For Jane Hirshfield, poems are responses to questions that can never really be answered, but must be considered regardless. “A life gives you many questions and each is a door, window, or gate into some great mystery, as well as dilemma,” she told me this week via email ahead of the Portland Book Festival. “Love can’t ever be fully comprehended, nor can transience, nor can death. These things find us here, in our bodies, our histories, our hearts.… For me, navigating this life requires finding things I don’t know yet. Poems help me find them. The poem’s facts, weather, images, and stories offer ladder rungs into a larger, more possible world. Sometimes you descend the ladder, sometimes you climb it. Sometimes you jump.”
The San Francisco Bay area poet is one of dozens of authors appearing at Saturday’s festival (everything you need to know about attending is available here). Her new book, The Asking: New and Selected Poems, is a comprehensive collection of “some of the most important poetry in the world today,” according to The New York Times Magazine. A work that asks difficult questions and provides beautiful responses, the book examines the bonds of humanity, our duty to the planet, and the perception of life.
“I’d turned down the suggestion to bring out a ‘New & Selected Poems’ at least three times before,” Hirshfield said. “When Deb Garrison, my editor at Knopf, suggested it this time — to come out the year I turned 70 — I realized I’d lost my excuse that it felt premature. Now that I have the book in hand, it suddenly does make sense to me. Fifty years of my life as a poet and person are in it. I still blink a bit at the thought of that.”
To Hirshfield, poems are a unifying force that refuse to separate or set people apart from each other. They display the relation between all living beings, Hirshfield said, and how each individual plays a part of “one continuous fabric of existence.”
“When you are able to recognize this life as connection, you are less alone and less afraid,” she continued. “You are less ‘you,’ and more ‘we.’ All poems know this first-person-plural existence. If there is a mountain in a poem, its steepness and thickets are in your body. That is how you know both the meaning of the mountain and the meaning of your own feet, ankles, and knees that walk it.”
Hirshfield will speak at 5 p.m. in Portland’5 Winningstad Theatre on “Language and Life” with Nashville poet Major Jackson and moderator Matthew Zapruder.
Victoria Adukwei Bulley sees poetry as an adaptable place from which to reach both outward and inward.
“Poetry can be a space of working things out, leaving notes for someone else to find…” she told me when asked about the genre’s place in today’s social climate. “It can be a way of telling the truth. It can also be a way of hiding. I don’t think poetry is inherently good, but at its best, I still believe it has the power to offer people ways and wisdoms that can be carried and held in the heart for years on end.”
The British poet, artist, and filmmaker will read from her debut collection, Quiet, at 1:45 p.m in Portland’5 Brunish Theatre, joined by poet Roger Reeves and moderator John Freeman. The book has been praised for its complex and important consideration of forms of resistance, love, and community, as well as relating the personal to the political.
“I had been working on a collection that thought about the ways that language fails, about the choices that one makes about what to say or not say and how this is inflected by Blackness,” Adukwei Bulley said of the catalyst for writing Quiet. “Later down the line, I came across the work of Kevin Quashie, thanks to friend and scholar DJ Lynnée Denise. His work The Sovereignty of Quiet opened up a world for me in thinking through many of the manuscript’s concerns around language, but also expanded my thinking about ‘quiet’ as a modality that both transcends and transforms ideas of resistance.”
Novelist, poet, and essayist Elisa Gonzalez, whose debut poetry collection is Grand Tour, thinks of herself as a multifaceted writer experiencing “genre-sprawl” or “genre agnosticism.”
“I sometimes wish I restricted my imagination and desire more, as I worry about seeming like a dilettante,” said Gonzalez, who lives in New York City. “In each genre, I can pressure ideas, explore questions, tell stories, confess, hide … but the reason I reach for one versus another is more intuitive and, honestly, mysterious to me. Essay, story, novel, poem — they feel like things that present themselves to me, and then I work through the demands of each form and each specific case.”
