BRENDA HILLMAN is the author of nine books of poetry. A tetralogy comprising her four most recent books starts with Cascadia, published in 2001, and ends with Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, published this August. Books in this ambitious project have been awarded the Los Angeles Book Prize and the William Carlos Williams Prize. We met to talk about Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, and we ended up exploring, among many things, topics such as the development of her writing career, poetry’s capacity to mine the richness of one’s daily life, and how the poems dear to her, those written by “her darlings,” ballast her poetic and political practices.
The conversation below took place on Monday October 14, 2013. A last second change of plan had us searching College Avenue in Berkeley for a quiet place to have our conversation over lunch. After peeking into a restaurant a touch too loud, we found one with seating in a wide alleyway, along one of its walls, generously windowed. After lunch, we walked to a friend’s apartment nearby to finish the conversation. The conversations are below in toto, with the ambulatory break marked by the asterisks.
(Photo by Brett Hall Jones)
Gerald Maa: The occasion here is Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, the last book of this tetralogy. To start off I would like to look back a little further and talk about the concurrent publications of Bright Existence and Death Tractates. For me I see that as a place where how you write, what you write about, and even your world view changed. I was wondering if you could talk about that a bit.
Brenda Hillman: I guess every writer is aware of how her evolutions seem also like small revolts. I started to work on Bright Existence in the mid-’80s when I saw that a convention of personal, or perhaps anecdotally personal, writing was no longer yielding much traction for me. And I became more interested in ecological writing, experiments with form and esoteric traditions. Far from being incompatible, these things seemed very connected to me — environment, exploration and esoterica. Although I had always read Yeats, and I had been reading Duncan, it seemed that myth and magical traditions called for a different way of being intimate with the poem, which involved throwing out some idea of personal narrative as the occasioning feature. The idea of sitting down to write a poem “about” something became less relevant. I had had a divorce; the world seemed very broken, and somewhat fragmented. The growth of women’s writing in the Bay Area included things I was interested in — the use of marginalia, the unfinished, writing about experience in a way that emphasized perception itself and the ways that we come to know things.
GM: When you speak about moving past the anecdotal, I feel from that book on, there is this capacity, or maybe this obligation, to look more closely at your daily life, at the actual details that are rooted in, you know, California, Brenda’s house, this street. Those seem more ever-present in the poems, but so do the transcendent realms, the world beyond the veil. How did that compel ideas of writing, say, serial poems, or working beyond what you were doing previous to that?
BH: I’m not sure whether it was a closer look or a bigger, deeper look. There were three or four things that happened to me as a writer. One was this idea of process, which I got probably from the air, but certainly from writers like Oppen — certainly from the conversations about style at the time from people working in groups of poems, not just the women writers at the time, and thinking about the ways that ideas inspire poems. It suddenly seemed really interesting that you could get a lot of ideas into a poem. I had to get rid of the idea of tidying up the poem or making it pretty clear and clean and readable at the first run — towards the assembled, the messy, in a way, which meant bringing different — I just think of levels of being. So, you asked about the serial poem. I started thinking, you don’t have to finish a poem in one swipe; you can take a decade to work through an idea or a kind of sound.
GM: In going through the books, I thought a lot about HD, how she started out as an Imagist but ended up trying to write poems that would never end, really. What happens to the practice of image-making with the seriality? What does it cultivate and facilitate with the writing process itself?
BH: What happened to the image?
BH: I can relate a lot to HD, though line-by-line I prefer some of the other Modernist writers … As to the sort of cleaner, tidier notion of making the metaphor, making figurative language stand for things, I’ve probably had a kind of confused, bifurcated relationship to that. Or maybe it was trifurcated; I love sensation and perception in poetry. I fell in love — probably simultaneously in 1970 — with Romantic poetry, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and of course Modernism, including surrealism of the 1920s. I thought there was no reason one couldn’t do all those things in a poem — perception, philosophy and weird dreamscapes. I didn’t turn to poetry so some authority could tell me what not to do. The image in my poetry is always going to represent something in the world, the idea that it’s symbolic of some other state (that a sort of Baudelairian notion) and a more free-floating thing, maybe abstract or purely artful; as a Modernist you admire and worship art and imagination, and as a postmodernist you make fun of it! [BH and GM laugh] So I probably want to have a scoop of all four flavors: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and what’s the fourth? I dunno. Rocky Road.
