Join Melissa Studdard for an insightful conversation with prize-winning poet, translator, and essayist, Jane Hirshfield. We’ll be focusing on Hirshfield’s most recent collection, Come, Thief and discussing other works as well.
Hirshfield is the author of seven collections of poetry and a book of essays, and co-editor and co-translator of four books. Her work, which is frequently anthologized in places such as The Best Spiritual Writing, The Best American Poetry, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology, deals with subjects that range "from the metaphysical and passionate to the political, ecological, and scientific to subtle unfoldings of daily life and experience.” Her honors include The Poetry Center Book Award; the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry; 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’s California Book Award and the Northern California Book Reviewers Award. In fall 2004, she was awarded the 70th Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by The Academy of American Poets, an honor formerly held by such poets as Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop. In 2012, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy.
The Christian Science Monitor calls Hirshfield’s poems, “An evocative mix of control and wildness, stunning beauty and unseen forces.”
Tiferet Journal has recently published a compilation of twelve of our best transcribed interviews. To purchase The Tiferet Talk Interviews book, please click here.
Hello and welcome to the Tiferet Talk. I am Mellisa Studdard and this is the Blog Talk Radio Show for TIFERET: A Journal of Spiritual Literature, where we publish writings and engaged in dialogues to promote peace in the individuals and in the world. We are thrilled that you are with us right now and we would love for you to also join our global online community. You can find it at www.tiferetjournal.com and there in addition to interacting with other members reading their writings and hosting their own, you can subscribe to the journal which in each issue presents beautiful spiritually and intellectually compelling poetry, prose and arts. This evening our guest is the wonderful prizewinning poet translator and essayist, Jane Hirshfield. Hirshfield is the author of seven collections of poetry and the book of essays, and co-editor and co-translator of four books. Her work has been frequently anthologized in places such as The Best Spiritual Writing, The Best American Poetry and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. Hirshfield has been a recipient of numerous honors and awards and fellowship for her writing and translations.
In Fall 2004, she was awarded the 70th Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by The Academy of American Poets, an honor formerly held by such poets as Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Elizabeth Bishop. In 2012, Hirshfield was elected a Chancellor of the Academy. The Christian Science Monitor calls Hirshfield's poems, "An evocative mix of control and wildness, stunning beauty and unseen forces." The Washington Post says they brilliantly portray even mundane experiences as if they were nothing short of revelation. Hello Jane, can you hear me?
Yes, I can. I am awfully pleased to be here talking with you.
Oh, I am so happy to have you here tonight. I would love to start by having you tell us about the title of your new collection, Come, Thief. Who is exactly is that thief? And, why are you engaging in this unusual request of inviting the thief in.
Jane Hirshfield (02:55): This thief is, could be many things. One of the wonderful things about metaphor is that you do not pin it down to one possible choice amongst many but I do have to admit that the title poem and the book as a whole are fairly time-haunted and so if I had to say who is first among the many possibilities of the thief, I would have to say time itself. Transient the fact that time brings us everything in our lives and then it promptly takes everything away from us. There is also a story, an old Chinese story that whose image sits behind this idea which is there is a hermit living in the mountains. He has almost nothing in his little hut. He goes out to gather a few edible weeds for dinner. He comes home, he discovers he has been robbed and the only thing that has not been taken is a very heavy cast iron cooking pot which he promptly picks up and runs down the dark road shouting wait, wait you forgot this.
Wow that fabulous. Oh my God, I love that. Well, I love the huge cosmic scope with which, you would got the beams of transient sometime in the collection and you really do it in this strange and beautiful way that offer a source of comfort and even joy I feel in accepting impermanence and the inevitability of death and I wanted to see if you could read us a couple of poems that deals with the subject matter and maybe talk about them a little bit. I was thinking of The Promise and Perishable, It Said.
