By Gari Eberly and Nora Kamerow
Rage Hezekiah is the author of Stray Harbor, soon to be published by Finishing Line Press. She is a Cave Canem and MacDowell Fellow who earned her MFA from Emerson College. She is a recipient of the Saint Botolph Emerging Artist Award in Literature and was nominated for Best New Poets, 2017. Her chapbook Unslakable is a 2018 Vella Chapbook Award Winner with Paper Nautilus Press. You can find more of her work at https://www.ragehezekiah.com/.
West Branch: Stray Harbor follows a mostly chronological narrative arc, divided into three sections. The chronology within the sections, however, is less clear. How did you determine the order of the poems?
Rage Hezekiah: I had a sense of the themes I wanted to explore in each section, but ordering the poems was a fun and interesting challenge. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks at The MacDowell Colony when I was finishing this manuscript. During that time, I wrote the names of the poems on stickies in my studio and spent quite some time rearranging them. The manuscript has evolved quite a bit since then, but as the book has changed, that strategy has been really effective for me. I wanted there to be sense of fluidity propelling the book forward, and I tried to arrange the poems to facilitate this. I’m definitely a visual learner, and being able to work with the poems in a tangible way was really helpful. I appreciated being able to live in the space of curation, and alter the order until it felt right. In some ways, the process felt organic for me.
WB: Speaking of fluidity, the sections of this book transition from a cove, to a bay, to a sound. How does this relationship to water connect to your personal narrative in Stray Harbor? Can you speak about the shift from the natural waters featured in the earlier sections of your book to the artificial pools and bathtubs featured in the last section?
RH: Water has always been central to my life, and I have over and over made my home by and around bodies of water. As a result, water is central to my work. When I was developing the title for this collection, I chose Stray Harbor in part because I appreciated the tension between feeling abandoned and feeling held. When I think about water, I’m very moved by its power and grace. I grew up by the ocean, and watching the changes over time. Through hurricanes and placid summer nights, I feel like the ocean has always been my teacher.
My childhood home was by Collins Cove, so the first section, Cove, contains poems about family, and identity. After college, I lived in the bay area, and many of the poems in the Bay section grapple with nature. I think of Sound having to do with the body, sexuality, and independence. Looking back, it seems like the natural progression throughout the book away from natural bodies of water is tied to my willingness to take risks as a writer. “Honing,” a poem about self-pleasure in the bath, is a more recent poem than many of the poems in the earlier sections. When I began writing this manuscript, it was so childhood-centered, and I’m grateful that as the book has developed over the past few years, more poems about sexuality and identity have found their way into the manuscript.
WB: “Our Bike Trip” was the first poem of yours that we read and it is the last in the book. It balances themes of youth and sexuality with beautiful delicacy. Can you speak on the connection between nature and sexuality in this poem, and Stray Harbor as a whole?
RH: I love this question. I’m a taurus, so nature and sexuality are definitely intertwined for me. I chose this poem to close the book because I feel like it speaks to the continual unfolding of discovering oneself. Youth is one of my obsessions in this book, and I’m struck by the ways historical reflection feels so prominent to me. I’m an avid journaler, and I’ve kept a steady journal for the past 22 years. I appreciate documenting my life and feeling like I have these tangible pieces of nostalgia. This practice feeds my poetry, because many of the things I’m writing about today, I was writing about in real time when they were taking place. Nature is also very present in these journals, I have always felt connected to the natural world, and the convergence of nature and sexuality feel innate for me.
“Our Bike Trip” was written in appreciation of a carefree time in my life, when I felt able to live so loosely. I rode a second hand mountain bike through Washington state with a friend, with little to no planning. I often reflect on the freedom I felt in my early 20’s to adventure so fearlessly. I’m amazed at how self-assured I was at that age, and struck by how challenging it was for me to admit what I wanted. Looking back, I can so clearly see the ways I was protecting myself.
I applied to graduate school after years of farming, baking, and being a doula, and during that time I was thinking a lot about my desire to bring things to fruition. In my application essays I reflected on the ways I saw each of these professions as linked to cultivation, ushering something palpable into the world from its origin. This feels connected to my obsession with nature, and the connection to sexuality feels organic to me. I’m grateful for the ways this is showing up throughout the poems in the book.
