ďI want silence the way a sponge wants water,Ē Hirshfield says.
Itís in quiet that Hirshfield has written such poetry collections as ďAlaya,Ē ďThe October Palace,Ē ďThe Lives of the Heart,Ē ďGiven Sugar, Given SaltĒ (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award) and, most recently, ďAfter: PoemsĒ (HarperCollins, 112 pages, $23.95).
Hirshfield, who was born in 1953 in New York City, was raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She was among the first class of women to graduate from Princeton University.
Her poetry is lauded for ďallowing thoughts to be anchored within the tangible things of the worldĒ and, in the words of Gonzaga University English professor Tod Marshall, for achieving ďwhat I might call a certain tranquility Ė a clear and open responsiveness to the world Ė while also offering an honest recounting of the tumultuous emotions with which we all struggle.Ē
Hirshfield, who lives in Mill Valley, Calif., participated in a phone interview in advance of her Oct. 11 reading at Gonzaga. In it, she gave a virtual seminar on how she writes, what she writes about and when she knows that a poem is done.
Dan Webster: I hope Iím not disrupting your writing time.
Jane Hirshfield: No, actually since I knew you were calling I geared things up. Plus Iím afraid what Iím working on today may never see the light of day. Itís a little thing called ďBad Mood Blues.Ē (laughs) Thereís nothing that can cheer you up better than writing a silly little ditty about being in a bad mood.
DW: No kidding. I find it interesting is that here you were, born in New York, and you attended P.S. 20, right?
JH: Actually, P.S. 40.
DW: What borough is that?
JH: Itís in Mahnattan, on the Lower East Side. I grew up on E. 20th Street.
DW: So you grew up there in the city, until you went to Princeton?
DW: So what I find interesting is the huge contradiction between somebody growing up in the busiest, and greatest I might add, city in the world. Then you spent those years at the Zen Center.
DW: You couldnít get much different than that.
JH: Thatís so true. One of the great ironies of my life is that someone who grew up in New York has spent a fair number of years of my life with no electricity Ė and loved every second of it.
DW: As opposed to those people who live that way in New York without choice, when thereís a brown-out or something.
JH: Oh, you just touched on a real theme for me. All my life I have written poems Ė you can find one in just about every book Ė that looks at this question of how much do people get to choose what happens. And part of that is absolutely my awareness of the fact that I have had some choice in my life and so many people have none. Sorry, didnít mean to get so serious on you (laughs).
DW: No, thatís all right, because youíre touching on one of the things that I wanted to touch on, which was how that contradiction, or apparent contradiction, of growing up in a big city and then spending those years in the Zen Center, then living in Marin County in I assume a kind of pastoral setting there Ö
DW: Ö of how that contradiction has shaped your work over the years.
JH: Well, I think that from childhood my earliest memory is of what my parents figured must have been the first time I was ever taken to the country. So I remember lying on my back in a grassy field with a blackberry hedge behind my head, blue sky above me and the taste of blackberries in my mouth. Thatís my youngest memory. And I just have a feeling that something in me went, ĎThis is how it was supposed to be,í and I couldnít wait to get back to it. Iím terribly grateful for what growing up in new York can give a person, you know, such depth of culture and exposure to so many things from, you know, the Japanese Pavilion at the New York Worldís Fair when I was 10 years old. I was the only one in my family brave enough to have sukiyaki with a raw egg broken into it. These are broadening experiences, and I think the gift of growing up in an unprovincial culture is that it does make you constitutionally open toward many things. If youíre lucky, if itís the right culture at the right place, you end up being a person who wants to know about the new rather than one who has been trained to push it away and to be afraid of it. I am simply constitutionally a person who Ö I want silence the way a sponge wants water. And even though I grew up in New York, when I go back and visit my mother who is still in the apartment that we all moved into when I was 9 years old that still has the same phone number that all my little school friends used to call me at, itís incredibly hard on my system just to be with that level of noise. So itís not so much a contradiction, more a matter of discovering what my nature was and being lucky enough to be able to follow that through.
DW: Thatís interesting. I can see that, absolutely. Iíve been trying to find as much bio information about you as I can Ö
JH: Doesnít the Web make all of that easier.
