As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Brenda Hillman in response to a video of her reading her poem "The Late Cold War" aloud. Brenda Hillman wrote letters back to ten of these students; their letters and her replies are included below.
Brenda Hillman also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Dear Student Readers and Student Poets,
Thank you so much for your work, and for reading my poem “The Late Cold War”! Thank you for your letters! I cannot speak for the other Chancellors, but I am so happy to have your thoughtful readership. I was impressed by the forceful insights you sent. I’m also grateful to your teachers for teaching our poems. I wasn’t able to answer all of your letters, but someday perhaps I will be able to answer a few more, or maybe to meet some of you.
Here are a few thoughts about the poem: I wrote it over a decade ago after a man made the remark to me that poetry should be simple enough for schoolgirls to understand. I thought that was interesting. People often say things like that, mainly because they are scared of poetry that requires a little thought. At the time, I was thinking about war and non-violence, and was remembering being a little girl in late Fifties and early Sixties. The title, “The Late Cold War,” refers of course to the decades-long tensions between the U.S.S.R. and U.S.A. over the nuclear weapons race. Though nuclear attack was unlikely, people were having their children practice being in bomb shelters. Even as a little girl, I thought it was crazy to make children prepare for ultimate war; why not just work on getting along? The image of the mother serving T.V. dinners on trays in the bomb shelter shows how ironic it is to practice for bombing as a form of normal life. So, when the speaker responds to the man about how poetry should be simple, she notes that memory and thought are never simple. Neither history nor life nor consciousness itself is simple; poetry has to represent the complexity and mystery of our lives.
Some of you asked about the style of the poem; I use the lower case “i” in the poem (except once at the beginning of a sentence) to understate the ego of the poet. The style is a mix of regular verse lines and something that looks like prose. When I am telling a story in a poem, I like to let bits of other things come through: impressions, reflections and memories. I don’t think most people have smooth thoughts; their thoughts are bumpy. I also like to include unexpected details. If my poems were ice cream, they would be more like rocky road than straight vanilla.
Quite a few of the students who wrote to me were young women, who responded to the line “But sir, schoolgirls understand everything.” While this may not be literally true, I believe girls are very powerful and when someone makes a sexist remark like this man did, there is always an answer. No one knows everything, but girls understand a lot!
I hope you will keep poetry in your life forever. It is a great art, is easy to transport in your pocket, and many people write wonderful secret poems. I hope it will be a place of beauty and strange truth and refuge for you, a little parallel universe you can always turn to. It uses your best tool—language! Please take care of yourselves and stay healthy and strong in these tough times!
With best wishes,
Saint Mary’s College of California
Brenda Hillman reads "The Late Cold War" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear Brenda Hillman,
My name is Samara and I am a freshman at an all-girls school in New Jersey. Your poem really spoke to me in the sense of the inequalities women have against men. Going to an all-girls school and growing up in this environment has made me embrace being myself and fighting for gender equality. My English class had 6 poems to choose from and your poem The Late Cold War spoke to me immediately. I loved how there was a mix of visual imagery and then to implied metaphors to get you really thinking what you could have been implying in the text. At first, when my teacher read this to me, I was very confused. After digging a little deeper into the poem, I developed a sense of what it was really like back then with gender equality and how it felt to be a schoolgirl back then during the cold war.
One of the first things I noticed in your poem was that you mentioned how you saw a diorama of a fallout shelter with a mother serving children dinner. I thought that this was a regular line of visual imagery, but then when I did background research, I realized that guys normally fought during the cold war while women stayed home and took care of the children. An idea that came to me was that you were foreshadowing the next line with a stereotype that appears a lot. The man said how poetry should be simple enough for school girls to understand which was implying that men understand everything and it takes a little more time for women to understand things. This gave me the realization that one of the things that could’ve sparked your writing interest was seeing the diorama of the women while the men were fighting, learning and trying to change that stereotype and prove the man wrong that girls can be more than just sitting inside a fallout shelter all day.
Another line that made me think was when you mentioned how you knew the man was entered by the incomprehensible light in the hour of lemon & water. I was very confused when I read this and to me, it didn’t make sense at all. I started thinking of each word separately and trying to piece together the meanings to understand what you may have been trying to convey. When I thought of the word incomprehensible I thought of no knowledge. In the hour of lemon & water, I was thinking about the time when you were sour (like a lemon) and had no passion (like water) where you can dilute liquids or extinguish fires (or one’s passions). From that whole sentence, I took away that the man was in the state of mind where he had no knowledge with poetry and when it came time for him to read a poem, he was sour towards the poem and didn’t want to take in the passion of poetry and how beautiful it can be.
