An Interview with Brenda Hillman
by Sarah Rosenthal
Brenda Hillman occupies a unique position in American poetry. Her national reputation was established through books such as Fortress, Bright Existence, and Death Tractates: works firmly anchored in a lyrical-narrative tradition. With the publication of Loose Sugar and subsequent work, she began to explore postmodern poetic modes such as fragmentation and what she refers to in the following interview as "a more stretchy sense of 'I'." Given the often intense disagreements between poets and readers who love lyric ("accessible") poetry on the one hand, and those who ally themselves with postmodern ("difficult") work on the other, Hillman's ability to cross lines without, apparently, alienating old friends seems courageous and refreshing. How is she able to do it? Our talk revealed a poet who marries passionate convictions with a relaxed embrace of not-knowing as a fundamental aspect of human life. Perhaps this combination has enabled her surprising yet sure-footed move across an often rigid boundary within American poetics.
Sarah Rosenthal: I'd like to focus on your most recent book, Cascadia—starting at the end, with the series of poems about the California missions. There are poems like this throughout Cascadia which form a spine for the book; they are more airy than the other poems.
Brenda Hillman: Spare.
SR: Yes, spare. In your earlier work, especially Loose Sugar, there are tiny moments or fragments that seem to come from an interior, mystical place. Here, in the mission poems, those moments become the entire poem. In reading them, I don't quite want to say that all thought drops away, but they are very quiet and prayer-like to me. They make me feel joyful, even though there are words like "hurt," "pain," "danger," and "confusion" laced through them. And there are lines here and there that reinforce that seeming paradox. In "Birth of Syntax": "A blade of happiness cuts like free verse // A breath makes of each hurt a new religion"; in "Christ's Height": "a poet / burst with happiness." In "Half the Half-Nocturnes," which immediately follows the last mission poem in the book: "How did this existence deepen / and get lighter, disaster dreams confused // with hope like those of friars / carrying a saint's bed higher because / the mission's burning." It is so urgent, and yet there is joy, too-and an effort to acknowledge that strange collision.
BH: Thank you for starting with those because I think they are the hardest poems in the book. They seem to me to be about the mission/mission as a difficulty. The friars had a "mission" to go about carrying the word in a mistaken sort of way, which produced both beauty and terror. And our feelings about what they did are just as mixed as our feelings—as my feelings—about the mission of the artist.
Those poems were written during a difficult period in my life, and I decided I would just go around California and visit all 22 missions and look at the patterns on the walls. What you said about thought dropping away is accurate to the process as well; I started each poem by just sitting in a mission and meditating on the idea of pattern itself, beyond sense. The beauty of those wall-patterns had enchanted me from the first time I'd seen the missions, which was in the mid-'70s. In looking at the patterns on the mission walls, I felt that the people who had painted them were doing as much "God's work," you know, in big quotes—or the earth's work, or the mind's work, or all those slashed together—as the people who did the actual religious art; they were simply doing a more abstract version of keeping the making-spirit going. There is a particular beauty about the regularity of the way that an artist works in relation to a day. If we are making art, we somehow keep on in a daily, drastic and joyful continuing. How do you continue? That's your job: You get up in the morning, you let some energy get through you somehow, and you put the paint on the wall. That's how it gets there.
You are right to connect the mission poems to the fragment stuff in Loose Sugar. They're also connected to the sequence called "Twelve Dawns" at the beginning of Bright Existence, particularly the one called "The Servant," which says, "—So you whispered to the soul Rise up! / but the soul was not ready. // —Get up! It's our turn! But that part of the soul / stayed still. So you checked the list // of those who existed." There's a continuation between the idea of soul, and abstraction and geometry, and being at work in the daily, and color—and more specifically, doodling in church and the materiality of language. When I was visiting the missions and sitting there in these little niches, one of the things I thought a lot was, church can be so boring if you don't expand on the predictable. I had to go to church a lot when I was a kid. You know, you sit there and you just, uurrr . . . so I would doodle a lot as a child. And not well. Not good doodles, just really blunt stupid doodles because I can't draw.
