Human Lives: A conversation between Jane Hirshfield and Leslie McGrath

November 4, 2011 | by | 1

Jane Hirshfield is the author of seven collections of poetry, as well as a now-classic 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; The Heart of Haiku; and Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems. Her most recent book, a collection of poems entitled Come, Thief was published by Knopf in August 2011.

Hirshfield’s many 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 three Pushcart Prizes.  Her 2001 book, Given Sugar, Given Salt, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and After was named a “Best Book of 2006” by The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and England’s Financial Times. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Times Literary Supplement, McSweeney’s, Orion, The American Poetry Review, Poetry, six editions of The Best American Poetry and many other publications. Hirshfield’s work has appeared frequently on Garrison Keillor’s public radio program The Writer’s Almanac, and she has been featured in two Bill Moyers PBS programs. In fall 2004, Jane Hirshfield 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.

Jane Hirshfield speaks with poet Leslie McGrath about what it means to be women-poets of their generation. The two met in 2004 at the Bennington Writing Seminars, when Hirshfield was McGrath’s teacher.

Leslie: Since we’re having this conversation in the context of VIDA, I’d like to begin by asking how much of the arc of our friendship comes from being female?  I also wonder about what research psychologists call a cohort effect—the fact that we both grew up during the second wave of American feminism, in which women were very much on their own in many ways. It made me quite independent as a feminist. Would you speak to this?


Jane:  It’s always hard to label the sources of affinity, affection, and friendship, since the ease of them springs unlabelled from the heart. When a new friendship slips into your life, it simply feels right— you don’t feel you are walking on eggshells or need to spell everything out, the conversation brings a collaborative, living joy… Is this particularly “feminine,” I suddenly wonder? Is male friendship built more on as happily-shared competitive stresses? In any case, I’m sure our own friendship blossomed because it has always felt so completely natural to talk with you, even, as we have mostly done from the start, by correspondence. We’ve only seen each other once since your graduation, I think. Can that be right?

Leslie: Twice, since 2004—at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival and again in Connecticut when you read at the Sunken Garden.



Jane: Ah, there’s my famously unreliable memory. It was that Sunken Garden reading I was remembering.  Anyhow, you must also be right that we shared from the start certain understandings, being liberal, feminist women of roughly the same generation.  I am, as you say, very much a second-wave feminist, more from the generation of equality-feminism than from the generation of difference-feminism. Recent research has come to convince me that a certain amount of difference is indeed real—though not in fixed quantities or rigid ways. Still, my feminism tilts pretty strongly toward non-limitation rather than categorization. My image here has always been that of a squash plant. The plant has male and female flowers, but its first identity is that it’s a squash.  I want to be a human poet first. That I am a woman poet also will simply be so. I have never felt the need to bring any addition to the circumstance that I am a woman, and will write as one—I couldn’t help it if I tried. But I don’t want to be told that I should write in some special way because of that, either. Writing for me is very much a process of dropping held certainties, and finding out what then can be seen.

I do question certain formulations of difference feminism—the idea that standard grammar or narrative is particularly male or “dominating,” for instance, or the suggestion that logical speech is somehow “male.” Why cede to men what surely was made as much by women? We each need the speech of reason and we need the speech of feeling. And when I’m asked the unanswerable question about the origins of poetry, my speculation is similarly multiple: prayer, courtship, work song, grief song, rituals of passage and of harvest, war song, lullaby, memory-keeping mnemonic. Each of these must have pulled poetry onto early human tongues. Most are experiences shared by both men and women, and if war-making’s drum cry has more often been the domain of men, that’s counterbalanced by the murmur that sends an infant to sleeping. If one had to guess which came first, lullaby’s as plausible a guess as any. And one of the interesting things about lullaby is that it isn’t only rhythmic humming: there are words, and those words often do very interesting things with the gestures of logic. “And down will come baby, cradle and all” is conveying the language of consequence—winds blow, trees are high, cradles fall—and like many of the stories we tell children, is really quite frightening. Lullaby, among other things, wraps fear inside safety—a not infrequent task of adult poems as well.

