An Interview with Brenda Hillman

Brenda Hillman’s poems range through Gnosticism, politics, and the human relationship to the natural world using an increasingly experimental lyricism. Her work is fragile, luminous, challenging, and sensual: what Brighde Mullins calls “poems that are written at a solitary angle, but that are inclusive, are pierced by the world.” Hillman’s poetry crosses boundaries, embracing a fearless approach to language and subject matter, and showing a tender passion for life. Her poems refuse to be corralled by any one school or style, using instead whatever is handy, interesting, or apt, and rejecting the artificial divisions many have erected. They are, in the deepest sense, eclectic. Here are some lines from “Reversible Wind” which exemplify the aching imagery Hillman can render on the page:

            Many drunk & sleeping columbines don’t know what to do

            Oh, your thief sleeps too            & your singing architect & his imitators
            No readier for death than you are
            You look really different            Need to check your idea

Brenda Hillman has published eight books and three chapbooks of poetry, including Pieces of Air in the Epic, winner of the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and Cascadia, the first two books in a tetralogy exploring the four elements of earth, air, water, and fire. The third in this series, Practical Water, has recently been published by Wesleyan University Press. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including The Colorado Review, FENCE, the American Poetry Review, and Slate. Hillman is actively involved in CodePink, a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement, and has co-edited a book, The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood, with Patricia Dienstfrey. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband, the poet Robert Hass, and is the Olivia C. Filippi Professor of Poetry at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. This interview was conducted in part in a café in Berkeley in the fall of 2008 and finished later via telephone and email.

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I’d like to start by asking something that is often on my mind: how do you balance teaching and writing? Also, could you tell us a little about your daily writing practice?

It’s hard to balance anything at all with a life of writing, but I try to write every morning, and I work at revisions or new work. I like to work on poems that I’ve started and I work a lot with hypnosis. I try to work for two or three hours a morning. Usually I try to arrange my teaching around the writing so that I can start teaching a little later. Sometimes I write when I’m at school; I’ll take notes or work on a poem or prose. As for my writing practice: I mostly write by hand, starting a draft in my own handwriting, sometimes using the whole page. Often I fill a lot of the page and put notes in the margins. I’ll sit and wait for a line a long time. Then, if it’s not time to draft the poem, the poem will announce that. I work a lot from intuition. And I do like the look of handwriting, so I’ll copy the poem over and over to allow new material to enter. When it seems very far along I’ll put it on the computer, but not until then because I think the look of print gets people deranged into thinking that they’ve finished something.

Because it looks finished?

Yes, it looks finished, and a printed poem looks as if it can’t be fiddled with. It looks closer to a final form; I find it harder to recopy bad writing over and over if you’re doing it by hand rather than cutting and pasting on your computer; I copy the poem by hand sometimes a hundred times, letting the less interesting stuff fall away. If I’m stuck I work with self-hypnosis to get the lost piece. I’ve used that technique for a few decades. Sometimes if a poem has gone into the computer too early, I’ll recopy the print version by hand, sometimes for a month, two months, even longer.

Having recently reread Cascadia and Pieces of Air in the Epic, each of which deals with a cardinal element, earth and air respectively, I am wondering if you are still working on that elemental theme.

Practical Water, the third of the series, is finished and is being published by Wesleyan soon. In past years I worked with two-word titles and in this title I picked up the two-word title again, although most of the poems in the book are not two-word titles. Water is the third in the elements and presumably ‘fire’ will be last, but I don’t know. Sometimes things announce themselves but they don’t appear according to plan. Earth’s elements and poetry are all unpredictable.

What words of advice would you offer to people who are just starting out on the path, especially sending their work out to publishers and editors?

Well, it’s not so much advice as it is thinking of a life of writing as a series of habits that are good to get into and good to notice, like your eating habits, or exercise habits, or other habits that you form. I feel committed to the idea that writing makes a wide range of relationships between yourself and your environment, and you’ve got your most important tool, which is language, always with you. Making imaginative structures in poetry might be your best use of language in a particular day. Things you have to say and do with your language and your observations, your experience, are multiple—you can put them in notebooks, drafts of poems, essays. I guess one thing to say to the less experienced poet is not to cheat yourself, not to cheat the world of your experience by neglecting poetry.

Publishing poetry in periodicals seems an important part of the life of a poet now. Publishing whole books of poetry can be discouraging. It’s fairly hard to get a book publisher, though there are many independent presses that are doing exciting work. That’s something to think about, but publishing a book is not the only way a poet’s insights matter. These days so much work is done on the internet. I feel fortunate to have had a publisher that has stuck by me as a followed a peculiar path. Since I also help edit a series, I understand it is difficult to get a publisher if you’re working in exploratory ways. But there are many delivery systems for our beautiful art and poets who are starting to publish can choose from many media. I’ve been working on a project of recopying poems by hand to send to somebody who has just entered a time of terrible distress. I have an unpublished poem by a sixth grader above my desk that serves as inspiration. Often, powerful poems matter to me more than whole book-length projects; I find a poem I love and I re-read it for decades. That’s the kind of work I most admire.

A poetry collection may be a completely satisfying way to get your work into somebody’s hands but there are other immediate forms. Think about how people will read a poem on a website twelve hundred times. If you want your poetry to matter, write and publish from your heart and mind. Use all your tools of publishing—in the widest sense of the term—even Xeroxing, or “Here, I copied this poem for you, and it’s just for your heart. Here it is.” Leave the poem on a bus bench.

Guerilla poetry?

Yes. But also poetry in the classroom, poetry between friends, on the phone, sent in a letter. Some of my undergraduates begin with a limited experience of poetry, but the first time they read Wallace Stevens, they’re blown away. You think about how much poetry matters and you want to reach another heart with your poems. It’s not just about getting your book published; it’s about being a part of the dynamic experience.

