Reviews: A Conversation Between Jane Hirshfield & Leslie McGrath

*Click here for the link to: “Human Lives: A Conversation Between Jane Hirshfield and Leslie McGrath”

I recently stumbled upon “Human Lives: A Conversation Between Jane Hirshfield and Leslie McGrath” and was quite excited to do so. It was published in the November 2011 feature of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Hirshfield expressed her views on literary categorization by comparing a poet to a squash since “the plant has male and female flowers but its first identity is that it’s a squash.” In the same way, Hirshfield pointedly stated that she “want[s] to be a human poet first. That I am a woman poet also will simply be so.” How often does a writer / poet’s biography influence your reading of their work?

At times such information is illuminating to understanding a poem. The knee-jerk example is Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” However, when a male poet for example assumes the persona of a female voice, does this put the reader in a uncomfortable position? Can a man have any authority in such a position? Moreover, Richard Rodriguez’s Brown: The Last Discovery of America is a fascinating meditation on racial identity. Since Rodriguez found a home as a Latino living in a Chinese community, he forces readers to ask themselves: Is race a fluid identity? Does a Latino have any right writing from a Chinese perspective? I do not have any definitively correct answers to these questions. I simply wish to put them forth.

Later in the interview, Hirshfield addresses gender: “liberation from subject stereotypes travel[ing in] both directions.” Just as Adam Gopnik wrote poetry about raising his children, C.D. Wright recently wrote about prison and racism. Are we beginning to see female writers travel down the traditional male-only avenues (and vice versa)? As we enter a new year, it’s truly an exciting time in the diverse literary world.

The interview concludes with Hirshfield criticizing reviewers for always comparing “women writers only to other women, men only to men.” While it is a broad generalization, I believe it is a valid observation that is too often overlooked. As Hirshfield noted that Mark Doty has been clearly influenced by Elizabeth Bishop, she emphatically articulated that male and female writers can and must learn from each others’ work. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s Beloved both had a profound impact on her life.

Furthermore, when I was researching and writing a literary essay on the African-American writer Ernest Gaines as an undergraduate, I read a collection of the interviews he gave over his career. When Gaines repeatedly stated that the fellow Southern writer William Faulkner was his greatest literary influence, there was a palpable and consistent pushback from the interviewers. The fact that a white writer had so visibly influenced a black writer was somehow a taboo. Is this still the case? That’s up for debate. Regardless, I love Hirshfield’s assertion: “I simply want to feel that the full field of human experience is open to everyone.”

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