Every year there is a delicious writers’ conference in St Helena, about an hour and 15 minutes from my house. A couple of times I’ve attended for the week, but usually I go up for a day and immerse myself in a poetry craft talk offered at 9:00 in the morning by an admired poet.  This year I joined my friend poet Wendy Taylor Carlisle and her husband David for a talk by Brenda Hillman. Brenda is a poet with a brilliant mind and very good heart. My mind and body loves the way her talk makes me feel – often on the edge of aha – that’s it, but deeply relaxed in my own trust of her surprising word choices.

The talk began with a “bacteria” conversation, linked by scientific statements. Then she picked up the six questions listed below. There were poems to illustrate her points. Forrest Gander read a Cesar Vallejo poem in  Spanish. Eavan Boland read Cascando by Samuel Beckett. Brenda mentioned this poem touched her long ago and still does:

…the hours after you are gone are so leaden
they will always start dragging too soon
the grapples clawing blindly the bed of want
bringing up the bones the old loves
sockets filled once with eyes like yours….

Brenda spoke rapidly and the mic was lower than I’d have preferred, so I can only throw out a few kernels of her

Brenda Hillman and Forrest Gander

talk: something about the mysteries of sound and sense, the balance of sound and image in her poetry. Some phrases: “Poetry that does not connect to the heart is worthless.”  ~~ “Is there an original mystery?  Mystery of language (goes into creating poetry), mystery of the non-human world, including everything that is observable that is not us. That is the shape upon which my observations and longings are formed.” ~~~ “I think of myself as disheveled wildflowers rather than a single poppy.

She created her lecture around 6 questions to begin and end with. I loved copying them for this blog, since they are thought provoking and profound.

1  How do we find a balance between the use of language combinations chosen for their sound qualities(weird / cool diction) vs. meaning based or more image-based word combinations…?

2  The dilemma is how to write about the mystery without destroying it… This is what I know about poetry–– it is the shape on which my observations and longings are formed.

3  As a narrator, I frequently feel unreliable. Sometimes I read my own writing and I don’t know who wrote it. Might I write as someone for whom kindness is an instinct? My poems can tell stories which are true but not mine.

4  Poems as individual units and also as parts of a collection: I’m wondering about the process of putting together a poetry collection (or different ways of conceptualizing a whole made up of these individual poems or sets of poems). [I’m] wondering how much of this is determined in the initial writings vs. while you are putting together a collection… I can’t quite formulate a question, but my poems have been coming in sets for a while.

5  When / how to try to structure poems in relation to each other (rather than just as individual units)?

6   How is it going?  (Depression? Energy?  All energy in poetry is your guide). Here is a poem I like by Brenda:

Street Corner  by Brenda Hillman

There was an angle
where I went for
centuries not as a
self or feature but
exhaled as a knowing
brick tradesmen engineered for
blunt or close recall;
soundly there, meanings grew
past a second terror
finding their way as
evenings, hearing the peppermint
noise of sparrows landing
like spare dreams of
citizens where abstraction and
the real could merge.
We had crossed the
red forest; we had
recognized a weird lodge.
we could have said
song outlasts poetry, words
are breath bricks to
support the guardless singing
project. We could have
meant song outlasts poetry. 
<>   <>   <>

Other excellent poets were at the conference. Here is a taste of Forrest Gander and Arthur Sze:

A fragment from prize-Wining Poet and translator, Forrest Gander:

Citrus Freeze by Forrest Gander
To the north, along Orange Blossom Trail,   
thick breath of sludge fires.   
Smoke rises all night, a spilled genie
who loves the freezing trees   
but cannot save them.
Snow fine as blown spiders.   
The news: nothing……

Words from Forrest: “Art is not the waging of taste only nor the exercise of argument, but like love the experience of vision, the revelation of hiddenness.” ~~  “Perhaps eros is the fundamental condition of that expansion of meaning necessary to poetry, and of cognition itself. The father of western logic, Socrates, claimed that he had only one real talent: to recognize at once the lover and the beloved“…. from essay: Nymph Stick Insect: Observations... http://forrestgander.com/poetry

<>   <>   <>

A poem and some words from poet Arthur Sze:

The Shapes of Leaves  by Arthur Sze
 Ginkgo, cottonwood, pin oak, sweet gum, tulip tree:
our emotions resemble leaves and alive
to their shapes we are nourished.
Have you felt the expanse and contours of grief
along the edges of a big Norway maple?
Have you winced at the orange flare
searing the curves of a curling dogwood?
I have seen from the air logged islands,
each with a network of branching gravel roads,
and felt a moment of pure anger, aspen gold.
I have seen sandhill cranes moving in an open field,
a single white whooping crane in the flock.
And I have traveled along the contours
of leaves that have no name. Here
where the air is wet and the light is cool,
I feel what others are thinking and do not speak,
I know pleasure in the veins of a sugar maple,
I am living at the edge of a new leaf.  

 Sze said it is important to study poetry for many reasons. ~~  “Regardless of whether you go on to become a writer, all students need to understand language,” he noted, adding poetry is the most compressed and expressive writing form. “(Poets and aspiring poets) use a small number of words to create a large effect.” ~~  “Poetry asks us to  slow down and experience deeply that connection to ourselves and our world.