JANE HIRSHFIELD AND ALAN FOX
Culver City, California
April 20th, 2006
Jane Hirshfield is the author of six collections of poetry, including After, Given Sugar, Given Salt (finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award, and winner of the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award), The Lives of the Heart, and The October Palace, as well as a book of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. She also edited and co-translated The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Komachi & Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, and Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems. Hirshfield’s other honors include The Poetry Center Book Award; fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Academy of American Poets; Columbia University’s Translation Center Award; and the Commonwealth Club of California’s Poetry Medal. (barclayagency.com/hirshfield.html)
FOX: How did you come to live in this lovely home in Mill Valley?
HIRSHFIELD: I had been living at Green Gulch, in Muir Beach, very near here—[phone rings]
FOX: I will turn this off.
HIRSHFIELD: I should turn mine off too. [laughing, unplugs hard line telephone]
FOX: I was at a dinner—James Ragan had been the head of the Masters of Professional Writing Program at U.S.C. for 25 years and they had a dinner last night. They had a number of speakers including Shelley Berman, who’s one of the teachers there, and Shelley was speaking when my cell phone went off. I think Shelly got one of the biggest laughs of the evening when he looked at me and said, “Take the call.” [both laugh] I put the cell phone under my leg and I turned it off. All right, we were talking about how you were …
HIRSHFIELD: Let me start earlier. I arrived in California in 1974, in a red Dodge van with tie-dyed curtains, as one would do at such a time, and soon went into eight years of formal Zen training. The last place that I lived as a full-time practitioner was Green Gulch Farm, in Muir Beach, just a ridge over from here. I made a very gradual transition back into lay practice life, and didn’t go far. That’s how I ended up here.
FOX: Are you familiar with Spirit Rock, which also isn’t far from here?
HIRSHFIELD: Yes, I edited two of Jack Kornfield’s books.
FOX: Oh! I’m a very good friend of Jack’s.
HIRSHFIELD: Really? Maybe at some other event we’ll say hello then.
FOX: Absolutely. What impact did your Zen practice have on your writing?
HIRSHFIELD: Well, those eight intensive training years were from age 21 to 29, so I can’t really know who I might have become had I not done that. The most honest answer I can give is to say the influence is both complete and unknowable.
FOX: That’s good. When did you start writing?
HIRSHFIELD: As a child. My mother still has one of those big brown sheets of writing paper that they give you in first or second grade, with the wide-spaced blue lines. On it, it says, “I want to be a writer when I grow up.”
HIRSHFIELD: I don’t remember writing or thinking that, only that I was always a lover of words. I read voraciously. I’d choose books over sleep every time.
FOX: And what types of things did you write when you were a child?
HIRSHFIELD: Always poetry. For school I’d write whatever I was asked to, but it was always poems, for myself. I don’t have a narrative mind or aptitude. If you’re a person who wants to investigate the world through language and you don’t tell stories, what’s left is either the essay or poems. I think most deeply through image, the mind-leaps of metaphor, sentences carried by music and tone. Poems suited the ways my mind already liked to move.
FOX: And how did you first get published?
HIRSHFIELD: When I was a senior in college, The Nation magazine started what the next year became The Discovery Awards program, a prize given to four young writers of promise. It still exists. In 1973, it wasn’t yet called that, but I was one of the first four winners, and that meant my first published poem was in The Nation. I didn’t try to publish again for seven or eight years, and during the three monastic years, at Tassajara, in the wilderness inland from Big Sur, I didn’t write at all. We were told to do nothing but practice while there.
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.”
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
FOX: Most people it seems to me are into superficiality … cocktail parties. What are you supposed to do?
HIRSHFIELD: A cocktail party is an almost untenable set of circumstances to navigate. [laughs] You find one person and go in a corner with them, or else you circulate and pretend you’re someone else. Someone who enjoys cocktail parties. Sometimes you even fool yourself. [laughs]
FOX: Yeah. Why is it though, that death, intimacy, seems to be something which most of us avoid?
