The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Brenda Hillman about trance work, glintings, and radical animism in Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, the last in a tetralogy of books about the four elements.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Lauren O’Neal.
Sarah: I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how you think about movement in a poem, how a poem gets from beginning to end, if you have techniques in order to create the energized movement you accomplish as you travel down the page.
Brenda: Wow—you started with maybe the hardest question ever! For starters, I have to say that I value the sound in a poem very highly and often wait till I hear lines. So it’s not so much about getting the movement down the page as about hearing “next-ness.” By nextness, I mean the mystery that the previous line called up. If I get sure of what I’m doing, I know I’m doing something wrong.
Camille D: “If I get sure of what I’m doing, I know I’m doing something wrong.” A quotable line in the first interchange! Well done, Brenda.
Brenda: Don’t you find that many writers want to move toward clarity? I want to move toward woven truth. Clarity or its opposite, I think at times.
Camille D: One of the things I appreciate most about your work is the way you force us to encounter surprise. It seems your process demands that of you, and so in turn the poems demand that of us.
Evie: Greetings, good people!
Brian S: Hi Evie!
Sarah: Yes, yes, definitely.
Camille D: Hello, Evie! Wonderful to “see” you here.
Evie: Hi, Brian! Same to you, Camille!
Brenda: I am so grateful there are some readers who can go with the weavings. Hi Evie!
Evie: I can’t stay the whole hour, but I couldn’t resist checking in for a few minutes. Don’t shift gears—say more about the weavings.
Brenda: I’m thinking about the surprise question Camille asked too. There is something about the weaving metaphor, for the paratactic exploratory style I value, that it is like a weaving in which a glinting thing happens all of a sudden. It is of a different order. A strand from outside.
Rebecca: Hi, all! I’m a bit late because I was finishing up a terrible mystery novel, but I’m here and catching up on the chitchat!
Thelma: From the diamond planet!
Rebecca: I’d die for a 2:2 load…whenever I get a “real” teaching job.
Brenda: I find it is true of basic modernist writing and also of the dramatic imposition of the senses. Hi Rebecca, hi Thelma.
Evie: A glinting of language or of idea? (from the diamond planet, outside)
Brenda: The diamond planet is whirling out there with a 1:1 load! Yes, a glinting of language or idea or a sensual connection that makes its way into the poem. We started out talking about how to get to the bottom of the page—Sarah’s major question.
Evie: So you follow the glintings?
Brenda: Well, I follow the sound of the glintings. It’s an impossible paradox. Actually, I follow the smell of the sound of the glintings—and then remember the idea behind it all probably felt something.
Evie: Love it.
Brian S: I was just looking again at “Moaning Action at the Gas Pump,” and I see those glintings and that movement on display there very much. “Moaning morning moaning mourning” and “Please be embarrassed. Please.”
Brenda: Along those lines, I remember when I first started writing poetry in school. They told you to sit down and try to write “about” something. But really, the sound leads you around and haunts you—isn’t that true for all of you?
Brian S: I had the opposite experience in high school—my teacher taught iambs and trochees straight out of the box. And no one else in the class liked it. (I was a word nerd and heard it immediately.)
Brenda: That’s great, Brian! Good for your teacher. I’m about to teach a prosody class. We’re going to study everything from really basic scanning techniques to procedural poetry and OuLiPo.
Camille D: That sounds like an amazing class.
Sarah: I definitely started with aboutness too, but as I’m not as sonically driven, I ask my figurative language to show my glintings of where else the poem is going and speaking to, and I follow and push.
Rebecca: Do you ever struggle with sound and need to find a way to re-inspire yourself? (I ask because I’m struggling with sound.)
Evie: Yes. I sometimes feel like I would follow the sound of the poem off a cliff, like one of the children running along behind the Pied Piper…
Brenda: Yes, I do struggle with it and consider when the “secret sound” doesn’t visit me that my soul is dead or that I’ve bought too many houseplants. I do have a technique for getting it back.
Rebecca: Yes! I was hoping you would.
Camille D: Why are houseplants a threat to your poems? That’s a serious question. In it is the larger question, “What do you consider a threat to your writing, if anything?”