Wonderful! Start with, I think the most direct one on this, on what you have just been saying as Perishable, It Said. So, I will begin with that and may I will just say first this poem, arrive as a kind of epiphany whilst sitting on my window seat. So everything, I described kind of happened. I mean not everything, of course, but I really was sitting there in my window seat eating some cottage cheese and I saw the perishable, you know, eat by date on cottage cheese container and had the experience which is this poem describes, so here it is, "Perishable, it said. Perishable it said on the plastic container and below in different ink the date to use by, the last teaspoon consumed. I found myself looking, now at the back of each hand., now, inside the knees, now turning over each foot to look at the sole, hen at the leaves of the young tomato plants, then at the arguing jays, under the wooden table and lifted stones looking coffee cups, olives, cheeses, hunger, sorrow, fears. These too would certainly vanish without knowing when. How suddenly then the strange happiness took me like a man with strong hands and strong mouth inside that hour with its perishable perfumes and clashings."
Melissa Studdard (06:28): So you know usually when you realized you are going to die, it is not such joyful moment but (laughter) but for...
It actually, there was this quite odd, sudden realization, "Oh! Everything is going to vanish. Me too." And you know part of the great mystery of the human life is we are so far as we are able to know perhaps the only creature who is so continually aware of our own mortality and yet we have to live absolutely full engaged saturated lives knowing about time, understanding that, you know, whether tomorrow or a thousand years or ten thousand years or a hundred thousand years from now, almost every trace of what we have brought into the universe will be quite gone or at least indistinguishable and certainly not identified as being us. And somehow that was quite a curing thought for me.
On wild thing.
I just love that poem and I love that aspect of it which is present really through the whole collection. I mean this particular poem exemplifies it. I maybe the best but it is present through the whole thing and that moment of looking at the backs of the hands and the inside the knees and the soles of the feet. It is such a great moment in the poem. It is for everything that is implied and it kind of takes for me, it takes me from a feeling of childhood wonder to this inevitable ageing and death all in the same moment and you know I think that that is where the joy comes in partially (crosstalk) it's magical.
Yeah, and you know one of thing is, I sort of hope that, the joy is kind of hard won. I think the fact is that just like anybody else, I am not actually still looking forward to dying. But, I do think that a lot of the role that poems play in our lives or certainly that they play in my life is, you know, how do we face the ineffaceable? How do we navigate the unnavigable? How do we find some way to feel and think when we are looking at the unthinkable and the unfeelable. And, you know, you can either run into granite wall and be stopped or you find some path and for me poem like this is a, I think it was Robert Frost who said that poetry is a temporary state against confusion. And every poem is provisional. Every poem is temporary and yet for the moment that the poem is doing its work in you, you were able to say yes completely to the full spectrum of faith including the hardest, the worst, the most frightening. And, you know, I tend to, when I talk about the poems in public, especially, where the poem feels perhaps they tilt at least a fraction towards the joy and the chirpiness or the radiance or the acceptance but I do not want anybody to think I walk around the world in a continual state of blissful acceptance.
Right (laughter) (crosstalk).
Because that, you would not need poems if you did that.
Right, and that is very clear actually in the poems. It is that both of those elements are present. What you are embracing really is sometimes uncomfortable for you. There is discomfort there. Even though there is joy. Even though there is that comfort, there is a different kind of discomfort happening at the same time. The comfort is offered by the acceptance and the joy but there is a like a more primal discomfort underneath it. It is still there. Right?
Right so we can escape very faster when we are in abyss but that does not mean the abyss does not exist (laughter). So I hope you understand my poems.
Oh thank you.
Should I read the other one? Should I read The Promise?
I will love to hear it. Yes.
The Promise, "Stay I said to the cut flowers. They bowed their heads lower. Stay I said to the spider who flipped. Stay leaf, it reddened, embarrassed for me and itself. Stay, I said to my body, it sap as the dog does obedient for a moment. Soon starting to tremble. Stay, to the earth of river and valley meadows, of fossil, of escarpment of limestone. It look back with a changing expression in silence. Stay, I said to my love each answered always."
That is beautiful. I love it that the leaf is wiser than the speaker of the poem.
Yes exactly (laughter).
Everything that's wiser than the speaker. (Laughter)(crosstalk) chase the other people. Perhaps learns her lesson. Well, I love that. Well I wanted to ask you also, one of the things that we are interested and fear it is how spirituality and art can inform each other and serve similar roles for the individual and for humanity and I wanted to see if you could talk a bit about what your experience of that has been in your own work.
