Sunday, September 09, 2007

Catch a Feather: Poet Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield visited Vermont this summer. She taught at the Vermont Studio Center and provided a reading for a packed crowd in St. Johnsbury, at the Athenaeum. Her presentation, threaded with both Zen and passion (they are not, in fact, incompatible), brought her a steady stream afterward of people who wanted to thank her, to purchase books of her poetry, and to confirm the sense of quiet connection they had found in her work.

Hirshfield charmed the gathering by first murmurring, "I have found Vermont to be a state filled with wonderful suprises." She explained that she usually begins a reading with the same poem -- and in the last couple of years has moved to one that she wrote while at the Rockefeller Center for Artists and Scholars in Bellagio, Italy. She admitted that the imposing grandeur of the site had at first silenced her. What broke her free from the silence was deliberately thinking about all the writers for whom not even paper and pen are guaranteed, much less publication. It brought forth this poem:

The Poet

She is working now, in a room
not unlike this one,
the one where I write, or you read.
Her table is covered with paper.
The light of the lamp would be
tempered by a shade, where the bulb's
single harshness might dissolve,
but it is not; she has taken it off.
Her poems? I will never know them,
though they are the ones I most need.
Even the alphabet she writes in
I cannot decipher. Her chair --
let us imagine whether it is leather
or canvas, vinyl or wicker. Let her
have a chair, her shadeless lamp,
the table. Let one or two she loves
be in the next room. Let the door
be closed, the sleeping ones healthy.
Let her have time, and silence,
enough paper to make mistakes and go on.

Hirshfield spent much of the rest of her stay in Bellagio writing in an outbuilding, a place that didn't overwhelm her voice.

The second poem she offered in St. Johnsbury was "For What Binds Us." She said, "I never know whether to call it a love poem or an end-of-love poem -- it's both." If you're already a Hirshfield reader, just naming the poem is like touching a feather to the back of your hand, or neck. The sense of the poem stays with you, just barely beyond vision or scent. Hirshfield uses the line breaks in the poem to turn simple words into the life-questions that need to be asked and pondered.

Her summer evening also included a set of new poems, some barely beginning to be spoken, as well as a sequence from her 2006 collection AFTER (which went into softcover this year).

Vermont's resonance for Hirshfield includes a poignant moment from an earlier visit, when two people came up to her afterward and asked for her signature on their copies of her books, explaining that they had driven all the way north from Maryland in order to hear and meet her, afraid this California poet would rarely be available on the East Coast -- they wanted SO much to attend her reading.

So Hirshfield this time was also reassuring people that she'd be "here" in the future, as she has been before. One of the rare shining poets who finds she can sustain her life without academic ties -- she works very hard to take part in many workshops, readings, and other events, including benefits -- Hirshfield is open to the winds of change and travel.

Her upcoming schedule includes the following:
Sat. Sept. 22, California Poets Festival for Poetry Center, San Jose
Sun. Oct. 7, Howard County Poetry and Literary Society, Columbia, MD
Wed. Oct. 10, Wisconsin Festival of the Book, Madison
Thurs. Oct. 11, Milwaukee Public Library (talk on Basho)
Fri. Oct, 12, Woodland Pattern Book Center, Milwaukee
Nov. 15-18, Santa Sabine Center, San Rafael, CA (preregistration required)

To check on more events later, and to read more about Hirshfield, check her page on her agent's site -- click here.

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