Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Practical Water (Wesleyan, 2009) is Brenda Hillman’s eighth book of poetry and third installment of a “proposed tetralogy of the elements.” It also happens to be a particularly ambitious work, both aesthetically and politically. With quiet determination Hillman works to secure the seams of the political, poetical, and personal realms with this collection. Yet it’s Hillman’s willingness to be present in her poems that’s perhaps most appealing and provocative. In many ways her work is characteristic of the Black Mountain tradition, from which, it could be said, Hillman hails, though she does so in singular fashion. Hillman’s lyric experimentalism offers an unlikely mediation between two principal and voluble poets of Black Mountain, Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Whose falling out over aesthetic and political concerns has been widely discussed and hardly need mention. In addition to their meditative quality, Hillman’s poetry provides an occasion for being rather than an occasion for speech. Political opinions and aesthetic preferences aren’t “expressed” in her poems but rather originate and exist in the measure of each poem resulting in a “singular compact” of life and art. Hillman’s concerns are urgent and as vital as the metaphor she has chosen to scrutinize in her latest collection of poems.

I met with Hillman at a coffee shop in the Elmwood neighborhood of Berkeley, California, to discuss her new book and other issues related to poetry. What follows is an excerpted version of the lengthy interview taken from the occasion of an afternoon with Brenda Hillman.

Pablo Lopez
September 2009

PL: We began by discussing Robert Duncan, the Black Mountain tradition, and living and writing in the Bay.

BH: Robert Duncan is an inspiration in that he provides a personal, aesthetic and spiritual vision in his lyric experimentalism. So I follow his lead though I have lots of other interests as well— something I like to think of as eco-feminism but may just be witchcraft. That impulse is being developed in a lot of different ways; in this book I was provoked and inspired by ecological engagement and political action as well as by the varieties of life in poetry, and the varieties of presence in a poem.

—It’s interesting that you ask about the Black Mountain— like Rexroth’s original San Francisco Renaissance writers, those poets were interested in bringing fresh insight, social conscience and a sense of process into their poetry. It’s hard to live in the Bay Area and not be interested in those things. I’ve also been inspired by the tension between wildness and freedom you find in many Bay Area experiments in poetry— the impulse of free verse of the beat poetry jazz instinct in conversation with the use of formal devices and constraints of counting or procedural poetry brought from OuLiPo via Language poetry. I make little arithmetical or numerical tasks for myself and then break the rules because of some emotional wildness

PL: On the various impetuses behind Practical Water

BH: Some my muses in this book, besides California, are water and earth, Duncan and numbers, and of course weird words— and the women of CodePink. There are a lot of visual elements here and poems that occur with numbers. Additionally, I was really challenged by the letters of Duncan and Levertov writing this book. I felt a desire to mediate. I’ve been interested for a long time in theosophy, in Gnosticism and in other esoteric traditions. These disciplines fit perfectly well with the more counterculture idea of poetry and with poetic experiment-- the gnostic occult. Practical Water is part of a proposed tetralogy of the elements; if you start something like this in a sense you’re casting yourself a task that has to do with a single word, with an element, with interactions between definitions and materials. But of course this is a time of real environmental and political crisis that I wanted to address--so the word “water” speaks to the crisis of the water in our bodies and in our ecosystems. But basically I work from poem to poem, not with a larger project in mind— I think that can mess you up. The importance of being present in the world and being a poet can occur exactly simultaneously, and in a sense I feel a little bit defiant toward the idea of pure art. We all must be engaged in the task of the artist as the first thing and for me being a poet has got to be a kind of circulating presence of different kinds of action. Poetry matters as we take it out there.

PL: On the lyrical

BH: The "lyrical" to me is not a type, it’s an impulse, and it’s a way of carrying the mind in the world and finding the language and bringing it to various people. Poets have a mighty task, Yeatsian and Blakian-- to take reality of inner language out there and I don’t mean a self-announced prophet, I mean being quietly determined to carry the lyric otherness as powerfully as possible, which means existing in negative space.

PL: On contemporary poetry, and inflecting the quotidian with the symbolic and vice versa, and Rob Kaufman on Adorno

BH: A lot of writing now has gone very far in the direction of symbolist work, and symbolist work is completely amazing, and Baudelaire and others inspired in us the wisdom of dream states. I was thinking about Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project-- his discontent with surrealism because it like staying in an opium den. Today, you have to pay your PG&E bill. But the mix is important-- How does your quotidian get inflected with the symbolic and vice versa, how does the symbolic world get carried to the quotidian. I just feel like the literal and representation of history and even one's sense of the acts of nature can get a little drowned if it's only symbolic and I’m interested in bringing those things together because it a very wild time to be writing-- Barbara Guest and Gary Snyder come to mind. We are working very hard to stay alive, our social lives as artists has to include a lot of elements.

I don’t think the arts should be exclusionary even though we all form friendship groups and aesthetic fidelities. I am so glad for the presence of poetry and I read many different kinds of poetry to stay in love with it. We can challenge ourselves to find new forms and make communities with our poetry because in some ways artists working at the edge can get remote and in a way that’s what needs to happen. The poet can bring poetry out there and not compromise a sense of powerful aesthetic interest and involvement with social issues. Many non-poet folks I know, some of whom are involved in political and environmental activism couldn’t read a lot of the poetry I’m personally interested in. That is a concern in some ways but in other ways not. I want poetry to be deep and strange and stimulating in ways that are dynamic and I don’t want to compromise aesthetic ideals to appeal to a mass audience; at the same time people who work in social activism can learn to enjoy a lot of challenging modernist poetry and not just really accessible art.

The artist pushes consciousness toward the unknown and the poet's job is not the same as the person who serves on the city council; the poet's job is to stay confused and maybe even emotionally raw and messed up when that is what is most accurate. So I feel it's very poetic to protest the wars and occupations and global expansionism -- it's a poet's job. I love Robert Kaufman’s work on Adorno—we carry the experiment outside and redeem the language and help people integrate what seems drastic about beautiful forms of art into their lives. I guess I feel less separation as time goes by. Poets are unlikely to be legislators, but legislators can read poetry-- of course! I’m interested in crossing various bridges or boundaries and re-educating the public about what’s possible. Perhaps we all need to be blockade runners and I'm holding up my dowsing rod.

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