Leslie:  Yes, I’ve always had the feeling that you are completely at ease with being a woman. There’s nothing defensive about the range and intensity of your involvement with the world, be it a poem in the form of a scientific assay or one about cooking breakfast or your making available three books containing the work of early women writers.  The theme of the richness of our shared humanity, despite geography, history, and all else, runs throughout your poems. Always has. What I find both thrilling and reassuring about your new collection, Come, Thief, is that this theme and many of your prevailing images (the horse, the bell, the sleeve) are very much present. There are new images and ideas as well, of course. I’m startled by phrases and titles like “If Truth is the Lure, Humans are Fishes.” Oh yes, yes they are. Why have I not thought this before? Still, reading this collection is sometimes like attending a family reunion: the beloved are there, the mysterious, the feared. Many have changed with time, others not as much, but the journey of the poet’s eye as it moves from each to each is always surprising.


Jane:  Thank you, Leslie. I feel truly read.

One wise older woman, when I described my sense of my life to her, said I seemed something of a “sport,” in the biological sense. I never felt anything was shut off to me simply because I was a woman. I’m sure some of that goes back to my education—to my many women teachers in an all-girls school with a woman headmistress, and also to the books we read. If as a young person you read Dickinson, Austen, Eliot (George—ok, an interesting case), Katherine Ann Porter, Sappho, Mansfield, and Woolf, you don’t know that “you aren’t supposed to write.”

I discovered sexism’s glass walls—which do exist still, to a shocking degree—later rather than earlier. A great blessing, that belatedness. As a young person, I felt the world’s heritage of art and literature was mine to forage. When I arrived for my years of practice at the Zen monastery in 1975, deep in the wilderness and found that, in work hours, only the men were allowed to drive the community’s pickup, I was quite simply startled. I’d driven my stick-shift van with its yellow tie-dyed curtains, homemade bed, and pieced-remnant floor carpet across the country, over the Rockies, into deserts and forests, and finally down a narrow, rock-strewn, cliff-edged 14-mile mountain dirt road to get there, and now I wasn’t permitted to drive a pickup the length of the canyon floor?  It just seemed peculiar. When, years later, at a writers’ conference, I found myself in a hotel room, after hours, in which the male faculty poets seemed to be talking only to the other men, it was the same—startling, and not a little ridiculous. I saw one of them suddenly notice what was going on, and quite obviously, deliberately, try to change it. The rest of the men, meanwhile, failed to notice at all.


Leslie: Can you say what the older woman meant, in describing you as “a sport”?





Jane: In biology, a sport is an abrupt, inexplicable mutation. She meant that I seemed so oblivious to the constrictions of sexism, that I’d never bought into the story that women could do some things but not others. In other ways, I was chastened and timid, but that particular doubt-seed just wasn’t planted.


Leslie: This is a time of real sea-change for American women (I wish I could say for women across the world), who are better-educated than ever before, have equal protection under the law in many aspects, and are healthier for many more years than, say, a hundred years ago. There’s been much written about how the advent of the Pill and the increase of women in the paid work force has changed women’s lives, but I’ve read little about how the years after age fifty are changing for women, and how this might affect the culture by extension. It wasn’t that long ago that when a woman reached menopause it was time to slow down and think about retiring. But a writer’s creative life doesn’t necessarily shut off in one’s sixties. And for a female writer now in her fifties, who can expect another forty or fifty years of productive life, with essentially two generations of writers who’ve come up after her already, it’s an extraordinary thing to think about, an historical first. What’s to be done with those decades? Does the responsibility to teach and serve in other ways as a model increase as we enter those later years?



