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Carlie Hoffman: The Music of the Conscious or the Image of the Mind’s Eye?

Carlie Hoffman, a creative writing lecturer at Purchase College, has had two collections published since sparking her love for poetry in 2013.


By Paige Merz


(Photo courtesy of CarlieHoffman.com)


Dappled light shines through crisscrossed leaves, prompting a poetic mind for “the sun a dying fish” – that is where it all began.


Carlie Hoffman, Purchase College creative writing lecturer, began her poetic journey with “Texas Salamander” as one of her early pieces published in the Multicultural Magazine for Ramapo College in 2013. A decade later, after attending graduate school at Columbia University and the publication of her debut book, “This Alaska,” Hoffman released her second collection, “When There Was Light”, through the same publisher, Four Way Books, in Mar. 2023.


“I was in undergrad and just learning about poetry and thinking about figurative language and metaphors,” said Hoffman. “I was looking at the trees, and I was looking at the light through it, and I was like ‘Oh, that looks like a net.’ and I thought about how the sun looks like a dying fish… somehow I got the Texas salamander, and clearly I was always thinking about light.”


Over the past decade, Hoffman has excelled and grown as a writer, choosing insightful and compelling narratives that forcefully connect reader and speaker. “When There Was Light” is formulated around familial tension, broken relationships, and troubles of acclimation after migration, sprouted from a newspaper article about her grandfather.


“It can be painful,” said Hoffman, regarding the context of the plot. “I think that a huge disaster or a tragedy in history, there’s a repercussion, even if you weren’t there then, it definitely influences the future in ways that are unimaginable.”


As a writer evolves through life, their voice transforms with them. Poetry is sculpted from life experiences, taking on a different configuration when metaphorically illustrated in a poetic context, according to Hoffman.


“We are walking through the world and intaking all of these sights, sounds, images, and experiences with us,” she said. “It seems unrelated but when you sit down to write, it blends and merges together, you find the connections between the figurative language.”


Transfiguration of the methods that Hoffman’s work uses to stretch and “play” with language has taken a new form over time. Hoffman is deciding whether her lines should evoke the music within the conscious, or the image of the mind’s eye.


“Things change and you change as you grow as a writer,” Hoffman explained, “I’m starting to turn my back on the image and say ‘no, it’s the music,’ that’s where I’m at.”


Hoffman is also the founding editor of a seasonal literary magazine, The Small Orange Journal, which fuels her desire of reading poetry in all shapes and sizes. The publication, which showcases poets and visual artists, publishes interviews with American poets through a series called Small Orange Conversations. Ariel Henriquez, assistant editor of Small Orange Journal, translates poets' interviews from Spanish to English, while Hoffman translates from German to English.


In addition, Hoffman attributes the development of her poetic style to the decision to concentrate on short fictional storytelling as an independent study following graduate school. Fiction, she says, emphasizes story, characters, arc and narrative in a different way, with less stress on the compression and brevity that is produced in poetic writing. Words are heavier, there is less context to grapple with, and the explanation of the storyline is reader-based, rather than concrete explanations presented by the author.


“The more narrative poems, the sort of bordering on surreal poems [in “When There Was Light”], and the really deep image techniques I try to employ in my writing, studying fiction really helped me order my writing within that manuscript,” she added.


As a professor of creative writing at Louisiana State University, Henriquez noted that he is teaching “When There Was Light” to his undergraduate and graduate students due to the effective organization Hoffman employs.


In 2021, Hoffman published her first collection, “This Alaska,” where the narrative examines a crumbling structure of intimacy’s unsalvageable core. The pithy plot of the collection won Hoffman recognition as the Northern California Publisher Association’s Gold Award, and as a finalist for Forword INDIES Book of the Year.


“‘This Alaska’ references stories from the speaker’s life more concretely,” said Burgi Zanhaeusern, an author and book reviewer. “In ‘When There Was Light,’ the poems are more intimate and more elliptical as the addressee is the speaker’s grandfather.”


There is evident development as Hoffman’s poetic voice flourishes throughout her two collections. Emotions are felt and seen as they weep from pages written with stanzas read as, “your body a wound stuffed with sound / The person you love has left / what you know of their voice / a shock collar zipped in a bright // yellow coat like jessamine.”


“The music of memory,” she says, “poetry is a medium that absolutely disrupts the everyday and it shocks you awake.”


Hoffman cultivates her own rhythm, a style of fusing music and perception, and at times she incorporates the elements of other artists' work, according to Zenhaeusern. “Sound can underpin what you say, be it in figurative speech or literal language… rhythm and play with meaning are often in a tug-of-war,” she described.


Henriquez, also a poet, emphasized that Hoffman has excelled at creating an immersive world for the reader to escape to through the images and sounds that are presented to them. There is a cinematic and image-driven style of poetry that Henriquez has adopted, but he describes Hoffman’s latest work as lyrical and musical. “Carlie is much better at grasping that internality of her speakers and getting us into metamorphic spaces,” he described comparing their styles.


Hoffman employs homophones and full-bodied language to enforce literal meaning through titles, while conveying a metaphorical message within the body of the text. Titles are meant to ground the reader in a given landscape and create a foundation for heightened lyrical moments to be amplified.


The poem “Regardless, a Bat Mitzvah’d Woman Cannot Make Minion” exemplifies Hoffman’s usage of words with double meaning to illustrate an intended halt from the reader’s visualization. Within Jewish faith, a minyan is a quorum of 10 men to allow services to begin, the common definition of minion as someone who obediently serves a high-powered person.


“Thinking about gender and thinking about women in religion in my experience, I do a little play to convey that,” said Hoffman.

In the spring of 2025, Hoffman is set to publish more originals, as well as focusing towards translating female Jewish poets who hadn’t been given proper attention to their work during the 20th century (expected completion in 2024).


Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger was imprisoned in Mikhailovka at a forced labor camp when she was 18 years old, and wrote poetry during her time there. The manuscript survived the tragedy, and after coming across her work during research for “When There Was Light,” Hoffman now plans to publish “Blütenlese” with Hanging Loose Press in the future.


The 2023 Loose Translation Prize, awarded by City University of New York- Queens College Literary Translation Program, was awarded to Hoffman this past month for her contributions towards sharing Meerbaum-Eisinger’s story.


Hoffman is descended from Holocaust survivors who came from Germany and Eastern Europe, as well as from ancestors who were killed in the camps. Poetry has always been her outlet for understanding people and the world, and "When There Was Light" includes pieces about her family's escape from Nazi Germany and subsequent exile on an Upstate New York farm. Hoffman desires to read poetry from poets who share this experience from this specific period in time.


“I began translating Meerbaum-Eisinger to live inside her words and images, to learn from her first-hand account of the systematic anti-Semitic violence she endured in the Cernauti ghetto as depicted in her poetry, and to give my respect for her innovations and contributions to 20th Century poetry, which I hope to shed light on through my new translation of her work,” said Hoffman.


Hoffman’s notable evolution from writing about the “Texas Salamander” to impactful translations offering insight in times of World War II continues to align with personal reflections and dives deeply into the historical pasts.


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