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Donna Hilbert: California Poets Part 4, Four Poems

Donna Hilbert

December 29th, 2021

Californian Poets: Part IV

Donna Hilbert

Four Poems

All poems will appear in Donna Hilbert’s new collection, Threnody

Pandemus Upon a current flowing west, a wide red swath divides the water. I try to drown the thought of death, but wish to know which curse is this and what great beast is bleeding. My ailing dog asleep all day, my children grown and scattered, sadness piles on sadness, a layer cake of sorrow, with icing made of daily dread, and filling made of marrow.

From Sleep Stupored from sleep, I survey my clothes. Clothes left in the closet untouched for a year, or longer, touch each garment as if it were cashmere or silk, hanging in a palace of goods I could never afford, even dare enter. Such is the breadth of my longing. Turning to the task at my feet, I rifle a basket of unfolded laundry for my costume of sweatshirt and jeans. Living from basket to hamper to basket, I dress, lace my shoes, set out for a walk to start one more day in the dark.

Dammit Here I am on the back deck, watching a guy on a tall extension ladder paint my neighbor’s house. All week, I’ve nursed a spark of indignation that he and his co-workers leave used face masks in the alley. When they’re gone, I sweep the masks into a pile and bank them at the edge of the house. By morning, they’ve blown back to the alley. I sweep again to make a statement. The ritual continues: they drop masks, I sweep, I swear, the wind blows. But, this morning, I see him climb the ladder. It looks unsteady. I’m scared for him. He must have felt my gaze, for he turns a bit toward me, a big happy smile on his face. He says, how are you? I say, be careful. He says, have a great day! I say, you too. Now, dammit, we’re friends.

Sympathy Pears Sympathy pears are paired with apples and a promise of shipping within two days. Regular pears and apples take longer to box and send. Sympathy pears and apples are suitable for painting, but the artist must supply the skull, the worm, or fly. Sympathy pears and apples arrive with no protocol of care: simply eat or ignore, no chore to water, prune, or keep abloom. Dear Bereaved One, eat, or not, while you ponder a Better Place, His Will, Her Plan. Everlasting Love. Or none of the above.


April 1st, 2024 California Poets Interview Series:

Donna Hilbert, Poet, Playwright, Essayist

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Moon Tide Press will be running your latest poetry collection, Enormous Blue Umbrella, in late 2024 early 2025. What can readers expect in terms of length, content, and subject matter?

DH: I am at about 50 poems now. There will be some adding and subtracting as I begin the ordering process. If I were to state a theme, it might be grief and renewal. Nothing new about that, because it is always the theme of my work and perhaps always the theme of poetry. Most of my poems begin on my early morning walks; I will see or hear something starting a chain of associations. There are a number of poems about my neighborhood and the characters and creatures who live here. I will say, I am not as funny as I once was—or thought I was.

DG: You’ve worked across genres—fiction, non-fiction, and playwriting. Which of the three is closest to poetry in your view?

DH: I think the short story is the closest to poetry, because neither form abides an extra word.

DG: Your poetry resists categorization as you write in free verse, formally, and with elements of prose. Do you think first in terms of form or does the content dictate how you will write?

DH: Thank you for the observation about categorization. The form and the content arise together. I don’t write toward some notion of where I am going. I write into the mystery.

DG: You’ve called Long Beach home for over twenty years. Along with how the city has influenced your writing, it would also be interesting to hear a bit about one of its most recognizable literary figures—the late Gerry Locklin, with whom you had the privilege of reading on many occasions. When and how did you first meet and what are your favorite poems of his?

DH: A friend from a creative writing class at CSULB invited me to a poetry reading at bookstore in LA where Gerry was participating in a reading to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday. I don’t remember anything about the reading itself, but the drinks and dinner after were lots of fun. Gerry suggested a few places where I might submit my work, and so I did. A few years later, Joseph Cowles of Event Horizon who published my first two books, Mansions, and Deep Red, asked me to edit a book for Gerry. Out of over five hundred poems, The Firebird Poems, emerged. My favorite Gerry poems are “My Daughter and the Firebird,” “He Need Regret Nothing,” and “Requiem for Three Bar Guys.”

