''Everything is connected, pay attention''

Last modified: Thursday, October 18, 2012
Jane Hirshfield, who hid her poems under the mattress as a child, will receive the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry on Wednesday night in Concord. The presentation and reading will be at 7 p.m. at the Sweeney Hall Auditorium on the campus of NHTI.

Hirshfield is the third winner of the annual prize, which is presented by the Monitor and the New Hampshire Writers' Project in honor of Hall and Kenyon. The two poets lived and wrote poetry at their home in Wilmot until Kenyon's death in 1995 at the age of 47. Hall, who is 84, writes there still.

Hirshfield is a Californian who has written and translated poetry for nearly 40 years. In a recent email interview she discussed her poetry and her life.

What should New Hampshire readers know about you before they come hear you read?

Perhaps I am ducking the question here, but just this: That I'm more interested in looking out at the world's beings, stories, rivers, and objects than I am in the world looking at me.

Poems are made by what's both personal and pressing, but they speak through images, metaphors, the shared stuff of existence. We all live, love, lose, die, laugh, stand in awe, stand in grief, notice what around us is just or unjust. Poems let us do these things more widely, wildly and complexly. They let us see things from more than one side at once.

That's the experience I'd hope my poems will bring to people who come hear them read: a gate opened into a hidden garden where dates or olives are planted; a run of notes making a tune that is also some new tone of being. I try to find something, in every poem, that I didn't quite know or feel before, and then give that discovery to others.

What stays with you from your experience as one of the first women to graduate from Princeton?

How welcomed I felt. By the male students, of course, that goes without saying. But also by the faculty. I perhaps was lucky that way, but I never once took a class where I felt the professor wasn't glad to see a broader spectrum of us in the room.

Oddly, one of the departments of most interest to me, East Asian Studies, had for some years already been taking women transfer students. I found myself in a Japanese Literature in Translation seminar taught by a woman professor, the estimable Karen Brazell, and 12 of the 13 students were women. That class changed my life, introducing me to the two Japanese women poets from a thousand years ago that I would go on to co-translate in the book The Ink Dark Moon, and introducing me to the Buddhist world views underlying the poems - views not so different from the world views of the Roman poet Horace or the New England Transcendentalist Thoreau.

Later, at an East Asian Studies coffee hour, I heard Gary Snyder talk about a group of Zen monks in Japan whose practice is climbing and circling mountains. That glimpse of an American poet who was engaged with Zen, with the environment and with finding a new language of being, and who also had a single hoop earring and a ponytail, since this was the early '70s, was life-changing too.

How did Zen change your worldview?

"Zen" is simply a way of paying attention, to being human and to living in this world. When I came across it as a young person, the ideas and meditation practice of Zen just seemed to me to accord with what I already felt and saw. "Everything changes, everything is connected, pay attention" - that is my own definition of Zen and its practice.

Sometimes I'll say, "Zen is the taste of your own tongue in your own mouth." Everything else follows from that simple attitude of investigation. "Pay attention" - not to something given, but to the question, "What might this be, what might be found here?"

If you pay attention, you see that everything is continually changing its shapes and meanings and colors, and also that all this changing inner world-stuff and outer world-stuff is connected. None of us is separate.

In some traditions, this would be called a recognition of God. In another, it might be called "the social compact," or "ecological awareness." These are human vocabularies for something that is both human and beyond our own views of it: existence and how we conduct ourselves and feel ourselves in it; noticing how what we do affects us and others; recognizing what is ego, what is the world. These are the things Zen reminds you to look at and feel.

Zen is the study of what is. Its practice is readjusting what causes pain to self and others so that our choices, to the degree we have choices, might instead bring freedom, compassion and the feeling of being at the same time distinctively yourself and a self that is in relationship with beings, things, weathers beyond its own borders.

When did you begin to write poetry and why?

I began writing poems so early that I have no clear recollection of how it started. Poems were, I now think, a way of crafting a self, crafting a life, shaping and trying on ways of being, both within myself and in the world. I hid my poems under my mattress - they were a realm of privacy and safety for the shy young girl I was, not something to display to others. I would never want to strip that child of her utter innocence. She wrote without "knowing" anything about poetry, not about her possible future, not about any relationship to poetry beyond her love of it and how writing allowed her to feel.

I'll add that, in our current culture of encouraging all young writers to publish and perform, I am the one who will say, "Why rush?" It's the introvert in me perhaps, but I think it is just fine for a young person to write for writing's own sake, and to delay as long as possible entering that world of outside validation. I know this is incomprehensible to extroverts, and foreign to a culture of Facebook and blogging - but both kinds of young people write, and I want to keep some room in the world for the quiet and private.

The great irony of my life is that something begun so much for private reasons and pleasures has brought me into a life of so much flying around and talking with strangers. Yet when I'm writing, it's still something done in solitude and privacy. Yeats, a poet who was a national figure, and politically fully engaged in the work of Irish independence, once said that the argument you have with others is rhetoric, poetry is the argument you have with yourself. So it feels to me.

You are a presence in nearly all your poems, but few are "I" poems, overtly autobiographical. Why did you choose to see the world this way in your work?

I'm not at all sure poets "choose" to see or write as they do. We make the art that comes out of the fabric of our own lives, and out of the fabric of our times and culture and planet. Because this world has in it green, I can write a poem called "Green-Striped Melon."

