Joe Woodward is the author of Alive Inside the Wreck: A Biography of Nathanael West (O/R Books). A two-time winner of a Los Angeles Press Club Award, he received an MFA at Brooklyn College. His work has appeared in Zone 3, Passages North, Notre Dame Review, and elsewhere. His poems “The Story of a Killing” and “Late Sunday Evening” will appear in the fall 2016 Premium Edition of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, October 23, for special savings and discounts.
Who is the voice in "The Story of a Killing"?
This poem is essentially a conversation with a recurring nightmare and the people (or characters) who have populated it over the years. The voice here is my own.
A mysterious and mystical tone is layered in each stanza. How do you construct this aspect of your poems?
This nightmare has its origin in my childhood. When I was young, not yet a teenager, I overheard two grown-ups talking about an incident that had happened “out in the country.” In essence, they said a white man had been driving down a dirt road late at night when he veered off the shoulder and hit a black boy walking home. The driver may or may not have been drinking, they thought. The boy may have been injured or may even have been killed, they weren’t sure. When one of them asked the other about the driver, about what had happened to him, the answer was “nothing I know of.” I was astonished, but I didn’t speak up then or ask any questions because I wasn’t meant to be hearing the conversation at all.
How do you think your own experiences have influenced your writing?
For me, good poems are written from the true self, through the self. Every poem is filtered through my own experience even when remembered or re-imagined — my senses, my dreams, nightmares, travels, relationships. This doesn’t mean everything is autobiography because it is not. In this case, overhearing this story burrowed into me — horrifying me not only because of what had happened to the boy, but also because of what had not happened. The casual tone in which they spoke, the dismissiveness.
I’d like to think that I conjured up the nightmare and the poem as a kind of reckoning or attempt to set things right. Not that this is possible. But the mansion does burn. The ghost-boy is revenged, or revenges. This makes some sense to me, if not wholly.
In “Late Sunday Evening,” the "well," "darkness," and "black window" are key images that link the stanzas together and create a layered metaphor. Can you tell us about your process building this metaphor that supports the poem?
I wanted to record the ordinary and beautiful ritual of a couple finishing a day, a dinner, a week of tribulations alone in their house on a Sunday night. I wanted the simple beauty of the ritual to be mirrored in a simple language. But below the surface, I wanted the reader to understand (as I do) that what looks like a simple ritual that will go on forever is not and will not. With such a short poem, so imagistic, you have to make the right choices or the poem ends up just a string of images.
While this poem seems simple, its complexity is hidden within the ordinary act of washing dishes. What other ordinary activities spur you to write new poems?
The heroic ordinary ways of men and women and children — what better use of poetry is there than this? The presidents and generals have history. The royals their houses. Why can’t the rest of us have our slights and sympathies and sicknesses raised to art. Of course we should.
Is there someone you have read lately that has given you encouragement and energy to keep writing? If so, who and why?
Jane Kenyon. I have a first edition of her selected poems, Otherwise. She is, as her husband has said of her, a poet interested in “the luminous particulars.” A brilliant book. A life’s work. I often go back to Charles Wright and his Hard Freight. Sexton. Carol Muske-Dukes, Sparrow. And for the wildness and the joy, Allen Ginsberg. He was my teacher at Brooklyn College. He was so committed to his work, but generous and curious and always, always making something new, something more.