The Bay Area, along with New York City, is one of the two major centers of experimental writing in the United States. The Bay Area’s long and vibrant history as a literary center (and one where unconventional activity is accepted and even encouraged), along with its large number of creative writing programs and its bounty of small presses and reading series, make it a magnet for experimental writers. This collection of interviews with Bay Area experimentalists allows us to have our cake and eat it too: We learn more about some of the most compelling experimental work being produced today, and we immerse ourselves in a community which is only the most recent incarnation of a history of experiment dating back a couple of centuries.
I’ve always been taken with any version of literary local histories and archival projects, so Sarah Rosenthal’s recent A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area (Dalkey Archive, 2010) is certainly a revelation, compiling interviews she’s conducted with writers Michael Palmer, Nathaniel Mackey, Leslie Scalapino, Brenda Hillman, Kathleen Fraser, Stephen Ratcliffe, Robert Glück, Barbara Guest, Truong Tran, Camille Roy, Juliana Spahr and Elizabeth Robinson. As her lengthy introduction reminds, this is an area that once gave us the Berkeley Renaissance (Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan) as well as Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, Kenneth Rexroth and numerous others, information she not only provides as length but gives such a wonderful context to, to open up her series of interviews, conducted over more than a couple of years. Just what is it about the Bay Area that brings out such strong writers, such fierce experimentation?
Brenda Hillman: It's a questions that is so upsetting right now. I was talking to Kathleen Fraser a while ago about the opening up of form in the last twenty years, almost to the point of destroying the boundaries of the poem. It is the artist's job to make form. Not even to make it, but to allow it. Allow form. And all artists have a different relationship to it, and a different philosophy of it. I worked on this poem [“Cascadia,” from Cascadia, Wesleyan University Press, 2001] for eight months; it's very carefully structured. But I wanted it to be boundaryless in a way: It's not punctuated, and I wanted it to go back and forth within itself and within time. I thought, “Well, you can have both things: structure and boundarylessness.” And in fact I think that when you are trying to open up a territory—in this case I was working with a desire to open the lyric—you have to be greedy, in that you want more than you can do. And you're always bound to fail.
SR: You're trying to let error in, but you don't want error to take over the poem.
BH: I wanted every line to be memorable. Also, I wanted to get at and challenge the idea—not a central idea, because the poem doesn't really have a center—Aristotle's idea of change: that you can tell where something is going because of where it ends up. Final cause, or something like that—which is really kind of an anti-divine notion, and which I love as a philosophy of living. It's sort of like, “I'm not sure where I am going, but I can tell it was my fate to be there because that's where I ended up.”