No moon tonight but the white bells of a woman’s eyes: A Conversation with Carlie Hoffman about When There Was Light — curated by Tiffany Troy

Carlie Hoffman is an award-winning poet and translator, and editor of Small Orange whose magnanimity towards the literary community is matched only by her lyrical grace and acumen. Her award-winning When There Was Light has taught me how heritage is what we will always carry within us. Sean Singer, in his judge’s citation for the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry, wrote that “When There Was Light adds to Jewish poetics not only in its subjects, but in its system of thought: an area of doubts, wishes, and possibilities.” Hoffman’s speaker, a Jewess, wonders if she will ever be seen as beautiful, and casts doubts of her belonging as a “selfish girl” as she writes that over and over in an unfamiliar city. I see in the speaker’s fragmented self a reflection of the forced displacement of her grandparents from Wiesbaden, Germany during the Holocaust, and the misogyny which resulted in the dearth of German-language poetry by Jewish women from literary canon and historical archives. But Hoffman’s speaker isn’t contained or undone by panic attacks triggered by a world eager to suppress her imagination and personal vision. She is an arts-lover who searches for beauty in Bach’s Cello Suites and art at the Museum of Modern Art. Hoffman shows that poetry “has always been a way towards truth,” as when the speaker makes apple strudel, thinking of the “stories / of country girls baking strudel in Bad Soden/ in the middle of dawn” and “imagine[s] ... the woman in the picture pressing fingers tightly into mine.”

Carlie Hoffman is the author of two collections of poetry, When There Was Light (Four Way Books, Spring 2023), winner of the National Jewish Book Award and This Alaska (Four Way Books, 2021), winner of the Northern California Publishers and Authors Gold Award in Poetry and a finalist for the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award. Carlie’s honors include a “Discovery” / Boston Review prize from the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center and a Poets & Writers Amy Award. She is a recipient of the 2023 Loose Translation Prize for her translation of Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger’s Blütenlese (forthcoming) and is the translator of the monograph artbook Weiße Schatten / White Shadows: Anneliese Hager and the Camera-less Photograph (Edited by Lynette Roth, Atelier Éditions, Fall 2023). Her third poetry collection is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2025.

Tiffany Troy: Let me start by congratulating you on winning the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry! I am so beyond thrilled for you. Can you describe for our readers your process in writing When There Was Light?

Carlie Hoffman: Thank you! Writing this book entailed an extraordinary research process that brought me to, and continues to bring me to, so many new places and ideas and discoveries. The story of how my family came to live in the United States, like many Jewish people, is excruciating, pocked with silences, a fragmentation. I had been researching part of my family’s immigration story from Wiesbaden, Germany to a farm in Middletown, NY during the 1930s. My mother grew up on this farm and I spent long stretches of my childhood in this town. In When There Was Light, I draw on a newspaper article published in the town newspaper which features my grandfather and great grandfather and the restoration and work on that farm, their escape from the Nazis, and their contrasting experience of living under Nazi persecution to their life in the United States. The documentary poem that works with this article became its own section in the book.

A clarifying moment during this time happened after I finished the first draft of the manuscript. I kept returning to an image in the article about my great-grandmother’s apple strudel. For days, weeks, it would pop in and out of my head: the apple strudel. I realized that while the article centered on the male figures in my family, the women were there, too, but lived in the background like a film strip of unprocessed negatives. The apple strudel, on the surface, suggested that the women’s experience during this time had a domestic simplicity to it. The apple strudel also symbolized the assimilation, a transfiguration of Jewish-German culture into a representation of the “American Dream.” That couldn’t be the whole truth, I thought. I asked my mother and she said: “The German women in our family baked bread and pastries like you wouldn’t believe. They could have opened up a bakery.”

Baking was a great source of pride for the women in my family, this “women’s work.” So, I wanted more to the story of the women’s lives. I read through my manuscript draft and thought: Wait, where are the Jewish, German-language women poets of the 20th Century? I traveled to different libraries, the Goethe Institut, and the discrepancy I discovered was overwhelming. So, I began studying German, researching, and translating Jewish women from this time period to learn about their lives through their poems, which connects to my own life and also adds to this important conversation surrounding Jewish poetics and history. The work is ongoing; it’s been years of an intensely rigorous process of research: archival research, cartography, oral history reportage, and more. I wrote new poems inspired by, and in conversation with, these women, particularly the poet Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, the younger cousin of Paul Celan who died in a Nazi forced-labor camp in Ukraine, as well as Rose Ausländer, a Jewish, German-language modernist poet who is also an American modernist poet. I am finishing up full-length translation collections of both these poets to be published in the very near-future.

