In Brenda Hillman’s work, the smart and the heart coexist: a rigorous, often mystical intellectuality and language that sparks on the tongue, as in the title of her collection, Loose Sugar, ground-breaking for its innovative risks and resilient feminist voice. With Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire comes the blazing conclusion to her tetralogy on the elements. The first, Cascadia, mindfully traverses the earth, while in Pieces of Air in the Epic and Practical Water, Hillman suffuses us in air and water. Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, the final book in the series, blends a Romantic sensibility with her experimental forms. While these poems still draw from the tumult of our environmental and political crises, they flare with a visionary light. —Amy Pence
Amy Pence: At the time of Cascadia’s publication, you weren’t sure if you would continue writing about the classical elements, yet you did. What has sustained you?
Brenda Hillman: In Cascadia, I tried to bring exploratory forms and bio-regionalism into a relationship, to investigate language and earth and poetic form at the same time. Geology quickly became a metaphor for consciousness—fractured, evolutionary and not continuous. It illumined the ideas of the outer and the inner, of permanence and impermanence. The unconsciousness of the world and the mind of an artist commune in a poem, and the necessities of language meet you there.
Working on the elements has been more of an invitation than a necessity. I thought: earth, okay, air, yes, water, then fire…it was sort of like falling love. If you turn your attention to something you’re in love with, you’ll see it everywhere. You’ll see air in a cup of coffee or in what birds fly through. If you turn your attention to water, you’ll see it in spit, semen, in lakes and wars. In some cultures there are five elements—I’m thinking seriously about that.
AP: In what ways is your new book, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, an important book for our time?
BH: It’s fairly hard for poets not to think that writing poetry is an important activity, but like everything else, poetry is important only in relative terms. The climate is in trouble; the economy is heading toward increasingly horrifying privatization, and most humans do not have adequate health care—so the art of poetry can seem like a tiny speck in the universe. Yet to those of us who love it, poetry feels like more than decoration: it connects the human brain to mysterious symbolic meanings.
Is my little book significant? I don’t know, of course. During the years of writing this book, I entered the present tense as fully as possible, to experience seasons that are both inner and outer measures. As the last in a quartet of books inspired by the classical elements, this book goes to some strange places. You could call it animist, I suppose.
AP: What do you mean by “animist?” Blake, and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” line: “We see into the life of things,” come to mind when reading your book. Why do you think the last book in this series turns to the Romantic tradition?
BH: My versions of animism derive from the notion (a very common one, actually) that there is an active life force in seemingly inanimate things, that there is more life and spirit than is commonly thought. Of course, animism is a common feature of many Native American traditions. The Romantic poets have the idea of a stirring inside of nature—it’s never clear whether the stirring is more or less than they are. Since the 1790s, Romanticism has been the basis for so much in art, including modernism and postmodernism, because its basic ideas have to do with freedom of form and freedom of content. Fire, the spiritual impulse and the inner life, have always been braided for me since I started studying the Gnostics. An early poem in this collection has to do with reading and childhood, with listening into the heart of matter or reality as if there was fire inside of everything. Some of the poems are involved with the animation of letters. The life inside of things and inside of letters, in words having forceful sensation. It’s a weird phenomenology. The book has a lot of active letters as well as talking ants. The poem “A Brutal Encounter Recollected in Tranquility,” written after the incident at Occupy Cal, makes reference to a line of ants that are present in the action. The title is borrowed from Wordsworth, of course.
AP: What is the mission or value of the poet in these times?
BH: There are surely as many answers to this as there are poets. Most poets are not writing as much about their mission as they are about states of mind or aesthetic or socio-political passions, no matter how theoretical the announced projects may be.
There are poets who write manifestos and pretend to be bossy about their perceived mission, like Whitman in his preface to Leaves of Grass or Breton in his Surrealist manifestos. Of course, artists’ manifestos are a genre unto themselves, and also lean on other manifestos for their claims. Maybe it’s good to read theoretical claims from artists the way we read their poems—as unstable documents of unstable imaginations, rather than as philosophical tracts. I kind of joked with the genre of the manifesto in the new book, by inserting a one-page version of my entire poetics that is so concentrated it seems more like one of those salty packets for miso soup. I call it a minifesto.
AP: How does your poetry accomplish these things in light of the limited cultural interest?
