In this interview, Kathy Fagan reads two poems by Brenda Hillman, and talks about how two of Hillman’s books, Bright Existence and Death Tractates, influenced her writing by offering ways to address loss. Especially instructive is Fagan’s reading of Hillman’s work that we can write while grieving — that poetry can address even this — as long as we do write. Fagan considers also Hillman’s role as a mentor and a friend, remembering that, “She modeled for me, in person and word, how to be a poet.” Thank you, as always, for joining us!
Jessica Hudgins: I listened to both of these poems with, like, extreme trepidation. There’s this sense that, by continuing to listen to this story of the earthquake, or of the writer and her rat, I was allowing Hillman to show me something that I didn’t want to see, that would be too scary or sad. Having made it through, I feel that Hillman is actually very tender with us. How did you first come to Hillman’s work?
Fagan reads Hillman’s “The Rat”
Kathy Fagan: I knew Hillman’s White Dress and Fortress, her first and second books, but it wasn’t until my best friend died that I discovered her pair of companion books, Bright Existence and Death Tractates, the latter of which is a book of elegies for her mentor and friend. Both of these books were essential to me as I continued to grieve my friend’s death. I was also at the time working toward the completion of my own second book, which took 14 years, in large part because of that loss, which left me both bereft and silent. Bright Existence, where these two poems appear, is a collection of poems—I understood then and appreciated later—the range of which is to my mind unprecedented in contemporary poetry, written beside the elegies of Death Tractates.
I guess one of the reasons this pair of books is essential to me is that in the face of tremendous, nearly unspeakable loss, there is poetry. And that addresses the observation in your question about the trepidation you felt reading these poems, thinking the poet would show us something too scary or sad. Well, of course she did! Because that’s what we encounter all the time as poets—or try our best to avoid, inevitably failing. She lets us experience that with her, and then shows us we can go on in the face of it—until we don’t. Hillman was still young when she wrote these books—it’s amazing to me she was as aware of these issues as she was.
I had the opportunity to spend a little time with her within the year Bright Existence was published. My life had exploded, yet again, and Brenda’s curiosity, her openness and—hopefulness I guess, or willingness to embrace change despite mountains of pain… I will never forget that. She modeled for me, in person and word, how to be a poet; sadly, I hadn’t had a woman poet model that for me before Brenda, all of my mentors having been men.
JH: I love especially “the stem that had been trying to root, that paused/in its effort,” and the moment when the writer picks up her rat “under the arms.” These small liberties Hillman takes — a rat has legs, not arms; pausing to watch is animal, not plant, behavior — seems to bring everything touched by the speaker’s attention nearer to her. The poems feel very affectionate, even while they also feel dangerous. Why did you choose these two poems, in particular?
KF: Yes, I love that tension in them, for sure. I’m not a mother, but I’ve always been a caregiver to one degree or another, since I was a child myself, and I recognize in this affection the knowledge that the beloved possesses power over the speaker and vice versa—that power dynamics are always at play, even in the most tender and innocent of relationships. This honesty is very appealing. The potency with which Hillman disarms the reader reminds me of Sharon Olds, only Hillman’s style is less direct, like, say, Dickinson. She’s very sly, metaphysical really, in the best possible ways; there’s tremendous self-awareness in the work, but also a fundamental understanding of how the self is related to others, human and not. I am in awe of the psychological astuteness in her poems.
I am no less in awe of the sweep of “Mighty Forms.” This is a 33-line, three stanza poem beginning with a metaphorical description of an earthquake, and describing, in deliberately lofty diction, its effects on human constructs—all in the first ten lines. Hillman then moves in stanza two to the first-person narrator and her stake in the destruction, before (somehow!) making an allusion to Pharaoh’s army extremely relevant, specific and personal. The final stanza gestures toward the conflict between human desire, including our desire to make art, and the elemental powers of earth—I mean, that’s all pretty big, unwieldy stuff, but it feels, because of her control of tone and pacing, very close. “The Rat” is also a poem of rhetorical genius, but in it, Hillman moves in a more direct line outward, starting with self and rat to history—in this case the history of ownership—and finally to the universe, as seed, telescoping back in. Hillman’s ability to zoom in and out and back again within just a few lines, and her flexibility of mind in these poems is tremendously instructive for all writers.