Yes, well, I, much of my adult life has been a process of trying to uncage and undomesticated body, speech and mind that is what they call in Buddhism. From what we are, the boxes were thought to put ourselves in and I think spirituality at its best and art at its best, they both unlatched from ordinary possibilities into extraordinary possibilities. They take us out of conventional response and allow us to be much more comfortable with largeness, with mystery with all in the literal classical sense of that which is something not only beautiful but also terrifying. I also think of both spiritual practice and art summonings into a more concentrated and deeper presence than the lot of our hurried contemporary lives tend to be lived.
We are continually these days multitasking or in a rush or aware of the email we have not answered or people who have cell phones which I do not, you know, something has just come in on the cell phone and I think it is absolutely necessary for our deeper happiness wisdom, sanity, ability to raise children, ability to bring peace to ourselves first and to anybody else after that? That the very first thing is simply to be able to be deeply in this moment as it is and for me both art and practice have done that.
Wonderful thank you. I would love to hear another poem and it actually this is my favorite one in the collection and it really brings out the quality to me has become more prevalent in your latest book which is kind of a compassionate and comic awareness about the human condition and so it is the one about the frozen egg.
Oh I would be very glad to read that.
And again it began. You know maybe, I like imagination that so many of my poems begin in the literal but once again, you know, the event actually did happen and this was (laughter). It was the refrigerator that was running extra cold. "The egg had frozen an accident. I thought of my life. I heated the butter anyhow. The shell peeled easily. Inside it looked both translucent and boiled. I move it around in the pan. It melted, the white first appearing to transparent liquid then turning solid and bright again light good laundry. The yolk kept its yolk shape, not fried, not scrambled. In the end it was cooked. With pepper and salt, I ate it. My life that resembled it ate it. It tasted like any other wrecked eggs and tender a banquet.
Wow, I love that poem. Every time I read it or hear it. I just love it more.
This is wonderful you know one thing you never know what other people's favorite amongst your works are. Most of the time people do not tell you. And it just delights me that this is your favorite poem in the book because I would not have known it would be anybodies favorite poem in the book.
I know it is funny as a (laughter) because it is so whimsical.
Yah, yah. And you know it really is a very literal description, you know, who knows what happened and you know it was not great. It was not terrible but I think you know the whole thing turns on the fact it was wrecked, it was weird and it was a banquet. It really was. This is what it feels like. You know. We, every moment if you could see it that way you know the most disastrous moment, you are alive. You are there for it. You are in this world. You are a human being. You are getting to feel whatever you feel. It is a banquet.
Wow that is so beautiful and I love, I mean I love the whole poem. I love the fact that you ate the egg, quite a lot of people would have never done. But it is that curiosity. It is the same kind of wonder and curiosity that I feel drove you to look at the backs of your knees and the tops of your hands but the thing about it, being a wrecked thing and a banquet and eggish and tender. I just want take those last two lines and post some up on my mirror and on my rearview mirror, my car because there is so much about what life is. You know, me. Suddenly I have seeing it up it's somebody's epitaph.
Hey, maybe it will be mine.
Well I wanted to ask you, you have seven collections of poetry and what things have you noticed about your own poetic evolution through the publication of seven collections and what to do you think about you know who you have been as a poet and where you would like to go next.
I think my first book is fortunately the only one which is out of print and impossible to find and I think that is a fine faith for my first book. So I really began to be myself in my second book which Of Gravity and Angels that came out in 1988 from Wesleyan and there are a couple of poems in there especially one of them, the poem For What Binds Us. I still will open readings with that poem. It has stayed with me as the day that I wrote it. But I probably have changed in every book. I feel as though I have changed and evolved. You know, there are certain poets who they do something and they are always recognizably themselves and I am thinking many ways, some of the greatest poets, this is true. You would never mistaken Emily Dickinson poem for anything except an Emily Dickinson poem. My friend K. Ryan has sounded like herself from the beginning, unmistakably herself and sometimes I think gosh you know maybe that kind of consistent voice would be a sign of some kind of excellence which I will never approach but then there were other poets of which I am that kind where it just keeps changing, it shifting and part of this is a restlessness in me to find new ways of being.