GM: Your poems hearken out British Romanticism quite a bit. What happens in the image when you talk about birds that are so particular that they’re grounded more in the natural flora and fauna than in literary archetype. British Romanticism was profound in building an iconic nightingale. But you’re writing about buffleheads —
BH: like Oreos —
GM: I googled buffleheads, and I thought, “oh it actually looks like an Oreo!”
BH: I know, I know.
GM: It was purely visual.
BH: It’s totally an Oreo. It’s a reverse Oreo.
GM: What’s the compulsion behind that — and the hope behind using binomial names and very particular birds, and the native flora and fauna of California for your writing?
BH: The French tradition has gone away from the particular into the much more symbolic and large — you know, René Char going “bird, flower.” I love René Char; as an environmental writer — and as a poet with a passion for local experience, bioregional experience — I really like names from and relationships to a land or native species, or non-native species. The idea that you can learn those names as a sort of brief touchstone, whether they’re the absolute names or not, is moving to me. I know that there’s more than one name for a bufflehead. I use the Latin names, or the binomial names, in part, because I think the textures of them are so beautiful. So it’s a way of being in love with the language and the specificity of the world. We want to be more in love with language, not less.
GM: So what happens to California itself when you’re writing about this? It is a project. There are different epicenters for each one of these books, and Cascadia is very much geographic. What happens to California through this?
BH: I had been working on Loose Sugar, which is essentially inspired by alchemical thinking, sex and war. I started working on “A Geology,” a poem about landscape and addiction; it was the first poem I worked on in Cascadia; the metaphor stuck. Consciousness is really like California geology. I thought geology was a great figure for the mind. It seemed to be an excellent figure for how one lives in relation to this culture — cracked, broken and beautiful. Then I thought, I’m just going to work on the four elements in California, in a kind of modernist-postmodernist way. It seemed like a big stretch-your-wings thing to do. Cascadia and Seasonal Works are the most entirely Californian. Pieces of Air is a fairly international book.
GM: Why would you say that?
BH: Many were begun or written in Europe, though there’s a lot of reference to California. And then Practical Water’s probably about half and half. The first section is definitely more international. The others are less so, based in…well, the second section is based in Congress [BH and GM laugh]
GM: Which is a country unto itself.
BH: A country unto itself, its own isolated craziness. And the third section of Practical Water is heavenly, with the moon, and the fourth section is very California. I tried to keep a bioregional, whole conversation of ecopoetics. I was hoping to tie together the world and California in that way.
GM: Speaking of bioregion, one of the figures who shows up again and again is Wallace Stevens. One of the things that’s really interesting to me is that Stevens has a very idiosyncratic sense of place. His New Haven is at once the New Haven he always knew and also this kind of fabulous, fantastic thing. What about Stevens and his place in this project?
BH: It seems to me he is always having a quarrel between his Romantic nature, his abstract nature and his love of place versus sheer music and that is one of my quarrels too. A poem like “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” — he loved Keats and emotion and words for their own sake. So he did want the particular to stand for something else. “The River or Rivers in Connecticut” — that poem itself could take place anywhere. It’s a very mythical stance that he takes but it’s also Connecticut. I feel this impulse too — I want the place to be some place you can go to and recognize, but also have the place be inner, other and very abstract.
GM: In “Hydrology of California,” what happens when you see Stevens’ fire-fangled bird as water? What happens to that bird when you do that?
BH: Well, I make hopeful conversations with my darlings, my dead darlings and my living darlings. That’s an environmental poem that’s not so friendly at times. It’s a poem about dams and watersheds, and it’s really questioning water politics in California and a kind of drastic thing that’s happening to our state, which is not governed by poets, unfortunately. I was sort of hoping to write what a contemporary woman can now say about this mythic sense of reality, of water or a river. It was very much a local, fragment-collage about the state of dams and rivers.
GM: And then there’s that poem “Pacific Ocean” where there’s that roll call of women poets. Is there a difference when you name? And also, you’re underscoring, thoughtfully, the gendered aspects within politics and poetry. What happens when you name all these people and tell them not to throw themselves into the water? What happens when you call your dead darlings, your dead female darlings, your dead sisters?
BH: There are several ways of calling them back in — I mean, in a literary sense, the character is the poet and multiple speakers, a character and a group of characters, when you have pronouns like that. So the Brenda speaking in that poem is really in relation to saving the idea of literary women from annihilation. It’s not that this equals that, in symbolic terms. I don’t write poems that are driven that much by my personality but rather by a collective soul. The I among you. Or the you, the various yous.
GM: A poem can do that, I guess, right?
