David Gans (tnf) Wed 10 Nov 99 09:46
Carol Adair interviews poet, essayist, and translator Jane Hirshfield, who is featured in two 1999 Bill Moyers PBS television poetry specials currently airing around the country. A WELL member since 1991, Hirshfield is the author of four collections of poems and a book of essays about the nature of poetry. She has also edited two collections of work by women poets from the past. She is currently at work on a new book of poems, which is expected to be released in 2001.
carol adair (rubicon) Wed 10 Nov 99 09:53
Jane, I'm just delighted to have this chance to ask you questions. There are about a thousand things I want to ask you. I want to ask you about poetry and your poems and your life and your translations. But I think I'll start by being too personal and telling you that while I was rereading your books, your poetry, translations and essays, I had a dream. To make it short, there was an acre round planet in an exquisite dark sky, a comfortable planet however rocky and lonely. There were occasional visitors, but they all went away because, they said, "Everything has to be translated to you through stone." When I woke, I thought of you immediately and especially of this beautiful poem from The Lives of the Heart. It seems, to me, a most mature and beautiful poem. It kills me every time I read it. Will you talk about it? The World Loved by Moonlight You must try, the voice said, to become colder. I understood at once. It is like the bodies of gods: cast in bronze, braced in stone. Only something heartless could bear the full weight.
jane hirshfield (jh) Wed 10 Nov 99 17:28
I'm glad to be here talking with you also, Carol. After all here you are, from the very first question, proving yourself once again the ideal reader of poetry: someone who takes it all the way into the marrow and makes it your own. Your planet reminds me a little of the asteroid in "The Little Prince," a book I only recently read for the first time. Only different: here the small planet receives visitors, rather than sending its one inhabitant off on a quest "Comfortable however rocky and lonely." I like that, it sounds like my kind of place, amidst its night sky. And that dazzling sentence, "Everything has to be translated to you through stone," seems to me a perfect description of one role poetry takes in my life-it is a means for travelling outside the self, into a medium entirely other, and bringing back some of that altering knowledge. I wonder too if those visitors going away aren't a little like all those people who glance at poetry and leave because "it's too hard." (More stone-stuff, there!) But for me, that's the excitement of it, the way poetry allows us to know the world through its translation into stone-language, wind-language, apple-language, root-language. Now I've made your dream my own as you made my poetry yours, so I guess we're even- As for the poem you quote, I'm glad you chose it. For me it's a kind of poem I have begun to think of as a "pebble"-small, recalcitrant, oblique, yet somehow moving. At least let's hope it's moving to others, besides you and me. Its source was a sentence written by Chekhov in a letter to a young writer: "If you want to move your reader, write more coldly." The advice is chilling, true, and rich, I think, and leads in many different directions of thought. This poem follows one of those directions: that if one were to imagine a world in which there were mythic, conscious deities, then those beings would have to be very cold, very detached, in order to bear seeing what they must see in the course of any given day. So much suffering, so much foolishness, so much anger. To be able to watch that at all-and even more, to play some active role in its continuance-would demand total heartlessness. It's the same lack of pity that Virgil demands of Dante as they tour the regions of Hell. Pity, the ghost-guide tells the poet, is forbidden. It is true for the contemporary writer as well, and for any seeker after truth. A certain detachment is needed to look the fullness of life eye to eye; yet that very detachment is what permits the viewer to feel things fully, to know them without blinking. A paradox, that. And so we come to the title, "The World Loved by Moonlight." The "cold" light of the moon is equally a kind of passion and love for the earth, no less than the sun's warmer gaze. Much happens at night, in the dark. It's probably because I am in some parts of myself a deeply sentimental creature that Chekhov's and Dante's idea strikes me so forcefully, like the twist of a knife. It's that twist that powered the poem into its speech.
carol adair (rubicon) Thu 11 Nov 99 08:26
Come to think of it, my planet did look like the planet of the Little Prince! "If you want to move your reader, write more coldly. " Ah! I know what Chekov means. I'm always telling students in my composition classes, "Instead of concentrating on how you feel about things, concentrate on the things themselves." But between you and me, I'm not sure if I'm right. How can that be so? How strange that I can only be useful if I can extract myself from the temptation to dally in my own emotions. I guess poetry is a different kind of dalliance. The cold light of your moon here reminds me of Yeats' moon in his poem to his cat, Minnaloushe. Yeats writes: "Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon, For, wander and wail as he would, The pure cold light in the sky Troubled his animal blood." And further on in the poem: "Maybe the moon may learn, Tired of that courtly fashion, A new dance turn." I feel as if your poetry has turned Am I right?
