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“The Alaska of the Mind:" Carlie Hoffman is Featured in the Latest Poets at Work Event

By Anthony Vassallo

Photo of Hoffman (via Hoffman's website)

From cookies and complaints to a published book, Carlie Hoffman is a SUNY Purchase creative writing professor and poet.

After being denied publication on three occasions, Hoffman texted her best friend and submitted to her failures. She then took a lonely walk to the kitchen in her office, acquiring a cookie. When she returned to her desk, there was an email in her inbox from a publisher from Four Way Books saying that they were interested in publishing her book.

Hoffman is the founder and editor in chief of Small Orange Journal and has received multiple awards, including the Poets & Writers’ Amy Award. She jumped right into her debut collection titled “This Alaska,” during Thursday’s Poets at Work event.

Reading from the first poem called “Learning To Be Still,” the imagery of nature and desperation was present.

Hoffman read, “I was so young before New York/that I believed loving myself each day would be easier there/but lying-in bed I could hear the wind/and the trees shaking because they have no choice/and I want to go someplace/where the trees grow apples/shiny and persistent as stars.” 

According to Hoffman, a poem comes from a writer's soul, making it impossible to place a definition on them.

“Everything in your life will come out in your poems,” said Hoffman.

Despite this, she struggles to write in an autobiographical way due to the overwhelming effect it has on her emotions. Instead, she comes up with characters that she uses to project her feelings into. 

The world in “This Alaska” is a fictitious space that has become a collection of experiences unique to Hoffman but impactful to many. Purchase student, Chyanne Carmichael mentioned a line from the poem “Overnight.”

She read, “Who are we/if not images that betray us.” She then asked a question about how Hoffman uses images and experiences to formulate her poetry.

Hoffman mentioned that the poems normally start with an image. She then asked the audience a question that she often asks her own students, “How do you translate an emotional truth into something that is tangible for a reader?”

Without an entry into the author's feelings, it is difficult to reach the premise of the poet's purpose. Hoffman explained to students that it’s important to invite the reader into your house of emotions instead of locking them out. 

Student Britt Trachtenberg mentioned a line from the poem “After Burial,” reading, “And to be on the field with the first two lines/I stood in the center of all the blizzard.” Her question pertained to Hoffman’s choice of using weather as a constant focus in her poems.

Hoffman admitted that this was a subconscious decision.

“In my daily life I'm someone who’s very affected by the weather,” she said.

She then reflected on her previous statement that whatever affects you in your life will show up in your poems, whether it’s specific or a different shade of the same color.

This idea goes hand in hand with her reasoning behind mentioning pigeons on multiple occasions. “I grew up with birds as pets in my house,” she said.

She explained that the speaker in the poem “After Burial” is fearful that they won’t be able to escape whatever emotional state they have succumbed to.

Photo of "This Alaska" from Hoffman's website (photo by Nicholas Bell)

After believing she was meant for fiction writing, Hoffman started taking poetry seriously in her senior year of college. Many of the poems in “This Alaska'' were written during her three years of graduate school at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. The origin of these poems is as a thesis instead of a book, which helped Hoffman complete the work because it gave her the freedom to try anything. 

Hoffman said, “For the type of person that I am, if I was sitting there thinking that I was writing a book I think I would've overwhelmed myself and not written anything.”

She also gave tips on how to overcome writer's block, which is a universal issue for writers. Reading books from some of her favorite poets, listening to music, and going for drives are all strategies that help her make a breakthrough. 

Student Dana Hirsch raised a question that surfaced one of the main issues with the book which was the ordering of the poems. The way Hoffman combatted this was by printing out the poems and rearranging them on her floor, trying to see what flowed best. 

“There's this one song by Mozart that I really like - ‘Fantasia in D Minor,’” said Hoffman. “I was obsessing over it and then I would look over the poems and try to match what I heard, to try to make a speaking whole, and it was really hard to do.”



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