Hal Royaltey (hal) Tue 21 Feb 06 12:42
We're very pleased to welcome our next author, the Well's very own Jane Hirshfield - a civilizing influence in the wilds of the Well. Jane Hirshfield is the author of six collections of poetry, including After (HarperCollins, 2006) and Given Sugar, Given Salt (finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award, and winner of the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award), as well as a now-classic book of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. Other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Academy of American Poets. Her work has appeared multiple times in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, and The Best American Poetry, and has been featured in two Bill Moyers PBS television specials. The discussion will be led by Joe Flower, another longtime Well'er and a man of many talents. Joe Flower, the longtime host of the Well's Writers Conference, is a semi-reformed poet. Over thirty years ago, he founded the Bay Area publication Poetry Flash. During his college years he made part of his living peddling his own poetry door to door. Eventually he came to the conclusion that, when it came to poetry, he was a better reader than writer. As a reader, one of Joe's great joys in the Writers Conference has been Jane's participation.
Joe Flower (bbear) Tue 21 Feb 06 23:09
Hal Royaltey (hal) Tue 21 Feb 06 23:32
Due to a scheduling conflict, the beginning of this discussion will show up as a series of posts under my ID. Joe and Jane will be along shortly to pick up the thread ...
Hal Royaltey (hal) Tue 21 Feb 06 23:33
Joe: You seemed to know that you wanted to be a writer very early. Jane: Yes. When my first book was published, my mother pulled a sheet of lined paper out of a drawer, with this little kid's printing on it--mine, from the first grade. It said, "I want to be a writer when I grow up." I have no memory of having written that. But I do remember the first book I ever bought for myself- I was maybe eight or nine. It was a little one dollar Peter Piper Press book of haiku. Joe: Sounds prescient, almost; or at least very single-minded. Because nine years later, there you are at Princeton with an independent major, focused on creative writing and literature-in-translation, with a special interest in Japanese literature. Then just as you graduate from college, you win a major poetry prize from The Nation. Now, the usual career path here would be to go for an MFA, a teaching post in a university. I mean, Princeton, The Nation . . . but you didn't to that. You walked away. Jane: Yes. I did. First I did farm labor for nine months, then I went off to study Zen. I thought that might be just for a few months, but it turned out to be fulltime for eight years.
Hal Royaltey (hal) Tue 21 Feb 06 23:34
Joe: And how much poetry did you write during that period? Jane: During the three years of that time which were spent in the monastery, none. I had to be willing to walk away from poetry, perhaps forever. If I didn't learn what it was to be human, I knew there was no chance I could do it at all anyway. I knew literature some, I knew a bit about myself, but I had to find a way to enter the human heart and mind much more deeply, to find a way to sit inside my own experience and the world's experience in a way both more permeable and more unflinching. Joe: Wow. Where was this? Jane: The San Francisco Zen Center. The three years of monastery practice were at Tassajara, at the end of a 14 mile dirt road into the Ventana Wilderness, inland from Big Sur. No electricity. No heat. No glass in the windows-just plastic in winter, screens in summer. No hot water except at the communal baths, which are, though a hot spring-so that was some great moment of consolation no matter how cold it got.
