University of Michigan visiting professor Kelly Hoffer applies her poetry habit to grief in “Undershore”


Kelly Hoffer and her book Undershore.

“the day unthreads, and then the next / day unthreads,” writes poet and University of Michigan Helen Zell Visiting Professor in Poetry, Kelly Hoffer, in her collection, Undershore

The poems in Undershore find themselves submerged in grief, and later in the book, they explore the juxtaposition of loss with new life. During the “smoketrail/afterimage/premonition” in the poem called “Age of decadence/ /sericulture/ /summoning spell” (in this sentence, the slashes are part of the line and title, not indicating line breaks), we see both what is there and what has changed. The poet reflects on a silkworm’s effort to build a cocoon by noting that, “at the moments of greatest observational / pressure, desire seeps into perception.” Bereavement does not erase the persistent want.  

Another poem, “Sidelong: treatises,” points out that “the thing about a cliff is the cliffside, otherwise / it would remain a carpet unfurling in front of you, forever.” The drop-off defines it. They say that grief is an emotion that you must face to get through it, and Hoffer stands at the cliff’s edge and does just that. Hoffer includes two poems called “I want Abysses,” and at the end of the first one writes: 

it takes my vision
away from, its brightness blots out the
blackness of, my sight, I
don’t know where to encounter the blue
or if I could if I would, a sheet of it
painted on celestial film and the dove
remains a hovering
void in the void
through it I see the abyss
the desire I desire

Again, even early on, desire continues to be present.

Shades of blue and species of flowers accumulate throughout Undershore. The poem “Newly, rendered, truly” launches with the description of “newly, truly, bluely ever madly, sadly, / blue blue blue, raw and bluely / piece of meat, awfully raw and / tender.” The poem concludes in “my singly, madly, deepening / blue.” The blue shows up in the sky, the water, and the darkness in this collection, as we see “the bending of true / cyan.” The ache of this blue aligns with other poems, sometimes the same poems, that examine the growth of flowers. In “Peony,” there is “no / you to witness the unfolding.” Instead, the poet perceives “the very sepal / tired of holding / all the petals that must be inside.” 

Throughout Undershore are multiple poems entitled “Visitation” where the poet meets her mother:

my mother tells me
she has read my poems.
she liked the one about 
peonies because she likes
poems about the end 
of the world, she says.

These poems of the same title feel dreamlike, and they don't necessarily mean a visitation in a funereal sense but rather that of encounters with her mother's ghost. They process the absence. In the last “Visitation,” Hoffer writes, “We emerge from a drowned place, just she and I.” This connection to the loved one also brings the “Grief for the grief I must give up.” Even grief cannot last forever, and it evolves, as “She continues / pulling seeds from a stitched / rose, disintegrating to become / a nest.” 

As another dimension, some poems in Undershore possess accompanying QR codes that “take you to the poem’s corresponding quilt square, where you can listen to the poet read the poem aloud.” This quilt contains additional “botanical squares” with “new poems written just for this quilt.” Hoffer designed and printed all of the squares using the cyanotype process

I interviewed Hoffer about her poetry and quilt. 

Kelly Hoffer's digital quilt piece titled Sericulture

Kelly Hoffer's digital quilt piece titled "Sericulture." You can listen to Hoffer read the poem by clicking on the box one over to the left in lower right corner here.

Q: You have studied and taught poetry at several institutions. How did you decide to become the Helen Zell Visiting Professor in Poetry here in Ann Arbor? 
A: Working at the Helen Zell Writers’ Program is a dream position for a teaching poet like me, so when I saw the job listing, I applied but I was doubtful I would be seriously considered. It was to my great delight and surprise that they asked me for an interview and eventually offered me the job—I moved to Ann Arbor and haven’t looked back. The HZWP is one of the country’s top MFA programs, and this means we attract incredibly talented poets and fiction writers as graduate students; my students are certainly the best part of my job. I love the community we’ve created at the MFA program, and I am so grateful for the sort of conversation I am able to have with my colleagues and students. Every week I get to talk about all of my nerdiest interests with brilliant poets—a true gift.

Q: Your debut collection, Undershore, won the Lightscatter Press Prize and was published last spring. Tell us what it was like to win the prize and have your book published. 
A: Both writing and publishing come with heaps of self-doubt accompanied by heaps of rejection. I submitted my manuscript only to have it turned down more than 50 times, so when it was finally selected by Diana Khoi Nguyen, a poet I so admire, it was deeply meaningful affirmation of the work I had been undertaking for years. It also allowed me to apply for jobs like the one I have now, so I am just so grateful to Diana and to my press for taking a chance on my poetry.

