Donna Hilbert: The Importance of Honesty in Poetry

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We go back after dusk
to pick him up.
The air still stinks, but the tanks
light up like Christmas.
In a couple of years the plant explodes
leaving a co-worker dead.
And, I will throw a plate of spaghetti
a whisper from my husband’s head.
But in the first years, no notion
of what comes after --
the fragile welds that held us
a match strike from disaster.

--From “In the First Years”  from The Congress of Luminous Bodies

In her new book, The Congress of Luminous Bodies, published by Aortic Books, Long Beach poet Donna Hilbert looks back on her life with the clear eyes of honest poetry.

The book covers such topics as her early marriage, her relationships with her mother and her mother-in-law, and finding new love after a great loss. She examines them all unflinchingly. Much of the book, she admits, is revisiting experiences she has written about before, with a different perspective.

"I’ve looked back on my early married life,” she says, “with a little more of a critical eye towards myself.”

Such honesty and reflection is nothing new for Hilbert. She has been writing poetry for 25 years. Her first book, Mansions, was published in 1990. Her second book, Deep Red, looks at what she describes as “a really hard childhood experience.”

I don’t remember his face, just the gray
wires that grew down his belly
disappearing into his black trunks.
This old man, who held me
like a bowling ball,
his thumb in my crotch,
fingers splayed across
the bald arc of my pelvis,
this man who tossed me
into deep, deep water.

--From “Old Man At The Pool” from Deep Red

Asked how she can write about such things, Hilbert answers, “I’m not afraid to cry. ... I think to write well abut tragedy or emotional experience, you have to be willing to relive it... By writing about it, then you reclaim the experience.”

Kevin Lee, head of Aortic Books, agrees. “She is able to get that emotion and fear out there, but put it in a way that you don’t have to be afraid,” he says.

Grief BecomesIn 1998, Hilbert’s husband Larry was struck and killed while out on his morning bike ride. She turned that experience into the poems in Transforming Matter, her sixth book. In 2009, filmmaker Christine Fugate made the movie Grief Becomes Me about Hilbert’s life and poetry. It focuses not just on Larry’s death, and the poetry she got out of it, but also on her eventual ability to move on, and love again. Her book The Green Season contains the poems in the movie.

Larry’s death still reverberates in The Congress of Luminous Bodies. “When you’ve had a great loss in your life and then you find happiness again, there’s that terror losing it again," Hilbert explains. Still, in the end, the book is more about the happiness than the heartache. There are many poems about the simple pleasures of life as well as its difficulties and tragedies. Hilbert sees, and writes, all of them clearly.

Hilbert has long been an active participant in the Long Beach poetry scene. In addition to having published eight books (six of poetry, one of short stories, and one novella), she has led a long-running workshop, and is one of the directors of the current Long Beach Poetry Festival.

She has run the workshop since 1989; some of the original members are still in it. It is limited to ten poets and she welcomes new members only as old ones leave. She describes it as “safer than Vegas--nothing leaves the room.” Her goal is to help poets find their own voices. “I didn’t want everyone coming out sounding the same.”

The Long Beach Poetry Festival is currently planning its third annual event, scheduled for Oct. 12. Headlining will be Tony Hoagland. Also on the board are Clint Margrave, Kevin Lee, Paul Tayyar and Tamara Madison.

Describing her 25 years as a poet, Hilbert states, “I would never come to understand anything without poetry.” She adds, “You can’t make a living at it, but you can make a life out of it.”

Donna Hilbert will be reading from her new book at Gatsby Books on Thursday, July 11 at 7PM. Learn more about Donna at donnahilbert.com. For more Aortic Books, visit aorticbooks.com.

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