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Mindful : February 2016
Jane Hirshfield is a rare phenomenon, a world-class writer as devoted to and conversant in mindfulness practice as she is dedicated to finding the perfect phrase. For 25 years, Hirshfield has applied this unique, two- fisted brilliance to her many award-winning books—Given Sugar, Given Salt was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award in poetry—and, most recently, The Beauty, a collection of poems, and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Change the World. Beloved for her tenderhear ted writing and fierce intelligence, Hirshfield is also a sea- soned meditation practitioner and a teacher of writing and literature at educational institutions around the world. I spoke to her recently about mindfulness prac- tice and the ar tist’s life, and the balance she manages to strike between her twin passions. my bedroom. I didn’t want to be taken out and shown to people. I wanted the private, the inti- mate. Navigating the social world was difficult for me. I consider it one of the great ironies of my life that poetry, a path of solitary and interior exploration, has somehow led me to be so much out in public talking to strangers. Fate makes for odd alchemies and balancing acts. I think my life has pulled a good trick on me. It forced me to be well rounded, no matter how hard I tried to avoid that! [laughs] Is poetry still a life raft for you? It’s the oxygen in the room of my life. If you ask a group of writers at a dinner table, “ Would you write if you were alone on a desert island and no one would ever see what you did?”—a few will say “yes” and many, to my great surprise, will say “no.” I’m one of the yes crowd. Writing remains for me what it always has been: a way to comprehend my life. To feel it, navigate it, preser ve it. How does a poem emerge for you? For me there are two possible ways. The first is if something in my life requires a poem so badly that the words will come and hit me over the head with a two-by-four. A poem like that is born of desperation. It will wake me up if it needs to. It will arrive full force to wrestle with something that only poetry can help me live through. The other kind of poem emerges differently. For those poems, I need first to enter a condition of undisturbed silence—a condition in which I can both listen and invite. It feels to me as if I become a kind of lighthouse, throw- ing outward in 360 degrees an invitation that doesn’t know who or what may accept it. I wait for a poem to step into that light and become visible. When this kind of poem comes, it comes also in hearable words. An inner voice begins to speak, in modes and tones recognizably different from our ordinary mind chatter. I listen, then I transcribe and collaborate, and out of that pro- cess a first draft emerges. In what way would you say that mindfulness affects the creative process? Poetry has been called “thinking with the whole body.” Mindfulness is thinking with the whole Mark Matousek: You began to write at an early age. How did poetry first come to you? Jane Hirshfield: I’ve written on my own from the time I learned how to turn letters into words. I don’t remember a moment when writ- ing poems began, only that poetry, throughout my childhood, was a kind of life raft. It was a place I could go to be fully myself, a space and a solitude where feeling could have its full range. Writing poems, I didn’t have to fit anybody else’s mold or project myself outward. I could pay attention to inner and outer worlds, and I could find a path through life’s confusion and bewilderments into what I thought and felt and saw for myself. Poems were for me what a microscope or telescope might be for a young person headed toward being a scientist—a way to increase my own reach and my own knowing, a way to go into a realm free of the pressure to please or perform. Did you always feel like an outsider? Two kinds of people become poets, I think. One might be thought of as the Allen Ginsberg kind—how easy it is to imagine him racing into the center of his parents’ parties, wanting the limelight. I was the other kind of child. I fled to 36 mindful February 2016 creativity