SR: I know from Loose Sugar and from some of your interviews that you were raised in a very rigorous Baptist form. I got the feeling that the poems were in part enacting the childlike experience of being in church, including an awareness that you're supposed to be praying but that you are aware of others' presence.
BH: I wanted to open my eyes to look at the adults and see if their eyes were open. But I couldn't because I was afraid. So I peeked a tiny bit. Prayer, like poetry, is best when the singular goes toward the collective.
SR: Did you have any instinct of praying when you were a child? Were you spiritual, or was it just sort of forced on you?
BH: Oh, it was a complete mess. So I made up my own little church, in books and in the desert dirt. It's a fairly American, Emersonian notion of spirit in nature and word.
SR: The light is within.
BH: Yes, it's pure.
SR: It ties in so well with your interest in Gnosticism in that sense.
BH: Baptists are Gnostics, basically. They are supposed to follow a little antinomian thread. They espouse the privacy of one's relationship to the constructed universe, which isn't controlled by authority, but which is populated by other spirits. That really appealed to me. I also love the business of visitations. If it had been less morally rigid, it wouldn't have been so onerous. What appealed to me was the investigation into the collective body of received images.
SR: I wanted to look with you at the book's title poem. In "Cascadia," there are faint words sprinkled down the left-hand column: notational details about the road trip to the missions, including, for example, the names of all the tacky hotels you stayed at. I loved "Pre-Naugahyde chair."
BH: Do you know the kind? It was on its way to being Naugahyde, as if maybe they hadn't invented Naugahyde yet.
SR: And then there is "post-Naugahyde truth," and finally we get to "true Naugahyde."
BH: I figured we better sort of map out a Naugahyde fantasy....
SR: The faint lettering of these marginal notes seems like a geologic gesture: The left-hand part is the part that is submerged, in the way that at one point much of California lay beneath the ocean. There was also a sense of geologic slippage to me in the way that the poem's lines brought in so many different kinds of matter, sometimes jarring and always evocative interrelationships between them. It is a complex, rigorous poem, which at the same time has a lot of freedom and motion and slippage built into it, and the images and ideas are layered and re-layered, in lines that end up reminding me of rock strata. I was so taken by the lines "And what of the unknown where / the inexhaustible plays against form." That play in the meaning of the enjambed "where," between destination/place/noun in the first line, and unknown entity/point of passage/preposition in the second line, very much enacts the idea of the inexhaustible playing against form. In fact, the lines remind me of the Blanchot quote which serves as the volume's epigram, and which talks about "the force of the undetermined and ... the pure violence of being from which nothing can be made." The quote goes on to say that the artist's job is to provide form and boundary in some way, but without tamping down this original chaotic energy.
BH: It's a question that is so upsetting right now. I was talking to Kathleen Fraser a while ago about the opening up of form in the last 20 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 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 a certain kind of a way, 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."
SR: You have been thinking about this problem of form and boundaries in a head-on way for a long time. It's a big theme in Bright Existence, in poems like "March Dawn," where you write, "everything has a border doesn't it? the edge where light cannot get in // until joy knows the original wound." Or in "Holding On," which I read as about your relationship with your daughter: "wanted to cling to you . . . / . . . so we won't / have to address this problem of the separate you-and-me, / of outer and inner." The word "merge" appears several times in Cascadia, as well as the notion of skin as an image of boundary-skin, which strikes me as an extremely tender, vulnerable container and divider. Your work addresses the question of form and boundaries not just in poetry, but in being, in matter. In "Recycling Center" you write, "[we] could tell by the tilt of one / bottle against the next that it's difficult / to be singular, to have identity, to keep / an outline safe in the terrors of space." In "Sorrow of Matter": "suffering invented shape." You seem to be in a long-term process of puzzling out this question, wanting to push the limits of form in the context of a lot of contemporary thinking, while also acknowledging the necessity of form.
