Brenda Hillman’s Remarks at the Northern California Book Reviewers Ceremony

The author of eleven volumes of poetry, including most recently, In a Few Minutes Before Later,Brenda Hillman has won numerous awards, such as the William Carlos Williams Prize, plus fellowships from Guggenheim Foundation and the Academy of American Poets. A longtime teacher at Saint Mary’s College in California, she is also a translator and has also been a non-violent activist with the Code Pink Working Group in the San Francisco Bay Area. Born in Tucson, Arizona, and educated at Pomona College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has been published by Wesleyan University Press since 1985, and is the editor of The Pocket Emily Dickinson from Shambala Publications. Fred Cody, whose name graces the award that Hillman received on September 30, founded Cody’s Books in Berkeley in 1956. He and his wife, Pat, operated the store for decades, nurtured Bay Area writers and aided and abetted authors of literary and political manifestos. 

Brenda Hillman: On Receiving the Fred Cody Lifetime Achievement Award:

When I read Joyce [Jenkin’s] email informing me of this honor, Bob [Hass] and I were watching our miserable Giants tank for the umpteenth time and my first thought was, lifetime achievement? How did it get to be so late! It’s all been a blur since the All Star Break!

Thank you to the Committee for including me on the list with amazing writers who have won the Fred Cody Lifetime Achievement Award. Cody’s Books was such a major institution, both as a gathering place and as a safe haven. Malcolm Margolin has written that Berkeley “provided all the necessary conditions for a flourishing literary scene…a diversity of independent bookstores to support locally produced books, a major university that supplied readers…and a diverse population hungry to explore rapidly evolving concepts of race, ethnicity, and gender.”

When I arrived in the Bay Area nearly fifty years ago, a hopelessly introverted but fairly plucky paisley-dressed 24-year old poet, I was terrified by Berkeley. I moved here to be with Leonard Michaels, a fiction writer who taught at U.C. Berkeley; we married and within a short time I was working at a bookstore myself, raising a blended family, trying to write. No cell phones. When the car broke down you walked to a phone booth. The baby got over three-dozen ear infections in three-years. People were quitting cigarettes & jogging at the same time. People were hosting competing dinner parties, serving fondue in copper pots with sled-like handles, talking about [Jacques] Derrida.

What saved me—what has saved so many of us—was the life of writing: magical, packed, infinite, confusing. Here in the Bay Area, there were the colliding vivid literary histories: San Francisco and Renaissance poetry, Black Arts movement, City Lights. Josephine Miles lived on Virginia Street and Robert Duncan and Thom Gunn in San Francisco. Lyn Hejinian, Ishmael Reed, and Al Young in the East Bay. Maxine Hong Kingston published Woman Warrior in 1976. Julia Vinograd walked on Telegraph in a long dress holding poems aloft. Seamus Heaney visited frequently. Jack Shoemaker at Sand Dollar books handed me a pale-yellow chapbook by Leslie Scalapino featuring the letter O. Jack Spicer, Language poetry, punk rock, Norma Cole translating French poets. Poetry Flash provided a monthly treasure trove of events. Thank you to the goddess, Joyce Jenkins & to Richard Silberg. Patricia Dienstfrey and I often spoke about the excitement of women’s new presses: Kelsey Street Press, Shameless Hussy Press and However magazine.

Life as a young working mother was really hard. Struggling with many things, I was drawn to metaphors from ancient spiritual traditions like alchemy and Gnosticism, to vocabularies from early modernism, and in poetry to blends of birdsong, documents, untamed punctuation, the impure. The possibilities of exploring form seemed boundless and I wanted to lead the way for others. When your soul is driven to the margins, you write in the margins. Some committed acts of representational grouchiness.

But our community showed there are always enough words to go around. Literature expands around our dreams. Once, when I visited Barbara Guest in her house in Berkeley toward the end of her life, she said, “Brenda, I have become a surrealist!” I had become more of a bird-lover. The natural beauty of the coast in peril drew me early on to the ecopoetics, which I wanted to help form. It was daunting to write as a woman in a largely male west-coast poetry tradition—Rexroth, Snyder, Jeffers, Robert Hass.  Reader, I married him.  Writing poems about geology led to a two-decades-long tetralogy about the classical elements —earth, air, water, fire. I added lichen. Now I am working on a second tetralogy about time: seasons, days, minutes, centuries.

Ecopoetics has now become an international movement connecting poets in Taiwan, Poland and Brazil with poets writing in relationship to our planet in crisis. As a self-identified Celtic witch, I celebrate other creatures, hold the spirit world close, and talk to my salad before eating it.   Northern California has been a nearly perfect place to try to write, living in a fault zone, trying and failing with other like-minded souls to represent the moving center of this beautiful and troubled place.

This award includes the word “service.” I have been called an activist-poet because of my attempts at anti-war, pro-environment, social justice and anti-capitalist behaviors;  I feel 90 percent a failure in this regard. I’ve been booted off of Twitter several times for ranting. I am an Irish hothead. Nothing is more humbling than trying to organize social justice direct action, especially if you are an introverted poet. But imaginative folks have to trust each other, look up from our phones long enough to face economic trauma, housing crises, fires, and self-righteous complaining about bugs on our organic produce.

It’s difficult to imagine how things will get better when there is so little will to address the widening economic disparities. The forms of service I’m proudest of are teaching and raising children, which I did partially well. I am grateful to Saint Mary’s College for supporting me for 38 years while I was writing my oddball books; I’m grateful to our many friends, and to our children and grandchildren who have been our deep-abiding joy.

Thank you to everyone who reads books. Thank you to everyone who reads single poems. Please keep poetry in your lives. Reading is as important as writing, so thank you for bringing your creative souls to our renderings of beauty, terror and silliness. Today three friends came with us, their initials are D, N and S— all creative readers who make the world better for their artistic engagement. Even the most successful writers I know suffer from crippling insecurities, so thank you for tweeting nice things, joining zoom book launches and buying books though we know you have too many.

Finally, I want to thank Robert Hass, whose work I revered before I knew him; he has been my companion on my weird path for nearly four decades. I would have floated off into the ether without his daily brilliant lines, sentences and his love. [William Butler] Yeats refers to the “foul rag and bone shop” of the heart; the bottom of my heart has minnows from Strawberry Creek and mica from the Sierra. Thank you to everyone from the bottom of my heart for being local and universal, for your commitments and for your love of what language makes possible.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.