by Nicki Orser
Fourteen Hills: Can you tell us more about what sparked your book Oppressorface?
Rob Hendricks: Like many people these days, I've been feeling more deeply into the profound extent to which intersecting oppressive elements are codified into the layers and systems of our culture, most of which privilege me personally because of where I'm situated along vectors of identity. An important elder
in my life had recently died of a very painful form of cancer, stomach cancer, with great courage and dignity, and my partner and I had closely attended him in hospice care, an experience that touched me deeply and re-oriented me towards life in some major ways. I was studying nonviolent communication, thinking about the possibilities and limits of empathy and compassion, reading about the impacts of industrial animal agriculture, in terms of both ecological damage and animal cruelty. I had stopped eating and using animal products in the summer of 2017. I had recently become a guilty homeowner in gentrifying Oakland. I wrote all of the poems in Oppressorface in a nine month period between September of 2018 and May of 2019, and produced most of this material to be workshopped in class with poet and visual artist Truong Tran at SFSU, where I was enrolled as an Open University student. I was deeply inspired by Truong's confrontational vision for creative practice and tried to soak up the many insightful strategies he was offering for composition and revision. So, there were lots of sparks.
14H: What is the significance of the title?
RH: It's multivalent. It's a little poem in its own right, I hope, and not just a handle. To call someone a ____face is generally to insult them in a voice of adolescent rage. Shitface, fuckface, dickface, oppressorface. You know? There are qualities of hatred and resistance implied in the gesture of these compound-word epithets. They are terms of dishonor and disgrace. They flag a painful rupture in relationship, because someone is doing harm and refuses to take any responsibility for their impact. But also, to say "oppressorface" in particular is to summon that quality of the disfigurement away from being a genuine person—the loss of a true human face. This is the loss that accompanies oppressor-status, to the extent that we continue to inhabit these roles socially, by accident or ignorance or by stubborn denial or stuckness. The stormtrooper helmet, which obviates all individuality. That militarized, invasive and genocidal Christian face that continues its centuries-long romanizing march, stamping down indigenous cultures all over the world and destroying ecosystems. I guess that you could say that "oppressorface" is a wound of guilt and shame. And there's hope or longing in the name-calling, a wish that the wound might heal, or that a new dignity might emerge in time.
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Also important for me to name and acknowledge is the connotative echo of "oppressorface" in relation to the racist theatrical anachronism of "blackface," where stereotypical qualities are converted into a performance of race, which entails a "ventriloquism" onto the othered group. Instead of a white person performing blackness, how about a straight white middle-class cis man performing a straight white middle-class cis man? And too, I hoped to to offer an acerbic entertainment of sorts, by occasionally ventriloquizing onto my speaking agent the villainy, the hypocrisy, the sadism of pity that comes with the archetypal oppressor. The voice of these poems sometimes sidles into these horrible qualities of self-deception and menace, something added onto the ego of the poems. This especially happens in the poem "How Wars Begin." I guess maybe this is a commentary on the way we are likely to slip on the relevant stereotypes when we are making art. And I think that this is one of the challenges of writing with identity in view, which was one of my goals. It felt wicked and interesting to me to play with this concept of the "oppressorface" here and there, a bit edgy and therefore hopefully fun for everyone? I'm not sure whether it ultimately works, actually, or if it's just confusing, or misguided and offensive. I hope it's not hurtful. And I appreciate the possibilities for conversation it may engender. Definitely the reality of my oppressor status in our present social order does not slip on and off as easily as a stormtrooper's helmet. One's whole body, one's whole life, is embedded in the blindness and disconnection of privilege. So in this sense the focus on the face is perhaps misleading!
14H: The use of form in Oppressorface is especially intriguing. Can you share a little bit about how you decided to stick to such a structured form and how this affected your writing process?
RH: For a long time now I've been wanting to write intolerable dense blocks of prose poetry. I felt that the theme of structural oppression would synergize nicely with this shape and inaccessible energy, which embodies conformity, restraint, constraint, homogeneity, elitism, and a kind of seething density of stricture. A state of being packed too full. Making these poems so precisely rectilinear worked for my imagination the way prosody is supposed to: the tinkering necessary to squeeze the poem into the box kept my analytical brain busy so the art brain could get some extra play.
14H: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book? Did publishing your first book change your process of writing? And, if so, how?
RH: This was the first time I've ever tried writing into a project, with a quality of sustained inquiry and focus towards subject matter. I prefer to write about whatever comes, playing with sound and rhythm, like an expressionist or whatever. But I wanted the dimension of social engagement. I was surprised by how it came together into something that talks to itself and resonates with coherences I didn't try to put into it. I really was not expecting to have this material published. So it was vulnerable and weird to go through the process of winning the MRBA and preparing the book with the Fourteen Hills team (who were lovely to work with). I feel now very different inside myself in relation to the thought of publishing my work. It is stressful to put it out there and not to know really how it is impacting people. When I write now I feel I have more of a sense that the audience includes innumerable living people out there, in addition to my closest friends and the imaginal presence of all the poets I've ever read.
14H: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
RH: In my particular case it would be a message about connecting more with other writers in open mics and workshops and so on, and owning and grasping the passion for poetry more fiercely as soon as possible. I would say, push yourself through your social fears and connect with people who love poetry. Those are the regrets I have, personally. I knew I wanted to be a poet or song-writer by the time I was twelve years old, but I've really struggled to align myself with this clear sense of calling. I didn't know then how much support I would have found in community, if I had had the courage to seek it out more. The fact is I still dread going into those spaces . . . but they give me so much.
14H: What advice would you give to other writers who are interested in submitting their work for the 2020 Michael Rubin Book Award?
RH: Take CW-881 (Individual Visions). I got a ton of support in that class, clarifying my pathway, theorizing my project by looking at a lot of brilliant contemporary poetry books.
14H: As the editor of OmniVerse, what tips would you give emerging writers who are trying to get their work published?
RH: Get a manuscript together and submit your work to contests. But even more so, push yourself to be in community and make connections. If you are a mortally introverted and sensitive misanthrope like me, this will be the hardest part, and therefore the cutting edge.
14H: Are you working on anything at the present you would like to share with our readers? How can our readers find you and your newest work?
RH: I'm planning a chapbook. It's still early to tell what it will become. No spoilers, but I will just say Oppressorface 2 is probably not coming out anytime too soon. Transfer Magazine published several of my poems in the most recent issue (#118), and the composer Tan Sang has recently turned a poem of mine into a Broadway-style song. I’m on Instagram (@rob.hendricks) and Twitter (@RobertJayIII).
Born in Phoenix in 1978, Rob Hendricks is a poet, and the editor of OmniVerse, an online literary journal presented by Omnidawn Publishing. His poems have been published in Transfer Magazine and The Phoenix. OPPRESSORFACE is his first book. He lives in Oakland. You can find him on Instagram (@rob.hendricks) and Twitter (@RobertJayIII).
Nicki Orser is an MFA student at San Francisco State University, a certified Amherst Writers & Artists Facilitator, and the coordinator of the Penngrove Reading Series. Her work has appeared in Calaveras Station, Cathexis, Dune Review, and OmniVerse. She lives in Petaluma with her husband and two children.