Virtual Salon #2 with William Woolfitt

The season of cracking open, bloodroot,
egg strings. My grandmother chops the cloddy
ground. Many years without him. Onion sets,
new moon peas. 
          from “Chorus Frog” by William Woolfitt

It’s alarming to watch Netflix now: all those strangers in unconcerned proximity, sharing bread, shaking hands! Poor hygiene is not, I suspect, what those directors wanted me to focus on. So when I say that William Woolfitt’s lovely third collection is crowded with isolates, full of hungry survivors, am I distorting the book through a lens of present anxieties? When I notice that many of the landscapes he evokes are like the places I walk through daily–degraded, haunted, but beautiful–am I biased? I think a person always reads from where she is, and that’s okay, although that’s one of the reasons I like in-person, open-ended discussions about books, too. It’s helpful when someone else’s reactions knock your own perspective ajar.

Still, I feel sure that Woolfitt’s book is exceptionally musical, both in its references and in the sonic density of his own alliterative lines (you’ll find listening suggestions in the mini-interview below, to boot). Spring Up Everlasting gives witness to human hardship, vulnerable creatures, and environmental damage with love and compassion: the author sees fully and justly, and the poems he builds from those observances are beautifully weighted, crafty in rhythm and structure. And one last point: Woolfitt really does describe people washing their hands a lot, from Rulina who plunges an arm into “icy creek-water” that “chills her blood, needles her with stars of pain,” to the laborer in “Red Notes” who dreams of release and reunion:

Before they meet, he’ll wash with a bucket,
scrub the pulp off his hands, sing the notes
he’s strung for her, tomato lonesome, tomato blue.

  1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

The food menu would include Rulina’s elk tenderloin, half-moon pies, sawhorse tables laden with bowls of potato salad, deviled eggs, and chow-chow. And also hulled corn soup, hardtack, porridge and fried plantains with daybreak sauce, tacos, and figs. The poems of Spring Up Everlasting wander from Appalachia to Mali, then back to Appalachia, then to Newfoundland, to California, and so on, visiting sacred grounds, desecrated wastes, reclaimed lands. The drink menu would include spring water, rain-barrel water, living water: it’s a book that looks again and again to creeks, ponds, oceans, and underground streams.

  1. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

Teaching and parenting are keeping me busy these days, and I’m okay with that. Maggie Anderson says that a poem comes from “persistence, devotion, and a sustaining hope that it was important to write and that it would, eventually, come around to its best shape.” I’d like to believe that I can practice the poet’s verbs—persist, devote, and sustain hope—in whatever task I’m doing. Richard Foster says that “our work becomes prayer,” and I’d like to believe that our work can become poetry too.

  1. How can your virtual audience find out more?

Visit www.williamwoolfitt.com or www.mupress.org/Spring-Up-Everlasting-Poems-P1039.aspx. But I would also like for my audience to look through me to the sources that I’ve drawn from while writing Spring Up Everlasting: Jessie van Eerden’s The Long Weeping; Ida Stewart’s Gloss; Melissa Range’s Horse and Rider; Lucille Clifton’s The Book of Light; Maxine Kumin’s The Retrieval System; photographs by Eudora Welty and Roger May; Ella Jenkins’ “The Wilderness;” Jean Ritchie’s “Black Waters.”

Poetic navigation

The kids, you’ll be shocked to hear, haven’t been especially receptive to the Yeats I’ve been reading aloud over dinner. Madeleine thinks the Maud Gonne poems consign Yeats to creepy stalker territory and isn’t nearly as impressed as I am by the beauty of it all—and I was moving chronologically, so I didn’t even get to the infuriating “A Prayer for My Daughter.” I think when you know a place through art, really visiting is an experience full of layers and facets that make the grass much more brilliantly green. They’re skeptics, although maybe I can console myself that they’ll be better Yeatsians one day after having seen Thoor Ballylee. Since our Pacific adventures, after all, they love recognizing New Zealand and Hawai’ian landscapes in films and they’re much more fervent about Flight of the Conchords.

I’m obsessed with the difference it makes to visit literature’s sacred sites. I’m not sure if I’m a better critic or teacher of Emily Dickinson since touring her house in Amherst, Massachusetts, but I have a different feel for her poetry, what those garden references and domestic metaphors mean. An early pilgrimage to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—H.D.’s home turf—bore fruit for Chris, leading to an article on her handling of missionary and Lenape history in The Gift. Visiting Aotearoa New Zealand was my biggest conversion experience. That trip had a massive payoff in my understanding of and commitment to poetry from that part of the world. I’m no expert but at least I know what I don’t know, and nearly all of it had been invisible to me for most of my career, poetry full of birds and foods and expressions and geological formations I wouldn’t have been able to recognize, much less pronounce. Now teaching poems from places I have no first-hand experience makes me wonder: what incredibly basic, important scraps of context am I missing?

Hence, in a few days, our first trip to Ireland. I have a long-term commitment to the place. My maternal grandfather’s people, the Cains, were Irish exiles in Liverpool, so my mother grew up listening to fairy stories and her father’s Irish tenor (he died when she was a teenager). She never visited the country, though, and associates it, I think, with shame and anger as well as music and storytelling; to be Irish in Liverpool was to be brutally, unromantically poor. I grew up in New Jersey, attending Catholic schools where Irish connections are fetishized, so I was delighted to find out, one St. Patrick’s Day, that I had a proper claim on those green bagels. Although there was little Irish poetry beyond Yeats in my own education, working through it with students is now part of my job description.

The British & Irish Poetry course is scheduled for this winter and I know I’ll teach it better once I’ve listened to the Irish birds. I have a more particular mission, though: to track down some of the places Paula Meehan writes about in Painting Rain. I suspect that locating any poem is basically impossible but wonder what I’ll learn by trying.

Meehan has a suite of poems about St. Stephen’s Green, which even a confused American should be able to find. What about all the lost and damaged sites, though, like the meadow beneath the housing development she laments in “Death of a Field”? In what sense can you even get there from here? Placing poems fully would involve time-travel and other spectacular feats, since poets may layer into a single poem impressions gathered over years, or things they’ve simply imagined. What about, too, where a poet does the writing, revising, first public reading?

This year I wrested possession of our study from Chris (actually, he gave it to me, and my verb reflects a guilty sense of triumph). The tall maple outside the window and House Mountain in the distance kept entering my poems—while I wrote a poem a day during April, the tree went from stark branches through first-green-is-gold to full leaf, and the mountain’s face fluctuated from sharp purple to utterly veiled by cloud and smoke. Both became poetry triggers even when I was writing about very different situations. Then a massive June storm tore the tree in half. Its former canopy, though, persists in the poems’ virtual space; I recreate some version of that maple’s shade whenever I reenter, revise them. That’s part of why I wrote them, right, to preserve what I didn’t know I was about to lose?