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The Taste of Your Own Tongue in Your Own Mouth

by Ryan Van Winkle

As 2014 begins, I wanted to share this excerpt from my podcast with Jane Hirshfield. She was kind enough to invite me into her home near San Francisco, and we had a sprawling conversation that hardly exhausted itself by the time I had to leave. Since that day I’ve held Jane's New Year ritual in my mind, as well as the poems she shared, which I'll always associate with her home and her generosity as a human and a poet.

RVW: Tell me a little about your widely read and celebrated poem “Tree.”

JH: I’ve always drawn my working palette from what’s at hand— from whatever I’m seeing, looking at, living with, from what has just happened and caught the muse’s attention. I don’t think there’s a fruit tree in my garden that hasn’t had its poem. The ants crossing the gate have had their poem, the mountain out my window. And the redwood trees on the north side of the house are the source of “Tree.” Redwoods once covered most of the Northern California coast, until they were logged off. The ones from here were taken after the 1908 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, for lumber to rebuild the city. In old photographs, the town where I live is a very sunny place. But now, it’s quite shady, because redwood trees come back from the roots after cutting down. One of those second-growth trees is quite close to me.

RVW: Let’s talk about something that comes up a lot in conjunction with you: Zen meditation and spirituality. How do you feel about being connected to that kind of movement?

JH: Our culture likes labels, it likes to put people on coat-pegs with a little printed something[JR1]  over the coat. My work is undoubtedly completely informed by the fact that I spent most of my twenties in full-time Zen practice, including, for three of those years, living in a monastery deep in the wilderness. But if you look at the bios of my books and look at the poems themselves, the words Zen, Buddhism, “spirituality,” or anything like that hardly appear. They make some appearances in the essays, to be sure, but the references to Buddhist ideas are among many other references, drawn from the sciences, from other writers, from the natural world, from other cultural and spiritual traditions and other fields of investigation. I really would very much prefer not to be labelled, and just have my poems read as human poems— not least because anything in Zen which is real is going to be real for any human being, in any culture, in any circumstance. Zen is about the taste of your own tongue in your own mouth. It is about paying attention to your experience in a way that is a little more fully conscious, a little more aware, a little more investigatory. It is about not having ideas or labels in mind; it’s about removing the labels that separate and blind you from meeting the actual in your life. The person you knew yesterday might be a very different person today. Zen’s immediacies allow that to happen, allow possibility its possibility. I like to think my poems are entirely as accessible to someone who has never heard a word about Zen as to someone who has studied it deeply. They’re just about being a human being.

RVW: I was just thinking that Leonard Cohen never gets referred to as a ‘Zen Singer.’

JH: His good, and accurate, luck. I think it’s that he became famous as a singer long before he ever started practicing Zen. The same is true of the poet W.S. Merwin. We both became involved in Buddhism in the early 70s, but almost no one knew about that, and so he is not labelled a Buddhist poet. I think he made the right decision, and perhaps I should have kept quieter. In 1994, when I published the anthology Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, it seemed to me that bit of biography was relevant to explain my relationship to this material, to answer the question 'Why is this poet bringing this book out?' That bio note, which appeared only in that single book, and not the poetry book that came out at the same time, turned out to be an inescapable admission.

RVW: What strikes me more about your poems is something you've described as 'clarity without simplicity'. That sounds like an abstract, almost paradoxical idea, but it is embedded in the work, as in that line, “How happy…”

JH: Yes, being clear without being simple is one of the poetic qualities I most admire in the work of others, and one I hope finds a place in my own. “How happy we are how unhappy we are doesn’t matter” comes from the poem “Washing Doorknobs”, which appeared first in the New Yorker.

RVW: I very much like that poem.

JH: Thank you. Since we were talking earlier about my house, that poem’s relevant, though it turns in several different directions as well, of course. I try to write a poem on January 1st every year. It’s one of the few times I write with a scheduled intentionality, mostly I try to let poems come as they come. I’m not a person who writes to a schedule, or every day. Anyway, I keep a custom I learned from the Japanese, of doing a massive New Year’s Eve cleaning every year. On December 31st I put something like the Grateful Dead on the stereo and clean house for thirteen, fourteen hours.

RVW: Which is of course a single, long Grateful Dead concert.

JH: It’s a single playing of Dark Star, if anybody reading this knows that song, with the drum solo taking two hours in the middle... But to go back to the cleaning, as one example, take the track lights on the living room ceiling. In an ordinary week, month, six months, eight months, you would never take a ladder and dust the top of the track lights. That’s the kind of thing I do on December 31st. Once a year, I want to touch every surface, move every piece of furniture and clean behind it. If you move, your living space is totally cleaned, down to the bones. But I’ve stopped moving, so I do this. Thus a poem about the grief of ceaseless empires begins with washing my house’s glass doorknobs. I recommend the practice, should anyone hearing this want to take it up. We have to start somewhere. I start with what is at hand and with what is in my power to do. Straighten words, straighten book piles, and trust that doing these things is somehow connected to every molecule of this shared world.

Jane Hirshfield's latest collection is 'Come, Thief' which you can purchase here. To hear more of our in-depth conversation, you can click over to the Scottish Poetry Library Podcast.

Ryan Van Winkle is a poet, performer, and critic living in Edinburgh. These interviews are from his Scottish Poetry Library podcasts produced and edited by Colin Fraser. This team also produces the arts podcast The Multi-Coloured Culture Laser. He was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship for writing in 2012.