It’s been an exciting poetry month so far. On March 22, we learned that Princeton’s Tracy K. Smith was invited to a second term as the country’s Poet Laureate; she had a reading at the Free Library on April 5. There are poetry readings all over the place by such outfits as the Mad Poets Society, and Moonstone Arts. The 2018 Philly Poetry Festival is April 22, and poets such as Paul Muldoon, Gregory Pardlo, and Kevin Young are coming soon.
Among these stellar readers, Brenda Hillman is reading at Zlock Auditorium, Bucks County Community College in Newtown, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 13. She’ll be reading with another wonderful poet, Elizabeth Austin. It’s part of BCCC’s fabulous Wordsmiths Reading Series, which has brought so many fine poets in to read.
Hillman is one of our most accomplished poets. Author of nine books of poetry, she has earned, among other honors, a Guggenheim, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and the International Griffin Poetry Prize. For two decades, she has produced a four-, maybe five-book series on the classical elements (earth, air, fire, and water). She’s an experimenter, a maker of her own forms, and a true explorer of reality, one of those recognizable voices you do not forget.
“I think of myself as a spiritual and emotional experimenter with language, the work of the soul,” she says from her office at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif. In her poetic universe, there is spirit in everything and in every single thing. She is exactly the poet who would write, “—to have made the mistake/ of not caring –for one day!—”
Yes, but you’re also seen as a political poet, someone who tackles the issues of the moment, as in “Describing Tattoos to a Cop.” “That’s because the soul just happens to be outdoors a lot,” she says with a laugh, speaking by phone from her office. She’s a poet, very often, of the inner ecology of our souls (“it’s too late for countries/ but it’s not too late for trees”) amid the outer ecology of nature, all at once, as in “Poem for a Natural Seashore”:
The sun paused. It was greeting the soul
of the day. The clouds gathered past money,
they were cumuli- & cirri-, they were glauc-
& grise & gray. The friends talked
with their thumbs on the tiny machines
& some walked or drank & some loved.
She says she’s “not primarily a political poet,” and that “we don’t want to be lectured at in poetry,” which has led her to do her spiritual/political/ecological work via her experiments in language. Among her models in doing that, she names poets such as Amiri Baraka, Muriel Rukeyser, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Denise Levertov.
And she is writing new poems: “Right now, I’ve been writing a lot of poems, many of them going off of the time’s were in. I’m interested in short forms, and I am always making up my own forms. I’m always interested in emotion, making a case for poetry of very intense emotion. For a long time, experimental poetry was not associated with the emotions. But I feel poetry has always been at the forefront of exploring the spiritual lives of human beings.” She hasn’t decided yet what she’ll read at BCCC, “but I’ll know by the time I get there.”
The last words she leaves us, before she turns to work with a student (you imagine she’s a great teacher) are reasons enough to go see her read: “We’re definitely in a crisis in our world. So we need more poetry. Tell your readers to keep poetry in their lives!”
Brenda Hillman and Elizabeth Austin
7:30 p.m., Friday, April 13, Zlock Performing Arts Center, Bucks County Community College, 275 Swamp Rd., Newtown. Free. Information: 215-968-8150, bucks.edu/cultural.