Nurturing language by way of nature and emotion


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For Brenda Hillman, falling in love with an art form is quite like falling in love with a person.

Finding the excitement of new love and exploring its depths are exactly how she approaches her poetry, which she has crafted for several decades. Her passion for the natural world and discovering the “condition of the human soul” have been focal points of her work from the outset. Growing up in Arizona provided her the type of environmental setting not found in many other places.

“I was really enchanted by the relationship between the mind and landscape,” Hillman said. “They’ve always been kind of joined for me.”

She will divulge her creative take on the wonders of elemental and human nature in a reading at 5 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

Since receiving an M.F.A. in poetry from the UI in 1976, she said she is grateful for the experience that helped her learn a great deal about poetry that she may not have otherwise. In addition to her career as a poet, she teaches at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., which, she said, has resulted in a “very gratifying life.”

Generating ideas for new poems often comes one of three ways for Hillman.

Whenever she comes up with a general idea, she takes the time to work through it. Often she may come upon a particularly intriguing phrase that repeats in her mind. Sometimes, an image that may look like or represent something else may spark her creativity.

Most recently, she has found herself delving into the concept of earthly elements, dedicating a collection of poetry to each. The 2009 release of Practical Water, deals with just that, from California water to water in a glass, and also reaches into more abstract ideas.

Hillman’s great care in her writing often leads her into a probing, inquisitive state of mind to find just the right way to express herself. Frequently, she will take a great deal of notes and rework a poem myriad times until it is in its proper form. One thing that she will not do, however, is draft her poetry in front of a computer screen.

“I prefer to write by hand, because I think it’s better for the poem,” she said. “It’s more honest — you can’t put down bad writing as easily that way.”

Most of her work has been published by Wesleyan University Press since her début with the organization in 1985. Suzanna Tamminen, the director and editor-in-chief of the press, has continually been impressed by Hillman’s sense of awareness, both of her work and the world around her.

“The work continues to grow and change and deepen as [she] continues to strive to express truth, so there is a sense of the work always beginning anew,” Tamminen said.

The information age has brought a wave of informal communication via the Internet. While Hillman is more or less turned off by the casual language of Facebook and the like, she said, she ultimately believes the web may be a key tool in the survival of the art of poetry.

“Things on the Internet may provide a quick hit, but a poem can give you an eternal hit,” she said. “People have to stay awake to their language.”

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