Alumni Spotlight: Poet and Educator Rage Hezekiah C’06

Rage Hezekiah is a New England based poet and educator, who earned her B.A. from Drew University and MFA from Emerson College. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem, The MacDowell Colony, and The Ragdale Foundation, and is the recipient of the Saint Botolph Foundation’s Emerging Artists Award. Her poems have been anthologized, co-translated, and published internationally.

Rage’s debut full-length collection of poems is Stray Harbor (Finishing Line Press, 2019), and her chapbook Unslakable, (Paper Nautilus, 2019) was selected as a Vella Chapbooks Award winner. Rage is currently the Assistant Director of Academic and International Student Services at Bennington College in Vermont.

“First you teach the child what it is to drown so she’ll know to save herself~ Rage Hezekiah.

RAGE AT DREW
Rage was born and raised in Salem, Massachusetts. Originally, she imagined going to college in a big city. She visited New York University, Temple University, and a few Boston area schools, and realized she wanted a peaceful campus outside a city. She started looking at smaller liberal arts colleges, and fell in love with Drew’s campus. “I adored the arboretum, and at the time Drew was nicknamed ‘the university in the forest.’ When I think about Drew today, I have fond memories of spending time outside, playing Frisbee on campus, and walking around Madison. The campus was so lush, and I was able to travel into the city to see shows and go out to eat.” During her senior year she interned with Sesame Workshop (The non-profit behind Sesame Street) two days a week. It was a great experience and just a short commute from campus. Rage majored in Women’s Studies (now Gender and Women’s Studies) and minored in Spanish. She was part of the A Cappella group “On a Different Note,” was an orientation leader, and was involved in dance and theater productions. Her favorite memories of Drew? “I loved spring on campus, especially Fern Fest.”

INTERVIEW – THE ROAD TO POETRY

Tell me about your journey from Drew to now?

The summer after graduation I was a support staff member at Farm and Wilderness Summer Camp in Plymouth, Vermont. I got to spend the summer outside, and work with kids. I made lifelong friends that summer, and I loved living in the woods. After that summer I moved to California and worked as an apprentice at Full Belly Farm for 8 months. Full Belly Farm is a large-scale organic farm with four full time farmers and a large crew of migrant workers managing over 400 acres. In June of 2007, I returned to Farm and Wilderness, and stayed on that fall to teach outdoor education. I then moved to Oakland, California. In Oakland, I was a nanny for two young children, worked as a doula, and was a baker-owner in a collective bakery for 3 years. I was baking full time (my specialties were muffins and scones), and attending weekly meetings to try and keep the business afloat. I loved it, but by the end of 3 years I became jaded by the cooperative model. It is a beautiful framework but it only works when everyone involved is equally committed. I loved being a doula, but at the time I lacked the maturity to know how to do the work sustainably. I needed to learn to set boundaries and care for myself first, and I didn’t figure that out until later.

After the bakery I moved back to the east coast and applied to graduate school for creative writing. I attended the MFA program at Emerson College in Boston, MA. While at Emerson I worked several odd jobs to pay my rent. I nannied, dog sat, and cleaned houses, all while working as an adjunct faculty member.

When did you first start writing poems?

I have always been a writer. I started journaling around the 6th grade and writing poems in 8th grade. I still have much of my old writing. A few years ago, I read a few goth poems from middle school on a stage show called Mortified.

How often do you write?

I’m lucky to have a daily writing practice. I meditate in the morning and then spend time at my writing desk. I use this time for writing and editing poems, but also tending to the administrative work of answering emails, updating my website, and sending out submissions. This week I’m participating in an on-line poetry group that provides a prompt every morning.

What inspires you to write?

So many things. This week I found a nest of baby bunnies, and that image has been central in my mind. Yesterday I found the nest was empty, and it created this sacred pause. When I went to wrote about it I thought about anticipation, how my expectations and attachments get me into trouble. I tend to have a hard time letting go.

One of the things that really resonated for me while studying poetry in grad school, is that the poem tells you what it’s about. Often, I will start out thinking I’m writing about one thing, but it will become something else entirely. I wrote “On Anger” while at Cave Canem, a retreat for black poets. Before I left for Cave Canem, I was talking about anger with my therapist and she asked me to write about letting it go. I tried to do this during the retreat, but it turned into something else. At Cave Canem, everyone has a poem due at 10 in the morning, and workshops happen at 2pm. With this structure, I didn’t have time to labor over my drafts, so this poem was able to come through quickly. Having constraints can sometimes help me to push drafts into existence.