TT: Does translating Meerbaum-Eisinger and Ausländer influence the tracing of “another time” for your people, the synagogues and your family in the collection, as the inheritor of this trauma, heritage, and assimilation and loss of language(s)? This can be express references, like your elegy to Meerbaum-Eisinger, or thematic, in “Summer Brings No Cash I Quit,” you write, “I quit the bride–mouthed communal prayer/ my beheaded tongue Hebrew tongue Russian tongue/ I comprehend nothing know / nothing summer fevers the trees,” or perhaps more subtle references in your work.

CH: Absolutely. Translating Meerbaum-Eisinger and Ausländer have given me a way to time travel and think through not just my own family history, but also what connects history to the present. I wanted to know what the women’s lives were like, what they spent time thinking about, what captured their attention. For me, immersing myself in the poems is like a portal to another world. Translation is the most effective way to get inside a poem and move around in it. It’s the closest reading one can do. As much as I am learning about the past through this process, translating their poems is also a way for me to see into the future.

TT: I love how translation from the German to the English is also a portal through time, a meaningful venture towards thinking about what it feels like, and what Meerbaum-Eisinger and Ausländer were obsessed with. How did you ultimately reach the collection’s four section structure?

CH: The first section in When There Was Light begins with the women’s voices at the fore, then time passes, we collapse into the past of my grandfather’s story, whom I speak to through the poems in section two, and then further still to section three into the portraiture of my family’s immigration to the farm through the documentary poem, and then the fourth section bringing the tapestry thread through to the speaker’s memories from the poetic present. Truth is revealed through the past by this weaving. Poetry has always been a way toward truth, revealing through history, the enlarger in a darkroom projecting light.

TT: Dara Barrois-Dixon writes that your “poems see pain, danger, regret, remorse, mercy in ways other documentation cannot” and I agree that your engagement with these emotions add a new dimension to how it feels to think: “There must be a word for the lack / of words for the things we have felt all/ our lives, but couldn’t name.” How does form inform your collection?

CH: Form is where feeling goes but doesn’t end. Dickinson: “after great pain / a formal feeling comes.” Orwell: “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about.” The poem is the form. Poetry deals in return, its origins in the oral lore, the way a poem is delivered through the body (image, internal music, idea) and externalized in its arrival back to us via the music of the line: inflection, pause, breath, break, key, chord, tone, emphasis, and so forth. It is always a way toward the line, where poets work. It’s a deeply attentive process.

TT: How does the idea of memory and of forgetting (of language, heritage, stories) find its way into the collection? Relatedly, how does timing play a role in the stories told by the poems? I’m thinking in particular of the speaker’s family’s move to America, and the intergenerational trauma of the speaker’s Jewish identity, antisemitism, and the Holocaust which feature prominently in your poems.

CH: I’m interested in the space where memory and forgetting are at odds with each other and how an urgency to share personal stories grows out of that tension. I am also intrigued by how the intimacy through zooming in can function as a means to connect internal and external worlds in a poem. There’s something acoustic about it. There are countless examples, but what has just come to mind is the portraiture of William Carlos Williams’ “To A Poor Old Woman” with the master class in the line break (“they taste good to her”) and the injection of the “I” in Maya Angelou’s “Awaking in New York,’ for an interesting comparative example. Because it’s not always visible on the surface, therefore it’s easy to forget, daily life has a lot to do with people who are dealing with conflict and conflicting emotions and feelings all the time, at varying frequencies, and a lot of good poetry, or poetry that I am drawn to in particular, is malleable to the movement and shifts in human moods and emotions through its heightened attention to someone or something, like a woman eating plums from a paper bag or the way the curtains look at a certain hour of the day, through the speaker’s projection, which then expresses the emotional or psychological shifts. Poems achieve this more deeply than any other genre, I feel, because of the heightened use and expression of language, particularly through the work of the line and line break. It’s less to do with finding resolution and more about the kinetic space one enters while reading a poem. Also, human beings are difficult. Poetry understands this, as well as the wisdom in the difficulty, as the poem reveals the world around us.

Another lens: In two separate poems, Lucie Brock-Broido wrote: “If you write it down you can’t rescind it” and “What if I’m gone and the wind still reeks of hyacinth...” The former ensures the everlasting fragrance of the latter, but both ideas require receptivity, be it the reader, witness, kindred–this is also the I/Thou relationship, which I love to explore, the reciprocity inherent in storytelling. My grandfather died before I was born so the  stories I have about him, as well as my ancestors, are not my memories in the sense that I wasn’t there. But they are my inheritance and that connection is important to me. The poems about my grandfather and the portraits of him that I write in the collection were a way for me to meet him and those poems are based on my mother’s memories of him–his memory lives in those poems through the stories handed down. In this way, the poem architectures memory. The poem is a conjuring. The urgency of storytelling grows out of the tension between memory and forgetting.

