Youth Spotlight: Russ Hicks
Poet, Actor and Dancer
By Angela Wampler | A! Magazine for the Arts | August 30, 2011Russ Hicks is a poet, an actor, and a dancer. The son of Chuck and Cathy Hicks of Glade Spring, Va., he graduated from Patrick Henry High School. He is a recent graduate of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he double majored in drama and literature, and was awarded the William Demoville Pettway Prize for achievement in the Drama Department.
Russ is now in an exclusive creative writing program — one of only eight students accepted annually — at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and is working on his MFA in creative writing with a poetry concentration. He also works for the school's literary magazine, TriQuarterly, as a solicitor and reader of submissions.
Previously Russ wrote theatre reviews for a company based out of Denver, Co. While going to college, for the last nine months he's been working at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, one of the most historic and accomplished regional theatres in the country.
Russ tells A! Magazine about his goals and dreams, beginning with his stint at Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va.
I fell in love with theatre in seventh grade and spent about five years at Barter. I was involved with 11 shows; and it's because of Barter that I have such a die-hard work ethic when it comes to everything, not just theatre. When I first went to college, I thought I would focus all my energy towards theatre. In four years at UVA, I performed in more than 18 shows.
How and when did you begin writing and publishing your works?
When I was little, I would write my own skits and perform them in my front yard. I even charged admission to neighbors. As I got older, I kept writing. By senior year, the drama club at my high school was performing a one-act I had written; and I was taking creative writing courses online [because] there weren't any courses [at school]. That's when I started to get serious about writing and started writing poetry. By the end of that year, I was writing religiously and I haven't stopped since.
One of the hard parts about publishing is sending your writing out there and waiting forever for a response. There are poems that I sent out [a year ago] that are still being reviewed at different magazines for publication. It's now become a waiting game and a bit of a gamble. While one magazine holds my piece hostage, I have to wait for a response before I can test it on another publisher.
This summer I started working on my first novel. It centers on a scandal that happened in Glade Spring during the '60s. The working title is Shrimp. I'm also hard at work on a collection of non-fiction essays revolving around the advancements of the dating scene, from the [Internet] to the bar. I'm going on a date a week for a year. I plan to have 52 Nights in Chicago done by next summer. And I'll be writing poetry the entire time. I'm almost done completing my first full collection of poetry that I'll be sending out for competitions and publication consideration over the next few months — and it will be part of my thesis for my MFA.
Tell us about your poetry collection, St. Osmosis.
When I started writing in college, I split my notebooks into separate seasons. It helps me keep moments in life separated. For months, I'd focus on one character or one over-arching theme such as history, sexuality, responsibility, etc. After weeks of editing the journals, I would hand-bind 15-20 poems into a collection for friends and family. When my fourth year rolled around, I had a few collections to build my thesis around.
The very first love poem I wrote in college, "Osmosis," was about falling in love with a boy, being accepted for it, and really living in the moment of being so emotionally fulfilled that the world starts blooming. Throughout my journals, this same love-hunger started showing up more and more, and started changing forms. It progressed towards a god-hunger and from there a pop-culturally obsessed dissection of what it means to be young and wanting.
After four years, my themes were clear: faith, sex, history, and pop culture. I [whittled the collection down to] 60 pages of poetry defined by a religious act: beatification, absolution, genuflection, and theophany. By then, the boy I had fallen in love with was a different person. My poetry had transformed my image of him. I martyred off the men in my poetry. I made them saints in order to move on.
While writing is now my passion, I never stopped doing theatre, I just changed my focus in what medium I wanted to start devoting all my time to. I loved acting, singing, dancing, and all that jazz, but poetry is where it's at. I'm now more serious about my writing, more daring. I keep performing, but in the wings, I'm writing.
Tell us about your dance projects and dance education.
I grew up watching my sister as a dancer. When I got to college, I had a lot of built-up aggression from high school so I decided to dance it off. I loved it so much that I stayed on. I focused on modern dance while at UVA and incorporated theatre and poetry in most of my performances. My favorite project was a piece on women who were painted on the sides of WWII bombers. I played the pilot and danced with 15 women. The most controversial piece I did was a re-imagination of Eve's fall from grace. It was conceived and directed by a girl [who portrayed] Satan, I was Adam, and another man was Eve. That's what I loved about UVA the most — pushing boundaries. There was an acceptance there that I never felt before.
My dream job is to do outreach work in prisons and underfunded schools with the American Poetry Foundation. I did theatre work in prisons in my fourth year of college and loved every second of it. A lot of the teenagers I worked with were incarcerated for petty drug possession and minor crimes. How do I plan to actually survive? Go into publishing and solicitations for one of the numerous literary magazines in Chicago. I'll also be auditioning for shows in Chicago once my program is over. End goal of all this? Land a wonderful professorship somewhere and give back what everyone has given me — passion and guts.
A sample of Russ' poems:
When we pulled the sheets
and stories off the streets,
we let the whispering in.
The dead, blue, gray, gasping
between wood and clay walls,
their salt still left behind.
Virgil Caine came
through in the winter of '65,
saw Jeb Stuart studying
what would soon drive Dixie down.
It's in his letters
on display that brought these ghosts
sailin' on firewood smoke.
They kiss your ankles mosquitoish,
poison ivy deems you worthy
to play tag with you and the dead.
They come with the snow floods,
in summer, singing with wet flip-flop screech.
they crawl back to the trail
leaving a morning hyacinth haze,
and gather round a rumored chest
filled with Confederate cash,
their Methodist mouths drooling
for the cannon and the gangrene.
In New York City someone said they saw you
singing the blues near the dumpster
puddles and gutter spit.
Your ukulele case, mouth open
catching quarters and waded ones.
Dixie flag inlaid in the lid, your twang
still echoing down Southbound.
In the Twin City with almost three
million, someone's gotta look a lot
like you, his mouth bound to move
in that long liquid Ooo,
the perfectly pitched E -
vibrato shaking me
heart to drums to head.
No regrets Coyote,
the boulevard is not that bad,
even with you stuck somewhere
else strumming that the moon
is the only light we'll see.
Even with the trash caught
under the tracks,
the trains roaring dead
stop — Even in your yodel,
a bit of me sings back:
"Take me with you;
I'll tell you everything."
While writing is now his passion, Russ has never stopped doing theatre. He says, "I keep performing, but in the wings, I'm writing."