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Hick Poetics cover

Book Review: Hick Poetics: An Anthology of Contemporary Rural American Poetry, Edited by Shelly Taylor and Abraham Smith

By on December 15, 2016

By Abby Minor

 

Will the Real Folks Please Stand Up?: Rebellion, Authenticity, and Identity in Hick Poetics

 

I was raised by a man who had opinions about the word “creek.” My father never missed an opportunity to remind my sister and me that folks who use that word to describe moving water are (I kid you not) “trying to sound like they’re from the city.” To him the word for what ran through our yard was rightfully “crick,” rhyming with “stick,” or, significantly, with “hick.” At the same time, he and my mother (a Jewish New Yorker who couldn’t give two hoots about rural nomenclature) sent us to a private Quaker elementary school, and my pipeline-welder dad eventually got a PhD in physics. So I grew up with the idea that while you might not actually want to live in a coal patch, intimations of hick-ness could earn you something—but I wasn’t exactly sure with whom or to what end. And I’m still not.

Part of the answer to that question—what do you get when you flash your hick badge?—lies with two distinct, and distinctly related, early-20th-century developments in U.S. thought. On the one hand, Americans came to think of one of our preeminent rural places, Appalachia, as especially white; on the other, we came to associate “nature” with healthful, masculine vigor. The first idea was a fantasy of purity: in the decades surrounding the century’s turn, when interest in the “science” of eugenics reached a peak in the U.S., a surge of social scientists, reformers, and folklore collectors strove to delineate what they perceived as reliably “white.” Faced with Emancipation, migration, and immigration, culture workers turned their attention to Appalachia. And Appalachia, despite the significant presence of African American and non-Anglo mountaineers, seemed to fit the bill. The idea of Appalachia as a stronghold of Anglo culture was most visible in the work of folk-song collectors, and you can see it still in many old-time music communities. Indeed, early-20th-century song collectors’ work had a lot to do with the fact that, seventy years later, my father—who would never think to trace his father’s banjo to West Africa—would explain to me with pride that his West Virginia kin still spoke Shakespeare’s English.

The second development, the sense of nature as an antidote to cultural effeminacy, was a fantasy of authenticity. This fantasy congealed in the form of the Back to Nature movement, and on that subject it’s worth quoting Modernist scholar Robin Schulze at length:

“Confronted with the specter of a degenerate Europe and the increasing threat that America, too, would inevitably become decadent and artificial as its own culture evolved, upper- and middle-class white Americans turned back to nature for the sake of the American race. They chose to value not culture, not the artifacts of their evolving civilization, but the idea of health. Always anxious about their poetry, pictures, and music, the art that never seem wholly unique or mature, Americans opted to denigrate such artifice as the root of degeneracy and revel instead in the vigorous life that heading back to nature promised. If Americans could never truly have a culture, they could best Europe by being fit, and nature was the key to that fitness.”

It’s not difficult to see how these twin fantasies—one of purity, the other of authenticity—fit neatly together in many ways, or how the Anglicized Appalachian came to represent a holy trinity of related fictions: the eugenic vigor of whiteness; the durability, masculinity, and restraint of working culture; and the innocence of American wilderness. He represented a stay against an impressive array of threats: fainting Europeans, unfit swarthy masses, the regressive culture of underdeveloped “savages,” and the dainty nerves of anemic artists, academics, and the urban effete. This picture was precarious and potentially contradictory (couldn’t the poor, large families of Appalachia also resemble the degenerate masses? How exactly could the culture of the folk be void of the artifice that supposedly defined culture itself?), but it stuck. And so the people of the rural mountains became what the country needed them to be: in historian Fred Hay’s words, “America’s sole surviving remnant population of pure Anglo-American stock”; in other words, a multiple-pronged, reactionary fantasy.

Where I live, in northern Appalachia, people still perform a gauntlet-flinging brand of white rusticity partly born of those century-old fantasies. And while it’s common to associate contemporary gestures of rural bravado with conservatives, in truth performances of hick-face range from the tattered snap of a Confederate flag flown from the back of a PA pick-up to the aggressive stomp of a Brooklyn-based jug band at the local brew pub. Nearly everyone in my rural milieu, from Trump supporters to liberal organic farmers, has their own version of adamantly rejecting “creek” for “crick,” and while I can trace the spit and swagger of these gestures to certain histories, I still can’t entirely parse them out. And so I turn to poets; I read rural poets to find out how we handle the ideologies we’ve inherited, how we echo or interrupt the interlocking isms and fears that still haunt our rural imaginary.

