The following is an interview with Jane Hirshfield conducted by Poets.org staff in August 2011. Hirshfield is the judge of the 2012 Walt Whitman Poetry Award from the Academy of American Poets.
Poets.org: What are some of your favorite first books of poetry?
Jane Hirshfield: Elizabeth Bishop's North and South comes first to mind. It's 70 years old but still seems absolutely current. Wallace Stevens's Harmonium is on almost everyone's list—always followed by the statement that it took years to sell out its first printing of 500 copies. North of Boston, Lord Weary's Castle. Is it even fair to mention Whitman's 1855 Leaves of Grass, which, recognized as a first book, completely sweeps the field? From the generation I think of as elders, Gwendolyn Brooks's A Street in Bronzeville, Galway Kinnell's The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World, Richard Wilbur's The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems, Robert Bly's Silence in the Snowy Fields, Jack Gilbert's Views of Jeopardy (though I read this reprinted as part of his second book, Monolithos, so perhaps shouldn't count it). Plath's Colossus, Snyder's Riprap, Ginsberg's Howl. Of books published the past few years, I hesitate to say—any choice is wildly provisional and arbitrary—so I'll name just one which has stood out for me as both terrific and distinctive: Christina Davis's Forth A Raven.
Poets.org: Your first book of poems, Alaya, was published in 1982. What was writing those poems like, and how do you see that book fitting in with the rest of your work?
Hirshfield: Alaya was an apprentice volume, I have to say. Its earliest poems were written when I was still in college, and my life changed rather radically over the years that book holds. I worked on a farm in New Jersey, crossed the country living in a van with tie-dyed curtains, stopped writing completely for three years of monastic training in Zen, began to write again when I lived for a time in the woods above Lolo, Montana, then in Fresno (where I drove an 18-wheel double-trailered lumber truck, and received some invaluable encouragement from the late poet Roberta Spear). When I returned to Zen practice full time again, it was in a slightly less strict context, and I was allowed to write. All through those years, except the monastic ones, writing was simply what I did, in some preserved corner of my time and life. Then in 1979-81, I took an adult ed poetry workshop at UC Berkeley—the last poems to go in the book came from that time. But mostly the poems were written in the pit-bull innocence of my original, childhood relationship to poetry. I did work on my poems—and read poetry and talked about it with friends—but mostly the poems in Alaya were written far outside any consciousness that they might ever be read by anyone else.
I now see those early poems as both the product of someone who was very young, and as wearing too visibly the clothes of the '70s. I'm tremendously grateful for that first book's publication, but I'm not sure what Ted and Renee Weiss saw, or why they had faith in my future when they took my collection for their extraordinary Quarterly Review of Literature Poetry Series. The best thing about my own volume was its companions. The QRL Series was a multiple-books-under-one-cover series, and of the five of us in Volume IV, one was the first U.S. appearance of Wislawa Szymborska's poems, another the first of Lars Gustafsson's.
Poets.org: What changed after your first book was published?
Hirshfield: A road felt opened. I started sending more poems to magazines, and began teaching in the California Poets in the Schools program. I was invited to teach at a writers conference. That made a big difference, I think. I don't have an MFA, and have never been a full time academic. My entrance to a larger conversation with other writers came mostly from teaching at those early summer conferences.
Poets.org: Do you have a writing ritual, and if so, can you tell us a bit about it?
Hirshfield: I think I'm allergic to fixed ritual, when it comes to poetry—writing, for me, both needs and constellates big doses of freedom. I do have one habit: somewhere along the way, I developed a liking for writing on the back of torn-in-half sheets of already-used paper. There's always a little stack by the bed. Even before that, it was always loose paper, not notebooks. My one requirement for writing has always been solitude, and I think it is somehow connected to a sense of privacy from childhood. I've always wanted the freedom to throw things away. A notebook feels to me like a little society, not a scattering of hermits. For me, it's too self-aware of its own formal purpose, like a graveyard: a good place for the finished, not for conception. This feeling about notebooks is also somehow a metonym for my whole relationship to the act of writing. Creativity comes from some mixture of known and unknown, intensity, surprise, and disorder. The disorderliness makes the intensity permeable to the surprise.
Every requirement other than solitude has shifted over the years. I usually work early now, often before daylight, but into my twenties, it was always late at night, after everyone else was asleep. I've hand-written, typed, worked on computer, gone back to writing by hand. I've heard the poems as internally spoken from the beginning, but I don't say them aloud until I first give them at a reading. I've always stopped and started, with long spells sometimes between poems. And almost always, no one but me sees a poem until it's in print or I give it at a reading. I'm not recommending any of this as a practice to follow for others; it's just my way. We live in gregarious times, but the kinds of attention my poems ask of me aren't made by talking. I can talk with friends about the prose essays I write—ideas, for me, sharpen and widen by their description, challenge, discussion. Poems demand an enormous surround of silence.
Poets.org: How do you know when you have a book of poems, as opposed to just poems?
Hirshfield: Might I say first that "just poems" is for me the true unit of poetry? In judging book publication contests, the most painful thing I've experienced was one book that was wildly uneven. The best poems in it were by far the best of anything among the submissions, yet there were other poems in the manuscript that I just couldn't see shepherding into print. I hoped it was the work of a young writer, and that the better poems were the direction of evolution, but I couldn't know. This story does in one way begin to answer the question. You have a book when first, and perhaps last, there are enough poems that are good. And then the writer needs to find or create an arc that makes sense, an order that steps from poem to poem in ways that augment rather than quarrel or diminish. That lets you find the "book" in the poems, and see what belongs, what may not. There's also a certain tare weight in the psyche that weighs "book," rather than chapbook. It's not simply a matter of length. When I first finished and put into an order what became my third book, The October Palace, it had more than enough pages, but when I read it over I felt it not quite of heft. If you threw it, it would wobble. "Six more poems," I thought to myself. I wrote six more poems, put them in. I read the book over. "Six more poems," I still felt. I wrote them. Then it was done. It's a long book. From the distance of almost twenty years, are there some that might be cut? Probably yes. But not those last that went in.
Poets.org: What is your advice to younger poets?
Hirshfield: Want more. Ask more. Look, hear, read. Discriminate, but don't be too quick to judge. Keep the window some inches more open than is comfortable.