DW: It does. Except that the only stuff about you that Iíve been able to find is all the same stuff. You were born in í53, you grew up in New York, you went to Princeton among the first women Ö were you among the first women accepted or the first women who graduated?
JH: Itís actually very carefully worded because the back story is too dull to spell out. I entered with the second class, but I went through in three years. So I graduated with the first class, but I missed that first year when they were all under a fishbowl of examination. Ö But I did graduate with that group of women just because I galloped through.
DW: What drew you to Princeton?
JH: When I stopped going to public school, I was put into an all-girls school, and so one thing that drew me to Princeton is that I thought I ought to learn how to talk to people of the opposite sex (laughs). But it was a beautiful school. Itís a semirural campus, covered with magnolia trees, especially back then. Ö It was basically a top-notch education. I mean, my ultimate choice was between two extremes. One was this menís school just taking women and Ivy League. Ö but the other place that I was seriously considering, which in a way looked as if it made way more sense, was Bennington, which was very much an arts school at that time and a school where aspiring young writers would go. And, of course, it was in the country and a beautiful, rural campus. But Bennington was just starting to take men, and I just thought that I needed something different. And it turned out, of course, that since I was there Princeton has developed an absolutely, just impeccably good writing program. When I was there, it was a very quiet creative writing program, but they did have that option.
DW: That was early on.
JH: Yes, that was early on, and because I was already interested in East Asian literature and things like that, they had a very strong program in that. So I took a lot of courses in that department, although it wasnít my major.
DW: Iím curious about what drew you to poetry in the first place. I mean, I think that all of us who put words on paper ultimately find out what our talents are and what style weíre going to follow. And some people are quite conversant in several different styles, and it always amazes me to see that. Why did poetry speak to you more than short fiction, long fiction, journalism Ö?
JH: Well, I donít have the storytelling knack. So narrative, I wouldnít have been any good at it. You know, people who write fiction often grow up in houses where people told a lot of stories. My house was very silent and very unliterary and unworded. It was not an expressive family. And so for me, poetry is perhaps of the art forms the most intimate vehicle for the expression of the condition of your soul, of your deepest self at any given moment. And for me to write poems, I certainly started writing so young that it had nothing to do with thinking about a career or how I would spend my life. It much more had to do with how could I find a place of explorative investigation and safety where I could find out who I was and what I felt about the world. And that is what poems do. You know, itís a different work than telling a story. They are a path of discovery of how emotion and thought and conception can come together. Iím sorry. I start speaking so abstractly about these things. But thatís because Iím not a good storyteller (laughs). If I was a storyteller, Iíd have some marvelous story I could tell you about how I became a poet. But then Iíd be a narrative poet and not the person I am (laughs). So, you know, youíre getting all this mental stuff because I canít give you a story. But I felt, basically, when I wrote poems, I felt myself able to enter my own experience and to know it and to taste it and to feel it and to work with it a little bit. You know, to write a poem about your experience is to turn it into workable clay instead of an obdurate stone that you can have no relationship to, that you simple have to live with. Something like that. Good luck turning that into a sentence for the story (laughs).
DW: There was a line in one of the stories, an article by Cynthia Haven, and she was talking about you constructing the poem ďJustice Without Passion.Ē And the quote was, ďInitially, Hirshfield didnít know what the poem was about.Ē I found that intriguing. That was the day you were sitting there listening to that kid play scales or something Ö
JH: Thatís right.
DW: Ö you couldnít work, and so then you had to start listening and then you started writing, but you didnít know what you were writing about.
