Internationally acclaimed poet featured at WNP

Jane Hirshfield - Submitted photo
Jane Hirshfield - Submitted photo

Internationally acclaimed poet Jane Hirshfield will be featured at Wednesday Night Poetry to celebrate the beginning of National Poetry Month.

The regular open mic session for all poets, musicians and storytellers will begin at 6:30 p.m. today at Kollective Coffee + Tea, 110 Central Ave. Hirshfield will begin her feature reading at 7:30 p.m., followed by another short round of open mic. Admission is free and open to all ages. Masks are required for the duration of this event, and will be available at the door. All are welcome. Seating will be limited.

Hirshfield is visiting Hot Springs from Mill Valley, Calif. "I was born on East 20th Street in New York City, in a housing project built for WWII returning veterans. I am now living in a small white cottage surrounded by a dozen fruit trees and roses, on the hem of Mount Tamalpais in the San Francisco Bay Area," she said in a news release.

"Hirshfield's work encompasses a large range of influences, drawing from the sciences as well as the world's literary, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual traditions. Her honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the Poetry Center Book Award, the California Book Award, and finalist selection for the National Book Critics Circle Award," the release said.

Hirshfield graduated with an A.B. degree in Creative Writing and Literature in Translation from Princeton as a member of the university's first graduating class to include women, and her first poem appeared in The Nation in 1973, winning the Discovery Award. According to the Poetry Foundation, she then put aside her writing for nearly eight years to study at the San Francisco Zen Center. "I felt that I'd never make much of a poet if I didn't know more than I knew at that time about what it means to be a human being," Hirshfield once said. "I don't think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life."

"Her Soto Zen practice and her poetry intertwine into something truly unique and welcoming to all audiences," the release said.

Immediately preceding her Hot Springs visit and WNP Feature, Hirshfield was the Walton Visiting Writer in Poetry at the University of Arkansas Program in Creative Writing and Translation in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. While in residence, Hirshfield said, "I am working on ... new and selected poems that will come out in the fall, and working also on the installation of my Poets for Science project ( going up for six months at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. My next trip will be to do an event for launching that exhibit, with Roald Hoffman (Nobel Chemist who also writes poems), Diane Ackerman, (poet and author of the bestselling nonfiction book 'A Natural History of the Senses') and Alberto Rios, the Poet Laureate of Arizona. The details change, but that's as good a portrait of what my life generally looks like as any."

The book coming in the fall, "The Asking: New & Selected Poems," "will be my 10th book of poetry. The most recent one is Ledger (Knopf, 2020). I'm also the author of two now-classic books of essays about poetry's -- and so human beings' -- deep workings, 'Nine Gates' and 'Ten Windows,' and I've edited and co-translated four books bringing forward the work of the world's poets from the deep past. I've read at universities and literary festivals from Xi'an, China, and Krakow, Poland, to Svalbard, the town in the Arctic where the Global Seed Bank lives. The award that means the most to me is having been elected into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, founded in 1780, because the list of companions in it is so entirely amazing -- one honorary member is Nelson Mandela; the first woman to be elected was the 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell; Jonas Salk and Eudora Welty; in my own year, both Michelle Obama and the poet Elizabeth Alexander were also inducted," she said.

When asked to speak of her writing, Hirshfield said, "I've written since I learned how to write. I like not to be very conscious of what my own poetry is about -- if I think I know what I write about, I won't surprise myself by writing something unexpected. But in recent years, the crises of the environment and climate have haunted me, as has the breakdown in our human care for one another. So, there are many poems on those subjects in my most recent book. But also many that come from personal life, from the deaths of people I've loved, from the small questions that suddenly tug at the tablecloth and send the dishes lying. I like to look at things that aren't generally looked at, at the ignored corners of our houses and lives."

In recent decades, Hirshfield has become increasingly known as a poet working at the intersection of poetry, the sciences, and the crisis of the biosphere.

"I don't know how a poem can touch the catastrophe of the biosphere and what feels like a breakdown of the basic social contract -- that we care for one another and that we care for future beings' well-being. It may be that poetry's speaking is essential but preparatory, oblique. That our work ... is the tilling that precedes planting. That our images and metaphors and statements are like the multitude of tunneling earthworms that keep the earth's microbiome alive, its structure lightened and turnable, viable for crops. Any one earthworm seems not to matter, yet the existence of earthworms matters. An ethics of preparation means also that poetry's work may be less to solve than to speak of, to speak on behalf of, that which needs solving. Our human capacities for imagination and art-making, for grief and joy, exist in the service of survival of the single, solitary self and of the whole. Poems sustain the complexity, multiplicity, and peculiarities of lives, not their erasure. They carry the sense of wholeness and unblind us to connection. These allegiances are currently desperately needed," she said.

Two poems, "Let Them Not Say" and "On the Fifth Day," both went viral during the first few weeks of the Trump administration and led to Hirshfield founding the interdisciplinary #PoetsforScience movement.

When asked about how Hirshfield found Wednesday Night Poetry, she says "WNP found me, when early in the pandemic, Kai emailed to ask if I'd join an online reading for Earth Day. Kai, as anyone reading this already knows, is a force of nature -- her enthusiasm and joy in WNP is so big, the invitation was as irresistible as a benevolent tornado -- you will be swept up in it. And now I have what feels a lifelong friend, and community of friends, who I'm also going to be meeting in person for the first time."

"I cannot accurately express in words how special it is for me to have Jane Hirshfield appear at Wednesday Night Poetry -- she is such a mentor to my poetry soul, my creative practice, my human practice. Jane and I became friends after I asked her to feature virtually for an EARTH MOTHERS reading on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, alongside Naomi Shihab Nye and then United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, in the early days of the pandemic 2020. We have since developed a close friendship through letters back and forth over the last three years, moving through life's joys and griefs together in words. I am so incredibly excited to meet her in person and humbled to escort her beautiful, expansive, and precise poetry to our mic," WNP Host Kai Coggin said in the release. "No one writes poems like Jane Hirshfield. I know people are coming from all over Arkansas to share in this intimate night. Big thank you to the Hot Springs Area Cultural Alliance for partnering with WNP for this very special event."

This week marks 1,784 consecutive Wednesdays of open mic poetry in downtown Hot Springs since Feb. 1, 1989. "WNP is the longest-running consecutive weekly open mic series in the country. Wednesday Night Poetry is a safe space," the release said. For more information, email [email protected].