Poetry has been part of Brenda Hillman’s soul for as long as she can remember. Surrounded with the works of British romantic poets, Emily Dickinson as well as modern poets, she grew up reading and writing poetry and has written nine collections of poetry.
It was similar for her kindred spirit, the Northern California writer Robert Hass, who was poet laureate of the United States from 1995-97 and winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his book of poetry, “Time and Materials.”
Drawn together through their mutual love of poetry, they married and continued doing what they’ve always done. They teach, write, promote literacy and a deeper awareness of the beauty and fragility of our earth. He is a professor of English at UC Berkeley. She teaches at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, where she holds the Olivia Filippi Chair of Poetry.
The two well-known poets will share their latest work at the St. Helena Public Library, 1492 Library Lane, at 7 p.m. on Dec. 19. A selection of their books will be available for purchase and signing.
The couple have deep ties to Napa Valley through teaching at the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference. “I taught at the conference for about the first 10 years of its existence and made many friends in the valley,” said Hass.
“Bob was one of the earliest faculty members there. I teach at the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference every other summer, including this summer,” Hillman said. “I absolutely love it. Gorgeous place, gorgeous people!”
Hass said he began working actively for “ecoliteracy” during his “stint” as the U.S. poet laureate. The exposure gave him greater opportunities to promote literacy, a literary culture, environmental education and environmental causes.
He sponsored a conference at the Library of Congress for American nature writers and community activists. Out of that came River of Words, an organization to encourage ecological awareness among schoolchildren. This organization, which Hass co-founded with Pamela Michael, is still going strong in schools across the country, he said.
Like Hass, Hillman is deeply committed to ecology. “It is important for all citizens who are not ill or very, very old, or caring for tiny children, to get out and protest what is being done to the earth in the name of human progress,” she said.
They tell people that marriage to another poet and teacher has its challenges, but “shared interests” are the reward.
“Being a poet means you have two full-time jobs,” said Hass. “Four full-time jobs between two people is occasionally stressful.”
In spite of the many hours of work it entails, they love the combination of teaching and writing poetry. “Teaching keeps many writers from being too self-absorbed,” Hillman said.
What advice does the former poet laureate give aspiring poets? Read the works of great poets and develop a work ethic. The first is to be “near inspiration and set the bar high,” Hass said. “The second is because one needs good habits for the long haul.”
His wife is a good example of a disciplined work ethic. Hillman sits down with her poetry every day and as soon as she starts writing, she gets inspired.
“Don’t give up writing,” Hillman tells students of poetry. “Stay odd. Have a community. Defend poetry against people saying it should be obvious or easy. Take your time when reading or writing a poem you are drawn to, even if you don’t understand its workings.”
“It will teach you the mysteries of existence if you take it slowly,” she continued. “Keep reading a ton. Get good suggestions from writers you trust, buy books, especially good anthologies. Go to libraries!”
Hass has received many accolades and honors. Among them are the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, the National Book Critics Award (twice) and the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1973.
He is recognized as a leading critic and translator, notably of the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and Japanese haiku masters Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson and Issa.
Hass has published many books of poetry as well as essays on poetry. A few of these are “Field Guide,” “Praise,” “Human Wishes,” “Sun Under Wood,” “Twentieth Century Pleasures” and “Now & Then.”
His most recent volume of poetry is “The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems” and his most recently published book of essays is “What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World.”
Hillman is the 2012 recipient of the Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Other honors include awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Society of America, along with a Bay Area Book Reviewers Award, a Pushcart Prize and a Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award.
Among her many poetry books are “Bright Existence,” “Death Tractates,” “Loose Sugar” and “Pieces of Air.”
Her most recent, “Seasonal Works With Letters on Fire,” is the last of a tetralogy about the classical elements. Her “Practical Water,” in that series, won the LA Times Book Award for Poetry.