In conclusion, a question that has been running through my mind ever since I have read this poem is did a man come up to you in real life and say all of this to you? If this was about a man you did encounter, did you know him, how old was he? If you did not encounter him did you just want to get your point across with stereotypes? Another question that I had in general was could this have been a conversation with you and a man from your point of view as he stops and says a comment while you explain a little more?
Short Hills, NJ
Thank you so much for your very thorough reading of my poem, “The Late Cold War” and for writing such a deep and articulate letter. I’ll bet your teacher is proud of your writing!
One of the things I appreciated right away about your letter was that you did a little extra reading and thinking when there was something you didn’t understand.
You also thought a little more deeply and spent a little more time with the lines that intrigued you, and that is exactly what the speaker/I was trying to present in the poem.
Schoolgirls understand everything! I am glad you got the support I was trying to offer women and girls in the piece. The image of the mother serving dinner in a housedress in the fallout shelter is an example of the psychological disconnect of the era.
The trouble is, with social media, with memes and flashes and quick hits on everything, the values poetry can give are sometimes lost...
The timeless thing about poetry, regardless of the style or even the time period, is that is often takes us to a mysterious place in ourselves, or to a mysterious place or an event or an idea or language itself, and we need to dwell there.
You visited that mystery in your reading of “the hour of lemon and water.” That line means what it says; it doesn’t refer to anything in particular. As I am writing you, I’m in Northern California in a heat wave drinking cold water with Meyer lemon slices from our garden – so, this is the hour of lemon and water! But your reading is just as accurate—lemon and water are associated with emotional states; that is a more symbolic reading. Many interpretations of such an image can be justified, which is why poetry class is very different from accounting class! There are multiple ways of being right!
You asked about the man in the poem who tells the poet he doesn’t understand her poetry. Though someone did say something almost like this to me about schoolgirls, the figure is a composite—probably like a woven fabric of many encounters I’ve had; people like this man might say, Hey, why does poetry use so many complex images? They want all poetry to be like greeting cards. Once, a different man raised his hand in the middle of my poetry reading and said, “I don’t understand your poetry!” He would never say, I don’t understand this advertisement, even if it uses the same collage techniques as a modern poem. The poetry I like best invites more than one reading.
People get nervous about poetry when they think there is only one point. There are many points. In this poem, the speaker notes that her experience growing up in a desert trying to think, even as a young girl, about the threat of nuclear war helped her understand reality, which was very mixed.
Thank you so much for your readership. Please keep poetry in your life, and I hope you will also write poems!
Dear Brenda Hillman,
I have to admit: when I read your poem, I didn’t quite know why my pulse picked up. I struggle a lot to understand poetry, and often can’t immediately explain in words what it means, or why I react to it, or why it brings me comfort. But I do know that it does. In other words, my gut reacted to your poetry before my words caught up.
Because when you write “The man says poetry should be simple enough for school girls to understand/ But sir, school girls understand everything”, my heart jumps. This line blew me away. Because, yeah, we do understand everything, and this feels like an inside joke. There seems to be an implicit understanding among girls. We know what we should want from life; we know how we should behave. It’s “wearing a light print housedress”, serving “TV dinners on aluminum trays to children wearing saddle shoes”. It’s not asking too much of the men around us; it’s being agreeable. It’s submitting to being called bitchy, overemotional, or slutty. School girls understand way more than we’re given credit for. And poetry? Let it match. Let it express our existence as deeply and thoroughly as it can, and you can bet that us school girls will be keeping pace. The lines that you wrote made me proud.
I also found it interesting how you include the male perspective in your poem. What encouraged you to write through this lens? I’m curious to hear your personal experience with sexism and creativity. How did it shape the way you write? I’m also curious about the stanza, “Sir, when I think of poetry keeping you alive I know/ you were entered by incomprehensible light/ in the hour of lemon and water.”
Thank you for your insights in “The Late Cold War.” I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it.
Thank you for writing me about your experience of reading “The Late Cold War,” and for giving me the great gift of your readership!
You wrote several wonderful paragraphs, with two or three significant questions; you comment on the line, “But sir, schoolgirls understand everything.”
My poem was written at a time when I was doing a lot of protesting with grassroots women’s organization. We were protesting the imperialism and social injustices our country tolerates; I was thinking a lot about the role of women and girls leading protests.
