The Strange Grace of Flesh: An Interview with Woody Woodger
Woody Woodger’s debut chapbook, postcards from glasshouse drive, chronicles the heroin epidemic in tightly compressed, short, imagistic poems, yet with a familial urgency. This interview was conducted by Daniel Rattelle over email and has been lightly edited for clarity. Woody is originally from Lenox, MA, in Berkshire County.
Daniel Rattelle: What was the genesis of postcards from glasshouse drive?
Woody Woodger: The real impetus for the book was really my (now deceased) uncle’s alcoholism. But I definitely didn't know that while writing the book. postcards really unfolded to me rather than began as project I aimed to accomplish. I had some nebulous idea of what I wanted the book to be made—i.e. brief, lyrical poems that felt really constricted in voice. The style I was going for was generated through my very professional process of writing mini poems in my iPhone notes app and claiming it was a stylistic choice. The themes of addiction, heroin use, death, and just general fun Western Mass stuff evolved out of the editing process, and didn’t really unveil itself until the latest draft.
DR: postcards is an ambitious project, especially for a debut collection. Can you talk about your choice to write about a public issue, rather than a private one?
WW: My interest in the social perspective was actually an act in self-preservation. For a number of reasons—an abusive personal relationship, my learned emotional stunting, and general masculine induced emptiness—I had a serious problem getting something emotional on the page. That’s probably another reason for my constricted poetic style at the time. It’s hard to fit in confessional diatribes in 10 lines. Eventually, through many drafts, that emotional inaccessibility was put into effect through the conceit and is explicitly addressed. Talking about a social issue, while drawing from the position of the loved-one-turned-bystander, became actually easier to talk about than how I was feeling. Additionally, as I’ve seen that by writing postcards and having the opportunity to illustrate and discuss addiction through a fictitious speaker and conceit helped me seriously processes my uncle’s addiction; how “empty” drugs leave the user and those around them.
DR: Have you ever tried heroin yourself?
WW: HAHAHA! No. Not ever. I really have no expertise in what I’m talking about.
DR: Your poems seem to function through their use of rapid juxtaposition of difficult images. Do you have a guiding theory about difficulty versus accessibility in poetry?
WW: This, above all, was the biggest challenge in editing for me. As this is my first book, I wanted the voice to immediately come out as smart and sophisticated. I wanted to show everyone how my genius exists in the wild lyrical connections that the reader either follow or simply be awed. But, apparently, people fucking hate that. It fascinates my self-obsessed white-male ego how much people fancy, nay enjoy, not being talked down to. It was a lesson in humility to write this book. Namely, that I should get some. Striking that perfect balance between accessibility and “smarty-pantsness” in my poetry is an ongoing project for me that I think will take a lifetime. That being said, it’s not like the read-Wordsworth-till-you-puke literati at most undergrad (and graduate level) universities helps foster any kind of love for the everyman. As an artist, I’m feeling more and more a desire to entertain and connect; not because I have to, but because people have never turned to culture and art to be lectured. If people wanted to be mansplained to, we’d watch nothing but CSPAN, and TED Talks would be mandatory. In general, I think there’s a way I can inspire people and also not be a dick: I just have to be good at my job.
DR: I actually didn’t see any arrogance or didacticism. I was actually thinking of your poems as something like Cubism in written form.
WW: Oh well, thank you! I did try to craft images that felt more surreal or impressionistic to really economize the tight space I afforded myself. I’m glad the impressionism is coming across.
DR: “Glasshouse” in the title, I assume, comes from the old saying “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Can you tell me a bit about that?
WW: Definitely that’s where the “glasshouse” came from (amazing! but how did you catch my subtle allusion?). Through dealing with my uncle’s addiction and the other personal issues I was facing at the time of writing this book, I came to see love and life and my family and my work and my position in the world as unbearably fragile. And the theme of fragility, of the universe’s absolute indifference to our whims and loves, I thought was well illustrated by the term “glasshouse.” Fun stuff. And as a coloquialism, “glasshouse” also works to help foreshadow the heavy use of dialect and regionalism present in the book.
DR: Has your writing about New England changed at all since you have been in Washington?
WW: I don’t think I’ve been away from New England long enough to have my view of it reframe yet. I might be far away physically, but I think emotionally and mentally I’m still back home.
DR: How do you compose?
WW: Step 1: I binge Netflix until two in the morning, until realizing my meek ego will be scared if I do not continue my habit of writing a poem a day. Then I write something, anything, down in my notes that I can justify passing off as a poem.
Step 2: I’ll continue perpetrating that terrible habit until I realize I’m getting nowhere.