WB: “Night Swimming” is unique in Stray Harbor in that it is written in the second-person. Who is the “you”?
RH: Night Swimming comes from an urban legend I heard as a child that still haunts me today. I remember my cousin telling me this story, and my imagination brought it to life so vividly. It’s interesting to me that the final version of the poem ended up in second person. In all honesty, it was likely an experiment in perspective. Reflecting on my work as a whole, nearly all of the elegies I’ve written have been in the second person. I think this is true of many elegies, but it’s certainly not a rule. “Night Swimming” is one of the few poems in the book where the “you” is imagined.
WB: How has your time as a farmer, baker, and doula affected your work as a writer? What are you cultivating as a poet?
RH: All of these phases of my life are folded into my poetry, and my poems often reflect these parts of my experience. I gravitated towards each of these professions in part because I loved being involved in slow growth, and having the ability to witness and participate in life cycles. In my experience with farming and baking, I love the meditative nature that’s so intrinsic to the process. My time as a doula feels similar. It was an honor to work closely with women who were deep in their journey of bringing forth life. I was able to witness their pregnancy and delivery, and see the arc of their experience. It was an honor to support these women, to be trusted to hold the space for them through their birth.
Cultivation takes patience. And I feel like these professions have taught me so much about seeing things through. I see that reflected in my poetry, and my practice feels similar to tilling soil, or weeding, or kneading bread. I have to work with it, walk away, return to it with new eyes and trust that there are processes happening underneath without my help. It’s strange to think of poetry in this way, but it feels true to me.
I feel like I’m cultivating the truth of my experience as a poet. In the past few years I feel more able to write from a place of honesty without placing too much emphasis on the reaction of the reader. I’m grateful that I’m more able now to write about my own shame, anger, insecurity, regret, etc. Being a poet means cultivating a venue for my wholeness.
WB: In what ways do you interact with the larger poetry community?
This is a great question. I think I’m constantly finding new ways to engage with the larger poetry community. I’m so grateful that at my MFA at Emerson College, I learned the importance of connecting with the poets in my cohort. Up until very recently a small group of us met regularly to workshop poetry in person. As of now, we’re all a bit more dispersed throughout the country, but my dear poet friends are my example of where I want my work to go. They are scattered like seeds, reading and publishing and working on projects that inspire me. I feel so privileged to be among them on this journey.
I recently moved from the Boston area to Western, Massachusetts, which has a flourishing poetry community. Since my relocation, I’ve been grateful to attend readings and writing workshops throughout the Pioneer Valley, and I’m still working on building my poetry community out here. I also work at Bennington College, a place that celebrates writing and the meaningful work produced by faculty and staff. I feel really blessed to work at a place that sees me as a writer and supports my creative work, despite its separation from my paid work.
Living in a more rural area, I need to make more of an effort than I did in Boston to stay connected to a community of writers. At times, writing events are an hour away from my house, but I do the best that I can to show up when I’m able. I also need to constantly work to push myself out of my comfort zone and introduce myself to folks at readings, and tell them I admire their writing. I recently connected with a new poet friend by writing her an email after hearing her read. We’ve been writing back and forth since then and have plans to connect this weekend. The more I’m willing to move past my own discomfort and come out of my shell, the more connected I feel.
WB: What can you tell us about your chapbook Unslakable? What other larger projects are on the horizon?
RH: First, I just want to say thank you for these thoughtful questions, it’s been a pleasure connecting with you! I’m grateful to say that my chapbook, Unslakable was selected as a Vella Chapbook Award Winner and was recently published by Paper Nautilus Press. Lisa Mangini was an absolute dream to work with and I’m so proud of the work she brought to life.
My full length collection, Stray Harbor, is now available for pre-sale through Finishing Line Press. I’m excited to celebrate and promote the book, and will reading throughout New England in the coming months. I’m currently in the process of writing poems for my second manuscript and this summer I have the opportunity to attend a residency at Ragdale. I’m thrilled to spend a few weeks creating new work.