Schoolgirls do understand everything; “we know what we should want from life,” you write. Knowledge of art, science, literature, history, technology and so on—any knowledge— is acquired by hard work and absorption of a particular field of study. The “understanding everything” in this poem has to do with having the intuitive insight you write about in your letter to me, and seeing the irony in the Fifties culture described in the poem—the mother wearing a housedress and an apron in a bomb shelter; there is definitely a disconnect there. The ornamental oranges are good for display only. The schoolgirl’s understanding yours now and mine in the Fifties and Sixties—is of something pretty odd.
You asked about writing in relation to the male perspective, represented by the man in the poem; he asks for an easy poem. Like many people who haven’t read much modern or contemporary poetry, he needs Poetry for Dummies. The request for poetry that seems old fashioned used to annoy me very much. The figure in this poem was based on several questions posed to me in poetry readings. He wants simple poetry.
Recently I’ve felt more sympathetic toward this kind of person; he needs access a kind of easy truth some poetry provides; he doesn’t want to learn the idioms of contemporary art. He is like the person likes paintings only with figurative realism and doesn’t want any abstract elements at all. I respect that people sometimes call for simpler styles than mine.
I like my readers to feel better for different reasons, including the hope that they will have learned something strange or mysterious. So the line you ask about—the hour of lemon and water—is such a line. My reading of that line would probably be different from yours; it would have to do with an afternoon light or time that is tender and golden, in which you have extra feeling about something. You can interpret it in any way you like.
Thank you so much for writing to me, and I hope you will keep poetry in your life. If you need suggestions of what to read, I hope you will write to me.
With best regards,
Dear Mrs. Brenda Hillman,
I have recently read your poem “The Late Cold War.” I wondered if the poem was your response to one person’s opposition or to those who have opposed you your entire life for wanting to write poetry. In the poem, you address how poetry was able to keep you alive but it was different for the other man because he grew up in a more optimistic day and age. Did growing up during the Cold War cause you to embrace poetry more than you might have had you been born during a different generation? Your voice as a writer is very authentic. It speaks to me like someone speaking frankly, from their heart, with no convictions whatsoever. Has your voice changed over time? Do you change your voice for poems with different tones? Lastly, I wonder why you make certain punctuation choices in your poem (like not capitalizing the I’s). Is there a particular significance that it entails?
I have been a huge history buff since whenever I could start picking up a book. The Cold War is an era that I have really been fascinated with. Your poem gave me the insight of what it was like to grow up during the Cold War - living in the constant fear that a nuclear bomb might kill you and everyone you know and love. It also showed me the optimism and hope in the era. The way I see it, poetry was almost like a shining light for you. It helped to relieve the anxiety but also to use your creativity for a positive outlet. I have to say that as a current schoolgirl, my favorite part of the poem had to be when you responded to the one who said you cannot write poetry. I loved that it was simple yet packed a punch. Just because I’m a schoolgirl, it doesn’t mean I don’t know anything.
Please accept my thanks for keeping poetry in your life while you are going to high school in such a stressful time. I’m hoping poetry is going to keep beauty and strange truth as a place of refuge for you, a little parallel universe, even if you don’t know what will ground you.
I’m really glad to answer some of your important questions about my poem “The Late Cold War”; I’m glad you are a history buff, so you’ll know how important the period of the Cold War was in the Fifties and early Sixties especially. Even though it was unlikely that there would be nuclear war, there was a lot of nuclear arms build-up. So the poem has a really ironic tone because the mother was serving prepared T.V. dinners in the bomb shelter.
You are quite right in your letter; poetry was an escape for me, a shining light, but it was also a place where I could put my odd observations. I think children have a lot of odd thoughts they do not feel they can share, but those thoughts can always go backward and understand you. Poetry makes little harmless arrows straight into your soul.
You ask whether my voice has changed over time. Yes, what I have to say about this may be sort of obvious after you study a lot of other poets, but the voice of a writer is a combination of things, not just a person speaking “straight from the heart”or from experience; there’s always an aspect of imitation, a literary construction.
For example, as soon as I started reading Charles Baudelaire, I wanted to sound like him and as soon as I read Emily Dickinson I wanted to sound like her. If I’m lucky enough, some of the young women who read my work may want to imitate me. I like very modernist and post modernist poetry, as you can probably tell, so I channel other sounds through my poetic voice/s; I go to poetry to find the freedom to express the passion about being alive. The experience poetry brings is mostly an interior journey, even in poetry that is performed.
The lower case “i” is a good example of this; there are poets in the early Twentieth Century who started using it, and I liked a poet named e.e.cummings when I was about your age; he used the lower case “i” have used it in my poetry for the last couple of decades because I/i feel it’s a little less egotistical, and I like the tiny dot over the little column—it seems modest but strong.
