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Zen and the Art of Poetry: An Interview with Jane Hirshfield by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler

In art, books, Europe, interview, literature, North America, poetry, religion, theory, writers on January 1, 2013 at 19:48

From: Zen and the Art of Poetry: An Interview with Jane Hirshfield by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, AGNI online, http://www.bu.edu/agni/index.html

IK and KT: Were you a Buddhist first and then a poet, or a poet first and then a Buddhist?

JH: If I think about this, the question begins to feel constrictive. At any moment is a person “this” or “that?” To label oneself is to close off the possibilities of being. But in the sense you are asking, the ordinary, narrative sense, poetry came first. I began to write poems as soon as I learned to write. After my first book came out, when I was 29, my mother pulled out of a bottom dresser drawer a big piece of paper I was given, probably around second grade, on which was written: “I want to be a writer when I grow up.” I have no idea where that came from. But writing was the way for me to craft a self I could unfold on my own, in private, and to find a life that was mine, one that didn’t belong to others.

Still, the two paths have intertwined for me from the beginning—the first book of poetry I bought, from a stationary store on East 20th Street, was a one dollar Peter Pauper Press book of Japanese haiku. I was maybe eight years old. I don’t know what drew me so strongly to those poems or what I could have seen in them at that age, but I recognized something that I absolutely knew I had to have in my life. The path has also been circular. Poetry brought me to Zen, and Zen returned me to poetry. In 1985, I took on the co-translation that became The Ink Dark Moon, a collection of poems by the two great women poets of classical-era Japan, whose work I had first read in a handful of English translations when I was 17. Their poetry, steeped in both eros and Buddhist views, was part of what turned me toward Zen as well as part of what shaped my sense of poems—how they move, what work they do. I had no idea then that I would work further on these women’s poems; if anything I thought that a path not taken. I did know that I wanted the book to exist, and I waited 15 years for someone else to translate it, before suddenly finding the chance to do it myself after all. So you see, each mode—poetry, Zen—has always returned me to the other. Thus far, they have been the left foot and the right foot of my life. It may, I suppose, look exotic. But from the inside, this life has felt like the most ordinary course possible, one choice simply following another.

IK and KT: In your essay, “The Question of Originality,” you write: “Originality requires the aptitude for exile.” Can you talk about any experiences of exile you may have had, and how they may have fed your work?

JH: I think the sense of exile I have always felt led me to practice Zen. I should add that Zen is what was congenial to me, but I certainly don’t believe there’s only one correct spiritual path—there are as many spiritual paths as there are people, and probably sparrows and frogs and pebbles as well. Still, for me, the not uncommon sense of being exiled from presence in the world brought me to both Zen and poetry. Perhaps urban, contemporary life is already an exile of a kind, perhaps it was more familial, perhaps it was spiritual. There is a Taoist poet in Women in Praise of the Sacred, Yu Xuanji, who said at the end of one poem, “Everywhere the wind carries me is home.” That was not something I felt as a child.

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Reposted with permission from: AGNI

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