JH: Yes. And in a way, what I have to say is I never know what Iím writing about when I start a poem. Or almost never. There are very few poems where I actually know in advance what the poem will be and it does turn out to be that. But much, much more common is I simply feel some words, or I feel an image, and I listen. And a voice within me begins top speak. And itís only by following that voice that the poem then unfolds. So with ďJustice Without Passion,Ē all I knew was that I couldnít ignore the sound of this kid going plinka-plinka-plink. So I started to describe it. And as I started to describe it, I knew something interesting was starting to happen, and I had to find what was going to be the turn, what was going to be the revelation. Poems tell me something that I didnít know before I started to write them. If I havenít learned something while Iím writing a poem, then how can it bring news to anybody else about the world? Something undiscovered wants to come forward like a little shy creature out of the woods. And so youíve read the Cynthia Haven piece, so you know the story. It was when I came to this phrase ďevenhanded,Ē and suddenly the pun of his even hands on the piano and the evenhandedness of peopleís ideas of justice with the blindfold on, that opened up the poem, and then I had a whole second level of something I cared about. You know, the horrible (Robert) Bork hearings were going on, and that man who had a cold heart and thought that was justice, which was much in the news. And so it was when the second level came in that the poem could go forward and I knew what the poem was about and I could write it. And the fact was it was dealing with, at one time, simultaneously, both the annoyance of my wonderful silence being broken and the deep pain it caused me that our country had come to a place where suddenly things that I had grown up thinking we stood for as a culture and as a country were not being valued. And this alternative vision was being put forward, and it caused me great pain and still does. That argument is still going on.
DW: Itís going on more today than ever. I went though those Bork hearings, and then through the Reagan years, never, ever thinking that we would be where we are today.
JH: Right. A people lacking in compassion.
DW: You talk about a cold heart. Isnít that exactly what is going on right now?
JH: It certainly is. Itís terrifying.
DW: When I got back and went back to school on the G.I. Bill, I went to UC-San Diego, and I took a couple of poetry-writing seminars and tried my hand at it. But I could never figure out for me when the poem was done. How do you know when the poem is done?
JH: I know the poem is done when I can feel the doorknob turn. Now, thatís an image rather than an answer (laughs) Ö
DW: But itís a poetic answer.
JH: Itís like when you turn a doorknob to open a door, you have to turn it one way, and then the door has to open and you walk through. Thatís that whole process of discovery that I was describing. But nothing is finished until that latch has to turn again. Itís spring-loaded. Poems are spring-loaded, just like doorknobs, and this spring has to fulfill its destiny (laughs). And this is going to sound terribly cruel, and Iím putting it in personal terms of which you raised the question, but you probably didnít know the poems were done because they werenít.
JH: Itís a kind of knack. Every poem is an individual. If you start writing the same poem twice, you should retire. And so every poem is done differently. The finish themselves differently, they complete themselves differently, and I could sit down and do an analysis of types of endings that make you feel as if the thing was complete. But that would be a bit academic. Itís mostly a matter of is there a sense not only that the discovery has been made and seen through to its full revelation but also that the metabolic changes that you go through when you read a poem that really moves you have fulfilled themselves and the heart is beating at a different speed. Itís a kinesthetic sense for me. And it has to do with thought, but it also has to do with emotion. And we all know what it feels like to be cut off in mid-sentence. We all know what it feels like for something to not be finished. And I think we equally know what it feels like when something has finished, like a musical composition. And every once in a while Ö thereís one poem in the new book that very deliberately is not finished. It breaks off in mid-sentence, and every time itís been published anywhere except in the book itís like people e-mail me back and they say, ďI donít think your e-mail went through completelyĒ (laughs). And I have to say, ďNo, no, thatís right. That is deliberate.Ē And the reason for it is that itís a poem that has behind it Ė and itís not explicit; thereís nowhere in the poem that anyone would know this if I didnít I tell them Ė behind it were thinking both the deaths in Iraq and thinking about the deaths from the tsunami of two Christmases ago. And so the impulse to write the poem came out of the tsunami particularly, and that made me think about Iraq deaths as well. Ö people whose lives are cut off in mid-sentence. You know, most people are not the hero in the tragedy, the protagonist, whether itís Lear or a Greek tragedy. Their death gives their life meaning. But many, many people are not the protagonists. Many people die not in the fulfillment of their own lifeís meaning. The die because a wave comes or a bomb goes off, and they donít get to finish their sentence. And that is what the poem itself does. It doesnít finish the sentence.
DW: Whatís the title?
JH: ďThose Who Cannot Act.Ē Itís also a little bit of a rhymed poem. People almost never notice when I do use rhyme because itís so rare, but that one does. It mentions Greek tragedy in it; it starts with a quote from Aeschylusí ďOresteiaĒ; itís a refrain that runs throughout the play: ďThose who act will suffer, suffer unto truth.Ē Thatís what the protagonist gets to do. And then the poem goes on to say Ö would you like me to read the whole thing? Itís very short.
