Jane Hirshfield on Poetry and Nature

Months ago, in preparation for a workshop I was going to lead in nature writing for the Musehouse Writing Center I asked the poet Jane Hirshfield several questions about her views on nature and poetry. Aside from her wonderful books of poems, Hirshfield also wrote a collection of essays called Nine Gates, which deals somewhat with that subject especially in the “Two Secrets” chapter.

The class never happened, so I’ve been sitting on this wonderful interview for months and decided that I should just publish it as is so other readers can benefit from it. The questions here are not a comprehensive look at my interest in the subject, but they’re interesting on their own and I think worth attention. Eventually I may try to write a whole coherent article, but the chances are getting slimmer all the time.

I also asked Ted Kooser and William Heyen similar questions. I’ll post their responses separately.

Do you think writers’ approach to nature/wild has changed in the contemporary world? Another way of asking—has our dependence on technology and distance from nature changed the poet’s relationship to it?

It’s hard to speculate about others’ inner experience—but I do suspect that increasing swaths of time in the “information technology” world is affecting poets—as urbanization itself long has. There’s a dangerous rift and amnesia that leads to hubris, exploitation, that carries from the environment and creatures into our treatment of other humans as well, when only mediated experience is seen as “real.”  Aesthetically, concentration on what’s only within the human surround can be seen as being contemporary or as claustrophobic—the response varies. I myself made a very deliberate choice to live in a way exposed to and in connection with the natural. I grew up in lower Manhattan, and wanted something less controlled and modulated in my life. But all of us carry the template of our age, and even if my poems rarely mention buses or an elevator or a comic strip character, I am quite sure that my thoughts move as the 21st century does–with increased speed and compression, acceptance of fracture, comfort with the jump cut. In a way, though, you could say that poetry itself foreshadowed all these “contemporary” habits of mind—it has always leapt, fractured, compressed, courted the uncertain and contradictory as much as courted expression or “beauty.” But how could something even as simple as electric light not alter our psyche’s relation to darkness? Perhaps we turn toward darkness more, now that it is escapable. Perhaps we must turn to bewilderment more, when we live in such orderly grids as we do.

Is nature a good yardstick for measuring our own human issues by?

As Gary Snyder has long pointed out, we humans are nature. What we do is what nature does. Still, remembering the larger field recalibrates. Going up into the High Sierra puts anxiety, selfishness, sentimentality, and neurosis into scale.

In what way do poets sometimes abuse (misuse) nature (I’m thinking of bad Romantic poems here mostly, but you please respond any way you like)?

There are no rules here—I am willing to go on record (heresy!) as being in favor of certain kinds of personification and anthropomorphizing in poems, even as I know they can be horribly abused. It works when it enlivens possibility, fails when it cheapens or simplifies or presumes. What we don’t know, cannot know, has to be remembered and honored. Still, Aristotle praised personification–what we’ve come to call “the pathetic fallacy”—as the “animating principle” in poetry, and I would not give up any mode of meaning-making, so long as it’s used deftly, subtly, toward accurate expansions and not the sentimental. Every metaphor works by internalization of the image into the self. How else could we understand, except by taking in, and trying on the image from inside our own lives, histories, minds? Comprehension is empathic. We understand even “2+2=4” because we have fingers, feelings, hunger, bodies with mouths as well as brains.

You write that the objective mode (discussed in Nine Gates) is rare and difficult. Is it also less effective or less likely to evoke a response from the reader? A poetry of Vulcans? (sorry for the Star Trek reference)

I’ve used certain haiku as examples of the objective mode—and such poems do need a reader able to feel them fully, or they will be uninhabited ink, ash-shapes. But such a reader is precisely the opposite of feelingless—rather, that reader who is able to feel these poems is a human being so tuned to the full actualities of existence that he or she can feel a spectrum of emotions outside the usually available names—the way a bee can see the ultra-violet road-stripes on certain flowers, which we cannot.

Galway Kinnell says we must include the city in our definition of nature. What do you think of that?  Can the city work for the poet in the same way as the forest or the sea?

Of course. Our cities are termite mounds and bower bird nests, felt fully. Mark Doty can write urban natural history in a way absolutely continuous with his poems that are set in the non-urban.

Who are your favorite contemporary poets who write with nature/wilderness themes?

Snyder is still a master. Merwin. Heaney’s poems of recollection. Pattiann Rogers, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Sandra Alcosser. Milosz is dead now, but his passion for the natural world was exemplary. Some of Hass. Some of Kay Ryan. Jim Harrison, Dan Gerber. But really, even making this list feels somehow like putting lipstick on a tree. I prefer not to segregate poets by theme—Auden was as urbane as a poet comes, and then there’s his “In Praise of Limestone”; Robert Frost’s concerns were profoundly and ultimately human. And if we understand ourselves as part of nature, there’s not a poet who isn’t a nature poet. I suspect our relationship to the larger existence of this planet would be most restored to sanity if that were the principle we held in mind, rather than one of separation and difference. We are mammals, with mammals’ concerns. That thought, at least to me, is not ignoble or diminishing—it’s curative, chastening, and enlarging.

