofmann how she engages with both the enormity of them, and how they manifest in an average day.
“I think when sometimes your entire metaphysical viewpoint of the world has been shown to you to be a bunch of lies and scams,” Hofmann says, “it might encourage you to be less confident in your own viewpoints about the world.” She argues it’s useful to think your views are correct for coping in the every day, and conversely, that it’s healthy to believe you may be wrong, but “there’s a risk in believing our emotional reactions to things” that also carries weight.
Our everyday experience can be influenced by this broader, more philosophical and conceptual look at what our emotional reactions might lead us to believe and do. Hofmann continues: “Most of the things I feel are not true – despite what my brain tells me all the time, I am fairly confident that my friends do not secretly hate me.” However, there are reasons why this emotional reaction may exist. What Hofmann calls her “sometimes-instinctual distrust of cis people” isn’t rooted in something philosophical or political, rather, it’s manifested “symptoms of [her] fear of being hurt, and histories of failing to be understood by cis family members.”
“I could say something real smart to justify the way I feel,” Hofmann says, “like ‘cisness is a perspective predicated on refusing to acknowledge gender systems and is deeply tied to transphobia’” – and while she acknowledges this may likely be true, she wants to “maintain a healthy skepticism of [her] own perspective,” – since she often says things like this to “justify” her fear of leaving her apartment, “and because it feels good to resent the world around [her] for its cisness” sometimes.
“At the same time,” Hofmann argues, “here is another true thing I can say, which is ‘the lives of trans people will only get better with collective action, and collective action requires mercy and understanding outside of one’s own comfort zone.’ And so[,] I try to leave my apartment with the belief that I need to live in/with the people around me, which includes cis people, even though it scares the fuck out of me,” because it’s largely for the greater good. “When we academize [sic] these philosophical or political issues,” she says, “we often exclude the opportunity […] for personal reflections on the emotional attachments that are informing our viewpoints.”
After the very meta discussion of the process of developing a process for creating […], I asked Hofmann if putting the book together was a difficult one. She replied that […] “was essentially the first full poetry project I have ever completed to satisfaction,” born from “a series of poems inspired by Old English spells [she wrote] in 2016” Hoffman was still an undergrad and “slowly extricating myself from the controlling church contexts in which I had grown up: a person who hadn’t even come out to myself, let alone started transitioning.”
Because of the time its creation spans, the book “functions as a kind of a record of my transition.” Using “depositions of different edits” from various points of her life “coexist in this kind of collage” – making a “fundamentally different” book than the one she imagined five years ago. “It’s the book whose creation I’m most proud of out of all of the manuscripts I’ve made since then,” Hofmann says, “but also it’s kind of the book I hate to look back on most for those same reasons – it can be hard for me to extend empathy to the person I was even five years ago.”