Friday, November 7, 2008

Brenda Hillman, first impressions, and Blink

So I just got finished reading Blink, Malcolm Gladwell's book about intuition and snap decisions. I'm not going to devote a whole post to it, but it's quite good, in that gee-whiz kind of way that everything of Gladwell's is good, and it's impossible, after reading it, not to go around applying his ideas to everything.

Anyway, there's a story near the end, in which Gladwell discusses the dominance in orchestras, throughout the twentieth century, by male musicians. Even until recently, female musicians were uncommon in major orchestras, and when they appeared it was generally to play "petite" instruments like violin or flute. This has changed lately, though, as auditions now take place behind a screen. Once it became impossible for orchestra directors to see the musicians, women began to be hired in greater numbers. Of course directors believed they were only using their ears--but their prejudices colored their perception.

I brought this up today with poet Brenda Hillman, in our interview for the Writers At Cornell Blog, because I'd noticed something about her reading--something was missing from it. Hillman is a good reader (and a superb poet, by the way), but her poems depend, in part, on the way they're laid out on the page. Some of her poems are underscored by fragmentary stanzas, printed at the bottom of the page in small type. Some of them have large spaces between words, or multiple columns, or unusual punctuation; her latest book has war poems printed in white on black pages. It was a pleasure to hear her read, but it was a greater pleasure to read her.

Hillman's reponse to my comments was interesting; click the link above to hear the interview. But afterward I considered further--many poems, unlike almost all stories and novels, can be visually apprehended all at once, in a fraction of a second. In fact, if they can be, they will be. Poems can tell us how to read them before we've understood a word. And in fact, now that I think about it, fiction isn't all that different; when we're in a bookstore and we pick up a novel, we quickly flip through it to see what it looks like. Is it mostly dialogue? Are the paragraphs long, is the type small? To look at the pages of a book is to see what the weather is like in the world of that book. When you flip through, you're deciding whether or not you want to live there for a while. The content, at this stage, is immaterial. It's a test of how the book feels.

When you write, if you write, do you think about this? What it will look like? I must admit, I never really have, except when trying to do something experimental. I'm always kind of surprised when I get the page proofs for my books--they don't look right. They look like something someone else did.

Anyway, Hillman also talked about political activism and writing, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and depression. I liked her a lot, and I like her work even more. Check it out.

1 comment:

rmellis said...

I hadn't really thought about that before, but it's true that the way a poem looks is a large part of the totality of the poem.

Poems that have long lines and are densely laid out give a very different impression from long, thin, chiseled looking poems. But I don't think the shape is random; poets choose the shape to fit their meaning...