Please keep your strong sense that girls know a lot!! Stay strong in this tough time.
Dear Brenda Hillman
My name is Layla Raye and I am an eighth grade student in Mrs. Castner’s class at Marshall Middle School in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. I love writing and want to pursue a career in T.V. writing as an adult. Your poem “The Late Cold War” really spoke to me on a deep level. I started thinking about this one documentary I watched for school. It was about Kathleen Hanna and at one point in the documentary she starts talking about art that girls make in their own bedroom. She goes on to talk about how important this art is. I really got the same sentiment from your poem.
How I interpreted your poem was that it was about the art teenage girls or school girls create; and how it is seen as lesser than others art. I think society as a whole tends to look down upon things that teenage girls admire. There are tons of bands, movies, and interests that are seen as lesser than because teenage girls like them. I can’t even use the word “like” in between every couple of words because it’s seen as something a teenage girl would do. I wonder when “The Beatles” were seen as high art instead just a frivolous thing teenage girls loved. But I digress, I believe the art that women make is seen as nothing more than a craft, the cooking and sewing that our grandmother had done were seen as nothing more than their jobs. The needle point and doilies they made weren’t seen as “art” they were seen as a craft. A teen girl’s original stories or fanfiction online are seen as nothing more than “emo garbage” and “self indulgent romance”.
I think your poem really made me think about this harder than usual. I understood why things like uggs and One Direction were so ruthlessly criticized, but your poem really helped me take pride in being a teenage girl. Like I said early in this letter, I want to go into an artistic career. I think I’m gonna reject what makes ‘high art” and instead create something that I think a school girl would like. I think that’s more important to me now.
Like, Best Regards
Dear Layla Raye,
I was very glad to receive your letter from Pittsburgh. I have two grandsons in Pittsburgh, one who is entering the fifth grade; it is a very nice town, with so many beautiful bridges. The bridges of Pittsburgh all look like poems, going across three realities. I hope you will write a poem about living in Pittsburgh and send it to me.
And I’m delighted to hear that you may want to pursue a career in writing for television. Not only is it a great medium for telling subtle truths, but it is the perfect place to communicate with a mass audience, to address social justice issues as well as the beauty and intensity of the world.
And I’m really happy you are being introduced to poetry in the eighth grade; please thank your teacher for me, and tell her or him I send gratitude <3
You are right, my poem “The Late Cold War” does introduce some documentary elements, and the speaker tries to describe the context of the Fifties and Sixties when she learned to write. Some poets are using documentary materials in their poems now, to make a kind of hybrid poetry; the inclusion of the detail from the diorama was one of those.
Those were decades of some prosperity for the U.S., but even so, there was a lot of fear about nuclear war. It was after World War II and the Korean War but people quickly forget the dangers of war and militarism and many nations were building up armaments again Both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were trying to deal with the threat. American families were preparing for the possibility of having to survive in a bunker-style shelter.
The image in the poem of the mother serving the dinners to the family was supposed to look calm and happy is of course one of the complexities the girl in the poem was experiencing and that is why I make the remarks to the man who thinks poetry should be easy. Poetry is complex and intense, like the human soul; sometimes the styles are dreamlike or abstract, and sometimes they are a little more decorative, or they can be deep and plain. That’s one of the good things about poetry.
One of the main things I really love in your letter is how well you describe the variety of arts that are traditionally associated with women. Girls and women have been associated with specialized forms of art, especially household arts, and these are often considered lesser arts. There are so many things to think about here, but of course, people of all genders should have opportunities in all the arts. Many underappreciated and marginalized arts, including the fabric arts, the culinary arts and many forms of household arts, could be better represented in art history. There are millions of women artists who have not had their work recognized—including quilt-makers and secret poets!
I hope you will continue to read and write poetry. Thank you again for your wonderful letter.
Dear Brenda Hillman,
Recently I read over your poem "The Late Cold War" for national poetry month. Despite not being able to fully relate to the message of the poem's message of gender equality (I’m a male), I heavily enjoyed the poem’s overall message. One major reason why I enjoyed your poem is that I've always seen my female friends as equals and so I enjoyed seeing a different perspective on gender inequality, a perspective that wasn't shy of directly addressing the main problems of inequality, a perspective that felt true and so elegant.
However, the themes of discrimination in general also affected me. As an Asian living through these times, I’m often scared for my friends and family. The occasional times I go outside, I try to cover my face as much as I can, not only to protect against the virus, but to help hide my identity. In times of distress such as this, groups of people are often unjustly assigned the role of scapegoat -- Asians in this scenario. I often hear stories about Asians being assaulted in the streets, just due to their looks. This issue really hit me when I heard about my friend's grandma being punched in the face and being told to “stop spreading the virus and go back to China.”
