William Kelley Woolfitt is the author of the poetry collections Charles of the Desert (Paraclete Press, 2016) and Beauty Strip (Texas Review Press, 2014/ recipient of the Texas Review Breakthrough poetry contest). His fiction chapbook The Boy with Fire in His Mouth (2014) won the Epiphany Editions contest. His poems and stories have appeared in Blackbird, Image, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Epoch, and other journals. He is the recipient of the Howard Nemerov Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Denny C. Plattner Award from Appalachian Heritage. He is an Assistant Professor of English specializing in Creative Writing at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Denton Loving: Even before I first met you in person, I admired your work in magazines and journals. And I noticed that your name kept appearing over and over again. You’re fairly prolific. Will you talk about how you started writing and publishing?
William Kelley Woolfitt: Evidently, I have always wanted to make and tell stories; my grandmother wrote down my stories before I went to kindergarten, before I learned to write. When I was a student at Fairmont State, I was the assistant editor for the literary magazine Kestrel; I read and juried the submissions, and soon I wanted to try sending my poems out into the world.
DL: I’ve heard you say that the title of your first collection, Beauty Strip, is often misinterpreted on first glance. Will you explain what a “beauty strip” is and why you felt it was the perfect title for your collection? How did those poems evolve into a collection?
WKW: A beauty strip is a row of trees left standing to conceal the damage done by humans when we change or mar the natural world. I thought it would be a fitting title because it implies both ruin and a measure of consolation (meager though it may be), upheaval and remnant. An early title had been Rock Still Warm from the Heat of Day, and I think that title anticipates Beauty Strip—suggesting that the sun is gone but some warmth remains, darkness has come but it is not total, not all-consuming. Ron Mohring, the generous and encouraging publisher of Seven Kitchens Press, brought out a chapbook (The Salvager’s Arts) that’s a little like a Reader’s Digest Condensed forerunner of Beauty Strip. Earlier versions of Beauty Strip included poems not set in Appalachia; I made Beauty Strip more geographically focused after reading books by poets like Lisa Coffman, Janice Harrington, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Rachel Richardson, Ida Stewart, and Jake Adam York—books that seem to explore and interrogate and summon and dream an assortment of Souths and Appalachias.
DL: Beauty Strip reads like both a love song and a lament to your native state of West Virginia and her people. Your poem “Note to Slash Fires, to Draglines,” is one that really speaks to me, especially these lines from the second stanza:
My hills are slag. My mountains are slag.
Leveled by draglines a hundred feet high,
dynamite, ravenous trucks.
I let them clearcut, flatten.
Dig every chunk. Reap every stone.
I fill my cart with bargains,
jumbo packs. It is so easy
to shut my eyes, not speak.
I don’t know how autobiographical this poem is—or may have started out—but I admire how in this and many other poems you are investigating the connections between the poems’ speakers and their environments. Have you always had that interest and how has it evolved over time?
WKW: Maxine Kumin and Irene McKinney and Denise Giardina read at Fairmont State when I was an impressionable and earnest young poet, and my grandparents had a cattle farm on a small mountain in West Virginia, and I started hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail in my early twenties. Those are probably the main influences on the environmental writer I later became. I wanted to write historical fiction, I wanted to write about place, and Giardina was an inspiration for me. When I found out about her work as an activist and an opponent of mountaintop removal, that seemed like something else I wanted to try my hand at, at least on the page, at least in a poem or two.
DL: Do you have a favorite poem from Beauty Strip? If so, which one and why?
WKW: A favorite is “Muriel Rukeyser in West Virginia.” An early version of the poem appeared in the MOTIF anthology edited by Marianne Worthington; a revised version appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review Instapoetry Series (https://www.pinterest.com/pin/200410252140729176/); the version in Beauty Strip is a further revision. It’s one of my favorites because it tries for economy and density, tries to mix and measure narrative, lyric, protest, documentary, history, maybe a shake of ars poetica, maybe a pinch of autobiography. While Rukeyser tries to find words for ruined men, damaged survivors, a ruined river, a gashed mountain, I’m there in the subtext, I think, trying to look, and take it all in, and respond by finding words – words that invite the reader to look and take in the dries, the tunnel, the little plums, dark blues. And if I can get readers to look long enough, to take in fully and deeply, maybe readers will also respond, as Rukeyser did, as I try to do – maybe readers will find words, and call out, and give their voices to lament, or anger, or protest.
Muriel Rukeyser in West Virginia
Muriel meets the driller’s wife
at the diner. She tells Muriel,
“Try the spice cake.”
Muriel’s notepad unnerves her.
She peers into her coffee,
frets her colorless dress.
Scratching paper, Muriel tries to find words
for her thin hand, raveled sweater.
Muriel scribbles diverted river, emptied bed,
stagnant puddles, the five mile section
the townspeople call the dries.
The wife says paper deceives,
she trusts word-of-mouth,
the Lord of hosts hovering overhead.
She knew the tunnel for what it was.
Her man said no choice. He wouldn’t budge.
Scribble dry drill, dynamite, silica, stone.
When he coughs in the night,
she has to turn him;
the bed rattles, their babies wake.
When he dresses in the morning,
she sees bruises where her fingers
pressed him, dark blues, little plums.
