MORAGA -- Brenda Hillman is like her poems -- surreptitiously wild, wordy and replete with surprising confessions.
"I'm obsessed with lichen," the 63-year-old Berkeley resident and Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry at Saint Mary's College confides. Seated in her office on the Moraga campus in front of a towering, floor-to-ceiling backdrop of books, she says, "It's unusual, but lichen's exactly like poetry. It's subtle, it's found everywhere -- the metaphors are endless."
And so too, it appears, is Hillman's appetite for the literary form she says chose her. Ever since her childhood in the vast, unpredictable spaces of Tucson, Ariz., the pairing of natural elements and human forces -- random sounds and the debris of politics, moonbeams and maternal love -- have captured her attention. Hillman has explored those dualities in a recently completed tetralogy published by Wesleyan University Press: "Cascadia" (2001), "Pieces of Air in the Epic" (2005), "Practical Water" (2009) and "Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire" (2013). Her poetry and other works have won her a Pulitzer Prize nomination, numerous awards (Bay Area Book Reviewer's Award, California Book Gold Medal Award and others) and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America.
She says the truest review of her writing and aspirations would describe her as an explorer.
"Both inner and outer exploration. I'm a rule breaker," she says. "I don't believe in boxes, aesthetically."
But she does subscribe to investigating structures. Drawn to the foment of Romanticism and the fieriness of the French Revolution, society's industrial turn during the early 20th century and postmodernism's propensity for mashing expressive traditions into experimental forms influence her poems. Hillman's poetry resembles the architecture of wind: an ancient element that follows strict rules and patterns, yet is ever-shifting, uncontrolled, occasionally stormy.
Rising at 4:30 a.m., she writes for two hours. "No one is going to call you at that time," she says. In the home she shares with her husband, poet Robert Hass, she whispers the poems aloud, listening for a skip or a phrase that falls flat.
"I write with pencil on little half sheets. I revise a poem a hundred times, recopying it until there are hardly any changes. Then I type it into the computer and let it marinate for a few months before sending it off to a magazine."
All the while, she's thinking about shape, visualizing the margins and whether or not letters or words will parade uniformly, or scatter themselves like leaves across the page. Occasionally, tiny photos are embedded like miniature tiles or yearbook photos, large enough to suggest, but rarely explicit. White space is enormously valuable. "Language doesn't fail us," she says, "but the silence of empty space is its sister and contributes."
Hillman says her ideal readers run the gamut, but she favors those who enjoy deep immersion in words and their meanings.
"I want all my subjects to be obvious, with odd, spiritual perceptions bringing radical voice to people who've never thought about grief or joy in relation to a pine tree," she says. "I want them to read without racking their brains -- and I want poets who are experienced readers, too."
Indeed, it's possible to simply enjoy Hillman's playful consideration of a word -- "the word edge has wings made of 'e', " from her most recent collection -- or to contemplate for an afternoon "Gravity has to practice," from "Cascadia," and " ... each poem is based on a reverberation between magic and suffering," in an essay comparing a poem to shared custody of a child, in a book on poetics and motherhood, "The Grand Permission."
"I always feel satisfied that language in some form may not be the immediate language, but it always makes me happy," she says. Moments later, speaking of the tetralogy's final book, she says, "What I relearned was an ancient way of writing: every poem should tell the reader everything you know. I wanted it to be like a really good caramel, not a marshmallow. You can chew on them a long time and they're satisfying."
Leading the MFA program at Saint Mary's, Hillman says students are unleashed by playing with "slippery metaphors." Undergraduates are assigned to write one poem every day and read it in the next day's class; she says the practice allowed relief for spiritual doubts they harbored and exclaims, delightedly, "Young men from the kinesiology department wrote amazing ecopoems."
Having completed her tetralogy, Hillman hints she may not be finished. Poetry traditions in Asian cultures, she suggests, smiling slyly, often have fifth components.