Hal Royaltey (hal) Tue 21 Feb 06 23:35
Joe: That's quite a plunge. You're from New York, right? Born in Manhattan, raised on the Lower East Side. So it was only after the training was over that you began writing books of poetry? "Alaya" in 1982, then "Of Gravity And Angels" six years later, were the first two. But at the same time you were working on the 1988 book, you were also doing what was actually the first book of yours that I discovered: "The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Skikibu," which you co-translated with Mariko Aratani. Captivating poems, intimate, unsentimental, some of them heart-wrenching, by these two ladies of the Imperial court in 9th and 10th-century Japan. How long had you been working on that? Jane: In one sense, since I was an undergraduate. I have loved that period in literary history (794-1185 AD) since first being introduced to it. It was not only a golden age for poetry, it's the only example we have of one in which women writers were the predominant geniuses. And mostly, of course, what I loved were the poems themselves. To me, they were both new discoveries and also deep mirrors of my own experience and heart. How could I resist: In this world love has no color- but how deeply my body is stained by yours. Izumi Shikibu
Hal Royaltey (hal) Tue 21 Feb 06 23:37
Joe: I suspect this conversation will come back to these Japanese poems later on, but to continue establishing some background for people, you have kept busy. "The October Palace" came out in 1994, and in the same year you published another work recovering and celebrating women's poetry from the past, "Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women." That book holds poetry from 66 different women, from ancient Sumeria to medieval Europe to early 20th-century Korea. Then three years later we get your fourth book of poems, "The Lives of the Heart," which holds what remain some classic Hirshfield pieces for me. And in that same year, 1997, you published "Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry," a remarkable set of essays with what Gary Snyder called "a diamond-hard set of insights" into art, creativity, and the life of the independent mind. In 2001, you came out with your fifth book of poems, "Given Sugar, Given Salt," and then "Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems," a collaborative translation, with Robert Bly, of the fifteenth-century female Indian ecstatic poet, came out two years ago. And now, after a long gestation, we have "After," which is surely your most unusual book yet. Jane: I myself have no idea how these ten books happened. My own perception is always one of not writing, of never having enough time to write, to do the central work. A problem I think permeates the whole culture, one way or another. We are all harried by too many demands in too many directions. How to find the way to contemplative silence, to the deeper saturations and comprehensions poetry requires, is for me a continual koan.
Hal Royaltey (hal) Tue 21 Feb 06 23:39
Joe: You have been known to quote a Zen saying: "Not knowing, we proceed." How can you write without knowing what you're going to write about? It's almost like that Red Smith quote, "Writing is easy. All you do is put a blank piece of paper in the typewriter and stare at it until small drops of blood form on your forehead." But that seems impossible. Jane: Impossible-just so. And yet it's also the richest place to be. It's even, in a way, the stage of life I like the best, that moment just before coherence and self-knowledge have announced themselves. Joe: And do they announce themselves? Is that something you can depend on? Jane: Oh, no. I don't ever feel I can depend on anything coming. Poem making is absolutely precarious for me, and any time a new one arrives feels a grace, a gift and a reprieve. Once again a door opens where there was only a wall, and I'm able to glimpse more than I knew I could see. There is though a moment when you see the door begin to emerge, when your hand moves toward a doorknob that wasn't there two minutes earlier. When anything is possible. And that, for me, and probably for any writer, is the paradise-moment.
Hal Royaltey (hal) Tue 21 Feb 06 23:41
Joe: For all your Buddhist training, there is precious little in the poetry that is, in a surface way, about Buddhism. We don't see poetry about meditation, or robes, or koans. Jane: I think there's one poem that makes a reference to koans-but you're quite right that many people-not only the great American-Buddhist poets we all know, but also people who've never sat down and crossed their legs in meditation at all-have more explicit references to dharma matters or imagery than I do. One of things that attracted me to Zen monasticism was that the stage of intensive training - off in the wilderness alone, studying - does for most people, even for priests, come to an end. It's not like Catholicism, where monastic life is a lifetime vow, and leaving is a failure or abnegation or sign of some alteration of commitment. Just as Zen itself is a merging with the ordinary, Zen practitioners do typically reenter the ordinary world. And at a certain point in one's practice, wherever you are, monastery or mall, there is no "Zen"-- there is only life. Still, it's true that I've chosen the least obviously Buddhist of the Buddhist paths. I like to think of it as what in Japan is sometimes called "teahouse practice." You imagine a teahouse alongside a dusty road, run by an old lady. Nobody knows why they like to go in there to get their tea. But they do. It has something to do with the way she sees them when they come in, and with the way she wipes down the counter. That kind of unobtrusive awareness is what I want to bring to my poems. A Zen that is not obviously apparent but gets into the tea somehow. Everything, you know, does in fact get into the tea somehow. We can't help it.
