Brenda Hillman has published eight collections of poetry, all from Wesleyan University Press: White Dress (1985), Fortress (1989), Death Tractates (1992), Bright Existence (1993), Loose Sugar (1997), Cascadia (2001), Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), and Practical Water (2009), for which she won the LA Times Book Award for Poetry, and three chapbooks: Coffee, 3 A.M. (Penumbra Press, 1982); Autumn Sojourn (Em Press, 1995); and The Firecage (a+bend press, 2000). She has edited an edition of Emily Dickinson's poetry for Shambhala Publications, and, with Patricia Dienstfrey, co-edited The Grand Permisson: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (2003).
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
i published a chapbook and then it took me a long time to publish my first book with wesleyan. i was raising children and working in a bookstore, and publishing a book was helpful when i wanted to teach. people are sometimes interested in the evolution of a poet’s style. i’ve been writing in the bay area—so that is a big factor because for 80 years or so, the bay area has seen the confluence of many exciting poetic threads— it is like the island of miletus for the pre-socratic philosophers. lots of ideas and aesthetic impulses have come through there so my work has joined this evolution in a way that is darwinian and alchemical. each stage of my writing has come about for some reason but mostly for the same desire to investigate a spiritual or political or aesthetic question… i wrote death tractates because i couldn't find many elegies for women by women that were feminist and pastoral. in general my work reflects a kind of bay area innovation that embodies process and marginalia and emotion. sometimes i’ve been trying to solve a cultural or political problem through my writing. loose sugar comes from alchemy and from trying to think about the body and adolescence while the government started the first stupid gulf war. pieces of air in the epic was written in part in europe at the start of the second stupid iraq war. the haunted 'sound' in that book kind of quarrels with a magically abstract language. the last few books have been part of a tetralogy on the elements— my own ecological or environmental poetry maybe different because it’s always had a certain animist impulse. talking rocks and that sort of thing. in cascadia and practical water— and i wanted to experiment with many different sentence structures and forms.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
i've always loved poetry, and fell in love with poetry at a very early age because the sounds of poetry intoxicated me. the more i didn't understand it, the more interesting it seemed. i love the mysteries of the english language— individual syllables, roots, words and the pacing of it. what makes poetic language rhythmically amazing is something odd about cadence-- probably it was the sound of psalms or ecclesiates in my ear first. when i started to read poetry seriously i was mainly interested in the fact that a poem could only be said *in that way*-- and every other kind of writing-- however good-- seems paraphrasable. i wanted to write things that people would love as little "language packets" in their pockets, that would note profound things about reality and existence. you could make things that had the chance of making powerful objects with words that would be eternal, and yet were voicing a particular experience or moment in time, in process
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
i generally have several drafts going at once but usually one is more an obsessive favorite than others. a poem is of interest both as a process and as material object, including the processes of writing, rewriting, failure and re-entry. the process has to do with using scraps the way the women of my grandmother's generation loved quilt-making. i usually change every word hundreds of times, use notes, work with previous, ancient drafts; sometimes i hypnotize myself to hear the new speed in the right way; often i read to get the pacing from something i've loved..., but the moment of sound- insight-- or i guess "instress" hopkins would say-- is always a line, 'heard' as the "ah-ha" moment-- there! that's the strange link i've been waiting to hear. and it seems to happen only if there is a state of receptivity. it often takes years to finish even a short poem, but this doesn't mean it isn't still spontaneous.
4 - Where do poems usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
i go toward a piece of writing with one of four things, or rather, a combination: an idea, an image, an emotion, or a pure musical phrase that simply arrives. that is how the poem begins for me-- one of those four. to have written a few works that hold up as book-length endeavors is gratifying but one hopes to have written something great that fits in a pocket. my first love affair with poetry was because of its great compression but even though i love the short forms, i am passionate about many long— even very long— poems. the shape of a potential manuscript announces itself when i’m about halfway through— at least this has been the case with the last few books. it often takes me about six months just to make a pleasing arrangement for the poems in book form.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
i like doing readings just fine. i love going to other people’s readings and hearing poems, but many wonderful poems have visual elements so it is good to to see them on the page. how poems look. there are all kinds of presentations of poetry and it's cool that we're in an age of such variety. my favorite sort of reading is one in which the poet does not overly dramatize herself-- the poem is allowed to borrow the human voice for a few minutes but is not interchangeable with it--
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
