Is there anything Amy Woolard can’t do? After having the chance to sit down with the poet-writer-attorney-advocate, we at failbetter have decided probably not. With a slew of accomplishments under her belt, including degrees from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, University of Virginia School of Law, and VCU Brandcenter, as well as authoring poetry and essays that have appeared in some of the best venues around, Amy Woolard is a woman setting both the poetry and political scene on fire. Read on for her revealing insights on The Wizard of Oz, coming out of her “not-writing decade,” and how a poem can be like the tentacles of a jellyfish.
1) So, we’ll never be able to look at the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz in the same way ever again, thanks to your poem, “On the Most Terrifying Character in the Wizard of Oz”. Can you tell us a little bit more about what spurred it into being and how you approached writing it?
I have a full bin of poems that consider The Wizard of Oz, its myth-making & its propositions. I’ve been very interested in the stories I first knew intimately as a girl, at an age when my world—because of books—was more percent-magical than it was percent-actual. These are the stories I used to make sense & nonsense of growing up—& they still interest me in that capacity. I love that there is always a bit of darkness involved. I love that each character has a tangled history, even when the plot seems simple. In The Wizard of Oz, the Witch’s sister is killed; she is wicked with grief. That’s a more complicated, interesting story than “some witches are good, and some witches are bad.”
The film of The Wizard of Oz used to run once a year on network television when I was growing up, back when there were only three channels to be had, & no VCRs even. It was an occasion, & I was enthralled every time. There were moments to fear, even when you knew they were coming: the Witch, the flying monkeys, Almira Gulch seizing Toto. But I was always seriously creeped out by the Tin Man. Unlike witches & talking trees (which all seemed reasonable to me), I didn’t know what he was. He looked like a robot, but wasn’t. He cried a lot, which was, frankly, unattractive. He just had this desperation to him that seemed a touch unstable to me—a kind of emotional black hole. And then he also carried around that axe. I’m probably saying too much about this.
For this poem, & my other Oz poems, I just wanted to prune back all that precious goodness & find the mess underneath. I’m always interested in the ways in which grief & desire cohabitate, & taking in the view from the house where they live, even when that house is made of tin.
As for writing it: the poem usually tells me where to go next, even if that path tends to double back on itself.
2) You mentioned in your initial e-mail (and in previous interviews) that you’re a notoriously slow writer. Knowing this, what does the writing and revision process look like for you? Dare we ask if you’re chasing after the ever-elusive first book?
I’ve got an almost-book. I’ve mentioned elsewhere, too—not only am I a slow writer, but I stopped writing for about a decade, & only picked up again about three years ago. I only managed to salvage a handful of old poems from the early days, so for this book, I started somewhat fresh. I think many writers probably go through some version of this, but even though I know I’m officially out of my “not-writing decade,” I really do live through that terror each time I finish something new, of “I don’t have any more poems in me.” Until I do.
When I’m working on a single poem, it’s like being in a monogamous relationship. I’m completely invested—that love feeling—until it’s done. I fall for my poems. I desire them. So while there’s exhilaration when I finish a piece, there’s also a kind of grief, because slowly that rush goes away & I don’t know when I’ll feel it again. I can’t write every day—or rather, I don’t. It’s just not a positive activity for me. But I do chase that love feeling every day. I read. I take walks in the world. I flirt with people. I pay attention to words & images, the rhymes & repetitions that happen all around me. I don’t write every day, but every day I do give myself over to that thing in me that wants to write.
I should say too: one thing writers rarely seem to talk about is how the activity of writing itself does not always feel good. The things you love always come bound with the power to hurt you, to disappoint you, to expose you—things most people actively try to avoid. That tension between want to write & want to feel good is a tough negotiation, sometimes.
3) Your second poem, “We Will Have Wanted to Have” has a delightfully hypnotic effect on the reader due to your use of form and repetition. How much does formal constraint impact your own work? Do you find yourself habitually chipping away versus adding to a poem?
I have always been a devotee of ‘poem-as-spell’—the way repetition of words can be both hypnosis (what some might observe as being ‘out of it’) & meditation (what most would see as being completely ‘inside of it’). A retracing of steps as a way to find a lost thing or to recreate a crime—the air is different, as is time: you at once feel both the present and the ghost of a scene occupying the same field. I’ve also always been a sucker for the French repetitive forms: villanelles and pantoums, their incantatory effects. The relationship described in the poem has always been its own kind of villanelle—stretching & turning back on itself (sometimes turning on itself) like a wave over time. The trick with a poem like this, & with a relationship like this, is not falling so much in love with the form that its only power is to knock you under.
That said, I have developed & intentionally feed this particular form of repetition as a kind of watermark on my work, & also a way to hedge against the content becoming too precious. Poems are death-defying; they are each a tightrope, though it may stretch across different dangers for different writers. For me, it’s sentimentality down below; that’s what would kill me in a fall.
As for chipping v. adding, what I can say is: it’s more about moving things around. I love jigsaw puzzles. The way I put poems together mimics that process quite a bit. I put my box of pieces together first: single words, phrases, images, maybe a title—& then I find the corners (for me, usually the first and last lines), and spend a day or two filling in the rest of the poem. I move words and images around the page as you would jigsaw pieces that you sense are part of a similar section—the same colors, pieces of the same body. Oh, these are all part of the ocean, & this piece is the tentacles of a jellyfish. That kind of thing. Nothing gets on the page that isn’t going to appear in the poem somehow. I start & make from scratch.
4) What have you been reading lately? What book or poet do you continually return to? Who should we publish next?
I love these kinds of questions. The one thing that can get me fired up to write, & to write better (& fail better) is to read the work of writers I admire. I’m also fortunate that, for me, many of these writers are also friends & former classmates & teachers of mine. I tend to feel about classmates & teachers the way I feel about siblings & parents: an almost absurd level of love & loyalty, no matter what they—or I—do or say.
Jane Yeh is my favorite poet writing today; both of her books [MARABOU, THE NINJAS] are exquisite & hilarious & so precise. Another poet-friend from my MFA days, Michael Jay McClure, has a distinguished career as a professor of art history, & is also writing & sending out poems again, & I couldn’t be more thrilled. We need more of his work in the world.
Lately, so many more: Chelsey Minnis’ POEMLAND is a force. I also keep coming back to Richard Siken’s WAR OF THE FOXES, Beth Bachmann’s TEMPER, Ansel Elkins’ BLUE YODEL—such ambitious voices, all. And when do we get a new Arda Collins collection?
Poets I continually return to: Lucie Brock-Broido. Frank Stanford. Charles Wright. Larry Levis. Anne Carson. Tracy K. Smith. Jorie Graham. And. And. And.