Poetry Month Feature: Robert Hilles

Would you believe we’re in week four of National Poetry Month already? This week brings us an interview with Robert Hilles, a long time Black Moss Poet and past recipient of the Governor General’s award for Cantos from a Small Room. Robert’s poetry focuses on capturing the quiet moments of life, his writing style is lyric and captivating. Please enjoy this interview and excerpt of poetry from Robert Hilles.

Q: The poetry your write is largely about your life; Line honours your mother and celebrates her life, Shimmer focuses on your wife and the love that you share, and still others focus on the small moments of every day. How do you decide what gets turned into poems and what doesn’t?

A: I don’t always consciously direct the poems. However, both those sets of poems had very specific driving forces. In the case of Shimmer those poems grew out of a deeply seeded love for my wife Rain. There wasn’t any other way to get at such rooted feelings except through poetry. The precision and metaphors of poetry mimic best the guttural sensations of love. For that reason, whenever I want to convey deep feelings, as I did in that book, it is poetry I turn to. Now that I write both fiction and poetry the main difference for me is that poems tend to be more immediate and concentrated while fiction is expansive.

Q: How have your life experiences changed the way you write over time?

A: My life experiences have significantly changed the way I write. There are core principles that have remained, but my perspectives are now dramatically different. A simple example of that is in my early poems I wrote from the perspective of the child. Later, when I became a parent, I wrote from that perspective. Life experiences have deepened and broadened what I write. I have understandings now that weren’t possible when I was younger. As I have aged, I have also started to write fiction and that shift to story has felt a logical progression because fiction has allowed me to explore new elements of writing. But I still continue to write poetry because for me poems have more emotional grounding. They unearth the truest feelings and can be more timeless and not as subject to trends or fashion. Although poetry often seems momentary and ephemeral it is in fact steadfast and enduring.

Q: In 1994 your book Cantos from a Small Room won the Governor General Award. Can you tell us how that felt and how it has influenced your writing today?

A: That was a very exciting experience, but I don’t think it directly influenced my writing other than to encourage me to persist.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I have completed a book of short stories tentatively called, Release, and I am now working on a book of prose poems called, A Piece of Rag Wrapped Gold. The subtitle of that is Poems of the Atomic Age and the poems in that book weave together the aftermath of the Chernobyl Disaster, Particle Physics, and Love – all through the prism of The Atomic Age. I have also completed a novel set in Thailand called Don’t Hang Your Soul On That which will be published in 2021.

Q: Can you share your favourite poets with us and tell us how they have impacted your poetry?

A: I have many favourite poets so there are too many to name them all here but a few in particular have been instrumental in me finding my poetic voice. They include in no particular order: John Keats from whom I learned the importance of Negative Capability and revising for deeper meanings. Ezra Pound from whom I learned the importance of making it new. Sylvia Plath from whom I learned the importance of linking metaphor to the personal. Al Purdy from whom I learned the importance of the place and the self. Sharon Olds from whom I learned the importance of writing about family. Philip Levine from whom I learned the importance of personal details. Seamus Heaney from whom I’ve learned the importance of music and surprise. Christopher Wiseman from whom I learned the importance of craft and trusting the imagination. Federico Lorca from whom I learned the importance of passion and the unpredictable. Claire Harris from whom I learned the importance of tireless revisions. Robert Kroetsch from whom I learned the importance of the local and specificity. Phyllis Webb from whom I learned the importance of cutting to just the essential words. Erin Moure from whom I learned the importance of assertion and invention. Marty Gervais from whom I learned the importance of humour, humility, and the understated. Bronwen Wallace from whom I learned the importance of writing about feelings. Roo Borson from whom I learned the importance of a surprising image. That is not a complete list and have left out many other favourites and important influences.

Organic Love

Love is made of soil
Clay, wind, rock, and bone
The way an apple
Rounds and ripens to pulp and juice
So love ripens

At an apple orchard
You pick one
And offer it to me
And I pick another and offer it to you
Love deepens
Is round and ripe

King Apples

Today we picked King apples
At a friend’s on Salt Spring
And a buck with six-point antlers
Grazed nearby
It looked up once to notice us
But that was all
Otherwise we were just
People in the way
Of all the apples on the ground

Love is like that you said
Later in the car
I pondered that
As I kept headlights
True to the road
I watched for deer as I drove
And thought about apples falling
And your sense of love
How complicated can it be
This feeling that gyrates
In both of us
But has no compass

We are like those
Apples poised to fall
In a day or two most of them
Will drop to the ground
And that buck and other deer
Will quickly eat them up
I bit into one as I drove
And it was the ripest apple
I had ever tasted

When we reached home
I aimed the headlights
At the house
So you could
Unlock the front door
Love goes on and on and on
It isn’t what stops
It isn’t what stops

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