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Jane Hirshfield HD photo (c) Curt Richter

(c) Curt Richter

Welcome to Ask a Poet, where each week we will present (in no particular order) a Q&A with a poet who will be coming to the Dodge Poetry Festival this October 20-23. Through these blogs, you’ll be able to get to know these poets a bit better in preparation for #DPF16! 

Now, let’s get to know Jane Hirshfield.


What are you reading?
Just now, two very different posthumously published books by poets we lost this year: C.D. Wright’s Shallcross and Jim Harrison’s Dead Man’s Float. I’ve recently finished Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda Poems, translated by Forrest Gander, and also rereading several translated collections by another great poet who died this year, the Swedish poet Lars Gustafsson.

When did you first discover poetry?  What poets made you want to write poetry?
When I was eight years old, I bought my first self-chosen book– a Peter Pauper Press edition of Japanese haiku, found on a wire rotating rack at the front of a stationary store on First Avenue in New York City. I can no longer guess what experience I, a child of sidewalks and brick, took from those poems, their speech made of blossoms and frogs and trees. But those poems were a life-door I slipped through and never looked back.

What is something you have recently discovered about poetry?
Even the already-known becomes in newly-read words a new discovery. Partly that’s because poems hold things you can’t quite remember—things that slip through the mind and heart as soon as you aren’t fully present inside them. I suppose it’s like any other kind of sustenance. You can’t actually remember a sandwich or a bowl of ice cream. They can only be known on the tongue. Yet you take them in, and they become you; you say them to others, and they become in that moment the listener’s own heart and mind, knowledge and life. That’s what the Dodge Festival does: it gives its attendees word-world after word-world after word-world to live in, and recognize as their own lived-in life.

With all the other demands and distractions in life, how do you make time for poetry?
Ours is an age that tramples silence, privacy, interiority. Some reasons for these outward pressures are incontrovertible and noble. The need to address the threat to the living planet’s biological continuance. The need to refind and create in larger ways any sense of mutuality and shared fate. These are crises that cannot be solved except in the realms of communal conversation, communal action.  They are pressing, unignorable, exigent. Other forces that distract from and consume our inwardness are less noble. Exhaustion. The harshness of current economic life for so many. The seemingly-endless shouting meant to drown thoughtfulness and the seemingly-endless, frivolous, deliberately addictive seductions of shallow entertainment.

Seriousness is scoffed at, compassion defined as weakness, the vulnerability of an open heart called foolish. How do we make time for poetry, amid such demands? For me, the question is more, “How can anyone not?” When shouting exhausts itself, poetry is language that stays on, listens, renews. Poetry is a way we can notice that the blunt can sometimes be changed only by the subtle—the small collaborations of water and gravity that carve out of rock walls a canyon of vertiginous depth. Poetry is antidote to the loneliness of generic groupings; it is the way we become able to see and feel our shared humanness, our shared existence with all other existence, without losing the particularity and scent of the single, unrepeatable, individual life.

Time in any case isn’t “made,” it is always here. What we do with it isn’t always ours to choose.  But when it is, a starving person will not turn away from wanting food. Poems are the pemmican of the soul: a sustenance intensified, portable, lasting. It takes only a few quick seconds to take in a poem. Yet in those few moments a whole day can be altered, and everything in it we might go on to do and say can be altered as well.

Tell us about your favorite experience reading for an audience.
I haven’t a single most-favorite experience, there are so many—among them, reading one year to 3,000 people in the old Dodge Festival’s huge white tent, while beyond that lofting fabric it rained so relentlessly the whole weekend felt more an aquarium than terrestrial life.

Still, here is a more recent one. This May, I was in Svalbard, in the world’s northernmost inhabited town, where the world’s agricultural DNA is stored in a Global Seed Vault. That arctic island is felt to be the safest storage place on earth—difficult to reach and out of war zones, in a place beyond any reason for war, in the permafrost of a high mountain glacier, above two hundred years of the worst imaginable sea level rise.

I was there for a meeting of people from many countries on behalf of the environment—economists, historians, political leaders, a group founding an eco-village in China. Our closing session was held outside the entrance to the Seed Vault, a striking architectural doorway that can be seen here:  

Before the final remarks, the group was given some time to simply take in this place for a while, knowing what lay unseen within the snow-covered hill. I slipped off to the side by myself, and read the Seed Vault itself three poems—one by the Korean poet Ko Un, “Snow”; one by the Norwegian poet Rolf Jacobsen, “Letter to Earth”; and one of my own. How could such an act make any difference? It cannot.  I had earlier in the meeting read poems to the gathered group, knowing that also could not be weighed for any practical effect. Yet I wanted to bring this ephemeral offering to this site made against disaster, to the 24-hour unremitting brightness of the summer arctic, to the snow and rock, and to what they sheltered in year-round, unseen seclusion. Poems are also the stored DNA of existence, a way that life’s accumulated knowledge can be saved past its own duration, to nourish others. It was an offering of one kind of seed to another.

Jane Hirshfield is the author of eight books of poetry, including The Beauty (Knopf, 2015), long-listed for the National Book Award; Come, Thief (Knopf, 2011); After (HarperCollins, 2006); and Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins, 2001), finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the editor and co-translator of four books presenting the work of world poets from the deep past, and author of two essay collections, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Knopf, 2015) and Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (HarperCollins, 1997). Her many honors include the California Book Award, the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Academy of American Poets. Her work appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Orion, Paris Review, Poetry, and eight editions of The Best American Poetry. A current chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she was the 2016 Mohr Visiting Poet at Stanford University.


Stay updated on the 2016 Dodge Poetry Festival as information becomes available!


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