Please do not take any of this, as I have that every poem is new. Dickinson, every poem was new. I am not saying this is some either/or reflection but just there has been a restlessness in me which has always looked for a new way of writing a new voice, push the perimeters find a different style, find a different technique. So various things over the years have come up.
There has been a standing invitation ever since that second book came out and I had a chance to kind of look back on it and see what it was. Something in me spoke, "you know Jane, these are good lyrical poems but maybe you should get a little weirder. Maybe you should get a little stranger and ever since that there has been something in me which has just sort of been asking the news make me utter, without making me incomprehensible, you know, but just keep finding an edge and step a half inch over it. Open a window a couple of inches wider then it is more compatible and see what's there, so in the fourth book Lies of the Heart, there is a series of five poems and they were work in addiction that I never used before and never used since but I really loved doing it and I fell in something and for what they were doing, there was no other way to find it except to use language and grammar in a way distinctive from any way I ever had before. In the more recent books there has been series of very short poems which are actually freeze ending individual poems but out of respect for the trees, I have turned them into series who I called them 15 pebbles in one book and 17 pebbles in the next book just so that where I was not asking each paper to hold only three or four lines.
And that has been marvelous exploration for me of how can you say something very brief, oblique, and evocative? How much can you hold and how little? And this is something that Japanese poetry does in Haiku and in Tanka but I'm not trying to write Haiku or Tanka in these poems. I am trying to write some new western hybrid that I'm finding for myself out of a deep familiarity and a deep love of the very short poem forms that have existed all over the world. The history of aphorism in the west or Sappho's fragments and Haiku and Tanka the four-line Chinese poem. There is something in me that loves eternity in a grain of sand. How much can you fit in to how little seems to me one of the great joys of working with poetry and so I've worked in that form in recent years. This future I don't know because I never have any intention. I discover where my poems are going by writing them. I know I am kind of interested in the last few years some quality of the Cyril has caught my poetic radar. Some kind of statements that are not logically possible and yet still hold meaning and I don't have any of those poems within reach to read you one but you know one of them that I can think of begins with once I was seven Spanish bulls on a hillside something like that exactly.
But you know that is a completely odd thing to say, once I was seven Spanish bulls sleeping on a hillside and yes, something in me wakes up at that, you know. I've reading some of the South American poets with great joy again and I loved what they were doing and it made me I think go. There are things you can say this way that cannot be said any other way and I think that's the goal of a good poem. It is always trying to say something that could not be paraphrased and yet once it is in the poem, it can be returned to.
I was kind of giggling when you were answering that question and talking about the Cyril because I had actually written in the margin of the collection as I was reading, is it my imagination or she get a little more Cyril. (laughter)
I spoke again, thank you for being such a good reader.
Ahh, you're welcome!
Thank you for saying and I'll tell you which poem it was. It was the Oil and Vinegar poem, it's just jumped to the image of the donkey at the end.
Oh yes! Yes it does.
Would you like me to read that one?
Oh I would love that, yes thank you.
Okay so that people know what we're talking about.
Vinegar and Oil. Wrong solitude vinegars the soul, right solitude oils it. How fragile we are, between the few good moments. Coming and going unfinished, puzzled by fate. Like the half-carved relief of a fallen donkey, above a church door in Finland (laughter).
Oh! That's wonderful and I noticed that in several poems too that it took Cyril term and what a wonderful, wonderful comments about solitude to you. I noticed that in so many of your works in Nine Gates. You made that wonderful statement about you said part of any good artist work is to find the right balance between independence, born of a willing solitude and the ability to speak for and to others and I loved that and I see that's also in your poems and the balance of the subject matter because they are the poems that we've been talking about that are disquiet observations in quirky individual perceptions and then they are the ones that are more about social and political issues like the inventive visible hallows, right? So and it is about a dictator right, who tortured people and then died without being exactly so.
