In Conversation with Melissa Studdard
Described by The New York Times as “radiant and passionate” and by other reviewers as “ethically aware,” “insightful and eloquent,” and as conveying “succinct wisdom,” Jane Hirshfield is the author of eight collections of poetry and two books of essays, as well as the editor and co-translator of four books containing the work of poets from the past. Among Hirshfield’s many honors are The Poetry Center Book Award, fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry, and the 70th Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by The Academy of American Poets. The following conversation took place in celebration of two new books: a collection of poetry titled The Beauty, and a book of essays titled Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, both just released.
MS: In Come, Thief I noticed a comic awareness about the human condition, and in The Beauty that same awareness steps forward to subtly, gently, and compassionately dislodge the arrogant assumption that we humans are of central importance in the universe. In “My Proteins,” for instance, you talk about how the cells of the human body are 90% bacteria and only 10% human, and in “In A Room With Many Windows,” a creature stands on top of a human, who is reduced to mere nothingness, to drink from a creek. What else can you tell us about the role of humor in addressing the human condition The Beauty?
JH: One of the things comedy does best is recalibrate the size of the self, and The Beauty is, among other things, a collection of stock takings. “My Life Was the Size of My Life,” one poem is titled, and “My Life as a Root-Knob” could be the hidden title of the one you describe. For me, the most astonishing thing about that experience was how much, within the sense of the eerie, I also liked it. How often do you get to experience yourself as utterly – and completely neutrally – inconsequential? And isn't the forced recognition of our lack of importance at the heart of the comic?
MS: Might you say a little more about that recognition?
JH: It's one of the saving graces in a life, to be able to perceive one's own and others' absurdity, to notice our shared human frailties and be able, at least some of the time, to smile rather than grimace. Like most people, I must have started out with a comic worldview in my cupboard... I remember myself as unremittingly sad, but childhood friends say I was funny. In my poems though, as you say, the comic arrived fairly late. This doubtless has something to do with growing older. A person who's seen a bit of the world can't help but notice how foolish is the self-centeredness we bring to our tiny slice of existence. The trick, though, is to not lose compassion, to not allow the sense of absurdity to outweigh the awareness of real beings, with real feelings. Mean-spirited humor turns the world into cardboard, the way Midas's simple-minded greed turned food into inedible and useless stuff. Good poems ask us to have complex minds and hearts. Even simple-of-surface poems want that. Perhaps those are the ones that want it most of all, since that's where they do their work: in the unspoken complexities, understood off the page.
A sense of the comic must also have come into my poems in part simply because it was missing. One request I make to myself in my life as a writer is to keep asking: “What else, what more?” In Come, Thief, a poem about a cat, “A Small Mystery,” begins, “Leave a door open long enough, a cat will enter. / Leave food, it will stay.” I suppose I began to leave open the door to the comic.
Last, there's something I noticed in looking at an Anna Swir poem while writing Ten Windows: just to say the truth outright is often the funniest thing. Recently, during a reading, I found myself looking up at the audience and suddenly muttering, “Yes, you are all going to die.” Everyone laughed.
MS: While The Beauty serves as a richly philosophical study of large themes, such as the nature of existence, time, and awareness, it also seems to be a celebration of the small and the common. There are poems about corkboards, the cards in the narrator’s wallet, the common cold, teeth, mice, and chairs in the snow. Two of my favorite lines in the collection are: “A sheep grazing is unimpressed by the mountain / but not by its flies.” Tell us more about the small and the common and why you’ve brought them to our attention in The Beauty.
JH: Isn't the small and common the field we live our life in? The large comes into a life through small-paned windows. A breath is small, but everything depends on it. A person looks at you a single, brief moment longer than is necessary, and everything is changed. The smaller the clue, the larger the meaning, it sometimes feels.
MS: Now I have to gush for a minute—these lines: “You were nothing to it. / Hummock. Earth clump. Root knob wild in the dark.” What you do with sound there is exquisite. And the imagery in The Beauty: flowers with bones, teaspoons of silence, the tongue of a bell, three large rabbit-breaths of air. Is it my imagination, or have image and sound play become more of a focus in your work?
JH: I hope so. Any artist, in any field, wants to press deeper, to discover further. Image and sound play are among the strongest colors available to poetry's palette. For a long time now, I've wanted to invite in more strangeness, more freedom of imagination. Yet music, seeing, and meaning are also cohering disciplines. They can be stretched, and that is part of poetry's helium pleasure. But not to the point of breaking.
MS: In the lovely Ten Windows, you emphasize the significance of the roles of hiddenness and uncertainty in poetry. Can you elaborate a bit here about these two qualities and why they are important?
JH: Poems' deep work is a matter of language, but also a matter of life. One part of that work is to draw into our awareness and into language itself the unobvious and the unexpected. Poems offer us counter-knowledges. They let us see what is invisible to ordinary looking, and to find in overlooked corners the opulence of our actual lives. Similarly, we usually spend our waking hours trying to be sure of things— of our decisions, our ideas, our choices. We so want to be right. But we walk by right foot and left foot. Poems give us permission to be unsure, in ways we must be if we are ever to learn anything not already known. If you look with open eyes at your actual life, it's always going to be the kind of long division problem that doesn't work out perfectly evenly. Poems let you accept the multiplicity and complexity of the actual, they let us navigate the unnavigable, insoluble parts of our individual fates and shared existence.
MS: One of the main themes running through Ten Windows is the transubstantiation of being that you call the secret happiness of poems and of poets. Will you describe some of the ways in which this unlatching occurs and explain why it fosters joy?
JH: Creativity itself is a joyous unlatching. The act of creative imagining, inventing, saying differently, crafting a metaphor or image, then crafting another metaphor or image when you go further or when you revise—all these take whatever you think “is” and make clear that other possibilities exist as well. The sense of possibility, the amplitude and freedom that sense of malleability brings—for me, that cannot help but be joyous.
MS: Now that The Beauty, and Ten Window are both out, I imagine you’ll be going on tour. Where can our readers expect to find you for signings, readings, and other events?
JH: I'll be doing many readings in the Bay Area in March, and also am going to Seattle and Portland. Later, I'll be in Los Angeles, Nashville, Galway in Ireland, Ohio, Washington D.C., New York, Hartford, Providence... An up to date schedule can usually be found here: http://barclayagency.com/speakers/appearances/hirshfield.html
I hope these travels will lead to some good conversations. I also hope to find some moments of quiet, between, that a few new poems might slip into. I don't really write books. I write poems, one at a time. Then when they speak to one another from inside a single binding and cover, they do seem also to have something further to say to one another, and to others.