Four Questions for New Academy Chancellor Brenda Hillman
American Poets: Which book of poems do you find yourself continually returning to and rereading for inspiration, and which poets have influenced your work?
Brenda Hillman: To this question I nearly always say that I don’t have a single favorite, and I like to list the dead writers I turn to repeatedly and am influenced by. I came of age with certain classics and my canon expands: the King James scholars who translated the book of Psalms, Shakespeare, Donne, Hölderlin, Keats, Wordsworth—generally, the British romantic poets including John Clare—Baudelaire, Dickinson, Hopkins, Yeats, Stevens, Eliot, Stein, Williams, H. D., Char, Pessoa, Rilke, Vallejo, Duncan, Celan, Miłosz, Césaire, Aygi, John Wieners, Niedecker, Berryman, Plath, Ginsberg, Baraka, Barbara Guest. About ten years ago I fell in love with Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s collected poetry and devoured it. I still love it. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée had a big influence on me when it came out because of the way it mixes forms. I still teach that book a lot and the students love it. A book I’ve been inspired by lately is the recent collection by Arkadii Dragomoshchenko called Endarkenment, edited by Eugene Ostashevsky, and the work of Brazilian poet Ana Cristina César, which I’m working with my mother to render into English. West Coast women’s experimental poetry from the 1980s, of course—I don’t know if one can be influenced by what one is a part of. I read a lot of nonfiction—science, natural history, theory. This time last year I was immersed in the work of Richard O. Moore, and in Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons. The great living writer I’m probably most influenced by is Robert Hass, not just because I admire his writing but also because I’m in daily conversation with him. There are so many living writers I love—I’ll make that list sometime.
AP: What do you find exciting about American poetry at the moment?
BH: Just about everything: the sheer variety, the courage of people’s enterprises, the mixed forms, the ability to be blunt and full of heart and personal or abstract and heady, to engage in conceptual projects, to thread the lyric with the political. In the ’80s, when I started doing work with trance or ritual, anything that had to do with that sort of thing used to be left out of the conversation, but now people are admitting that aspect of the art back in—it was very important in early modernism. There is much more attention being paid to women writers and writers of color and LGBT writers than in previous decades. There are exciting conversations about political action and poetry and whether those things are mutually exclusive. Poetry can admit the factual and reports and revisions of the sad song. Maybe I’m delusional to feel hopeful, but with so many great presses and magazines and communities keeping the art alive all over the country, poets have a lot more freedom and opportunity than when I started writing seriously.
AP: What is the role of the poet in our culture?
BH: There are as many roles as there are poets. In general poets seem to be called to explore language, inner and outer; to reflect cultural music back to itself; to keep the unusual thought alive; to present mental experience in beautiful or powerful or compressed words, phrases, sentences. (Though, of course, that’s not true for all poets; there are poets whose work survives outside those categories. Current informational-transfer poets are not necessarily going for compression or power.) I’m interested in writing that sounds good, is smart, deepens the heart, and that lets out a lot of work that has only surface appeal. I like drawing lots of elements into my writing, so I think the role of the poet is quite large. I’m grateful to be writing at a time when poets are able to address economic and environmental disasters in nontraditional ways. These things are movements outside of the ways that word has been used to make coterie or exclusionary poetics. The role of the poet is to stay abnormal.
AP: If you could own any piece of art, which would it be?
BH: Do you mean visual art? I like the idea of the public owning the great works of art so my first choice would be for public museums to support artists so they could live and everyone could see their works easily. If I could look at paintings every day at a museum next door, it would be the work of Vermeer, Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Rothko. I love the work of Bay Area artist Frances Lerner. She is very inspiring; her art is full of strange, metaphoric vision.
This Q&A originally appeared in the spring-summer 2016 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2016 by the Academy of American Poets. To receive American Poets, become a member online.