The Poetics of Witchcraft: An Interview with Faylita Hicks

Photo of poet Faylita HIcks

A couple of years ago, I met Faylita Hicks at an open mic that she started in San Marcos, Texas. She was finishing her MFA at Sierra Nevada College while working small gigs and part-time jobs to pay her bills. Over the last two years, she has channeled this experience into her work as an advocate for those marginalized by the criminal justice system, her poetry on survival in an inequitable society, and her essays on living as a working-class writer. She allows her own experience to flow onto the page in gritty language that forces readers to confront the ways in which womxn, especially womxn of color, must fight for every inch of ground they gain. Her new poetry collection, HoodWitch, explores the world of Voodoo in relation to the experiences of black womxn in today’s America.

Faylita Hicks (pronouns: she/her/they) is a queer writer, mobile photographer, and performance artist. Hicks is the author of HoodWitch (Acre Books, 2019), Managing Editor of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, an organizer with Mano Amiga, and a finalist for the 2018 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellowship. Hicks was a 2019 Lambda Literary Emerging Fellow for Nonfiction, a 2019 Jack Jones Literary Arts “Culture, Too” Conference Gender/Sexuality Fellow, a 2019 Palette Poetry Spotlight Award Finalist, winner of Catapult’s 2019 Black History Month Scholarship, and has received a residency from the Vermont Studio Center. Their work is published or forthcoming in POETRY Magazine, Adroit, The Rumpus, The Cincinnati Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, Slate, Huffington Post, Texas Observer, Color Bloq, and others. They received their MFA from Sierra Nevada College and live in San Marcos, TX.

Clayton Bradshaw: I would like to start with the first question I ever asked you. In addition to poetry, you also perform hip hop. How does your music play into your literary work and vice versa?

Faylita Hicks: When I first started rapping, I was very afraid, so I had a different name before I ended up changing it to Faylita Hicks. With my first EP, a lot of my rap friends said that my music sounded like poems. A lot of my poetry friends said that my poems sounded like rap. It made me think about what it meant to be lyrical, what it meant to be a lyricist. The subjects that I talk about on the EP are subjects that I talk about now; They are just a little more developed. [The EP] told me a lot about the things that I cared about. Before I had an EP, I had a chapbook. That chapbook ended up becoming the EP. So you can listen to my EP, and that’s my chapbook.

Bradshaw: Recently you have forayed into the nonfiction world…. How does your life experience play into your work?

Hicks: That’s a long, big question. I was raised to be the wife of a preacher or evangelist. That’s what people in my church believed that I would be. So I spent a lot of time public speaking, sharing in testimony. When I left the church and went into the spoken word realm, I found that there’s a lot of the same testimony and sharing. Now that I am where I am now, I feel the need to testify but without the need to convert people to a religion. I know a lot of people who are hurting, who have been hurt. I want them to know that it is possible to get to the other side. So I use my life to show them it is possible. I testify all the time. That’s why I write articles and poems. I feel a need to share what I’ve learned.

Bradshaw: You published “wolf” in Cosmonauts Avenue last year. I loved your taking on of the bildungsroman in violent and bloody fashion. “I finally found a way to clean the blood out the carpet. / gets down on all fours. starts licking.” What do you feel this poem says about creating agency as a woman?

Hicks: “wolf” was written about my sister when I saw her having a bad mushroom trip during a bad case of anxiety. I did not know this at the time, but she had been assaulted that night. The poem is about the anger that comes. Some people respond to assault in different ways. For me and my sister, the response to assault is anger. It is a righteous anger. That is where the book goes. It is the first poem in the book—where the transformation starts. The question becomes how to protect ourselves. And the answer is that we need to become something more. What I hope that this book does is give people permission to be more and to be OK with being more.

There is this trope of the angry black woman. It is a trope because it happens, and there are a lot of reasons for black women to be angry. My sister wasn’t angry to begin with. She was angry afterwards, after things had been done to her.

Bradshaw: You mention your book of poetry, HoodWitch, which [came] out [on] October 15th. Why this title?

Hicks: For me, the title stems from being from the hood and also being a witch. I’ve been homeless several times. There is something to be said for making your personal space safe without having all the tools necessary. I was raised Christian, not Voodoo or anything else. I didn’t have a lot of that sort of knowledge. However, I did know that salt meant cleansing. I knew that candles were meant for prayer. I knew that water was cleansing, a way to connect spiritually. So I would go sit by the water. That was free. HoodWitch is about using the things you have available to you to create your own spirituality. In the book, I create a mythology that I think emulates that. The book follows a woman who becomes a god after an assault. She is safe to fight by herself. She doesn’t need a third party. She is assaulted and decides into what she is going to transform. That decision is what I am talking about. We decide what power is for ourselves.

Bradshaw: What would you say is the message of your book?

Hicks: I want women from all backgrounds to find power in who they are and define how they fit into the world. They are allowed to be upset and angry over the things that have happened to them. It is about righteous anger and about taking back the things women have lost. There have been so many women—trans women and women of color—who are not familiar to the general public, that have been murdered for who they are. Do we give mercy to the murderer, or do we enact our revenge and revolt? Are we really not allowed to strike back? It is walking that line and questioning it—when is it OK to fight back? And how do I fight back?

Bradshaw: This reminds me of a poem in your book titled “The Daughters of Samuel Little.” Does that poem play into this idea of fighting back?

Hicks: Samuel Little is one of the biggest serial killers in the US. He killed around 30-40 black prostitutes across the country. He confessed to ninety murders, but he was only connected to those 30-40. Only three cases were ever prosecuted. Why did he get away with killing so many women? It was because they were black women. They were prostitutes. They were not important to the mainstream. That’s why he got away. That’s why it didn’t matter.

