Brenda Hillman has published more than ten collections of poetry, all from Wesleyan University Press. In five of her most recent collections, Extra Hidden Life, Among the Days (2018); Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (2013); Practical Water (2009), Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), and Cascadia (2001), each book receives her ‘sustained attention’ to one the natural elements. A Publishers Weekly starred review of Extra Hidden Life, Among the Days elucidates, “Having written four previous books each addressing one of the four traditional elements of nature, she considers wood as a fifth element, making her hieroglyphic way through ‘forests of grief’ as might one of the book’s beloved beetles, ‘pressing/ their whole jeweled bodies/ in the beauty of the bark.’ Neither simply empirical nor transcendental, Hillman’s poetry takes what she calls ‘woodmind’—a sort of deep attention to natural processes—and applies it to notions of human action, recollection, imagination, and craft.” Her most recent collection, In a Few Minutes Before Later (2022), is her third book about time.
Practical Water won the LA Times Book Award for Poetry. Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire received the International Griffin Poetry Prize for 2014, as well as the Northern California Book Award for Poetry and the California Book Award Gold Medal in Poetry. Dean Rader wrote, “Seasonal Works With Letters On Fire is a profoundly humane work. In language that moves from the chatty to the experimental to the heightened to the rhetorical, Hillman shows us once again that poetry is itself a tireless worker, always on our behalf.”
Hillman is also the author of the collections Loose Sugar (1997), Bright Existence (1993), Death Tractates (1992), Fortress (1989), and White Dress (1985), and three chapbooks Coffee, 3 A.M. (Penumbra Press, 1982), Autumn Sojourn (Em Press, 1995), and The Firecage (a+bend press, 2000). Hillman has edited an edition of Emily Dickinson’s poetry for Shambhala Publications, and, with Patricia Dienstfrey, co-edited The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (2003). She co-translated, with Diallah Haidar, Poems from Above the Hill: Selected Poems of Ashur Etwebi, one of Libya’s most significant poets. In 2010 she co-translated Jeongrye Choi’s book of poems, Instances, released by Parlor Press. With Helen Hillman and Sebastião Macedo, she has translated At Your Feet by Brazilian poet Ana Cristina Cesar, published by Parlor Press/Free Verse Editions in 2018.
In 2016 Hillman was named Academy of American Poets Chancellor. Among other awards Hillman has received are the 2012 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the 2005 William Carlos Williams Prize for poetry, and Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.
Included in their list of “50 of the Most Inspiring Authors in the World,” Poets & Writers states, “[Hillman] reminds us that the language we use when ordering a sandwich is also the language we use to make art. Her environmental concerns prove writers can offer more than just aesthetic pleasure.” Hillman has been increasingly interested in the innovative and experimental lyric traditions, particularly in how the Romantic concepts of nature and spirit have manifested in contemporary ecological and political poetry. In her essay entitled “Split, Spark, and Space,” Hillman writes about the emergence of different kinds of lyric impulses in her writing: “The sense of a single ‘voice’ in poetry grew to include polyphonies, oddly collective dictations, and the process of writing itself. This happened in part because of a rediscovered interest in esoteric western tradition and in part because I came to a community of women who were writing in exploratory forms….A poetic method which had heretofore been based on waiting for insight suddenly had to accommodate process, and indeterminate physics, a philosophy of detached looking.”
Hillman is the Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California, where she teaches in the undergraduate and graduate programs. She is also a member of the permanent faculties of Napa Valley Writers’ Conference and of Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Hillman is also involved in non-violent activism for social and environmental justice. She is married to poet Robert Hass.