BH: Right—the necessity of form and also how it determines so much. I think about the "metaphysical" and scientific aspects of form—for example, just the business of getting shapes made, the idea of a constructed fragment of consciousness in a universe based on change. I also think about the relationship between an individual and the collective. The latter impacts a lot of my thinking about poetry right now. There seem to be a lot of poetry collaborations in the Bay Area right now, and not just collaborations with others but also dialogic forms within single-author texts. So the boundaries have loosened in that sense. That said, I still have the feeling that the task of artists is always going to be a matter of a seeking that is intense and is about a soul at work—"soul" being another term for the seeking of a mind. Boundary issues impact so much of that work: the ideas of shape in a piece of art, your relationship to tradition, how much you can risk, and your relationship to the mysterious and to your future readers—whether you want to call that divine or human, nature or artifice. And language subverts any of our efforts to make boundaries. Our very greatest human thing—which is language to me—musicians would say it's music, but I think it's language-our very greatest human thing is wild. Uncontrollable. It is impossible to put boundaries on your words, even if you make a poem. Each word is a maze. So you are full of desire to make a memorable thing and have the form be very dictated by some way that it has to be. But the poem itself is going to undo that intention. It's almost like you're knitting a sweater and something is unraveling it on the other end. You know what I mean? In this way, it is very strange.
So the idea of boundarylessness sits uncomfortably with the idea of form. I am so conscious of formal technique, and I never want the process and the poem to be so loose that it will just be dropping from a journal accidentally. I would really like the work to go on being extremely inventive in ways that seem process-oriented, but never formless.
SR: The notions of the individual and the singular seem to be part and parcel of the problem of territoriality. Your work asks questions about these concepts without providing closed answers. In "The Shirley Poem" in Part VII, you write, "Nobody works a claim alone. In / 1851 law arrives; government hasn't yet / been invented. Forty feet around a / claim. The need to be unique / has mostly made us miserable." These lines get at the pressure in our society to stake claims on all kinds of territory, both geographic and psychic. I'm led to think about originality, and the yearning of the artist to be original. In that context I thought it was interesting that this book feels much less directly autobiographical than much of your earlier work. There's that mysterious, magical phrase/fragment/poem in Cascadia, "(enter: The 'we'-)," and I get the sense that "the we" is entering into your work more than ever. I wonder if that is a result of—or perhaps accompanied by—a shift in your ideas about the role of the artist and what you want to accomplish with your art.
BH: Yes, absolutely. The lyric that is also social. Don't you think that this moment in poetry is so interesting because there are so many interesting ideas about subjectivity and the personal? It really does seem less terrifying to write from a form of experience that's not so narrowly construed. There's something about the "I" that is stretchy now; I think of the work of poets like Alice Notley and others. There are so many different ways of being personal. Like Michael Palmer's "I Do Not Speak English." Who's writing in that poem? It's not a persona, it's not just a "Michael;" it's some statement that goes down a long tunnel of possibility. That much more stretchy sense of "I" really interests me, but one that doesn't lose the depth and feeling tones. Because it's very much the case that at a certain point whatever you think of as the ego project, it's not going to work out. You come to that in art. You can't just stick with that. It doesn't work out in your life either, if you're bound up with ego.
The ego is always worried about its territoriality. In writing Cascadia, there was the notion of geology as mind, mind as geology. There aren't that many ideas. I was thinking about this when I wrote "The Shirley Poem." I had been at several conferences and was thinking about how there's no such thing as really inventing something that hasn't been invented, and I was particularly distressed and intrigued by the idea that people need to lay claim to originality. The fact is that a lot of experimental contemporary writing comes out of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé, and of course Stein. The forms in experimental writing come from a lot of different sources. I would never want to say to somebody, You stole my work—unless they actually took my words, which has actually happened on a couple of occasions, without citation to that effect. But people don't own ways of writing, and so it seemed important to kind of get that notion into the world. There are original moments in art, as in everything. But nobody owns those.