Here’s a short video of Hirshfield reading. Youtube is loaded with Hirshfield videos.

My next poetry workshop at Musehouse begins the week of March 12, 2012. It’s a six-week course held on Wednesday evenings. Go here to view the description and sign up.

What Do You Mean by That?

Maybe you didn't hear me right.

Michael Robbins discusses New Criticism and the problem of intentionality today in the BAP blog. It’s a thoughtful post, especially the part in which he admits to allowing for meanings in his poems that he didn’t originally intend because when exposed or pointed out by a reader “seemed so right that I couldn’t help adopting them as part of my own understanding of the poem.”

Read Robbins’ complete post here.

I find that particularly interesting because it’s a phenomenon that comes up from time to time in workshops—both ones I’ve participated in and ones I’ve led as the instructor. Recently in fact, I pointed out a remarkable connection made within one student’s poem. I remember telling the student that even if he didn’t do that intentionally it was still brilliant, and he should take ownership of it (and further develop it).

If you’ve read other posts of mine, you probably know that I like poets to take some responsibility for their words. I want them to actually intend something, and I want to be able to connect with that intention without needing footnotes or a backseat driver. That of course doesn’t mean I’m against the mystery and discovery involved in good poems. I’m not advocating literalness. On the contrary, we work in images, metaphor and other mystical herbs that scare most readers away. But if intention counts for nothing, then I don’t really know why I work so hard at this.

Yes, there are times when the perfect word or perfect image comes to me, and I may wonder why a perfect word or perfect image won’t come for another poem. If I put the same amount of effort into it, why don’t they both work out equally well, intent be damned?

I suppose I could ask the same thing about fishing. Two days or two weeks in a row I may fish the same stretch of trout stream, applying the same techniques, casting the same flies, and come away with completely different results. There’s a lot of craft, a bit of science and a touch of alchemy to both endeavors.

That’s the mystery, of course, and probably the subconscious is involved somehow, and maybe the wine or coffee I was drinking at the time. Robbins isn’t willing to give much credit to the subconscious in those situations, so we’re left with just the wine. This is a craft after all, right? I could throw out intention if we were talking about reading tea leaves, but poetry isn’t quite so random, usually. Trout fishing also is a lot less random now than when I first started doing it, but the trout still have the edge.

Anyhow, I have no answer, or at least not an easy one. Maybe that’s why I like poetry so much better than math. And fishing so much better than, well, almost anything. If there’s no single answer, then you can’t be wrong.

New Musehouse Workshop

Looking for something literary to do on Wednesday evenings (if you’re in the Philadelphia area)? I’ll be leading a new poetry workshop at the Musehouse Writing Center in Chestnut Hill (down the street from the Chestnut Hill Hotel). This workshop will be for beginner to intermediate poets. Honestly, I don’t know what that means, as I think we’re all a still beginner poets each time we sit down to write, but at least don’t show up planning to get into pedagogical arguments. It’s a six-week class meeting every Wednesday 7-8:30 beginning Dec. 7th. There’s a cost for this workshop, but right now I don’t know what it is. I think it’s $120. When I find out I’ll post it here.

If you want to learn more about the Musehouse Center and its events, go here.

The catalog description is here:

In this session we’ll discuss what makes poems work and where good ideas go off course and where to take risks. Elements including image, sound, line breaks and form will all be addressed. Participants will discuss poetry craft, practice writing prompts and explore techniques for discovering poems in everyday life. A wide variety of poems and poets will be read, and students will write, share and discuss their own poems in class.

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Who’s Reading Your Poetry Submissions?

At Prairie Schooner, “about 40 graduate readers look through the submissions, determining if they are eligible for the magazine. ”

from an article in the Daily Nebraskan.

Prairie Schooner does not currently accept electronic submissions (this is changing soon) nor charge for submissions.

By the way, I’m not judging, just pointing it out (I was a screener for Mid-American Review when I was a grad student). This is a question often discussed in writing circles and becomes more interesting as more journals adopt submission fees–see previous post for complete context. I know a lot of writers worry that a 24-year-old grad student may not be the best judge of what literature is “eligible.” I know I’m a very different reader than I was 20 years ago.

Pay to Play Poetry Journals: Is This Right?

NOTE: This post is 8 years old. A lot has changed in the market, and I’m not completely sure how much of this post I still stand behind. It’s getting harder to find publications that don’t charge, so I find myself willing paying fees more frequently. 