HIRSHFIELD: Well, to be truly vulnerable is terrifying, isn’t it? It’s to put yourself at risk for devastation and abandonment and ridicule, experiences we all had as young children on a regular basis, from our peers, from our family, from our siblings. To live exposed in this world is hard, and to be willing to be permeated by that pain, rather than try to avoid it, takes immense courage, effort, and energy. There’s another poem that’s been central to my life that talks exactly about this question, written by the Japanese woman poet Izumi Shikibu around 1000 A.D. I first came across it when I was translating The Ink Dark Moon. Mariko Aratani, my co-translator, was the language expert on the team, giving me the literal possibilities for the Japanese words. I’d then go off and work on the poems by myself. With this one, it was strange—I had the words, I had the grammar, and I knew the poem meant something, but I simply couldn’t figure it out. And so it lay there, inert on the page. Then suddenly, I understood it. And from that time on, it changed my life, in the way of exactly this question you’re asking: can we become intimate with devastation, can we face the full spectrum of our own lives and deaths? Here it is:
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
Shikibu is saying that if you wall up your house so tightly that no cold wind will get in—nothing difficult, nothing painful, no grief, no loss, no sorrow, no rage—you’ll be very safe, but you’ll also wall out the moonlight, which in Japanese poetry can mean all beauty, and also the fullness of love, and also the fullness of enlightenment, of deep awakening. Thirty-one syllables in the Japanese, and Shikibu put into words a touchstone for a life.
FOX: Sounds like a much better sound bite than what we see on television today.
HIRSHFIELD: Just so. You know, there’s something to ponder about poetry and sound bites. Sound bites interest me not least because, as you can already tell from this interview, I’m not very good at making them in ordinary conversation. Prose sound bites, thought sound bites, come hard for me. And yet what is a poem except a sound bite? A piece of knowledge, infinitely complex, somehow compressed down to a few words that can cast light about them in all directions.
Good poems show what a sound bite could be, as opposed to the slogans we get from our current politicians, which, besides being so often brazenly lies, are also thought-deadening, compassion-deadening, heart-deadening. This administration gives us the sound bite of a blindfold over the eyes and cotton in the ears; their adamance is deafening and blinding. But they’re memorable. Try, with all we’ve seen since, remembering this one—Bush, in his first campaign, saying “I’m a uniter, not a divider.” The bitter memorability of that phrase, I’m sorry to say, sits at poetry’s door. It’s the music that makes it stick.
FOX: Well exactly. Why is it that there seems to be such a large appeal to those kind of sound bites and, at least in this country, a much lower popularity of the deeper …
HIRSHFIELD: Habit, laziness, and fear, it must be. I do think that it is difficult for human beings to wake up. If it were easy we’d all have done it already. It’s difficult to attend to the subtle, to look past the immediate, to think and question and go against the ease of self-interest, the ease of turning away and letting others deal with the difficult. And I’m not sure that this country and culture is worse than most. Fifth century B.C. Greece, it could be, was better, but compared to most times and places in civilization’s history, we’re probably more awake. Just not enough. Especially given the exponential increase of effect we have, with all our technology. But how do we change? There’s the question.
FOX: It seems to me that the best an individual can do is to be true to him or herself, really without proselytizing, per se.
HIRSHFIELD: I agree. The poetry of propaganda is just another blindfold.
FOX: To me, it’s kind of like catching a feather—if you go after it you chase it away, and if you wait it might land, and it might not.
HIRSHFIELD: Yes. And certain people demonstrate this as a possibility for others. Czeslaw Milosz. Gandhi. A more mixed case, perhaps, Simone Weil. And it is contagious.
FOX: Well, hopefully … You mentioned you travel a lot. Could we talk about that?
HIRSHFIELD: Oh, it’s not that interesting. [Fox laughs] I do a lot of poetry readings and they involve many airplanes.
FOX: Yes. [waits]
HIRSHFIELD: Ok, with this new book just out, let me see if I can reconstruct this … it’s now mid-April, and since January I’ve been in Florida, New Jersey, all over California, Maryland, upstate New York, Massachusetts, Indiana, Virginia, Oregon, and I’m about to go down to L.A … Oh, I’m sorry, I’m just this moment realizing that if you’d known I was coming down to L.A. you wouldn’t have had to come up here. I’m going to the LA Times Book Festival.
HIRSHFIELD: I’m so sorry, it was added after this interview was already set up, it must have been, or we’d be doing this there, wouldn’t we?
FOX: Well, this is a nicer environment. Do you like to do readings?
HIRSHFIELD: One of the great surprises of my life is that the girl putting her poems under the mattress, who spent three years at a Zen monastery in silence, a person who was introverted, shy, and timid, has somehow, by poetry, turned into a person not only able to speak with strangers, but able to find in that some real pleasure … Two nights ago I gave a reading for 400 people, at the Portland Arts and Lectures Series, and it actually felt intimate. It felt like being present with people in some deep and connected way.
HIRSHFIELD: I don’t think this would have been imaginable to me when I gave my first readings—hands shaking, voice trembling, wishing only to be anywhere else. But, again, we were talking before about how life wants to expand your perimeters. I think it also wants to counter your inborn tendencies. If I’d been born an outward-turned person, perhaps I would have had to get myself thrown in jail for a few years, until I learned to quietly study the self.