That poem talks about the hidden ripeness you feel in some people, under the surface. When you go to pick melons, you lift them, to feel if they are yet heavy. Sometimes we feel it inside ourselves - an extra weight, extra vividness and sweetness come into the world, when we are fully ourselves, as they come into a ripened melon in a field. So I am writing about an experience, something I know and feel from the inside, but writing about it by describing other things - a ripe melon, a painting that re-uses a canvas and hides a second painting under its surface. (Sometimes, as we know, that covered-over painting might be a long-lost work by an Old Master.)

People think and feel in different ways. I love narrative and story and the stories people tell about their own lives. But that isn't what comes to my hand and mind when I write. I do have poems with "I" in them, quite a few; just, as you say, they don't tell the day-to-day stories.

What come to me are metaphors, images, investigations done in a different way than the way of saying the events of my own life and its history. My work is just as personal, it's just a different way of getting to the same end.

We turn to art to feel the world more fully. There are all kinds of ways to do that.

In many of your poems, you keep a certain distance from your subject. The poem seems to search for (and find!) a way to negotiate that distance. Is this a conscious approach?

This in a way follows straight from the last question, doesn't it? I sometimes think of the spark plugs in cars - you need a gap, an opening, for something explosive and propulsive to happen. That gap and its leaping aren't consciously chosen as a technique, it's just what I happen to love. I want poems to not only let me feel more fully, I want them to surprise me, to bring something new into the world I've never quite seen or felt before.

Connecting things that are different, being indirect, hiding the truest statement of the poems inside, or perhaps after, the words on the page - these are all ways poetry can say things that we don't already know. For me every poem I love is an act of discovery, not just expression. Poems come from the mixing of elements that create combustion. Not just gasoline, but the fuel plus the oxygen, and then also the thing that holds them. And combustion throws light, and heat, and changes things from what they were before. All that I feel also about poems.

In Louis Simpson's obituary in the New York Times, he was quoted as saying that nonpoets writing about poets often start from the false premise that writing poetry is a rational process. Do you agree, and how rational is your process?

I agree completely. What I'm trying to enter, in writing a poem, is some state where the unconscious mind, the fertility and undomesticated brilliance of the dream mind, can collaborate with the waking mind. They can make together what neither can make alone.

Donald Hall described this gorgeously in his essay "The Unsayable Said." There's an image that has always stayed with me from that - of a house that has at its center a secret room; no door seems to lead into it, but the room is there. That is the room in which poems are made.

What is the most important lesson about writing poetry that you have learned from teaching?

Two lessons. One, to write a good poem, you need to leave the window open a few inches more than is comfortable. You must risk - risk being laughed at for feeling sincerely, risk absurdity, risk writing the story most painful to tell, risk being not comprehended because you are trying to say something right at the edge of comprehension, risk being found platitudinous if you say something outright and directly. Without risk, without sometimes falling over the precipice of failure, no one can write well.

The second lesson: To read or write poetry, you need to cultivate a pitbull-but-permeable awareness. That's a bit of a balancing act. Fierce alertness, but one not pedantic or dogged. Awareness that is open to being surprised, that wants to give itself over to awe, to grief, to the swoon of language's music. Control and surrender are equally needed colors on the artist's palette.

What happens between conception and the finished poem?

Poems only come to me if I am in a condition different from ordinary thinking. Writing for me feels first a listening, both inward and outward. Poems come in words, but words that also hear their own sounds - they are much more attentive to sound and music, rhythm and tone, than daily thought is. The presence of that extra measure of sound, and extra alertness, is how I know a poem is a poem. Something in me is like a bird dog gone into the pose of pointing, and I try to look where it looks. The words themselves look, and hunt, for what they sense is there.

This is a description of how it is for the first draft. As soon as the poem is on the page, I begin to revise. Revising is part of writing, for me - it's the refining of the first glimpse by further attention. Sometimes poems change very little, other times they go through 85 drafts. Sometimes they are finished quickly, sometimes I keep making changes for years. I know things are done when new ideas for changing them stop arriving.

What role does form play in your poetry?

I rarely write completely in "given" forms - regular rhymes, sonnets, iambic pentameter. But I feel the gifts and strengths of those forms, my ear knows them, and more poems of mine than people may realize bow in form's direction. Quite a few of my poems, for instance, find a place between formal rhyme and free verse's use of sound-echo; I think of them as being in "wandering rhyme."

The newest book, Come, Thief, has a poem that is actually a formal villanelle, but a slightly elastic and stretched one. It also has a poem that feels to me a cross between an Irish ballad and Emily Dickinson's slant rhyme, "I Ran Out Naked in the Sun." That was written in New Hampshire, at MacDowell.

The pressures of form energize and renew thought and feeling in particular ways. You say different things in a primarily sound-driven poem than you do in one that is in the mood and mode of free verse. You say and feel different things when thinking at different lengths. I suspect that people who read my work tend to underestimate the part formal energies play in it, but it's very much there. I cannot imagine a poetry in which formal energy isn't a ground note.

What is next for you? At this stage of your career, what is your ambition?

What it's always been. To write the next poem, possibly a good one.

(Mike Pride of Concord is the Monitor's editor emeritus.)