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Brenda Hillman

Acclaimed Poet & Teacher
Non-violent Activist
Academy of American Poets Fellow

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • Poetry & Activism
  • Poetry & The Environment


“Each poem that Hillman writes creates its own experimental configuration, within which the phrase swerves and discombobulates…She writes as if the lyric poem had a political calling.” —Marjorie Welish

“Everything is on fire in Hillman’s world—the earth, the air, the water, her vowels, her brain, her heart. It’s all burning.” —Dean Rader

“Linguistically, spatially, politically, emotionally, Brenda Hillman’s brilliant poems are some of the most thrilling poems we have. Our I.Q.s and our Heart Q.s rise when we read her. Each line, each poem, each book, extraordinarily fresh and original, is minted alive before our eyes.” —Sharon Olds

Brenda Hillman has published nine 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. Her ninth collection of poetry, the final volume in her tetralogy of books about the classical elements, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (2013), received the International Griffin Poetry Prize for 2014, as well as the Northern California Book Award for Poetry and the California Book Award Gold Medal in Poetry. Dean Rader wrote, “Seasonal Works With Letters On Fire is a profoundly humane work. In language that moves from the chatty to the experimental to the heightened to the rhetorical, Hillman shows us once again that poetry is itself a tireless worker, always on our behalf.” Hillman is also the author of three chapbooks: Coffee, 3 A.M. (Penumbra Press, 1982); Autumn Sojourn (Em Press, 1995); and The Firecage (a+bend press, 2000).

Hillman has edited an edition of Emily Dickinson’s poetry for Shambhala Publications, and, with Patricia Dienstfrey, co-edited The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (2003). She co-translated, with Diallah Haidar, Poems from Above the Hill: Selected Poems of Ashur Etwebi, one of Libya’s most significant poets. In 2010 she co-translated Jeongrye Choi’s book of poems, Instances, released by Parlor Press.

Included in their list of “50 of the Most Inspiring Authors in the World,” Poets & Writers states, “[Hillman] reminds us that the language we use when ordering a sandwich is also the language we use to make art. Her environmental concerns prove writers can offer more than just aesthetic pleasure.” Among the awards Hillman has received are the 2012 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the 2005 William Carlos Williams Prize for poetry, and Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Hillman is the Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California, where she teaches in the undergraduate and graduate programs. She is also a member of the permanent faculties of Napa Valley Writers’ Conference and of Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Hillman is also involved in non-violent activism as a member of the Code Pink Working Group in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is married to poet Robert Hass.

Hillman has been increasingly interested in the innovative and experimental lyric traditions, particularly in how the Romantic concepts of nature and spirit have manifested in contemporary poetry. In her essay entitled “Split, Spark, and Space,” Hillman writes about the emergence of different kinds of lyric impulses in her writing: “The sense of a single ‘voice’ in poetry grew to include polyphonies, oddly collective dictations, and the process of writing itself. This happened in part because of a rediscovered interest in esoteric western tradition and in part because I came to a community of women who were writing in exploratory forms…A poetic method which had heretofore been based on waiting for insight suddenly had to accommodate process, and indeterminate physics, a philosophy of detached looking.”

Brenda Hillman’s website


Brenda Hillman is the author of nine collections of poetry: White Dress, Fortress, Death Tractates, Bright Existence, Loose Sugar, Cascadia, Pieces of Air in the Epic, Practical Water, for which she won the LA Times Book Award for Poetry, and Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, which received the 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize and the Northern California Book Award for Poetry. Among the awards Hillman has received are the 2012 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the 2005 William Carlos Williams Prize for poetry, and Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.


SEASONAL WORKS WITH LETTERS ON FIRE (Poetry, 2013)
The final volume in the poet’s extraordinary tetralogy on earth, air, water, and fire. Fire—its physical, symbolic, political, and spiritual forms—is the fourth and final subject in Brenda Hillman’s masterful series on the elements. Her previous volumes—Cascadia, Pieces of Air in the Epic, Practical Water—have addressed earth, air, and water. Here, Hillman evokes fire as metaphor and as event to chart subtle changes of seasons during financial breakdown, environmental crisis, and street movements for social justice; she gathers factual data, earthly rhythms, chants to the dead, journal entries, and lyric fragments in the service of a radical animism. In the polyphony of Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, the poet fuses the visionary, the political, and the personal to summon music and fire at once, calling the reader to be alive to the senses and to re-imagine a common life.

