Discussion Questions


We thank Katherine Factor of Idyllwild Arts Academy for the following classroom exercises.

I suggest starting by reading some of these poems, or introductory poems of an environmental mind, outside to introduce this text.  In my class, we were able to read many of in our forest on abnormally warm days, effectively raising students’ connections to microclimates and effects of climate change. My students noted the cover, “It looks like a scene from the Idyllwild fires,” they said with proper California scrub-eyes, leading us easily into musing how poetry can “speak” when humans cannot.

Teaching Unit for Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire 

A. First, have students list 8-10 words they associate with fire. Note if they are direct synonyms or adjectives, or more connected to imagery or ideas.  Types of fire are mentioned – physical, the existence of the sun, restorative qualities of burn areas, familial,  mental, etc. (I make sure “sparks” are noticed/defined, as so many small bundles of energy catch wind in the language motions in the poems.)

B. Be sure to look at dedication page together. Have someone read it out loud – this brings focus to the structure, interests, and materials of the text. Have students suggest what is listed here: family, friends, animals, sufferers of global conflict, writers, the fire in everything. (Perhaps provide examples of other dedication pages, acknowledging how it differs from a typical front matter.) By naming or listing immediately before the poems start, all “materials” are made equal, establishing an axiom through which to read the work. It may be helpful here to bring up Gaian theory/web-of-life thinking, linking “the fire in everything” as a connecting force.

C. Together read the first twenty pages individually in order to become familiar with the territory of this book. Read several together to instigate a feel for the book and “warm up” any readers new to Hillman’s work. In my class, we immediately discussed:

— Why the first person “I” is never capitalized – this reinforces idea of equality between species, works against human-centric world, the self is not above or greater.  Students also noticed the appearance of animated punctuation. Playing with the visual and embodied punctuation can proffer great writing exercises.

— Latinate naming adds or reminds us of the discourse (see her interview at LA Review of Books )

— An abundance of animism, especially that Language can think or that it has a soul. . . this rallies up fun comments about personification and anthropomorphism.

— The voice of speaker has an awareness of multiple materials at play, reflected in the mixed registers of speech; (This can lead to discussions about appraisal of world through senses, then beyond senses toward radical intensity).  I mentioned that speaker is “walking between worlds,” and then we listed “What worlds:”  Environmental, species/taxonomies, language & parts of speech, personal worlds, political, and visionary/spiritual planes.

D. Break students up into groups according to themes that arise, or “sparks” that blaze through the pages. Have students read and discover five poems throughout the book that show evidence of their themes, requiring a close reading of each poem. Since Hillman’s work is rife with mixed dictions, allusions,  references, swerving syntax, it is especially  important they look up any words they don’t know.  You may have them collect definitions, creating a lexicon for book! My class choose the following motifs, and I have included poems that may prompt one to find theses themes:

1. Animism

To Spirits of Fire After Harvest
The Practice of Talking to Plants
Foggy Animist Morning in the Vineyard
Between the Souls and the Meteors
Till It Finishes What It Does 

2. Seasons/Microseasons

To Spirits of Fire After Harvest
Late Autumn Storms at Pigeon Point
In Summer, Everything is something’s Twin
Two Summer Aubades After John Clare
Previous Dawn in the Next Field
Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways
Elegy for an Activist in Winter
Between the Fire and the Flood
After A Death in Early Spring 

3. Political Action (Highly recommended: have students report on issues/allusions scoured in these poems: the Occupy Movement, illegal drone warfare, Rukeyser)

The Body Politic Loses Her Hair
In the High Desert Under the Drones
Ecopoetics Manifesto
Moaning Action at the Gas Pump
Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways
Elegy for an Activist in Winter
Report on Visiting the District Office 

4. Language

Grammar of this Life At Noon
The Vowels Pass By in English
Between Semesters, the Fragments Follow Us
Autumn Ritual with Hate Turned Sideways
We saw the E Look Back

5. Space/Eternity

Geminid Showers
At the Solstice, A Yellow Frag
Equinox Ritual w/ Raven and Pines
West Marin Night
Between the Souls and the Meteors
Smart Galaxies work with our Mother section

E. Ecopoetics Assignment ~ Please see the poem on page 29, “Ecopoetics Manifesto: A List for Angie”.  After reading and discussing the list, students shall find poems that show evidence of the Ecopoetics manifesto. *My students were challenged by this, so I tried to walk them through the bullet points in terms of what we had already discussed. For instance, I suggested that:

A– talks about Romantic qualities, i.e. freedom of form, willingness to experiment,  expression, willingness to push against “norms” of society, animism
B– is obvious in the hybridization of “materials” in the poems we’ve looked at
C– is the differing awarenesses employed re:our world, other worlds, the domestic and the visionary states, etc.
E– deserves a whole class on its possibilities. Can be seen in the language personification in her poems

After reading the list and finding a few poems that show evidence of the Ecopoetics, have students write their best own “eco-poetic” poem using these elements. Encourage that it could be about any topic, any concern, any interest– human, animal, or other. Try to find the form that fits the energy of the poem!  Play with shape, with the idea the poem can cause a small miracle, healing, awareness, etc.  Keep in mind manifestos, organic form, visionary poetics, and hybrid literature. (An alternative or addition to this assignment may be to integrate documentary poetics into lesson plans.)