Brenda: The technique for getting the sound back when it has abandoned me involves either trance work or a journey through my library or, #3, going through my day and begging
Brian S: (makes note: get rid of all houseplants)
Sarah: (stares directly ahead at two aloe plants)
Evie: Don’t do it, Brian! Sarah, the aloe is your friend!
Rebecca: Begging? Hmm. I’d beg for it.
Brenda: No, I am kind of obsessed with houseplants and of course that is a metaphor also for the daily care one must take of other things besides poetry. And I’ve been working on getting the right kind that can deal with tending problems.
Camille D: On a side note, while Brenda types, I made my husband drive the car instead of shipping it so that we could bring all our houseplants to Colorado. When he got her, I doused them all with water then left them outside for 48 hours. When I returned, I found them sunburnt almost to death. It was a mode of pruning. But a very cruel one.
Brenda: I’m so sorry to hear about your plants, Camille! Aunt Brenda loves your plants!
Camille D: The sunburnt plants situation has helped Callie to remind me to put sunscreen on her. She doesn’t “want to be sunburnt like the plants.”
Brian S: I’ve recently started copying down a poem I’ve never read before every morning, right after I feed the cats but before I do anything else, just as a way to get myself in a language frame of mind.
Sarah: That’s lovely!
Rebecca: That’s a good idea, Brian. Has it been fruitful yet?
Brian S: I’ve had moments. I’ve only been doing it a couple of weeks, so early days.
Evie: I love that idea, Brian—and the journey-through-my-library plan.
Camille D: Brenda, can you talk about your trance work? It’s the sort of thing many poets don’t admit to in the modern age, and you are unapologetic about it.
Brian S: I have to admit, I don’t really know what trance work is.
Rebecca: Oh, thank goodness, Brian. I didn’t know, either—especially that “trance” wasn’t a metaphor. Now I’m really, really intrigued, Brenda.
Brenda: Yes, on the trance thread, I just did a long piece for Kristin Prevallet on trance—you can go online and see it—I’ll answer in pieces here.
Brenda: I started doing trance and self-hypnosis with a Jungian therapist in the early ’80s. It corresponded to my interest in Bay Area women’s experimental writing.
Camille D: Brian, I was copying out poems to teach my class today, and I started noticing that I could often predict where the line breaks should go. I thought that would be an interesting exercise, to present something in a prose block (as will happen if you cut and paste from Poetry Foundation, for instance), and have yourself or students consider how the poem might be lineated and why. I’m off on tangents today. I’ll call it weaving for the sake of this conversation.
Brenda: Thank you, computer geniuses! I can’t do two things at once. Anyway, you can read a little about it, but really, I got interested in theosophy and Madame Blavatsky early on.
Rebecca: Camille, I always think that sort of thing is a good exercise, but I’m still teaching myself more about line breaks. I don’t think I could predict them with that much accuracy.
Brenda: The trance works if you think the surface thing is yielding only a shallow part of your ego brain. Your collective brain is much bigger than you are.
Evie: In addition to the mystery of trance, there is the mystery of alchemy, which is where your last five to six books jump off from, Brenda. I wanted to ask, now that you’re done with the tetralogy, if you feel like some kind of alchemical transformation occurred at the intersection of your four elemental books.
Brenda: Yes, Evie. The sense that in the mystery of a transformational process that the foursome have interacted in a different way.
Sarah: If I can ask another question, I’d also love if you could speak to your use of em dashes to let other voices in your poems. (Like in “Fable of Work in the World.”) (This was in Death Tractates too, but it was fascinating to see how it’s transformed for these poems.)
Brenda: Sarah, the em dashes are supposed to give a sense of interrupted and musical thought.
Sarah: (Definitely, but sometimes it’s full conversations like “—You stole that from Poe. / —Did not. / —Did too.”)
Brenda: I was honoring my inner Graham Foust in the guise of a brenda.
Brenda: But Graham is much nicer than the objecting brenda at times.
Evie: I’m a fan of the brenda—and of her ability to be a third-person noun in her own poems!