The Nov/Dec issue of Poets and Writers magazine ran a story on what may be one of the most important issues facing the literary community, or at least the literary journal community, today. The article discussed the emerging trend of literary journals charging writers for content submissions.

Several journals, including the Missouri Review, Hunger Mountain and the New England Review charge a fee of $2-$3 for writers to send in work for possible publication. Some, like the Ploushares, only apply that fee to online submissions while others require the fee from all unsolicited submissions. None of the journals mentioned in the article or in online conversations that followed it charge authors for solicited submissions.

The fee issue created a little hurricane in several blogs and forums for obvious reasons. At one point a private listserv conversation by editors belonging to the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) was made public, eliciting more outrage from both writers who read the emails and the editors who (rightly) didn’t want their debate on the issue made public.

Now of course I know that times are tough for literary journals. They’re facing three primary problems. First, funding for literature (particularly in university-affiliated journals) has been significantly cut. Second, the workload continues to increase as the number of people who want to get published (partially fed by expanding MFA programs) gets overwhelming (one editor said he receives about 1,000 submissions a month). Finally, while interest in getting published increases, subscriptions decrease—less people are buying the journals.

So of course that means that both money and time are stretched thin. I get that. I work in consumer magazine publishing myself. I understand the problem of shrinking staff/resources and shrinking budgets. I never met a dollar I didn’t like. What I don’t understand is how the answer to the problem is to charge the very people whose work publishers should be embracing and without whom they’d have no product to publish.

A few editors commented that they hoped charging writers would limit the amount of submissions they received. So far the results haven’t proved that. If they want to receive less submissions, how about shortening the open submission period? I have trouble understanding a paradigm in which an abundance of artists is perceived as a problem that requires a punitive response.

Do writers expect special treatment when they’re paying for their work to be read? Many journals use interns or grad students to screen their open submissions—I was one of those when I was a grad student 20 years ago, so I know how it works. How long do these readers spend on a submission? Often they only spend a minute or two on a piece, maybe less (and still take six months to respond). In their defense, bad writing singles itself out quickly; however, if a person has paid for the privilege of submitting should that person expect a more thorough reading, maybe even something more than a generic, unsigned rejection form? Maybe a faster response? If you think money doesn’t influence expectations in a relationship then just ask to borrow money from a friend and see what happens.

While I don’t like contest entry fees either, I see a big difference. With contests there’s the promise someone will get a big payoff (hundreds or thousands of dollars in some, book publication). Most literary journals pay little if anything. The most frequent payment is a copy or two of the journal.

A few of the journals who charge fees for unsolicited submissions also note that the acceptance rate for open submissions is less than 1 percent. This means the 99 percent are essentially subsidizing the work of writers who were invited to the journal and didn’t have to pay the submission fee. How is that fair?

On the Facebook page of an editor on a well-know literary pub (a pub that doesn’t charge fees) I made the comment that a journal that needs to charge its rejected writers in order to survive needs to examine its business model and maybe rethink its product into something people are more likely to pay for. Or the product could be redesigned into something that cost less to produce/mail.

I was quickly shot down by another editor for the blasphemy of equating an art journal to a business or product. I understand the sensitivity considering the political climate and all, but what I meant and believe is that if the publication is not able to find a supportive audience without imposing a submission tax then that is a publication that needs to wonder about the need it is serving. I’m not saying a literary journal that’s losing money needs to shut down, but it should think seriously about its place in the community and whether or not it’s doing a good job. If readers aren’t willing to pay for it, is there something wrong with the publication? Is there something wrong with its outreach or marketing?

One of the rationales for charging for online submissions is that the fee of $3 is roughly the same as we’d be paying for postage and envelopes. That may be the case for fiction writers who mail 25 pages at a time, but for poets who mail 5 or 6 pages it’s not even close. And even if the costs were the same, why does the saving in postage now have to go to the journal? Why does a journal get to profit from the opportunity to reject you? Let’s be honest, with acceptance rates of less than 1 percent, they’re profiting from rejection.

So if ultimately the problem is a lack of paying readers, how about solving that problem rather than creating a new ethical problem?

One of the problems with submission fees is that they inadvertently discourage subscriptions. Hopefully most writers feel some sense of obligation to the journals they’re targeting and especially the journals they’re accepted by. Hopefully that sense of obligation occasionally results in a purchase or subscription. But with submission fees the writer feels that he or she has already met that obligation, but at a much lower cost (and without the benefit of receiving the journal). Why feel obligated to buy a copy when the writer has already done his part by sending in a $3 rejection fee?

Right now I’m subscribing to seven  journals at a cost of about $95 a year. I send out about 30 poetry submissions a year. From some of the editors’ comments on the leaked listserv I should be subscribing to 30 journals a year. Is that really reasonable? Next year I’ll re-subscribe to about half of those journals and subscribe to three or four new ones so over a number of years I’ll be able to sample a wide range.