Hal Royaltey (hal) Tue 21 Feb 06 23:50
Joe: There will inevitably be some species of resistance to a poet associated with the sacred, whose work works toward that vast acceptance that is the core and home of the deepest spiritual traditions. The resistance is a kind of skepticism, a sort of wondering about the poet behind the poem: Can she really be all that radiant, that compassionate, that accepting of our fate? Jane: Oh, no one need worry. I'm not, and I don't think the poems represent their speaker as any kind of fully enlightened being. I hope not. I experience even the ones that do find their way to a full acceptance of the difficult as struggles toward something hard-won, and only momentarily won. Poems I think are almost always better than the person-that's one reason to write them, to try to exceed the self you would be, and are, without them. For me, acceptance of the difficult events and emotions of a life, of the losses and brutality not only in personal life but in how we human beings treat one another and treat the world--this presents the profound and central challenge. Zen is a path that was developed to end suffering, but this far practice hasn't made me immune to anything. Life, for me, continues to feel tremendously hard, tremendously painful. I look out my window and see great beauty, but also suffering. Of the houses I see from my window, how many have in them illness, death, rage, delusion, any of the great undoings? Sometimes you know this is going on, sometimes you don't. There's a poem in the new book that looks at just that question-the whole poem, really, is in the title: "In A Room With Five People, Six Griefs." But maybe I'll put the poem in here, too: In A Room With Five People, Six Griefs In a room with five people, six griefs. Some you will hear of, some not. Let the room hold them, their fears, their anger. Let there be walls and windows, a ceiling. A door through which time changer of everything can enter. Good literature-and I hope in this lifetime I myself will write at least a few things that are good-verges on a dark precipice. The job of poetry is not to shine a light which causes darkness to diminish or vanish; it is to bring even darkness into visibility. My poems aren't meant to be simple affirmations, but what I hope are visibly hard-won affirmations - affirmations that don't negate the despair out of which they so often come.
Hal Royaltey (hal) Tue 21 Feb 06 23:51
Joe: There is this remarkable thing about your work - it is how I know that I am in a Jane Hirshfield poem - that the bright line between the human world - political, social, gossipy human world - and nature, rocks, trees, mules - is gone. The mule and I are one. The lions and I. Jane: One of the marks of being human is that we reside amidst all of the stories that we have created to examine our existence more thoroughly: scientific realities, political, historical, psychological, mythic. At the same time we exist in a continuum with non-human being. I am actually not all that human-centered. I know that many, many people would disagree vehemently with my feeling about this--the Judeo-Christian- Islamic worldview, the Marxist worldview, just about any worldview I can think of would disagree, except for some parts of Buddhism, and some parts of a growing environmental or Gaia-hypothesis consciousness, and some parts of a scientific worldview. Maybe a few native traditions have long described a more continuous sense of existence, or the world of Greek myths. Still, these clashing conceptions of what lies at the center are probably the fiercest source of violence in the world today, rivalling simple greed in their repercussions upon us all, and I don't want to diminish or fail to acknowledge that. For me, though, the natural world and the world of ethics and politics are not distinct. If you exploit nature you will exploit people. If you find somehow at the most fundamental level of being that your relationship to other people, other things, other animals, is a relationship of kinship - then you perhaps will behave ethically in the world of people as well. The sense of intimacy, the sense of inclusion in the grammar of "we"-how else can we find compassion not just for what we already approve of, but for what we are troubled by? And without compassion, how will we ever find peace-which is what even those who initiate wars say they are seeking.
Hal Royaltey (hal) Tue 21 Feb 06 23:55
Joe: Coud you say something a little more about the way you feel poems affect the outer realities of our lives? Jane: Robert Lowell said - he was on a trip to the then Soviet Union at the time, at the height of the Cold War - "Art does not create peace. Art is peace." Pablo Neruda said, "What flour is for the making of bread, peace is for the making of poetry." I think what each of them was pointing towards was the way that poetry is centered on the knowledge of our connection-to self, to other, to all of existence. Every time a metaphor or image appears in a poem, the barricades between inside and outside, between self and other vanish. Poems affect events mostly indirectly - excepting a few examples, for instance Czeslaw Milosz's assertion that reading Whitman raised the young radicals of Europe to a fever pitch that perhaps caused the First World War. But I believe that the "war" poems of Wilfred Owen, for instance, or Keith Douglass, or Randall Jarrell, helped shift our human view of what is acceptable between human beings, what not. And I also believe that the poems of Emily Dickinson, in their very different way, break open the heart to a way of walking in the world that cannot look upon violence with mindless enthusiasm. One of the central jobs of poetry in these times, I think, is to wake us up, to make us feel and think for ourselves, to taste our own experience in an awake way. They are an antidote to the cultural forces that would have us be less than fully human, that would make us enter willingly into bondage to fear or consumerism or the simple exhaustion or impulse toward escape that comes to those for whom the basics of life are just too hard to bear. Poetry keeps the heart alive to hope.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 22 Feb 06 13:04
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Mary Mackey (mm) Wed 22 Feb 06 18:30
Which of your poems has most kept your own "heart alive to hope," Jane?
