A! Magazine for the Arts

Jane Hicks

Jane Hicks

Jane Hicks' poetry provides context for life

March 30, 2016

One of Jane Hicks' poems begins with a quote from one of her favorite poets, Seamus Heaney, and calls attention to the vitality and influence of poetry.

"The aim of the poet and the poetry is finally to be of service,
to ply the effort of the individual work in to the larger work
of the community as a whole."

"Poets can call attention to problems that need solving, to stories that need to be told, and give a history to a group of people who might be misunderstood or marginalized. Somewhere along the way, we've lost the appeal of poetry to the masses. I knew several older people when I was growing up who could quote long passages of poetry. I doubt much of anyone does now. I found it notable that when Heaney died last year, Ireland was in national mourning. That would not happen here," Hicks says.

Her first poem was a third grade reading assignment, a Halloween poem. She remembers the last lines "something ran across the floor, something's knocking at the door."

From that poem, she's gone on to become an award-winning poet and writer of prose.

"I have a novel in revision, and some of my first published works were short stories. I always loved poetry and feel freer when I write poems. I usually write in blank verse, but I sometimes write in form, if that"s what the poem tells me it wants to be. Poems develop a personality as they unfold, and they sometimes surprise me by what they want to be.

"Writing helps keep my head clear of clutter. All the crazy thoughts that run together and call for attention get written down and cleared away. I also tell stories that need to be told. My poems are not particularly autobiographical. Over the years, as a teacher and counselor, students have asked me to tell their stories. Many of my poems are that - the telling of a story that needs to be told.

"My last book, "Driving with the Dead,' had an overarching theme of loss. Perhaps loss is the human condition. I didn't just write about loss of loved ones but of loss of culture, and environment. My latest work seems to be of a spiritual nature. I have been writing about angels and their roles in various religious traditions," she says.

Her influences are poets from the region: James Still, Kathryn Striping Byer, Ron Rash, Robert Morgan, Jim Wayne Miller and others. "I also love Irish poets, particularly W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney. My first literary love, Gerard Manley Hopkins, strongly informs my work. I am influenced by regional culture, family and landscape. In my latest book, one of the things I examined was the loss of culture due to damage to the environment. I have been heavily influenced by the music of the region, especially the Carter family and early country music."

A former teacher, she likes to encourage poets in workshops and conferences. Other writers also encourage her. "I have corresponded with poets who have participated in my workshops over the years. I have a couple of trusted poets with whom I exchange work for critique and revision. I received great encouragement from the late Jim Wayne Miller, Kathryn Stripling Byer and Ron Rash. Ron is best known for his novels, but he is a wonderful poet. Nashville poet, Bill Brown, has been very helpful. I take his workshops at every opportunity. He provokes me to write."

Her first published poem was in "The Mockingbird," the literary magazine at East Tennessee State University. "I was in graduate school and saw a flyer for submission. I was thrilled to win a prize. From there on, I just did the work of writing. I wrote, revised and sent out work. For beginning writers, I want to encourage perseverance. Everyone experiences rejection. Keep reading, (essential to the success of any writer) keep learning and keep practicing the craft of writing. By learning, I don't just mean about writing but also about the world at large. The more you learn, the more you have to write about. Beginning writers should check for literary magazines at their schools or local schools. Some higher education publications don't just publish student work. If you pick up a book of poetry you enjoy, look at the places that author has published."

A native of upper East Tennessee, Hicks is an award-winning poet. The Jesse Stuart Foundation published her first book, "Blood and Bone Remember: Poems from Appalachia;" in 2005. The book met with popular and critical acclaim, winning the Appalachian Writers Association Poetry Book of the Year prize. It was also nominated for the Weatherford Award given by the Appalachian Studies Association. Her poetry has appeared in journals and literary magazines in the Southeast, notably Wind, Now & Then, Appalachian Journal, Appalachian Heritage and Shenandoah. Her poems have been anthologized in "Migrants and Stowaways" and "Literary Lunch," published by the Knoxville Writers Guild, "Crossing Troublesome: 25 years of the Appalachian Writers Workshop," "Coal: A Poetry Anthology," "We All Live Downstream: Writings About Mountaintop Removal," " Southern Poetry Anthology: Contemporary Appalachia" and "Southern Poetry Anthology: Tennessee." Her work will appear in an anthology of poetry with connections to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Hicks is also an accomplished quilter. She creates "literary quilts" that illustrate the works of playwright Jo Carson and novelists Sharyn McCrumb and Silas House. The art quilts have toured with these authors and were the subject of a feature in Blue Ridge Country magazine in an issue devoted to regional arts. Hicks retired from Sullivan County, Tennessee, schools after 30 years of teaching. Her new poetry book, published in the fall of 2014 by the University Press of Kentucky, is titled "Driving with the Dead." It also won the Appalachian Writers Association Poetry Book of the Year (2015) and was a finalist for the Weatherford Award.

She created the metaphor "cosmic possum," about which she wrote a poem, to explain who she is and where she comes from. "The possum is the perfect symbol of my beloved Appalachia: underappreciated, misunderstood and the ultimate survivor in the face of all manners of predation." Her poem, "Cosmic Possum" was written after "one hillbilly insult too many from highly educated people who should have known that an accent does not mean a lack of intelligence." Since the publication of that poem, many people have used the term. "I felt I had arrived when "cosmic possum' appeared in the Urban Dictionary. They get the meaning mostly right but left out my original statement about being "first generation off the ridge or out of the holler.'"

More information about Hicks and cosmic possum can be found on her website, www.cosmicpossum.com.

The Ryman Auditorium, 1965

By Jane Hicks
I pouted and whined the whole three hundred miles,
would have kicked and screamed, except a sound
spanking followed. While Ed Sullivan touted the Beatles,
Elvis swiveled across the silver screen, daddy savored
the High Lonesome on thick 78s and slow turning
albums. Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, droning banjos,
chirpy mandolins, crying fiddles drowned out
my Rolling Stones. Our family flew down Bloody 11-W,
rain-slicked and glittery, toward Nashville to sit
on curved church benches high in the Confederate Gallery
where funeral home fans pumped frantic rhythms to G-runs,
arthritic elbows bumped smooth-skinned young,
Beatle bangs mixed with brush cuts, lost in acoustic paradise.
I fumed, muttered, and strained to sit still. Flatt and Scruggs
ripped a swift set, caught my ear, then called her out to play
what my heart and bones remembered, Elvis and Paul forgotten,
I gave into melody and line, riveted to that pew
while Maybelle whipped that guitar into submission

Reprinted with permission

> Read On: Poetry opens possibilities for Sam Rasnake