BH: I’m not sure the cultural interest in poetry is all that limited. The very idea of the poet holds a cultural romance. Most people know they once had poetry in their lives and still need it. People are always handing me poems they’ve written. It’s common to blame 20th-century modernism or the difficulty of poetry for the comparatively small sales of poetry. But people should take a trip to Poets’ House in New York if they want to feel the thriving energy of this great art—thousands of books and chapbooks of poetry being published every year, and most of them have a number of readers. There are thousands of poetry readings in this country every day.
Of course, there should be more money for poetry and a smaller military budget. Of course, poetry could be taught better. It would be great if more high-school teachers were teaching Forrest Gander and Harryette Mullen, or if there were more education about breakthroughs of modernism. I taught Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee to my sophomores, and they loved it. My students at Saint Mary’s are recently being adventurous about reading postmodern ecological poets like Evelyn Reilly and Brian Teare. It’s a matter of exposure. I just don’t buy the opinion either that average people are too limited to read poetry, or that Wallace Stevens or Aimé Césaire are too hard for them. Why should poets have to dumb down the complexity of existence, considering what a mess the world is? Suffering is intricate. We are more than capable of appreciating 21st-century poetry, considering the many instances of modernist collage there are in car commercials.
AP: You commented at a reading at Berkeley, “poetry has great power…but that doesn’t mean it can change laws.” Could you say more about the power it does have?
BH: Poetry doesn’t help in the way radical social change helps, but it can accompany change. Poetry can’t topple corrupt economic systems or feed impoverished people. Its power may lie only in renaming the powers in ourselves, negotiating the paradoxes and indeterminate states using our most common material of ordinary language. Maybe poetry just introduces questions, such as what are we in relation to the unknown, or to rivers, to injustice, to sexual identity, to the materials of language itself? All these things can produce interesting writing. Many of us learned to memorize poems, so part of its power is purely incantatory. I am most drawn to poets like Dickinson, Celan, Vallejo or Duncan who synthesize impulses, and whose poetry is worth re-reading many times. The more I work in the medium, the vaster I find it.
AP: When did your interest in poetry and activism begin, and can you talk more about the relationship between the two for you?
BH: I come from a literary and spiritually intense family. I believe their strain of Protestantism probably stems from one of the agitated sects of 17th-century resisters. Maybe this is why I’m drawn to William Blake, whose mother is said have belonged to the Muggletonians, a small group of dissenters who didn’t like churches. Their basic practice evidently involved sitting around singing and drinking beer, which sounds like a perfectly fine religion to me. In any case, my parents gave me poetry early on and always supported my writing. My writing has always included resistance to that which easily becomes acceptable.
In terms of activism, I protested in the 1960s, like many others. After moving to the Bay Area in the 1970s, I found that just trying to write at all as a young working mother was a challenge, so I didn’t protest as much. In the 1980s, many understood the dire global economic situation, but relatively few were protesting. In the 1990s I became more active.
In the early 2000s, Bob (Hass) and I spent time in Berlin. One day, we were standing in a courtyard where trucks had once arrived to take Jews and others to concentration camps. I had an “anti-mystical” experience at that moment: I felt the ghosts of compliant Germans from long ago, looking down from their apartments, piercing my body. When we got home, I decided I didn’t want to be a good German, so I started to do tax resistance, then trips to Congress and street theater.
The challenges of protest are different from literary challenges. It’s easy to get burned out because it feels hopeless. I took part in Occupy as much as I was able. So many young people experienced a profound awakening and then were horrified by the brutal way people were treated. I have stopped believing in the current political and economic structures, but I will not stop believing in human action. Currently, banks and corporations have posted their biggest profits in history while things get worse for the planet. It’s an intolerable situation.
AP: Can you provide a few details on your reading to protest drone attacks—as well as any other activist events that were important to you?
BH: Drone warfare is a form of assassination in an undeclared war: innocent people are often killed. American drones are being piloted remotely, a half a world away, notably from Creech Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas. Bob and I drove down to Creech to protest drones with two activist poet friends. We stood outside the gates of the base and read poetry for a few days while people drove in and out. It was surreal to be in the desert reading poetry to people who couldn’t hear—like being in a Beckett play.
A lot of activists are focused on outcomes, but there’s a kind of fertile uselessness knowing you cannot control the results when you do an action with others. You give up utilitarian measures in that kind of circumstance. You act according to your conscience in the moment, but your actions will have no predictable outcome. Unpredictability may be one thing good poetry and protest have in common, though in many ways, the activities are completely different. I try to stay outside my comfort zone. You never feel satisfied with the outcome of a protest; it’s different from writing something you’re glad to have written, that you can revise later.