That poem was triggered by the death of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet who died in his bed perfectly comfortable but I think behind it was also there is a thread of commentary on torture that runs through several of the poems in this book and I think it was my extraordinary just acute painful impotence at the Abu Ghraib revelations that you know, torture was being done by my country in my name and I've just found that absolutely unbearable and it was something that comes in to various poems in this book in different ways and it is not like there's ever poem that says this is about Abu Ghraib.
You know this particular poem was, you know as I say it's first cause one could say was Pinochet but it's a differ cause was Abu Ghraib or perhaps one shouldn't make list, you know the fact that human beings do this to other human beings anywhere ever is so unbearable that once it's in your attention it never leaves.
Well that's right and the images are so compelling (laughter), just very compelling. It kind of you could enhance to know specifically what is being talked about but you don't have to know, I mean it comes across you know what the images that I'm taking now is I don't have the book right in front of me but (crosstalk)
I can read the poem if you want.
That would be great! That would be great! The one about the skin.
Yes. The Inventive, Visible, Hobbles. The cigarette, the battery, the board. What is done is done through the body. What can be stopped is stopped with the body. Yet an innocent elbow and fist, ankle and foot touched the innocent shoulders and spine, anus and breasts of others. An innocent tongue looking innocent error as it speaks. Gives orders to hands that could be slipping the skin from a peach. Loud beyond hearing, a hell where physical flames might interrogate an apprehendable spirit. It is thighbone and cheekbone. But no, the crime goes free. It dies with the dictator set on a downy pillow.
It is very bitter. And you know it's like where is the agency. It's no in the hand? The hand could be doing anything and yet I don't actually believe in you know spirits after death going to some hell where they'll be punished. And somewhere in between those two ideas, concepts, whatever one would call it, images there is some reality and I do not know what to make of it. I don't know what to make of it and so the poem is a question. You know is it the body? Is there something outside the body? Where is the agency? And underneath that is the pain of this has happened and somebody died on their pillow even though they caused it to happen over and over and over again.
Yes! That's really, really compelling and it's hard to look at these things you know so it's you know kudos to you for writing about it because it really is. I think a lot of people would like to turn away and not think about it (laughter), you know and it's hard to just really look at it in the way that you had to in order to be able to write about it like that and that kind of feeling.
Thank you. It is also hard because I don't actually believe in punishment, you know the things would not be undone if Pinochet had been executed for them.
Right! That's right.
You know, the poem isn't a poem looking for punishment or revenge. It is a poem looking at rather than for anything, I guess.
Oh, I was just gonna say that you know nobody ever thinks of me as a poet if they were put in together an anthology of political poets or poets of witness in America. I don't think anyone would think of me but throughout my books if you look, there has been poems, looking at this kinds of things. There is a poem about Rwandan genocide when it was going on written again, you know a newspaper account and I couldn't think about it. There is a poem about the Velvet Revolution in the Eastern Europe. There was a poem after Indira Ghandi died. There is a poem about one of the so many wars between the Middle Eastern countries. There is a poem about a little tiny thing that no one remembers anymore, the Invasion of Granada. Nobody ever thinks about this but somehow you know and again most of them are labeled. They don't say, you know this is 1984 this is what's behind us but I am very aware of you know the Indonesian Tsunami lying behind one poem and the Scott's Missiles lying behind another.
Right! Go ahead please.
Well you know I think for me with your work what I noticed is that whether it is a poem or of a personal observation or it's a more social poem, all of you poems kind of lead to the same place which is a richer understanding of what it means to be human and so I don't want to categorize you in a way as spiritual or political or anything like that. It's just you know it leads me to understanding humanity better, does it make sense?
It not only makes sense it's what I would most want. Thank you.
Oh! How wonderful! Thank you. I was thinking as you were talking about the poem that in Nine Days, I actually quoted this today in social media, you said the word of a poem are not in ends but it means into an exploration without limit and I wanted to see if you could talk about that a little bit because I think it kind of speaks what we were talking about with the poem being more of a question?