Anyhow, it’s interesting that the path of going out and being physically present and saying the poems on the voice, into the ear, has become so central a part of poetry’s life in American culture. It’s almost a return to a bardic, oral tradition. Spoken poetry may be the main way that many people know poetry at all, though I’m also fairly certain more books are being bought now as well. People are hungry for what poetry has to offer. And part of that hunger is for intimacy with depth and with grief and with the serious, what you were speaking of earlier. It’s for being in a room where something real is said aloud without cynicism or glitz or commercial purpose, and where something happens between and among living people. It’s different from the experience of entering a poem on the page. I wouldn’t want to lose either, and not only because if I needed to hear Emily Dickinson read in person before I could appreciate her poems, I might have to wait a long time. For me, poetry on the page has been one of the great friendships of my life. Look at the company available, right on this bookshelf … Dickinson. Basho. Dante. With an attuned inner ear, you can hear the poems as if they were speaking directly to you. But for many people to hear poems outwardly spoken is a necessary point of entry. We all have friends who don’t know or care much about poetry. Yet if at the right moment a poem is said to them, they are completely taken inside the experience. Which of course is why poems are still read at weddings and at funerals.
FOX: Mhmm, mhmm.
HIRSHFIELD: This is my answer to the question, “Is poetry still alive?” As long as poems are read at weddings and funerals, and exchanged between lovers, and given to people in times of duress, poetry is doing its work. And all the rest is a kind of scaffold to support the endeavor, so it can be there at the moments it’s needed.
FOX: I’m thinking that you can experience so much intimacy at a reading because your audience is able to enter into the experience without being exposed, and so they can really feel as one with you and with the other people there.
HIRSHFIELD: Well, that’s right. It’s such an ancient human thing, isn’t it? Go back to the Greek tragedies, Homer, Beowulf, traditional griots. People sitting together in a hall or an ampitheater or around a fire, listening to somebody set forth what it is to be human, in interesting and memorable ways. Participating in that ritual and shared vision is how culture is made and preserved, and how certain qualities of being are created and transmitted, one generation to the other. And consider what it means for people to be in a room together, paying attention to something. That in itself has an effect, very different from the passivity of watching television. Though I have to confess, there are moments when there’s nothing I want more than to sit watching television, to escape myself and my life. Still, too much television leaves the feeling of overdose. You can take a vacation for awhile, but then it’s like being in a room that’s too hot—you suddenly need to throw open the windows or go outside and roll in the snow.
FOX: I’m thinking that the fear of being intimate is perhaps the fear of losing one’s individual identity.
HIRSHFIELD: [silent a while] I have no doubt that you’re right, and yet … To lose your individual identity is one of the most profound things a human being can do. And it’s something we seek out continually, isn’t it, whether by mind-altering substances or going to a concert. I have no question that falling out of the self is one of the deepest pleasures of music, that we enter into music in order to become it and no longer ourselves. And yet you are also right that this is terrifying to people. My maternal grandfather, who was a Rosicrucian for a while, and the only person in my family with an interest in mysticism, told me a story when I was a child. He had been given anaesthesia, and as he went under, he said, his mind traveled out into the universe, into the vast blackness of the universe, until all he saw was a single point of light which he understood as the beginning of all time and all space. Now, I thought that sounded extraordinary, absolutely wonderful. For him, it was so frightening that he never consented to full anaesthesia again. Every operation after that was done under only a local.
HIRSHFIELD: So, what do we make of this? I can’t make anything of it. What to one person is an ecstatic gnosis, to another is a hell-realm.
FOX: You learn in the third or fourth grade to find the lowest common denominator. To simplify. And simplistically, to me, it seems that life will end in disaster, relationships will end in disaster, if nothing more than death, illness, or separation. That is a given.
FOX: So you might as well have the moonlight, because you’re going to have the destruction anyway. [laughs]
HIRSHFIELD: So true—everything we love will be taken from us. But you know, in order to enter the attitude you’re describing, you need to be willing to lose it all right now, this very moment. That’s the only way to stop clinging. And it’s the clinging that narrows us.
FOX: Uh-huh …
HIRSHFIELD: The same principle, I think, can be seen in many aspects of a life. For instance, in the writing of poems—if you aren’t willing to risk making a fool of yourself, you’ll never write anything good. To enter what you didn’t know before is to risk a kind of death. You have to be willing to make terrible errors in order to do anything new, different, unfamiliar. Every time, every moment. You know, I have a deep compassion for all this fearfulness and hesitancy. There’s a great deal of both in me. It makes perfect sense. Evolution gives us two basic modes of being. One mode is self-preservation and the other is seeking, and some balance between the two is going to decide your fate. And I think my whole course as a human being has been a navigation between those two things. Because I really am a terrible coward, yet I have not wanted the narrow life that comes with cowardice.