carol adair (rubicon) Thu 11 Nov 99 08:33
What I'm asking now is if you think your work changed. I'm looking at three of your poetry books: Of Gravity & Angels (1988), October Palace (1994), and The Lives of the Heart (1997). When I look, the earlier poems seem personal and exposed while the more recent are, to me, greatly more distilled. Perhaps so that you can bear the "full weight"? Have you ever attempted, consciously, to change something about your work? consciously tried to make it go in a particular way? Take this amazingly erotic poem from the your 1988 book: IN YOUR HANDS I begin to grow extravagant, Like kudzu, That rank, green weed Devouring house after house In the south - Toward midday, the roof tiles Start to throw A wavering light Back toward the sun, And roads begin to soften Darken, Taking your peregrine tongue, Your legs, your eyes, Home to shuttered windows, To the cool rooms That invent themselves Slowly into life. Would you write this now? How has your poetry changed over this decade?
jane hirshfield (jh) Thu 11 Nov 99 13:31
So many threads to follow, but I'll just take the last. I do think my work has been changing, and probably even more so in the poems I've been writing since the last published book. "Of Gravity & Angels," the book that poem comes from, is the only one with explicitly erotic poems in it, though eros continues as a theme in the later work. But it's not just the question of how eros is presented, it's as if all the life of the emotions in my work has moved from a somewhat personal narrative into a more objective realm. I think of something the German Romantic poet and aphorist Novalis once said: "You spend the first half of your life looking inward, and the second half looking outward." And then there's a Robinson Jeffers quote I love: "I have fallen in love outward."
jane hirshfield (jh) Thu 11 Nov 99 13:48
To pick up on your earlier pondering, about telling writing students they should, as the saying goes, "show, don't tell," I also think it isn't always true. Just a good corrective to the beginning writer's tendency to write "I'm sad" and imagine that's enough. But one thing I've been doing in more recent work is a good deal of "telling"--listing the names of emotions, for instance. Sometimes you just want that economy and simplicity, rather than, say, constructing an image to embody the emotion. They're different strategies for different requirements--and poetry needs the full range in its tool chest. The deep image poetry of the 60's and 70's was a reaction to the overly intellectual (at times) poetry of the 50's. Then people grew bored with "stones and bones" and experimental writing appeared. What many people are doing now is a kind of hybrid, drawing from both the tradition of Lorca/Neruda/Chinese Classical poetry and from, say, the intellectual rigor of Milosz/Herbert/Szymborska. This isn't new--the Roman classical poets also combined both image and intellect. But we do it differently now, in a way recognizably of this moment and its dictions. You asked if I ever deliberately try to change my poems. Mostly, no. Mostly I write as a path toward discovery, toward the almost inaudible stirrings of my life; writing the poem is the way I can hear who I am, learn who I am, learn what I am pondering and feeling in the underground rivers of the self. Very, very rarely though, I notice something, and then I don't exactly deliberately change as a writer, but do something that feels more like putting in a request to the muse. "Muse," I murmur, "is there any chance you would like to get, well, more strange?" And over the next few years, my work becomes more strange. Then I might notice something else. "Muse," I then murmur, "might you be interested in making a few more direct statements? In shorter sentences?" And then I discover myself writing a poem like the one you first quoted, "The World Loved by Moonlight," which has shorter, declarative sentences, and says something directly. For some reason I find these direct statements very frightening--literally, frightening. But I also want to make them, to peel off the protective camouflage and say what I think, what I feel. I think we are often drawn to what is difficult for us: the rich challenge, the step that needs to be taken. Poetry has always been that for me: a way to challenge my innate reticence and come into the world of knowing and (still difficult for me) being known.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Fri 12 Nov 99 09:25
Were you a Zen Buddhist before you became a poet, or vice versa? How did each influence the other?
carol adair (rubicon) Fri 12 Nov 99 10:04
Good question, Sharon. And welcome to the interview! Also wlcome to anyone who would like to come in with questions to Jane.