to do the real work of poetry and not be bound by ideologies. people talk about their ‘poetics’; most people have very weird ideas and their styles should reflect the consciousness they tap into…it’s not clear anything is behind the words in a poem. words are mazes with thick walls, all substance and ether. i love what the painter wayne thiebaud once said when someone asked what he was working on; he said, ‘i'm working on the difference between green and blue.’ that is exactly how i feel about writing. there is an existential puzzle that must be figured out in relation to perception. there are so many theoretical problems to solve but they are all ultimately spiritual, moral and existential. subjectivity was a the ‘difference between green and blue’ problem people were trying to solve 80s. i once heard someone say it wasn't ‘real feminist experimental writing’ if you used the letter ‘i’ to mean a person. that didn't seem very feminist to me. when barbara guest moved to the bay area, i was relieved because she said, "all poetry is subjective" which seems true. i still prefer writing with a lot of information— whether it’s research or just a fancy state of mind. it’s probably good to change your ‘poetics’ every few weeks to keep people on their toes. at a geography of hope conference on water recently, several of us—evelyn reilly, jonathan skinner, angie lewandowski and i—were talking about the term 'ecopoetics' and wondering whether even relatively recent terms like that can be co-opted and lose their life-force. i've always felt that—in terms of theories and manifestoes-- writers can be simultaneously inclusive and iconoclastic but that literary traditions are very flexible and don’t really originate at any one point… when i wrote cascadia i was thinking that the feminist experimental 'nature-writing' tradition was different from what men had done so with the geological metaphor— the poetic consciousness is like rocks of california. the main problem is how to live in relation— with a feeling for both endangered earth and endangered language—but one enters a poem through a sphere of the musical phrase rather than to solve any kind of theory.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
the writer should be an engaged citizen. i feel more writers should be involved in the public sphere. unless she is taking care of small children or the elderly or is in poor health the writer can do some form of activism . all working adults must make time to protest what is going on— to refuse to be complicit. less facebook, more faces in the street-- or use facebook to get the faces out into the street... but before i start a rant about apathy…if one of the writer’s jobs is to keep linguistic imagination alive in the culture for herself in a society which is increasingly dead to language, it can include other kinds of activities involving art, absurdist theatre like bringing poems to congress… i like to moan at the gas pump when i pump gas. poets can note the misuse of vocabulary in official kinds of language— some of us dialogued recently about the use of the word ‘spill’ about the b.p. gulf oil disaster. it can be found at http://www.gulfcoastmag.org/index.php?n=3&si=17&s=2664. i think of the role of the poet as quite radical, actually—as baudelaire thought, to be an engaged representative of the underbelly or the lining of the culture rather than its surface, or whatever is most odd about the human spirit, and if the culture is dysfunctional, as ours is, this means the poet is pointing to things that may be wrong as well to what is beautiful. poems cannot change laws, but we can take poems into the so called corridors of power…not just to protest things about human culture that make it disastrous but also to celebrate existence, its marvels, the non-human.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
my editor at wesleyan, suzanna tamminen, is great. i feel her guiding presence. she has been blessedly 'hands-off' when it comes to my writing and i'm grateful that she allowed me to write from my odd vision of things in work that has changed very often. i'm such an inveterate reviser that by the time a manuscript reaches suzanna's desk i'm satisfied that i've done my best with the work. at times, working with magazine editors, i've been open to suggestions, but not always. i was on an editorial board at u.c.press for twelve years, and i found the process enlightening but very difficult. making suggestions for an other writer’s art was a great responsibility. the board took the task very seriously and the suggestions we made were always to make the work better in its own terms rather than to shape it to our own styles.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
a piece of language about writing-- not necessarily advice-- i think of every day is from chekhov: 'nothing passes away'-- this captures the great circularity of existence and of linguistic possibilities. my mom, who was born and educated in brazil, learned another version of this—she tells me it was from lavoisier: “na naturesa, nada se crea nem se perde; tudo se transforma.” a teacher told me very early on that i should write not what i want to write to express myself but what i would want to read if i were looking for something good to read. i'd like to think something of what i've written might survive my small personality and might keep someone going in the future.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
i've actually written very few essays, considering how many i would like to write and have in mind. i'd love to write more. i feel like a house plant that grew one big old gigantic leaf because that leaf was just the main thing. the leaf is poetry.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
i wake up at 5:30 or 6 most days. i usually write in the morning before going to teach or whatever. i stay at my desk stewing, for a few hours. i either work on new writing or re-writing—i recopy poems until they are finished. i try to attend to a poem every day.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
farther out or farther in. to plants and animals and rocks, spiders, the spirit world. all forms are potential sources— trance techniques, hypnosis, cooking broccoli. i turn to other writing. to bird manuals, natural history guides, philosophy, airport magazines – i’m a sloppy and undisciplined reader. i hate reading gobs of stuff on the internet so i’m not surprised if no one is reading this now. if i have to read long things i print them out.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
home of origin (tucson) the smell of creosote bushes just after a rain.