HIRSHFIELD: From our conversation earlier, I’d say that you are courageous by nature. That you come naturally to what for me has been a struggle.
FOX: Well, I think there are different areas of timidity or fear. And, for myself, where I’ve been most successful in life is where I just don’t have fear. But I’m certainly afraid of relationships or vulnerability. I’m fearful of physical pain, and that, that’s big.
HIRSHFIELD: Yes, it is.
FOX: So would you say for yourself that there are certain areas you have a large fear and other areas you have not very much?
HIRSHFIELD: Well, you know how they can take puppies and test them for their nature?
HIRSHFIELD: I’m sorry to say that I was probably the timid puppy. [laughs] What’s interesting, I suppose, is that something else in my nature caused me to hammer against that condition. This goes once again to the question of how much we can change in our lives. Here, I think, the pivot point is, do you feel your life as malleable clay or do you feel only “That’s the hand I was dealt”? My good luck is that, given the hand I was dealt, I also felt my life to be malleable clay.
FOX: There’s a movie, The Last Samurai, with a Japanese man who played the samurai. He was writing a poem about cherry blossoms, and at the end of the film, as he’s dying, he finds the end of the poem, “They are all perfect.”
HIRSHFIELD: This is also, of course, one of the central teachings of certain schools of Buddhism: You’re already a Buddha, so you might as well act like one. And everything that happens is the perfection of what happens, including the losses, the pain and suffering, the death, and also the joy. It’s never too late to awaken—you can recognize the perfection of things even at the moment of death. There’s a remarkable haiku by Issa—
On a branch
a cricket singing.
I think that this is a perfect portrait of life in seventeen syllables [in the Japanese]. You’re going to go over the waterfall, but you are here, now, a cricket, and so what do you do? You sing.
FOX: I’m thinking that … we all have the ability to be the cricket, in fact we are, and yet I’m thinking of the line from E.E. Cummings’ “Everyone Lived in a Pretty How Town,” which is, “down they forgot as up they grew.” It takes a lot of intention and work to delve into that which we knew.
HIRSHFIELD: Yes, yes it does. And I think that is one central role of poetry, especially in this culture and at this time. Historically, poems have done lots of different work—the work of lullaby, of prayer, of love song, of elegy, of work song … unfortunately, also of war song. Poetry is a concentration of language that permits transformation. Poems enable you to do or know something you couldn’t have done or known in the same way without them. In contemporary American culture, all the arts, and particularly poetry, have as a central task the work of paying attention to whatever the mainstream culture ignores or dismisses. Now a great deal of our current mainstream culture is asking us to deaden ourselves—to close heart, eyes, mouth, to thicken skin, to stay inside a perimeter of consuming and protecting. Art’s example reminds us that it is possible to develop an awakened and courageous and indecorous soul, in the face of a world that mostly asks us to be obedient sheep.
HIRSHFIELD: Who was it who said … a French poet … “There is another world and it is in this one.” Paul Eluard. Good poetry reminds us that that other world exists, and that we can find our way into it.
FOX: I’m thinking of the Zen joke about the brigands who attack the Zen community and they’re looking for the gold, and they finally … do you know the joke?
HIRSHFIELD: I’m not sure. Keep going.
FOX: Well they finally accost the Zen leader, and the chief robber puts a sword to his throat and says, “Where’s the gold?” And the Buddhist monk just looks at him. Again the robber says, “Where’s the gold, don’t you realize that I have the ability to kill you?” And the Buddhist says, “Don’t you realize that I have the ability to let you kill me?”
HIRSHFIELD: Oh, yes! There’s also the wonderful story about a Zen master who comes home and finds that his little meditation hut has been ransacked and everything’s been taken, only a single pot is left, and he runs after the thief, “Wait, wait, you forgot something, take this!” [both laugh]
FOX: That’s reminiscent of the line from Les Miserables where the priest says, You forgot to take the candle sticks …
HIRSHFIELD: Yes, and then another Japanese poem, “Barn’s burnt down, now I can see the moon.” That one’s on my refrigerator. Masahide.
FOX: I’m thinking again about choice. I sometimes think that there is no choice. If I took a pebble and let go of it with my hand it would drop, and we can predict that, and we could tell you how fast it’s going to go, and if it would bounce. So, to the extent that we are creatures of a universe with rules—the rule of gravitation, whatever—then don’t we inevitably have to just drop like the pebble, according to our nature and the nature of the universe? No choice at all.