Bradshaw: I’ve noticed disparate themes of sex and death recurring in you work. How would you describe the relationship between the two in your poetry?

Hicks: I have a concept, and it’s a concept I’ve been working on for a long time. But it’s not just in my poetry; it’s in everything I write. Sex is such a life-affirming moment. In one aspect, if you are just going for reproduction, it is the moment where life is created. If it’s not meant for reproduction, it’s the moment where we take off most of our layers, most of the things we use to protect ourselves. It is the time where you get to be the most honest with who you are. Some people try to hide that face, but in real sex you can’t hide who you are. Death is the same way. In death, there is no more sugarcoating it. You don’t get to speak up about it. Everything is there for someone to find. Even if you try to hide something, people will find it. All the stuff you were trying to avoid before will come to light. It is interesting to me that those are the two times where people can see you for who you are.

Bradshaw: It seems like you find truth and honesty in sex and death.

Hicks: I know this sounds really weird when I say it, but I find joy in death. It took too many of these women we have lost, all these women of color who have been murdered, to become a topic of conversation. But now it is a topic of conversation. I get an opportunity to stand in front of someone else to say, This is the problem. It’s the same thing for black people after slavery. It took how many years of slavery and death before people said, “Oh, we shouldn’t do this.” People kept saying it to other people while people kept dying in chains, and then we got to a point where a black man could become the president. There is a lot of pain behind joy. And we’re so joyful because of a lot of pain. I call it orgasmos, which is my theory on life and sex and death. We call orgasm the little death, which is a popular thing, but it shows how you can have a little death in something that brings joy. Death is knowledge that we do not have. The closest that we come to understanding it is in that moment of orgasm when time stops. It may not be like that for everyone else, but it is like that for me. Time stops a little bit. So when time stops, and nothing else matters, that’s when you get a little bit of knowledge about everything else.

Bradshaw: You are currently working on a nonfiction book. What is this piece about? What do your experiences bring to conversation?

Hicks: The working title is #Turnt. I fall in love with my fiancée, who dies. My friend Gabrielle dies from cancer. I then give birth to a little girl who gets adopted. I am processing all of my life experiences against Me Too and Black Lives Matter. Those two things are big for me. I have to consider my sexual assault and how that affects my relationship with my fiancée and my relationship with my friend, Gabrielle, who was very sex positive. This was right before the Me Too movement became a thing.

I found out about my pregnancy with my daughter right around the time that Trayvon Martin was shot and killed. Also, I consider Sandra Bland, who was killed in 2015. She was going to Prairie View A&M at the same time as my fiancée. She’s from Chicago, where my daughter lives now. So Sandra Bland becomes a sort of mirror for me and my daughter. I’ll be exploring what it means to be alive during the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements and what they mean to me, how they impacted [sic] my life directly. 

Bradshaw: It sounds like you are discussing the intersections of these movements on our personal lives. What would you say is the impact of that intersection?

Hicks: You don’t have to be a big news person to be influenced by what is happening on the news. I didn’t understand that until I was in college. That’s around the time that it started clicking for me. These are real people in positions of power making decisions that impact my life and the lives of hundreds of others. So understanding that, I’m approaching it from my point out. In my social justice work, I have to understand that these councilpeople are tired. Or they’re upset. Or they have a personal reason why this vote affects them and their lives. It’s just that it also happens to affect hundreds of other people. Since I don’t know anyone else’s life, I look at what is happening globally. I can’t talk to everyone about what happened to my neighbor or to my friend or what happened to me, but I can talk about Trayvon Martin. When he died, I was pregnant and put on a black hoodie and walked to buy Skittles. A lot of people did that, but when I did it, I was right down the street from the Hays County Jail where I had spent forty-five days in jail. Every day, I had to walk by this place that had traumatized me. Now had this little person inside of me, and I had to decide that if I had this little person, it would be a little Trayvon. Would I want to give birth to a Trayvon Martin who might be killed? If it was a girl, would I want to give birth to little girl that would eventually be assaulted? Do I want to put them in a world where they only have a couple of options?

Bradshaw: Is there anything else you would like to say to writers, especially genderqueer writers of color, who are struggling to navigate their way into owning a piece of the literary world?

Hicks: I don’t think you can own a piece of the literary world. I think that you can find space for yourself in it.

I think you have to be very honest about what your end goal is. There is this trend where people are happy to be mentioned or to be on a list. But I think it is important to be honest. I’m very ambitious. When I say I want to find acclaim, it is because that means that I can provide for myself. I can support my family and my friends. That’s what all these prizes mean. Getting a prize or a fellowship means that I can live sustainably as an artist. So yes, I am ambitious, but it means that I can get there. I want to have a house. I want to have a car. I want to be able to travel and pay for myself.

I think that some artists only want to focus on getting popular like that’s going to fix everything else. It’s not going to fix everything else. I made a book to get to my larger goal. So I would tell other artists to look to a larger goal. What does that goal look like? Then how much work are you willing to put in to get there? I’m realizing this now. The book is done, and there is a whole lot of work left. But I didn’t go into this just to have a book. It’s not just about the literary world. Focusing on just the literary world is restrictive. There are a lot of people who have a big name that do not have their livelihoods together and are very unhappy. I think that having a bigger goal is very important. You will influence the communities that look like me. You have to think about how your work will affect them.

Faylita Hicks’ book, Hoodwitch, was released on October 15th from Acre Books. It is currently in its second printing.