Erik Van Thienen (levant) Fri 12 Nov 99 10:49
>Your planet reminds me a little of the asteroid in "The Little Prince" Exactly my own gut reaction! Of course the drawing tends to stick in your mind, too. <I can still hear the Fox plead "Tame me!".>
jane hirshfield (jh) Fri 12 Nov 99 11:24
Hi Sharon, and Erik--glad you're here. I started writing poetry as soon as I learned how to write, so that came first. Various things I read, from Emerson and Thoreau and the "carpe diem" philosophy of the Roman poets to the poems of classical China and Japan, then caused me to become interested in the way of seeing the world that is also found in Zen. Especially reading No drama in college, I found theh presentation of a Buddhist worldview something I was strongly drawn toward. As for the actual practice of Zen, I only had the barest idea that it existed when I graduated from college. I'd heard Gary Snyder give a talk once, and I'd seen an early copy of the Tassajara Bread Book that had the monastic schedule on the inside back cover. That told me that a Zen monastery existed, here in America. And somehow I always knew that if I was going to do this at all, I wanted to do it completely--that monastic practice would be the way. I also knew that I'd never make much of a poet until I learned more about what it means to be a human being. When I drove down the road to Tassajara (I was lucky, it was summer and I could go in, and even luckier that they let me stay as a guest student for a week right away), I had no idea I'd do full-time practice for most of the next eight years. But I look back on that time now, and especially the three years I lived at Tassajara, as the diamond at the center of my life. During those years I mostly didn't write at all. But I learned a little about what it is to be a human being, and about how to pay attention, and at the end of that period poetry came back. So I feel as if poetry sent me to Zen, and Zen then returned me to writing, and that they are parallel paths toward the same goal which I now try to follow in some more integrated way--both are about investigating the deep truth of this moment and bringing it forth. Both are complete queries, and complete challenges: each asks of you everything you can bring to it. Both are a continual process of failure and trying again, or even to some degree "success" and trying again. Neither lets you rest in the moment that is past. I don't think of myself as a "Buddhist" poet in the way some others are: it doesn't form much of an explicit topic in my work. But people who have practiced tell me that the undercurrent is clear. For a long time, I didn't want the fact that I was/am a student of Zen even known by the readers of my poems. I didn't want to seem exotic, for one thing, and I like the model of a "hidden" practice. But the word seems to have pretty much gotten out, and now I have to live with that, in that more public way. And mostly I feel that for any poet, no matter what the poet him or herself thinks, everything we are is revealed in every moment. Even the gorgeous camouflages various poets take on are still revelations.
Libbi Lepow (paris) Fri 12 Nov 99 13:00
I love the image of that Moebius strip, with poetry connecting you with Zen and Zen connecting you back to poetry.
carol adair (rubicon) Fri 12 Nov 99 17:30
Tell you the truth, Jane, the "direct statements" in some of your recent poems are frightening to me, too. I need them, but they scare the juice out of me. I slam the book shut. Then peek in again. Since we are on the subject of scary things, are you ever afraid that your poetry will move too fast for you? That it might move at a pace faster than you can understand? That it might expose things you don't want to know? Or really scary, expose you in ways that you can't cover?
jane hirshfield (jh) Fri 12 Nov 99 20:02
Oh, I like knowing that some of those sentences frighten you as well! It's very confirming, in an odd kind of way. But no, I don't worry about the other. Now it may be that the poems do expose things about myself that I don't know--that's the whole premise of what in critical theory is called "the intentional fallacy": the writer is not necessarily the authority on what the writing contains--the usual example being Frost, who was enraged when a critic suggested at a dinner given in his honor that his poems might be dark, about death, etc. But for my poems to expose what I don't know they're exposing is a different matter than them exposing what I might not "want to know." I think I do want to know all of it, or as much as I can. That's part of the thrill of writing-- what I might learn about myself, or the world. There are a few poems I've written which I've chosen not to publish, but that is a very different issue than not writing them in the first place. Sometimes people do point things out to me after the fact. My friend Pam Houston pointed to one of my poems and said, "That one's about getting older, isn't it?" "No, of course not!" I answered. Then looked at the poem. Then said, "Oh, hmmm, yes I suppose it is." But I didn't mind that, I rather like it in fact. (The poem, by the way, is "A Sweetening All Around Me As It Falls," from the book "The October Palace." And the fact that it's about aging is dead obvious.)
carol adair (rubicon) Sat 13 Nov 99 10:20
I read once (you can probably give me the source but I can't remember) (I think it was in some book about political repression) that two things a tyrant fears are laughter and sex. Either can topple them. Neither can be controlled. What tyrant lurks in this poem? Each Happiness Ringed by Lions Sometimes when I take you into my body I can almost see them-patient, circling. Almost glimpse the moving shadow of the tail, almost hear the hushed pad of retracted claws. It is the moment -- of this I am certain -- when they themselves are least sure. It is the moment they could almost let us go free.