Important to note, too, is that mine is the last generation who will know Holocaust survivors and so there is also a heightened urgency of keeping their memories and stories alive and the book engages with the need to preserve my family’s personal, cultural, and linguistic histories.

TT: To me, highlighting the “stories / of country girls baking strudel in Bad Soden/ in the middle of dawn” underscores the intensity of the speaker’s feeling as she “imagine[s] ... the woman in the picture pressing fingers tightly into mine.” Can you speak a bit about the title, When There Was Light? The past tense evokes that sense of the speaker filling the gap but also placed emphasis on the light, which to me signifies hope and joy.

CH: I appreciate titles that convey an idiosyncratic tension. “When” is technically a futuristic word because it points to some future condition or situation. So the presence of past and present in the language of the title adds complexity of interpretation. It is also important how the phrasing sets up “Light” to be experienced as conditional, but at the same time puts pressure on “There” so the light becomes lived and also a continuum, like the way we retell or hand down stories.

TT: Can you tell us about the painting that you landed on as the cover of When There Was Light?

CH: The cover of When There Was Light is a photograph by Andrew S. Gray. I discovered the image through research (similarly to how I found the cover photograph for This Alaska). Gray is inspired by Turner’s paintings and the influence is beautifully apparent in a lot of his photos. Gray works with camera techniques that give the photograph an impressionist painting quality, which I am drawn to. The photograph is called “A Tree Standing.” So the image is a tree, but because of the impressionist style it also looks like smoke rising out of a farmhouse. This duality resonates deeply with the poems in the book.

TT: I love how the cover reflects upon and helps frame the collection. How do you meld the ekphrastic (music or visual art) with the personal in this now star-studded baby?

CH: I am an admirer of visual art–I love visiting certain favorite paintings at the museums as often as I can. On many occasions, I’ve given my whole afternoon to looking at Matisse’s “Dance I” at MoMa, for instance. There’s a poem in the book that is based on one of the most amazing moments I’ve witnessed at MoMa. A woman was weeping in front of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” she was no longer here but Elsewhere. She moved closer, closer and then her arm was moving as though being guided. She almost touched the painting! The security intervened. It was amazing. That happened to me once on a different floor with a photograph. It made total sense. Art that moves us really can move us, physically, it’s all the senses we know and senses we don’t always remember we know, too.

I also enjoy music in an idiosyncratic way. I’ll go through periods when I am working on a manuscript where a song or composition sticks to me and I become obsessive and need to listen to it over and over again (I’m talking for months at a time, every day, on repeat: the same song) and the music becomes part of the texture of the poems. This Alaska has Mozart’s Fantasy in D Minor in the shadows. When There Was Light it was Bach’s Cello Suites, Prelude in particular. This is also part of how I ordered the manuscript, too. I’m very sensitive to music and prosody in poetry and listening to music helps me understand the pitch of my own poems.

TT: My family had a long (thankfully over) Jacqueline du Pré phase where I would be greeted with cello in the minor key all year long. For less musically inclined folks like myself, who play Saint-Saëns’s “animal music,” can you walk us through the mood that Bach’s Cello Suites set up for you, as you wrote When There Was Light?

CH: Sure. I am not a classical music expert but when I was in elementary school there was a music teacher who came a few times a week. I decided to try the violin and ended up playing violin as an A-string in the school orchestra. This lasted through middle school. So classical music is part of my coming of age. My mother also had a piano and I was taught how to play the piano, too. My mother is a Chopin fan. She instilled a love of classical music in me from an early age and taught me the significance of reading music as means to open doors to the world.  This is part of how I hear the music in poetry. As I continue to go deeper into language, I am getting closer to the music. Though part of a speaking whole, the poems in this book work at very different sound frequencies and I had to listen very closely to order the manuscript, to pattern both what was in the poems and also the higher pitched poems with the lower chords. It’s a delicate and intricate process because I didn’t want a scratch in the record. Or when a cassette tape gets tangled.  It feels natural to me that the cello suites, which are structured in six movements, became the soundtrack as I conducted my poems into the final order that became the book.

TT: As an all-around all-star with two forthcoming poetry collections in translation, a forthcoming poetry collection, and the recently published Deathfugue out from Orange Import, and The Queens Review in the works, tell me Carlie, what else are you working on that the readers should look forward to?

CH: I am working on my fourth collection of poetry and the third Small Orange: Conversations with Poets interview series.

Tiffany Troy is the author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly, Associate Editor of Tupelo Press, Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review, and Assistant Poetry Editor at Asymptote.