Rachel E. Hicks’s poetry has appeared in the St. Katherine Review, Welter, Off the Coast, Gulf Stream magazine, and other journals. She also writes essays and fiction and works as a freelance copyeditor. After living in eight countries—most recently China—she now resides in Baltimore. Her career has included teaching (high school English and homeschool) and volunteering with an international relief and development agency. Find her online at rachelehicks.com.
Q: What’s the form for this poem? And how did you end up with this form?
This poem went through many variations in form before I decided upon unrhymed tercets. One form I played around with, before I cut a good many lines and stanzas, was stanzas as “chapters” or scenes of my life. The sensory details and images felt lost in the clutter, though, and I felt it needed to be cleaned up and made a bit sparser, allowing each stanza room to breathe. The order and visual symmetry of tercets express my developing understanding that there is order to the “chaos” of my life, my many moves, my identity as a cultural chameleon. It feels less haphazard than it used to, a bit more coherent.
Q: I feel like this stanza perfectly captures the idea of the universal experience conveyed through a particular detail:
Only if I embrace this life as a perpetual pilgrim
do I find solace in remembering
the terraced cemetery in the Himalayan pines
What’s one way you’ve learned that poets can try to hone this sensibility in their own work?
Just one? Teaching writing sharpens my work. When I’m workshopping with students, coaching them in how to “cut to the bone” or to say “no ideas but in things” (Williams), I’m always inspired by the symbols and images they come up with. One of my students went from generic “desert animals” to “the chuckwalla lizard sneezing salt”. Another chose a beetle brooch as a symbol for a relationship with a special adult in her life. When I’m teaching, I’m also reading a lot of poetry to and with my students—reading, noticing, marveling. (I have to make a plug here for Nancie Atwell’s writing workshop and poetry curricula for middle school students, Lessons That Change Writers and Naming the World [Heinemann].) And speaking of workshopping, my writing has benefited tremendously from working with my poetry critique group here in Baltimore. I suppose I gave three answers—teaching, reading, and working with a critique group—rather than one. Forgive me.
Q: Now just to understand a little bit more about your life—why were you in the Himalayas and how did you come to be in Baltimore?
My parents were both missionary kids—my father was born and grew up in India, and my mother was born in Indonesia and grew up in Southeast Asia. After marrying, they worked at the boarding school my dad attended in the foothills of the Himalayas. They have worked in international schools around the world for their entire careers, hence my many moves. My husband and I lived in southwestern China for seven years, working with an international Christian relief and development organization. After returning to the U.S., we moved to Baltimore for my husband’s job.
My sense of what “home” means has morphed over time. More often for me, it’s about people rather than place. But place still matters—the soil of each place in which I’ve lived still clings. I try to make a home for myself and my family wherever we go, to create some sense of rootedness in who we are, even when the scenery around us changes. I’ve written in prose about this tension, but this poem was my first poetical attempt at describing it that satisfied me. I’ve been more at peace with my nomadic life since coming to identify it in terms of pilgrimage and sojourning—there is purpose to that kind of life: it can be understood in a positive sense, rather than in the negative sense of something being missing, or of roots dangling.
Q: In your bio on your website, you compare poetry to rain. Can you elaborate? And did you have such an experience with “The Exile Speaks of Mountains”?
Rain quenches ground and thirst; it gives something so that life can go on. It refreshes; it changes what and how we see, sometimes by obscuring and then clarifying. Sometimes it overwhelms in a deluge. To me, poetry can do all of that. It is both generous and necessary—it gives us what we didn’t know we needed. William Carlos Williams again: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” I’ve known people who don’t seem to have poetic sensibilities be struck by a poem, or a line in a poem, in a way that dislodges them and makes them want to carry that poem or line around in their pocket. They’re given a name for something they’ve always felt, but for which they’ve never had the words. That’s what I tried to convey in my poem “Speak Like Rain.”
I started “The Exile Speaks of Mountains” by naming the things, the concrete memories and details, that were lodged in me and that spoke to me of my first home. It was a way of claiming them—of allowing myself to own them—even through the tension of feeling that I’m both “from” India and not “from” India. The experience of writing this poem did refresh me, did clarify something essential for me.
Q: Noting that the reading happened during a rainstorm, did you have any favorites from the June launch?
Faye McCray’s “Virgin in Harlem” resonated with me. The speaker describes a family walking in Harlem and says she “wanted to be with them./ Birthed from them.” They are a world and a people in microcosm, sure of themselves, beautiful in their identity and community, and the speaker yearns to be part of that community and what it represents. She feels her otherness, sees clearly her attempts at “wearing” an ill-fitting identity. If she could just shed the pretense, she too could “be free.”
Living in so many different cultural contexts, I’ve felt that mix of envy and wonder as an outsider, looking in at people who seem so at home and a part of their communities, knowing I will never belong like that. Perhaps that’s why I’m always more comfortable being in a place where I am a minority; I feel less like I have to pretend to belong.
Q: What are you working on next?
I’m working on my first book of poems: a collection of “exile” poems that explore my own experiences of crossing cultures and those of others who experience an “exile” in some way that forces them to reevaluate and redefine their identity and their concept of home. I also have a novel (set in the Himalayan foothills) that I need to get back to writing; I started it in 2008! I keep putting it aside in order to focus on poetry. Maybe this will be the year I finish the manuscript.