An Interview with Jane Hirshfield

An interview with Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953) by Susan Thornton Hobby, originally published in the Little Patuxent Review in 2015.

Jane Hirshfield’s verse is so thick with food -- ripe apricots, steaming lentil soups, sharp coriander and thyme -- it’s a wonder each meal’s smells don’t waft out when readers crack open her books.

A poet, translator, essayist, and former cook at the influential Greens Restaurant in San Francisco, Hirshfield lives and writes in Mill Valley, California, where her windows look out over her stone-walled garden full of herbs and fruit trees.

In her career, which truly took off after an adult education poetry writing course in 1981, Hirshfield has garnered honors, such as being elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and winning the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. Her collection After was shortlisted for England’s T. S. Eliot Prize and named a “best book of 2006” by The Washington Post. A student and translator of the poetry from the women in the ancient courts of Japan and the master haiku writer Basho, Hirshfield quotes liberally from those sources. And though a Zen Buddhist, she resists being labeled a Zen poet.

Hirshfield has published seven collections of her poems, and was proofing the galleys of her new poetry collection and a book of essays this past autumn; virtually all her books have a few verses suffused with aromas and tastes. Her poems address food the way they touch other subjects: with gentleness and attention.

Hirshfield began writing her poetry, which the New York Times has called “radiant and passionate,” as a very young girl, but kept her work mostly to herself until college, when she published her first poem in The Nation after she won the magazine’s Discovery Award.

Though she was born in New York City, Hirshfield says she feels more comfortable closer to nature. For a year after she graduated from Princeton University, she worked on a New Jersey farm, picking corn, peaches, apples and squash. Then, in stereotypical 1970s fashion, she drove a red Dodge van with tie-dyed curtains across the country to California, where she began eight years of study at the San Francisco Zen Center.

Because Zen students need to work in Buddhist environments as part of their practice, she was made one of the original dinner cooks at Greens Restaurant, despite having no professional training. In three years there, founding chef Deborah Madison taught Hirshfield to navigate a restaurant kitchen; Hirshfield later helped edit The Greens Cookbook.

Conquering the fear of working at a high-stress restaurant -- such as nights when she stood at a blazing stove filling, flipping and serving from six crepe pans at once -- epitomizes the way Hirshfield lives. A self-described introvert who stands up before huge audiences many times a year to speak her verse, Hirshfield writes, and cooks, courageously.

Remaining open to discovery, to possibilities, is one of Hirshfield’s core tenets. On her refrigerator is the poem from seventeenth-century writer and samurai Mizuta Masahide:

Barn’s burnt down
I can see the moon.

Opening to the world with full attention -- to its joys and sorrows, its bitter and sweet -- leads to poetry for Hirshfield. Her newest collection, Come, Thief, from 2011, takes its title from the Chinese folktale of the hermit who returns to find his forest hut burgled; all of his possessions are stolen save one, an iron cauldron that the thief thought was too heavy. The hermit snatches up the pot and runs down the road after the thief, yelling, “Wait, you forgot this!”

That thief for her, Hirshfield has said, is time. The welcoming of the change that time brings is essential, she says, though difficult. And a poet’s job is to concentrate on those changes in the world and in the inner life, and to put them into words.

The opening lines of her book of essays Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry read, “Every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections -- language that hears itself and what is around it, sees itself and what is around it, looks back at those who look into its gaze and knows more perhaps even than we do about who and what we are. It begins, that is, in the body and mind of concentration.”


Susan Thornton Hobby: After you finished your bachelors degree, you picked produce on a New Jersey farm for a year. Did you discover anything from that experience?

Jane Hirshfield: A world I knew I wanted to live in. I grew up in lower Manhattan. My first memory, though, was of what my parents later said was my first trip to the country, around age two — lying on my back, with blue unlimited sky in my eyes; right behind my head, a tall mass of dark hedge; in my mouth, the taste of blackberries. From then on, I must have felt something extraordinary and sweet and amazing existed, just beyond the edges of my life. Great richnesses offer themselves to a child immersed in a great urban culture — but connection to the earth is not among them.

STH: How was learning to cook in the professional kitchen of Greens different from cooking in your home kitchen? 

JH: At home, I cooked what I think of as classic hippie food, brown rice and sautéed vegetables. The memorable invention of my nineteenth year was a hot and cold salad. Though in truth, I can barely remember it — possibly with zucchini and bulgur or rice? The salad was warm, but had cold grapes and apples in it. Or it was cold, but with cooked vegetables added hot. Some cheese, melting?

When I was sent to the Greens kitchen for my work, the restaurant was still defined as a Zen practice place. Our twelve-, sometimes thirteen-hour shifts passed in concentration and mostly silence, and a single crew did everything from lettuce prep in the morning to scouring the stoves and floor each night. I didn’t know how to hold a knife when I arrived. I learned to make five-course meals for 150 people. By the time I left I was something like a chef de cuisine, but was always glad that Deborah Madison and later Annie Somerville were figuring out the menus. I might sometimes suggest that a little vinegar might brighten a soup.

