We’re honored to have had the chance to chat with the amazing Jane Hirshfield, author of eight books of poetry, and recipient of fellowships from the NEA, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Guggenheim—here’s what she has to say about her journey of becoming poet.
What’s your relationship to rejection?
Jane Hirshfield: In 1986, I wrote a poem responding both to the Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination hearing and to a neighbor’s son starting (entirely audible to me) piano lessons. I believed that poem, “Justice Without Passion,” was among the best things I’d yet written. It was rejected eight times. I looked it over and changed one word, then sent it next to the then-new West Coast journal Zyzzyva. They took it, and it then became my first poem chosen for the Pushcart Prize anthology. I couldn’t know if it was that one changed word that made the difference, or simply that the poem had finally found the right reader. But that experience, with the happy Pushcart award, taught me two things: one, don’t ever stop looking to see if a poem can be made stronger, and two, if you believe in a poem, don’t give up on it, someone else will likely eventually agree.
No socially-attuned, awake mammal will ever like a rejection. But it’s still information that something needs to change—perhaps the poem, perhaps the poem’s reader. My worst rejection was an acceptance asking for changes I didn’t think were improvements. I declined. You can tell if a suggestion is right, and not all are. Still, coming to that can sometimes take time. My best rejection wasn’t for a magazine, it was the poet William Matthews, visiting an adult ed workshop I took, saying he thought my poem (which I thought was a breakthrough poem) was completely confused. At the time, I thought he was dead wrong. A couple years later, when I was putting my first book together, I looked at that poem and thought, “This poem is totally confused.” It was still a breakthrough poem, it just wasn’t salvageable as an experience for anyone other than me.
When did you start calling yourself a poet and why?
JH: I still have trouble calling myself “a poet.” The verb form is better. When I’m writing poems, I’m a poet. When I’m not writing poems, I am not.
One morning in 1988, shortly after my second book came out, I received a phone call. A voice said, “Is this Jane Hirshfield?” The business of junk phone calls had just started, and I answered with skepticism, “Yes…” I didn’t hang up only because the voice had an accent. Then the voice said, “Jane Hirshfield, the poet?” No one called me that, then. A little less skeptically, I replied, “Yes….?” And the voice said, “This is Czeslaw Milosz.” He was inviting me to come to his house in Berkeley for dinner. If I hadn’t been still in bed, I’d have fallen over. But even after one of the great poetry heroes of our time called me a poet, I never thought of myself as such an august creature. Milosz was a poet. Adrienne Rich (another of my local-living heroes) was a poet. I was, and remain…. me. A person through whom poems sometimes travel into the world.
What was the journey of getting your first book published?
JH: My first book was published accidentally. I sent my manuscript to my old teacher, Theodore Weiss, for his opinion before starting to submit it. I was disconnected from all information, and had no idea that he and his wife Renee had changed the format of their long-standing bastion journal, The Quarterly Review of Literature, to publishing five full-length books together under one cover. He wrote back asking if he could publish it in that series. My companions in that 1982 volume were two other American poets, Christopher Bursk and Marguerite Bouvade, and then two translations: the Swedish poet Lars Gustafsson (who remains on my pantheon bookshelf), and a then entirely unknown Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, translated by a group of young American poets including the then equally unknown “S. Olds.” My book got no attention, beyond the journal’s subscribers; I think there may have been a single review somewhere. But when I look at the others who appeared in the ten years that QRL published its series of full-length books, I find in retrospect the most amazing things. One is a first book of poems by Anne Carson, though you won’t find it on her books’ lists of previous works.
My second book, Of Gravity & Angels, was more the usual publishing story. It came out from Wesleyan University Press in 1988, after maybe two years and a dozen rejections. During that time I kept revising, and also dropping some poems, adding others. I have no doubt it became a better book for the extra ripening. I found out afterward that one of the outside readers who gave it his blessing had been David St. John, who has since become a long-standing friend. Though I moved on to HarperCollins and then Knopf, I’ve always felt the strongest gratitude to Wesleyan for being the publisher that took a chance and launched my work into public view. They remain one of the best of the university presses. And they’ve kept that early book in print, to boot.
All this was before the landscape changed to what it is now, where almost all new poets’ books come into print through organized contests. May I add something about that? I truly believe this is a good and fair system, though I do realize the entrance fees can add up. But time after time, I’ve seen writers I believe are good writers arrive at publication. Strong poems rise, and it’s just a matter of the right manuscript finding the right judge for that particular poet’s strengths. When I judge these contests, I am looking simply and only for the poems that thrill me the most. Over the years I’ve chosen experimental poets, narrative poets, lyric poets, men, women, poets of diversity of every kind, poets of dense language, poets of spare language. Of course a person will like what they like, which is why the system of rotating judges is so good an idea, but I have only one agenda: to choose a book it thrills and awakens me to read. I like the blind reading process, also. I just last week chose a book prize manuscript blind, then found out it was a writer I’d had in a workshop perhaps 15 years ago. I liked her work 15 years ago, and to see that she had become such a fully ripened writer pleased me no end. But if I had seen her name, I might have felt I had to bend over backwards not to choose a book by someone I knew and liked.
How do you climb out of a dry spell of writing?
JH: By longing. I grow lonely for poems, the way you would grow lonely for an absent lover. And then they return. Longing is the ladder we meet on.
I do have a larger set of specific suggestions. They can be found in the January 2018 issue of Poets & Writers. The url is https://www.pw.org/content/reconnecting_after_a_silence , though the piece itself may only be readable by subscribers (or from your local library, if they subscribe.) Poets & Writers is in general one of the best resources available to any emerging writer, with information both practical and large.
What’s part of your job as a poet that would surprise most people?
JH: How much I fly, and where poetry takes me. Twelve days ago I gave a reading 1000 feet underground in an ancient coal mine (now a minining museum) in Zabrze, Poland. One hundred and ten people filled that auditorium to standing room only, all having come down in the caged miners’ elevator eight at a time. Tomorrow I leave to teach a poetry retreat in a wilderness monastery. Two weeks from now I fly to a festival on the East Coast, and a week after that I go to one in Australia. Two years ago I said some poems to the Global Seed Bank in Svalbard, in the Arctic. Seven years ago, poetry took me, along with a few other American writers to Aleppo, Damascus, Amman, Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Istanbul, under the auspices of Iowa’s International Writing Program. We met with a larger group of writers on the Greek Island of Paros, also, for a symposium on the theme of Justice.
I’m not a particularly good tourist poet, and almost never write poems directly about these kinds of experiences at the time. But now, seven years later, as the war in Syria goes on, I have written poems I would not have come to if I hadn’t walked through Aleppo before it was destroyed, or wondered for so long about the lives of the university students I spoke with there and in Damascus… These young people were concerned, back then, about the war in Iraq coming into Syria. Syria was stable then, and had taken in 750,000 refugees. Now it is those students who are likely displaced, fighting, dead, or living with their own young children in a distant country or a refugee camp.
That I suppose is the deeper surprise: how much my life as a poet has brought some small entrance into the lives of others far from my own. The poems themselves have always done that, also. It is part of poetry’s job to knit lives across distance, time, culture, language, circumstance. An ancient Egyptian love poem brings you a girl drinking beer for breakfast with her lover, as they cool their feet in a river. It could be Fresno. A Japanese woman poet writing a thousand years ago speaks my own feelings of eros, my own thoughts on aging. Akhmatova and Hikmet show me how a person can go on in impossible circumstances… Poems are the pollinating bees of interconnection.