Poetry Assistant Iris Dunkle penned this profile.
Returning to our faculty this year is the highly esteemed poet, Brenda Hillman. Hillman has been on the faculty at Napa Valley Writers’ Conference for over two decades and anyone who has had the distinct pleasure of working with her in a workshop setting has left with a revised vision of his or her poetic world.
Hillman’s poetic energy is elemental and her multidimensional lyrics nestle out from the valley floor of life like illuminant hyacinths. In them she moves effortlessly from the daily of our lives toward spiritual epiphany. One sees evidence of this progression in “After a Very Long and Difficult Day” (from her newest collection Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire), which begins by addressing a speaker in the seemingly mundane setting of family meal. “You talk to your loved ones /at night. It is a kind of modernism:/ color sees into you, thinks a warm/ path, a tint of meaning brought /from how you feel.” From this “modernism” emerges the speaker’s double life: the seen and the unseen toils and dreams that populate a human mind. Hillman turns back to nature as the means in which to explain this duplicity: “the moon rests in a mantle/of minutes, its boundaries in back/of the trees. Boundaries/are known by their nothings—;/you will be known by your dreams.”
Hillman’s ninth collection of poetry, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (2013), which was longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry, was the fourth of a tetralogy in which each book thematically addressed an element. These works included: Practical Water (2011), Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), and Cascadia (2001). Hillman’s earlier collection Loose Sugar (1997) was a finalist for National Book Critic’s Circle Award and Bright Existence (1993) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Hillman’s other collections include Death Tractates (1992); Fortress (1989); and White Dress (1985). Her poems have also been collected in three chapbooks: The Firecage (2000); Autumn Sojourn (1995); and Coffee, 3 A.M. (1982).
Hillman was born in Tucson, Arizona, in 1951. She was educated at Pomona College and received her M.F.A. at the University of Iowa. She has received numerous awards, including the 2005 William Carlos Williams Prize for poetry and fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Poetry Society of America. She holds the Olivia Filippi Chair in Poetry at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California.