When reading through your poem, I found solace in your words, as if they were wrapped around me like a warm blanket on a cold winter’s night. I heavily found comfort in your past struggles, and I felt how so many groups, whether it's because of misogyny or racism, so many humans have suffered due to blind, unwarranted discrimination. The poem's message really reminded me of my mother, too, and how she grew up during the Cold War (in Japan), and was often discriminated against due to her creative talents. Despite not being the target audience for your poem, I truly found comfort in your words, and I hope you continue to share your talents to the world, especially during these trying times.
New York, NY
Thank you very much for your profoundly moving letter; I was glad to read your feedback about my poem, “The Late Cold War.”
The thing I loved about your letter is the empathic way you connected the discrimination you experience as an Asian American with the sexism the speaker is pointing out. She is quoting the man’s remarks and describing her own childhood. I don’t know about your memory of childhood, but I remember it as very complex and full of memories that are symbolic as well as full of strange detail, in this case the ornamental oranges from the speaker’s childhood—they are not juicy oranges; they are just supposed to look good and not be edible, which is very odd.
The man who addresses the poet wants poetry to be made simple so that schoolgirls can understand it. A person said this something like this to me, but the man is in some ways generic, representing someone who might make such a remark. It is, as you say, condescending, but also sort of inaccurate about poetry. I actually think a lot of people seek spiritual truth from poetry that reaches their hearts exactly because it is not understandable immediately.
The thing that touches me very much in your letter is how you write about the connection between misogyny and racism. It is terribly sad that in this country you have to cover your face as much to mask your identity as to protect against the virus. I’m so sorry. I deplore the condition of our country right now, whereby bias and hatred are encouraged by ignorant leadership—or non-leadership!
I am white and am trying to learn to be a better ally to BIPOC who are experiencing increased stress and hatred but this world can be shocking, as you point out. In my childhood in the Fifties and Sixties, the experience of girls was often culturally discounted and devalued. At the same time, I realize my whiteness gives me privileges. Nearly all women have experienced bias of some kind, and we have to see connections between our experiences and work for a better understanding.
I am grateful for the last paragraph in your letter, and you are of course part of my audience!! I am a big reader of poetry and because the literary canon is very male, I very often primarily relate to poems written by men. I wrote this poem when I was doing a lot of protesting with a group of women who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was thinking a lot about how to write political poetry in a women’s tradition that is also very personal. I am really grateful that you found my poem could make a statement that you could relate to and also find some comfort in.
Also, I notice from your signature that you are in a high school that specializes in mathematics, science and engineering. Please keep in mind that S-T-E-M students need the leaves and flowers provided by art and music and poetry—I hope you will go on reading poetry for a long time.
With best regards,
Dear Ms. Brenda Hillman,
I hope you are doing well. My name is Huda, and I am a sophomore from Panther Creek High School in North Carolina. I wish to articulate how strongly I felt your poem, "The Late Cold War", speak both to me and for me, and how I felt its message intertwined with my own hands, which ache to write every moment since my childhood.
When I read all the poems, I was struck by how much I felt seen by yours. Writing poetry has always been an integral part of my life--instead of shouting protests and lamenting worries, I pen my grievances and scribble my thoughts. I can fill papers with stories but can also leave the air in front of me hanging with silence. But I always have believed that none of my words would have made it to the paper in a certain way if not for how I grew up, and I saw my own story reflected in your own, as you wrote: “I learned to write in a hot desert during the cold war / We did air raid drills in a schoolyard”. Although our experiences have been different, I found that the struggles I’ve encountered have lent themselves towards my ability to write. A line I found especially intriguing and mysteriously beautiful was, “The psyche rises like mist from things, writes Heraclitus”. I wonder what significance this quote has? In addition, I found the poem to sing the song of your own life through your valuable experiences, I think it is a wonderfully self driven poem. And “I”, in my opinion, is the most powerful way of showing this element. I wonder, why is “I” capitalized in some lines, but not others?
My heart truly swelled with the warmth of being seen when I read the lines, “But sir, school girls understand everything / Nancy Drew was in love with the obstacle not the clue”. I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt, as a young girl, to have my pursuit of knowledge and complexity both acknowledged and appreciated, because I always fear my words being met with coddling. I try to pour my desire for knowledge and explanation into my poetry and words because that is what keeps me tethered among my thoughts and worries. It is a desire born of my experiences and how “I learned to write”, so sometimes it feels as if my words will not reach many people because of their origin. Therefore, when I finished your poem, I was filled with a sense of security as I realized you encapsulated this and wrote that poetry “is the wing”, it is the strength which we have crafted for ourselves from our surroundings, a strength which will keep us going.
