Interview with Brenda Hillman

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Brenda Hillman is an American poet who has earned the Pushcart Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the William Carlos Williams Prize for Poetry, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry.

Howl: What inspires your work and why?

Hillman: Many things inspire my poetry: pieces of language that come into my head (the music of language, including other literature); perceptions of things in the world and in nature, also things that are invisible; ideas and events from philosophy, history, science and art; and a lot of very odd emotions that happen to me and to other people. 

Howl: What is your writing/editing process like?

Hillman: I write drafts very slowly, often from notes, and I revise steadily by copying the poem over and over by hand (writing it out in handwriting), changing many things as the poem evolves. I really believe in revision. 

Howl: What advice do you have for budding writers?

Hillman: Keep reading and writing a lot– at first you will probably want to read more than you write. Write the kinds of things you want to read. 

Howl: As a professor of poetry, what changes have you seen in American poetry over the years and why?

Hillman: It’s a very exciting time for poetry; there are many different kinds of acceptable writing, and there have been too many changes to name, but I think there is much more openness to exploration of form and content than when I first started writing. 

Howl: As a writer of introspective poetry, what role do you think poetry has for the writer and reader? 

Hillman: I think poetry gets people to look at language and the tones and feelings from language in a more careful and intense way. It helps the reader slow down and experience odd spiritual states. We are making intense objects with our states of mind that are only available if we write our poems.

Howl: Why do you think poetry is your preferred medium of expression?

Hillman: From the first time I was reading poetry as a child, I thought it was absolutely marvelous. I fell in love with it through the Bible (King James translation), Keats and Dickinson, among others. You can start loving it at any age, however. It has been lifelong habit for me because I have states of mind that nothing can satisfy but poetry. 

Howl: How do you recognize when a poem is completely finished?

Hillman: I feel satisfied that it is the best I can do. I’m not able to go further with it. Sometimes I have to set it aside. I sit on it for months before I commit to it. Finally I declare it finished and feel glad or not glad to share it. If not glad, I take it back to my desk and work more. 

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