SR: But don't you think that is part of the careerism of art? Everybody is their own little company in a way, and that infiltrates into our consciousness. We're all spiritual capitalists in a certain way. It's very hard, I think, to live in a society that's so permeated by these ideas and keep them from entering your artistic process and your artistic thinking.
BH: Well, one thing I find particularly distressing for young writers is the idea that everyone has to come up with something. I mean, I think poems come from other poems. They come from lots of different places, and each mind cannot help but contribute. And this connects also with the idea of the earth, too: earth as body, earth as mind. Our language is circular. In reading geology texts—and of course when I wrote about geology in Cascadia, I messed up hugely and re-did my geology—I saw that there is a conveyor belt under the earth and that one grain of sand takes 200 million years to move from the middle of the Pacific to our coast and then go under and back. And if you actually traced the grain of sand it would take 200 million years, so it's all kind of a long process and words start to participate in a long otherness. And we're talking about language that's being recycled in poetry maybe every couple of hundred years—the whole thing gets remade. And that's cool, that you can re-use Keats. For me, the big inspiration behind the Mission poems was George Herbert. I love "The Altar" and "Easter Wings," his shapely poems. I always thought those were so cool. And I thought, I want to write a girl version of that, with lace around it. And I know that people borrowed things in Death Tractates over and over. So the idea of originality is challenging, and how we have to let go of ego to make art, while respecting that there are huge and profound aesthetic differences in a culture of literature as various as ours.
SR: In "Shirley" Part VIII, Shirley, who's a pioneer doctor's wife who travels to the mines with her husband, writes in a letter: "I have the vague / idea that I hooked that butterfly comparison from somebody. / If so, I beg the injured / person's pardon, and he or she / may have a hundred of mine / to pay for." Then there's a parenthetical that says, "(italics hers.)" And the key part to me is that the parenthetical is itself in italics, so that "her" becomes a completely slippery entity. Whose italics? It's a fine-tuned gesture that gets at this ownership/originality issue. Throughout your work, there are these precise gestures that enact what you are saying. For example, in "Shared Custody," where the daughter goes back and forth between parents like Persephone, the daughter "makes / a roof with her goodbye: //bye\\ mom." In this small typographical moment there is a complex awareness of the ways a child must negotiate her feelings for her divorced parents. I think of Dickinson's ability to funnel big ideas through small yet potent gestures.
BH: Great question! There's something about that girlish refuser that is in my work all the way back to Fortress, but it really started with Death Tractates, with the "what" voice that comes in. And that came from working with André Breton's notion of letting the pen slip so that everything in the margins of the poems starts entering. I've always done a lot of composition using trance methods. There were always unexplainable voices that would come in. I know "voice" is supposed to be a dirty word, and I never quite figured out why. Have you?
SR: There's the idea that something different happens on the page than happens in speech.
BH: But I can't get why one would want to eliminate the trace of a spoken thought in the poem. There are so many moments in which the human "voice" comes in, in Stein's "Lifting Belly," say, or in Ashbery, whose work I love. It isn't not writerly. It always seemed to me that one of the great things about poetry was when you would hear writing itself, some very specific quality of life that was only possible in that particular expression. There's something really good about the breakdown of the notion of the ego and the accompanying opening up of the page that has come about through literary theory. It does seem to me crucial that we keep in mind that poetry is about states of mind, and about people going through things as selves and as collectives in relation to the earth, in relation to being alive, in relation to becoming. It is impossible for me to enjoy poetry if there is no sense of intense experience. The old autobiographical narrative isn't necessarily going to cut it every time. Yet it seems to me crucial to have a sense that somebody went through something, or the powerful thought of the poem as a replica of that.
So I hope that whatever experiment and opening and wildness and exploration the poem has to go through—and I do mean the poem because I feel like I am in its hands when I'm writing—that it keeps human experience recognizable.
