issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > hostetler
Winning the Lottery: A Tribute to Daniel Hoffmanby Ann Hostetler
When I began to write poetry seriously during my dissertation process in Penn's English Department, I shyly entered the William Carlos Williams poetry contest and was surprised and pleased with a third place win. I was even more surprised, however, to receive a letter in campus mail the following week from Daniel Hoffman, the legendary Americanist who also taught a graduate poetry-writing workshop. "Why aren't you enrolled in my class?" he challenged. So enroll I did.
What followed was a memorable workshop with an extremely high level of participants. Dan began our first class by presenting us with rearrangements of poems we had handed in as writing samples, just so that we could get the feel of seeing them anew. From Dan I learned a great deal about listening to my own work as well as that of others. He built a chemistry among the poetry students that was rigorous but appreciative. Our final class was a dinner at his home in Swarthmore, and someone bought lottery tickets for all of us. None of us won the jackpot that day, but I think we won another kind of lottery-a fine, formative workshop that established respect, collegiality, and admiration. We learned to take our writing and each other seriously.
A few weeks into the class I realized that Dan had hand picked most of these students from across the university and beyond. There was no graduate creative writing program at Penn then—there still isn't—and it was years before the Kelly Writers House emerged on the campus. Dan's workshop included participants from across the disciplines, both undergraduate and graduate students, a professor of Japanese on her way to an MFA program at Hopkins, and a businessman graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop who was in his forties. Among the participants were David Moolten, now a medical doctor with three published volumes of poetry—winner of the Samuel Morse French Prize, and the T. S. Eliot Prize of Truman State University for his more recent volume, Primitive Mood—and Geoff Brock, award-winning translator of Cesare Pavese and Umberto Eco, among others, and author of Weighing Light, winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize. Through the years I have met other students hand-picked by Dan Hoffman, including Edward Hirsch and Marilyn Nelson.
I am especially grateful to Dan for tapping me on the shoulder between some rather angst-ridden years in the Ph.D. program, for recognizing me as a poet, and making it seem quite natural that one could be both a poet and a scholar. His letter, and the workshop that followed, shifted the flow of my academic life and enabled me to open a lasting space for poetry in my own life.