PRACTICAL WATER (Poetry, 2009)
The latest volume in Hillman’s acclaimed meditations on the elements. Not since Allen Ginsberg tried to levitate the Pentagon in 1970 has American poetry seen the likes of the hallucinatory wit and moral clarity that Brenda Hillman brings to Washington in her poems about Congressional Hearings on the Iraq War. Practical Water is, like Hillman’s previous two books, Cascadia and Pieces of Air in the Epic, both an elemental meditation and an ecopoetics; this time her subject is water: Taoist water, baptismal water, water from the muses’ fountains, the practical waters of hydrology from which we draw our being. Here also is a sequence of twinned lyrics for the moon, governess of tides and night vision, for her visible and invisible faces. Violence and the common world, fact and dream, science and magic, intuition and perception are reconfigured in these poems about our political life and earthly fate. If it is time to weep by the waters of Babylon, it is also time to touch water’s living currents. No one is reimaging the possibilities of lyric poetry with more intelligence and invention. This is masterful work by one of our finest poets.

PIECES OF AIR IN THE EPIC (Poetry, 2005)
Reaching for prophetic powers without abandoning small-scale details, playing with page-based form while attending to the sound of each line, Hillman’s seventh book combines the big ambitions of Cascadia (2001) with the personal touch of Loose Sugar (1997): the result may be her best book yet, both as a book-length project and as a collection of freestanding poems. The “air” Hillman invokes includes human voices, breath and song, with their connotations of spirit and individuality: “People think they are you but they are not / You are you & no one & everything.” Yet by “air” the poet also refers to the atmosphere that circles the globe and carries radio signals, jet planes, and news, especially news of the war in Iraq. “Wind will rend the suburbs / with information seeking nature,” she writes; “The lost one / is everywhere; you won’t / recover him.” Making subtle use of Virgil and Homer, Hillman attends often to ethics and public events: “In the present conflict each fire equals re-used air from the cold war.” Yet she returns to the mind, the individual, and the unique imprint of sounds and words, first in essayistic, philosophical poems; in ingeniously argumentative, sawtooth-shaped lines; and in a lyrical conclusions, a set of twelve short poems set in a college library where “Unchecked-out books on / low tables keep the fragrance of / of masks.” —Publishers Weekly


AFTER A VERY LONG DIFFICULT DAY

You talk to your loved ones
at night. It is a kind of modernism:
color sees into you, thinks a warm
path, a tint of meaning brought
from how you feel. Then, you are double:
the owl calls out, Tyto alba,
in your sleep-scrip scar-heart-shaped
face
emitting loose nouns…Under its turf,
the smart mouse turns; the fierce dead
merge with the recently born
where earlier they emptied what you
seek—

How will you be known? Some
registered complaints. You passed them
in the hallway, their new haircuts.
The bosses are known by new wars.
What salmon are left hurry upstream—
cold swaths in the bay. Linnets, by
rose fire at the edges—(linnet or finch?
the word edge has wings made of ‘e’);
the moon rests in a mantle
of minutes, its boundaries in back
of the trees. Boundaries
are known by their nothings—;
you will be known by your dreams.

—from Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire

IN THE TRANCE

A pretty anarchist said to me
It’s not that great love happens
What happened became your great love

Her echo had an ancient glow & so
proved buoyant for my little craft

I left the world & felt a world

The bee loading its gloves with powder
The albatross wanting one thing from the sea

Nothing can wreck our boat said she

& when the water felt the glacier
The future held a present tense
The present held a future without cease

—from Practical Water

WOOD’S EDGE

Infinity lifted:
a gasp of emeralds.

I thought I felt
the tall night trees
between them,

no exactitude,
a wait not even
known yet.

I held my violet up;
no smell.
It made a signal squeak
inside, bats,

lisps of pride;

ah, their little things,
their breath: lungs of a painting,

they swept me
in four ways, their square
plans, as I have made
a good square saying,

you I
you not-I
not-you I
not-you not-I,

ritual of hope
whose weight
has not been measured-

—from Cascadia