Brenda: It’s strange how the conversations with others come in. I often wonder about the dialogic in writers like Berryman.
Sarah: I love it when I see it, in yours and Berryman and others. So often it feels like the poetic-I has to get interrupted by this more human-I.
Brian S: The pictures—were they supposed to be that small? (Sorry for the mundane question.)
Brenda: Brian, yes, I know the picture size is really difficult, but I was trying to make them like little yearbook photos of the unknown. I started it in the previous book, shrinking down the little documentary photos from activist moments.
Brian S: Oh, I think the effect is an interesting one. I was just curious about it.
Brenda: Modernism is the way people often think, and postmodernism is the way we often feel about what we think.
Rebecca: That’s another good quote.
Evie: The photos strike me as little portals into the world of the poem. I feel like Alice in Wonderland, with my eye to the keyhole looking into the tiny garden. I just want to run and find something that says, “Drink me.” Then I realize the poem is saying, “Drink me”! So to speak!
Thelma: I wondered if the size of the photos with people in them had to do with protecting them from the police, though I suppose the NSA knows what we’re all doing all the time now.
Rebecca: Hahaha! PRISM. (Only that’s not funny.)
Brenda: Thelma, yes, I’m certain my email is being read, but that wasn’t exactly it—it was more about making them bite-sized.
Camille D: I love the photographs in Practical Water and Seasonal Works. I applaud Wesleyan for their vision in figuring out how to let poets like you and Joseph Harrington use images in the books.
Brenda: Camille, to your comment about Wesleyan—darling press! I love them.
Evie: Brian: couldn’t agree with you more about Wesleyan!
Camille D: I have wondered, as I’ve read the last three of the elemental books, if you ever found yourself writing fire poems when you were in the middle of the earth or water poems, or if you compartmentalized the investigation of the elements.
Brenda: On the compartmentalizing question—the elements started to become more like an invitation than like a specific assignment. So, for example, when you are in love with an element, you follow it—an idea or a glinting would happen in a day, I would think, Where will this go in a poem?, and it would be a day with lots of rain and a fire and air and depending on what I wanted to snatch…I would proceed! I’ve been asked by a friend now to write the book of every element.
Rebecca: Sort of like Captain Planet? (I mean that in a good, serious way, but I can’t get the uniting of elements in my head away from the idea of Captain Planet. I probably watched too much TV as a kid, and my brain is mush.)
Brian S: The Book of Molybdenum!
Evie: Have you seen Michael Leong’s mash-up Cutting Time with a Knife? He has a poem for every element of the periodic table.
Rebecca: Ooh. I’m interested in the periodic table.
Brenda: Captain Planet sounds good. I have seen Leong’s poem but not read it.
Evie: Rebecca, it’s lovely. He takes off from a phrase of T. S. Eliot’s and then riffs on it all the way through the table.
Brenda: I’m worried I am not answering all your questions! I’m still back on the trance issue.
Camille D: You are answering our questions very well. Thank you.
Rebecca: The poems that I could most follow in a narrative sense were the ones where you were most political—for the environment, against money and war. (So you are Captain Planet. I like it.) Did you expect the political side to come out in these fire poems? (I haven’t read your other poetry collections yet, so I don’t know if this is common.)
Brenda: Rebecca, I was being a little transgressive with the narrative impulse in both this book and the last because there is a big prejudice against narrative poetry in some communities.
Rebecca: Oh god. I’m still in the “give me all the poetry, all the ways you can give it to me” camp.
Camille D: Can you follow up on what you’re saying about the narrative impulse, please?
Brenda: The narrative impulse at times has great appeal, and it isn’t just one thing—a block of rendering events. I don’t find use of narrative or emotion or story incompatible with experiments, innovations, concepts—in form, subject, syntax, and so on.
Camille D: Once I heard you describe your poetry as “radical.” Was it radical nature poetry? Was it radical ecopoetics? It was the adjective I remembered, because it seemed to fit so well. Radical narratives. Radical love poems. Radical explorations. Radical free radicals.
Brenda: Lately, I’ve been saying “radical animism.”