jane hirshfield (jh) Sat 13 Nov 99 12:00
Don't you mean more something like, "What tyrant does this poem threaten?" Since poems are the topplers of tyrant-mind, and this poem is obviously sexual to the core... But yes, that question is very apt for the poem, which speaks to the fundamental undermining of any moment. Even when the lions of destruction are moved by our ecstasies (so like them, in fact), it is their nature to devour us in the end. I liked the thought of them wavering in that conviction, but it is the Law of Lions to take us in the end. (I didn't know that quote, by the way, but I adore it.)
jane hirshfield (jh) Sat 13 Nov 99 12:02
I should mention, in case anyone in the NYC area is reading this, that tomorrow night, November 14, at 6:30, my half-hour interview with Bill Moyers will be airing on Channel 13. It won't show here in the Bay Area until next spring, and in other parts of the country you'd just have to phone up your local PBS affiliate and ask them if they're running the series (called "Sounds of Poetry") and when.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Sat 13 Nov 99 14:32
Jane, how did you end up being an interview subject for Bill Moyers? Did you know him already? If so, when had you met before?
jane hirshfield (jh) Sat 13 Nov 99 15:12
Moyers is always very careful to point out that he doesn't himself choose the poets for those series. He films his poetry program at the Dodge Festival in New Jersey, and the poets who appear are simply those who happen to be part of the Festival during the years he's come. In 1998 (when he filmed the current set of programs), he wasn't originally planning to film at all, but Herb Alpert's foundation came through with the funding at the very last minute--around three weeks before the Festival, we were suddenly faxed permission queries. I had never spoken to Bill until he came over while the make-up woman was working on me and began chatting. It's a very good technique--he talks to you all the time you're having your blush and mascara applied, then while his own nose is powdered, then as you walk over to where you'll be sitting, as you are put in place, your skirt arranged over your ankles... and at some point you realize that everyone is very quiet, and the cameras are running, and you have no idea exactly when the transition occurred. Perfect for avoiding that deer-in-the-headlights moment of being "on." I really appreciated him during the Festival, and at the other event we did more recently in San Francisco, as part of his book tour for "Fooling With Words," the book that accompanies the first of the two programs. His sincerity and passion for the word truly shine through, and it's absolutely clear that what he does (not just with poets, of course, but with all the topics he takes on) is less work than vocation. There are few enough people in the media trying to examine such unsexy things as poetry, or the hospice movement (his next project), in a highly visible way. One theme that came out during many of his interviews was a question much discussed elsewhere in the Well, whether a poet writes for an audience or for him or herself. People with Well accounts can see a very long topic that encircles that subject by going to the poetry conference, and finding the topic called "Why Don't You Read Poetry?" (I'll add that I have no wish to recap that conversation here--it was quite exhaustive the first time around.)
Judy Bunce (judyb) Sat 13 Nov 99 15:46
Jane, what is your life like now? Writing poetry seems like such a solitary undertaking, but from the Brief Departures topic in the News conference you appear to spend a lot of your time teaching, and a lot of your time jetting to and from places. Does that silence, that quiet room with a clean piece of paper on the desk and a window to gaze out of, still exist for you?
Message fromoutside the WELL (tnf) Sat 13 Nov 99 18:04
From: email@example.com To: firstname.lastname@example.org Date: Sat, 13 Nov 1999 15:55:04 -0800 I'm not sure this will work but I'm having some computer difficulties and this may be the only way to post... I just wanted to say Hello to Jane. I don't know if you remember me, Jane, but once upon a time (late 80's) I rented your old writing studio below Ted and Penny??'s(can't remember her name)house in Muir Beach. This is Cheryl Foltos, lately of Marin County but now a Central Oregonian. I've been immersed in Mary Oliver's work this weekend - I am endlessly blown away by her writing - and was saying to someone this morning that I think she is the finest poet writing in english today. Present company notwithstanding ;) One thing I remember about you Jane is something that someone else's girlfriend -sorry - I'm blanking on names here, it was red-headed Mitch's girlfriend - the one with all the curly hair - a friend of yours if I remember correctly - said about you - and that was that you simply decided one day you were going to 'be a poet' as your life's work and you went about doing just that. I've always remembered that about you and admired that - Ellie - that was her name - Ellie. Anyway, hello from Oregon. Glad to see you popping up in a place where I might say hello.