Restaurant cooking never stops being a state of semi-crisis, even when done in the spirit of Zen, it’s the spirit of Samurai Zen rather than tea ceremony. The immediacies of the situation don’t allow for failure or long contemplation. I gradually did learn many techniques, including chopping herbs with two big knives held parallel in the hand, how to salt, how to make a time-consuming but impressive nine-layer savory crepe cake, a soufflé, a beurre blanc, aioli ... .

I learned to taste things and think for myself about how they tasted, to look at things and think for myself about how they looked. I learned that attention changes the flavor of things. I also learned that if you listen to someone else and try to chop more quickly than you are capable, you will find out it’s better to judge your capacities for yourself. Still, by the end of my time there, I could keep six crepe-making pans going at once on the Wolf range.

STH: You once said: “One thing that makes reading poetry lustrous is that the words set down on the page are not a destination, they are a recipe. A poem is a collaborative art: an arc of experience happens first in the writer, then in the reader. If the reader were told everything, they'd be left passive, not co-author but recipient, inert and bored and unexpanded.”  Could you talk further about the recipe analogy?

JH: Recipes are instructions for assembling a thing whose parts becomes more than themselves. The point of a poem isn’t the words, it’s what they lead to if you add the world to them, add yourself to them, and follow the suggestions: an actual experience of the actual world. Food is sustaining, poems are sustaining, because they are not symbolic thought, they are life itself, unfolding within and through us, by our responding awareness.

A musical score is the same. All three things (recipes, poems, musical scores) are instructions whose following requires instruments (our hands, ears, tongues, some wooden viola or verb or stirring spoon, some Dijon mustard or summer squash) and that lead you into the sublime that was already present, perhaps, but out of awareness’s reach. Some recipes, like that last sentence’s grammar, are complicated. Some are simple. But they always lead you to a changed existence. The egg whites set. The heart opens.

STH: What do you find in your own garden, both literally and figuratively?

JH: Literally, old roses, bulbs, perennials, fruit trees, herbs, vegetables, snails, hungry birds that eat the lettuce and snap pea starts, sometimes a fox or a coyote. Mostly not deer, or the other things I named would be eaten. Figuratively, I find a microcosm, one that seems entirely endless. I find the outer reflection of my own life’s inner events — an apricot tree losing all its crop in a single night’s wind. An aging apple tree that somehow keeps making apples. The mysterious fig, whose flowers blossom secretly inward.

STH: In many of your poems, you are addressing something that is overlooked by many people -- a skeleton, a groundhog, a melon. Is food in that category of taken for granted?

JH: Well, food is a fairly noticeable part of the lives of most people I know. It may be the very definition of what we take least for granted. Perhaps it’s so ubiquitously present that we sometimes fail to see that it is. The feast in the Mead Hall in Beowulf isn’t the first thing we think about when we read that story, but it’s where people gather to eat — or for some, to be eaten. That Mead Hall and its foodstuffs are no small part of the tale.

But the truth of your question is perhaps this: that poems take what we already think we have seen and let us see those things in changed ways, more highly lit and more deeply shadowed from more directions. “Nondescript,” we say of what we ourselves have failed to bring into the realm of description. Perhaps one of poetry’s tasks, beginning with the Romantics, has been to bring more and more burnish of attention to more and more of what used to be taken for granted. C. P. Cavafy makes new the grief of death in the Iliad when he writes from the point of view of Achilles’ two horses.

But poetry has always done this. Those weeping horses were already in Homer. All Cavafy did was let us linger with them a little longer ... and by doing that, reawakens both the sorrow of human transience and Homer’s poem. It’s what cybernetics might call a self-amplifying system. Awakeness summons further awakeness.

STH: T. S. Eliot’s protagonist Prufrock wondered, “Do I dare to eat a peach?”  I don’t think the speaker in a Jane Hirshfield poem would ask. In fact, in your poem “1973,” there’s an awful lot of peach-eating that leads to “the answering yes.” Could you talk about that?

JH: That poem goes back to my first job after college, working on one farm, while living on another with my love from college. It was the first time I’d lived with a man on our own, and the poem describes that life in more direct and outwardly autobiographical ways than almost anything I’ve written, before or after. I wrote the poem many years after what it describes. I don’t know what made me recall so strongly that first heat and perfume of eros.

All I know is I still find it true: as with fully ripe peaches, some moments can only be eaten all at once, but to do that, you must first say yes to them. That first love, though it didn’t last all that long, was like that: a life-altering yes. And of course, it was the early 1970s. The world and what a person felt she could do in it had by then changed a great deal since Prufrock’s.

