February 11–17, 2019
Edward Hirsch has published nine books of poems, including The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems; Gabriel: A Poem, a book-length elegy that won the National Jewish Book Award; and Wild Gratitude, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has also published five prose books, among them How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, a national bestseller, and A Poet’s Glossary. He has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award, a Pablo Neruda Presidential Medal of Honor, the Prix de Rome, and an Academy of Arts and Letters Award. In 2008, he was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He is president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and lives in Prospect Heights. On Friday, February 15, Hirsch will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at 100 Bogart in Bushwick with Kyle Liang and Laura Eve Engel.
My Friends Don’t Get Buried
My friends don’t get buried
in cemeteries anymore, their wives
can’t stand the sadness
of funerals, the spectacle
of wreaths and prayers, tear-soaked
speeches delivered from the altar,
all those lies and encomiums,
the suffocating smell of flowers
No more undertakers in black suits
old buddies weeping in corners,
telling off-color stories, nipping shots,
no more covered mirrors,
black dresses, skullcaps and crucifixes.
Sometimes it takes me a year or two
to get out to the back yard in Sheffield
or Fresno, those tall ashes scattered
under a tree somewhere in a park
somewhere in New Jersey.
I am a delinquent mourner
stepping on pinecones, forgetting to pray.
But the mourning goes on anyway
because my friends keep dying
without a schedule,
without even a funeral,
while the silence
drums us from the other side,
the suffocating smell of flowers
fills everything, always,
the darkness grows warmer, then colder,
I just have to lie down on the grass
and press my mouth to the earth
to call them
so they would answer.
—Originally published in the New Yorker, June 2018.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I’ve been fortunate to have deep friendships in poetry, friendships with many older poets. They helped me create an alternate family for myself. Suddenly, you get to a point in life where they start dying off at an alarming rate. The great tall oaks are falling. The idea for my poem came to me in a rush when I realized that many of my friends weren’t having funerals anymore. I missed the old rites, even ones I’ve never quite believed in. Sometimes I wonder if we have given up too much—the fundamental beliefs, the consoling rituals. My grief is strong. I hope my poem has a strong velocity, a life force to carry it through the grieving.
What are you working on right now?
I’m finishing a new book of poems, which will be called Stranger by Night. It’s a book in the aftermath of disaster, a collection that reckons with many deaths. But it’s also a book in which I try to walk out of the cemetery.
What’s a good day for you?
There are different kinds of good days. There’s the day when you walk around the city with the great love of your life, there’s the day when you’re on fire with a poem, there’s the day when you are consoled by friendship. And every now and then there’s the day when all three things come together.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I ceded the Upper West Side to my ex-wife and moved to Brooklyn to start a new life, a life with more space in it. I was looking for greater spaciousness, literally and spiritually, and found it in Brooklyn.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I’ve lived in Prospect Heights for nearly fifteen years. I like the feel of the brownstones, the sense of a livable space, a human scale. And I love Prospect Park, where I walk whenever I can. It’s one of the great public spaces of New York. Of course, the neighborhood has also been gentrifying at a ferocious rate.
I lived in Houston for seventeen years and that’s a city that you have to drive to understand. That’s the case for most American cities. That’s why I especially treasure the walkability of my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I don’t take it for granted.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
From my poem “Green Couch”:
I go back and forth to work.
I walk in the botanical gardens on weekends
and take a narrow green path to the clearing.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
To me, a poetry community is a group of people who come together around a shared love for our art. I would have to say that my friends are scattered all around the country and the world. It’s a diverse community that lives in many different places. I love Brooklyn, but I didn’t move here to hang out with other poets. That’s just an extra bonus. Some of my former students live in Brooklyn, too, poets I love seeing, though my friendships with them aren’t quite as intimate. There’s still the cloud of transference. Sometimes when I’m talking to them I feel as if they’re leaning back and thinking, TMI, dude. The poets are so young in some parts of Brooklyn that I feel as if I need a passport to go and see them.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Well, Walt Whitman is one of the great sources, and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is one of the bedrock poems. I love the high romanticism of Hart Crane’s failed epic, his great attempt to celebrate modernity. Philip Levine was one of my closest friends and some of my glad moments were dinners at the Levines’ apartment in Brooklyn Heights. We met in Detroit in the early ’80s, and I’ll always associate him with his home city, though we had a lot of raucous times at his place in Brooklyn.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I had one real poetry mentor, my first teacher at Grinnell College. Her name is Carol Parssinen. She’s the one who first convinced me that a poet is a maker and a poem is a made thing. She taught me that reading poetry is necessary for writing it. She initiated me into the mysteries.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I lost four friends in a span of a few weeks this past fall. I’ve been trying to write something about their dark night of the soul poems: Lucie Brock-Broido’s “Infinite Riches in the Smallest Room,” Tony Hoagland’s “Barton Springs,” Meena Alexander’s “Krishna, 3:29 AM” and Arthur Smith’s “Charm.”
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I keep meaning to reread The Faerie Queene.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I love physical books. I read individual poems online, but not whole books. I read one book of fiction at a time—my girlfriend is a novelist and she passes suggestions on to me—but I’ve always got a lot of poetry books going. I tend to dip into them to see if I want to commit, and then I decide whether or not to read the whole thing cover to cover. I like nonfiction and I’m always pacing myself through one long thing or another. It’s good to learn things.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I like coffee shops. At one time or another, I’ve worked my way through most of them for a one- or two-mile radius up and down Flatbush and Vanderbilt Aves. Sometimes they are just too crowded and I settle for a fast-food joint on the corner of Vanderbilt and Atlantic. I used to like to work on Sunday mornings in the coffee shop inside of Target at the Atlantic Station, but they’ve cramped the space down into nothing. Starbucks is a means of last resort.
Why not?—if you can afford it.