Poet Jane Hirshfield was born in New York City in 1953. She was in the first graduating class at Princeton University to include women. She went on to study at the San Francisco Zen Center. Her many books include “After,” “Given Sugar, Given Salt” and “The Lives of the Heart.”
The following is from an interview that I conducted with her in 2006. The first topic we discussed was the three-year period Hirshfield spent in a Zen monastery where she was instructed to do nothing but practice Zen. This meant poetry would have to leave her life for a while. But the hiatus only created a deeper connection to poetry within her.
Gene: How did that [break from writing poems] affect you?
Jane: My feeling at the time was that I would never be much of a poet if I didn’t learn a great deal more about how to be a human being… It’s very difficult to say how anything affects you… But I think that it affected everything because so much of Zen practice is about learning to pay attention to not only the inner world, but also the outer world… Learning to give your full attention is at the very heart of Zen practice and also, it is at the very heart of poetry.
Gene: In your book of essays, “Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry,” you wrote that “any good artist’s work is to find the right balance between independence born of willing solitude and the ability to speak for others.” Who is it that you mean to speak for?
Jane: I don’t make any presumptions about that. Basically, whenever I am writing, I am always working out something, which I need to understand more fully or experience in a more multidimensional way… You don’t write poems because you have an answer. You write poems because life has presented you with a question and the poem is the only way to address that question. So I suppose the others that I speak for are anybody who is made the same way that I am.
Gene: In your poem “Mathematics” you ask, “Does the poem enlarge the world, or only your idea of the world?” Would you expand on that?
Jane: That was an actual question, which was asked of me in a question and answer session… It struck me as one of the most interesting things that anybody has ever said to me. So it became the seed of this poem in which I answer how can you tell them apart… Is there a knowable world besides the world we know? How could you separate that within our consciousness? I could say yes or no to either. I could say yes of course a poem enlarges the world. But then somebody could say which world? It’s truly metaphysical.
Gene: Where does your desire to write come from?
Jane: I was born as one of those people always hungering to live more deeply. This is also why I read other people’s poems. This is not just about my own writing. It’s about what poetry can do for any of us.
Gene: Which is?
Jane: Magnify and clarify our existence and allow us to travel through an expanded world.