Outside of what’s it’s done for my career, having the book in the world has meant that a project about my personal grief has become suddenly public—a vulnerable position to be in. Despite this feeling of exposure, one of the great surprises of publishing Undershore has been connecting with other people who have experienced parental loss. The book is not necessarily a comfort to those people, but so many readers have reached out and told me that they lost their parent or that their parent is in hospice. After making these connections, I have a much better sense of the scale of the networks of grief in my own social circle and beyond, which feels especially meaningful since public mourning is still so stigmatized in the US. Most people don’t feel welcomed to grieve openly or for any prolonged period. I’ve been grieving my mother for the last ten years, and I am sure that grief will continue to change shape over the next ten years, but it won’t disappear.  

Q: Poet Diana Khoi Nguyen, who selected your manuscript for the Lightscatter Press Prize as you mentioned, writes in her foreword: “After a death comes a ‘disrupted texture,’ but in mapping the body with the natural world, the speaker finds a way to move forward, as clouds are never not moving, as plants continue to grow toward the sun, until the day they don’t.” What did it take to turn grief for your mother into poems? 
A: Honestly, I had very little say in the matter. For better or worse, I have a poetry habit, and that habit responds to whatever is occupying me. Right after my mother died, I felt like I couldn’t not write about it—she was everywhere. Her pain was everywhere. Her absence was everywhere. 

Q: The series of poems titled “Visitation” that are interspersed throughout the book feel dream-like, and they focus on a late mother. What is the relationship between the poems of the same title? Do you think the same title allows you to iterate in new ways in each “Visitation?” If so, how? 
A: Many of the poems in the “Visitation” series began as dreams. The first poem in the book was a poem I wrote down immediately upon waking from a dream just a few months after my mother’s death. My mother would enter my dreams—sometimes I would know she was dead, sometimes I wouldn’t. We’d have conversations—sometimes she was attentive, sometimes less so. I was always excited by getting to see her because it meant our relationship was continuing to develop—she wasn’t just stuck as a static entity in my memories. But of course, those dreams are always accompanied by the bittersweetness of waking up. Initially I titled those poems “Dreams” but I eventually decided I didn’t want to limit them to that realm—after all, not all of those poems are faithful renderings of dreams. Instead, I wanted the poem to be the space where that communion could happen and take on linguistic complexity. 

I like the slightly ritualistic register of the word “visitation” and its association with women talking—in the Bible, of course, it refers to a pregnant Mary visiting her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. When it came time to put the manuscript together, it was important to me that these visitations would occur throughout the book because that has very much been my experience with grief, that it returns to me at intervals, sometimes when I least expect it. For a long time, the visitations were numbered, but then I decided I liked the disorientation that removing the numbers created. Narrative continuity was disrupted, chronology skewed—dream time. The visitations began to feel much more like a single dream the book would dip in and out of, or even another region of the book that the reader could visit, maybe its undershore.

Q: The description of Undershore says that it is “alive with formal daring.” The poems take on a variety of forms and even directions on the page. How did you dare with form while writing this collection? 
A: I rarely begin writing a poem knowing what it will look like on the page. I like to compose by feel and by ear, letting the images and sounds direct me to my next line. As I am writing, I am constantly reading my draft out loud to myself, and sometimes the layout of the text on the page is meant to encourage a certain mode of reading out loud—a break in a line where I want a pause, etc. But many of the poems ask for the form they take—I might begin composing in tight stanzas, but the poem, for whatever reason, feels like it needs more room or more air and so I spread things out. Allowing myself to expand horizontally, composing lines that might stretch across a two-page spread was especially freeing for me. I would push myself to sustain a line for longer than I thought I could, and sometimes that little extra pressure produced something unexpected. 

Q: Cliffs, the color blue, and grief appear alongside flowers and desire, and they all saturate these poems. How did these themes emerge? 
A: I remember asking one of my poetry mentors in college if I should be worried about repeating myself in poems, or repeating images. She told me repetitions were often obsessions, and those come into your poetry whether you want them to or not. So these are my obsessions. The ocean. The loss of my mother. Gardens and their flowers. Sex. Cliffs is one I hadn’t thought as much about, but it makes sense—grief and love are both things you fall into.

