Rattle Conversations

with Alan Fox


Fourteen selected Rattle conversations offer rare insight into the lives and thoughts of some of the most notable American poets of our time. Informative and intimate, the conversations look beyond the academic minutia and into the heart of what we love–the passion that compels poetry, and the process that completes it. These poets explore not what they wrote, but why they had to write it, and how it came to be. As such, the Rattle conversations serve as an indispensable guide and companion to anyone who appreciates the art and experience of writing.

Published by Red Hen Press, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-59709-095-7
285pp., paper, $19.95


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Daniel Berrigan • Hayden Carruth • Lucille Clifton • Sam Hamill
Jane Hirshfield • Yusef Komunyakaa • Jack Kornfield
Li-Young Lee • Philip Levine • Sharon Olds • Gregory Orr
Luis J. Rodriguez • Alan Shapiro • Diane Wakoski



FOX: I’m always interested in how people discover whether they’re a poet, as opposed to a personal essayist or a textbook writer, or whatever. Do you have any insight into that process for you?

HIRSHFIELD: It’s hard to have insight into something that feels inevitable. It’s like asking a plum tree why it makes plums. Poetry was what I did. I can, though, say that the desire to write was probably part of the desire, again from earliest childhood, to comprehend my life and the world more deeply. I was a very curious child, but also a child who had to clear a way through a kind of thicket to find my way to myself. My family wasn’t very forthcoming, and I hungered for something, without even knowing what it was. But I knew that a path towards it could be found in poems.
I think two kinds of people become poets. Extroverts who go out and entertain the family friends, and introverts who hide in the bedroom and put what they write under the mattress. Allen Ginsberg, I imagine, was the first kind; I was the second. For me, words were not about pleasing or entertaining others but about creating a place of refuge, where I could find something out about what it means to have and be a self. Scholars say that introspection only became truly possible with the development of writing. Writing allows the self to be set down and looked into, questioned, changed. On those unseen late night pages, I could experiment, I could fail, it didn’t matter. There is an immense freedom to writing for oneself alone. This is something I still feel. I wrote most often in the middle of the night, after everybody else was asleep. It was a way to investigate and craft a self, a soul, undisturbed, unjudged. The desire for Zen practice must have come from the same rootstock. It’s not so much that poetry and zen influenced each other in my life. They were both ways to try to do the same thing, to know the world and my own experience, to feel and think more deeply, with greater saturation. You develop a craft and a practice in order to make a vessel of yourself that can take you where you want you want to go.

FOX: Mhmm…would you say then you were born into the wrong family or…

HIRSHFIELD: Oh, I could never say that. Every circumstance goes into making a person who he or she is, so how can I question any of it?

FOX: [laughing] So you wouldn’t change anything?

HIRSHFIELD: Well, actually, no. If I want to be who I am, I have to accept every part of what has gone into that, what’s sometimes called the whole catastrophe.

FOX: Absolutely. Could you describe the thicket that you talked about?

HIRSHFIELD: Well, one reason I’m not writing those personal memoirs we talked about earlier is that I’m not inclined toward autobiographical revelation. The poems don’t talk directly about my family. Very few give you any sense of the circumstances of my outer, visible life. The poems come from my life–I think we always speak through and of our own experience–but at the level of the x-ray, perhaps, rather than the nude. I should add that many poets I read with fierce pleasure are autobiographically revealing. It’s just not what I myself do.

FOX: Would you say that the truths that you unearth are universal, personal? Both?

HIRSHFIELD: I’d say there’s no distinction. Where does the universal live except in the particular? There is only the truth of this moment and its manifestations. What I’m talking about is a matter of perspective, not of residence. A good poem’s address is always “here.”

FOX: Mhmm.

