Brenda Hillman is, in the words of the Poetry Foundation, one of “contemporary poetry’s most eclectic and formally innovative writers.”
As an innovator, she is apt to play with form. Her poems can come in the shape of narrative-style paragraphs, or divided into columns. Her subjects stem from nature, or, in the instance of “Girl Sleuth,” from the pages of a Nancy Drew mystery.
She’s the author of nine poetry collections – the most recent of which, “Seasonal Works With Letters on Fire,” came out in 2013 – and three chapbooks. She was born in the desert – Tucson, Arizona – and teaches at St. Mary’s College in California. Earlier this year, she won the International Griffin Poetry Prize for 2014, and her 2009 collection, “Practical Water,” was the Los Angeles Times Book Award winner for poetry.
Oh, and she’ll be in Spokane this week as part of the Gonzaga University Visiting Writers Series.
In a five-question interview, Hillman talked about finding inspiration everywhere, playing with form and loving language.
Q. You’ve said in the past that it’s an artist’s job to create form, and some of your poems clearly do not follow what many would consider standard form. What are you trying to evoke when you break beyond the boundaries of a stanza?
A. I like to write in a lot of different forms because I think everyone thinks in a lot of different ways, and I think it’s exciting to see different shapes of stanzas and so forth. I am easily bored so I like variety in any art. Poetry should be like thought and feeling, really fresh but related to the familiar. Lots of the forms of contemporary poetry come from modernist styles, styles other than standard song-like stanzas, and I love playing with different looks of the line, as well as different forms of punctuation. I like to invent my own forms too, to evoke how the earth invents its forms – rocks, growing things, turbulent rivers – as well as other forms of art, like dance, or architecture.
Q. Where do you find inspiration for your poems?
A. From just about everything – from things I read, things that happen, things other people say, the news, nature and my own intense perceptions. My work sometimes derives from experience with trance methods. Poetry helps bring together confused matters of the heart, strange ideas, fascinating language, and the sensual relationships to the world outside our bodies. My particular poetry is sort of experimental spiritual environmental odd-thinking kind of poetry – it foregrounds my experiences with words but I want everyone to get something different from it. I think poetry should be rooted in the mysterious or ineffable experiences we all share, even if it only happened in our own brains; poems can always be shared because poets are really trying to speak for everyone, just on a deeper level. Mainly I want to write the way I want to write and I don’t want anyone telling me what I can’t do.
Q. “Cascadia” was the first collection in a proposed tetralogy of works based on themes of air, water, earth and fire. The fourth work, “Seasonal Works With Letters on Fire,” came out last year. With that completed, what is next for you?
A. It took me nearly 20 years to write the elements books so I’m not anticipating, but at the moment I seem to be writing about time and my experience of it, but I’m also fascinated by forests and by lichen. I have a lot of friends who have been going through various forms of grief – losing parents, marriages, friends, and discovering they have terminal illnesses, so it seems a time of a lot of shared grief, including grief about the newest set of wars. So grief is making its way into my poems. I plan on continuing to write from a lot of political concern, but being alive is very meaningful and strange and I love writing in relation to the great mystery of reality and beauty of a shared life. I’m kind of a witch, actually.
Q. When you read your works, do you stick to new stuff, old stuff, unfinished stuff?
A. Mostly I try to read a mix, but I try to read at least in part from the latest book, especially if I think some of the audience may be familiar with it. Many poets like to read only unpublished, brand-new things because that is what interests them at the moment, but I like to plan each reading for a particular audience where I find myself.
Q. What’s the best thing aspiring poets can do to make themselves better?
A. Try to be in love with language around you and in you, and realize you have an important role to play for the culture, to reflect the various forms of language back to their users. The word “drone” is a worker bee, not just an eyeless robotic airplane, so it’s important as a poet to hear how that language is working and to reflect the paradox. I’d also tell the aspiring poet to read lots of literature you love, but also read writing you may not love if it helps you grow to do more things. Read the old masters and the new women masters. Writing is so much fun, even if you are writing about difficult or tragic things – it is very redemptive. Just stick with it and show people your work. That is what I tell my students. Try to write every day and don’t be afraid to revise what you have written. Doing your writing will make your life so much better, though it’s not the only thing, of course!
Summer Stories on audio loop
Looks like the Summer Series short fiction collection is getting a repeat airing on Spokane Public Radio.
The stories commissioned by The Spokesman-Review were read by their authors this past week as part of “The Book Shelf” program on KPBX, 91.1 FM. Now the “Tales From the Fair” will get a repeat airing on sister station KSFC, 91.9 FM, at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, beginning today and running through Nov. 9.
Each 30-minute episode features stories by three or four writers, including Shawn Vestal, Jess Walter, Sharma Shields, Nance Van Winckel, Jessica Halliday, Sam Ligon and Shann Ray. KPBX hopes to have a podcast of the series available beginning Monday. Check out kpbx.org for details on that. In the meantime, audio of the authors reading their work also is available at The SR’s Summer Stories site, www.spokesman.com/ summer-stories/.
Professors debate Aristotle
Two Gonzaga University professors, Duane Armitage of the philosophy department and Shannon Dunn, in religious studies, will discuss “What Can We Learn From Aristotle” in a free lecture Wednesday night.
The event, sponsored by the GU College of Arts & Sciences and the Robert K. and Ann J. Powers Chair of the Humanities, is a long-running series that aims to bring the works of great thinkers before the public.
The free lecture will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday in the Wolff Auditorium (Jepson Hall room 114) on the Gonzaga campus. For more information, call Wayne Pomerleau at (509) 313-6750 or email pomerleau@ calvin.gonzaga.edu.
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