Thelma: I love that.
Rebecca: I do, too.
Brenda: I’ve been impressed by how radical the souls of most people are—don’t you think so?
Rebecca: And I really liked where the elements combined with the narrative. Narrative always roots me, so that when you branch out further into “radical” experiments, etc., I can retrace my steps, if that makes sense.
Brian S: Without sounding too polemical, I think that in a world that claims to desire security above all else, radical action is a necessity.
Sarah: I’m so glad to hear you say, “I don’t find use of narrative or emotion or story incompatible with experiments, innovations, concepts—in form, subject, syntax, and so on.”
Camille D: We’re closer to the end than the beginning of our chat. Thelma, do you have a question? Sarah, any more? Any lurkers?
Evie: I have to run, but I’m so glad I caught up with you all! Congrats on the fire book, Brenda! See the rest of you next month, perhaps?
Brenda: Bye Evie! Radical to me is always about “roots”—a pun I use incessantly in this book. Radical isn’t the tippy tips of the branches of human behavior only, it is also the roots of the language and culture.
Thelma: Radical animism—reminds me of the orchid in your poem “Bright Existence” that “always came back / to the same slanty light / in the forest floor.” That “in” seems radical to me, the way it makes us see the light from below instead of above.
Brenda: Thank you, Thelma! Your readership is so much appreciated!
Camille D: As I said in my little intro essay, so many of the poems in this book moved me. We sometimes ask here about order and the poet’s process of putting the poems together as a book. Can you speak a little about how you went about constructing the individual poems into a collection?
Brenda: I love the way words like “radical” run around and are used and abused too—Camille, I think you just mentioned free radical.
Thelma: I have that poem on my wall. Always makes me consider the power of prepositions! And other things, too, of course.
Brenda: Sure—to the question about the process. I was drawn to the first impulse in the first poem by the sight of pumpkins in a field one day. I thought, I want to write these poems being aware of the micro-units of the seasons. And I thought I might want to write poems for a while that had to do with just being in a day—of being the most intense way possible, in relation. Thank you, Camille, for your wonderful intro essay.
Brian S: When you get a moment, who are you reading these days? What’s jumping out at you?
Brenda: I’m reading a lot of things. I’m reading C. S. Lewis’s Study of Words, I’m reading Proust, I’m reading David Graeber, I’m reading Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s new book.
Brian S: I’ve got that O’Brien book on the chair next to me right now!
Brenda: It’s great.
Brian S: I should give Proust a try, I guess. What are you working on right now?
Brenda: I started a few new poems with a very strange intensity, and I don’t know where they are going. Talking trees, I think.
Camille D: I wish we had more time to talk about individual poems. This book burnt through me in this collective way, but also individual poems were so moving. Perhaps like California itself. It seems like there’s just one amazing climate when really, as you point out, there are many unique microclimates.
We are so close to the end. Any final questions? And, Brenda, do you have parting words for us?
Brenda: It has flown by! Please ask an unanswerable question at the end!
Brian S: Really enjoyed this book. Thanks so much for agreeing to chat with us tonight.
Rebecca: This book stretched my understanding of poetry, and I mean that in the best way. Even tonight, I’ve learned some new things. Thank you for that.
Brian S: If you’re on the other side already, where is the grass greener still?
Brenda: It was my pleasure!! I hope you all enjoy your autumn. Look at pumpkins and remember their white eyes!
Sarah: An unanswerable one…How is it to be explicitly political in poetry? Like have you seen—could you see—the response you’d want to that aspect? Thank you so much for chatting and answering and writing!
Camille D: Wow, Sarah, I wish I could get her answer on that one. 🙂
Brenda: I depend on my readers to follow me to the spaces where things converge. More on that some other time, I guess!
Camille D: Yeah! We got the answer to the unanswerable! Thank you all for loving poetry, and thank you, Brenda, for making it lovable. Good night!
Brian S: Good night, everyone.
Brenda: Thanks, everyone!
Rebecca: Thanks! And good night!
Thelma: Thanks, Brenda and everyone. Wonderful chat, as always.
Sarah: Good night, everyone!