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There’s spit and swagger to spare in Hick Poetics: An Anthology of Contemporary Rural American Poetry, published by Lost Roads in 2015. Editors Shelly Taylor and Abraham Smith frame the collection in terms of reclamation and rebellion: “hick in our minds is a powerful rib-jab reclamation of power: it is us taking back this idea of the pastoral—ours to begin with anyhow—a la Johnny Cash’s middle finger,” writes Taylor; Smith calls it an anthology of “roughly reedy exhalations” and “a book built for hearing what some natives & near natives of the pasture have up their grassy, greasy sleeves.” When Taylor muses on the anthology’s title—“Why hick, you ask? What a terribly derisive word in this modern age of ‘best be careful not to offend’”—there’s a hint of pride at the prospect of offending. In their short introductory essays, both Smith and Taylor use the word piss—Smith uses it three times.

Rib-jabs, greasy sleeves, pissing—these are not the Back to Nature movement’s innocent rubes. Like reclamations of other slurs (niggah, bitch, queer), Smith and Taylor’s hick reclamation requires some strut and chutzpah, and it plays with the angel/devil dichotomy by which marginalized people are often defined. Just as nostalgia for an imaginary, simple (white) past hangs around Appalachia and other rural places, so do jokes about toothless-ness and incest. The rural poor have been not only rosily romanticized, but also politically, economically, and culturally pushed aside. Like dichotomous virgin/whore images of women, like our films that show black people as either saintly or monstrous, the innocent mountaineer and the idiot hillbilly are two sides of the same coin. We imbue class and region, like gender and race, with contradictory meanings: we see the “folk” as degenerate or salt of the earth, as ignorant or intuitive, as licentious or admirably embodied. Twin strands of glorification and repugnance abide.

Hick Poetics challenges the glorification by glorifying the repugnant. It hollers back a hundred years at those early folklorists: Hey, we’re not just milk-fed fiddlers, and we can write in ways that are weird, fragmented, experimental, and unhinged. In rejecting the traditionally-pretty pastoral, Smith and Taylor want us to see not only rural people but “nature poetry” as edgy, funky, rusty, raw. What Taylor describes as “this tough-minded collection of hick poems” does not do what traditional nature poetry has done; readers find fewer revelatory walks in the woods and more roadside trash. In one of the book’s short essays—each of the anthology’s forty poets introduces their own work—we “find ourselves in the litter of illegal fires, broken bottles, last night’s sex.” Whereas the whitewashed Appalachian promised to stave off degeneracy, Hick Poetics often revels in it, taking pleasure in being a little bit bad and dirty, greasy and grassy, junky and tough. And, yes, full of piss.

There’s a class-based protest against the insufferable tidiness of bourgeois aesthetics running through the anthology. Nathan Hauke’s poems look at the “Dull glint of tinsel near the tree dump” and “A young mother picking lice out of her husband’s hair in Sunshine Coin-Op”; the anthology abounds with “the bruised faces of elderberries and actual bruised faces”, “the dumpsters // behind the TV factory”, and “People who burn old tires indoors in homemade woodstoves.” And yet, Hick Poetics also often feels like the song of a people split by complexities of aesthetics and class: that line about burning old tires reads, in its entirety, “It’s hard to write about supposedly being a hick when you know or have known real hicks. People who burn old tires indoors in homemade woodstoves, for example.” For many rural-born poets, the fact that we teach college students or attend conferences or use words like “afterimage” or write poetry—or never burned tires indoors—makes us the city slickers scoffed at by our hometown folks. That tension is one of the anthology’s major themes: Juliana Spahr writes that she’s been accused of being “a hillbilly fraud”; Juan Felipe Herrera’s sister describes him as “‘del pueblo,’ not from ‘el rancho’ where you know how to make adobe, roast forty pounds of green chiles”; Danielle Pafunda relates: “Am I a hick? I ask. You grew up twenty minutes from the mall, my partner crows.”

Smith seems to dismiss the urgency of that apparent tension between academic conferences and making adobe (or burning tires, or whatever our home community’s particular rubric for hick-ness is) when he writes:

“how we live now authenticity is clawed at until it bleeds something. perhaps these ain’t ‘authentic outpost inlookings’…but i know this: the stuff of the pastoral is the stuffing puffing up most poets, sometimes; pasture grass gargle, a commonplace. & I do know this book to be looking you square in the star eye.”

But in the pages that follow, just exactly what it means to be “looking you square in the star eye”—what it means to be sufficiently greasy and grassy rather than stuffed and puffed—isn’t so easily set aside. The struggle to reconcile the down-home and the intellectual (or the urban, suburban, or urbane) persists: Pafunda responds to her partner’s crowing, “I spent as much time scratching poison sumac and bug bites, as much time up in trees as he did.” Yet she acknowledges, “I’m a city girl, I’m pretty bourgeois”—then again, “My house was full of guns”—then again, “I’ve never shot a gun myself”—then again, “I know how to hold one, how to aim.” A tension remains.