Some editors suggest the option of only allowing subscribers to submit. The problem with that is that it creates a closed little club. The journal turns from a public forum to a private one, and it greatly reduces the pool of qualified writers.

I do recognize the problem. Really I do. But the burden shouldn’t be put on the people whose work creates the journal. Even more, the burden shouldn’t be unevenly put on the people who are least likely (due to high rejection rates) to be a part of the journal’s forum. If journals look at this as a reader problem, not a revenue problem, then they won’t leap to the most vulnerable population available to be exploited. They’ll instead be forced to look at themselves, their audience and their mission and come up with creative solutions to the problem.

So far I personally haven’t faced this situation since none of the journals I’m interested in charge fees, but many editors seem to believe that the fee model is bound to become the norm. I’m not sure I believe that, but I’m interested in hearing what other people think.

Read comments from the Missouri Review here.

Read the opinion of Gian Lombardo, editor of Quale Press, here.

Go here for the blog of Laura Maylene Walter, author of the Poets and Writers article.

Please add your comments below. If you believe this is an important topic, please forward, post, tweet and share.

Dreaded Inspiration and the Damned Muse

Apollo and the muses.

I was the featured reader at a bookstore reading series recently, and after the reading, the host asked members of the audience (all two of them, I think) if anyone had any questions for me. One gentleman raised his hand and asked that common, yet dreaded question, “what inspires your poems?”

Wow, that’s both an important and maddening question. I believe most serious poets will agree with me, that inspiration, at least in terms of writing, is a horrible and troubling concept. You might as well ask what inspires me to wake up in the morning. I do it because that’s what needs to be done at that moment.

It’s pretty common for non writers to believe that writers seek out inspiration or wait to get touched by a divine muse. But that doesn’t happen. Not once in any of my creative writing classes did the instructor talk about how to be inspired. Instead we talked about line tension, metaphors, pacing, loading and sometimes whether buffalo or pork sausage was better on pizza (buffalo usually won out).

Perhaps it’s because inspiration is just such a lousy word. What I think the questioner really wanted to know was where I got the ideas for my poems (sort of the same question, but different enough to be important).

Anyway, my answer was words, images, everything. I get excited by words, word images, word sounds and textures and word shadows. When I read poems, I read with a pencil. I check, circle and underline words and phrases that get me excited. Also, things I bump into on a daily and boring basis. Life.

When I talk about poems with other people in my monthly workshop group, we don’t talk about inspiration; we talk about the words–which ones are working for the poem and which ones are working against it.

When I get to Robert Lowell’s line “under the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church” I get tingles. The way the consonants first choke up my throat and then the ps stumble out the lips, well that’s just marvelous.

I love William Stafford’s “On the near pine rain hangs / the way I suppose it hangs / on the far” because those words both create a clear little picture for me as well as hold shadows and levels of significance.

And when Jane Hirshfield writes of a redwood tree: “Already the first branch-tips brush at the window. / Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life” I shudder with a little bit of fear for all of us.

Is that inspiration?

To answer his question I referred to one of the poems I’d presented earlier that evening and pointed out one of the words in it: andirons. I have andirons in my fireplace, but it’s not a word I use regularly, or ever. Yet I like the sound of it. It sounds rugged, useful, a little romantic and a little archaic. The simple answer is that I was in a mood to write and I was looking for a word to get me started, so I picked that one. “That word, if you will, was the inspiration,” I told him.

Of course, the poem is not about andirons.

My dog sometimes sleeps in front of the fireplace, so I knew I could put the dog in there someplace. Without wood, there’s no fire, and without forests there’s no wood. From there a logical structure was born, ideas developed, and a poem was built from that.

I had no idea where the poem was going, what, if any, primary theme would emerge or any significant plan, but I had a few words to start, and I let those, along with the sounds and connotative shadows, dictate the words that followed.

That’s not inspiration, that’s process.

When I was in college I lived a couple of years with a painter. Sometimes he’d pass me a canvas and we’d paint together. And once again, the creation was about process, not inspiration. He’d put down a line or shape and let that stroke define the next one.

Sometimes subject matter starts first. I may tell myself I want to write about a specific experience or incident, but I still let process do most of the driving. Rarely do I know what exactly I’m going to write until I’m in the middle of spelling the word. That discovery is a large part of the thrill for me. Even now. Themes and patterns will emerge, sense will come forth, and then you give it more shape in the firming up process of revision.

In his book about writing, The Triggering Town, poet Richard Hugo makes similar suggestions: “Depend on rhythm, tonality, and the music of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write meaningless sequences.”

I’m not sure any of that explanation helped this audience member. I hope it helped him appreciate the poems he was hearing, and maybe helped eliminate the stress he felt in trying to “figure out” what the poem was saying. There is no muse. The truth is a lot simpler and a lot more complicated than that.


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