Of Amplitude There Is No Scraping Bottom: An Interview with Jane Hirshfield

Rebecca Olson

BG-Interview-1The poems in Jane Hirshfield’s The Beauty take measured steps across a wooden floor. Rolling between the real and the remembered, the interior and the exterior, The Beauty cuts to the heart of our shared existence.While I’ve always been a fan of the tenderness and mystery in Hirshfield’s work, there’s something about these new poems and essays that go even deeper. Released in tandem with a new collection of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, Hirshfield’s The Beauty stayed with me like a comforting ghost.

 In anticipation for her upcoming book release and reading at Powell’s later this week (7:30 p.m. March 18 at Powell’s City of Books) I had the chance to write to Hirshfield and chat over email about mushroom hunting, secret rooms—and as she puts it, unplugging the landline.


Rebecca Olson: The Beauty is being released at the same time as your new collection of essays. Were you working on these two projects simultaneously? Do you see the two books as speaking to one another, and if so, how?

Jane Hirshfield: The last-written chapters of Ten Windows coincide with the time of writing The Beauty, but I don’t work on poems and essays at once. They walk on different legs, speak with different tongues, draw from different parts of the psyche. Their paces are also different. A poem’s essential discovery can happen at a single sitting. The cascade of discoveries in an essay, or even finding a question worth exploring in one, seems to need roughly the time it takes to plant and harvest a crop of bush beans.

Ten Windows records the desire to understand others’ poems I’ve felt transfixed and transformed by: “What is a good poem doing?” “How is it done?” “Why does it work?” I want to understand the piers of language and music and comprehension that can hold up a building even when what the building houses is an earthquake. This thinking must surely come into the poems I write, but more by osmosis than will… Art-making is learned by immersion. You take in vocabularies of thought and feeling, grammar, diction, gesture, from the poems of others, and emerge with the power to turn language into a lathe for re-shaping, re-knowing your own tongue, heart, and life…

Craft consciousness burnishes the tool, but the tool is already there. Perhaps it sensitizes, or expands the reach. Certainly it sharpens attention. Still, the ability to name poetry’s gestures and rhetorics isn’t required to write or read them, any more than a painter needs to know the physics of color to bring forward a landscape. The eye and hand and ear know what they need to know. Some of us want to know more, because knowing pleases.

51AELQLT6VL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A person could take these two books and undertake a kind of checklist comparison. It would feel strange to me to do that myself. I want to preserve a certain unknowing about my own poems—perhaps because unknowing is in itself a useful poetic thirst. To move the perimeter of saying outside my own boundaries is one reason I write.

RO: Speaking of boundaries, houses, rooms, windows, walls, and doors appear throughout The Beauty. Did you concentrate on this architectural imagery intentionally, or did this thread develop on its own?

JH: These things are for me a feeling-provoking vocabulary. Each poet probably has his or her own cupboard of magnets. For some, it is cars; for others, works of art, or certain patterns of form or sound; for others, certain stories or places, Philip Levine’s Detroit, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Chicago, Seamus Heaney’s time-tunneled, familied Ireland. . . It’s not that these things are the whole of what a poet may write, but they recur. Go back to The October Palace, which came out in 1994, and there are poems with windows, doors, the rooms of the gorgeous and vanishing palace that is this ordinary world and ordinary life. Jungian archetype would say the house is a figure for the experienced, experiencing self. Gaston Bachelard described this gorgeously in The Poetics of Space. Houses are fundamental metaphors for self, world, permeability, transition, interiority, exteriority, multiplicity, and the power to move from one state of being to another

A certain amount of housekeeping also goes on in my poems. I wash doorknobs, do dishes, mop floors, patch carpets, cook. But a person could draw a too-easy conclusion about what this may mean, or an overly narrowed one, anyhow. A poem can use anything to talk about anything. The poem in Come, Thief about washing doorknobs also holds war-grief. A poem in The Beauty about mopping the floor holds being brought to my knees for other reasons. A house is a place we live in with others, and like anywhere else, it’s a place connected to the whole of human experience. Someone made the cup that holds my morning coffee; someone picked the coffee. We are tethered to others by power lines in more ways than one. “After every war,” wrote Wislawa Szymborska, “someone has to clean up.” Poems are always interested in what Ivan Illich called ‘shadow work,’ not least because that is no small part of their own way of working.

