Faylita Hicks is not a formally trained witch, but someone well-practiced. HoodWitch, her debut collection of poetry under Acre Books is a four-part narrative that explores the dangers and beauty of Black motherhood, the unnatural rites of bringing life into a world where women are abused and children are left vulnerable. The book is a brave offering of blood, water, flesh, and bone, honoring the author’s personal experiences as well as those of “every single Black girl gone missing.” Creating a work at once intimate and fantastical, Hicks carries trauma and grief yet is immune to pity.
Based in San Marcos, Texas, Hicks spoke with me over the phone shortly after HoodWitch was released in October 2019. Months prior, we had the chance to meet when we convened in Savannah, Georgia for Culture, Too, the inaugural writers conference for culture critics of color, hosted by Jack Jones Literary Arts.
As I prepared for our interview, I recalled a James Baldwin quote I plucked from his 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” which was later reprinted in the collection Notes of a Native Son. The words were scribbled on my kitchen chalkboard, like a chorus to an unnamed hymn, and read simply, “a lurid significance like the light of a fire which consumes a witch.” In Hicks’s case, darkness is the light that flickers meaning, reflecting and absorbing as she navigates the sharp contours of her identity as a Black daughter, birth mother, and nonbinary writer. Like Audre Lorde, she brings her whole self into the work to confront difference and oppression with the clarion call of poetry. The clear and persistent danger of daily life serves as a catalyst for Hicks to reclaim righteous anger, and reject the oppressive binaries of white, male, heteronormative structures typically used for brutality and punishment.
By calling forth her ancestors both literal and literary, Hicks evokes a strange and emotional alchemy of love, hurt, healing, piety, pain, fury, and transcendence. About a week after our phone conversation, with more questions lingering, I followed up with Hicks via email to ask more about her craft—as a practicing Black poet, as well as a Black witch.
The Rumpus: Tell me about the journey of HoodWitch. Where did it start?
Faylita Hicks: There have probably been about six versions and there were several steps where it felt like I got close [to publishing], but nothing actually happened. I thought that when I submitted my final manuscript to the graduate MFA program [at Sierra Nevada College] that I had finally made the book. But a month or two after graduating, I realized, that’s not the book. I knew that there were spells, a couple of curses, but I didn’t understand what it wanted to be until I submitted it to Acre Books in the summer of 2018 and signed the contract in November. Going through that editing process is when things started to really clear up for me.
Rumpus: How much of the book is real or imagined?
Hicks: Anything that has “Photo” in the title is based off of real photos from my childhood. When the title says “Photo of a Girl,” it’s representative of the time that I viewed myself as only a girl or a woman, which is different than “Photo of X”, which is when I started to think of my body as non-binary, when I was questioning myself more in terms of sexuality and gender. You’ll see what is essentially code-switching throughout the book, and even inside of one poem.
In many ways, the design of the book is replicating a spell, itself. In ritual practice there are four elements that we come back to on a regular basis: water, air, fire and earth. So, there are three sections, and the book itself, is fire.
Rumpus: You open the book with a quote by Dorothy E. Roberts from Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. What’s the significance of this quote for you?
Hicks: I’m a birth mother and my pregnancy experience was actually one of the best I’ve ever had in my life. But one of the first things that happened, which is actually something that I’m trying to write about now, is that I found out I was pregnant the same week that Trayvon Martin was killed. The overwhelming question that came up over and over in my head was, whether or not it was right to bring a child into this world. Knowing the trauma I’ve experienced, I was worried that giving birth was the least responsible thing that I could do, and so I had to have a real conversation with myself about how I thought of motherhood and how I thought of what it meant to be someone who brought someone else into a world that I’m afraid to be in. Making that decision to become a mother is a hard one. But we do it anyway and there is something inherently brave about it, making that choice knowing what the consequences could be.
Rumpus: What drew you to the concept of witchcraft?
Hicks: I had already been practicing for several years by the time I started working on the book. In the book, it’s meant to be spiritual, evoking something larger than ourselves. I’ve noticed, not just in these poems, but for poems that I’ve performed for poetry slams and poems I’ve written throughout the years, there is this constant need to honor the ancestors, to connect my experience to people before me. And not just honor, but raise up others.
Rumpus: Magic has always intrigued me and that doesn’t feel unique. What do you think is the reason for our fascination with witchcraft in popular culture?
Hicks: There’ve always been Black witches. There’ve always been hoodwitches and the fact that it’s now online and that it’s more embraced is reflective of people’s general movement away from the traditional white structures. My tarot cards come from Bri Luna’s Hoodwitch website. Her practice is not Yoruban specifically; I think it’s more Bruja, more Latinx, which is related. They’re all related, just with different approaches. Now, there’s a whole new generation that accept that even the church is based in white culture, and we’re done with all of it. We’ve got our history, we still want to gather, we still want to worship, but there’s a different way to do it and it’s going back to our ancestors. We call it witchcraft because that’s the way that people can enter into their cultures and into their background but I don’t think that witchcraft will be the last way to name the word. I think that witchcraft is really special and solitary, in that it embraces working with nature and working alongside nature, which is different than some other traditions that are more focused on practice and the need for other people to lead them.
Rumpus: Can you talk more about the concept of claiming Black divinity? It really feels like an act of resistance as well as self-love.
Hicks: There are poems about my mother, where you know, instead of just saying “my mother” or “her” with a lower case “h,” it’s “my Mother” with a capital “M” and “Her” with a capital “H,” because she’s a god. Black femmes who are murdered, who are assaulted or who are disappeared, their names become like prayers and we chant them and we whisper them. So, for every assault that happens in the book, that person gets changed into a “Gawd.”
