Ava Hofmann is a writer currently living and working as an MFA student in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She has poems published in or forthcoming from Black Warrior Review, Fence, Anomaly, Best American Experimental Writing 2020, The Fanzine, Datableed, Peachmag, Petrichor, and Bomb Cyclone. Her poetry deals with trans/queer identity, Marxism, and the frustrated desire inherent to encounters with the archive.
Her poems “from that i want,” “in a fight” and “at the doctor’s office” appear in the twenty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “from that i want,” “in a fight” and “at the doctor’s office.”
A: As implied by the title, the poem “from that i want” is from a longer chapbook project of mine titled, yes, that i want. that i want is collection of visual poems in a similar form dealing with the impermeability and revisability of language, gender, and the body – creating the sorts of spaces I have encountered in my own transition, where multiple meanings, multiple voices, exist simultaneously, growing from the same processes. Those poems are about unlearning and relearning my relationship to my own body and its desires.
“in a fight” and “at the doctor’s office” are both poems from another chapbook of mine titled plastic flowers. the poems from plastic flowers are pseudo-comedic poems about the relationship between one’s own interiority and the current regime of biomedical capitalist production, and the ways in which this interiority and exteriority tumble into one another in disorienting and reflexive ways. They’re a miniature mix of dark comedies, journaling, and communist manifestos.
Q: How do these pieces compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: All of these pieces engage in the larger interest of my poetic practice in uninterpretability/opacity and the reaching-towards potentiality (namely, a potentiality for a change in the structure of capital, in systems of power and control, in the rotting remains of the bioindustrial directing of desire). More and more, also, my poems have moved to language, the repetition of language, its difficulty, as a vector for creating interesting dynamics of power and collaborative readwriting with my audience. I would say lately the entirety of my poetic interests are in the ways in which poetry could be participatory and interactive, to open up my own author-authority to interrogation so that the reader might also confront themselves.
Q: What is it that prompted this type of direction, towards works that are “participatory and interactive,” and what might that look like?
A: My interest in participatory and interactive writing is, in some sense, both an extension and repudiation of the conceptualists’ critique of authorship. The conceptualists’ interest in effacing or challenging the idea of ‘the author’ in writing is, I think, ultimately a compelling goal for writing—a way to speak to a radical collectivity or cultural memory; however, in so doing, they effaced their own positionality as authors while, in actuality, cemented their own authorship and institutional power through their techniques of collage and re-appropriation. In short, under capitalism, to erase ‘the author’ entirely is to simply have literature turn into another mouthpiece for the present calamity of capitalist imperialism.
This is obviously not anywhere close to a new critique of that movement, but this means my work, vaguely experimental and picking through the crater of the (rightfully) exploded legitimacy of experimental work, has to contend with or salvage usable material, especially as I often find the conventional lyric and where it is right now to often be eaten out from the inside by institutions and tastes and (mis)recognitions which are somehow both too voyeuristic and not voyeuristic enough.
Interactivity, or more generally a writing practice which encourages an audience to become involved in a deeper or more complex method of readwriting, has been kind of my solution to this problem. It gives me a certain capacity to have a steadily unsteady hand on my identity—lacunae and instabilities as pathways and dramatizations of the productive frustrations and opacities within the poems and its operations of certain positions within it. But also, interactivity or nonlinearity is kind of a trap for the reader—they become implicated in the text, and their own position becomes open to confrontation or being implicated in a system of readwriting. Lately I’ve been doing it through the creation of gaps in readerly understanding or the nonlinear arrangement of texts, requiring greater interpretive and speculative effort on the part of the reader. I've even been working in / experimenting with twine, a tool for the creation of genuinely interactive hypertext works. More and more I want to view my readers as collaborators or co-participants; I expect at some point I’ll probably take the necessary plunge and make works directly with my audience (this is maybe what teaching is or should be).
This is a boundary the conceptualists never really crossed (according to my admittedly finite knowledge): instead of effacing authorship to speak culturally about the system of language, I find the value in effacing total authorship as part of my anarchist practice, a potential reduction of the hierarchy between myself and my reader. Maybe I’ve just been thinking about this lately, but for me there’s kind of a draw towards the intermedia writing and event scores of the fluxus movement, a space where something is genuinely asked of you as a reader, an artistic collaboration, a challenge for poetry to move outside the space of the page.