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Wed 22 Feb 06 18:40
In one way, probably every poem I've written has been a kind of spell against despair... but certain ones more obviously than others. So for an example, there's a poem that's been reprinted in this month's O (Oprah) magazine, whose title is "Optimism." The same poem will appear in April in a series of broadsides being given away in bookstores as a Poets for Peace project--they'll be printing the same number of total copies as the number of soldiers who've died in Iraq at the time of going to press. (I imagine the woman who did the project would have liked to do the number of all people who died in Iraq, but that is both unknowable, and too large for a single person on a peace mission to fund, I'd guess.) And it was also sent out by a fine letterpress as a New Year's greeting in January 2005, after the last election. That so many different places have chosen to put it out into the world at this time I take as a sign that I'm not the only one in need of a reminder of resilience, of hope. (I'll copy the poem into the next post.)
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Wed 22 Feb 06 18:43
Optimism More and more I have come to admire resilience. Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side, it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true. But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers, mitochondria, figs -- all this resinous, unretractable earth.
Joe Flower (bbear) Wed 22 Feb 06 19:44
Which brings up an interesting question, returning a bit to the theme of the poet in the world. In the Writers Conference right now, there is a debate about the mania for readings and book events. Some are saying that, whatever the demands of the market, Thomas Pynchon's stance - no public face at all - is the right stance for the artist. You do a lot of readings, seminars, workshops. You have done two television shows with Bill Moyers. You seem to be a private person, but a quite public poet. Is there a tension there? Does the public side of your work feed your work in some way?
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Wed 22 Feb 06 21:24
There's a great tension, and also a great irony. Something that began as an entirely private crafting of a self by a young girl who hid her poems under the mattress has somehow led me to speak to strangers, in public. The conversation we've been having in the Writers Conference is far too richly nuanced to be encapsulated here, but I've loved how every side of the experience has been spoken for by various Well members, and I can agree with every one of the opinions people express. To never go out in public, just do the writing: perfect. To meet people in the intimacy of the words on the voice, embodied: perfect. That certain kinds of writing might need some assistance finding their readers: how true. That certain kinds of writers damage the soul by becoming too caught up in all that: also true. The irony for me is that I am in fact so very private. No one reading my books will ever know the autobiographical, outer facts of my life. Yet the inner life is utterly exposed. But you know, perhaps it's like physical modesty: no one feels abashed at someone looking at their x-ray, but most of us wouldn't want to be looked at by strangers undressed. Your other question--does this public part of my life as a poet bring some sustenance to the poems themselves--isn't so easy to answer. In terms of practical time, it takes me away from writing. When I'm typing here in Inkwell, I'm not writing a poem. Yet learning to speak to others directly, both here in the Well all these years, and out in the world, I think has ripened something in me that comes out in the poems. The last thing I'll say about this is that I think human life is almost always a balancing out. If you start out an introvert, you will be called to function in the world of others. If you start out an extrovert, you will be thrown back into the solitude of the self. That's certainly what I've found to be true in my own life, anyhow.
Susanna Laaksonen (sussu-nen) Wed 22 Feb 06 22:42
When did you do your first public reading? Do you remember what that was like, and if so, could you briefly describe it?
