An Interview with Edward Hirsch Regarding His Outstanding Poem, "For the Sleepwalkers"

• Your poem, “For the Sleepwalkers,” is very rich and sharp in detail, and has wild dream images. What inspired you to write this poem?

I wanted to try to make something strange, dream-like and
wonderful. The poem was first called “Something Wonderful,”
but in the process of writing it I decided to change the title to “For
the Sleepwalkers,” which seemed less editorial. I was trying to
dramatize a spooky experience and connect a group of solitaries.
• When did you write “For the Sleepwalkers” and how long did it take?

I think I wrote it in late 1979 or early 1980. I was 29 years old
and living in Detroit. It took me a lifetime to think of, but I think it only took me about a week or so to write.
• Have you ever walked in your sleep? If so, do the stories connect with the poem?

I was a sleepwalker as a child. My family has a lot of stories about my nocturnal escapades. I seemed to have a penchant for trying to leave the house at night, even in the dead of winter. Once I woke up just I was stepping outside into the freezing cold. The cold air blasted me awake. I think my childhood experiences are part of the background of the poem. I’m still a fitful sleeper but I don’t tend to walk it off anymore.
• What feelings did you have when you were writing this poem? How did you come up with this idea- like sleepwalkers- for this poem?

I remember that I was wildly energized by the poem. And I
was excited about writing it. I often write in coffee shops and I
still remember walking home down Woodward Avenue and
reciting the lines aloud to myself. I must have looked like another
Detroit crazy. I felt that in writing it I was discovering a voice that
was very much my own.

I don’t really know where the idea came from, but it must have
been some combination of personal (insomnia and disturbed sleep
have always been part of my arsenal) and literary experience. I
was reading Surrealist poetry at the time, especially the work of
Robert Desnos and Paul Eluard. The Surrealists were obsessed by
the unconscious and mined the dream-world for their poems.

• We know that you like your poem (who wouldn’t?), but do you have a specific line or phrase that you enjoy in “For the Sleepwalkers”?

Looking at my early drafts of the poem, I find that the first
phrase that I hit upon was “our hearts are thirsty black
handkerchiefs.” That weird analogy seems to be the bedrock of the poem. The second phrase I hit upon was the first line, “Tonight I want to say something wonderful.” The movement from that line to the second one, which modifies it in a strange way, still seems funny to me.
• Is “For the Sleepwalkers” your favorite poem among the poems you’ve written?

  It’s my favorite poem in my first book.

• Why did you choose to name your first book For the Sleepwalkers?
I liked its resonance. I thought the poem was strong and could stand for the whole.

By Sarah, Vinnie, and Hannah

Works by Edward Hirsch

Works by Hannah Geluso


Works by Sarah Baar

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.