But also, if you want to de-theorize it, my interest in interactivity is in part because of the works which sustained me through the toughest years of my deluded first puberty: weird twine games written and distributed by trans people. But why were trans people writing so many wonderful twine games? We return back to the defending and weaponizing of identity inherent in the interactive exchange.
Q: Is it even possible to erase the author entirely? Any work with an author’s name attached can’t help but refuse complete erasure. And is not language, in its purest sense, a collaborative system? I get the sense that the work you are aiming for simply pushes to acknowledge that fact, and those collaborations; allowing space for the reader to explore. What do you feel are the challenges for attempting this kind of work?
A: Yeah, this is what I was kind of getting at before—I don’t have any illusions that I am somehow really erasing my authorship, my position within language. Pretending there is ‘no author’, even in a readymade, is to lose sight of yourself, your act of language. However, if I imagine space or room or possibility for an encounter with a reader, and I instead almost hypermark my authorship in the space of the writing, to lay bare and frustrate the mechanics of the illusion, then there’s kind of also a demand that someone also recognizes my identity as a trans person, not necessarily in a voyeuristic or confessional way, but one in which they have to do this essential work of untangling and understanding.
In terms of the poets of the past, there have been so many who only later I discovered they were queer; that information had been hidden from me. Authorship is itself a kind of authority, but ultimately the reader has a kind of authority, too, to participate in the words, to imagine and misrepresent that there is some kind of inner life behind the words that is not their own, to suck out the marrow of identity for entertainment.
There’s kind of a way I imagine my interactive work as intensely realist, in that sense—I’m depicting the collaborative matrix of interactions inherent to language, its frustrations, its oppositions, its potential for love and recognition. I think in that sense your assessment of my work is correct—an allowing of space, a depiction of the space that reading is.
I think the challenge for that kind of work is that you have to trust that the reader won’t hate you for the frustration you’re causing them. I think about how some people imagine that there’s a contract between the writer and the reader—I don’t believe such a contract, but if there was one, I think my work is breaking it. I think also, when you have a nonlinear text, the reader might come up with a way of reading that you didn’t think of, and if you’re really committed to this kind of practice, there’s a need to accept that possibility of the unplanned. You have to come to terms with the fact that reading and writing already comes with it the possibility of vengeful counterreadings, critiques, refusals to engage with your identity, rejection.
Q: You’ve been publishing work for some time now, although you’ve yet to release a chapbook or full-length collection. What do you feel your work has accomplished? Where do you see your work headed?
A: I don’t know if two years is all that much time in terms of publishing, but I will say that I do have a chapbook in the works which will be released probably soonish. I’ve only been really sending out the manuscript for my full-length collection for a month now—I finished writing it in October. Publishing can be very slow. I edit and change my poems and projects a lot, even while I’m sending them out. If you look at the poems from my full-length manuscript that got published two years ago, they look nothing like how they do now—that’s why maybe it feels like there’s been a long lead-up in terms of individual poems being published even while there have been no books.
I don’t really have any illusions about my work accomplishing anything. A poem cannot really be the revolutionary vanguard or anything. What my poems have accomplished have been what they have done for me: my writing was the pathway out of my conservative and deeply religious upbringing, out of the confines of the gender I was forcibly assigned. My poems are places where I store what I’ve been thinking about—bad jokes, reflections on my progress as a person, things I like making. The value of the poem is its idiosyncratic particularities, the act of finding possibility within a culture and language of death.
Relatedly, I think my work is headed towards a certain kind of idiosyncratic exploration of syntax, and also the representation of syntax (like sentence diagramming). I’ve been playing around with this concept where one could take a phrase to be a part of speech indexing itself, if that makes sense. You can turn any phrase or any part of speech into another part of speech with quotations and meta-reference. For example, you could take a phrase like “to write this way” and use it as an adjective, verb, or noun:
I am feeling a “to write this way” emotion.
This “to write this way” grows into a mossy ecosystem.
Language is “to write this way”-ing the word.