DG: Your reading habits are both consistent and eclectic, featuring a healthy mix of the contemporary and classic traditions. Who are your biggest influences, and if you could interview one of those writers, who would it be?

DH: I am only going to mention poets who have gone to the “undiscovered country,” as I don’t want to leave out any of the living poets I love. The poets I return to time and again are W.B. Yates, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, Lucille Clifton, Linda Pastan, Jane Kenyon, W.S Merwin, Grace Paley, and Adam Zagajewski. Zagajewski is the writer I would most like to interview. I once made my friends laugh by saying I wanted to learn Polish so that I could read him in the original. I did drive from LA to the Bay Area to hear him read. I went to the reading and drove home the next morning. I am so sorry that he didn’t live to win the Nobel Prize.

DG: One of the defining hallmarks of your work is the poetic tradition of lament, which isn’t easy to define, yet nevertheless has strong continuity from ancient times all the way down to Dylan Thomas and beyond. Your latest collection, Threnody, is a masterful demonstration of that tradition. Can you talk a bit about the writing process and how your state of mind changed (if at all) at the beginning, during the creative peak, and finally once the project was complete?

DH: The writing of Threnody began with a devastating loss, and continued with the first year and a half of Covid. There was much to mourn. Once I made peace with the isolation, I immersed myself in the work of writing, and in the work of grief. I don’t know that my state of mind has changed much since Threnody. Perhaps in my forthcoming book Enormous Blue Umbrella, I have become more adept at holding grief in one hand and joy in the other.

DG: With Christine Fugate, you’ve collaborated twice on film projects to tell a tragic story from your own life. Can you speak a bit about the nature of this collaboration?

DH: The first part of the collaboration was a dramatic filming of three poems, which were later woven into a more traditional documentary. It was an interesting endeavor. My childhood ambition was to be an actress. The filming process disabused me of any notion of acting being a good idea. It was difficult reliving moments surrounding my husband’s death. Part of the story was finding new love, but before the film was released, the man and I had parted ways. I did find new love and life partner shortly after the break-up, and I told my children and my mother, that they would never have to meet another suitor.

DG: Let’s return to your publisher, Moon Tide Press, which has become a Southern California institution in many respects. They’ve done the aforementioned title, Threnody, and will also release your upcoming work. What sets this publisher apart from the others and what’s the publication process like, from start to finish?

DH: Joining Moon Tide Press and Eric Morago was like finding a mate. I have found a good fit. Eric was familiar with my work so getting together was easy and natural. I love the diversity of Moon Tide Press authors in all the directions one might look. I love working with Eric. He does what he says he will do. He promotes his authors. He pays royalties on time. In addition to Enormous Blue Umbrella, Moon Tide Press will publish a second edition of Gravity: New & Selected Poems (originally published by Tebot Bach) at the end of the year.

DG: In addition to working on your upcoming collection what are you reading or writing these days?

DH: I just write poems these days and an occasional essay. I spend lots of time reading the books I am blurbing or editing as well as the nascent collections of my workshop students. I just read They Write Your Name on a Grain of Sand, a riveting memoir by Lori Jakiela, whom I met in person for the first time at AWP in Kansas City. Since I spend much of every day reading poetry, I like to unwind with something different at night. On the same day, three different people recommended the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny. I am on the third book in the series. They are entertaining books and well written, even though the author has eschewed the subjunctive.

Author Bio:

Donna Hilbert’s latest book is Threnody, from Moon Tide Press. Earlier books include Gravity: New & Selected Poems, Tebot Bach, 2018. She is a monthly contributing writer to Verse-Virtual. Work has appeared in Braided Way, Chiron Review, Sheila-Na-Gig, Rattle, Zocalo Public Square, One Art, The Los Angeles Times, and numerous anthologies, and featured on The Writer’s Almanac, and Lyric Life. She writes and leads private workshops in Southern California, where she makes her home.


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