I think the hardest thing for young writers sometimes is not getting discouraged and feeling like they get lost in a sea of voices. It matters to have someone else tell you it matters. This leads me to a question about political concerns, especially after rereading “Nine Untitled Epyllions” which has, obviously, political ramifications:

After their freedom had

started I fled for 

the flatness I felt 

had no horizon then: 

their global killed people

it would never see; 

a dove with Nike

checkmarks on its wings 

flies from 16th-century scenes

where they’re making glass

& flax in the countryside...

Yes, of course you develop your own relationships to the work that feeds you, and it helps your own poetry grow. It all matters and it all has multiple meanings. The poem you cite from the Epyllions is meditative and symbolic; it was written just after the invasion of Baghdad, it uses figurative devices to tell what war means, to invade a city, to cause a culture to be undone. During the first days of that war, I began to hear the voice of a seamstress who had been making flags for wars for a thousand years, so half the poems in the sequence are channeling her voice. Such poetry can require several readings. It’s good that poetry slows you down. To absorb the reality of poetry, you have to read it several times.

We’ve seen a lot of political changes in the last year, not the least of which was the election of President Obama. What do you think the social and political role of poetry is going to be in the next year or so?

I have thought a lot about this. Poetry is very important to do and to engage in, especially when trusted officials are misusing language— “meltdowns” as if this deception and greed were an ice cream cake, “stress tests” as if our dear avuncular banks needed bypass surgery. Poets are able to refresh, interrogate and subvert the language of a culture, bringing what is very interior to the outside, making linguistic objects out of states of mind. Poetry makes relationships between a larger society, the public and the individual much more conscious by addressing matters of the heart, the invisible world, the nature that we have in us and outside of us, by making language about impossible states of feeling or about social matters.

As a writer and activist, I feel committed to ecopoetics and environmental concerns. I am sickened by the current wars, and feel protesting them outright is critical no matter who is in office. The language of war and imperialism —“target-rich environments” and that sort of thing—continues whether Republicans or Democrats are in power. I love writing poetry, yet feel it’s important not to confuse writing poetry with other activities. The argument that “all poetry is political” should not become an excuse for doing nothing else. Poets can also be activists; we can work both with our words and with other forms of direct action. It has been very instructive and energizing to go to Sacramento or to D.C. to work with courageous activists who aren’t writers themselves but who, by the way, very much need poetry and art for their work. We can still speak powerfully and sway people with poetry.

What would you say are some of your early poetic influences?

I started writing in earnest under the sway of Modernism. But my first influences were an odd assortment: the poetry of Millay, Dickinson, Levertov and the Bible among them. Those rhythms intoxicated me early. They were not words I understood on the surface right away. In college I turned to the French avant-garde, to Symbolists and Surrealists, under the influence of some of my teachers. Baudelaire and Mallarmé, and later Yeats, Rilke—such poetry made you drunk partly because it was rich. It would stay in your soul with Blonde on Blonde, an album inspired in part by Rimbaud. After writing hundreds of youthful Surrealist poems, I began my Masters at Iowa and studied a lot of poetry of linguistic clarity with an expressive emotional range like the work of James Wright and Weldon Kees, as well as the likes of Stevens and Ashbery. I was exposed to a wide range of writers there, including John Wieners and Robert Duncan and Adrienne Rich. When I moved to the Bay Area in the mid-seventies, I began reading raggedy-edged poems, experimental poetry by women, inspired by the community here. The key was to be eclectic in one’s reading. I wanted to write for the woman in the K-mart, in struggle. At first I didn’t think I could bring Mallarmé or Modernist experimental poetry into her world. But then I knew it became a matter of retrieving Modernism, especially for women. There are more than two paths in one’s art at any given time and it’s a matter of adding layers rather than trading and trying to stay narrow.

I have deep admiration for poems like “Styrofoam Cup” and the elegant illogic of images like “when you finally saw the lace-maker’s dress, it was/ precise and limitless,” from the final poem of Pieces of Air in the Epic. What challenges have you faced in finding this style, these words? How have you found the courage or determination, if that’s what’s needed, to write poetry that breaks away from a more traditional lyric?

Well, to continue from the previous question, it seems important not to be boxed into false choices. Much of the current exploratory or innovative lyric—however you label such a diverse group of impulses— has been about bringing together expressions from feeling and intellect, or from source materials and psychological intensity. Choice of form is huge. You have to find the courage to do the next thing for your writing. When working on Cascadia, I thought it was possible to bring concerns found in the large-spirited, largely male California nature writing traditions (like Jeffers or Snyder or Rexroth) together with experiments in the fragment, to make poems as palpable as flecks of mica. I always can get inspiration from the great poetry of the past—Blake, Whitman, Dickinson, Duncan—as well from a huge range of contemporary writing. Poetry is a radical art, and I’m hoping my own poetry will offer inspiration to future writers. You have to be willing to do what you do and not worry if people will like you for it or not. What draws me to poetry is an enchantment with language, a feeling for the world, a set of feelings nothing but poetry can satisfy.

As a poet in the Bay Area, famous for its excellent poetic community, could you offer insight into the ways that poets and other artists can create a similarly vibrant community no matter where they live?

You find it at the center where you are standing, a multiple center which moves. Start with a reading series, groups, local publications. Friends come together and read. The danger is if it gets too small and insular so keep bringing together elements. Begin around institutions: colleges, bookstores. Elizabeth Robinson had a great backyard reading series in Berkeley a few years ago and others have continued the tradition: Lawn chairs, beer, and poetry. That’s one kind of good combination.

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