As someone who grew up stomping cat litter into the drain field of the busted septic tank (thanks, Dad—real Shakespearian), I know what it’s like to want to honor the rough and rusty, to rub the tire piles and the wood piles in the faces of families who hug on porches while a light snow falls in Christmas-time commercials for Apple products. So when these poets attend to “paint huffers lagoonside” and “the wall of a rusted-out stove,” I get it. When Ander Monson describes wanting “To manifest resistance to those who’d try to ruin our ruins, to those who choose to flatten us with their attention or inattention,” I get it. When Tim Earley howls, “JANE SMILEY WRITES of THE SCOTCH-IRISH: ‘Mean as a snake and twice as quick…’…. Fuck you, Jane Smiley….gum it up in the Berkeley, gum it up in the New Yorks City, POETRY! POETRY! POETRY! you subhuman fucks,” I more or less get it. I get that to pay attention to paint huffers and rusted-out stoves can be to reject romanticized ideas about rural purity, to offer a legitimate hymn to the peripheral.

But I’m struck by how this need to prove ourselves as sufficiently rusty can feel anxious, and by how the terms of this struggle between rural realities and whatever threatens them are still, just as a century ago, so often gendered. It’s difficult not to associate rural-ness with a kind of masculine “real-ness” (whether what’s real consists of racial purity or syntactical fracturing or guns and rust), and too easy to express our thoughts about authenticity—as poets or as country people, or both—in terms that seem to equate the inauthentic (whatever it is) with the feminine (whatever it is). It’s not so much that what counts as “real” has remained the same since the Back to Nature movement’s apex, but that whatever we call authentic gets coded as tough.

When I feel my own hick rebelliousness coming on (why do I so often mention my father’s tobacco chewing habit, but not his PhD in physics?), I think of the “REDNECK”-emblazoned confederate flags flying from porches and trucks in my neck of the woods, and I pause. I find it hard to avoid the association between hick swagger and white, masculine defensiveness—“hick,” whatever else it may mean, surely signals rural white masculinity in popular culture—or to resist reading Hick Poetics as, at times, insufficiently attuned to that association. “This idea of the pastoral” might have been “ours to begin with anyhow,” but I’m not sure who the word “hick” belongs to at our current cultural moment, who it belonged to in the past, or who “we” are. While it’s clear that the anthology aims to challenge and expand popular ideas about who (and what attitudes) count as rural—Taylor and Smith have gathered poets of different races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, visions, and bearings—it still sometimes seems to gloss over hick’s attendant meanings, and so the hick-as-white-masculinity thing can feel like the elephant in the anthology’s otherwise imaginative and visionary room. In aiming to reclaim what’s been prettied-up by systems of power, Hick Poetics, like my rebel-flag-flying brethren, occasionally engages in a kind of strutting and finger-tossing that has its own thorny power dynamics.

Describing the literary scene in Fayetteville, Arkansas, poet Matthew Henricksen writes, “We drink coffee and beer and look at trees. We read Frank Stanford…until three AM. We hardly hear the echoing yelps of universities who only hire book prize-winning PhDs and publishing houses who outsource their printing to Mexico.” And in his introductory note, Smith folds the reader into that coterie of yelpers when he describes the anthology’s poets as “not from where you are now, i am guessing.” What strikes me is that in throwing the bird at the same urban and/or academic pretense that the Back to Nature movement promised to cure—and that the likes of Tim McGraw still love to disdain—we summon some politically interesting bedfellows.

I want to resist equating broken appliances or hazardous forces, including the prosodic forces of fracturing and narrative skittishness, with authentic hick-ness—however true to our experiences those things might be, however tempting it is to haul out the rusty washer when tenure-track New Yorkers come around or the dis-associative leaps when traditional nature poets come around—because doing so doesn’t so much broaden as simply reverse the narrative of rural-ness as sweet and recuperative. I want to challenge what seems unsatisfying about the traditional pastoral without coding it as effeminate and relying on busted septic tanks and jagged syntaxes to beef it up. I want to be skeptical of the romance of fiddles (or lyres), but also of the romance of damage; I want to agree with Adrian Kien that “brutality and survival” have a lot to do with both wilderness and poetry without rejecting gentleness, without calling on that particularly American brand of nature-as-tough invented, in part, as an antidote to art itself.