STH: In a 2013 interview for, in their “five essential utensils for home cooks” series, you spoke of asking yourself “what else?” while writing or cooking. Could you say something about the “what elses?” of cooking and of poetry? 

JH: That series of interviews was centered around utensils. Other contributors to it were mostly chefs, who would talk about fresh spices, or keeping an herb garden, or particular knives. I decided to take on, instead of my microplane grater, what I called “utensils of the spirit” and so the “kitchen essential” I was speaking of just there was keeping a spirit of curiosity and experiment.

In writing, in cooking, there are basics — techniques, ingredients. To follow the known steps slavishly will make something pretty good. But pretty good is sometimes not good enough. It is the extra thought — the unexpected flavor or word choice or angle of observation — that stops us in our tracks.

I once had a bowl of carrot soup I have never forgotten. The first bite stopped conversation entirely. It was a silencing soup. You couldn’t figure out how it was what it was. I asked the waiter, who asked the chef, and word came back from the kitchen. The "what else" of it was a way to get more carrotness out of a carrot than seemed possible to get. The technique, though, is not what I remember. What I remember is a night when some carrots turned into carrot, more carrot than any imaginable carrot could be, right there in my spoon.

STH: You have two books coming out in 2015, one a book of poetry called The Beauty, and the second a book of essays entitled Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. Is there more food in those books?

JH: The poetry book does indeed have new poems with food in them — a few sandwiches, some honey, several cups of coffee (one spilled), an apricot, others. The prose book, I would have to look closely to enumerate more fully, but the last poem it explores is Raymond Carver’s marvelous “Soda Crackers.” Another is a gorgeous and unbearable sonnet by Gwendolyn Brooks, “My Dreams, My Works, Must Wait Till After Hell,” that opens, “I hold my honey and I store my bread / in little jars and cabinets of my will. / I label clearly, and each latch and lid / I bid, Be firm till I return from hell.”

I’ve never thought to look to see how many poets speak of food somewhere in their work. I suspect almost all. There is nothing more fundamental or nearer the marrow of our desires and our very continuance.

STH: What are you cooking lately?

JH: It’s late September as I answer these questions. My fig tree is giving me a few ripe figs each day. I recently had poet Kay Ryan over for a birthday supper, and tried to include as much as I could from the garden. I started by thinking about the figs, then worked my way back through the menu.

The first course was a good mozzarella burrata from southern California, with slices of homegrown tomatoes, julienned garden basil, a drizzle of special California olive oil. We also had a baguette to dip in olive oil infused with garlic that had been rubbed into a lovely little celadon-colored ceramic dish with grating ribs on the bottom. Kay gave me that last Christmas. She swore the garlic tastes completely different when prepared in that dish, and I think she’s right — the flavors release.

The entree was fettucine with red peppers, lemon peel, and braised fennel. If I’d still had any left, I’d have made a side dish of “Dragon’s Tongue” heritage beans from the garden — they are beautiful, streaked purple and green, and I think of them as “poets’ beans” because I’ve been growing them every year since Sandra Alcosser gave me some from her own garden, probably fifteen years ago now. (I keep trying to give some to other poets to grow; oddly, no one seems to have taken up the lineage.)

Dessert was the figs, halved, topped with a local cheese called Humboldt Fog mixed with a little milder cream cheese, some warmed orange blossom honey, and a bit of finely minced rosemary, also of course from the garden. I broiled them until the topping browned and melted and the figs were barely cooked. The wine was Amarone, one of the most ancient of Italian wines, made from half-dried grapes.

If I sound like a perfect cliché of a California cook from all this, I have to agree. But I only do this kind of cooking for a special occasion. A more typical dinner is zucchini sautéed in a pan with olive oil, salted and peppered, with some cut-up tomatoes if I have any. Maybe some rice.

I eat now pretty much the way I ate when I was eighteen: the simplest possible thing that tastes good and is real. I feel that way about poems as well. They should be as simple as life’s complexities, and the heart’s complexities, allow them to be. Reality is the flavor I want to eat. I just try to bring out its intensity a little, in whatever way I might be able to add.

STH: And what are you writing?

JH: I just finished the first draft of a talk on “Very Short Poems, Haiku and Otherwise.” I love very short poems that fall into that “otherwise” lineage. The very short poem is ubiquitous and has many flavors and textures in addition to those found in Japanese literature -- from Sumerian proverbs to the epigram, riddle, A. R. Ammons’s “really short poems,” James Richardson’s aphorisms, the two-line women’s landays that poet-journalist Eliza Griswold recently collected from Afghani women. I gave the talk in Bemidji, Minnesota, and came home with two pounds of wild rice gathered by a former student, the poet LouAnn Muhm.

Now I’m doing what I love most to do: writing new poems. One at a time.

© Susan Thornton Hobby, 2015. All rights reserved.