JH: OK, so ďThose Who Cannot Act.Ē
Audio clip: Listen to Jane Hirshfield read "Those Who Cannot Act"
DW: Oh, ho.
JH: You get it?
DW: Absolutely. There was that moment there in which I went, ďOK, go on.Ē And then it hits you. Two things I like about that. One, I love the ending. But the other thing that I like about it is that you use a classical term, you know, Aeschylus, but you donít just use it and let it sit there. You go on and use it in context, so that the context of the poem explains Aeschylus rather than you having to understand Aeschylus to understand the poem. Now, if you understand Aeschylus, you can probably get more out of the poem. But thereís so much poetry that I read thatís so academic, that uses these references that to me is a big hand in the face of anyone who wants to get into the poem.
JH: Right. If they donít know the thing, then the poem is a closed door.
JH: Whereas with this all thatís basically doing is telling you who wrote the quote that Iíve just given you. And you donít need more than that. Itís a big question for poetry. Ö You donít want to dumb it down, but you also donít want to talk to yourself and five other people. And so if youíre going to make reference to things that depend on an education of some sort, can you find a way to do it that isnít off-putting and slams the door shut. Iím not interested in writing code, I want to write things that help people feel. And think. And help them in their lives when theyíre having a hard time. The thing that gets to me the most is when someone lets me know when something happened in their life which was difficult and a poem of mine kept them good company.
DW: Yeah. Have you written anything about 9/11?
JH: I have, and thatís also in this new book, right near the end.
DW: ďAfter,Ē thatís the book weíre talking about.
JH: Yes. And you could get a copy of that if you want.
DW: Iím going out immediately after we stop talking and look for a copy at Auntieís Bookstore.
JH: I really hope she has it.
DW: Itís a good, independent bookstore. Ö By the way, Tod Marshall set up the event, and heís a big fan of yours.
JH: And Iím so grateful. This is launching a series for them, and I hope it will be a successful reading. I always like to see people finding a way to bring poets to speak in public.
Anyway, to continue a thought Ö the poem about Sept. 11, which is near the end of the book, is called ďThe Dead Do Not Want Us Dead.Ē And it was written on Sept. 15. And it really surprised me. Despite the fact that Iíve just talked to you about another poem that came out of current events, and this one as well, I donít think of myself as someone who can immediately respond to these things. But that was such an overwhelming thing. At the time Sept. 11 happened, I was teaching at a place in Vermont. And I had been supposed to give a seminar that afternoon and leave the next day. Well, obviously I didnít leave for a long time. Ö I went to the place and I said, ďI canít possibly give the seminar that I was supposed to give.Ē A lot of the people were from New York. Everybody was away from their family. Everybody was in this different place and with strangers, and they needed something to happen. So I sort of said, ďYou guys should have some sort of town hall meeting or a ceremony or something.Ē And they said, ďGreat idea. Go ahead.Ē And so I had maybe four hours to try to figure out what could I say to this group of people that would be helpful. Which meant, of course, that I had to figure out what could I say to myself that could be helpful. It forced me to come to grips much more quickly because I was given this responsibility. And what I came to was basically the only truth you can hold in the face of suffering was the need for compassion. So what I talked to them about was the roots of suffering and how the pain that caused this event goes back 40 years, 400 years, 4,000 years, 40,000 years. And how much I hoped our response to it would not be mindless seeking for revenge. That violence begetting violence is not the road to peace. Or justice. Or people living together with open hearts. So, those thoughts then became this little poem a few days later that I hadnít expected to write. I just sat down and wrote it out of the pressure of strong feeling. And the poem just got reprinted everywhere. It got picked up by a lot of magazines. It ended up in Sam Hamillís anthology, ďPoems Against the War.Ē
DW: I know that book.
JH: And it was written trying to forestall exactly what is now going on. Itís a poem against revenge. Itís saying, ďIf you let those people back alive, what would they want from their life? They would want eating, skipping, bad jokes. They would not want more suffering. So I believe. I know not everybody does.