Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: You have a distinct voice expressed within your poems, allowing them to function as a conversation within themselves. How do the internal conflict and uncertainty of your poems’ speakers reflect your experience with contemporary debates around religion and gender identity?

Raye Hendrix: This is such a thoughtful question. I think the easy answer is that my poems are internally conflicted because I’m so often internally conflicted. My whole being feels contradictory, or at least like I exist in shades of gray. My ADHD, OCD, and autism are often at war with each other. I’m bisexual, but in the “my gender and not my gender” way, not the “man and woman” way. I’m nonbinary, which is already often difficult to explain, but I think of myself as a nonbinary woman, which is even harder to articulate. I’m spiritual, but not religious—more like “ghosts are probably real and the trees can talk to us” than going to church on Sunday. 

But more to your question, I did grow up in Southern Baptist churches, and with very rigid gender roles. Not necessarily enforced by my parents, but society. My parents pretty much let me do what I wanted as far as gender expression—I played sports, I loved fishing, I wore clothes from the boys’ section. Everybody just called me a “tomboy.” I still liked my Barbies, though. I liked glitter and makeup. I watched Pirates of the Caribbean and wanted to make out with Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. I didn’t tell anybody that part for a long time, but in general, I was allowed to exist in that “in-between and neither and both” gray area at home. But not at church. And I guess somewhere along the line, that made religion feel like the oppressor. So these debates—they actually feel really old to me. They’re just more public now. I like to think of the anti-queer/trans violence as the last gasps of a dying ideology. They know they’re losing. A scared animal bites the hardest.

And all of that’s really the heart of the problem for me, and the ways it shows up in my poetry: I don’t mind God. Jesus has some pretty socialist political leanings, so he’s alright by me, too. But religion? That’s just a stick to beat people with. I’ve never understood why a God who created an infinite, boundless universe would have a problem with a person who loves without boundary, whose gender has no borders. Queer and transgender people have always felt more like God’s universe to me. We’re galaxies expanding infinitely. So there’s a schism there—I’m unable to reconcile God with religion, especially when religion claims to be following the orders of the same God that made galaxies. Ralph Waldo Emerson says a poem is an argument; I think my poems often just take that idea very literally.

RR: Your poetry, particularly within “Mama Said,” contains distinctly Southern colloquialisms. Being born in Alabama and having your studies carry you across the South, are you comfortable sharing aspects of your Southern background that inspired these pieces?

RH: Absolutely, and I love this question, because it actually took me a long time to claim and be proud of my Southern identity. When you’re Southern, you’re the nation’s punching bag, sometimes even an international one. The jokes about being barefoot, incestuous, illiterate trash are never-ending. When people want to sound “uneducated” or politically backwards they put on a Southern accent. Growing up there, it can be difficult to not internalize those things, and I pushed back on my accent for years. People look at the South and only see the bad. And there’s admittedly good reason for that—look at our history of slavery, and our past and present of racism, of anti-queer and anti-choice legislation. There’s a lot to dislike, so I get it. I get it so much that I tried really hard, especially when I first started writing poetry, to sound like other people in my poems. I remember turning in a poem in college once where the professor asked me, not unkindly, just out of curiosity, why I used the phrase “we will” instead of “we’ll” since the rest of the poem was so informal, and I had to admit that it was because if I read it aloud, I knew my accent would make “we’ll” indistinguishable from “will.” And I really resented that about myself because I had bought into the stereotype—the lie that non-Southerners like to tell each other about the South. 

But anyway—that professor (shoutout to Keetje Kuipers!) started directing me towards contemporary Southern poets who were doing distinctly Southern poetry—Jericho Brown, Natasha Tretheway, Ansel Elkins, Jake Adam York—and I was totally amazed. Here were these poets who claimed the South, who wrote about the ways it’s ugly, but also all the ways I had forgotten it’s beautiful. Reading them sort of gave me permission to see that beauty, and to claim it for myself, too—my home state especially. Alabama has a lot of darkness, but it’s also so good. We’re the most biodiverse state in the country, and we have some of the most passionate conservationists and climate activists because of it. Birmingham, where I was born, and Montgomery, Selma, were strongholds for Civil Rights activism, and that revolutionary energy is alive and well today. The people are diverse, the land is beautiful, the history both painful and inspiring—and I hit a point where I stopped wanting to ignore all that. People think of the South as a lost cause—it’s not. We’re not. Living in Oregon, people hear my accent and ask where I’m from, and when I tell them, they almost always say “I’m sorry.” Hell, I’m not. Not anymore. And I want all y’all to hear my voice and read my poems and know that. 