Thank you for showing a teenage girl that there is value in her words and her experiences. You have truly inspired me to write poetry with the fullness of my own thoughts, to never bend or twist to fit into what is perceived as “easy to understand”. Your poem reminded me of the power poetry possesses and it does so in such an artistic manner.
Thank you so much for your wonderful letter. I am so glad my writing has reached your heart. It is every writer’s dream to have good and thoughtful letters such as yours.
You mention that you connected with my poem “The Late Cold War” partly because the speaker indicates that poetry can come out of the struggles of childhood. I think this is very true, don’t you? Many writers have childhoods with a lot of intensity; it’s not that writers only experience the difficulties of childhood, it’s that writers might be a little more keyed in to the layered intensities of their youth because they are extra sensitive.
I would not trade my childhood for anything, because even though we lived with the threat of nuclear war in the Fifties and Sixties, as the poem describes, it was a very magical childhood because I grew up with my brothers in the desert of Arizona. I loved playing in the desert and believe in the magical spirit world of the place. The landscape is beautiful, though it knows a lot of stress, and is increasingly less habitable because of climate change.
On a writing-craft note, you asked about the “i” vs. the “I” and why I used both forms. In my most recent books, I have been using the lower case “i” as the poetic speaker, so she will be even with par with the “you” or “we” or “she”; many poets use this device, and for me it seems to take some of the ego out of the poetic universe. One capital “I” remains in the poem because it is the only one at the beginning of a sentence.
“The psyche rises like mist from things” is just my way of characterizing the idea from the philosopher Heraclitus that that there is a relationship between the elements; he was ahead of his time because he didn’t see the elements as isolated and he saw that fire can turn to water and water can turn to air and so on. So the soul/psyche can change to a different element.
I really admire the paragraph about your experience of being a young woman whose poetry comes from a “pursuit of knowledge and complexity,” as you call it. You are a writer after my own heart, and of course there are many in our great poetic traditions, many women poets writing with complexity and unusual stamina.
You express some nervousness that your poems will not reach the right audience, or that they may not make it to the readers who need them. In the last few lines of this poem the speaker makes a claim that the poetry you write will not abandon you; sometimes people think that poetry or art in general has failed them when they cannot connect with it, but in fact, they have only to open themselves to it. The poor man in my poem couldn’t get there but you can, of course.
Very best wishes,
Dear Brenda Hillman,
I am a graduating senior at iPreparatory Academy. I truly enjoyed your poem, “The Late Cold War,” much more than I could have ever imagined. I loved the juxtaposition of the classics like Nancy Drew and Heroclitus with the vision of a 20th century America with TV dinners and the “American Dream” ideology. Furthermore, I like how this idea of the American Dream also overlapped with the struggles of the Cold War and the fear of bombings and true nuclear war. I’ve always found 20th century United States History particularly fascinating, so when I read the beginning of your poem, I was already hooked by the representation of life during that period of history.
The line that most resonated in me was “school girls understand everything.” Especially since many people in a variety of industries and platforms disregard the voices of teenagers, especially teenage girls, I loved hearing validation that resonated throughout your poem. As I read the parts of the poem that focused on the understanding of teenage girls, I could not help but reflect on everything I had heard and witnessed being a teenage girl myself, from the fangirls that obsess over a book, TV show, or celebrity to the ones that speak out in front of scores of people, spreading political activism and the voice of the next generation. Although these two genres of people can be somewhat different, I find that both attain the unique passion and understanding that teenage girls should be known for. Often, girls within my age group are cast aside, called “over-emotional” and “loud,” but it is the most passionate, outspoken people that change the world, and I could not help but appreciate how your poem appreciated the unique perspective of the teenage girl.
As an aspiring writer and a future creative writing major, I would really appreciate an insight into your craft and the steps it took to create such a phenomenal poem. How many drafts did it take to get to the final version? What drove you to write this poem and why did you choose to focus on the complexity of poetry? Why did you choose to start with something concrete and transition into something like poetry, which is much more abstract? Why did you tie a concept like the Cold War to something like poetry? These are just a few questions I have about the poem and your process.
Overall, your poem was a phenomenal piece of writing and I won’t forget it for a really long time.
Thank you for your readership! And thank you for your smart responses and questions about my poem “The Late Cold War.”