Jane:  A great question, Leslie. In answer, may I send you to Mary Catherine Bateson? The daughter of Margaret Meade and Gregory Bateson, and an anthropologist herself, she’s recently published a book on those “extra” decades, exactly as you describe them: not as more years of extreme old age but as an addition to the middle of our lives. Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom (Knopf, 2010).  She says this stage brings both new possibilities into a life’s arc and also an obligation to revisit and renew our conception of our lives’ meanings and purpose. Each of the questions a person first deals with on entering adulthood—Who will I love? What will I do? How will I serve?—will need to be pondered again, Bateson says, as one enters these auxiliary years of relative good health and relative freedom. Thank you also, by the way, for pointing out what a privilege this is, when we consider women’s lives worldwide; it’s a point that always does need conscious acknowledgment. One of the great awarenesses of my life has been that larger good luck, for which a person can take no credit at all.


Leslie: I am wondering, do you think of yourself as approaching the “wise older woman” stage of your life? It’s something I think about a great deal now that my children have their own families. I think of Jung’s Wise Old Woman archetype, a “mana” personality that symbolizes the wholeness of the self. I’m feeling the pull toward this kind of activity grow stronger as I get older. Yet how does one step into that formal role of “elder” while at the same time maintaining the sense of wonder and “beginner’s mind” (yet another term you introduced to me) so essential to writing poetry?



Jane: I immediately think of Marie Ponsot as one embodiment of the wise old woman archetype, in our current community of poets. The one time I saw her read, she had noticeably beautiful posture, no make-up, and, as I recall it, a T-shirt and long gray braid. And then there are her poems, their own noticeable posture, beauty and powers. For two other examples, I’ve just come back from the Milosz Centennial Festival in Krakow, where I heard Julia Hartwig and Wislawa Szymborska read. They resembled two teenagers, as they bent their heads together to talk on stage, though one is 90, the other 88. Their recent poems, I think, carry a similar quality: if they are rooted in the wisdom of age, they are also ageless. A poem can hold the comprehension of a life lived thoroughly through, yet at the same time have a spirit entirely new— wide-eyed, cognitively and imaginatively supple. One marker of good poetry could be that it returns its writer, its reader, to beginner’s mind. (The phrase comes, for those who may not know it, from the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, who said, “In the beginner’s mind are many possibilities, in the expert’s only a few.”)

Unarthritic comprehension, undiminished passion—these are part of what “wise old woman” poet means, for me.  I’ve not quite entered that stage yet, I don’t think, though I am certainly what the French call “a woman of a certain age.” Many of the poems in the new book reflect that. One poem is about bruising more easily, for instance, in the context of love and the body. I do write from my own life stage and age.


Leslie:  I remember that you fell in love with your current beloved just as you were turning 50. Not so long ago that was considered to be a time past the influence and delight of eros.




Jane:  You have to wonder, what was the actual truth of it, even then?  Another model figure for me has been yet another Polish woman poet, the late Anna Swir. The American edition of her selected poems, Talking to My Body, shows an older woman fully embodying eros. One poem mentions that this embarrasses her children, and it’s quite clear that she doesn’t care. That’s a sentiment I don’t believe has been brought into lyric poetry before. Swir’s poems are short, flintily free. Her images are intimate, impeccable and inventive, and that image-freedom is a subliminal, echoing demonstration of their author’s spirit. Such poets change our idea of what “old woman” is, and what“old” is. I admire this without dismissing what must also be learned from the truly final stages of aging, in which all powers begin entirely to abandon a person. Or animal—my little cat now is failing, and she is teaching me something of the dignity with which that can be done. Past words, outside words, there is still awareness, and it has a quality that can be transmitted.


Leslie: I want to be sure also that you know how much of the wisdom I’ve gleaned from you I’ve been fortunate enough to turn and give to others, both as a teacher and while I was the managing editor at Drunken Boat. During my years at Drunken Boat, we took on editors in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, as well as a dozen readers, all of whom I trained, and most of whom were women. The undergraduates I teach at Central Connecticut State University, who are younger than my children, are often surprised by what poetry is, what its function has been throughout history, and how they too, with the right kind of attention, can enter it fully. It’s a privilege to be a link in this chain, to pass the gift on into the future.



Jane: It’s wonderful to know you’ve been taking other, younger poets under your wing. Does this make me their grandmother, a little?