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And yet on the tricky subject of authenticity Hick Poetics is, in its poetry and especially in its prose, largely both gratifying and challenging. “When you grew up in the rural South,” writes Greg Alan Brownderville, “even if you work diligently to understate everything, it’s hard to talk about your background without appearing to ham it up and parody yourself.” Michael Sikkema describes “constantly navigating the country vs. ‘country’”, and Jen Tynes writes of her home town: “In the gift shops around the (man-made) lake that brought in much-needed tourist dollars, you could buy corncobs with a label attached: hillbilly toilet paper.” In naming the weird layers of caricature and commodification that hick-ness accrues, these poets acknowledge the slippery contours of conversations about region and class, as well as the inevitably performative aspects of identity, even as they identify very much as of-their-places. I hear a wryly complicated comment on rural identity and language when Tynes writes, “…what am I / supposed to covet next? / Another slang for storm.”

One of the best things Hick Poetics does, even if it does so implicitly, is to address North American realities of place-related loss, as well as the ways in which white supremacy, racism, misogyny, queer-phobia, and whitewashing of rural places are so deeply intertwined with environmental degradation. In other words, the anthology blurs the (man-made) line between the politics of social life and the politics of environment: “My poems engage the subject of Inupiaq cultural and biological extinction,” writes Joan Naviyuk Kane, “…Hick poetics prevents me from losing perspective in the destructive events of recent history and enlarges my awareness of the vast and self-replenishing resources of the human spirit, voice, and intellect.” Kane’s poem “Nunaqtigiit” picks up where her prose leaves off:

From time to time the sound of voices
as through sun-singed grass,

or grasses that we used to insulate the walls of our winter houses—
walrus hides lashed together with rawhide cords.

The sky of my mind against which self-

betrayal in its sudden burn

fails to describe the world.

Leaning against the stone wall ragged

I began to accept my past and, as I accepted it,

 

I felt, and I didn’t understand:

I am bound to everyone.

 

The scale of loss Kane’s poems engage is distinct to indigenous experience, but the final line of “Nunaqtigiit” points to the ways in which the anthology’s poets are bound together in contending with the still-unfolding erasures of colonization. They are bound not by the inevitable losses of mortality and accident, but with those caused by spiritual illness and injustice. Hick Poetics tells how “The farms that no longer farm now frack”; how “you cannot love bugles/or understand a calendar/ as long as there is a slaughterhouse”; and, in Juliana Spahr’s poem documenting indigenous Hawaiian’s struggle to access shoreline, “how certain of we have rights on paper yet not in place.”

It’s satisfying, not to mention accurate, to encounter such a broad range of social experiences under the hick umbrella. Brownderville’s “Song for a Kiss” describes a Civil-Rights-Era-childhood in Arkansas, a black girl’s kiss on a white boy’s neck, his disgust, and, later, when he’s grown and yearns to return it: “At once I felt ashamed / for dreaming that my kiss—belated blessing—would be worth a good goddamn. / That it could heal, heal anything: her, me, home.” Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s dream-like, urgent poem “Sudden Where” speaks from the perspective of young people living in foster care; the poem begins, “Talon-plucked speckled trout from bitterroot bed,” and goes on to extend that image:

 

…Thought we were unbreakable

tried so many times to snuff ourselves—each other—blunders were our closest

friends. Kept us from soaring over cloud dreams, swimming in deep water,

skimming surfaces in grasslands without a notion when we’d make it back

to the piney mountains calling us home. That was fostering. Sudden where.

Being left to airs, to talons lifting, sometimes tearing scales as they raised us.

 

Reading Hick Poetics is like looking through a kaleidoscope at many, sometimes radically different, North American ways of understanding land: while some poets describe wilderness as a space of terror, disappearance, silence, or absence, others see its recuperative powers—think of Coke’s “piney mountains calling us home.” While some express uneasy or ambivalent relationships to land and place, others struggle to (re)claim those relationships: when Crystal Wilkenson writes, “I am Black. I am Appalachian. People don’t often acknowledge our presence but we are here….We’re here. We’re here,” you understand why she needs to repeat herself.

The anthology also captures painful tensions between regional identification and radical not-fitting-ins. Writes genderqueer poet TC Tolbert, “my body my word my horror my healing my home my leaving   my god my (w)hole my south,” while Spahr reflects: “5,000 miles from this place, I still wake up at least once a week and think I am there and have to reorient myself. It is as if I go there in my sleep to rest…And yet I’m not fucking moving back there ever, so don’t ask again mom.” Lisa D. Chavez notes simply, “Leaving Alaska was like leaving a lover, losing a limb.” That friction between identification and distance is a hallmark of artistic life, and it makes for rural vernaculars variously defined: “With what should I encircle my throat so as not to inconvenience the blue air”, writes Earley; a Brownderville speaker “Got so drunk, / I felt like I was working / a Rubik’s Cube with my / eyeballs”; D.A. Powell goes “splat in the oatmeal: granddaddy facedown / disappeared the way a prize hog we were fond of”; and Gillian Conoley manages something between an Appalachian ballad and an Elizabeth Bishop poem when she writes:

 

no more

shall I wear that old black dress,  greasy all around.   no more shall I

wear the old black bonnet with holes all in the crown.

