Brenda Hillman was born in Tucson, Arizona, on March 17, 1951. She was educated at Pomona College and received her MFA at the University of Iowa. Her upbringing in a deeply religious Baptist family surfaces in many of her poems, especially those that appear in Loose Sugar and the California mission poems of Cascadia.
She is the author of Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan University Press, 2013); Practical Water (Wesleyan University Press, 2011); Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005); Cascadia (2001); Loose Sugar (1997), which was a finalist for National Book Critic's Circle; Bright Existence (1993), a finalist for Pulitzer Prize; Death Tractates (1992); Fortress (1989); and White Dress (1985). Her poems have also been collected in three chapbooks: The Firecage (2000); Autumn Sojourn (1995); and Coffee, 3 A.M. (1982).
Her work has been called eclectic, mercurial, sensuous, and luminescent. In an interview in Rain Taxi, Hillman said "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."
Hillman is also the coeditor, along with Patricia Dienstfrey, of The Grand Permisson: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (Wesleyan University Press, 2003), and the editor of a collection of Emily Dickinson's poems published by Shambhala Press in 1995.
Hillman received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 2012. Her other honors include awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America, along with a Bay Area Book Reviewer's Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award.
Hillman has taught at the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference and the University of California, Berkeley. She holds the Olivia Filippi Chair in Poetry at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California, and lives in the Bay Area with her husband, the poet Robert Hass.