I am glad you liked the description of the mid-Twentieth Century family in the poem. I was trying to remember the early Sixties when we were undergoing a lot of training for a nuclear attack, and I think you caught my intent perfectly; there was a sinister quality in the models of the family being very happy and being served “T.V. dinners” (they were served on little aluminum trays that were somewhat floppy); the white mom was wearing an apron in those pictures. Of course it is part of the irony of the poem that the training for nuclear war is supposed to look benign!
The poet wants to tell the man who doesn’t understand poetry that there’s a reason to write complex things—because there are so many layers of reality! Poetry is very good at getting all the layers, like the layers of reality under the earth—where so much life can be discovered the more you dig—yet, you can also just enjoy the surface.
It was great to read your affirmation of girls and young women. Sometimes I think we have come very far as girls and women, and sometimes it seems we’re still in a period of “catch-up”; I like the way you describe the passion and activism of the girls and young women around you, and I’m sure, recognizing the power of girls and women, you will do a great deal with your life.
You ask about the number of drafts I write. When you are in school, it seems like a chore to have to revise something. But if you choose to be a writer, you can actually love the process of revision. I consider writing and revision to be the same thing; I let each new “version” teach me something new. I often write as many as fifty drafts, not because I have to but because I am enjoying myself, and I like to write by hand on paper (that will be a hard sell for your generation but I think writing with pencils makes you a better writer. If I’m not in the mood for a particular pencil, I ask it why it is not cooperating! Then I start the poem again every time and try to get into a bit of a dream state where I just let the new words flow in, more and more strangely. I hope you will try this method in your poems, and don’t let anyone talk you into being consistent!
I’m excited to hear you are going to be a creative writing major. The world needs more writers, and please tell your parents that it **is** the most practical major, because after all, every field of work needs more imagination, better writing skills and more empathic responses to our crises as a culture. I hope you’ll go to a school where they have a strong creative writing faculty.
With all best wishes,
Dear Brenda Hillman,
My name is Emuna, and I live in the merry city of Los Angeles. I go to Yula Girls, a religious high school that stands in the center of the lively bustle this city is known for. I am an honors English student, and I attend the class of Mrs Kelsey. I am blessed to have a large family with deep rooted relationships between us all. My life is far from perfect, but a family quote that keeps me grounded is, “If you want to find happiness, find gratitude” by Steve Marabolli. At the moment my hopes for the future is to create an organization that aids families struggling with financial problems. I would like to especially target young children and teenagers who have not gotten the advantages and opportunities at life that I have received. A recent milestone in my life is starting to learn a Chopin piece on the piano.
Personally, I believe that once the pen leaves the writer's hand the poem is up to the interpretation of the world. To me your poem, The Late Cold War, was exceptionally beautiful and strengthening. In the past women were not given equal opportunities in education; this led to many people believing that females were just incapable of learning. You clearly encompassed this thought process when you wrote, “The man says poetry should be simple enough for school girls to understand”. You, however, completely turned that around when you wrote, “But sir, schoolgirls understand everything”. I interpreted that to mean that school girls are smart and capable to understand whatever they put their mind to as long as they are given an equal opportunity. One more line that really stood out to me in your poem was, “A poem doesn’t fail when you set your one good wing on the ground (,)It is the wing (,)It doesn’t abandon you”. To me this line implied that being vulnerable and taking a chance is ok. An amazing poem carries you through life, I believe that for many people that is exactly what your poem has done.
As a female poet how are you treated? Have you experienced any prejudice in your work life due to your sex? Is your line of work rewarding? I am not a poet, but I think that poems can really change people’s lives and the way they look at the outside world; To me you have achieved that.
With much admiration,
Los Angeles, CA
I am re-reading your letter today when all of California is experiencing a heat wave, with multiple fires burning. You wrote to me from the middle of Los Angeles, so I imagine you are in the same condition as we are in the Bay Area, though I hope things will be better for both of us by the time you read my reply!
You begin by telling me about your family and about your hopes for creating a financial organization that will enhance economic justice for those in struggle. I applaud your dreams for doing this, and I also hope we will see more justice at the level of leadership—less money spent on the war machine and more money to repair our schools, roads and infrastructure. I hope all idealistic young people will be actively working to make the lives of economically oppressed people improve. We have a lot of work to do as a country.
Thank you so much for your kind words about my poem, “The Late Cold War.” It was written when I was doing a lot of anti-war activism in relation to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I was working primarily with a group of women activists to bring visibility to the conflict a lot of people were ignoring.
Women were among the leaders in these recent anti-war movements, and though we did not bring an end to that war before a lot of damage was done, we did not just sit at home. And of course, women started #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter.