HIRSHFIELD: In my 2001 book, Given Sugar, Given Salt, there’s a line that appears in two different poems: “You work with what you are given.” And so, as an example of what I’m talking about, in the new book, After, there are some good number of poems that speak about looking out the window at the mountain that’s there, right now, behind your left shoulder. Now, it’s in the poems first as itself, Mt. Tamalpais, which is the first thing I see every morning when I wake up, if it’s light out and there’s not heavy fog. It’s also in the poems as what mountains stand for in the human psyche, and for its instruction to the psyche in what mountains teach. It’s a slope and presence by which I can investigate and question. Other things come in–in one poem, Vilnius and St. Petersburg, in another, a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins, in a third, an imaginary herd of bison. All these things are themselves and are also prism-lights of my own psyche, and perhaps of the reader’s psyche as well. I also feel that through the shared life of poems, mountains in some way can know us. They enter us, when we bring them into words, just as walking in the mountains enters our bodies and changes the strength of our legs, the capacities of our lungs. We aren’t just ourselves, once we have walked those paths–we are also our history of being changed by the mountain. This is interconnected life. Poems are one way we make ourselves more transparent to the fullness of existence.

FOX: It seems to me that you’re very sensitive to your environment. Would that be accurate?


FOX: Can you say more about that?

HIRSHFIELD: [silent for a moment] I’m going to be a tough interview for you. [both laugh] Could you try asking that in some different way?

FOX: Oh sure. What do you like to avoid in the environment?

HIRSHFIELD: Oh, what do I like to avoid? That I can answer. Noise, distraction, superficiality–in other words, the entire contemporary world. [both laugh] And yet, and yet… I’m creeping up on present-day life, or it on me. A little more of the contemporary world enters my work all the time. My early poems drew almost entirely on the imagery of the natural, but in the past two books especially, there’s much more reference to the shared cultural landscape. In Given Sugar, Given Salt, for instance, there’s a line that says “a shopping mall swirls around the corpse of a beetle.” [both laugh] So there you have it. The natural world is still at the center, but a shopping mall has wrapped itself around it. [laughs]

FOX: Would you say this has enhanced your work, or corrupted it?

HIRSHFIELD: Oh, I think expansion is always good. We begin life with a certain set of powers, tools, loves, and one of the tasks of a life is to enlarge that field, until, along with the Roman writer Terence, you can say, “Nothing human is alien to me.”

FOX: Well, even the Dalai Lama is involved in scientific research, I saw him speak in Boston, he works with people at MIT…

HIRSHFIELD: Oh yes, I know some of the people involved in those meetings, and my beloved is a molecular physicist, so… Yes. [laughs]

FOX: Mhmm.

HIRSHFIELD: Knowing scientists has unquestionably changed my poems, has given me new images and landscapes and also allowed me to think about things I might not necessarily have been thinking about otherwise.

FOX: And in what ways has that, I’m not going to say transformed your work, but directed it…

HIRSHFIELD: Well again, it’s an expansion of possibility. A new bit of knowledge or vocabulary is an expansion of world. So, for example, in the new book there’s a series of seventeen very short poems, the ones I’ve called pebbles, several of which have some biological context. They’re all very brief, and somewhat recalcitrant, reserved, as a pebble is. As I also like to say of them, they aren’t jokes and they aren’t riddles, but they function a little bit like a joke or riddle in that they aren’t complete until the person receiving them takes them in and has a response. When you throw a pebble into the pond, the ripples are part of the phenomenon.

FOX: Mhmm.

HIRSHFIELD: So, to get back to science, among these pebbles, there’s one about global warming, there’s one about tool use in animals, there’s one about evolution and glass. Another poem, “Jasper, Feldspar, Quartzite,” I fact-checked with a friend who’s a geomorphologist, and I suspect that talking with him over the years was what allowed these stones of different nature to come into my work as images. A poet really needs to know everything. Yet no poet does. So what we find is that Stephen Dunn can write certain poems because he knows gambling and basketball. Pattiann Rogers’s poetry is an encyclopedia of the natural world and its phenomena. Philip Levine’s work is founded on his growing up in Detroit, doing factory work, and coming into adulthood in a community and time where the Spanish Civil War mattered in a deeply personal way. We are given our charges to some degree by our lives, to some degree by our choices. But however it happens, what poets know, or learn, will become the material by which they think and feel. The deep issues of human life are not that many. But the images and stories through which we can approach them are infinite. And every such exploration throws a subtly different light on what it means to be human on this earth.

FOX: So then, I think you’re saying that you can find these truths anywhere, or everywhere, and where you go with it depends upon your own personality?

HIRSHFIELD: That, and a great extent depends also on the circumstances of life you were born to, and on what the world gives you in the course of that life. We were talking before the recorder was turned on about something closely related to this, what for me has been a life-haunting question about how much choice people actually have in what happens to them in their lives.