BH: Oh yeah. It’s the usefulness of influence, and the necessity of influence. The hope that your ancestors will ballast, will hold, consciousness for you.
GM: When an animist world is mentioned in Seasonal Works, you can recognize it latent in the first three books, but it fully manifests the world of Seasonal Works. It feels like the poems are doing that. How does that work with the Blake and Keats? You thank Blake and Keats first in your dedication list. Why them first on that list?
BH: There’s some way in which that sense of inhabitedness, whether it’s the gods, or, for Keats, maybe something he’s bringing from German Romanticism. Blake brings it from his crazy Protestant renegade strangeness. He’s bringing this disinhabitedness. For me, it was very important to speak to that non-human inhabitedness that we’re always accompanied by. It felt like a big salvation at one point.
GM: For you?
BH: Yeah, not only in childhood, but all the way along. When the human condition gets very oppressive it seems as if there’s this outlying, other, animating presence in things. I was just trying to talk to a friend about this, and he was saying, “are you saying it’s outside your mind?” I don’t know. I don’t know what matter is. I don’t know what consciousness is. But my sense that you can live with an animated presence — you know what I mean?
GM: Yeah, and I think, in that sense it feels like only in an animist world, in an animated world, can you have those practical miracles you bring up in what you call your “minifesto.” One of the things that I really like in reading the tetralogy is that although each book is focused on an element, it’s impossible to talk about one element without talking about another one. You really can’t spotlight just one. They’re inextricable in some ways. What was it like reveling in the inextricability of the elements while you were writing through the projects of the books?
BH: The thing that I can liken it to more, most usefully, is like having a crush in 10th grade. Except I had four crushes. On the four elements. Oh, there’s water, my new love. You know when you fixate on somebody and you’re just thinking about them? You’re like, “oooh there’s water in this [picks up glass], there’s some over there [points at the brick wall], you know? Ok, now I shall turn my attention to … it just seemed more fun.” But you’re absolutely right, and you’re a great reader in the sense that you can’t separate the elements. They blend in these books. There are probably more of all the elements in the fire book. My little assignment to myself was to get the element in each poem for each book.
GM: The fact that there are more of the elements in the fire book coincides with this great moment when the elements become seasons. Would you talk about when “season” jockeys its way into the title?
BH: Joyce would call them epiphanies, where something just flashes. Bob [Hass] and I were taking a little trip down the coast about five years ago. I’ve always been obsessed with the fact that daily life is lived in micro-seasons in California. We walk — I walked down Stuart street today, and I thought, that’s exactly this moment, the second week of October, where this happens, and it’s in this that a fire danger is most acute, and in two more weeks it will be colder and crisper, and more moist. So noticing the micro-seasons became a kind of environmentally interesting thing, but also, I guess, something about, how to say this — so we were driving. We saw some pumpkins out in the field. I thought about what they were thinking, the pumpkins. It wasn’t that, okay, cartoonish thought, but I was thinking, there’s all this other experience of the plants and animals, rocks, dirt, the things that humans are actually not inhabiting — it has nothing to do with my experience. It just bloomed like some great, some weird magical thing. It seemed like, oh, this consciousness is so outside my own.
GM: What did your sense of seasonal time, circular, seasonal time, do for you with the idea of writing serially?
BH: It’s like Penelope’s fabric project. She was weaving and undoing it not only to create something, but to avoid doing a lot of other things. In a weaving the threads keep coming back, in part because we live in time, obviously. You are visiting these places and then refreshing them with each insight and with sensual detail and with each thought. I’m thinking of Charles Altieri’s work on emotion and detail; poets have to work with emotion and refresh it.
GM: That’s hard, right?
BH: Yeah. But not if you go deep enough, right?
GM: Go deep enough into what?
BH: Go deep enough into the weirdness of existence and the perception of it. If you look under, or in the lining of, or in the heart of each perception and each emotion, it’s just way more interesting than anything you’ve ever thought of without having done that. There is never anything without something else. If you accompany perception with emotion, you get extra gradations, tentacles, things in conflict with each other. When I was thinking about the pumpkins, as a site of existence, I thought they have these really orderly eyes inside of them, with the integuments just holding them in a particular order. It is a pleasure to transfer the weight of your intelligence to a tangible place other than yourself, instead of where you are with your misery or, you know, whatever compulsion for something you have to do. This sort of detail fills me with pleasure.