Sometimes this kind of transmission happens just because of who a person is, sometimes there’s a conscious decision to serve as a model for those who follow.  I wonder, did you know that the women faculty at Bennington at one point made a pact to speak up in the question and answer time after craft lectures, to be just as audibly present, challenging, and visibly engaged as the men? It’s a lesson I’ve carried since, into other, similar situations: Embody the reality you would like to exist, until it comes to exist without effort.


Leslie: I have great faith that as more and more American women are educated and published and as they move into positions of authority as writers and teachers, those men talking only to men situations will happen less and less often. I’ve been heartened by the generation of women who’ve come after us. For one thing, they have lots of female peers to talk things over with, and more ways to do it. There’s the “WomPo” listserv conversation, there’s VIDA, and many other online sites where women can gather. But there are still fewer female role models for them than there are for men. How do we pass down our wisdom and give our encouragement? As much change as there’s been in the last fifty years, I feel a certain impatience rise when I hear about gender discrimination in publishing, for example.



Jane: Impatience is the right response. How is it that, in 2011, we are still talking about issues of equality in publication? Yet we are, and need to. Among the research scientists I know of my own generation, the parity of respect and also a fair distribution of honors and awards seem far more ingrained than among the creative people I know—which is either an anomaly peculiar to my specific groups of friends or something quite interesting to ponder about the difference between “objective” and “subjective” fields, and how judgments are made about what or who in them is “important.”

There remains, as VIDA has amply tallied, an uncomfortable disparity in the matter of both tare weight publication and of major literary awards and honors. That this surprises some shows how much conscious awareness matters, and how much awareness itself constitutes a rectifying pressure. If two men follow one another as Poet Laureate, or in receiving the Pulitzer Prize, say, no one much notices. If two women, or two poets of color did, everyone still would. If three did, essays would be written. That tells us something worth noticing. Stereotypes of what “important” looks like self-perpetuate themselves especially strongly in the arts, because there’s no escape from subjective perception, really.  I’m enough of an idealist in matters of social change to think the most important thing is the work itself, that it be done—for itself, first of all, but then as path-opener, as model, and, at times perhaps, as rebuke. In periodical publishing, for instance, if the New Yorker could find, from its earliest issues, Katherine White and Dorothy Parker, and more recently Susan Sontag, Jane Mayer, Elizabeth Kolbert, Janet Malcolm, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith and so on, no magazine has any excuse for saying, “But we don’t know how to find good women writers.” Zadie Smith’s book-review essays currently running in Harper’s bring me intoxicant happiness, each time I read one. But women writers have always been there—to counter the myth that they haven’t is one reason I brought out the 1994 anthology Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Writing by Women.  The world’s first identified author, of any kind, was the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna, who wrote her “Hymn to Innana” around 2300 B.C.E.  And still almost no one knows that. And partly, I have to say, that continuing ignorance is due, ironically, to another woman’s fiercely effective writing—Virginia Woolf’s description of Shakespeare’s sister, buried unknown at the crossroads, was so powerful that it still shrouds the fact that there were quite a few women writers in the Elizabethan age—including Elizabeth herself. An exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library this coming January (2012) is about just that.

Leslie: Are there any other issues that come to mind, as we think here about the current state of women and publishing?



Jane:   I find it truly troubling that women journalists are so often asked only to write on “women’s issues.” This is something outside the capture of VIDA’s count, yet it matters to me a great deal that men write about parenting and relationship, that women write about physics, the environment, history, war. I want Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Feminist Consciousness and I want also Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror and The Guns of August.  Adam Gopnik’s pieces about raising his children make me happy primarily because they’re beautifully written and genuinely interesting; but they make me happy also because they’re written by a man—and one who is not, by the way, a single father—who never seems to question that domestic life and family are worthwhile subjects. The poems of fatherhood by the generation of poets now in its 80’s, made me similarly happy. So far as I know, this was the first generation in world literature whose men wrote of their children in poems—Galway Kinnell’s poem on his son Fergus’s birth, for instance, at the end of The Book of Nightmares, is a touchstone.