RO: Your combination of architectural elements with descriptions of the self in poems like “Many-Roofed Building in Moonlight” and “My Life Was The Size of My Life” feels dream-like to me, in what feels very much a Jungian way. What kinds of buildings or structures do you dream about?

JH: One recurring dream, many others have also: you go into a familiar house, discover a door or hallway, and find the house continues into hidden rooms. Sometimes a whole second house is there, a larger and unknown extension of the familiar dwelling. In my own variation of this dream, the newly discovered part of the house is always under construction. Sometimes it’s close to finished, other times it’s torn down to raw studs and plywood. I’m sure this dream somehow underlies the poem “Of Amplitude There Is No Scraping Bottom.” Its closing image is of a door on the outside of a building that can’t be found on the inside. That particular door did in fact exist, in a cabin I stayed in for a month. I never did figure out where it led to, since it was padlocked. I liked the mystery of that.

RO: In the poem “A Cottony Fate” the speaker reflects on a piece of advice they were given long ago to “avoid or.” The poem closes with the line: “Now I too am sixty. There was no other life.” This struck me as both hopeful and hopeless—there is peace in accepting our life the way it is, but also grief for lost opportunities. How did this poem come to be?

JH: The advice was given me by Ted Weiss, who was not only a very fine poet and teacher but as generous a figure as American literature has known. Ted and his wife Renee edited The Quarterly Review of Literature for fifty years, in whose almost uncannily prescient pages they brought forward the early and later work of an entirely extraordinary range of poets, from the not-yet-iconic William Carlos Williams, early on, to Anne Carson’s first (completely forgotten) collection of poems, to a 1982 translation by multiple hands of the then unknown-in-English Szymborska. One of the listed translators was the equally unknown ‘S. Olds.’ I think of Ted’s cautionary rule any time I find the word “or” in a poem, and always test my use of it against his warning.

This poem applies his words to the life, though, not to poetic craft. And you’re not wrong in your understanding. For a young person, a life is filled with possibility and choice. We believe we can do this or do that, that all paths are open. At a certain age, that is no longer so. I will never become a horse trainer, a biologist, a person competent with a hammer. My loves were my loves. Certain doors are closed. And yet, I don’t myself feel this poem as being about either hope or hopelessness, precisely. I feel it as more about thusness, about saying yes to one’s own existence…. Moment by moment, we write in indelible ink. This poem finds its way to assenting to that recognition.

At another level, though, poems can craft an eraser—we can’t revise the past, but poems allow us some malleability, an increased freedom of response, comprehension, feeling. Choice, what choices are possible for any given person, is another theme that’s run through my work from the start. So much of our lives depends on accidents of birth, time, and geography. This haunts me. In some lives, few “or”s are possible. The pain of that is behind the second stanza of this poem.

RO: In Ten Windows, you write about “windows” in poems—moments when poems open up into something bigger and remind us of “expansive constellations and connection.” Would you consider the last line of “A Cottony Fate” to be a window?

JH: I’d say that the middle stanza is closer: that’s the place where the poem ranges unexpectedly into a different realm. But this isn’t a poem I’d turn to as a good example of that gesture. Not every poetic expansion makes a window.

RO: Time and perspective are ongoing themes in many of your works. How have your ideas on perspective changed over the last few years (your perspective on perspective, if you will)?

JH: Time-awareness does indeed watermark my books and my life. Perspective, addressed and inquired into directly, is a newer visitation. Perhaps it’s as simple a matter as aging. You turn in your ticket of newness but accumulate perspective. I think, though, that perspective-awareness may follow from a kind of speaking that also came into my work more recently—the “assay” poems (some labeled that, some not) that engage an abstraction or object from multiple angles. These poems look in the way Cezanne’s paintings or cubism look. They allow more fragmentation, leap, alteration, re-do, a simultaneous multiplicity. They trust that the sum of their parts will make a new whole that, however unparaphrasable and strange, is nonetheless larger.

This all begins to sound very intellectual. But the writing of an assay-type poem or a poem investigating perspective isn’t an exercise of rational or strategic mind. Poems for me are acts of small or large desperation. They grapple with surfaces too steep to walk in any other way, yet which have to be traveled.