Step 3: Next, I whine and complain to my significant other in a clear attempt to fish for praise.
Step 4: After receiving the confidence from other people that I should be able to give myself, I comb through my notes, picking out the drafts that don’t make me too sick.
Step 5: I’ll slowly rewrite, edit, exchange, and scrap every poem for roughly a year until I’m happy with the result. Or just too tired to deal with it any more.
Step 6: Then I set it aside for 6 months to a year.
Step 7: Then I curse a non-existent god that I wasn’t good at accounting.
Step 8: Lastly, I reread the book and see all the problems I didn’t see before. Then I reimagine each poem in the manuscript.
After that, then I have something vaguely resembling a book that I refuse to read again. Rinse, repeat.
DR: I understand you have dyslexia. Does that figure much into your process?
WW: Dyslexia only effects the intensity and focus of my revision time. I think I, more than most, need to focus on spelling more frequently and with deeper intensity. Catching those mistakes can mean the difference between a publication and a rejection, so while it feels very cosmetic to me, it’s one of my biggest struggles in all my writing. As for craft, having dyslexia means that while my visual cognition is compromised, my auditory skills seem more acute, meaning the musicality of words has always come more naturally to me. So it’s a trade off.
DR: What is your approach to prosody and line spacing?
WW: Yeah, in this book, and in most of my writing I do not give too much thought to syllabics. It’s just never been my style. Though naturally I think I structure my lines and hear language in tercets. When I compose I think more about the sounds of words and how those words sound together. There is definitely a specific internal rhythm that I follow, but I’ve never mapped it out and I feel like it’s pretty loose. When considering line spacing, I like white space and shorter lines because: 1) I think poetry is a visual medium as well as musical, and 2) shorter lines helps the reader slow down. Long lines can help rush the reader along. I guess I like to make them suffer as long as possible.
DR: All of this brings me to my next question. How do you manage the use of irony and sarcasm in your poems?
WW: I had to tone down my sarcasm for this book because a book about heroin doesn’t lend itself to a sharp tongue. I can’t think of too many instances in which I was too wry in this manuscript, though I intend to make it more of an element in my future work. Sarcasm is just more natural for me and the main reason it doesn’t show up too much in this book is I wasn’t yet comfortable writing “funny” poems. It circles back to the literati I felt over my shoulder that prized sincerity above all or how melancholic “good” poetry seems to need to be.
DR: God shows up a lot in postcards, often explicitly, but also in words like “anoint” and “souls,” and “grace.”
WW: Yeah, he and I are not on good terms lately. He seems to think things like child soldiers and AIDS and Guy Fieri are okay to exist, and I think he’s not real. So our relationship has really cooled off. God was a really big part of my life and I was inundated with religion as a kid. But I was Episcopalian (which I just spelled Opiscapalian before spell check was like “no dummy,” so you can see how well church took.) I always had a lot of questions about god and what the scripture and church believed were his motivations towards us, towards the earth, towards all his other aliens, towards anything really. And no one ever gave me an answer besides my mom. She always said it’s not who or what I believed in that was important. What’s important is that I had a personal belief in something larger than myself. And so I chose to believe in a vast, unloving void that would inevitably chew away at my cold, useless, slightly anemic body with the scratchy, relentless shuffle of time.
DR: Who is the “cousin” who occasions many of these poems?
WW: The cousin in the poems began as a conceit, a device to string the poems together. The unnamed speaker, the author of each of the postcards, is referring to the postcard recipient’s cousin. The cousin who died of a car crash while intoxicated. The speaker is ambiguously involved in the heroin subculture and seems to have intimate knowledge of the deceased and may have even been involved in perpetuating their friend’s addiction. I chose to use a relative as distant as a cousin because, while the heroin epidemic is garnering more recognition (if not notoriety) in our collective social consciousness, it still feels as if it is meandering on the outskirts. Personally, the cousin was manifest in my uncle, a family member I was once very close with, but who eventually faded from my life until he was gone.
DR: Parting question: what is your favorite band?
WW: Say Anything. Not the movie. It’s a band too. The lead singer Max Bemis is amazing and is my biggest inspiration lyrically. Angry, nihilist Pop Punk. Check them out right now.
Woody Woodger is an MFA candidate at Western Washington University. His first chapbook, postcards from glasshouse drive, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press and his poetry and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Prairie Margins, Exposition Review, Barely South, Rock and Sling, and on Mass Poetry Festival, among others.
Daniel Rattelle is a poet and arts journalist based in Northampton. His second chapbook, The Sleeping House, is forthcoming from Eyewear publishing. He can be reached @danielrattelle.