An Interview with Brenda Hillman on Teaching Poetry


Yanara Friedland is a German-American writer, translator, and teacher. Yanara will be teaching a six week course at the Poetry Center beginning November 7th entitled, Writing at the Threshold: Poetic Practices in Encounter and also teaches for the Poetry Center's Writing Your Community program.

Brenda and I begin our conversation with a walk. The walk is a poem about the eastside Tucson neighborhood that she grew up in. A changing rectangle that she would walk with her father through the years, somewhere between Wilmot, Speedway and 5th, which back in the 1950s was the edge of town, full of dirt roads. Her description of the walk prompts me to recollect my own strolls this summer through the place of my birth, Berlin, where I revisited the Tiergarten frequently, one of my earliest memories. A place she has been to herself several years ago.

"There is in both of these cities a freedom," she exclaims: "I felt that growing up in Tucson there is nothing that the soul couldn’t do here."

It is not surprising that our conversation dwells here, early places of learning, Tucson, Berlin, and poetry as a way to return to our original sensibilities. 

Who were your teachers?

I always say the great dead. I taught myself from an early age about poetry just by reading. So, I would say my earliest teacher was probably the Tucson library on the Eastside, all the books my parents gave me, my friends, and of course the desert.  The non-human world itself was my teacher, the profound relationship to the spirit of the desert and whatever power it has to speak non-verbally. Then, in Tucson's public schools I had excellent language teachers. All the Iowa teachers were important, but I was also pushing against the received canon when I was there. When I moved to the Bay area I learned so much from that literary community, which has been the biggest teacher since Tucson. And I constantly learn from Bob Hass—as a companion rather than as a teacher. So the living, the dead, the books, and plant life.

What do you feel teaching poetry is about?

I think of it as radical, in the sense of going back to one’s first sensibility, getting you to remember the transformative experiences from childhood and the imagination in the world in relationship to language, which we all get trained out of as we become socialized. I think of it as a radical act to have people recall what they were like before they became "normal." In that way all of my literature classes and creative writing classes are aimed at recovering a kind of imagination that was original, and to keep socializing it. It's about getting the group and community together into a classroom or any kind of writing circle and to feed each other. So much good writing happens in relation to what you have read or something somebody said to you. It's not only a private act; it's very social. Another component is just to give the right literature or writing to people. When my grad students come to me and they are stuck on something, I will say, I know the book you need to read, something that might be transformative.  I think my teachers did that to some extent and then I had to search out my own afterwards.

Is there an example you could give about how you cultivate this return to some original sensibility, which seems so essential to me.

For one thing, in any draft of a poem of anybody whose mind is active in her writing, you can see how she have made the writing into a kind of convention.  Something that isn't as fresh and more a series of gestures. It will be in a syntactic moment or in an image, the truly important idea, what the person really wants to say will always push through though on some level. It can be semi deadened for a while, but then it always pushes through. It may just be an adjective, and I will ask that person to go into that adjective more, or it will be a syntactic disturbance that is not characteristic of what seems to be gestural in the poem. There is so much writing that sounds purely like the various conventions of the time. People writing in these tropes, whereas real writing occurs at the edges of tropes which is also the center of something else, not yet announced. I am always on the hunt for that.

What do you teach that is not directly poetry but alongside it, unspoken even?

It's very important to integrate what poetry offers as values, ways of being alive, and to understand writing as not being this separate rarefied thing. Writing and activism, writing and parenting, writing and working at your job, writing and grieving, they are all talking to each other. Not that writing is a substitute for, say, activism, and poetry is not a substitute for protest and organizing, but it's a comrade. A series of habits that have to do with unpredictability and spontaneity and freedom. Maybe we both had this in our childhoods, an original space that we can still seek. These ways of being end up being portable though. I feel I carry Tucson everywhere I go, habits of life that are important. It is really possible to be self loving and to generate a lot of magical acts for yourself and to also be a stern critic, so that you are writing your best possible. Be free to generate but also be critical and ask yourself in that last draft, do I really want this to be in the world?  Then to go back and keep working, working, working. A pairing that is important in life as well. This is something I try to convey to my students. 35 years of  teaching and I still think it's the best job. It is so hopeful!