Our Very Greatest Human Thing is Wild: Brenda Hillman in Conversation
Brenda Hillman: . . .I was talking to Kathleen Fraser a while ago about the opening up of form in the last twenty years, almost to the point of destroying the boundaries of the poem. It is the artist's job to make form. Not even to make it, but to allow it. Allow form. And all artists have a different relationship to it, and a different philosophy of it. I worked on ["Cascadia"] for eight months; it's very carefully structured. But I wanted it to be boundaryless in a way: It's not punctuated, and I wanted it to go back and forth within itself and within time. I thought, "Well you can have both things: structure and boundarylessness." And in fact I think that when you are trying to open up a territory—in this case I was working with a desire to open the lyric—you have to be greedy, in that you want more than you can do. And you're always bound to fail.
Sarah Rosenthal: You're trying to let error in, but you don't want error to take over the poem.
BH: I wanted every line to be memorable. Also, I wanted to get at and challenge the idea—not a central idea, because the poem doesn't really have a center—Aristotle's idea of change: that you can tell where something is going because of where it ends up. Final cause, or something like that—which is really kind of an anti-divine notion, and which I love as a philosophy of living. It's sort of like, "I'm not sure where I am going, but I can tell it was my fate to be there because that's where I ended up."
SR: You have been thinking about this problem of form and boundaries in a head-on way for a long time. It's a big theme in Bright Existence, in poems like "March Dawn," where you write, "everything has a border, doesn't it? the edge where light can not get in // until joy knows the original wound." Or in "Holding On," which I read as about your relationship with your daughter: "wanted to cling to you. . . / . . .so we won't / have to address this problem of the separate you-and-me, / of outer and inner." The word "merge" appears several times in Cascadia, as well as the notion of skin as an image of boundary—skin, which strikes me as an extremely tender, vulnerable container and divider. Your work addresses the question of form and boundaries not just in poetry, but in being, in matter. In "Recycling Center" you write, "[we] could tell by the tilt of one / bottle against the next that it's difficult / to be singular, to have identity, to keep / an outline safe in the terrors of space." In "Sorrow of Matter": "suffering invented shape." You seem to be in a long-term process of puzzling out this question, wanting to push the limits of form in the context of a lot of contemporary thinking, while also acknowledging the necessity of form.
BH: Right—the necessity of form and also how it determines so much. I think about the "metaphysical" and scientific aspects of form—for example, just the business of getting shapes made, the idea of a constructed fragment of consciousness in a universe based on change. I also think about the relationship between an individual and the collective. The latter impacts a lot of my thinking about poetry these days. There seem to be a lot of poetry collaborations in the Bay Area right now, and not just collaborations with others but also with dialogic forms within single-author texts. So the boundaries have loosened in that sense. That said, I still have the feeling that the task of artists is always going to be a matter of a seeking that is intense and is about a soul at work—"soul" being another term for the seeking of a mind. Boundary issues impact so much of that work: the ideas of shape in a piece of art, your relationship to tradition, how much you can risk, and your relationship to the mysterious and to your future readers—whether you want to call that divine or human nature or artifice. And language subverts any of our efforts to make boundaries. Our very greatest human thing—which is language to me—musicians would say it's music, but I think it's language—our very greatest human thing is wild. Uncontrollable. It is impossible to put boundaries on your words, even if you make a poem. Each word is a maze. So you are full of desire to make a memorable thing and have the form be very dictated by some way that it has to be. But the poem itself is going to undo that intention. It's almost like you're knitting a sweater and something is unraveling it on the other end. You know what I mean? In this way, it is very strange.
So the idea of boundarylessness sits uncomfortably with the idea of form. I am so conscious of formal technique, and I never want the process and the poem to be so loose that it will just be dropping from a journal accidentally. I would really like the work to go on being extremely inventive in ways that seem process-oriented, but never formless.
SR: The notions of the individual and the singular seem to be part and parcel of the problem of territoriality. Your work asks questions about these concepts without providing closed answers. In "The Shirley Poem" in Cascadia you write, "Nobody works a claim alone. In / 1851 law arrives; government hasn't yet / been invented. Forty feet around a / claim. The need to be unique / has mostly made us miserable." These lines get at the pressure in our society to stake claims on all kinds of territory, both geographic and psychic. I'm led to think about originality, and the yearning of the artist to be original. In that context, I thought it was interesting that this book feels much less directly autobiographical than much of your earlier work. There's that mysterious, magical phrase/fragment/poem in Cascadia, "(enter: The 'we'—)." I get the sense that the "we" is entering into your work more than ever. I wonder if that is a result of—or perhaps accompanied by—a shift in your ideas about the role of the artist and what you want to accomplish with your art.
