Our Very Greatest Human Thing is Wild

An Interview with Brenda Hillman

Sarah Rosenthal: 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.

Brenda Hillman: 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 right now. There seem to be a lot of poetry collaborations in the Bay Area right now, and not just collaborations with others but also 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.

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Pablo Lopez Interviews Brenda Hillman

PL: On the various impetuses behind Practical Water

BH: Some my muses in this book, besides California, are water and earth, Duncan and numbers, and of course weird words— and the women of CodePink. There are a lot of visual elements here and poems that occur with numbers. Additionally, I was really challenged by the letters of Duncan and Levertov writing this book. I felt a desire to mediate. I’ve been interested for a long time in theosophy, in Gnosticism and in other esoteric traditions. These disciplines fit perfectly well with the more counterculture idea of poetry and with poetic experiment– the gnostic occult. Practical Water is part of a proposed tetralogy of the elements; if you start something like this in a sense you’re casting yourself a task that has to do with a single word, with an element, with interactions between definitions and materials. But of course this is a time of real environmental and political crisis that I wanted to address–so the word “water” speaks to the crisis of the water in our bodies and in our ecosystems. But basically I work from poem to poem, not with a larger project in mind— I think that can mess you up. The importance of being present in the world and being a poet can occur exactly simultaneously, and in a sense I feel a little bit defiant toward the idea of pure art. We all must be engaged in the task of the artist as the first thing and for me being a poet has got to be a kind of circulating presence of different kinds of action. Poetry matters as we take it out there.

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