FOX: Yes.

HIRSHFIELD: Somewhere in each of my books, I’ve noticed, there’s a line or two that considers that question. It haunts me. Anybody reading this, and you and I, sitting in this room–we have some choice. We’re lucky, and we have some choice about our fates. There are many people who have next to none. For them, it takes some great force of world and soul to break through the pressures of non-choice they were born into. It can be done, but it’s rare, and it’s hard.

FOX: Why do you think many or most people have such limited choice, or relatively limited choice?

HIRSHFIELD: Because life is simply too hard. If you’re a child born in the Sudan right now, you don’t have a lot of choice, besides suffering and starvation. One recent poem about this, the last to go into After, too late for any magazine, is “Those Who Cannot Act.” That poem came out of thinking about the tsunami two Christmases ago, which led me to think also about the Iraq war. In the one, no one at all had a choice; in the other, the carnage and vanishment are caused by human decision. Yet many of the people who die in war are as without choice as those villagers and beachgoing tourists who vanished inside the waters. There’s a much-repeated sentence from Aeschylus’s Oresteia, “Those who act must suffer, suffer into truth.” But that is the protagonist’s perogative. The tragic hero will die but so will the chorus. Many people, most, suffer without the catharsis of meaning. The poem is for them. It ends mid-sentence, broken off, as lives do, every day, in Iraq, in the Sudan, in New Orleans, in Indonesia, in Kashmir.

FOX: Yes, yes.

HIRSHFIELD: And I think that those of us who do have some choice have a deep responsibility to those who don’t.

FOX: Say more about that.

HIRSHFIELD: We have the responsibility of doing whatever we can to alter those circumstances, whether by writing about it directly or indirectly, or donating, or volunteering, or political activism–again there’s a full spectrum of possibility, and all parts of that are necessary. But also, I think, there’s a responsibility to make, of these lucky lives we’ve been given, what we can.

FOX: Yes.

HIRSHFIELD: Not to throw them away, because so much opportunity is given to leave the world better. And to know joy. Simply to know joy. You mentioned the Dalai Lama earlier, and one of his central teachings is that happiness matters. Perhaps you have to be the Dalai Lama, a person who has known exile and the dismantling of country, a person who has spent a lifetime in a practice that originated in the recognition of suffering to say that and not be taken as a simpleton. And, of course, one corollary of a joyous heart is that it allows some chance of behaving better, of acting out of richness and generosity rather than selfishness, grasping, and fear.

FOX: And yet there are many people who are not born in the Sudan, who feel themselves victims, and they have no choice, because things happen to them…

HIRSHFIELD: Something I wrote in one of my essays may speak to that question. It’s in my mind because it was quoted recently, first in something called the Little Zen Calendar, and then by the director of an Episcopalian church, whom I was told used it in her Easter Sunday sermon. The sentence was “Habit, fear, and laziness conspire to keep us in the realm of the deeply familiar.” There are forces of inertia in the soul, and there are forces of awakening in the soul, and for each of us, that’s one of the very few places of choice–which way we turn–towards inertia and the comfortable habitual or towards the unknown, frightening permeability of awakened heart. To make one choice in that realm rather than another, even in the smallest way, will change a life. There’s an eight-line, early poem I love by the Greek poet Cavafy. The title is an Italian quote, from Dante, “Che Fece…Il Gran Rifiuto.” And the poem begins, “For some people the day comes when they have to declare the great Yes, or the great No.” That is a life-changing poem, I think.

FOX: Yes.

HIRSHFIELD: I can give you the rest of it if you’d like.

FOX: Yes, please, absolutely.

HIRSHFIELD: [laughs] This is Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s first translation. They revised it, but I like the first one better:

For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,

he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he’d still say no. Yet that no–the right no–
drags him down all his life.

FOX: Yes.

HIRSHFIELD: I love the poem both for its reminder of the possibility of declaring a great Yes and a great No, and also for the koan held by the phrase “the right no.” What does that mean, “the right no drags him down all his life”? Sometimes I think it means one thing and sometimes I think it means the other. For me it’s a question you can weigh a life against.

FOX: That’s, to me, another central issue which you touched on before, death versus superficiality…