Kamden Hilliard — a poet who has lived in Hawai’i, southern California, New York City, Hong Kong, Iowa and South Carolina over their 26 years — will be the second Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Writing and Editing.
Hilliard was chosen from among more than 100 applicants. The poet, who uses “they, them, their” pronouns, has yet to see Cleveland. That will happen when they start the two-year fellowship in August at the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.
The new fellow will succeed Leila Chatti, whose first book “Deluge” arrives from Copper Canyon Press April 21. The poets have friends in common but have yet to meet. The fellowship combines writing, editing and community engagement.
“I was born in California to military parents,” Hilliard writes in their application. “We moved around most of my childhood and finally settled in Hawai’i in early 2002. The real and imagined traumas of 9/11, the violent mechanics of settlement and militarism in Hawai’i, and the ongoing condition of blackness sculpted my childhood. As such, my work is obsessed with the problems of inheritance, identity-based discrimination, and antiblackness.”
Hilliard graduated with an MFA in Poetry from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop last spring. They took an AmeriCorps Vista position with the Greenville County Behavioral Health Coalition, which helps nonprofits in upstate South Carolina deliver mental health and anti-addiction services. Hilliard, who laughs easily and delights in language, specialized in connecting LGBTQ youth to these services.
“I’m not from a place where people spend a lot of time writing and reading,” Hilliard said in a phone interview. “So, after two years in Iowa City, I was attracted to a place where I could dream toward community and a different future, organize to get things done and think about the reasons we write and need literature.”
Hilliard’s own work is quick-footed and linguistically playful. It has been collected into three chapbooks — “Distress Tolerance” in 2016 and “Perceived Distance From Impact” the following year. Their third collection, “henceforce: a travel poetic,” was published in 2019. They helped edit Jellyfish Magazine for three years.
Last fall, the poet Tommy Pico singled out a Hilliard poem for praise: “It takes the play dough colors of modern languages and squishes them all together in a statement on the nature of communication and I, for one, am here. for. it.”
That poem was runner-up for the Black Warrior Review Prize.
“We were especially drawn to the experimental force and verve of Kamden Hilliard’s poetry – which, as Craig Santos Perez has said, ‘transgresses the normative and secured border of nationalism, gender, aesthetics and language itself,’” noted Hilary Plum, assistant director of the Cleveland State Poetry Center. “In their application, Kam’s approach to literary community and diversity work combined the theoretical and the practical. We were struck by their ambition, the depth of their engagement and their sense of what’s possible.”
For their part, Hilliard said they were looking forward to shaping the fellowship and carrying it beyond the usual places.
“In our public conversations, we can attend to the places we inhabit,” they said. “’Ohio’ is not a British word. It’s an indigenous word. The shape of the fellowship, the folk who put it together – I take all of it as a positive sign. I have a lot of gratitude and look forward to starting the next chapter with you.”
Hear Hilliard read their 2018 poem, “Ride W Favor.”