Yes! Yes! I think we feel if a poem or a person or a statement is a hat and thinks and knows every possible answer and ties things up in a little bow, there is a falsity to that and a stapling of richness and a stapling of understanding. Whereas if a poem holds perhaps a hypothesis, perhaps a lot of you know, very clear statements, but also still some questions, some mystery, some acknowledgement of uncertainty an answerability, then we feel like we're in the terrain of the actual ground that we both stand on and cannot ever stand on. The world is very multiple and our hearts have more than one feeling in them at once and I think what I want of art is something that clarifies without simplifying. So that you feel clearer even though you don't have an answer.
Wow! I have never heard before (laughter). Clarify without simplifying. Yeah.
And I think about that a great deal. There will be, I don't when yet, it has been accepted but there's no pub date and there's no title. There will be another book of essays about poetry and one of the essays is actually titled, Poetry and Uncertainty and another one is about Poetry and Paradox and another one is about you know Poetry and How it Transforms Us and every single time, you know I come to the more I think why do we need poems? I think we need poems because they are magnets for looking at the world in more than one way at the same time. They don't domesticate us. They allow us (crosstalk).
I loved that. Thank you.
We are about to run out of time. I can't believe it. I feel like we've only been talking for five minutes (laughter) and I don't even have a clock so I don't know. Most of time was together so I loved it (laughter), (crosstalk). Well, before we hang up, do you have, I know you've got the publication of essays coming up which a lot of people I'm sure anxiously awaiting now. Are there any other publications or events or anything coming up that you would like to announce or a website that you'd like to send people to find out more about your work?
Yes. So the best website would be and this is an odd place to send people but it is barclayagency.com/hirshfield and they have an appearance of length that has all of my upcoming appearances and of course they are keeping at it all of the time. There is also for those who are on Facebook. Somebody has an author's page for me on Facebook which is very good. It is not me. I am not actually on Facebook but I let her know when I'm going to do things and she posts things. Usually not terribly for in advance unless it's something like a writers' conference workshop that people would need to sign for early but she does an absolutely beautiful job with that and you know anybody who wants to keep with me. That's probably the simplest way to do it. Some friends of mine actually just bought at janehirshfield.com back from the person who kidnapped us but it all does (laughter) is to tell people to go to the other places (laughter) so it is really sweet of them. Somebody went to Wikipedia and anybody who did know already have their own name they took it and they held them for ransom basically and (crosstalk) and then we'd allow to ransom for probably 10 years before my friends decided to buy it back for me (laughter).
Oh my gosh! Those are good friends.
It was the writers' community on the well which is the earliest online community that existed and they're still going (laughter). We've known each other for a long time. And you know future events, I'll be doing, I'll be giving readings and lectures in the Napa Valley end of July beginning of August. I'll be doing events in New York City on October. I doubted too many of your readers are going to come to hear me in South Korea in October at Sian National Park but I will also be in both of those places (laughter) and you know I basically just, I feel like a pollinating bee. I go many places and I read poems or give lectures and I feel very lucky to be able to do that.
Such a lovely way of looking at it. It has been such an incredible pleasure speaking with you and it was a real treat to get to hear so many poems too so thank you so much.
Well, thank you Melissa. You're fabulous and I so enjoyed the conversation and the chance to be with community as well.
Thank you, you're fabulous, fabulous too. I just loved your work and it was such a delight and I hope you have a wonderful evening and I hope to talk to you again soon or interview you with another book in the future.
Yes, we will stay in touch, I hope. Thank you so much.
Okay, you too. Good night.
Bye. And before we close, I'd like to let our listeners now that you can subscribe to Tiferet if you're purchasing issues of Tiferet Journal at our website. While you're there be sure to check out the Tiferet Talk Book. It is a collection of interviews from the first year of Tiferet Talk Radio and also have a look at the special edition from Hay House publishers to join author Gabrielle Bernstein, Kris Carr, Nancy LeVan and Riv Tracey for a writers' workshop in New York City June 22nd to 23rd. Our next interview will be July 29th at 7 p.m. eastern standard time with Tiferet Doug Anderson. We hope you'll join us then and in the meantime we wish you peace, love, happiness and fulfilling work. Until then.
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