Richie Hofmann is the author of a poetry collection, Second Empire (2015), winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award. He is the recipient of a 2017 Pushcart Prize and a 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, and his poems appear in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, The New Criterion, New England Review, and Poetry. Co-founder of Lightbox Poetry, an online educational resource for creative writing, and a book reviews editor for Kenyon Review, he is currently a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University.
You’d expect a certain view from such a mirror—
than one that hangs in the entry and decays.
past my reflection toward other things:
burnt gold upon blue, which decorate the wall
those objects collected from travels, now seen
its great, gold frame, diminished with age:
where, still, the supernatural corps de ballet
its masquerade in the reflected light.
I thought I’d see the faces of the dead.
the faces of the ghosted silver sea
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote “Mirror” on August 6, 2010. I had just spent time at The James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut, and that gorgeous, ghostly apartment inspired the poem. The gold-framed mirror—too ornate, too large for the parlor—is a focal point of the residence. You catch yourself in it every time you cross the room to the study. I was twenty-three years old and obsessed with James Merrill; he had been the subject of my undergraduate thesis. The mirror features prominently in Merrill’s poetry and serves as a portal, in a sense, to the spirit world of The Changing Light at Sandover. The ghosts, I imagined, were watching us through the mirror, and I wanted to write about that. I felt so much energy after that stay in Stonington, I wrote three poems that same week: “First Night in Stonington,” “Illustration from Parsifal,” and “Mirror.” These poems are the earliest poems I wrote that appear in my first collection, Second Empire.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Unlike so many poems, this poem’s first draft was, essentially, also its final draft. I did switch back and forth between having the poem appear as a singular block of text and to separate the rhyming units into couplets. I struck “much” from the second line. And I replaced “I imagined seeing faces of the dead” with “I thought I’d see the faces of the dead” for a more elegant meter.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I absolutely do. I feel like we’re in constant collaboration with the world around us (literary, artistic, and otherwise)—and that our poems have minds of their own and co-write themselves. I think, in a sense, it’s what “Mirror” is about. I would have to say the entirety of the poem was received.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I’d read Randall Mann’s poem, “Straight Razor,” a few months before writing this poem (in Poetry Magazine). It’s a sexy, scary poem, and so brilliant and original in its deployment of rhyming couplets with these uneven meters (alternating tetrameter/pentameter lines with lines with a single beat). The proximity of those rhymes is so tantalizing in the poem. I’d had the form of the poem in my head since I read it (I don’t remember, but he might have read it, too, on the Poetry podcast, which I listened to every month in those days…) and I knew I wanted to try my hand at that form. I love rhymes, and these quick, deceptive, surprising rhymes felt so much to me like the experience of catching oneself in the mirror of another life.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Only the speed with which it emerged. I would struggle to write this poem today, because I don’t have the same energy. I also trust myself less than I did when I was young and just starting to write poems.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It was published in January 2013 in The New Criterion.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I sent this poem out fairly quickly, because it had been finished quickly and had no significant revisions. According to my records, I sent it to twenty-two magazines before David Yezzi accepted it for TNC. My practice varies with each poem, in terms of when it’s ready to send out—you just know, I think. And I’m fairly liberal with publishing in magazines, knowing that (for me) many more poems will be published in magazines than will be collected in a current book project.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The poem is about imagination and performance and how real-world objects (fact?) reflect and create connections with other worlds (fiction?).
Is this a narrative poem?
I would say “Mirror” is not a narrative poem, but I know that’s a difficult and slippery term with many meanings and associations. I wouldn’t say many of my poems are narrative poems. Often, I feel like I’m striving in poems to achieve a transformation within a stillness or a silence. To enact the sensuousness of nothing happening.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Merrill and Mann, of course, as I stated already. Rachel Hadas, too, and Jorie Graham and Henri Cole and Eavan Boland and J. D. McClatchy and Natasha Trethewey. I hadn’t yet read Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s poems. That summer, I was discovering Cavafy, who has a poem called, “Mirror in the Front Hall,” which I love and which I think of as a great grandfather to this poem.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
My teachers, living and dead. I would love to write a poem someday that the poets I love might admire or enjoy.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I’m certain I showed the poem to Emily Leithauser, one of my closest friends and a favorite writer and reader of poems.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It’s much more guided by its structure and by the meaning of its structure than other poems of mine. I love to rhyme, and I often find rhyming is a way of collaborating with the English language when I write a poem, relinquishing some responsibility for writing the poem to the poem itself. But I don’t think I’ll write a poem in this specific form, with alternating rhythms line to line, ever again.
What is American about this poem?
I struggle with this question. I am American and the locale the poem describes is American. Maybe the way the poem struggles with one’s place in history, with one’s relationship with the self and with the past reflects an American problem of identity and tradition? I don’t know.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?