Brenda Hillman

Like Dust… (interview)

Published in: 16. Family and Slavery

Brenda Hillman (Photo by Chloe Aftel)


Brenda Hillman’s name and sensibilities are familiar to readers of American poetry through regular publications in leading literary journals, as well as through a growing series of award-winning collections of her verse. Her poetry has been translated into multiple languages, and critics note her virtuosic handling of words.

Born in Tucson, Arizona, Hillman is a longtime resident of California. Holding a special chair in poetry, she currently teaches courses in literature and classical philosophy at St. Mary’s College in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Hillman’s first husband, Leonard Michaels, was a noted writer. Her spouse, Robert Hass, is a prominent poet, essayist and translator.

Brenda Hillman is arguably among the most intellectually oriented representatives of the American literary scene. Her creative work also reflects a tendency for contemporary Western poetry to find inspiration in a variety of world spiritual traditions. A combination of qualified knowledge with personal experience and an individualistic angle of perception make Hillman remarkable in this context. She also seeks to inform her poetic method by building on the innovations of Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg. Her approach to form is inventive, with visual aspects of verse structure often accorded definitive roles.

The year 2009 should see the publication of the third volume in Hillman’s planned poetry tetralogy, based on the ancient Greek concept of the universe’s four elements. The first part, Cascadia, published in 2001, was devoted to the earth element. In the second, Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), the concept of “air,” as interpreted by the author, includes human voices, breath and song, with their connotations of spirit and individuality. In the latter collection, which taken as a whole reflects the poet’s inclination to write in both single and multiple, polyphonic voices, a set of poems appears which calls attention itself in its obvious formal unity, as a cycle within the cycle. These poems are linked, too, by a common setting: a library.

In her interview with Apraksin Blues, Brenda Hillman reveals the thoughts and motives that led her to write this cycle, which our Russian edition presents here in an original translation.


AB: Does the cycle have an overall name?
B. Hillman: I call them “the library poems” when I introduce them at readings.


How did the poems originate?

I conceived of the series as an homage not only to libraries but to all writers and to writing — I am drawn to poetic sequences, and I love the number 12, often work in 12s — so here there are 12 poems in 12 lines.

I have always loved libraries and have been a bit sad about the threat to libraries, the way book culture is endangered by the fact that people are reading fewer books…

The series had been drafted for many years from notes, but the poems themselves began when I was in Iowa City, writing in the library (where as a student I first started writing poetry seriously in graduate school — I loved the little carrels).


I had been for several years thinking about all the books I had discovered in libraries and wanted to compose in relation to some of the great strange mystical beauty of the libraries I love — my childhood library in Tucson, my college library at Pomona College, the University of Iowa library, the Bancroft Library at Berkeley: I love the filtered light, the dust, the calmness of the readers, the shuffling, as well as some of the weird features that may not be as popular — book glue smell! and the conception that all the knowledge of the world is there.


The poems have four or five “motifs,” I guess — one would be the love of books and the fear that books by beloved writers might vanish. Connected with that is, I suppose, my sense of sorrow for poets and writers of other artful literature and scholarship whose work will never be read — work that spends time in solitude, in loneliness, in libraries.

During the time of the writing of these pieces my first husband, Leonard Michaels, died. I was thinking of him in several of the pieces because his work is not read as much as it should be — he was a great writer, a great short story writer particularly. Connected with him and his sensibility, the great scholar-critic Walter Benjamin, whose work I was teaching at university at the time. His “Arcades Project” can be read throughout those poems.

I was interested in Walter Benjamin’s idea of the “aura” surrounding the work of art, the specialness of it that is ruptured by reproducing it; and in an odd verbal pun on the word “aura” I also wanted to think about the theosophical version of the word — the aura of light surrounding the human figure. My metaphysical bent is very peculiar and I am drawn — partly in an amused way and partly in a completely straight way — to theosophical beliefs, including the notion that bodies have extra substance around them, and that there are many more states and conditions of reality than just what is available to the five senses. These senses are not always the only ones — there are extra senses available to animals, and it makes sense to me that consciousness can expand itself. So the witty references to seeing auras over the heads of the readers have to do with trying to envision extra forms of light. I know much of this has to do with imagination, but I wanted to work all forms of philosophy into the poems, and to work in compressed spaces.

