As part of the 2021 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 “& After the Power Came Back” aloud. Brenda Hillman wrote letters back to eight 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.
I am honored that you all read my poem "& After the Power Came Back," and that many of you wrote me about it. Thank you!! I cannot tell you how much they mean to me. I hope you all know how much we Chancellors love your letters. We do not see all of your letters because staff cannot send the poets all the responses, but I hope to see more of your letters over time and to answer more of them. The "Dear Poet" program has been one of my favorite things about being a Chancellor for six years, and has made me feel connected to younger poets and readers all over the country. I also want to thank your teachers for teaching poetry in their classes. I'm going to respond to a few of the things you wrote and offer you a few thoughts at the end of each paragraph that might help your practice.
—Some of you asked about the circumstances described in the poem; it was written during the early autumn fire season on the West Coast a few years before the pandemic. In the East Bay hills where I live (on what is historically Chochenyo Ohlone land), we were having frequent power shutdowns; my students were having a rough time that year. Some days we had class without the lights; we sat in the dark and read poems on our phones. It was very comforting, actually, to sit in the semi-gloom, reading poetry by the window light; this seemed to help the worried students. So it's a climate change poem, and I know some of you have also experienced power outages where you live from extreme weather events. Obviously the title of the poem refers to the loss of electrical power and the loss of personal power in the situation. So when you are choosing what to write about, the possibilities are endless; you can choose something that happened, or a series of thoughts with no setting but your own mind, or language itself.
—A few of you asked about the form of my poem, two stanzas with twelve lines each. I like using my favorite numbers in my poems sometimes and I like the numbers six, twelve and twenty-four especially. This one has twenty-four lines of six words each (a hyphenated word counts as one word); but you can invent your own forms any way you like—no one will stop you. I like inventing my own forms for poems and of course you can do that too—just choose your numbers and make up something you want to count.
—Some of you noted that there's a lot of shifting going on between the ideas and images of the poem, and you are probably learning the name for this is "collage," by now a technique as old as the twentieth century. I write collage poems when there's a lot of fast movements in an experience. Each day is so full of things that may not seem to go together, so I like to put creatures, technology, science, word play, and the invisible world in my poems. Sometimes I write about political things too. Humanity is only a small part of what exists; during a power outage or climate disaster, animals somehow find different kinds of shelter, even as the stressed-out humans are trying to get relief from the conditions. The language in my poem also comes from a larger language bank than a conversation might. I had the words "stipple the worry, the grief-torn," in my notebook for a while—they seemed a little abstract but true, as did botanical terms "spikelet or callus" that I found in a botany book. If you use this sort of shifting inclusive language method, you can get always lots of tones by using unusual words. Several of your letters referred to a quilt, which made me happy, because that is what experience seems like sometimes—very mixed materials but with patterns. So when you are choosing your language, make sure it sounds like what is in your experience and in your head.
—I wanted to say something about interpreting poetry. I'm sure your teachers told you that there's no single interpretation of any poem, that you don't need the author to be sitting there to tell you what the "meaning" of the poem is. Though it's moderately interesting to know my "back story," that I wrote this for my students in fire season, what you will get out of it may be very different from my experience. Of course poets hope people will connect with their poems, but there are so many ways of connecting even right before you fully understand, and there are many ways to read a poem like mine. This "leeway" makes some people nervous but it should not. There is no one interpretation for a piece of music or dance. Art is fluid. This will be different from your work in math or science, where there is usually a narrower range of correctness. There are dozens of interesting meanings in any stanza of any poem. It's only moderately relevant what I "put into" my poem; we are a triangular team: poem, poet, reader. So I hope you can keep reading all kinds of poems, not just easy poems, and don't be nervous about engaging with the ones that offer confusion. Libraries, bookstores and the internet are full of millions of great poems. The website where our Dear Poet letters are posted, Poets.org, has thousands and thousands of poems; if you run out of poems to like, you can write to me at Saint Mary's College and I'll suggest other poems.
—Finally, many of you wrote that you could relate to my poem because I allude to stress, about how stressed you are as students. My own students (and grandchildren) seem so stressed with life's demands, and when I grew up, though many things were different, some things were the same: my parents worked very hard and put big expectations on their kids. Poetry and leading an imaginative or artistic life (beyond video games) can help you in the long run. Leading a poetic life gives you more freedom even if you make your living in a field unrelated to poetry. You can write down beautiful or interesting lines and phrases when they come to you (it's better to use a little notebook than your phone. You can use your phone but paper is better). If you have your imaginative world, you are always lucky, and your inner life will always be there for you, even if the bad moods blow through like ash in our fire season. Use your writing to record something great or beautiful. Work hard but you don't have to conform to someone's expectation—even your parents! Sometimes getting through a day is a big success. If you end up writing your own poems, don't be afraid to be a little odd. All the great writers are odd.
Those are some of the things I can think of to tell you for now. Please be kind and non-violent and use your imagination to help the world. I hope you'll keep poetry in your lives, and please let me know how you are.