Jane Hirshfield Interviewed by Mary Mackey
- Did you read poetry as a child? What was your first significant encounter with poetry?
The first book I bought with my own allowance money, at age seven or eight, was a book of Japanese haiku, discovered on one of those metal spiral display stands in a stationary store on First Avenue in the East 20s. I have no idea now what a child growing up in New York City found in these poems, whose vocabulary of meaning-making was falling blossoms I’d never known, singing birds I’d never heard, darkness and moonlight I’d seen only by peering past streetlights. The more I’ve since learned about haiku, the more I’ve come to realize how complex their registries of feeling and thought are. I can’t have grasped any of that as a child. But I suspect that I recognized in those poems a world I wanted to live in—a world whose windows opened to a larger existence
A few years later, I was entirely transfixed by Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners.” My childhood home was a place of blunt, literal, and unnuanced speech; of discomfort with the unknown and dismay at the unplanned for. That poem offers a different way of being. It enacts the power and depth and beauty of unanswered questions, unresolved situations. In it, silence is not mere abyss. Its rich paradox is to propose unseen presences receiving even our unanswered callings. Most of my callings back then were both unuttered and answered; the poem promised that this was not how it must always be. There’s also de la Mare’s irresistible music. In the fifth-grade poetry anthology, which I still own, written next to the phrase “the forest’s ferny floor” in round, careful script is the word “alliteration.”
- Do you have any degrees or formal education in creative writing?
As an undergraduate I designed my own major, “Creative Writing and Literature in Translation.” That doesn’t mean I was translating; it meant that instead of reading English literature I was reading works in languages I didn’t know, to which the professors could give me some better entrance: Greek Tragedy in Translation, Chinese Poetry in Translation, Japanese No Drama. I never went to graduate school. I did take, for three years, an adult-ed night course offered through U.C. Berkeley. Every other week, some major visiting poet would visit, and so I learned the vocabulary of craft from Galway Kinnell, Margaret Atwood, Robert Bly, Carolyn Forche, Robert Pinsky, Carolyn Kizer, Robert Hass, Philip Levine, William Matthews… what luck. There are many paths to an education, and the most important of all is simply reading, as widely as possible, with voracious awareness. But having some craft vocabulary increases the possibilities of awareness.
- When did you write your first poem and what prompted you to write it?
Of this I have no recollection. All I can say is that by the time I had learned to write at all, I set down on one of those large brown pieces of paper with blue wide lines on them: “I want to be a writer when I grow up.” I would not have remembered that either, but my mother saved it and gave it to me after my first, small press book came out, when I was twenty-nine. I have no gift for narrative or dialogue, and so it was always poems I wrote when I wrote for myself. I hid them under the mattress, somehow believing my mother wouldn’t have found them. That sense of privacy was deeply important—for me, writing wasn’t a performance for others, it was the construction of a self by what felt a secret life-raft.
- What are your sources of inspiration?
I can’t predict inspiration ahead of time. It might be a life event— all the arrivals, departures, precipices, and pinnacles that any life brings will carry their poems. It might be a question. It might be a newspaper article– every book I’ve published includes work that looks at the wars that seem never to end. One poem is about the genocide in Rwanda, another was precipitated by the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. (That one was stopped.) Poems have been awakened by a chair left outside in winter, by a small hole on the side of a path I was daily running past, by a New York Times Tuesday Science article about discovering the workings of itch. Abstract ideas can suddenly become pressing. I’ve written about my ambivalent relationship to judgment and to opinion, I’ve written about the conjunction “and” and the preposition “to.” Increasingly, poems have been summoned into being by the crises of the biosphere—climate change, species’ vanishing—and of social justice.
There’s what might get a poem started, and where it may end. Poems are “about” what precipitates them, but then also are about whatever of larger meaning constellates around that starting-out place, changes and expands it. In poems, the unsayable haunts whatever is able to be said. Something throws a person off-balance. The poem is the work of the feet, hurrying to catch you before you fall. When you look up again, it’s into a different world.
- What poets do you admire?
I have always a terrible time answering this question. The list is too long and varied. I am promiscuous in my poetry loves.
- Did you decide to become a poet or did it just happen?