Q: As a book artist, in what ways does your book art intersect with your poetry? 
A: Poetry has never been disembodied for me—its sonics take hold in the body when we recite a poem, we feel it with our mouths, etc. What book arts offered—the opportunity to make and experience poems by working with my hands—just felt like a natural extension of that same embodied poetic drive. I had the opportunity to take some book-making and letterpress-printing classes in graduate school, and I didn’t hesitate. Making poem-objects has taught me so much about economy—a word really needs to be pulling its weight if I am going to set it in type. So much of doing anything creative is problem-solving within a form, and working with book arts is no different. The materials offer their own resistances and challenges, but this also means there are new opportunities for artistic discovery. 

Q: Some of the poems in Undershore have QR codes that link to the related squares in a digital quilt of the book, along with audio recordings of your readings of the poems. How does this additional dimension enhance the poems on the page? How did you decide which poems to make squares for? 
A: I have had the good fortune of publishing Undershore with Lightscatter Press, and that has meant getting to work with their tireless publisher, Lisa Bickmore. Lisa started the press with the vision of creating multi-modal experiences to accompany each of the books in their catalog. When my manuscript was selected, Lisa extended the very generous invitation to collaborate on whatever kind of experience I might want to create to accompany my poems. She suggested something to do with textiles, since threadwork is one of the book’s recurring motifs—sewing, embroidery, weaving, etc. Together we soon landed on the idea of making a quilt. I was drawn to this idea because the quilt is a modular form; therefore, there is a natural analogy between the squares of a quilt and the pages of a book or the poems of a collection. We started selecting poems based on various thematic threads—grief, oceans, flowers, desire—each of the quilt squares is linked to other squares in its respective thematic thread through the app. This means that the quilt serves as an alternative mapping of the book, encouraging the reader to take various pathways through the collection, and linking poems they might not have thought to connect otherwise. From the beginning, it was important to me that the quilt include an audio element, since I feel so many of my poems only really arrive when they are read aloud. I will admit hearing recordings of myself is difficult—isn’t it for everyone? But I know readers have enjoyed getting to listen to the poems, and the cyanotyped quilt squares invite readers to return to the poems in the physical book with a renewed curiosity, ready to notice things they hadn’t registered before.

Q: Poems show the topsy-turvy nature of grief in that the poet has to make new sense of the world, such as “the sky the truer / unchanging from / differing depths.” Other poems are grounded in places and flowers, like California, poppies, and Hearst Castle where “I needed a place / to rest, so I bend my body in two / and let the fat on my hips float me / to the surface.” What sort of balance between physical and emotional places do these poems find?  
A: I love that this question recognizes poems as negotiating inner and outer landscapes. A poem often helps me register an interior tumult even if I am writing in response to the physical world. This interplay between inner and outer also effects how I think about metaphor—I don’t consider the metaphors in my poems to be purely ornamental, or even a symbolic language that cloaks the poem’s “true” message; instead, they are active transformative forces that allow me to wrangle my various poetic materials—emotions, language, the botanical world, visual art. It’s not always clear what is literal in my poems and what is metaphorical or figurative. I like when a poem puts me on my back foot, unsettling my senses for a bit, because it often forces me to renegotiate what I knew or thought I knew.

Q: What are you reading and recommending this spring? 
A: In my graduate workshop this spring we read Wendy Xu’s The Past (Wesleyan), which came out a couple of years ago, but I just adore it and continue to return to it. I’m always recommending that. I’ve also been revisiting Carlina Duan’s Alien Miss (University of Wisconsin Press)which is great. I recently read and loved Fady Joudah’s […] newly out from Milkweed, which I reviewed for Michigan Quarterly Review; we should all be reading Palestinian literature today and every day. I’ve also been enjoying Rennie Ament’s Mechanical Bull (CSU Poetry Center) and Tracy Fuad’s Portal (University of Chicago Press). My big recommendation this spring is for everyone to buy a book or two directly from their favorite small press—it’s the best way to support a diverse and vibrant literary scene.

Q: With your first book published, what are you looking forward to next with your writing?
A: I have a second full-length manuscript, Fire Series, which I’ve been working on for a while but hasn’t found a publisher yet. It’s inspired by fire investigators and the very specialized diction they use in their field, and it continues to work through grief, but I hope it explores some new territory as well—thinking through loneliness in intimacy, the transformations we hope for but maybe can’t realize.  I’m excited to see where it ends up. I’ve also been working on a new series of poems about photography, or I guess, about the resistance to respond to photography, called The photo I don’t write about. Part of that project is coming out next year as a micro-chapbook from Tilted House, a great small press in New Orleans. I also continue to produce three-dimensional poem objects; most recently I’ve been playing with knitting paper to produce poem textiles—my goal for the summer is to knit a poem into a floor-length robe. We’ll see how that goes.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.