ON ANGER
My white therapist calls it my edge, I hear
Angry Black Woman. She says, Strength
of Willful Negative Focus. She says, Acerbic
Intellectual Temperament. I copy her words
onto an index card. She wants
an origin story, a stranger with his hand
inside me, or worse. I’m without
linear narrative and cannot sate her. We
perform rituals on her living room floor. I burn
letters brimming with resentments, watch
the paper ember in the fireplace, admit
I don’t want to let this go. What if anger,
my armor, is embedded in the marrow
of who I am. Who can I learn to be
without it? Wherever you go,
there you are. She asks what I will lose
if I surrender, I imagine a gutted fish,
silvery skin gleaming, emptied of itself—

Copyright © 2019 by Rage Hezekiah. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 1, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

Were you ever surprised by something you wrote?

Yes, all the time. Lately I’ve been writing about my early sexuality. I had to push myself to begin to open up to that place and write from it. When I wrote “Consent,” I was surprised by the turn within the poem. In “Seeing you on Facebook” I was surprised by what could come from writing from a place of anger. I often joked in grad school that I wanted to stop writing about birch trees. It took me a while to become comfortable with writing without censoring myself.

CONSENT

I took him
in my mouth
at fourteen
braced for
the jolt of hot
liquid, acrid,
unwelcome.
I didn’t learn
consent until
twenty-three,
fucking a woman
who needed yes
with every action,
asking can I touch
you here? Is this okay?
I learned possession
of my body
the unexpected
agency of pleasure.
I was oblivious
until she held me
from the inside
while I sobbed,
her mouth soft
on my carpel,
I bellowed deep
& loud, howled
a chasm open
as a peony.

Published in The Southampton Review, 2019

Did you ever start a poem and then give it up?

Definitely. All the time. I try to go on a retreat or residency every summer and when I have that kind of space I tend to write a lot of fast and loose drafts. When I return home, I can spend time editing and revising. I just finished a poem that I started last summer, so sometimes it takes a while to figure out whether the poem will work. I surrender some poems, and never finish them. Sometimes I pull lines from these abandoned poems for other poems I’m working on.

Do you have a favorite poem you have written?
I have a handful of poems that are my favorites, and they change. The ones I’m most excited about are often the poems that I’m submitting for publication that haven’t been picked up yet.

What are your favorite writers/poets?

This list changes but some of my favorites include Zadie Smith, Ross Gay, and bell hooks.

How long do you work on a poem?

Sometimes I work on a poem for years. When my book was published in 2019, I was continuing to edit poems I wrote when I began grad school in 2012.

You’ve written about your family members. How have they reacted to these poems?

It’s a big change going from being published in journals tucked into secret corners of the internet, to publishing a book. I think my dad was surprised by the content of the book, but he’s been receptive to the poems written about him. With my mother it’s tricky. She has struggled with some of my poems and requested edits to my book before it went to print. It feels important for me to not censor my writing and my art, and this has presented some challenges for us. While we have a complicated relationship, I firmly believe writing is integral to my healing. Writing and therapy make it possible to have healthy loving relationships with my family.

MY FATHER SWIMMING

Waist deep in ocean, he was not my father.
Laughter spilling loudly from open mouth,
his wetblack skin gleaming unfamiliar.
The hands that I had come to fear
acquiesced in seawater. I watched him
anticipate the splash of each wave
as though amazed.

He’d never been a child,
those shrouded years,
as the sole black altar boy at Dorr Memorial,
the one dark child on the diamond
of Walter Flynn Field. Watermelon forbidden
by his father, eaten in secret. Reticence
was commanded, austerity is the father I know.
How could it have been him, swimming?

But my father was volcanic, his eruptions capricious.
He’d have me retrieve his leather belt
before bending me over his knee.
In the water, I saw him surrender fierceness,
his large palms drawing circles around himself.

YOU WATCH ME WISHING I WERE TWICE AS GOOD

You begged me to close my legs
tried to make me a lady

in my skirted youth, but I
was hanging from the monkey bars

by scraped-up knees, my skirt
a billowed sail. Tiny underwear

and belly exposed, cradled in the clamor
of self-amused laughter—

a joyous child. Even after the belt,
your thick, black palm, paddle

hairbrushes, that whittled
wooden cane, voice so loud

windowpanes were tambourines, still—
I am this way: vocal, unafraid.

In the airport security line, two
uniformed women pat-down my girlfriend,

her breasts bound tight to ease
button-down shirts onto her form. I’m still

not comfortable one says, and they
escort my partner to a backroom

for further inspection. I hear my own
detached yelling, anger emerging

from a bodily history of you do not
belong, I am the woman

in a public meltdown, surrounded by
anonymous passengers. This is bullshit.

Nearby my father stands like a column
with a single index finger pressed

against pursed lips, attempts
to ease a non-existent orchestra

into decrescendo. He folds his hands
at his waist, the same way he behaved

to avoid his father’s belt or his mother’s
backhand. I’m still a scene, tears streak

my cheeks; my father has already left
his body.