I’m interested in seeing how far one could take this (maybe kind of banal) concept and see how unreadable and bad language might become with multiple deployments and nesting of this technique:
“To write this way” “to write this way”-s “to write this ‘to write this way’.”
I want to fold this language in half. I want to break it. I want to see what kind of stupid and perspective-shifting things I can get myself and my friends to think about. Books and something like a legacy might be nice, but neither of those things will really matter to me when I’m dead. When I was closeted and hated myself, I cared a whole lot more about what people thought about me when I was dead. These days, I’m a whole lot more interested in the capacity for pleasure now, while I’m still alive, in this short and rare time I get to actually be me.
Q: I like the idea of folding language in half and/or breaking language. Have you had any models for this type of writing? Are there any particular writers or works in the back of your head as you work?
A: I think when I’m thinking about that kind of deforming of language, I’m thinking about quite a few projects by poets about the impossible violence of language, a wish for the pain it causes (and for language itself) to disappear, or be made anew. I think the most recent prominent example I can think of is the work being done in Jos Charles’s feeld (whose language-twisting work is in large part inspired by Paul Celan), the way it is trying to allow for the kinds of spaces of untranslatability that I’ve found my trans identity needs. There is also the way in which M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! twists the actual legal language and slavery outward into a polyvocal inhabitation with the specific violent event of the Zong massacre and its occurrence within the larger genocide of enslavement. Or perhaps I can be cheeky and talk about some of the literal ways in which poets fold language—constructing a mobius strip out of a page in Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, the visual folding and arrangement in most Douglas Kearney’s poetic practice, or the ways in which actual historical poems live their lives within physical objects and manuscripts, the losses and gaps within Sappho’s oeuvre which in themselves language-usurping encounters with non-closure.
I guess I’m talking about a revolt against language generally, which is not an unusual emotion in poets, who obviously have to live with how deeply adversarial language can really be. And I think there’s a certain anarchistic tradition, there, in this idea of a revolt against language. In his Dada manifesto, Hugo Ball asks why he cannot create his own language, and name things in the ways he wishes—the result was his noise poems, and the irrational revolt of Dada in general. I can’t really tell if such a tendency is utopian or nihilistic; in Neon Haze, a piece of interactive fiction written by Porpentine Charity Heartscape, she writes, “I dream of clouds frying and servers crashing and paper burning and language being undone until I can just be a nameless animal.” It is, of course, kind of an impossible dream fulfillable only in, of course, the return-to-material-from-material of death. The character in Neon Haze, Jwlain Seweta, says that line in a way I read as very bitter. Maybe in the utterance it’s an indwelling of bitterness and hope simultaneously. I’m doubtless leaving out tons of people whose writing I love & who influence my kinda-edgy anti-language language stance and who are influencing my practice at one stage or another.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your work? What writers or writing can’t you help but return to?
A: I tend to find myself returning to Hannah Weiner’s work—its relationship with the page, with the thought, of language as a process in one’s body, language being a container for the liquid of one’s thoughts.
Armand Schwerner’s “The Tablets,” too, feels like an important precursor to my interest in the archival gaps, although I fret over that book’s relationship to the colonial museum system, whether it’s doing enough to undo or undermine a certain troubling attitude in relationship with the past. But his work, the capacity it allows for silence, its use of pictorial poetics, its documentation of gradations of silence, is still important to me.
I cannot help also but have a soft spot in me for Gerard Manley Hopkins and his work with language and form. Maybe it’s the ex-Christian in me.
And in general there’s a lot of overlap between the people I mentioned in the previous question and this one. I’d also want to mention the work of Never Angeline Nørth, Caroline Bergvall, Juliana Spahr, Diana Khoi Nguyen, Chelsey Minnis, Sean Bonney, essa may ranapiri, and kari edwards. There is also so much crucial writing from outside the poetry space—alt-comix and interactive art—that they can’t be mentioned here for the sake of time & space.
I would also be lying if I didn’t admit that I often return to the poetic practices of friends. I find that the best lessons about writing have been from people I cared about directly and personally, rather than abstract artists from a nebulous personal canon of authors. What reenergizes my work is not really reading, but remembering how lucky I am to be alive and be me and to have friends and to love. It’s corny, but true!!!