GM: You start off the new book by saying, “between earth and its noun there’s a fire.” You’re really persistent and insistent on reminding us that words are material. If the letters are on fire in this book, one way that they can be on fire is that they’re matter. Why does thinking about the materiality of this world, the weirdness of this world, push you to increasingly insist on working with words as things to be heard and things to be touched, things to be seen?
BH: I’m not exactly sure if it’s a perceptual thing or a brain dysfunction, or a brain good-function! They may all be mixed. Like many writers, I am in love with the physical features of the alphabet and with words. Do you ever look out and feel like you’re seeing letters all over the place because we are people who work with letters? Or numbers, or something like that? Ok, looking at the bricks right there. All Ls. It’s all upside down Ls, all backward Ls, and it’s not just the ones that are supporting that perception, but the ones that are incipient. Like they’re hovering, waiting to be there. I was thinking about Walter Benjamin’s essay on the language as such, where he has this sense of language pressing —
GM: I don’t know that one.
BH: Oh, it’s a great essay. You’d love it. I think it’s weirdly Romantic — like De Quincey. The mystical sense of language and the emanation of language and what is here in daily life seem to me really in conversation with each other all the time. Maybe it comes back to Gnosticism, which, I now think I’m a Gnostic in recovery. I’m not a Gnostic, really, in that I don’t think matter is “fallen” from some previously better state, though the shabbiness of some forms of matter is fascinating to me.
GM: It was just a catalyst for you in some sorts?
BH: Well, the Gnostic sense that there’s a Being, of recognizing that it’s a limited state that limits other possible larger states. That’s the way in which I guess Gnosticism has always interested me, like a Taoist sense of isness and not-isness. There’s something about material that seems not an entrapment but a limitation, compared to the vastness of the pre-anything. But yeah, language going back and forth between this symbolic state and the material state seems to me a really cool spark across this chasm.
GM: Somewhere at the beginning of Practical Water, you baldly state: “What does it mean to live a moral life?” Ever since White Dress it’s been clear that question is a primary concern of yours, but it feels like at this point in your writing career this question gets unearthed anew. I was just curious as to what you’ve learned about that question through all these books.
BH: It seems as if one of the questions of our time in the arts, in relation to the arts, is, “What use is it?” Some see the life of writing as very pure and apart and not in the same discussion as other kinds of things that might have to do with ethical behavior. Writing — especially poetry — is an anarchic activity, but the life of writing can’t really be separate from your other activities. I’ve had a kind of haphazard activist practice for the last decade, much more so than in the ’80s, when I started thinking about this tetralogy — and it doesn’t always feel apart from poetic practice. Being a writer is not necessarily a moral thing to do. In some fundamental ways it’s amoral. You’re really outside of ethics, necessity, or normative behaviors, or anything like that, but at the same time you can’t really leave out other kinds of consciousness when you’re writing poetry — it gets too compartmentalized. It doesn’t seem to me, I dunno, a good idea to leave them out. I’m almost always thinking about poetry no matter what I do. Always. Almost always. If I’m with a group of people, I think, “I wonder where poetry fits into this.” Or, “Are they thinking about poetry?” Or, “Have they ever read this poetry?” Or, “What if I made some reference to Wallace Stevens, would they even know who that is?”
GM: What happens with those Ls that you saw in the bricks when you’re in this activist or politically engaged environment? What happens to that?
BH: If you get out in the street or away from your desk, you can’t leave out your engagement with language. That doesn’t mean your poetry will make any difference whatsoever. Poetry will not bring about the revolution that is needed now. But when people finally rise up, they may have poems in their pockets. I don’t think it’s a good idea for a poet to forget about language — and there’s so much terrible polemical political writing. But at the same time, poetic consciousness is pretty useful when you’re doing most things — living in uncertainty and doubt and paradox and dream. By “useful” I don’t mean in a utilitarian way. I mean just as a strategy of being, of keeping you loose and keeping you from going crazy. [GM and BH laugh] That’s what I mean by use.
GM: Stave off dementia.
BH: Right. Stave off being a nut. A total nut. I go, oh yeah, language!
GM: For yourself or for the reader? Or for both?
BH: For both. Poets are sort of sharpening this sense of engagement with sound or with this meaning space that symbolic language gives. That’s one thing we can offer. It’s more like an offering than a necessity. What it means to live a moral life has to do with just living more completely or more fully in language, in sense, in sensation and idea. To be sure, writing a poem or reading one does not change a system of government or economic system.