RR: We love how your poetry is very experimental in both form and style. In your writing process, how does the subject matter guide you toward the unique and distinct choices you make?

RH: Thank you! Truth be told, I’ve never really thought of myself as “experimental” when it comes to poetry, but I am neurodivergent, and I guess aesthetically, those can look really similar. I got my artistic start in photography, and I think that has a lot to do with it. I tend to think of a poem like a picture—it’s a snapshot of a moment in time, but even when it’s still, it isn’t. There’s all this kinetic energy on one side, all this potential energy on the other. The subject matter is that fixed point, but it’s surrounded by momentum. In “Intersex Bloodwork,” for example, the whole poem—the fixed point—is really just those first three stanzas. It’s one moment: the asshole doctor drawing blood. That’s the subject, that’s the photo.

What guides the rest of the poem is thinking about that photo in context: What was happening right before this moment? What about before that? What happened after this moment, or has it even happened yet? Is it happening right now? What’s above the frame? What’s below it, behind it, in front of it? I think this is where my neurodivergence comes in, too—my brain goes on tangents. You see that in “Mama Says,” too, with all the parenthetical asides—I want to tell you this, but to do that I have to tell you something else. I see the moment, and at the same time, I see all the moments that spin out from it in every direction, like a giant gumball of temporal fuckery. And the writing process is really just following the spikes, seeing what they point to, and honoring that, which really just means honoring my ADHD/OCD brain’s whims. It has to feel right. For “Mama Says” the gumball spikes felt like TV antennas and phone lines; they made static, it felt like a fuzzy conversation. With “Intersex Bloodwork,” it felt like a lot of the spikes were inside out—I needed to go in to go out. I wish I had a more academic answer, but it’s true: I don’t write every day. I can’t force a poem. I can’t even force a journal entry or a grocery list. But when it happens, when I see the picture, I just go where the gumball tells me. 

RR: You serve as the Chair for the Disability Access Caucus; would you elaborate more on your role and the importance of disability awareness in your writing and career?

RH: The Disability Access Caucus (DAC) is one of several identity- and interest-based groups in my labor union, the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF) at the University of Oregon, and my role is essentially to advocate for disabled graduate students and be my union’s point person for dealing with disability-related issues that may come up. Most of it is pretty boring—I answer a lot of emails, host meetings, that kind of thing, but I also get to do some really cool, fulfilling work, most of which is educational. Disability is sort of the “final frontier” of Diversity and Equity initiatives; it gets left out a lot. My disability advocacy and awareness started, admittedly, from a place of selfishness. I didn’t see myself represented, being treated fairly. So a lot of it was this internal rage that had been building for a long time. And then it started spreading outwards—I have disabled family and friends, too, and I realized I also didn’t see them being represented, didn’t see them being treated equitably, and over time it just became more and more clear to me that we—all of us disabled folks—are society’s afterthoughts, if we’re thought of at all. 

We’re slowly making progress in the literary world for representation of marginalized communities, but me and my disabled friends, when we made our disabled art, are still falling through the cracks. It’s getting better, but it can always still get better. Journals love to write these really incomprehensible statements of what they want, things like “give us your fuzzy yellow socks full of last week’s squash casserole, send us your weirdest and wildest, most challenging work,” and then—if my neurodivergent brain can even make sense of whatever the hell that means—I (and other disabled poets) think, “okay, watch this,” and send something, and then it’s too weird, too challenging, too incomprehensible—in other words, too disabled. I almost cut the mentions of what colors I wished my blood could be in “Intersex Bloodwork,” for example, but that’s what happened—I was writing, and my brain said, “I wish my blood wasn’t red, I wish it looked like the woods I grew up in,” so I wrote it into the poem, but while I was revising I just kept thinking, “nobody is going to think this makes sense.” And then I felt that rage again, and decided I didn’t care if it made sense to somebody else. It makes sense to me, to my neurodivergent brain. I don’t owe anyone comprehensibility. 