Perhaps there is some conjunction missing from the language, something that is neither quite “or” nor “and,” not “while” or “though” or “but.” “And” seems to me closest. “And” nods toward the real. And “and” is the path to perspective. To feel and see from more angles and know all of them true, even the incomprehensible ones, even the ones that contradict one another. “Yet” is also useful. “And yet, and yet,” ends the famous haiku Issa wrote after the death of his daughter:

this world of dew

is a world of dew,

and yet, and yet. . .

RO: Mushrooms (and their smells) are another reoccurring element in The Beauty. I have to ask—do you have a favorite fungus?


JH: I once was asked to contribute to a mushroom poem anthology. I didn’t have anything, and so instead ended up writing the introduction. I think that request made me more alert to mushrooms, and now they’ve cropped up in my work, the way mushrooms themselves do after rain, quite a lot. But I’ve only just now taken up mushroom hunting, after going to a class offered at my local library. Taken it up, that is, after The Beauty was finished. I’ve found various boletes, oyster mushrooms, a matsutake, some good and some not good agaricus, and in one day’s walk found seductively beautiful examples of both of the only two local mushrooms that will kill you. The man who taught the class invited us to bring our findings by his store, a local nursery. That’s quite helpful.

RO: Several poems in this collection speak to a desire for silence—an even bigger appetite for it than the speaker originally had thought was needed. How much silence do you usually need to write, and how do you get it?

JH: I need more and more silence, it feels. Poems don’t leap into my mind when I’m distracted, turned outward, with other people, listening to music. It’s more for me as with going into a forest: if you sit quietly for a long time, the life around you emerges. As the world grows ever more clamorous, my hunger for silence steepens. I unplug the landline. I don’t have a cell phone (though for years I’ve kept saying, “soon”). And every other year or so I go to one of those great generous places, the artist retreats. Some of the poems in The Beauty were written at the MacDowell Colony, in New Hampshire, and others at Civitella Ranieri, in Umbria. I’ve gone to Yaddo many times, I’ve worked at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Center for Scholars and Artists in Bellagio. That these are places of beauty and of changed landscape is helpful—but far more important for me is that they offer what I feel as a monastic luxury: undisturbed time. Within that silence, expansion, and sustained day by day concentration, I grow permeable. An ordinary hole beside a path through the woods might begin to open to altered worlds.

RO: Toward the end of the collection, there are several poems referencing travel and faraway places. Take the poem “Souvenir,” for example: “I have many times taken / some café’s small packets of sugar / so that in Turkey / I might sweeten my coffee with China”. How does traveling impact your writing life?

JH: It’s a bafflement to me that I travel as much as I do. It isn’t the life I expected. But when given the chance to celebrate Czeslaw Milosz’s centennial by going to the bend of the Lithuanian river where he swam as a boy, I cannot imagine refusing. I don’t know what dust of pollen will come back with me from these travels. The little jacketed beagle in the airport customs area doesn’t alert to it. But I must trust that I will not treat frivolously the glimpses I’ve been given into other places and others’ lives.

Seeing the city gates of Nanjing where so many died, or the shock, when travelling from Aleppo to Damascus in 2007, of passing an ordinary green highway sign, just as if it were a road sign in California, and seeing it was the turn off for Baghdad…. years later, these things come into my poems in unforeseeable ways. Cities, foods, conversations, having my preconceptions shaken—surely the depth and range of a person’s vocabulary are also pathways to changed comprehension. I should add, though: you don’t have to travel to court expansion. Emily Dickinson did fine with her father’s library and her own imagining mind. The first poem in The Beauty holds a woman in Portugal in a wheelchair singing, with great power, a fado. I have never seen this or heard of it, the image simply arrived. But surely such a thing has happened. And it matters to me that it has, or could.

RO: What are you working on now?

JH: New poems. Of which I can say or know nothing further until I write them.


Jane Hirshfield’s eighth poetry collection, The Beauty (Knopf), will be released on March 18, along with a new book of essays, Ten Windows. Her work has appeared in Tin House, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Poetry Review, Poetry, McSweeney’s, Orion, and many other publications. In 2012, she was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and named the third recipient of the Donald Hall–Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry.

Rebecca Olson is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. She has an MFA in poetry from Oregon State University, and her poems have appeared in cream city review, PANK, Cimarron Review, Dogwood, and other publications. She works at Portland Community College.