 

One of the anthology’s emotional currents is a kind of affectless-ness, an opacity that aims to tread lightly, I think, where traditional nature poets have sometimes gone heavy with sentimentality. Dreamy non-narratives and distant speakers (“The bell rings and I assume my charges, / your name bleeding slowly through my blouse, a sparrow // carved it thus, a titmouse, and so it weeps in lieu of me,” Pafunda writes) can move us beyond clichés about human relationships with nature, and can challenge established ideas about what counts as a narrative, or even what counts as a self. Such approaches search for language that feels more honest, more accurate than what co-editor Smith calls “pasture grass gargle, a commonplace.” And yet it’s this dis-associative reserve that backlights and makes striking two of the anthology’s other important tonal strands: moments of straight-up humor, and moments of what I’ll call “land-love.” Hicks are, after all, funny; listen to Michael Earl Craig:

 

My little horse must think it queer.

But who cares what he thinks?

Listening to an animal might get me killed

look what happened to Walter.

 

And hicks are often lovers; the hicks I’ve known are helplessly, gruffly, often irrationally in love with their home places (“Abigail,” my father would say, “I’ve been all over the world, and central Pennsylvania is the prettiest place there is.”). Linnea Ogden’s poem “Long Weekend” strikes a tone both grumpy-funny and loving—“I hate everything easily this year but /The mockingbirds oh”—and Herrera issues a beautiful, unselfconscious call to affection for the world when he writes,

 

let us gather in a flourishing way

en la luz y en la carne of our heart to toil

tranquilos in fields of blossoms

 

In another poem, Herrera even instructs us to learn affection from the world:

 

the wren

& the tree, always the tree & the

brambles, they are the presidents

of kindness

 

Funny and loving, brash and kind, opaque in its ellipses and reservations, talkative and sparse, strutting and tender—Hick Poetics does, ultimately, what a good reclamation project should do: it muddies the waters, it complicates the terrain. The anthology itself feels (to use Tynes’ apt phrase from her stand-out essay on region and racism and class) “generatively rigged.” It’s not perfect and it’s not unified; it uses scraps and, like giovanni singleton, “would do a ‘hybrid’ and douse pinstriped overalls with blue velvet jacket, thinking Thoreau-ian thoughts.” And it puts me in mind of a funny thing that happened a few months ago.

Stationed at a white board at the local nursing home, where I teach a weekly poetry-writing class, I was transcribing memories and details for a collective poem. Most of the folks who come to sit at the dining-room-table-turned-classroom every Friday afternoon are near-centenarians who grew up in farming families rooted for generations in this valley, and yet they’re hardly dogmatic about regional identification; on most days, they accept me as someone more or less “from here,” Jewish mother notwithstanding. But when you’re paying attention to language, slips and gaps show up.

“I’m from the fourth house up the crick road,” one of my students said, and I dutifully wrote it down. I spelled the word as I’d heard it: C-R-I-C-K. My students looked at me, confused. “What’s that word you wrote?,” asked Ralph. “Crick,” I said, “just like Gretchen said.” “Well,” Gretchen chimed in, “however you say it, you spell it the same as anyone.”

Turns out it’s pronounced to rhyme with “stick,” but it’s still spelled C-R-E-E-K. Even my dad didn’t know that.

 

Notes

Robin Schulze’s work on the Back to Nature movement appears in her book The Degenerate Muse.

 

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A life-long resident of central Pennsylvania’s ridge-and-valley region, Abby Minor is the daughter of Appalachian tinkerers and Jewish New Yorkers. She’s worked as a pre-school teacher, roadie, assistant wedding-cake baker, landscaper, university writing teacher, seamstress, etc. Her poems have appeared in CALYX, So to Speak, Slush Pile Magazine, and The Fourth River; she’s an alumna of The Rensing Center’s Artist in Residence Program, a graduate of the MFA Program at Penn State, and one half of the noise music performance duo Wildflower Swagger. Since 2012 she has directed Being Heard, a creative writing program that honors the voices and imaginations of her county’s elders. She’s the author of the poetry chapbook Plant Light, Dress Light (dancing girl press).