GM: So this — the poem as respite from, you would say, a world of impoverished language, is what you would say…
BH: Cliché. Or holding the cliché up as a mirror for the readers to say, “We can refresh this language.” But also refreshing perception, refreshing what reality is, enlivening it for people. It’s not automatically moral to do that. I don’t think that’s the case. But certainly one of the interesting things about the life of a writer is that beauty or interest or passion for language can alleviate certain things about the human condition. That is very different from saying a poem accomplishes anything in a political sense.
GM: Is there a poet whom you have read or are currently reading who enacts that kind of work, from whom you get that sort of offering?
BH: Vallejo’s been really important for me lately. Unfortunately I can only read the poetry in translation. I have a little Portuguese but it doesn’t cross over as much to the Spanish. I love Vallejo’s sense of invoking matters of justice for his people while going across the different vocabularies in a lateral way. Not just because he was actually politically active himself — he really lived it. In the same way, I was reading Césaire for a while during the Occupy movement.
These poets lived the passionate distress of their time and revolutionized language. For several decades I’ve been inspired by the poets defined by Rexroth’s anarchist San Francisco group from the ’40s to the ’60s, and in a different sense, by Barbara Guest, who had no interest in writing politically but who engaged a lot with questions about the spiritual life of the artist.
GM: We talked earlier about what you hope to do in a singular poem. You talked about wanting to be able to get all these levels of knowledge into one piece. Could you talk about those levels of knowledge? Are they the sensory, the perceptual — is that what you’re talking about?
BH: Yeah. The sense of the invisible or philosophical realm that is always with us, that most people carry around in their day. I think that people have a lot on their minds as they’re walking along, not just the sensations, or the longing for sensation, or the emotional wilderness that a lot of us live in. We call it, okay, love or hunger, or I’m sad because my dog died, or something like that. But there are all these tentacles of a particular emotion. That seems to me a wilderness that’s interesting to explore, perception, weights of language, kinds of philosophical things that we tote around from childhood. Many like myself had parents with very strong views of things; my parents are very inspiring with their strong convictions. When I was growing up in Tucson, they gave me something to push against as my ideas formed from experiences that were quite different from theirs.
GM: When you talked about people walking around always already having deep ideas and emotions, I think — here’s my Luddite coming out — things like Twitter and Facebook capitalize on and exploit that. Everybody always has something to say. Now, it’s highly conventionalized in a way. You can only say certain things, and you’re supposed to participate in certain conversations. How is poetry a way to mine the dailiness of the mind?
BH: Bob and I were just at a conference that had as its huge topic “daily life and spirituality.” We were talking about poetry in relation to that. For one thing, how perception refreshes the moment, making the particular so strange. It might be a Brechtian notion, where you actually have to alienate a thing or a feeling just slightly in order to really see what it is. Every single moment is so strange. There’s so much experience in every single moment. It’s practically unmanageable how much there is in an hour. So, yeah, as you say, conventionalizing it is distressing in some way. Most real experience cannot go on Facebook. It would be too unbearable. A friend posted on Facebook yesterday about a death and people said kind of semi-consoling things — bromides, you know. The real experience of her loss couldn’t possibly be anywhere near that medium. It has a light presence sometimes. I use that kind of medium for posting notices and making updates about events more than for things of substance.
GM: I have it as well, and I use it. Absolutely.
BH: I use it too, or post grouchy things on Twitter, but real experience is this impossible, rich thing, and that’s why I turn to poetry. A Wallace Stevens poem for instance. Or a conversation face to face.
GM: Talking about your daily experiences: something that crops up here and there through the books are the ideas of trance and automatic writing. There are a couple mentions of hypnosis, and when you keep on talking about Yeats and you keep on talking about trance, I always think about that grand project, that grand forgotten project of A Vision. This hierophant-like idea. Could you talk about how that works in your poems?
BH: Trance and hypnosis has brought a lot more layering to my poetry. Around 1980, I started doing Jungian trance-therapy, with a couple of practitioners. The woman in the couple who died was the woman in Death Tractates. I worked with them for a lot of years. And she died. Then I worked with him. Then I learned to do it for myself. Basically it’s like being able to be in a dream state and have access to that, if you really dedicate yourself to it as a practice. It’s quite different from meditation, although meditation, especially guided meditation, could have some aspects of it. Trance therapy frees the image in a very unpredictable and a very uncontrolled way. Kristin Prevalet has just published some wonderful essays about it; I’ve written a little about it too and hope to write more about my experiences of these states. It’s just the oddness of the image and the oddness of the dream state and that the waking dream state can be accessible that way. It’s a very good tool for poets because we need to be rational to function in the world but most of the time our souls are elsewhere. I will have to go to my car, then I will go to this, then I will do that. It’s so sequential, and the dream state, the trance state, is very, for want of a better term, mythic, where you encounter characters just like you do in dreams — in layers.