And finally, thought itself, occurring invisibly, has always seemed to me very peculiar. A person will try to correct a thought to make it normal in its syntax, but really, most thoughts are not normal, so I wanted to address this in the pieces.


Given your reference to sadness, solitude, loneliness, where would you say the poems wind up — a certain spiritual equilibrium? a chance at transcendence (“Sweet artaud dust flies through decades”)? Acceptance (“Live hidden”)?

Yes, all emotional life brought about by the images leads to a sort of transcendence and acceptance, though not in the ‘let’s all be happy and cheerful’ sense of those things. I think my poems have a sort of Emersonian hopefulness that comes from a sense of inward consciousness of nature — maybe that is what transcendentalism most gives the human spirit — and probably those qualities of sorrow and the depth-charge of awareness. I find existence itself utterly thrilling and amazing — a constant marvel of excitement and freshness of daily process in which all the feelings swirl (like the dust).


Through the poems run invocations of the classical/ancient world, its rituals, legacies, visions, juxtaposed with the postmodern. What intentions determined your selection of imagery and allusions?

About the sense of classical/ancient with the present: yes, the sense that one’s literary life — one’s life in relation to all arts one loves — has to do with folding the past into an eternal present, yet with the sense that history moves both one way and in the constellation of moments. Walter Benjamin pressures the idea of eternal return to yield more, to give up its hold on us. I like that idea — that we can’t be seized by mythic time but are helpless in relation to it.


Certain named writers and thinkers seemingly serve as anchors for the cycle — Pythagoras and Isaiah, for example… (Interesting that the work’s intellectual backbone, although there’s an implied concern with the limitations of the canon, seems situated along the line of Western civilization.)

Intellectual underpinnings certainly include Biblical writings, pre-Socratic philosophers, of course Plato, Aristotle and all relevant Greeks (I teach “Greek Thought” and “Roman Thought” at Saint Mary’s — Great Books in Translation courses and these have had a great deal of influence on me).


And along with this, mysticism is also present, as in the auras?

I am really interested in gnosticism, alchemy and other esoteric spiritual practices but am generally something of an animist — more “western,” though I am very interested in Chinese philosophy and Buddhism, as well as Hindu practice (mostly through theosophy). I am drawn to many spiritual practices and consider poetry a place to be in touch with those things. I guess most of all I feel drawn to mystical and animist practices.

I loathe all forms of fundamentalism in religion, especially practices that lead to the slaughter of beings for anything other than the food chain. Our spiritual life is meant to put us in touch with the unknown and with an ethics that gives humans access to our best instincts.


Does the inclusion of “non-poetic” contemporary objects — “praxis screens,” “they pack their laptops” — bespeak your conscious priorities as a poet?

Yes, pop culture references and common objects belong in poetry — my poetry includes parking meters, laptops, tennis shoes, and hairbrushes, literary theory, indie rock music and talking atoms, car washes, pubic hair, and CD cases, food and cell phones. But words are the true objects, of course.


With what feeling do you approach modernity? With a sense of confrontation, that is? Or caution, or a need to harmonize? Might the reminder of “economics monographs” as “brittle” relate, say, to poetry as opposed to materialism? What is your basis for the contrast?

The economics monographs — they are more or less brittle — more brittle than normal books! I love the sense that the spooky, tactile qualities of old books, resting in the library, waiting for someone to come and lay hands on them, have a different kind of soul to them.


An unspecified “you” appears in the poems — did you have someone particular in mind?

“You” is addressed abstractly because it is often Walter Benjamin, my first husband, Samuel Beckett or Franz Kafka!

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