November 19, 2018KR Conversations

Edward Hirsch

Edward HirschEdward Hirsch’s most recent book is Gabriel: A Poem. His poem “That’s the Job” can be found here. It appears along with two other poems in the “Getting and Spending” poetry feature in the Nov/Dec 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “That’s the Job”?

I’ve felt for a long time that the world of work is underrepresented in poetry, especially in contemporary poetry. You wouldn’t know from reading poetry that most people’s lives are consumed by their jobs. It must have to do with my age, with coming to the end of something, but in the last few years all of my old jobs have come back to me with a rush. I’ve found myself reliving and summarizing them, trying to textualize and wring what I could out of my experiences. “That’s the Job” is one of my songs of innocence turning into experience.

Two of your poems detail labor and realizations about labor though they approach the subject in different ways. Could you talk a bit about the spaces you see these two poems—“That’s the Job” and “Someone is Always Shouting”—converging with or differing from one another?

These two poems of labor and memory take up two of the more brutal jobs that I had when I was young. They’re both hellish. They’re also both poems of velocity, one-sentence lyrics where my speaker learns how the world works. But there is a stoic Virgilian guide in “That’s the Job” who somehow makes the experience more bearable. That guide is absent in “Someone Is Always Shouting,” which is written in the present tense. Both poems try to bring the past into the present. “That’s the Job” is a poem that takes place over time, whereas “Someone is Always Shouting” hones in on a single memory that somehow enlarges into the emblem of an entire summer. They’re both poems of education, hard lessons.

“That’s the Job” appears to convey a sense of insistent familiarity with the mundane and brutal aspects of the speaker’s work. This familiarity is perhaps most clearly embodied by the reappearing line “That’s the job” given as a response when the speaker attempts to speak out against the demands of their position. This saying is only spoken to the speaker until the last line of the poem, in which the speaker seems to have internalized the saying and communicates it themselves. What does this transformation mean for the role of your speaker at the poem’s end? Has it changed their relationship to this job?

That’s a perceptive observation about the poem. The title places the poem in the present tense. The first line places that title in a context. It’s the summary of an old hand to a young blood. The poem itself then turns into memory, an ongoing memory, a job taking place repeatedly over time. The last line comes back to the title and the first line, but now my speaker embodies it himself, as if to say: So this is what I’ve learned, after all. He has realized that what was insistently told to him, something he never wanted to accept, seems to be true.

Your poems feature short, choppy lines, perhaps resembling an amassing stack of assembled pallets in their stanza-less pile. Why did you settle on this form? How do you feel it interacts with and or brings out the meaning and intentions of your pieces’ content?

I was looking for immersion and speed. There are no extra stanzas, extra rooms. I found that short lines gave me a way of capturing the utter immediacy of working at a job that gives you no rest, no time to think, that thrusts you into the thick of something that is hard to get through. These poems don’t give the writer or the reader much time for reflection. At the same time the short lines gave me a way to isolate phrases, moments, which are chopped up, like the job itself.

Is there something you’d like to add about this group of poems?

I guess I would add that the poem “The Task” is also a poem about work—a different kind of hard work, but work nonetheless. It’s a poem in which a single experience, reading and writing in an all-night diner, somehow turns into a lifetime of reading and writing. The difference is that this job is a vocation.