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