Typewriters, Pilgrims, and Poetry:
An Interview with Crystal Hoffman
By Kait Burrier
Crystal Hoffman has led poetry workshops across the country, from public libraries to Burning Man Arts and Music Festival. She has taught at American University of Beirut. Poems from her chapbook Sulfur Water (2012, Hyacinth Girl Press) have been translated into three languages. Hoffman studied creative writing at Carlow University and earned her M.A. from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She is currently walking across the United States, gathering and scattering American myths via poetry.
Hoffman began her journey on March 25th, 2013, equipping herself with a tent, a change of clothes, an Olivetti 32 typewriter, and a modified cart affectionately named Connie. She left western Pennsylvania and is headed toward the Pacific northwest on what she anticipates will be a 6 month long journey spanning 2,550 miles on foot. She may be one of the few people who clicks the pedestrian icon while long-distance Google-mapping.
Crystal intends to revive the American myth and engage interested strangers in acts of poetry, much like she did as a founding member of the Typewriter Girls Cabaret. Along with poet Margaret Bashaar, Hoffman organized cabarets focused onparticipatory compositions. Many Typewriter Girls performances included various performing artists and writing games like Exquisite Corpse, and each event began with a typewriter at the door where, upon entering, audience members contributed a phrase to a collective poem.
In her Poetry Pilgrim Project, Crystal will engage in narrative therapy techniques with willing storytellers. Each poem will reflect that individual’s “hero’s journey” in the form of a poem. Crystal will type the poetry on card-stock, tie it with a ribbon, and present it to the individual, unearthing collective glorified narratives that will upturn a trail of American mythologyforged by poetry.
Photo: Jason Riedmiller
I recently had the opportunity to ask Crystal about her write life and about the Poetry Pilgrim Project:
Kait Burrier: You’re a poet, a performance artist, a teacher, an activist—how has all of this informed your writing?
Crystal Hoffman: When I write, I typically hear a voice speaking the words in my head. If I don’t or I’m concerned that something needs altered from how it came out originally, I will repeat it over and over out loud until it sounds right. This sometimes makes me look like a psycho in coffee shops—adds color to the place. I blame this need to hear on how central performance has been to my creative career.
As an activist, I attempt to resolve the paradoxes that frustrate me most in my work. I write poems that I wouldn’t call “issue” poems necessarily, but they attempt to work out why certain injustices and absurdities occur through narrative and images—not necessarily consciously, but they come up. The actual experience of protest I also find to be a poetic one, an energizing one, one wherein you can hear the magic of certain phrases.
There is also a beautiful absurdity to it. I used to be the one always itching for the game to be stepped up, looking for confrontation, hoping for a battle. It was in this space where I could see very clearly how I try to write the situations around me and get frustrated when I can’t manifest them. I have a lot of need for the control of my own story. I’m trying to get over this.
In terms of being a teacher, I think that I’ve learned more about writing from teaching poetry at the American University of Beirut than I have in all of my schooling—preparing the classes, clarifying concepts for students, grading, re-evaluating my own standards, being forced to assess things I wouldn’t typically read. It was radical. It was possibly the most vital experience of my life.
KB: You are a founding member of the Typewriter Girls. Will you share about this experience?
CH: The Typewriter Girls were my central creative project for about five years. It was a beautiful thing. I was able to utilize the performances to serve as an outlet for nearly all of my creative urges: comedy, collaboration, theater, poetry, dancing, games, performance pieces, even writing the press releases became a pleasure—I wrote them like stories, absurd ones, and people responded to them!
However, this was also problematic, as it came to consume too much of my creative energy, which made me angry, as I became too attached… It was a rush, but a draining one. Margaret (Bashaar, of Hyacinth Girl Press) and I are actually planning on doing a reunion show, but we’re not going to be doing them regularly as we were before. I would love to start writing sketch comedy again and writing scripts for performance art pieces, but I think I’d like to do it as a part of festivals or in someone’s already established troupe.
I see this walk as almost the opposite of the Typewriter Girls, despite the fact that the interview-poem process I will be writing along the way was developed through them.
KB: You have been active in multiple cities across the country in alternative poetry readings. You have taught both locally and abroad. Now you will travel across the country on your own with a typewriter. What do you hope to find? What do you hope to share? Do you have any plans or will you take a day-to-day approach?
CH: I’m definitely taking the day-to-day approach. I know that I’m going to be taking the Great American Discovery Trail at first through West Virginia and to Cincinnati. At that point, I’m going to see what feels right. Hopefully, I can head north from there and get to Montana by July. The only big thing that I want to make is the Rainbow Gathering, but it’s not a huge deal if I don’t. I’m going to try to set up last minute readings/writing sessions as I get a better idea of my timeline, but for now, it’s nebulous. Anything can happen. I like that.
If you’re feeling generous, you can donate to Crystal Hoffman’s Kickstarter here: http://www.poetrypilgrim.com/
If you’re still feeling generous and want to give her a pair of new walking shoes in exchange for a poem, or if you just want to see what she is up to, you can see Poetry Pilgrim Project updates here: http://www.poetrypilgrim.com/
Kait Burrier is an MFA candidate in the Wilkes Creative Writing Program. She and photographer Jason Riedmiller travel near, far, and further to bring NEPA the latest in live music. Pick up a copy of the Weekender or check www.theweekender.com for updates.