Interview: Lynn Hoffman

Lynn Hoffman

We talk to Lynn Hoffman (whose work appeared in issue #34) about beer, anthropology and his writing.

Your “Afterlives” series of poems continues the stories of well-known literary figures on after the conclusion of their book(s). I printed the Afterlives of Alexander Portnoy, James Bond, and Delores Haze. How many of these poems have you written, and are any others published online?

There are ten Afterlives so far and Neon has pubished the first of them.

Where did you get the idea for this series of poems? Did you try to stay faithful to the character that the original author created, or put your own spin on things?

The series started with Pinocchio and Penelope, and like a lot of poetic fancies it was just for fun, an answer to my own puzzles about the characters. Nowadays I sometimes find myself thinking about Afterlives. Does Moby Dick repent? Maybe Vronsky becomes a pacifist and emigrates. What really happened between Huck and Jim?

When the novel’s over, the author isn’t responsible for the characters anymore, so I guess it’s up to us.

You’ve published a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction. Could you give us a brief overview of your bibliography?

My first novel was a romance called The Bachelor’s Cat. It was pretty successful and I thought I was on my way to a career as a novelist. It would be nine years before I got another book published. It was about a woman who takes on the gun crazies here in America using sex as a weapon.  It was called bang-BANG rather than Paula Sherman And The National Rifle Association because my Canadian publisher was reluctant to mention the feared National Rifle Association. The publisher went out of business and the book died with them.

Your non-fiction titles include The Short Course In Beer and The New Short Course In Wine. What was the writing of these books like? Do you approach your non-fiction differently from your fiction?

Writing those books was pure, sweet fun. It’s a little like sitting down and haranguing a complete stranger about a subject that fascinates you and might bore her. The books have both been described as “enthusiastic” and that’s how I felt writing them.

It’s perverse that nowadays, beer-knowledge is part of what it means to be sophisticated, so all my child-like love of the stuff can now be harnessed in the service of sounding very adult and sophisticated. Tee-hee.

How does your PhD in Anthropology affect your writing, if at all?

Getting a PhD used to be a lot like being initiated into a fraternity or combat unit. There was lots of hazing and the more useless the prospective degree, the hazier the process. I guess the degree makes for a kind of intellectual homeland, a default way of looking at things. For anthropologists, that means seeing the commonalities, seeing the way in which the “natural” is learned: understanding the manners that come with being “to the manner born”.

So all of my South Philly and Brooklyn poems are about the ethnography of my own place and people. Instead of turning stories into data, I’m turning the data back into (slightly mad) stories.

But of course that kind of thinking can become a trap of its own and sometimes turning away from the ethnographer’s eye and into speculation is exhilarating. I’m used to the ethnographer’s repsonsibility to the reader and it was easy to learn about the journalist’s. What I love is bearing the poet’s responsibility which I think is to dazzle and intoxicate.

When I write prose, I always feel like a chauffeur, like I have to get readers home somehow or other. With poems I feel free to accelerate down the Turnpike, slam on the brakes, do a hard left, fishtail and then floor it out of there. If that leaves readers spinning in space somewhere looking for which way is up, well, I hope they’re grateful.

To wit:

a four-year old holstein cow
walked into rittenhouse square last wednesday.
she sat, remarkably upright on a wrought-iron stool by a
cement cafe table, negotiating a resting place
for her udder bag when the waiter approached.
she ordered a man-burger
medium well with goat cheese and an extra roll
and a bottle of Raison d’Être, not too cold.
without so much as a thought
the dappled sunlight for which the square
is famous played patterns on the black and white
of her hide. her weight coaxed fugueish creaks from the iron stool
the slow re-chewing of her cud and the
puffy counter-point of bovine gas made-
oh what can we call it?-music.
yes a melody. enormous light, eluctive, weighty.
a man stopped, put away his iPhone
and gave himself over to staring
and then a woman too and then
another and another’s cousin
and soon a crowd that the cops would have chased
if there weren’t so many cops in the crowd.
the man-burger arrived
and the smell of themselves and the idea of lunch
un-manned the women and un-womened the men
and kidded the kids and nagged the nannies.
and soon the herd of them, restless snorting
shifting from foot to hoof were maowing, crowding,
defecating on the ground beneath raised tails
and pigeons worried away from crumbs ‘til the panhandlers
and bike messengers and young lawyers-in-love closed
their eyes and found the spot in the back
of the human throat which, when properly tensed
and air-stroked gives out an anxious moooo.

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Lynn Hoffman is from Brooklyn and lives in Philadelphia. He is the author of The Short Course In Beer. He leads wine and beer tastings, but most of the time he just loafs and fishes.