Department of English

An Interview with Keene Prize Winner Raye Hendrix

Thu, May 9, 2019
An Interview with Keene Prize Winner Raye Hendrix
Photo by Brian Birzer

Raye Hendrix, a 2019 New Writers Project graduate, has won the $50,000 Keene Prize for Literature for her collection of poems, The Epithets of Local Shells. We interviewed Raye to hear about her experience in the New Writers Project and discuss what winning the Keene Prize means to her. Take a look:

What are some memorable classes or moments from your time in NWP?

Oh, wow. This list could go on and on! I’ve loved working with Lisa Olstein and Dr. Roger Reeves, but it was really special to be able to take my first workshop here with Natalie Diaz when she was the visiting professor. That workshop focused on getting to the root of language, and it changed my relationship with sound in poetry. I remember one day in class reading a poem aloud, then Natalie handed out eye masks and instructed us to put them on. Then she read it to us again. It was a totally different, very cool way to experience a poem. Visiting the Pacific Northwest for the first time for AWP with Bat City Review (and working for BCR as a whole) is another high point. There’s really so much I could mention—end-of-the-semester lasagna parties, drinking wine at the Dobie House with authors I idolize after their readings, teaching my first poetry workshop, Jane Miller’s repeated recitation of “no self-censorship”—but I’ll err on the side of brevity and leave it at this: everything about NWP was my favorite thing. I've gotten to meet and work with so many amazing people in both MFA programs and in the department. Being here has been such a dream come true.

What is something you read or otherwise encountered here that was new but is now important to your thinking?

Lisa’s literature class on 50s & 60s American poetry was great for my writing practice, and so was Dr. Reeves’s class exploring race—particularly blackness—and resistance. One thing that immediately comes to mind is a book I read in Dr. Reeves’s class, Ben Kafka’s The Demon of Writing. It’s largely about how paperwork and bureaucracy exert control over our lives, and how to (theoretically) subvert that control. Our documents are proof of our bodies to the state, even in death. That book pushed me into a realm of thinking about the page as a kind of representative body, which has fundamentally altered the ways I think about violence. If the page can be a body, is a poem like a scar? Can writing be a kind of violence? I find it all fascinating, and it’s changed the way I interact with books as physical objects, as well as with my own poems. I’m a bit gentler on them now, and by extension, myself, when I think about my poems as extensions of my body. I also gained a lot from Dr. Chad Bennett’s class on hybrid poetry, and I loved stretching my brain in Dean Young’s Surrealism seminar. Reading Planet News by Ginsberg in Lisa’s class, Anne Carson’s Nox in Dr. Bennett’s, and Rimbaud in Dean’s are some standout texts in my mind. The classes were wonderful, but those books in particular blew open my preconceived notions of what poetry had to be. Realizing a poem could be what I wanted it to be was incredibly liberating. 

How have you liked living in Austin? What has it been like to write about places of memory and childhood from this landscape?

I’ve loved it. It’s so different from anything I’ve ever experienced before. I was born and raised in Alabama, mostly in farm country, and the closest thing I ever really got to living in a “city” was a Birmingham suburb for a few years in high school. Even my college was in the middle of nowhere, with just a mile strip of road with a handful of bars and shops that we called “downtown.” I’d been in major cities before—we went to Atlanta for concerts pretty often—but never for more than a weekend, and it was definitely an adjustment coming here and looking out my window and seeing skyscrapers. And there’s so much to do! I’ve never really had this much at my disposal before, and it was overwhelming in the best way. I’m a little bit of a rock fanatic, and since moving to Austin, I’ve gotten to see Blue Oyster Cult, Toto, Robert Plant, Kaleo, Metallica, and more tiny punk shows than I can count. The music scene here is an embarrassment of riches and I love it. Oh, and the food. We don’t need to talk about how much money I’ve spent on tacos and margaritas these last two years.

I think the contrast between here and home is actually one of the primary reasons my writing turned the direction it did—it’s like I had to leave home to write about it. Something about the total unfamiliarity of Austin and city life opened up all these pockets of memory I didn’t realize I had. The distance has granted me a lot of clarity as well, and even a kind of freedom. The other side of that coin is that the freedom came with a lot of baggage. I used to fantasize about the day I'd get to leave behind the dark red politics of Alabama, and now I’m homesick for a place I thought I hated. It goes deeper than just missing my family, though that’s a very large part of it. The clarity that’s come from leaving is that I don’t hate Alabama. It’s my home and it always will be. I love it, and that’s complicated, because it doesn’t love me back. Alabama hurt me. Writing into and through memory, pairing the beautiful with the ugly instead of separating it out, is how I’ve been able to grapple with feeling homesick for a place actively works against people like me (female, queer, “different”). Austin has been conducive to my poetry not only because of the literary community within the university, but because it’s acted as a haven. It feels safe for me to write these poems and grapple with these poems here. When I close my notebook and go outside, I'm leaving Alabama in my apartment for a different world. I know the rest of Texas is just as red as Alabama, but Austin has let me breathe, and let my poems breathe as well. 

What are you most grateful for with regard to the prize? What does it mean to you?

Oh gosh—all of it. Everything. Winning the Keene Prize is, as we say back home, a blessing—for my finances, of course, but also for my mental health. I struggle a lot with impostor syndrome and one of the major things the Keene has done is lend me a sense of validation. I had zero expectations after being a finalist last year. I told my partner and friends over and over that I felt like I’d dropped my payload of good poems on the 2018 prize, so winning this year was an incredibly affirming surprise. That anyone wants to even read my sad little farm poems, much less give me money because they like them, is bizarre and wonderful and incredibly humbling.

Financially, it means I can afford to do some things this summer that I was scrambling to save up for. My partner and I are moving later this summer, and that expense is now taken care of. That’s a significant weight off my shoulders. It’s also allowed us the wiggle room to visit our families back home before the move, which is so important to me, and it means so much that I’m able to do it now. It’s not all business, though: I’m a vintage classic rock vinyl enthusiast, but have never been able to afford a decent turntable setup, so that’s going to be my one big, totally indulgent, celebratory purchase! 

What is next for you after you graduate?

More graduate school! I’m headed to Eugene, Oregon to start working on my PhD at the University of Oregon. My concentration is in Contemporary American Poetry and Poetics with a focus in Queer and Crip studies. I’m really interested in the concept of inheritance, and I’ve been fascinated by the new research that says we inherit trauma biologically—that with our ancestors, we create a kind of lineage of trauma and experience. At Oregon, I’m going to be taking those ideas about inheritance and using them to dig for the threads of trauma in American poetry. I want to figure out what our inherited poetic “DNA” looks like. That’s got the next 5-6 years covered; after that, who knows! What I do know is that I'm sad to be leaving Austin and UT, but really excited for what's to come. 

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