DL: On first glance, the subject matter in Charles of the Desert is vastly different from that in Beauty Strip, but really there’s quite a bit of overlapping in your concerns for the people of each place, your detailed observations of the natural world, and your interest in spirituality. I’m also thinking in terms of form; Beauty Strip includes a number of persona poems, and the poems in Charles of the Desert are all persona poems. What attracts you to this form?
WKW: Perhaps it’s my interest in historical fiction and the example of Marilyn Nelson, whose books of poetry are sometimes described as lyric histories. Or perhaps I’m a greedy or gluttonous writer—the many forms and modes and schools of poetry seem like covered dishes on buffet tables, and consciously or unconsciously, I want to sample a little of everything. I like the possibilities of language and image and story that I can offer to the reader when I venture beyond my humdrum little life; I don’t want to choose between the lyric, the narrative, the historical, and the documentary when I write a poem; I like a poem that draws from and mixes them all.
DL: Charles of the Desert is a biographical cycle depicting the life of Charles de Foucauld, a French hermit/missionary to Algeria. In your preface to the book, you write that you first discovered de Foucauld in 1997 as you were riding a bus to work as a summer camp counselor in Texas. You write that in learning about de Foucauld, you “forgot to be afraid.” Will you talk more about your work that summer and how de Foucauld inspired you?
WKW: Summer camps in Texas and New Hampshire, where I worked for more than ten summers, are surely another influence on my environmental writing. I taught campers to rappel at Enchanted Rock; I led hikes in the White Mountains and canoe trips in central Quebec. My life seemed a little nomadic then, a little scary, a mix of cliff-edges and safety harnesses and river rapids and inopportune rain storms and flimsy tents and muddy trails. Perhaps my true nature is that of a sedentary comfort-loving couch potato. If so, perhaps the life of Charles de Foucauld was like my Saint Christopher medal during those years; perhaps Charles and his prayer of abandonment and his radical faith in some way connected me to traveling mercies, to bravery and compassion.
DL: Charles of the Desert is a creative work, meaning you fictionalized many details in the poems. However, you read about de Foucauld and researched his life for years. In the end, you said that you felt your version of Charles was so close to your own image that you had “tipped the scales to autobiography.” Will you talk about what you mean by that? Do you have advice for other writers whose work might focus so intensely on a historical figure?
WKW: Since I wrote the poems in the first-person voice of Charles, it may have been too easy to give him my voice – and my flaws, fears, and desires.
My advice for other writers might be advice I would give to myself: think carefully about scale when deciding on a historical figure to write about. Charles lived or traveled in France, Syria, Israel, Morocco, and Algeria, among other countries – which meant researching several places instead of one. I might not have started the book if I had known how much research I would need to do, or how much research I would give up on that I probably should have done. So the scale of the project, and how to portray the complexity of the figure’s outer and inner lives, and all the places and events and contexts to investigate – all these might be useful to think about when considering whether to write about a historical figure.
DL: Can you recommend another emerging poet, perhaps with a recent book that you’re loving right now?
WKW: Here are a few: Full Cry by Lisa Ampleman, The Glacier’s Wake by Katy Didden, Seam by Tarfia Faizullah, Ain’t No Grave by TJ Jarrett, Signaletics by Emilia Phillips, Horse and Rider by Melissa Range, King Me by Roger Reeves, and Praise Nothing by Joshua Robbins.
DL: In addition to your own writing, you produce a blog called Speaking of Marvels, which publishes interviews about chapbooks, novellas, and other short forms. What is it about these shorter forms that intrigues you? How did the idea for Speaking of Marvels come to you? Did you see a need for these shorter forms to get more attention? What has the response been to the blog?
WKW: I had several reasons for starting the blog. I wanted to be a better literary citizen, I felt a little guilty that I wasn’t writing book reviews or doing some other serviceable thing, and three of my chapbooks had been published without garnering much attention, one might say. My hope is that the blog can help readers connect with chapbooks and novellas that they might miss out on otherwise.
The authors featured at Speaking of Marvels answer your question about the appeal of chapbooks and novellas more eloquently and memorably than I might. Rachel Marie Patterson writes, “I love the chapbook for the same reason I love the poem: it’s controlled, compact, intense.” Rita Banerjee writes “Novellas seem to capture a magical middle ground between the poignancy and sharp edginess of the short story and the more decadent, sprawling ruminations available to novelists.” And Siel Ju writes, “Think of the chapbook (or any publication) less as proof of your own artistic merit or culmination of your own personal writing endeavors, and more as a part of a collective project that exists to connect you with a larger community of writers. “
DL: Since you wrote most of the poems in both books, you and your wife Sara have welcomed your first child, a baby boy. Have you noticed any changes in your interests or focus since his birth? What will we see from you next?
WKW: I would like to add the autobiographical mode back into the mix, to try writing about parenting, maybe a little like Todd Davis and Eleanor Stanford and Nancy Willard and Maya Jewell Zeller. It’s too early to predict, I suppose.
Read poems online by William Kelley Woolfitt:
Check out another interview online with William Kelley Woolfitt, at r.kv.r.y. Quarterly.
Peruse a post online by Willliam on documentary poetry.