Liberation from subject stereotypes travels both directions.  C.D. Wright, for instance, takes on prison and racism in her recent books—raids not just on traditionally “non-women’s” subjects, but on terrain more commonly explored in prose. Some good number of women poets now explore similar investigations, in poems that involve research, collage, combining the personal and impersonal, the large and the detailed, intermingling dictions and modes. Still, I can’t help but ponder that Anne Carson only reached broad cultural awareness with The Autobiography of Red, when her earlier Glass, Irony, and God, Eros the Bittersweet, and Plainwater: Essays and Poetry were, I think, equally astonishing and utterly new.

That I feel as I do, and question as I do, is one reflection of the kind of feminist I am. I want the doors to be open in every direction.


Leslie: Oh, Lord yes. I grew up thinking that feminism, for the most part, meant inclusiveness. And not just a place at the boardroom table or in the literary magazine’s pages, but the understanding that a woman’s preoccupations, be they cooking, raising children, neuroscience and any combination of these, had weight. That our lives matter to men, just as Native American lives matter to Mexican Americans, and on and on, and also that our thinking on any subject is met with simple, equal respect.

Being able to get a college degree—and I was the first woman in my family to do so—meant access to whatever the world held in its libraries and laboratories. I’d never want to limit my interests and influences.



Jane: Just so. And oddly, I never realized until this very moment that I am also the first woman in my family to earn a B.A. My mother started college, but didn’t finish—she left to work as a secretary. I’ve never thought about that. And that is the debt I owe to earlier feminists. I could take it for granted that I would go to college.

I do want to be really clear here that when I speak about wanting not only pages, but also subjects and styles to be open, I’m not dismissing the achievement of women who opened the field—I’ve after all published three books bringing those women forward. The freedom of being and simple courage and persistence required of them were and are immeasurable.  Sappho, Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Mirabai, Austen and, yes, Woolf in prose, Plath and Rukeyser, di Prima, Bishop and Levertov and Rich—all groundbreakers in different ways, and all women who made a landscape I could enter and live in. I simply want to feel that the full field of human experience is open to everyone, and that seems to me to be still the current edge, when it comes to the major magazines, particularly in journalism and other non-fiction… The numerical ratio of men and women writers must change, but the conceptual ghettoization must change also.

The last troubling thing I’d like to mention is the way reviewers all too often compare women writers only to other women, men only to men, as if women were somehow sequestered in a segregated balcony in an Orthodox temple, or as if we read only those of our own sex. Elizabeth Bishop is so clearly Mark Doty’s greatest influence—and yet, while I’ve admittedly not read everything written about him, I have never once seen or heard that said.

Simple equality’s needed, of course, first of all, but those other things, too, are needed—non-separation, non-segregation, equality of respect and of interest. I’ve been transfixed and altered by women, by men, by writers still in their teens, by writers in their eighties, by writers from every continent (if you count the explorers’ Antarctic journals).  Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man affected me as radically as any book I’ve ever read. I want to read Toni Morrison and I want to read Ellison, I want Szymborska and Milosz, I want Su Tung Po, Sor Juana, Cavafy, Laux, Howe (both Marie and Fannie), Hughes (both Ted and Langston), Wright (all five or six of them), Hillman, Dunn, Ryan, Valentine, Bishop and Doty.  This is what literature brings: realities of human experience, our own and also the ones beyond what we can know by living inside our own skin and histories, which then become our own skin, our own histories, through others’ words. I don’t think we want equality in publishing just so women can read women, or so people of color can read other people of color.  We want—I at least want—the doors to be open so that human beings can know the full story of human lives.


One Comment to 'Human Lives: A conversation between Jane Hirshfield and Leslie McGrath'

  • Nancy White says:

    The further I read into the terrain of this marvelous interview, the happier I was to be among the company of such solid, articulate views. The two voices cooperate beautifully: the interviewer neither fawns nor dominates, and Hirshfield’s experiences and views expand before us generously. Thank you!

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