in tilden park, where we run there's a plant that smells like taco sauce. we pass it and i know i'm home. eucalyptus trees smell like home-- though they are introduced species. and so does bay laurel -- if you bend the leaf in half, it produces the most amazing smell.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
human bodies influence my work… marriage has influenced my work, and i’ve been blessed to have a wonderful husband and family. domestic arts enchant me— crafts and witchcrafts. stitching, needlepoint, knitting— very honorable women’s arts. for many years i’ve worked with trance and hypnosis techniques— old and hermetic, theosophical procedures. my political activism, especially work with code pink, has had a more prominent place in my poetry lately, so people keep asking about activism and poetry — direct action in the street, not in the internet, is very inspiring, especially grassroots activism. poems are such little objects that you can put so many things into— the vast inhuman elements that may or may not have a different form of consciousness from ours. i've always explored might be called the ecological tradition in my poetry. ecology, various sciences, the natural world. as i say above, gnosticism and alchemy.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
some early favorites were the king james translation of the bible, edna st vincent millay, keats, dickinson, yeats, volumes given to me by my parents and grandparents who encouraged reading. i read a lot of poetry in jr. high and high school in the sixties -- individual volumes of great modernists- including stevens, eliot, pound-- as well as favorites of my hippie peers. we were all reading richard brautigan in high school and smoking a lot of weed while squinting at the liner notes of dylan albums. my brother gave me plath's ariel as a graduation present. when i got to college i was introduced to baudelaire, rimbaud and mallarme the minute i got there, and i had several wonderful teachers— ed germain especially, as did my friend luke menand who gave me a lot of contemporary poetry to read. i read a lot of rilke in college too. reading baudelaire and wordsworth simultaneously, and then andre breton and dickinson simultaneously, formed my aesthetic mostly. i gobbled the modernists in grad school— williams, stevens and h.d— so the business of trying to exclude didn't seem a good thing. in grad school i also read ashbery, duncan, james wright. i read the work of my future husband bob hass’s field guide with a passion, and john wieners’ nerves. being a bay area poet pretty much requires you to look at has been to look to the writers of the sf renaissance— rexroth, snyder, everson, duncan. sarah rosenthal’s anthology about the bay area vanguard points to the later legacy of this. i feel part of a move toward great aesthetic diversity in american writing, the way an exploratory, ecological and spiritual emphasis has come about, as well as the way the materials of language have been emphasized, many experiments in style-- it is very exciting. as for reading, for falling in love with what i've read-- i’m pretty picky. that is, i read a ton but i'm always looking for very high quality work, not just poetry in the current period styles. i want to find the truly memorable work. it rarely happens but when it happens i'll read that poet's work thereafter.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
i wish i could learn spanish, play the guitar, learn as many botanical names as possible, make a huge scene protesting drones. there is unbearable injustice in our social and economic system. and i want never never to have to ski again. i’m from the desert and i hate snow— offensive stuff.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
i would like to be a firecracker, or a piece of granite on the point reyes peninsula. if i return as an animal, i’d like to be a fox, a dolphin or an owl. i'd like to have the eyes of any insect. if i return as a human, i'd like to be a naturalist, an oceanographer, a revolutionary fanatic of some kind who will not do damage to people or creatures. but i would not want any of these things if i cannot come back writing poetry.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
poetry "took" in every way, from the time i was 9. my parents were very supportive and they still think poetry is cool. previous instances of writing made me want to write, as well as a feeling about the world and about the wilderness inside my brain that nothing could satisfy but poetry. the great values of poetry from romanticism through modernism— wildness of spirit, wildness of form. to write about whatever you want, including mental processes themselves, to use syllables and the non-human world as subjects; they/ we can be conscious of interconnectedness between our local place and our humanness; and we are likely to make better art if we keep all our mental functions working-- mind has the capacity for all things and can accommodate all you go through in your life--the uncertainty and the complexity, the biosphere including the rocks-- all these are uncertain, full of paradox-- capture this in poetry—not to hurry through the mysteries. it’s great that poetry is slow and inexpensive—one sheet of paperis .
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
i can’t say the last great book i read but i can tell you some things i have on my desk right now: talks on occultism; gennadi aygi’s selected works translated by peter france; vallejo's the black heralds; the bible; the story of writing; witches in the southwest; transtromer's selected; the life of antonio gramsci, and plants of the san francisco bay region. i read tons and tons of contemporary poetry-- i try to keep up-- and really read across the aesthetic spectrum, not just my friends’ works. we don’t go to movies much but i loved inside job. as jane austen would say, “how true.” i don’t like to sit through movies if i start hating them after 15 minutes, and most people (namely, bob) are more patient and given them a chance. i mostly hate plots so i like movies in which very little happens. one of my top movies is woman in the dunes. i like movies with sand in them. visually, lawrence of arabia is my favorite film though the “stance” is a garbled mess politically. i love the way peter o’toole’s nose is always running.
20 - What are you currently working on?
i'm working on poems with fire in them— on small seasonal moments. one thing that interests me right now is investigating ‘half-emotions’ and the kinds of things holderlin worried about-- what you would call the lyric impulse and how it emerges from non-existence. activism has made it impossible not to stay pretty unhappy all the time about the corporate monstrosity that our government has become but there is a great opportunity to be serene and focused on the good of art even despite that. i have a baby grandson i get to see a lot and there is great solace in the non-human elements.it is very beautiful to be alive. with poetry you need to be a shaman but also remember to floss.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;