Rumpus: There is a lot of personal trauma and grief that you share in your writing, and yet, I feel a strong sense of immunity to and rejection of pity. Am I wrong?
Hicks: You’re not wrong about that.
Rumpus: How do you negotiate your vulnerability as a writer?
Hicks: It’s hard to be who you are. I think that there is a time and a place to tell my version of events, and a time and a place to contextualize it in history. I am a non-binary, pansexual person… it’s not just about me getting out my feelings… it’s how can I heal others? It gets messy, and it’s ugly.
Rumpus: Tell me about a few poems. Let’s start with “Hex for R. Kelly.”
Hicks: It is based on an actual spell. When I completed it, I was very concerned because I try not to work in revenge magic. I don’t even do love spells. I believe that energy never dissipates, and if you put negative energy out it will come back to you. But some people just need to go.
Rumpus: “The Daughters of Samuel Little”?
Hicks: Samuel Little is someone who’s probably going to show up in my work again—talking about how there are fathers who kill, rape, and molest their daughters and get away with it. There are several women in my family who have been raped or molested by people who are supposed to be protecting them and this was probably the first way that I could talk about that.
Rumpus: “Concrete Qweens”?
Hicks: “Concrete Qweens” is actually one of the oldest poems in this book. It’s probably been around since like 2007. I tried to find a way to talk about what I see online and how there are so many beautiful people who are just trying to get noticed or be remembered because if you’re not online and it happens to you, nobody will know, but if you have a hundred thousand followers and you go missing for the weekend, everybody’s going to be talking about it.
My cousin in LA who’s the exact same age as me, we were friends when we were kids and then we got older and lived in different places and while I was in college, my cousin became a prostitute. Her mother went to jail for prostitution and her little sister went to jail for prostitution, and now they both have grown-ass kids. In many ways I got lucky because my dad joined the military. He got us out of Compton. Otherwise, I might be like them—my cousin, my friends. I’m the one in the poem that couldn’t stay… Yeah, I got lucky.
Rumpus: You paid tribute to Eric Garner with “Graffiti: An American Sonnet.” Did this feel like a departure from focus on Black femmes, women, and girls?
Hicks: I changed the name of this poem so many times between Eric and Erica. I feel like there’s a piece for his daughter that will eventually come out, especially the way that she died in comparison to the way that he died.
Anytime you see graffiti in any of my poems it is me referring to blood on the ground or to murder; the noise those cans make when you start shaking them up, before you start spraying, that’s what you’re seeing happening in the streets. Our bodies are becoming the cans and the anger is what’s knocked loose in us, turning Black bodies into pieces of art, essentially, symbols.
Rumpus: Talk about the book’s cover art.
Hicks: I was very adamant that I needed a Black visual artist. The original piece is called, “Bullseye.” It’s based off of Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I A Woman” speech and is charcoal on paper. I had a visceral reaction to it. I literally closed out the screen, closed my computer, and left. Then I sat back down and I asked myself why I was not happy about it and the reason was because it looks like me. Part of it is this idea of, I’m unkempt. I’m wild. I’m broken and I don’t want other people to see that.
Rumpus: What’s your concept of the power of language as a spoken word artist? Does your poetry have to be said or practiced aloud?
Hicks: Poetry, a historically oral tradition, begs to be refined by breath. Line breaks, for me, are very often like pauses in one’s natural breath and a “successful” poem can feel very much like having a conversation with someone you know or want to know. Poems underline leaders’ ambitions and move whole generations to radical action, living often in the conversation around change as a chant or a single line or phrase. In this way, poetry is very much like a spell to me, in that it has the chance to change the energy in a room with just its utterance.
There is also that witchy part of me that feels as though the paper and pen (or in my case, computer) are representative of the earth element, breath is representative of the air element, the body is the water, and the words are the fire. Even when crafting spells for any other purpose not necessarily related to literary craft, the practitioner still needs to write down an intention and speak it out loud. It is not a complete ritual until something has been said.
Spoken word, to me, is us, poets, trying to reclaim the power inherent in the word—letting the word move through us physically. You can actually hear how much of a difference there is between the page and my readings by listening to Onyx, my spoken word EP released this past summer. It has eight of the poems from HoodWitch being read over original music produced by Pool Boi Blu.
Rumpus: Who do you conjure when you write?
Hicks: Danez Smith. Both of us have spent time in the trans community. Their vibrancy… it’s not a F*** you attitude it’s a, Look, b****, this is where I am. Are you not going to see me? That level of authenticity and energy is what I want to cultivate in my work.
Patricia Smith is one whose work I have followed for over a decade. I’ve appreciated her ability to craft intricate lines, amazingly detailed stories. Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” is one that I definitely refer to and you can see that influence. Audre Lorde. Ai Ogawa—her work just excites me and makes me happy.
And two major ones are Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: I saw that concept constantly coming up over and over and over and over and over again. I wanted to create a god that could become just as righteous and great… as worthy of praise. I just wanted to make darkness beautiful. With The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, I think that part of advocacy is being able to tell your own story. In my book, that translated to talking about trauma without making people feel bad for me. I deserve respect. James Baldwin’s work really helps me navigate that.
Photograph of Faylita Hicks by Christopher Cardoza. HoodWitch cover art by Tyrone Geter. Book design by Barbara Bourgoyne.