GM: There’s one well-populated group of poetry that would ostensibly seem much more tied to that: the absurd, the film reel of juxtaposed images. You’re talking about how this frees up the image, but your images very much come from acts of perception. What happens between pointed perceptive tenors and the insistence on these freed images?
BH: There is a kind of crossing over. My images have always fetched a lot from surrealism because of my early affinities and readings in the ’60s and ’70s. My first poetry teacher in college, Ed Germain, encouraged me to trust these states and to read the good surrealists not the flip, lightweight ones. Those dreamy states happen to be how a lot of consciousness works, kind of a fugue with lots of motifs: the freedom to be very flexible with the image, or go wild with it. There’s the kind of “logic of the dream into a completely abstract place” like Jack Spicer that’s another version of it. What I have mainly gotten from it is a sense of the, I don’t know, the vastness of what we’re supplied with — how much of everything living there is. It is a gift from this unknown quantity in yourself or in your mind.
GM: So you’re a gift-bearer, then.
BH: Or something.
GM: You bring it to someone else.
BH: I would like to. I hope people get inspired by that, at least the flexibility, a spiritual flexibility.
GM: Inspired for what, or to do what, in what ways?
BH: To, I don’t know, to live with more acceptance toward more forms of reality, not just human ones, but also the plant-animal worlds, and, certainly, in the political sense, to know that it’s not all binary systems — that there are gradations to reality. And yet at the same time, not to accept what is unbearable, when we can do something about those things — to resist the unbearable, not necessarily calmly or sweetly. However, you’re bringing a more nuanced sense of reality, right behavior is less clear-cut. [BH laughs] It leaves a little more leeway, flexibility. It’s to be hoped there’s, I don’t know — for more beautiful and just existence for more people and creatures and plants — that there is more here to be seen and sensed. The suffering of earth and its creatures obviously comes out of lots of things other than lack of poetry. [BH laughs] It comes from economic brutality and ignorance and greed. Poetry won’t correct any of the greed, but some of the things poetry can do might accompany the human spirit, I think, in such profound ways that it can’t be ruled out.
GM: If only for — you need a breather, right?
BH: And aesthetic passion for these ways of being real in so many different other zones—while we think about the fake conversations about the debt ceiling, when the whole global capitalist economic system is profoundly corrupt. Poetic skills exist so outside the realm of what really controls us on a rational level. If the unconscious governs even the criminals in the banks, the skills of poetry — at least to bring us to other states — may not be that useless. It’s just that we need many forms of action in addition to poetry. [BH laughs]
GM: I would like to end by seeing if there is anything you’d like to talk about in tying up? Is there any stone I left unturned?
BH: Well, we started talking a little bit about the Romantics — freedom of form, freedom of content, is what I got even as far back as Schiller and German romanticism. We are very lucky; it’s just a brilliantly amazing time for poetry when you can think about the Romantic tradition in light of postmodernist practice.
GM: What tenets do you find particularly useful or important or immensely capable for our time? What parts of Romantic practice can poets and readers today greatly benefit from?
BH: It seems the same ideals are at the root of all ideals and hopes about art — not just poetry. The freedom to express as still fundamental to everyone’s rights to be a human creature — the expressive freedom and the formal freedom — this is something, after the French Revolution, the poets brought forward. From Blake obviously opening the doors of perception of what is, that whole idea. Keats gave us the sense of being able to go outside of that isolated and terrified ego into the other. John Clare enacting, not talking as, a badger. Dickinson and Whitman as American Romantics. All the Modernists take up these ideals of freedom in their own ways and then after that … I was just teaching Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay again — many of those tenets are there — expressive freedom, make your own form and don’t deny the content. Even documentary poetry, where the language is collective, does not obviate the presence and importance of attentive consciousness. A principle like negative capability allows you to enter into another form or to enter into another. So that may be the main thing poetry can give us — an idea of a sort of linguistic freedom that vitalizes and revitalizes culture in such a profound way. It’s an idea that still feeds the arts on an ongoing basis. I just hope people keep poetry in their lives. I wish there were more of it.
Gerald Maa is an editor-in-chief of the Asian American Literary Review.