HIRSHFIELD: It’s the old problem of free will versus determinism.
HIRSHFIELD: You know, much as I care about this question of choice in people’s lives, I myself find the free will/determinism question simply not useful. You know, it’s one way or the other and it actually doesn’t much matter which is “true,” because our experience is that we have to figure it out.
HIRSHFIELD: That even if whatever we end up deciding to do is inevitable, even if we could never have done anything else, part of that is still the experience of struggling with it, and our sense is that in any moment we could do one thing or we could do another. If I were a proper Zen master, right now, I’d take my teacup and pour the tea over my head and walk out. And thus exhibit something relevant, perhaps, to this kind of discussion. The thought crosses the mind. The tea is cool enough. Not being that dramatic, or a Zen master, I probably won’t do it. But here, have a macaroon. [both laugh] I’ll have one too.
FOX: Well this is either—
HIRSHFIELD: An inevitable macaroon?
FOX: Absolutely. Because it is, of course.
HIRSHFIELD: [laughs] Does it still taste sweet?
HIRSHFIELD: I hope you like macaroons.
FOX: Yes, I do. [both laugh] Well, you said this would be a difficult interview, but I like what you say, it’s important, it’s touching, it’s um …
HIRSHFIELD: Thank you. No, I’m only difficult when people start asking me personal questions. I just don’t answer them for the most part. [laughs]
FOX: When you’re writing a poem, don’t you have to go where it leads you, rather than where you want to force it to go?
HIRSHFIELD: Absolutely. I’ve never once written a poem by will power. I can’t do it.
FOX: Ah, good. See that comes back to choice also, are you going to impose your will on the universe or are you going to just discover what is there?
HIRSHFIELD: I’ve always wanted to discover. It is the only thing I’ve wanted. Everything else in my life stems from that. What is this life, this moment, and how fully can I know it? And the interesting thing is that if you pursue those questions, astonishments step forward, and you find things that you never would have guessed were there to be found. I think this is true for any inch of ground, looked at with the mind of open awareness. There’s the famous story about E.O. Wilson, the entomologist, in his office at Harvard. There’s a plant in the corner. He looks at the plant and discovers a new species of ant. [both laugh] Anyone else would have thought, “Ants! Get the Raid!” But because it’s E.O. Wilson, it’s, “Ants … What have we here?” and then, “Write a paper!” You just have to open your eyes.
FOX: Do you ever reach the point of wondering, why write anymore?
HIRSHFIELD: In one way, finishing every poem feels that way, for me. It’s done, and my life’s work is over. At that moment I never know whether I’m going to write another. And I’ve had in my writing life many periods of extended silence, during which months might go by between poems. Some day those months might extend into years. So far that hasn’t happened. And so far the silences, I think, have all been deeply necessary for my psyche and my unfolding. One gift these periods of sequestration seem to give is that when I begin to write again, the poems have usually changed. They know something new, because I haven’t been reinforcing old patterns, old subjects.
FOX: So what you’re saying is that you can’t successfully force yourself to write?
HIRSHFIELD: That’s right. I can’t. I sometimes feel like I’m the last poet in America who’s not writing a poem every day. [laughs] It seems that everybody else has taken up William Stafford’s practice of writing a poem every day before breakfast. But, as I say when this question comes up in public, I’m the poet with the bad work ethic. There are times when I do write every day, but there are many more times when I don’t. I write so terribly badly when I have nothing to say that, as Emily Dickinson used to say, “It would embarrass my dog.” [both laugh] And my dog’s been dead eight years [Fox laughs] and she’d still be embarrassed. And that then depresses me, and I really do feel, “Why write anymore?” I don’t want my relationship to poetry to be dutiful. Poetry is not obligatory, it’s not work. It’s an inner request far subtler and deeper than that.
FOX: Well it seems to me that you’ve become very comfortable with yourself. And perhaps that’s one reason you’re comfortable with an audience, whereas perhaps you wouldn’t have been years ago.
HIRSHFIELD: I think that’s a very astute insight. One of the lists in Buddhism—Buddhism is full of lists—is the Five Great Fears: fear of death, fear of madness, fear of pain, fear of loss of livelihood, and fear of public speaking. [both laugh] It’s pretty universal that human beings are nervous about standing up and talking in front of others. Forgive me if this is reductionist evolutionary psychology, but the antelope who stands out from the herd is the one who is eaten by lions.
FOX: Mhmm, yes.
HIRSHFIELD: And so there is a real and genuine protectiveness of self in not being seen. The paradox though is that the cost of that self-protection is a diminished life.
FOX: Ah, absolutely. That’s a good place to stop.
—from Rattle #26, Winter 2006