Gonzalez’s new work was called “mesmerizing” and “deeply original” by the late Louise Glück, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and encapsulates an intricate search for balance. The collection deals with the drama of the mind’s eye, the contrast between love and hate, and the remaking of a life.
“I am not sure poetry is important, in the sense that I don’t believe poems will fix everything or change the world,” she said. “A poem isn’t legislation or journalism, a stone or a gun.… Some poems act, but many more contemplate, feel, or remember. So the influence they have on the world is different from something that’s explicitly socially reparative…”
When it came to the decision to write Grand Tour, Gonzalez had been writing poems for years and had to come face to face with difficult questions.
“[I was] trapped by perfectionism into thinking that someday the perfect book would just announce itself to me. Eventually, I realized that wasn’t going to happen; I’d have to contend with making a flawed first book,” she said.
Gonzalez finished the first manuscript draft in August 2021, a few weeks before her youngest brother was killed. “In the haze and business of grief, I didn’t look at it for months. I thought it was probably dead, too, because I was so changed by his death. How could I work on those poems when the person who wrote them no longer existed?”
She said she wrote a few poems she thought belonged to another book, but Glück and poet friend Jameson Fitzpatrick both thought that they belonged in the existing book. “Once I incorporated them,” Gonzalez said, “I saw that they transformed the rest of the poems, so that they seemed haunted by the future.”
Gonzalez will be joined at noon in the Brunish Theatre by slam poet champion Jae Nichelle and moderator Marisa Siegel.
I recently spoke via email with each of the poets about their processes, favorite poets, and most recent works. Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
When did you know you wanted writing to be your profession?
Hirshfield: After my first small-press book appeared, my mother pulled from a dresser drawer one of those large brown sheets of paper with blue lines on it that children are given when first learning to write. On it: “I want to be a writer when I grow up.” I would not have remembered the intention to spend my life as a writer goes so far back, but I still have the evidence. That sheet is tucked away now somewhere here.
Gonzalez: I didn’t entertain the idea that writing could be my profession until I was at least in graduate school. Even then, it seemed like it would be difficult to find a life that could include writing, given the material demands of living and how little writing tends to earn. But I’ve wanted writing to be a consistent part of my life, whatever my official profession, since I was 18. At every point, when I’ve had to make a choice, I’ve made the one that I thought would allow me to keep writing.
Adukwei Bulley: It’s strange to me, even now, to think of writing as a profession. I’m not sure how deeply I knew that it could be one, as a child. This is somewhat humorous to me, because I loved reading as a kid and was obviously aware that books were written by somebody, somewhere. But I didn’t know or meet many writers until much closer to adulthood, and maybe it’s because of this that so many of the books I loved seemed to have been their own thing entirely — as though they had always existed instead of being written. Many books still feel this way for me. And yet even at a very young age, I was writing all the time — telling stories, making things up, journaling — and ultimately, I’ve just kept doing that.
When did you first begin writing poetry?
Hirshfield: I always wrote, from the beginning, and it was always poetry. I can’t draw. I can’t sing. I have no gifts for narrative, plot, or character development. Superb narrative poems do exist — not least, say, the Odyssey — but lyric poems parse the inner and outer worlds in a different way. They’re closer to how we steepen our experience of the world and our lives in paintings, photographs, and certain modes of music. Some condition of being or feeling is conjured, put under pressure, or changed — the way ground beans, heat, water, and pressure become something changed: an espresso. A work of art is both the record of and the creation of a transformed relationship with existence … a transformed perception, feeling, or understanding.
Gonzalez: Like many people, I wrote a lot as a child. Mostly stories or diary entries, but also poems. When I was about 18, I began to write poetry seriously — to think of it as a pursuit that could be important, even essential, to my life. This happened, at least in part, because I took a poetry workshop with Louise Glück, whose rigor, honesty, attention, and generosity all pushed me toward the life I have now.
