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Brenda Hillman

Photo Credit: The University of Arizona Poetry Center

Welcome to Ask a Poet, where each week we will present (in no particular order) a Q&A with a poet who will be coming to the Dodge Poetry Festival this October 20-23. Through these blogs, you’ll be able to get to know these poets a bit better in preparation for #DPF16! 

Now, let’s get to know Brenda Hillman



What are you reading?

Right now I’m reading a lot of things. I’m catching up on poetry I’ve been meaning to read all year. A book of prose I’ve been reading is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me—it is a stunning piece of writing, a major text.  I found a copy of Ed Sanders’ Poem from Jail and that is meaningful—long poem, short lines. What has dominated my poetry reading for the last 6 months has been re-reading C.D. Wright’s work. She was a close friend, an amazing poet. Everything she wrote is worth reading, re-reading.  Since I don’t do blurbs, I like to spread the word about new writers I happen across.  I just read a really cool little book by Tongo Eisen-Martin I’ve been telling everyone about—it’s from Bootstrap Press and it’s called someone’s dead already.  I just wrote a note to Brenda Ijima about her terrific new book Remembering Animals and Brian Teare—his The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven is quite wonderful.  I try to read a little of everything that comes through the mail.  For a while I’ve been reading the work of Brazilian poet Ana Cristina Cesar because I’ve been working on a translation with my mother.  

With all the other demands and distractions in life, how do you make time for poetry?

I get up really early if I can—like 5:30. I don’t actually like sleep and prefer to be awake. I write in a kind of fugue for a few hours in the morning. For the rest of the day I keep a notebook of material—especially lines that come to me at weird moments—and use them when I can. I try to work a little every day and to touch a poem every day. I like copying things over and over and over by hand until I like the way it sounds and sometimes I recopy it 100 times till by the end I am only changing a comma. There’s really a lot of really strange new reality that comes in if you let go the stale stuff.  Some poets are suspicious of revision but I think of each version as new writing, new invention.

What is the role of poetry in the twenty first century?

I will tell people the answer to this if they come to Dodge.

Tell us about any personal habits, rituals, ceremonies, superstitions that are part of your writing practice.  

I work with trance a lot and have been doing that for 30 years or so. Self-hypnosis. And I have rocks and various little things I use to do rituals with and I talk to the non-human creatures. I sometimes have procedures I use, like counting numbers of lines. I get strong feelings about individual pencils, and if it stops working, I go get another one. I have been doing these things since I was a child, and I take all of my weird systems exactly half seriously.

Tell us about your favorite experience reading for an audience. 

I really enjoy presenting poetry to audiences. It is a very different experience from knowing they will be reading your work on the page—my work is quite visual and I like visual poetry, so I think of those as separate but related. Two of my favorite experiences of reading to audiences were long ago at Dodge. One was reading with Allen Ginsberg and later with Amiri Baraka. Both were big stage situations. Reading with Allen was amazing—I felt the audience brought really beautiful energy to us that night. It was like being a part of a world community of poetry. I read my strange poems, and when Allen came up, he read a few poems and then as I recall he basically chanted a lot, including “Smoke pot, Smoke pot, Smoke pot” for a good chunk of the reading. I loved that.  Another experience later—I read with Amiri Baraka after 9/11.  The audience had trouble with some of his reading and the poem was controversial. Afterward we talked and I told him he was a great poet and we talked about some passages in his piece. He said something really nice to me about my work which I will always treasure in my heart.

What is a misconception about poetry that bothers you? Why?

The misconception that it is difficult.  People love all kinds of lyrics in popular music and in that same spirit, poetry is not difficult. Is music difficult? Are colors? There are many different kinds of musical experiences, and many colors and some of them are intense and really packed and subtle.  Poetry is the intense music of our wild dreams, and our dreams make sense in different ways. Sometimes there are stories and references to recognizable shapes and sometimes not.  Poetry is not difficult.  Violence against people of color is difficult. Constant war is difficult.  Working 3 jobs and not being able to pay for childcare, that is difficult. The grotesque horror poverty in our cities is difficult, and unregulated guns, and the murder of children; that is difficult. Being a veteran and not getting health care for internal and external wounds, that is difficult. Being bullied on the internet because you’re female or gay—that is difficult. Losing a child or a parent is difficult. Living with addiction is difficult. Poetry is not difficult, and as Audre Lorde writes, It is not a luxury. Its beauty is sometimes abstract like color or music and that’s fine. Poetry is our the hope of our odd intellect and deep souls. People should just slow down and carry a poem around with them. Don’t read it so fast. Read each line more than once—there is no wrong answer.  

How important is accessibility of meaning? Should a reader have to work hard to “solve” the poem? 

See my answer above. It’s funny how many people use the word “poetry” for something they respect and revere—the poetry of wine, the poetry of soccer, and yet they never bother to find out about poetry itself. We are in a golden age of this great art.  Accessibility is often a term used to bludgeon poets who write using modernist, postmodernist, abstract or conceptual methods; there is more than one kind of accessibility, and there are many different ways to be understood. We don’t have to like it all but we can make associations in words that do not have the same kind of linearity as narrative poetry does.  There is a lot of poor education that narrows poetry instead of expanding it. Many times at Saint Mary’s, I’ve taught Dictée by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha to undergraduates; it’s a great classic modernist text that is not “accessible” in the classic sense but the kids adore it because I don’t set it up by telling them—oh, watch out!! This is really radical and weird, you should be wary of it. They open the book and see there is handwriting, there are multiple languages, there are pictures, and they realize it isn’t a “normal” book of poetry. If people would just delight in Gertrude Stein instead of thinking she is writing riddles they feel left out of, or just read it for its associative value, instead of being offended because she’s writing with cubist and jaunty measures, the whole experience would not seem so utilitarian or terrifying. Reading unfamiliar things could be more like dating. You show up wanting the person to like you, and try to be open to the experience, instead of demanding that they be exactly like you. And maybe you won’t want to have more dates with Gertrude but maybe you will! There are many different styles of poetry we can love and feel interest in.   

Brenda Hillman was born in Arizona, attended Pomona College and received her MFA at the University of Iowa.

She is the author of Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (2013), which received the International Griffin Poetry Prize, the Northern California Book Award for Poetry and the California Book Award Gold Medal in Poetry; Practical Water (2009), winner of the LA Times Book Award for Poetry; Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005); Cascadia (2001); Loose Sugar (1997), a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle; and Bright Existence (1993), a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Hillman co-edited The Grand Permisson: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (2003) and edited a collection Emily Dickinson poems (1995). She co-translated Poems from Above the Hill: Selected Poems of Ashur Etwebi (2011) and Jeongrye Choi’s Instances (2011).

She received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets. Her awards include the William Carlos Williams Prize for poetry and a Pushcart Prize. She was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2016.

Hillman has taught at the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference and UC Berkeley. She currently teaches at St. Mary’s College and lives in the Bay Area with her husband, the poet Robert Hass.

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