AP: You’ve developed new forms for poetry to do this work. In Practical Water, you write about Reportorial Poetry, a method that combines your activism with the use of trance.
BH: Trance and reporting are connected. They both have immediacy, like overhearing things in official situations. Trance and dream states can be fresh even if the poet revises into a carefully crafted poem. Sometimes in the middle of overhearing very rational language, I do a little automatic writing and then re-shape it later. I attended a Congressional hearing on warrantless wiretapping and tried to take notes using the pacing of this legal language.
The best poetry for me has always resided where dream is connected to the cosmic unknown—these images are metaphoric. Not that they aren’t true, but they have symbolic value in context. For instance, George W. Bush thinks he literally received messages from Jesus about invading Iraq. One imagines Jesus was probably receiving messages about George a little bit more metaphorically.
AP: Can you talk about your use of polyphony and collective dictations?
Since childhood I’ve been drawn to theosophy and the esoteric, including the idea that polyphony and cacophony come from mythic origins. It’s an ancient idea that poets receive signals or messages: whether it’s Moses or Wordsworth’s uncontrollable sublime, H.D. writing on the walls or Spicer’s Martians.
Some poets hope for the outside clue that comes from beyond a narrow or ego-driven center, and want to give themselves over to the power of overheard language. Others do not want to fool with that at all. Adapting Romantic, modernist, postmodernist approaches to the various forms of the unknown seems like friendly behavior. This sometimes involves changing the terms of communication across species, or making a deeper connection between living and nonliving things.
AP: Many disparate aspects of reality come to mind when reading your books: language, ecopoetics, activism, feminism and motherhood all seem to be explored through a shifting of forms and experiments with syntax. How do these strands and your feminist impulses intertwine?
BH: When I moved to the Bay Area in the 70s, there was an exciting community of women writers, and there was a lot of language and formal innovation going on. I wanted to bring together some of that experimentation with women’s experiences and environmental writing, which had been up to that time predominantly male, as well as to bring in connections with collective myth and radical spirituality.
Much of my experience has been shaped by being a mother, a daughter, a wife and a teacher at a college that values women’s writing and scholarship. My writing life would not have been possible without support from Bob and my family. I am shocked when anyone says she thinks the word feminist is polemical or unnecessary. The last few generations of women have taken a lot of hits so women could have more rights. Yet, although there have been many gains for women writers, there is still a long way to go. I feel a commitment to helping other women specifically.
AP: In her introduction at your Berkeley reading, Megan Pugh very perceptively said of your poetic forms, “Everything’s in flux—so are the elements and so is language.” Can you comment on this idea?
BH: Maybe negative capability involves a certain restlessness, and a playful approach does not rule out a more intense approach. There seems to be a fear of intensity in poetry now. The current prevailing styles feature a lot of procedural methods, loose associational styles and oblique subject matter. These are great, but they are only part of the story, because human beings experience their feelings about their lives so intensely. Mallarmé has always been a model for me—the way he produced intense moody explorations in enlightening linguistic forms. His poems seem accurate spatially as well as syntactically. Most of the formal decisions in my poetry are made via intuition, either by deploying counted forms or open free-verse forms.
AP: In a poem in Practical Water, in response to the question, “Why do you write like this?” you write, “Because sir i am / a sorceress looking for sources.” Can you tell me more about your sources, and what it means to be a sorceress?
BH: The rhyme “sources/sorceress” brings together the research/reportorial/informational aspect of poetry (and of my poetry specifically) with the conjuring aspects, which is another way of bringing together the visible and the invisible, the senses we use a lot and the senses we use rarely.
Mostly we are too cut off to know how far we are from this fact, so poets try to present experiences of time and space and otherness, to make bridges between outer and inner things, and to try to make interesting word forms from mysterious beauty and unbearable suffering. I hope to do some of those things in my short stay on the planet.
Brenda Hillman has published chapbooks with Penumbra Press, a+bend press and EmPress. She is the author of nine full-length collections from Wesleyan University Press, the most recent of which are Practical Water and Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire. With Patricia Dienstfrey, she edited The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood. Hillman teaches at St. Mary’s College of California, where she is the Olivia C. Filippi Professor of Poetry. She is an activist for social and environmental justice and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.