SR: I wanted to talk about gold, which is a term you explore in a number of ways that both intersect and conflict. You have an ongoing interest in alchemy and the making of gold as an alchemical process, which seems to have to do with the solitary creative process. In Cascadia, you also explore gold as money, and you look at the political, economic and environmental consequences of our historical relationship to gold, and the way gold has been replaced by other means of exchange. The poem "Hydraulic Mining Survey" looks at how, a short time ago, we were tearing apart the earth to get gold, and it was a hard process, as if the earth didn't want to yield this metal to us: "Gold just didn't want to."
BH: The earth had it, and kept it.
SR: And only a little while later, we are all using Visa and MasterCard anyway—yet we still live with these deserted mines.
BH: The whole idea of the rape of the earth for gold became interesting to me when I went with Gary Snyder and some other people to look at the hydraulic mines. It must have been almost ten years ago. We just went on a little outing to look at the mountains. And it was quite shocking to see the scars of hydraulic mining still there. It had been a hundred years, and there's no mountain now. For me, the idea that we went to that much work to find gold connected with my interest, which I explored in the central section of Loose Sugar, in alchemy as an idea of spiritual process: trying to find the gold of the spirit in a metaphorical sense. And that being impossible, because all mental processes are circular. You don't get to the gold. You don't get to make it. So gold is desirable and elusive at the same time. And now, as a society, we've reached the point where not even paper money stands for gold in the Treasury. Instead, plastic stands for paper money, which stands for gold, which stands for value. It is just so removed, and money itself is somewhat horrifying. It's almost as if gold has lost its value. Who knows what's worth something? I was talking to a friend the other day, who was talking to a mutual friend, a trader, who trades in the thing that comes right after the future of pork bellies. I don't even know what it is called. It's like the wash, the afterwash, the high tide or something. When I started Cascadia, the boom was still on. And I thought, people make so much money off imaginary value, and it's going to crash. And how much it is taking out of somebody else?
Of course, there's nothing you can do about it. People will go on hoarding it until the end of time. But it's been very upsetting to watch the boom and then the crash that's based on unreal value. It hasn't really crashed too much around our ears, but there is still something extremely horrifying about things like conglomerate ownerships.
SR: In a sense, conglomerate ownerships represent a highly disturbing version of your phrase, "enter the we."
BH: Exactly, and one that's got nothing to do with the earth and the gold miner's 40 feet around a claim. When I was starting to write Cascadia, I read a book called The Gift by Marcel Mauss. I had already read Lewis Hyde's book called The Gift, and I think his ideas overlap with those of Mauss. The book describes how value should work, or does work, in a culture of art. The gift I give you actually has spirit value in it from its place of origin--the forest, or the mine, or wherever it's from. It has the weight of its history in it. In today's culture, this idea of the gift has totally lost spiritual value. Right now, it's Christmas season; you just order things from Amazon and J Crew and charge them to your Mastercard. Or look at these poor dioxined apples here: They are called Gee Whiz and they are from something.com and they have their little stickers and they are sprayed. No spirit value passed along.
SR: Isn't this classic Marxism, the alienation between the maker and the product, and between the maker and the user of the object? And the use of money, which is an abstraction—there's no more bartering. This discussion also ties indirectly into the concern you raise in Loose Sugar about feeling like time has sped up, feeling like you're always rushing. That is where a lot of this minimizing of the meaning of objects comes in—we don't feel we have the time any more to sit and make personal gifts for our friends at Christmas, for example.
BH: I'm not this year, but—not to get too Joni Mitchell about it—I'm going to, next year, or the year after. The challenge is to be able to accommodate email and gardening and plastic at the same time—to keep a sense of how things give value to life.
SR: Your work strikes me as profoundly spiritual—spiritual in the sense that the more one is aware of death and the pressing mystery of nonbeing—like when you spoke earlier about the sense of nonbeing crowding under the doorframe—the more one wants to invest matter with meaning. One becomes concerned with the meaning of our precious time here in relation to the constant fact of nonbeing.