BH: Yes, absolutely. The lyric that is also social. Don't you think that this moment in poetry is so interesting because there are so many interesting ideas about subjectivity and the personal? It really does seem less terrifying to write from a form of experience that's not so narrowly construed. There's something about the "I" that is stretchy now; I think of the work of poets like Alice Notley and others. There are so many different ways of being personal. Like Michael Palmer's poem "I Do Not." Who's writing in that poem? It's not a persona, it's not just a "Michael"; it's some statement that goes down a long tunnel of possibility. That much more stretchy sense of "I" really interests me, but one that doesn't lose the depth and feeling tones. Because it's very much the case that at a certain point whatever you think of as the ego project, it's not going to work out. You come to that in art. You can't just stick with that. It doesn't work out in your life either, if you're bound up with ego.
The ego is always worried about its territoriality. In writing Cascadia, there was the notion of geology as mind, mind as geology. There aren't that many ideas. I was thinking about this when I wrote "The Shirley Poem." I had been to several conferences and was thinking about how there's no such thing as really inventing something that hasn't been invented, and I was particularly distressed and intrigued by the idea that people need to lay claim to originality. The fact is that a lot of experimental contemporary writing comes out of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and of course Stein. The forms in experimental writing come from a lot of different sources. I would never want to say to somebody, You stole my work—unless they actually took my words, which has actually happened on a couple of occasions, without citation to that effect. But people don't own ways of writing, and so it seemed important to kind of get that notion into the world. There are original moments in art, as in everything. But nobody owns those.
SR: In "The Shirley Poem," Shirley, a pioneer doctor's wife who travels to the mines with her husband, writes in a letter: "I have the vague / idea that I hooked that butterfly comparison from somebody. / If so, I beg the injured / person's pardon, and he or she / may have a hundred of mine / to pay for." Then there's a parenthetical that says, "(italics hers.)" It's interesting that the parenthetical itself is in italics, so that "her" becomes a completely slippery entity. Whose italics? It's a fine-tuned gesture that gets at this ownership/originality issue. Throughout your work, there are these precise gestures that enact what you are saying. For example, in "Shared Custody," where the daughter goes back and forth between parents like Persephone, the daughter "makes / a roof with her goodbye: //bye mom." In this small typographical moment there is a complex awareness of the ways a child must negotiate her feelings for her divorced parents. I think of Dickinson's ability to funnel big ideas through small yet potent gestures.
BH: There's something about that girlish refuser that is in my work all the way back to Fortress, but it really started with Death Tractates, with the "what" voice that comes in. And that came from working with Andre Breton's notion of letting the pen slip so that everything in the margins of the poems starts entering. I've always done a lot of composition using trance methods. There were always unexplainable voices that would come in. I know "voice" is supposed to be a dirty word, and I never quite figured out why. Have you?
SR: There's the idea that something different happens on the page than happens in speech.
BH: But I can't get why one would want to eliminate the trace of a spoken thought in the poem. There are so many moments in which the human "voice" comes in, in Stein's "Lifting Belly," say, or in John Ashbery's poetry, which I love. It isn't not writerly. It always seemed to me that one of the great things about poetry was when you would hear writing itself, some very specific quality of life that was only possible in that particular expression. There's something really good about the breakdown of the notion of the ego and the accompanying opening up of the page that has come about through literary theory. It does seem to me crucial that we keep in mind that poetry is about states of mind, and about people going through things as selves and as collectives in relation to the earth, in relation to being alive, in relation to becoming. It is impossible for me to enjoy poetry if there is no sense of intense experience. The old autobiographical narrative isn't necessarily going to cut it every time. Yet it seems to me crucial to have a sense that somebody went through something, or the powerful thought of the poem as a replica of that.
So I hope that whatever experiment and opening and wildness and exploration the poem has to go through—and I do mean the poem because I feel like I am in its hands when I'm writing—that it keeps human experience recognizable.
Excerpted from A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area, published by Dalkey Archive Press, www.dalkeyarchive.com, copyright (c) 2010 by Sarah Rosenthal.