Adukwei Bulley: I remember the first poem I wrote was at school, because the teacher was so impressed that she sent me to the other classes in my year group to read it aloud. It was about spiders. But the more serious poems began taking shape as a result of keeping a journal from the age of 14 or 15. I’d write my regular entries in the front of the journal, then write more fragmented, lineated bits of text at the back. I wasn’t trying to write poems at the time, but I now see how that process led to poems.
Tell me a little bit about your creative process. What is your chosen medium to work in and/or where do you write, and what inspires you?
Hirshfield: I’ve written by pencil, pen, typewriter, computer, then pen again. For many years now, the first draft usually goes on the back of a torn-in-half sheet of paper with some earlier work on the other side. That practice began when I was working away from home and running out of paper — but I came to like it, turning earlier drafts into compost for new ones.
More truly, though, the first medium is the inner voice, the inner ear. I hear words begin to speak themselves through me. They have a music, a tone.… They have the specific senses, leaps, and connections that tell me this is poetry, and not the ordinary chatter of the ongoing day.
Gonzalez: I write either in my apartment, in a desk that faces a window — or at The Center for Fiction Writers’ Studio in Brooklyn, which is a lovely (and, importantly, window-filled) space. At home, I try to ensure that everything in my vicinity is beautiful or useful, so I keep flowers, a pineapple candlestick, random trinkets, and books relevant to whatever I’m working on at hand.
Adukwei Bulley: I’m most comfortable writing during the nighttime. I like the lack of noise, the almost zero chance that anyone will text, call, or email. Night is a time when the thoughts of the day congeal for me, and I tend to listen to music as I think things through. This is usually in the living room or at the kitchen table. At some point, I might start journaling or I’ll go straight to the poem, and if I’m writing by hand, I prefer to write in pencil rather than pen.
Jane, you also write essays and translations. What is the importance of each genre for you and how do the others relate to poetry? Do they inform each other and cause your styles to shift?
Hirshfield: Each of these ways of understanding more deeply informs the other. Each does different work for me. Essays are turned to for different reasons, and entered by different kinds of questions — ones that require the thinking of prose. They seek new, enlarged knowledge, but for me, an essay is more an exploration than an epiphany.
A few times, I’ve come to some subject through both genres. My long essay on Poetry & the Constellation of Surprise in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World looks at how all good poems must hold something that cannot be predicted or known in advance, only re-created in the reading of the poem. Quite a few years later, I wrote a poem called I Wanted to Be Surprised. They are entirely different explorations of the same central subject, doing entirely different work in my psyche and understanding. One was literary analysis and an exploration of how we human beings work. The other was personal, looking at surprise from the inside of my skin. We are such sensitive beings; the first drop of rain on the forearm will always surprise us when it comes.
As for the translations, I began co-translating poems by the two foremost Japanese women poets of the classical era, Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, because I’d waited 15 years for someone else to make more than the half dozen poems I’d seen available in English. These were poems I first read when I was 18. I was stunned by their compression, beauty, tact, and power; how they spoke in entirely new ways into what was recognizably my own experience, a thousand years later, in a different language and culture. By luck, I was introduced to my Japanese co-translator, Mariko Aratani, a native Japanese speaker, also an amateur who loved the poems, too. The book we ended up making, The Ink Dark Moon is still in print after 30 years, and a new edition was brought out just this year in England.
Co-translating the five-line tanka poems was life-changing. It ingrained in some essential double-helix knowledge of the movement between presentation and transformation. It also changed my relationship to revision. When, because of the differences between English and Japanese, you can make seven versions of a poem and each is equally valid, it changes revision from being something arduous to being something more freely and joyously experimental…. Spending a year translating Komachi’s and Shikibu’s words left me a different poet, but also a different person.
Victoria, you are both a writer and a filmmaker. Can you tell me how these mediums relate for you and whether they affect each other when it comes to your work?