I could talk about this forever, but let me stop rambling and just say: Disability is the only identity category with potential energy. Anyone can be disabled. Anyone can become disabled at any time, including you. Anyone of any ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexuality, class, political ideology, occupation…you could become disabled at any time, and in fact, if you’re a member of another marginalized identity category, you’re statistically more likely to become disabled due to interpersonal and systemic oppression and inequality. It’s all connected, and disability justice is one of the only categories that touches every other category. Black Lives Matter means disabled lives matter. Queer and transgender equality means disabled equality. Reproductive justice is disability justice. Climate justice is disability justice. Free Palestine is disability justice. You should be for us because we’re people. But if you can’t do that, at least be for us because you could be part of us tomorrow. We’re out here living beautiful, fulfilling lives, making fucking amazing art, and we have value not in spite of, but because of our differences. 

RR: Your debut collection, What Good Is Heaven, comes out next year, which has us very excited. Can you share your experience in developing that book?

RH: I’m excited that y’all are excited! This is actually the first time I’m getting to talk about it, which feels so cool and legitimizing. Thank you for asking about it, and thank you for being excited! 

The experience of getting it here has been, to modify a cliché, a really long, really inconsistent rollercoaster ride. I wrote the very first poem for this book way back in college in 2013, though of course I didn’t know it was going to be a book then. That poem is about Hurricane Katrina in Alabama, but I didn’t really start off wanting to write about home—I figured it was a one-off poem. This was also in Keetje’s class I mentioned earlier, so I was just beginning to embrace my Southern-ness, and most of the poems were actively resisting it. I really didn’t start writing the poems that would become the book until I started my MFA at the University of Texas at Austin, and even then they weren’t what I expected myself to write. I had big plans going into the MFA to write this really overly political feminist poetry manifesto, but to my surprise, I got homesick instead—which is good, because those feminist poems were bad. So I leaned into the homesick poems, and something sort of clicked, and the poems started to take shape around my childhood and adolescence as a very closeted queer kid in rural Alabama. I was born in Birmingham, but I didn’t grow up there; I spent most of my pre-college life in Southern Appalachian farm country in unincorporated Blount County with a Pinson mailing address because it was the closest city. 

So—short version, I spent the two years of my MFA writing and rewriting these poems, which would become my thesis, which would become my book. That was the best part of this whole process—the creation, and the time and space to do it. But I had this absurd idea that if I didn’t get a book out by the time I turned 30, I was a failure, so I graduated and started submitting it immediately, and it really wasn’t ready. I wish I’d given it another six months, a year, maybe even longer to work on it more. I would’ve saved myself a lot of heartache and self-doubt. 

Over about four years of submitting, it was a finalist eleven times, semi-finalist six times, solicited then turned down three times, and form-rejected more than sixty times before Texas Review Press picked it up. This is the downhill part of the rollercoaster—it was honestly so brutal. I remember after one finalist mention about three years in, I got a personal email from an editor to let me know how close it was to winning, and instead of making me feel better I felt so defeated, so relegated to “almost,” that I trashed my entire What Good Is Heaven folder. Thankfully, my partner is much more tech-savvy than I am, and when I was feeling less impulsive a few days later and panicked over it, they did some computer magic and saved the manuscript from oblivion. And I had so much support from the poetry community—I genuinely would not have made it through the process alone. I still gave myself a deadline, though—if it hadn’t been picked up by January 31, 2023, I was going to shelve it until I finished my PhD. And then the morning of January 31, 2023, I woke up to an email from TRP. Literally not even kidding. It felt like magic—it still does. 

I share all this because I wish I’d done it differently, and maybe it’ll help someone else who’s in the thick of it. I could have made it a lot easier on myself, and saved a lot of money, by being patient, by being a little more discerning about where I sent the book, by protecting my own energy. I spent so long in the publishing trenches that I forgot why I wanted any of this in first place—to create, to be known, to be in community. I lost sight of the reason for it all, and when I finally came back these poems from that place, lo and behold, the book got better. That was in April of 2022. I remember, because it was the last version of the book I ever submitted—the one I sent to TRP

The actual publishing process is, admittedly, sort of boring. There’s a lot more paperwork than I ever imagined, but getting to revise again without the pressure of submitting it was so freeing, and brought me back again to that creative, joyful place. It’s been really good. And it’s been so long now since I wrote most of those poems, it’s felt like getting to know myself again. It’s nice to do that. I like getting to look back on that Raye with gentleness, now. I know what they went through to get here. 


Read “Mama Said Angels are Watching Over Us” by Raye Hendrix in Issue 11.1.