The Poetry At 1600 Feet series has given me the chance to work with people I’ve looked up to for a while now; one of them being the incredible Joanna Hoffman. In this interview, we talk about her slam career, inspiration, and the opportunity for people from the back row to get up front and shout it out.
I know the exact moment I was hooked on spoken word poetry. Did you have a specific moment that made it click for you, or maybe a certain poem, or person?
I started writing poems when I was in middle school, and in high school I became the Editor in Chief of my school’s Literary Magazine. During that time, I was really into Ani DiFranco and she had a few spoken word pieces on her CD’s. One that stood out to me was “My IQ” from her album “Not a Pretty Girl”. Also around the same time, I watched the movie “Slam” and was completely in awe of the poets in the film (Saul Williams, Beau Sia, DJ Renegade, and Sonja Sohn, who later went on to star in The Wire). I had never heard of slam poetry before, and was really struck by the idea that there was a space for shy, unathletic kids like me, who loved writing, to be loud and powerful. When I got to college, I immediately sought out open mic nights in Baltimore and started performing regularly. One night, the host suggested I check out Baltimore’s weekly poetry slam. I had an amazing night, and also loved the people I met there and how incredibly warm, welcoming and supportive they were. That’s when I was hooked.
What made you want to teach (workshops) as well as perform?
I think that both performing and teaching are about finding a human connection. To be effective as a performer, I need to be accessible, relatable, and authentic. Personally, after I had been slamming for about fifteen (!!) years, I felt like I was more than ready to step back from the stage and dedicate my time and energy to supporting poets who are new to it. I found that the qualities that make an effective performer also make an effective educator. Also, I love talking about poems and writing and creative processes, and feel fortunate that there are people who want to listen to what I have to say about all that!
Are you influenced by any other mediums?
I’m definitely influenced by all kinds of mediums. I’m inspired by storytelling in all of its forms, and the power that comes from connecting to someone else’s experience. I’ve found that in the music of Janet Jackson and Neko Case and Beyoncé and so many others, in novels and painting and graffiti and really any way that someone puts their passion into expression.
How does your experience in the LGBT+ community affect your work?
My writing is a reflection of my life experiences, and that includes realizing I was a lesbian, coming out to my friends and family and coworkers (a process that never ends, really), working out my internal homophobia, navigating through the murkiness/awkwardness of gay bars and online dating and crushing on emotionally unavailable women, recovering from heartbreak, and falling in love. But that’s just my experience, as an individual, and as a middle-class white cisgender gay woman living in Brooklyn. I recognize the uniqueness of my experience in that way, and also the universality of it in the sense of having shame about who you are, learning to accept yourself, being part of a marginalized group, and of course the love/dating stuff. I think accessibility is important in writing and performing, and I hope to connect with people who are very different than I am along with people who aren’t.
Can you give any advice for aspiring writers?
My advice for writers of any level is to read as much as possible. Read poetry that pushes the boundaries of what you usually write about and how you usually write about it. If you never write form poems, read some sonnets. If you’ve never written about nature, read some nature poems. If there are topics you’re scared to write about, read poetry on those topics and also examine why it is you’ve thought of these topics as off-limits. And go beyond poetry– read novels and memoirs and short fiction and nonfiction. While you’re at it, go beyond reading and check out some photography and music and visual art. When I’m experiencing serious writers block, it inspires me to see how other people express themselves creatively.
If you had three wishes, what would they be?
- An end to all violence, including physical, sexual, mental and emotional violence, and systemic violence against marginalized communities.
- For all people to extend compassion beyond those in our immediate circles.
- To have all, or at least most of the people I love living much closer to me.
I sure do, and I wonder sometimes if she knows she shares a name with a lesbian Jewish poet living in Brooklyn.
Be sure to come see Joanna on Saturday, September 5th in the Piano Performance Museum (workshop at 5:30PM, performance and open mic at 7PM).