Mary Mackey (mm) Wed 22 Feb 06 22:44
and were you scared? I know I was.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Thu 23 Feb 06 08:00
I was probably shaking. It was in 1973, when I won the prize from The Nation that the next year became the Discover Award. One part of the prize was having the poem published in The Nation. The other was giving a reading with my three fellow prizewinners for the Poetry Society of America. I was 20. This was before the PSA was "renovated" by a kind of takeover, and the membership at the time was very proper, of a certain age (one I am now closer to than the age I was then), and their taste in poetry (how did I know this? I'm not sure) ran to the rhymed and formal. I have only a vague memory of 300 or so looks of polite incomprehension as I read my poem. (I still have a warm spot for that poem. I have a selected poems out in England--not available in America--that runs in reverse chronological order, and that is the last poem in the book. It was written when I was 18.) My first regular public reading was at Cody's in Berkeley, probably sometime around 1981. It was a shared reading, with Phyllis Stowell, far better published at that time than I. There was an audience of 18. It was thrilling to be at the great Cody's Books, that institution of literature, and absolutely terrifying to actually read. What I remember best: these Poetry Flash sponsored readings, then as now, collected $2 at the door, to be split between the readers. My beloved and I took the $18 and went out to celebrate at the newly opened Chez Panisse upstairs cafe. We spent the whole thing on a calzone and either one or two glasses of some good white wine. My first income as a working poet, that felt. It's hard for me to figure out quite why I started doing these things--I think it just seemed what one was supposed to do. If you wrote poems and if you published poems, you also gave readings. I read tonight in Palo Alto--the fifth of a series of readings for the new book around the Bay Area, one in each county. I am no longer terrified by most readings, but still get what I might best describe as "alert." In Buddhism, there is a list of "The Five Great Fears." Things like fear of death, fear of the loss of sanity, fear of the loss of livelihood. Fear of public speaking is among them.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 23 Feb 06 10:22
Wow, eighteen. Excellent. And yay for Poetry Flash and Cody's for their support of you and Bay Area poets. Wonderful institutions. I wonder what it is about readings. I am sometimes shaky in public speaking situations where I have exact notes on what to say, like testimony at hearings for example, even though I used to love doing on-stage performances included hypothetically more terrifying improv, and I enjoy addressing conferences and being on panels. I sometimes wonder what that public speaking fear is really about. Fear of disapproval & rejection at the core, or perhaps a strange loop of being afraid that one's voice will sound weak, insecure, fearful? Fear of being shunned, excluded, exiled? Memories of a tough second grade teacher? Amazing that it is so universal. I wonder if it is ancient too -- I don't remember references in mythology, folk tales, traditional songs or literature -- not a lot of "'here's the talking stick, Coyote, now don't be shy,' said Raven." I love how you read, Jane. We're luck that you've found your way through the challenge.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Thu 23 Feb 06 11:34
Those are fascinating speculations, and I imagine all of them are true. The shame of the first wrong words spoken in childhood, of suddenly finding oneself laughed at or mocked.... socialization comes at a steep cost to the innocence of soul-exposure we might have been born to. But I think it may also go even further back, into evolution: the antelope who stands out from the herd is the one the lion will notice. We were not always at the top of the food chain. And no creature can be. Only time and vanishment hold that spot.
Sarah from off-Well (bumbaugh) Thu 23 Feb 06 11:45
Sarah writes: from the interview . . . "You imagine a teahouse alongside a dusty road, run by an old lady. Nobody knows why they like to go in there to get their tea. But they do. It has something to do with the way she sees them when they come in, and with the way she wipes down the counter. That kind of unobtrusive awareness is what I want to bring to my poems. A Zen that is not obviously apparent but gets into the tea somehow. Everything, you know, does in fact get into the tea somehow." "We can't help it." ---- Dear Jane, What threads of Taoism have influenced you? The Tao is often pictured (in Taoism) much like the old woman in this story. And I think your way of seeing is as much Taoist, or Tao Te Ching like, as it is Buddhist. Especially when you throw in the Gaia Hypothesis as you have done. As a woman getting older myself, or fearing getting older, I am more and more touched by this old woman idea of the divine, rather than the Greek Goddess image, eternally young. I know that divinity is always close at hand for everyone, but the culture we live in often wars with the greater wisdom of the heart. I spent a great deal of time studying WOMEN IN PRAISE OF THE SACRED, and found all religions joining in harmony there -- a wonderful experience truly!! Thank you so much for that book and for the INK DARK MOON. Sarah
gary (ggg) Thu 23 Feb 06 12:28
< slippage! > Congratulations on this utterly needful and most beautiful book, Jane. I didn't buy a copy yet, but from what I was fortunate to limn during your reading at Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, that's my sense of it. I've been keenly following your work closely since *Alaya*, but it's the reading at Clean that sticks in my mind right now, in a number of ways. For instance, linking to the private/public, I have a sense that you hold to a sense of the poet's voice somehow differing from one's every day voice ('tho using fluid speech). Maybe, at some point, you might share with us a bit of how you perceive that.
Sharon Brogan (sbmontana) Thu 23 Feb 06 12:50
I am reading this with such pleasure.
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