Fagan reads Hillman’s “Mighty Forms”
JH: Hillman makes both of these poems really suspenseful, I think, in the way she works with time. In “Mighty Forms,” she writes, “Then the Tuesday shoppers paused in the street,” and, “However we remember California later,” and, finally, describes how a bird goes on collecting seeds while the earthquake happens below. The tone remains totally steady and imperturbable. How has Hillman’s work influenced your own?
KF: Oh, first of all, this book in particular is a poet’s book of poems, meaning its range and versatility, its invention and authority are uniquely and uniformly great. The experience of reading it is like reading Bishop’s North & South; I mean, it’s a perfect book, and one goes to those not just to be moved and awestruck but to search for ways of articulating, for musical phrasings and rhetorical strategies. I’ve learned just as much reading all of Hillman’s many subsequent books. She’s become known as an experimental poet working with field of page, and as a meditative poet—much of her later work springing from her meditation practices—as well as an activist and environmental poet. Of the living poets willing to regularly engage environmental issues, she’s one of about a dozen I know well, all so wonderfully different: Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Molly Bendall, Camille Dungy, Rebecca Dunham, David Baker and Ross Gay come immediately to mind—and I’m sure I’m missing another half dozen at least.
About twenty years ago, an undergraduate student at a conference Brenda and I were both attending told me he refused to go to her reading that evening because—and I quote, because I’ll never forget this—he was offended that “she [didn’t] take poetry seriously.” Of course, this was a gravely immature response to Hillman and her work, as well as straight up sexism, but perhaps what troubled me most about his opinion is the ongoing widely held belief that style or form needs to be static in order to be considered serious. And while we can agree his is a paternalistic view of artistic growth, it’s a bias that continues to hold sway in our culture, going largely unexamined.
I bring this up to stress that Hillman’s focus has shifted, continues to shift, and her range has broadened yet again. I feel very lucky to learn from a poet half a generation ahead who is so incredibly willing to take risks and have fun and be present in both her physical world and her intellectual life. Present but untethered. That is how her work has influenced my own, and that is how I wish to emulate her most—to remain responsive, ready to change, and joy-filled even as I acknowledge that there is, amid daily decay and destruction, always more work to be done, always more to learn and so much more life to live.
Kathy Fagan’s latest collection is Sycamore (Milkweed Editions, 2017), a finalist for the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. She is also the author of the National Poetry Series selection The Raft (Dutton, 1985), the Vassar Miller Prize winner MOVING & ST RAGE (Univ of North Texas, 1999), The Charm (Zoo, 2002), and Lip (Carnegie Mellon UP, 2009). Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, Slate, FIELD, Narrative, The New Republic, The Nation, and Poetry, among other literary magazines, and is widely anthologized. Fagan was named Ohio Poet of the Year for 2017, and is the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Frost Place, Ohioana, Greater Columbus Arts Council, and the Ohio Arts Council. The Director of Creative Writing and the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, she is currently Professor of English, Poetry Editor of OSU Press, and Advisor to The Journal.
Brenda Hillman was born in Tucson, Arizona and has been an active part of the Bay Area literary community since 1975. She has published chapbooks with Penumbra Press, a+bend press, EmPress, A Minus Press, and Albion Books and is the author of ten full-length collections from Wesleyan University Press, the most recent of which are Practical Water (2009), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (2013), which received the International Griffin Poetry Prize for 2014 and the Northern California Book Award, and Extra Hidden Life, among the Days (2018). Hillman has also received the William Carlos Williams Prize from Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets Fellowship. She has edited an edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems for Shambhala Press, co-edited two books by Richard O. Moore; with Patricia Dienstfrey, she co-edited The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (Wesleyan, 2003). Hillman has also worked as a co-translator of three books: Poems from Above the Hill by Ashur Etwebi, Instances by Jeongrye Choi and At Your Feet by Ana Cristina Cesar, all from Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press. She is a mother, a grandmother and is married to poet Robert Hass. She has served on the permanent faculties for conferences at Community of Writers in Squaw Valley and at Napa Valley College and currently teaches at St. Mary’s College in Moraga California where she is the Olivia C. Filippi Professor of Poetry. For several decades, Hillman has worked as an activist for social and environmental justice.