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About this poet

Brenda Hillman was born in Tucson, Arizona, on March 17, 1951. She was educated at Pomona College and received her MFA at the University of Iowa. Her upbringing in a deeply religious Baptist family surfaces in many of her poems, especially those that appear in Loose Sugar and the California mission poems of Cascadia.

She is the author of Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan University Press, 2013); Practical Water (Wesleyan University Press, 2011); Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005); Cascadia (2001); Loose Sugar (1997), which was a finalist for National Book Critic's Circle; Bright Existence (1993), a finalist for Pulitzer Prize; Death Tractates (1992); Fortress (1989); and White Dress (1985). Her poems have also been collected in three chapbooks: The Firecage (2000); Autumn Sojourn (1995); and Coffee, 3 A.M. (1982).

Her work has been called eclectic, mercurial, sensuous, and luminescent. In an interview in Rain Taxi, Hillman said "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."

Hillman is also the coeditor, along with Patricia Dienstfrey, of The Grand Permisson: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (Wesleyan University Press, 2003), and the editor of a collection of Emily Dickinson's poems published by Shambhala Press in 1995.

Hillman received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 2012. Her other honors include awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America, along with a Bay Area Book Reviewer's Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award.

Hillman has taught at the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference and the University of California, Berkeley. She holds the Olivia Filippi Chair in Poetry at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California, and lives in the Bay Area with her husband, the poet Robert Hass.

The Eighties

Brenda Hillman, 1951

An Essay

A friend asks, "What was at stake for you in the Eighties?" She's trying to figure out Bay Area Poetry. There was Reagan's New Morning for America. Garfield dolls stuck to the backs of windshields with suction cups. At the beginning of the Eighties I was married & at the end i was not. The Civil Rights Movement became kind of quiet. Feminism became kind of quiet. An editor told a woman he couldn't read her poems because it said she was a mother in her bio. Many thought about word materials. Environmentalism got kind of quiet. The earth spirits were not quiet. Buildup of arms. Iran-Contra. Savings & Loan scandal. Tax cuts gave way to library closings. The Challenger went down with the first woman astronaut aboard. People read letters to her on TV. Mini-golf places with purple castles opened on Highway 80 in the Eighties. Chernobyl exploded & the media announced it as a setback for nuclear energy. People ate out more because of tax cuts. i fell in love with a poet. Earth dropped its dark clock. A few wrote outside the margins. Mergers & Acquisitions. The Bay continued to shrink. Many got child-support checks. Many came out. Deconstruction found the moving circle. A few read Lacan. Guns 'n Roses Sweet Child o' Mine. Our daughter drew pictures of trucks with colored fur. She had 24 ear infections in one year so why were you not supposed to write mother in your bio. Many wrote the lyric with word materials. The Soviet Union began to free prisoners. America freed fewer prisoners. Superconductivity. Gorbachev became president instead of something else. One son went to college. We cried. There was no e-mail. Art pierced the image. Blue-rimmed clouds hurried past outside & in. Some wrote about childhood; some wrote about states of mind; some wrote word materials instead of about. Symbolist poetry, by then 120 years old, pushed the dream nature of the world. Hypnotherapy. i began the trance method. In the Eighties, Mr. Tam stayed the same. Mt. Diablo stayed almost the same. Many species died & would not return. At stake. One son started a punk band; he had a one-foot-high purple Mohawk. i listened to the tape with another mother trying to make out the words. Oliver North held up his right hand. Reagan turned off his hearing aid. Sentences fell apart but they had always been a part. Yeltsin. Walesa. Wall comes down. Romania. El Salvador. Noriega. Some elderly folk lived on dog-food when their pensions collapsed. People worried about children, lovers, ex-husbands, jobs. Consciousness stayed alive. Interest rates leapt through the vault of the sky. We cried & cried. We made food & quit smoking. We learned the names of wildflowers & forgot them & relearned them. This was only the beginning. There's so much more to be said in answer to your question.

From Practical Water. Copyright © 2010 by Brenda Hillman. Used with permission of Wesleyan University Press.

From Practical Water. Copyright © 2010 by Brenda Hillman. Used with permission of Wesleyan University Press.

Brenda Hillman

Brenda Hillman

Brenda Hillman received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 2012.

by this poet

poem
There are so many types of 
“personal” in poetry. The “I” isa needle some find useful, though
the thread, of course, is shadow. 
In 
poem
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
poem
When we part, even for an hour,
you become the standing on the avenue 
baffled one, under neon, 
      holding that huge 
red book about the capital— ;
    
      what will you be in the next hour,
   — bundled to walk 
through creamy coins from streetlamps
on sidewalks to your car, past
     candles reflected