An Interview With Poet Brenda Hillman

Kevin Larimer

Brenda Hillman's new book of poems, Cascadia, will be published by Wesleyan University Press in October. In it, Hillman returns to the ancient landform that preceded present-day California to excavate a poetics of place. Cascadia is a study of geologic as well as internal space, and the seismic shifts that occur in time through each.

Hillman grew up in Tucson, Arizona. She went to graduate school in Iowa, and now makes her home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Poets & Writers Magazine asked Hillman about the relationship between physical and poetic space, and how her poetry has been influenced by the place where she lives and writes.

Brenda Hillman: "Place" of course is and isn't metaphoric. When I need a snack a place isn't a metaphor, it's a refrigerator. Except in rare transcendental times, shifting internal geographies must be managed in relation to external ones. The question of place takes us automatically to the problems of reality and the ideal. During this writing I felt part of a collective enterprise that seems less local than a movement, say, or group of styles; that enterprise has to do with using an individual or personal mythology and an awareness of the purely abstract functions of language together, to recontextualize experience of several different kinds-in the case of this book, the mind's movement, the earth's movement, the movements of cultural knowledge. Much of the contemporary poetry of interest owes a debt to a felicitous combination of what could be metaphorically called "geological" forces: various kinds of early twentieth century avant-garde writing (Stein, Futurism) and some older impulses of revolutionary Worthsworthian unfolding lyric bumping up against the symbolist and late modernist and then postmodernist tragic play and self cancellation. Space and time work this way. Poetry that has been systemized by single ideologies is boring, so I hope the book seems uncategorizable. The geology is of course in the poems themselves. The book Cascadia seems granitic in that it was written under various kinds of emotional pressure. It is conglomerate and metamorphic in that it seems like a gathering of materials about change.

The idea of the splitness in California-split mind, experience, earth-is certainly not new to my work nor is the business of the abstract plus "feminist and spiritual." (I know "spiritual" has a purely teleological sound but that's not exactly how I mean it). My ideas in this text are not dualist, they are pantheist-even worse! Spirit exists in language and things, and between language and things, and of course, this is a construct. But a construct of what, since there are so many nonhuman languages? I think every day about the relationship between what is in us and what is outside but not in a mild, healthy, or adult way, really truly in a funny and serious way because living is horribly comic and tragic. There are many conflicting conversations inside. Of course as a result I do things like write this sort of poetry and talk to my car. The main geography of the book is the idea of mind-as-earth, and the thing that seemed most erotically exciting in the concept was the ceaseless slow and potentially violent nature of change, that this is like the upheaval of ideas or feelings.

As a child in the Sonora desert and in Brazil, I collected rocks very earnestly and labeled them. That bit of autobiography is not really necessary for reading the book but the book is sort of displaced rock collecting. When I moved to California, the idea of it-the culture, the land, the history, was inspiring, but not all that differently from intense love of the landscape anywhere; there's always something so exotic and unknowable about one's true places. Many poets are poets of locale in a wobbly way-Yeats and Stevens, and many others-and they get a great deal from a landscape-as-mind. You work in the place you find yourself. There's a potential corniness about that too. And the main problem is the relationship between realities, with loving "nature" (whatever that is) and linguistic nature, loving to read literary theory and philosophy but also liking to walk in the hills; and it's hard to stay in the "relax, it's all language" mode when so many of our plant and bird species are dying. I don't know how to resolve this but the problem is of great interest as we try not to abandon the earth. I love thinking about the arbitrary nature of signs and also know it matters that we name our species-even as we recognize the names are arbitrary and temporary-so that we will kill them off less quickly. Another interesting thing about the non-representational uses of language is that our students from other cultures often encounter direct poetry, and want to write about being from other cultures in ways that are classically representational. So, place in poetry is a complex issue. Place is a world and a word. These seem to me deep issues, especially since for a while I have used language that is free, playful, and uses poetic techniques that reflect unease at the edge of a continent-the fragment, discontinuous association, oblique and indeterminate syntax and diction, aural experiment; it doesn't seem necessary to have the lyric impulse be one thing and everything else be another.

Two of my favorite inventors whose forms seem geological are Mallarmé and George Herbert, and their forms are also very individual and collective in nature. The best poetry is personal but underneath and beyond the personality. In Death Tractates, Bright Existence, and Loose Sugar I was using local materials and gnostic and alchemical imagery in a nonlocal way for investigations of underneath-the-personality human nature; this is a more intimate project in Death Tractates. Clearly, one sense of the "self" in poetry has been the idea of masks and the vascillating "I" and "you." The unpredictable and rugged nature of the land shifts, vegetation, and climate here dramatize the unresolved conversation between language and nature. I took a list of words to my favorite oak in Tilden and stuffed them inside a hole in the tree so a word could meet a tree, but neither the oak nor the paper could figure out what was going on-that is, the tree didn't recognize the word "oak" as Saussure, Wittgenstein, etc. have pointed out but it was sort of fun to be there.

Cascadia was also informed by the vast forms of play in popular culture that are located specifically in this state but definitely stretch outside of it. Bits of pop culture, especially rock music make their appearance (the band Garbage appears in the title poem, etc.) At one point I drove around California a lot to try to finish this writing and it seemed astonishing to think of so many life forms in one area-this expanded the possibilities of formal experiment in contemporary poetry. One of the ideas I got from André Breton when I read him in college is the use of chance as anchor. I would arbitrarily choose words and make myself use them to anchor the rest of the writing to the page (this is a sort of "Ouilipo-ish" technique). In the long poem, "AGeology," the corner words "anchor" the rest of the poem to the page so it wouldn't float. The idea of Cascadia, the island, as a sort of inverse of Atlantis came from reading about this ancient landform that had been off the coast over a hundred million years ago. It went under and became various parts of the state, the mountains and so on, and part of it detached and is inching toward Alaska. So I put the memory of motels off to the left of the fragmentary lyric text-that's certainly not the only way to read it, of course. One of the situationist writers called his work a "psychogéographie" and I like that idea. The notion of this old extra island casts me into the inner world of astonishment, a figurative space full of its infinite possibilites, kind of like seeing Fantasia on acid. I was thinking about the spiritual nature of daily art practice in relation to subjects of social and political concern, providing a break with palpably expected perceptions.

Anyway, the place where we make poetry is outside any familiar state. Poetry sort of makes us stranger so we can wake up in a place where everything hangs off the edges, creating itself.