Pamela McCorduck (pamela) Sun 14 Nov 99 10:53
It's a pleasure to re-discover where the kudzu image came from. I assimilated it completely, forgetting where I'd first read it.
carol adair (rubicon) Sun 14 Nov 99 11:26
Isn't it a wonderful image. May that happen to each child born to this green earth. ..... Judy asks if Jane, with all her traveling and teaching, still has time and place enough to write.... or maybe just to be. I was wondering much the same thing. Perhaps in slightly differnt words. In the poem I posted above, "Each Happiness Ringed by Lions", (from The Lives of the Heart) I can see ( because of your explanation, Jane) that the lurking lion is (in this poem) the tyrant of the mind; or at least one of the lions circling the speaker and her beloved is a flickering self-consciousness interrupting the love-making, threatening to topple their pure intention. In another of your poems, it is the "lion day" that takes the writer/speaker from her contemplation. In still another it is the "lion heart" that: "stands back and looks at the body looks at the mind" (and in this poem, aids the writer) I can see love-making, or poetry making or any art-making as an endeavor that cause lions to pick up their heads. I can see all those distractions that keep us from the pure attention we need to create. Many writers have admitted to rituals or disciplines that allow them to escape their lions, or escape what you call "the distractions of interest or boredom". I wonder if you have any rituals that bring closer to poetry/writing? I guess I wonder even more, what most distracts you from poetry? What internal or external distractions keep you *from writing?
jane hirshfield (jh) Sun 14 Nov 99 16:25
Oh dear--go away for a while and there are so many threads to pick up... Hi Cheryl, and Pamela too! The question of what my life and time are like these days is a perpetual quandary to me. The world seems to want a poet to do everything except stay home quietly to write the next poem, and it is true that I am travelling more and more as a poet, as both reader and teacher of poetry. I do feel very lucky that I'm asked to do it, and I love doing it, but for the most part I don't write when I'm on the road, so time at home to do the fundamental work becomes more and more precious to me. I suspect for every artist who works in solitude there comes the necessity to find a balance between silence and solitude and interiority, on one hand, and connection with the world and other people on the other. It is a life-koan for me these days. My attempt is to balance the outward-turned periods with periods when I can retreat. One good thing I've learned all too recently is to unplug the phone on days when I am home and able to. I first did it on my birthday last February, as a gift of solitude to myself, and it was wonderful. Late in the day I wrote a poem about the day, which ran in "The Atlantic" in July's issue. Perhaps one thing I'm learning is to concentrate that feeling of "retreat" into a smaller period--that even a single day can be sequestered. It means I've had to learn to shift gears more quickly. Not all writers are like me; some can work in cafes, on airplanes, in five minute intervals. But I've never been like that--I've always needed the sense of silence and protection from disturbance, so that I can enter a more vulnerable state of being in order to write. I have to let my social guard down, and somehow escape all the distractions of every day. The lions in my poetry are not actually that though--they are something in fact not an enemy at all, but a terrifying ally. They will have us all in the end. When I was researching the anthology Women in Praise of the Sacred, I found that in every culture, the goddess of abundance is accompanied by the lion. I think of it as the necessary counterforce, as an ecstatic devouring. One never has one without the other. So they are, perhaps, that to which we must passionately surrender.
jane hirshfield (jh) Sun 14 Nov 99 16:36
As for what "keeps me from writing," almost everything can--anxiety, other work, distraction, but also the good things: dinner with friends, gardening, taking care of the ordinary details of ordinary life out of which the great joy of leading a human life comes... even zazen is not writing. So the trick seems to be to enter an alchemical attitude: to realize that distraction is not distraction, but the eventual gold, only known now in its primary state. I have gone, many times in my life, months without writing. So far, it has always returned, and returned changed because of that period of silence. The question then becomes, was that silence a failure, or a gift? I try to hold those periods lightly, almost tenderly, knowing that in the past they have always ended. But partly how I know they are ending is when I begin to grow anxious, begin to long for writing with the same feeling one would long for a lover... The anxiety matters too, then: it is the signal I send to myself that I have departed too long from the passionate source and core. Silence, though, does fascinate me, and one of my central beliefs is that a writer must find a way to make silence an ally and not an antagonist in one's life. Internal silence as well as external silence... the silence before as well as the silence after...
carol adair (rubicon) Sun 14 Nov 99 17:54
I want to think about this and I want to ask the East Coast people for a favor. Will someone tape Jane's interview with Bill Moyers, tonight at 6:30? I don't want to wait until it get here and besides, I don't have a TV. I'll trade a tape for some super chocolate chip cookies.
Members: Enter the conference to participate