BH: And the fact that everything is constant change.
SR: There's a great line to that effect at the end of "Cascadia."
BH: Oh, "You want to or you don't / want to change but you'll change." Yes, at the time of writing that, I was having some health issues; it was a very hard time in my personal life. That's the private undercurrent of those words. But it did have to do with acknowledging that many of us don't want to admit that we are all about change and decay and falling apart.
I also see spirit as very much connected to language. The other day I was walking into Cody's and I saw a woman walking along the opposite way, wearing a T-shirt on that said, "I only do what the voices tell me to do." I think there is some continuum between language and spirit that is absolute and amazing. There's an essay by Walter Benjamin that really helped my thinking about this, even though I have no idea what the essay is saying; it's like a really strange poem. It's called "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man." It's about how we can't get away from meaning and yet we don't know what it is, but there's something about language and the way language relates to the primal that precedes experience and precedes words but is only purely enacted by them. So the language of God is much bigger than words. That made me really think about the connection between spirit and language. In one sense, I don't believe in pure spirit outside of culture, but I do think there are mysteries that we don't know through culture, and in that way it is not all about being human. So that's a contradiction, and I suppose that makes me weird in a way that is not cool, but I don't care. There's something about the absolute need to insist that every bit of human understanding is a closed system that I don't like. When you're talking to a rock, that is not about human culture; it is about this rock that's going to be here for a long time. There's a reality outside of ourselves. Stevens and Wittgenstein say it is unknowable and that's true; we don't know it; we can't know it. All we can really know is human culture. And to risk the relation to the non-human is a nonsense I need to participate in.
SR:I wanted to ask you about the last lines of "El Niño Orgonon": "Weather taught / you to write funny. When it stops / being wrecked, we'll write normally." You expressed a similar sentiment in your interview with Tod Marshall (Denver Quarterly, Winter 2000) where you said, "I sometimes think sentences have to be screwed up in exactly the same way as we've screwed up the weather." In some ways that feels so accurate to me: The environmental crisis is so all-encompassing that it very well might be inextricably tied up with why we might write things that don't make logical sense. At the same time, it seems it is always the job of poetry to move in a non-rational way, even in a joyfully reclaimed, Edenic world. Also, some might say there is a joy, as in the jouissance the French feminists speak of, in disordering syntax. And then there is the whole question of who ordered the syntax as it is ordered anyway, and to what end.
BH: That's a great point, and asyntactic sentences have been around for a long time as literary devices, for lots of reasons, including the modernist idea that alienation is where we are, so we need to represent ourselves as alienated from our environment in order to be most courageous and because that's how modern cities are. Gertrude Stein's polysyntax is about abutting states of mind against each other in a Cubist way, and her work is the source for a lot of the polysyntax in language-poetry and in the feminist lyric that accompanied the opening of the poem that I've been so involved with. Syntax scrambling is not only political—as you say, it's also about joy. And it's also about the idea from Russian formalism, that the purpose of literature is to alienate us—to make us uncomfortable, for good reasons. Alienation in that sense not being bad, but just separating us from the normal so that we stumble across something we haven't seen before and we see it for the first time. In that particular poem I say that I'm screwing up these sentences because we screwed up the world. I wrote that poem during the scary couple of winters of '92 and '93. We had those terrible storms and I just kept thinking, This is not right; we have got too much water coming down. They say it's this little boy off in the Pacific spinning around, but it's not; it's a mess.
SR: So you didn't mean that in a reductive way; you meant that as one of the many reasons to mess with syntax and sentences.