Originally Published in The Baltimore Review, 2018
“When I wrote this poem, I was preoccupied by the legacy of abuse in black families, and the behavioral expectations placed on black children. I haven’t always had this lens for my own experience or the experience of my father, but it informs my compassion for us both.”

MY MOTHER ROLLS US A JOINT WHEN SHE VISITS ME IN CALIFORNIA

In poor light, bent over a squat kitchen table,
she lifts a rolling paper from the pack,
pinches it between thumb and pointer, slow
like a magician preparing to impress. I watch
the bright shine of her salmon manicure
crease the bottom fold, a gulley
for the substance. She removes a sticky clump
of medicinal grade bud from a wide mouth mason jar,
applies light pressure, sprinkling tiny pieces
across the furrow’s surface, like when
she sows the garden with alyssum and clover
each spring. Moving with acute precision, she twists
the ends of the delicate spliff closed,
lifts the gift toward freshly lipsticked lips
and runs her tongue along the paper’s crisp edge.
Kissing the tips of her fingers, she blesses
what she’s made us, reverent
toward the holiness in her own hands.

What was the first poem you submitted for publication?

The publication of my first poem led me to apply to MFA programs. A friend suggested that I to submit my work to an anthology of writing, art, and photography about mixed-race women in North America, called Other Tongues: Mixed Race Women Speak Out. I wrote a poem in response to their call for submissions called “Songs Feet Can Sing,” and it was accepted for publication. Even though I had been writing throughout my life, publishing my first poem, and specifically writing about my racial identity, was a healing experience for me.

How often do you submit your poetry for publication?

Constantly. I always have poems under consideration. The cyclical nature of this process helps me not be too discouraged by rejection (which is also constant). I use a submission tracker and I try to have at least one batch of poems that I’m sending out regularly.
Tell me about your first book, Stay Harbor. In another interview you said the poems “reflect the balance between feeling lost and feeling safe; exploring themes of identity, family, and sexuality in the natural world.”

Most of the poems in the book were part of my graduate thesis. I received a lot of support from faculty who helped me think about how to put the book together, including the trajectory of the poems and what made the most sense. Before I started sending it out for publication, I spent three weeks in residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H. The time and space at MacDowell ultimately made the book publishable. While I was there I was able to really think about sequence and incorporate newer poems that were not part of my thesis.

How does one know if they are good at writing?

I think self-doubt is part of being an artist. For me, I’ve needed a lot of encouragement and support from seasoned writers to help build my confidence. I’m blessed to have wonderful mentors in my life, who support my work and help me believe that I’m on the right path. I’m still in contact with my high school English teacher, John Robinson, who has always encouraged me and called me a writer. Publishing my work has been a valuable part of feeling like a writer. I was really resistant to this at first, but ultimately it has helped me. I would encourage emerging writers read in front of an audience if you can. It’s not my favorite thing to do but it helps me to put myself out there. It’s taken me almost a decade to call myself a writer and poet.

What advice would you give the student who wants to be writer and/or poet?

Write all the time, read all the time, and carry a notebook. Use voice memos on your phone when ideas or inspiration come to you. Read your work aloud and record yourself reading it aloud, at times you can hear things that you can’t see on the page. Stay focused on your own work and try not to pay too much attention to what other people are doing. I’d also suggest submitting to journals that will read your work for free at first.

FUN QUESTIONS

Are there any hobbies or fun facts you would like to share?

I used to be a championship Irish step dancer in middle school and high school! Now I spend a lot of time hiking, doing yoga, and reading in my hammock.

If you could try any occupation other than your own, what would it be?

A park ranger or someone who maintains trails for national parks.

If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would you go?

Thailand.

SUDBURY COMMUNITY GARDEN

Sunflowers slump
like drunks
outside the bar,
thick stalks necrotic—
stripped of seeds by
unfed starlings, dark
birds pillaging
the beds. Butternut
squash hulls litter
snowless soil, russet
tomato skins stick
to wet ground
beside faded
seed markers
submerged
in earth. February
shouldn’t warm
the loam, but I
walk the farm
with bare arms, bask
in untimely weather.
Sun penetrates
skin like a welcome
drug, after
a winter spent
swaddled in flannel.
Among familiar decay
my breath nourishes—
life finds its way back
inside. Raspberries
scatter at my feet, fruit
once honey-sweet,
delicate herbs harvested
last August, lavender
& thyme. Brassica
skeletons rest beside
the nightshades’ bed
tomatillos’ mangled vines—
a treasure already
robbed. Relics
of a hazy summer,
pressed into humus
beneath full hunger
moon, frost cloth
waving in the wind.
Originally published in Sycamore Review.

For more information and to read more of Rage’s work, check out her website: www.ragehezekiah.com/

To purchase Stray Harbor or Unslakable, please contact Rage at ragehezekiah@gmail.com.

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