I’m not sure I could distinguish between these two. I wrote a poem. Then I wrote another. Then another. Eventually I showed them to friends. People send things to magazines, so I did. People make books, so I did. I did do all these things, from the outside it must all look very intentional, yet my life in poetry feels to me a continually accidental and precarious thing. It is nothing I count on. Perhaps tomorrow I may no longer be a poet. It depends on the next poem coming when I’ve lost balance, and that is something I am never entirely sure will happen.
- What obstacles stood in your way?
A poem that will be in my next book says: “Whatever distances the heart, I have brought here. / Whatever handcuffs the soul, I have brought here.” If the outer world has sent obstacles, that would be to the ‘career,’ perhaps—but not to the writing. The writing is my own to do, or not do. And so, I must answer: distraction, depression, fear, the exigencies of other demands and other kinds of work, lassitude, the life-bludgeons that have brought me at times to silence. Even my own comfort with silence may be something that’s stood in my way. I’m entirely happy to read poems by others. I’m happy to spend time in an unlanguaged world. But really, how many poems can one person write? Even for the most prolific poet, 1000 or so in a lifetime. And of those, how many that matter? A handful. The rest may be interesting, may be necessary, but it’s the handful that matter. As Randall Jarrell put it, a poet spends a lifetime standing out in thunderstorms hoping to be hit a half dozen times by lightning.
- What or who helped you?
The lifelong desire to want more than I could find except through the search-instrument of deepened language. A community of friends— fellow writers, research scientists, carpenters, artists, cooks… And even though I wrote first to make my own way in private, it later helped that people I did not know seemed to want my poems. My third published poem was taken by The New Yorker, in 1982, when Howard Moss was the editor. No one says such an august editor will take a poem by an entirely unknown young person, but he did. An implausibly early Guggenheim fellowship left me with a strong sense of wanting to become worthy of that gift. It helps when someone tells me that a poem I’ve written has been of use, a rope and piton for the steep-pitch places. I would still write if no one read my poems, I’m quite sure. But it helps, knowing my poems sometimes matter to others.
And the art itself has helped me, all the poets who became my direct and indirect influences. I learned from the compressive image-speaking of early Japanese and Chinese poetry, from the astringent awareness of certain Eastern European and Scandinavian poets of the mid-20th century, from the freedom of the South American Spanish and Portuguese poets. I learned from Adrienne Rich, from Horace and Catullus, from Szymborska and Milosz. None of us invents language, none of us invents metaphor, story, mountains, cities, the forces of gravity, grief, love. We each are this moment’s sum of the world’s ceaseless additions, inventions, and hungers. We are taught, by the living and by the dead, what it looks like to be a full human being. Writing poems gives me a way to make my life larger. I learned this because others’ poems have made my life larger.
- How did you find your poetic voice?
Sentence by sentence. My earliest book (happily unfindable) carries a little too much of the scent of the ‘70s in some of the poems. After that I began to write more with the voice I hear when listening with my own ears to my own tongue. At some point, early on, I realized I wanted my poems to be stranger, even at the risk of not being as “good.” That desire was a liberation of voice as well.
- What is the single most important thing for a young poet to know about writing poetry?
Today’s answer, since tomorrow’s would surely be different: Write the poem that only you could have written.
Trust your experience of the world, of your own life, of the poem. Trust that the world matters, that your life matters, that your words matter. Then doubt all these things enough to ask if what you’ve written is sufficient, surprising, contains art’s mysterious surplus. Has the poem found something that it, and you, did not know before it was written? Have you found fully and accurately the images, the phrases, the story, the feeling, the arc and surge of transformation? Then trust again, because if you only doubt, you will overwork the dough until no living yeast remains in it; if you over-doubt, you will try to please others instead of your own sense of the poem, of your life, of the world. Be willing for your work to be odd, peculiar, to be itself in the way a giraffe is itself and knows no other shape or gait of being. By such strange inventions of existence, the poem becomes the poem, the world becomes the world, a person becomes, perhaps, a more fully human person.
Jane Hirshfield is the author of eight poetry books, including The Beauty, long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award and Come, Thief, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the author of two now-classic books of essays, Nine Gates and Ten Windows, and editor/co-translator of four books collecting world poets from the past. Her work appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, Harper’s, The Paris Review, and eight editions of The Best American Poetry.