BH: Yes, one of the many. Since Mallarmé and before, lots of people have been rethinking the sentence in lots of different ways. But I do think there is something different about connecting it with the weather getting screwed up, and with dioxin and other environmental atrocities. And I am probably going to go in that direction somewhat in the next book too, because I feel very concerned about these issues. I was talking with my friend Chris Sindt about the challenge of speaking as a modernist or postmodernist poet about environmental issues, because there's so much sentimentality associated with environmental and "nature writing." For many writers, words don't have anything to do with their signified. One of my friends noted he was really disappointed to see an actual growing tree after knowing only the name of this particular kind of tree, because of course the relationship is arbitrary. I find it challenging to figure out what languages does do to reality.
SR: I see Cascadia precisely as taking on these issues in a complex way so that they're connected with issues about language and about writing and about multi-layered states of consciousness.
BH: My approach is not going to necessarily make a huge hit with the John Muir crowd, but I feel like it is nature writing in the best sense to think the whole idea of nature must be reconceived, and I do feel that you can be a postmodernist and query the very concepts of "nature." What is it mean to have a nature, exactly? It's a long way from me to the pine tree out the window. But there's still a pine tree out the window, even though it's a something else in Japanese.
SR: I'd like to end by asking you about your relationship to the Bay Area and to the notion of poetic community, and about whether those relationships overlap for you. Here we are looking at a book called Cascadia, which is a word for an ancient land form before California, where you have lived and taught and written and raised a child for a number of years. Cascadia seems to dig into this particular place, perhaps in one sense as an example of place, and perhaps also simply as the location you know best. In what sense is the Bay Area a writing community for you? Has your relationship to the Bay Area as a poetic community changed over time, as your own allegiance has shifted from a more narrative to a more "experimental" mode?
BH: I think of myself as using the idea of California in my work since Fortress; maybe a little less in Loose Sugar, but still it comes in. Certainly in Bright Existence, Death Tractates and Cascadia it is important to think as a California writer about many aspects of California—and now particularly Northern California—as a mode for the universal. I'm never just thinking of it as itself; I'm always trying to think about being on earth, being in the universe. I think of this book as the first in a tetralogy, actually, of earth, air, fire and water. I don't know if I will do it or not, but that's my idea. In terms of California as a geologic phenomenon, I'm interested in the fact that Cascadia in its original land form comprised the entire west of North America. That land form actually subducted in and became a whole bunch of the western form. California didn't exist at one time, and then when Cascadia subducted and became California, it's almost as if it had to sacrifice itself for us. So I was interested in that geological idea of merging—the land being one thing and then becoming another.
That ties into an idea of poetic community that appeals to me. When I first got here in the mid-'70s, I was fresh from Iowa and I had very specific ideas of what poetry was, mostly. My first poetry friend here was Patricia Dienstfrey, with whom I've just edited a book of essays by thirty-two poets on the intersection of motherhood and poetics called The Grand Permission. She was involved in women's poetry in way that interested me, and the idea that poetry could accommodate process and uncertainty and show its own evolution was new. Since the '80s, these ideas are much more common, because of deconstruction and all. The Bay Area is also a very exciting place to be a poet right now because there is a growing collaborative spirit. I know a lot of people have to make their living from teaching, and that means you have to compete for certain things, and it's hard to get published. But there's a real acceptance of a lot of different kinds of poetry. And you see a great deal of openness about women's writing, an openness I ascribe to work that was done by a number of people, among them Kathleen Fraser, Frances Jaffer, the editors of Kelsey Street Press, and others. But the main thing that has interested me in the Bay Area for three decades is that it's a community in which writers can feel comfortable exploring the parameters of contemporary idioms, and there are plenty of venues to read your poetry, even if you don't have books out. And I am completely excited about it. It is still really hard to be a poet and there's not a great deal of acceptance of poetry "out there" in the culture. It is still not reviewed much in the New York Times or the big literary magazines. But it's a lot easier to be a poet today in the Bay Area. Now people are able to honor aesthetic differences and recognize that an art grows as much from transgressions as from positions. I think that makes it more interesting. Don't you?
Visit Brenda Hillman's website at www.rancho-loco-press.com/brenda_hillman/
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