Saturday, May 24, 2014

Hillary Gravendyk Burrill 1979-2014

On May 10th, I lost my friend and writing partner, the poet Hillary Gravendyk. rob mclennan wrote about her here. Other postings are listed on a new page at Poetry Foundation's blog, here.

Hillary and I became fast friends at the Vermont Studio Center in 2008. We both attended because the poet-in-residence at that time was Alice Notley. We both reveled in Alice being around and willing to chat with us, her talks on dreams, and her incredible reading for the VSC at the end of which she promised to "burst into flames". Hillary even messaged me, "I see Alice eating toast in the cafeteria," and we were star-struck together. My new friend and I had long talks there about art and artistic vision, seeing people as they are, Agnes Martin, and our childhoods. We even joked during Easter Mass at a little chapel in the country about our being out of synch with the Episcopalian congregation in terms of kneeling and sitting, but in synch with each other (raised Catholic). We began collaborating then, inventing increasingly impossible poetic challenges for each other. I once received a whole piece of text from Congress about senate appropriations for the war in Iraq as my "prompt". I told her to write in alexandrines and hemistitches. She even made me write a poem that included the word "warlock" and I made her write a poem that included the word "Walgreens". Agony and dirty looks!

Somehow, we managed to visit once or twice a year since then, spent Thanksgiving together in 2010, went to conferences together, traveled around SF and LA, did all the fun things. I felt I had a very special friendship with Hillary and I only say that in public because really, just about anyone who was her friend would say he or she felt the same. She had a big big heart and soul for sympathy. She could read piercingly into situations and people's characters and always gently warned you of anything surprising that could happen in a social situation. That meant she made the people around her feel safe. I've already heard from her friends and other writing partners how calming her presence was. Also, she was incredibly funny and full of pithy remarks.

The perceptiveness she wielded on people, she used fiercely on poetry as well. She could see straight into the heart of a poem and know what was good and what didn't quite make sense right away: stylistic zags and the ultimate weight of it. Her literary mind was the best I've known: immediate and able to bring a whole culture/a whole cultural context to bear on a piece effortlessly. She was an appreciator of so many things, and her work itself was emotionally potent, but so finely crafted that her poems seemed to have evolved from some impossibly intelligent heart.

I am aware of several projects underway now to pay tribute to Hillary and to mark her life publically. I will post more about them when details are more available. If you want to mention any here, that would be great. She particularly thought this new review of Harm in the Boston Review by Julie Kantor was/is particularly insightful.

In addition, I'm currently in the process of gathering her poems and our collaborations at the request of her husband. If you are an editor who had correspondence with her about pieces she was about to submit to you, or are a person with whom she wrote collaborative poems, please contact me on facebook or at arrieuking on gmail. Thank you.

Here's a photo from the first week I met Hillary in Vermont, 2008. There was such a blizzard that they closed the elementary schools! In Vermont!


To know me as golden is to know me all wrong.
Every time I breathe in it smells rusty, like blood, and when I cough there is blood in the air.

If I were in charge of these special effects, I’d make it thicker;
it’s so hard to take it seriously. Bright little hearts and stars and carnations on a white cloth.

Let’s go out with a thicker line, a cerulean skylight,
rain that gets dumped out of a trough to thwack the pane of glass,
a smear of red like tempera paint across the cheek or the hand, streaming from the mouth.

Let’s have a disaster, a lake made of salt, a blackout.
Everything riots and unspools, the whole room on one side and all the sound winking out.

You stay here. Let me run into that starring role, pinker and more flooded with blood:
remember when it meant exuberance, remember awe? Let’s be that breathless.

 --Hillary Gravendyk