You are right in pointing out that the speaker thinks girls and women have power to understand and to speak about complex states, and poetry takes us to those things.
The speaker in the poem wants poetry not to have complexity and nuance but that is the only way certain kinds of art can convey reality. She is answering a man (sort of a stitched-together figure of someone I met and someone I imagined) who wants poetry to be very straight-forward; he is at the same time discounting poetry and women.
The speaker asks him to keep the mysteries of poetry in his life; before abandoning poetry, he should think of it as his ally, his one good wing, because it can take him to a new zone. Lines like that come to me, and I know they are in some sense true, even though they are a little hard to grasp at a rational level. In my mind—if this were a novel—I would have a little hope for the man; I believe he can be redeemed.
You ask how I have been treated as a female poet; I have had some advantages because of my whiteness and occasionally some bias because of being a woman. When I started writing, some people were still referring to a woman poet as a “poetess”! I am married to a wonderful male poet; he is often treated with more respect when we travel together in other countries and sometimes even in America, but I understand this will not be a permanent state of the world. I feel very lucky to be a women writing and teaching poetry now; it is a profoundly meaningful way to spend time. I hope you will keep poetry in your life!
Dear Brenda Hillman,
My name is Sofia and I’m a freshman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Your poem, “The Late Cold War,” caught my attention in the first two lines: A man says he doesn’t understand my poetry / Frankly I’m not surprised. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that my first thought, post reading, was that you must get that a lot. After rereading the poem several times, I can defend this first impression with a bit more confidence.
Of course, a poem doesn’t have to be concrete to resonate with its readers. I’ve found that it’s the details that really stick in my mind and exercise my imagination. I can see those ornamental oranges, growing in a hot desert schoolyard. I can’t help but wonder at the scale of those fallout shelter dioramas. I wonder what made those particular details stand out to you- assuming, of course, that these details are actually drawn from your own experiences.
One thing I can’t picture is your writing process. If these are your memories, how do you keep them intact? Do you have some kind of mental safe you can extract them from? Are you relieved that the Cold War, with its particular brand of tension, is indeed late, or do these kinds of memories simply make you nostalgic for simpler times?
For whatever reason, these last lines of your poem make me picture a pterodactyl balancing on its wings; one is leathery and membranous, and the other is somehow made of this poem. This, of course, is abstract poetry at its best: befuddling the logical parts of our brains while forcing us to dive deep into a creative side that we often forget we have.
Now is as good a time as any for exploring the more creative side of ourselves as any; a not-quite-apocalyptic global crisis will do that to a person. Plenty of people are developing new hobbies, or discovering new things about themselves, or counting their blessings and realizing that it’s the little things that matter, myself included.
I’ve always been a bibliophile, so who knows? Maybe I’ll also discover a great love of abstract poetry somewhere down the line. For now, I’m focusing on the little things (my ornamental oranges, so to speak), and I’m counting “The Late Cold War” as one of those. We could all use a few imaginary pterodactyls in our lives. Thank you for helping me realize that.
Thank you so much for your letter.
I want to send very good wishes to you in this difficult time.
I love the questions you asked about “The Late Cold War,” including questions about the way memory works and where things are stored.
The first few lines of the poem are addressed to a kind of general questioner, but based on some questions I get from people who want all poetry to be easy on the “first take.” I think sometimes people forget that poets are using very compressed language, and it’s all right to read things more than once.
And I like that you say “a poem doesn’t have to be concrete to resonate with its readers.” This poem has a kind of mix of concrete detail (literally! The fall out shelters!) and meditation.
I don’t know about your poems, but I find that when I recall small details, especially details of childhood in a poetic context, the activity is something like a mixture of dream and recollection.
The fall out shelters – in my memory— were models of concrete bunkers. These models or pictures were very common in the late Fifties and early Sixties, when Americans were trying to prepare children for the possibility of a nuclear attack, and we had little models of what those might look like; they even had little kitchens, and the mother was serving dinner to the family wearing a dress and an apron, which was really strange to me because it was showing a false picture of calm. The speaker/poet in the poem is remembering them— probably a blurred memory, some combination. Sometimes a poet is faithful to literal memory or to partial memory and desired memory.
The nice thing is about poetic memory is that it is sometimes stored in lines, and sometimes in vague dreams.
I’m curious to know whether the reference to ornamental oranges has any meaning in Wisconsin — do you have that kind of tree in Milwaukee? The oranges are startling, with very thick rinds and bright globelike orbs but no juicy interior. I always felt ill at ease with the Tucson variety because they seemed only to be about good looks!
I hope you will keep poetry in your life forever!