Adukwei Bulley: I like film because I find it very poetic — or rather, I find my own poetics to be very film- and image-based. I have a really good visual memory, and images carry a lot of charge for me, such that the act of writing often doesn’t feel like it can match up.
Who are some favorite poets you would recommend to our readers?
Hirshfield: I’m going to pass on naming living American peers. I would go on and on and still leave out someone essential. Let me offer some poets in translation who are always near at hand: Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, and Zbigniew Herbert are Polish poets whose views of reality are bracingly and unsimplifyingly sane. Tomas Transtromer and Lars Gustafsson are two Swedish poets who stay abidingly new. Other European poets are Olav Hauge, Miroslav Holub, Constantine Cavafy, and Fernando Pessoa. From South America are Borges, Neruda, and Juarroz. I recommend big anthologies of the classical poets of China and Japan, and many others.
From the generation of American poets no longer with us: Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, and James Wright. Also, and perhaps more surprising to people, are Kenneth Koch, Robert Creeley, and Frank O’Hara. These poets were keystone poets for my generation…. But really, it is not poets one should recommend; it is individual poems. And that might raise another list entirely.
Gonzalez: Louise Glück, Fady Joudah, Mahmoud Darwish, June Jordan, Solmaz Sharif, Wong May, Tory Dent, Claudia Rankine (especially Don’t Let Me Be Lonely), Terrance Hayes, C.D. Wright, Momtaza Mehri, Nuar Alsadir, Marilyn Hacker, Brenda Shaughnessy, Layli Long Soldier, Jenny Xie, Jennifer Cheng, Courtney Bush… The list goes on and on.
Adukwei Bulley: Layli Long Soldier, Aracelis Girmay, Natalie Diaz, Zaffar Kunial, Gboyega Odubanjo, Will Harris, Keith Jarrett, Momtaza Mehri, and Toni Giselle Stuart.
What advice can you give poets seeking to publish their work?
Hirshfield: Persist, but don’t rush. I published my first poem in a magazine in 1973 and my second in 1983. In between, I walked away from trying to publish. I needed to become a person who might have something to say, and some way to say it. I would mostly advise: Don’t worry about publication. Good poems and good books will always find homes, though it may take a few tries more than you think you can bear. And this: Nothing is rigged. The magazine editors and the book-contest judges want to find a poem by someone they’ve never heard of that takes, as Dickinson described it, the top of their head off. To make an original discovery is the greatest of joys. An editor wants that. A reader wants that. A writer wants that. There have never been more ways to publish than there are now, or more places to say poems to others in public ways. If you persist, your work will find its way to others. And how to persist? How to write a poem that will surprise even you who writes it? Open the window a few inches more than is comfortable. Welcome vulnerability, risk, and strangeness. Welcome simplicity and directness, and welcome what cannot be said — only beckoned from outside any syllable, symbol, or ink. Inhabit your own fingerprints and the shoes that have taken the shape of your feet and your walking. Then see if what you have conjured may bring some news that others find useful as a companion.
Gonzalez: Don’t be afraid to take your time, to revise and revise and revise. If you’re ready to seek publication, you have to be ready to take rejection, and probably a lot of it. Persist. Seek out places that publish poems you like and resemble what you’re writing. That’s not a firm rule, but if the publication never publishes anything similar to your work, they’re probably not a good fit for you. If you’re writing multi-page experimental long-lined poems, The New Yorker is not your venue. But there are wonderful places that would be. It is also important to read magazines that publish poetry, to support them by publicizing work you like, and make financial contributions if you can afford to. Publishing your poems shouldn’t be extractive — you have to give, too. Poetry isn’t a money-making endeavor, and we need to preserve the space for it to be an effort of love.
Adukwei Bulley: Find a few writer friends whom you can trust and commit to growing stronger with. Read your work aloud, even just to yourself. Follow your curiosities and read accordingly. Don’t limit your reading to what you think is poetry-relevant. Everything is connected and therefore, metaphors abound.