During her several decades here on earth, Jean Kemper Hoffmann has seen and experienced a lot. And most of this has ended up as a poem in one form or another. Her latest poetry book, Storm Warning, gives credence to this special woman’s gifts and sensibilities. So why does she write so much and so often? “Writing is a good way to express your feelings with a minimum of words,” Hoffmann says with certainty and, we might add, sparseness of language.
Hoffmann’s subjects are not limited, however. If anything they are wide-ranging, including descriptions of near-by cities like New York as well as faraway towns like Provence in France and San Miguel in Mexico. Her poetry also celebrates specific times in her life, like “When I Was Sixteen” and “At Home.” An entire book, Calling Their Names, is devoted to even more personal aspects, in memory of close family members who have passed away.
But how does Hoffmann select what objects, people and places she will write about?
“When I ride the city buses,” she responds, “ I look around at the passengers. I see an elderly man with a sad look on his face. Is he thinking about his late wife or the stock market? Yet sometimes, something strikes me emotionally, like anger or happiness, and I write about that, too.”
Regardless of the varied subject matter, however, Hoffmann’s style is consistent, evoking both the five senses and imagery words, all placing the reader beside her as she relives her feelings and experiences. Brief but lyrical descriptions contribute to our shared symbiotic relationship with the poet and her poetry. Consider this passage from “City Scape”:
litters the curb.
The words not only establish a rhythm, like music, which is typical Hoffmann, but also communicate the dynamics and mood of that moment in time. And they do so with fleeting brevity, like our memories.
In another passage from the poem, Hoffmann recreates the sounds of the city:
taxi horn bleats
shrill warnings of
fire engines clang,
Con Edison drills.
We can’t help but wonder if Hoffmann grew up in Larchmont writing poetry from an early age. What propelled her to get involved in poetry in the first place? Oddly enough, she always wanted to be an actress and moved to Manhattan hoping for success. “I said I’d give myself five years to make it in the theatre,” she recalls now. “But I left it before the five years was up.”
Marriage and a family didn’t stop Hoffmann from getting involved in another challenging pursuit: politics. She formed an anti-Senator McCarthy organization and also helped a candidate run for mayor of New York. She even ran for office here in East Hampton.
Regarding politics, what does Hoffmann think about the current political situation in America? “The world has gotten out-of-hand,” she answers without hesitation. “I feel sorry for young people who don’t have opportunities or choices. I had a choice to be an actress.”
If truth be told, we’re glad Hoffmann became a poet instead.
Storm Warning is available at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor. 631-725-4926.