In Marin / CONVERSATION
JANE HIRSHFIELD IS your classic poet. She writes for hours in solitude; her poems appear regularly in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and The Best American Poems series; and she
loves to futz in the garden surrounding her
Mill Valley cottage.
However, Jane Hirshfield doesn’t fit the dark
brooding reputation of a typical poet. She’s an
energetic talker who laughs often; she rides an
Arabian trail horse in Mount Tamalpais State
Park, doing Volunteer Mounted Patrol; and she
belongs to a local book club whose members
are mostly scientists. Born in New York City,
Hirshfield was writing in big block letters by the
age of 8: “When I grow up, I want to be a writer.”
After attending both public and private schools,
she joined Princeton University’s first graduating class that included women. Hirshfield, now
61, came to Marin County in 1979 to live at the
Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach.
She’s lived in Mill Valley since 1982.
While still in college, Hirshfield had her
first poem published in The Nation. Her third
published poem appeared in The New Yorker
and, in 1982, while she was working as a cook
at Greens at Fort Mason in San Francisco,
her first collection of poems was published.
Six years later, Hirshfield’s poetry collection Of Gravity & Angels won the California
Book Award. Since then, she’s authored seven
poetry collections and two collections of
essays. In March 2015, Knopf will release
both The Beauty, Hirshfield’s eighth book of
poems, and Ten Windows, How Great Poems
Transform the World, essays she has written
over the past 17 years — the first time Knopf
has published two books by the same author
at the same time. Hirshfield’s honors include
fellowship grants from the Rockefeller and
Guggenheim foundations, the National
Endowment for the Arts and the Academy of
American Poets — and Mill Valley’s Milley
Award in the Arts.
Describe a typical day in the life of a widely
published poet. Typical doesn’t really
exist. This past weekend I was in Bemidji,
Minnesota, at their Headwaters Poetry
Festival. Soon, I’ll go to a book festival
in Virginia, and then to New York for the
Academy of American Poets, with whom
I’m now a chancellor. My life’s closer to
that of a traveling folksinger than I’d ever
have imagined. I’m an introvert, I love
silence and solitude — how did it happen
that poetry taught me to talk with strangers and brought me to China, Japan, Poland,
Lithuania, Greece, Syria, Turkey, Ireland,
England and Scotland? Writing is what matters most to me — yet I spend a fair bit of my
life bringing what I’ve written to people’s
ears. That’s become my day job, along with
some short-term teaching. Before that, I
used to edit other people’s nonfiction books.
Four sold over a million copies each — two
by Jack Kornfield, two by Thomas Moore.
Mill Valley poet has international following and close-to-home interests.
BY JIM WOOD • PHOTOS BY TIM PORTER