Featured Poet Interview | Heath Joseph Wooten
This month's featured poet is Heath Joseph Wooten, whose "Notturno: Forest Movement" and "Corpus" are a haunting marriage of form and language. Check out both poems here, then join us for a discussion on anxieties, the body, and how to keep carrying on.
Jacqueline Boucher: Obviously, form plays a huge role in these pieces, particularly in “Notturno . . . .” Can you speak to the process of creating that poem, and what drove the choices you made?
Heath Joseph Wooten: “Notturno” is very close to my heart. It came at the intersection of a lot of difficult events. My grandmother’s funeral was just a few weeks before, I was waiting to hear decisions from 10 MFA programs, my bedroom ceiling had just sprung a leak so I was sleeping on the floor in the living room, I was writing a thesis… everything was going badly, and the pandemic hadn’t even reached Mississippi yet.
I think these combined stressors augmented the chaotic line of thinking that led to this poem. I was thinking about how all these stressors were tied up in a knot. I was thinking about Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Poe’s albums Hello and Haunted, how they’re all tied up in a knot. I was thinking about my first and only piano recital where I played a simplified arrangement of Alexander Borodin’s “Notturno,” and how I lost the sheet music and I’ve never been able to find that arrangement again. How I can remember how to play dozens of songs on the piano, but not that one.
I guess all of these things led me to consider the different ways a story could be told, how easy it is for one simple narrative thread to get knotted up and lost. So I decided I wanted all of these things to come together somehow on the page. I wanted to unknot a narrative in my head and knot it back up on the page, and I drew inspiration from all the art I had on my mind at the time.
As for the literal process, I started by formatting the page and took very heavy inspiration from House of Leaves. I knew I wanted four different narratives, and I knew I wanted them to look very different on the page. I knew I wanted music and patterns to figure into this greatly, so I chose sections of the music (which I demoed quietly on my old flute) and pasted them into the document. I wrote each thread in separate documents, sort of all at the same time, before putting them together in the template I had made.
I’m sure this sounds like a lot of labor for a poem, and it was. I think it took me at least 3 hours to finish the first draft. It went through several revisions and ended up being in my undergraduate thesis Harmony of the Spine along with “Corpus.” And now it is in your (virtual) hands, and I encourage you to untangle, knot up, rearrange, and destroy this poem (or some of your own!) if the feeling hits.
JB: The piece that made me say “yes. Yep. This poet right here,” was “Corpus.” Its language was so visceral, both intimate and expansive. When writing poetry that speaks the language of the body, the challenge is often to find the balance between well-trod images that have become a shorthand for a particular bodily experience, and riskier ones that might struggle to stick the landing. When you’re looking for language of the body, what tends to interest or excite you?
HJW: The body is such a poet-y thing to write about. It’s basically a meme at this point, but I think the body is almost always an interesting thing to write about simply because there are so many different things to say, so many different ways to approach the body. Am I painting a romantic portrait? Am I performing a dissection, an autopsy? Am I diagnosing, explaining, imagining the body?
But what I find most interesting and exciting: writing gross stuff about the body! Because the body can be really gross. I didn’t set out to gross people out with “Corpus,” but I think in revisions, the uncomfortable and disturbing things became central to the poem in a way I hadn’t written before. Originally, I feel like there were lots of lines and images that imagined self-autopsy as a beautiful process, but that was one of those moments where I think I took a risk but struggled to stick the landing.
It really wasn’t until I accepted the cohabitation of the contradictions—intimate and clinical, beautiful and disgusting—that this poem came into a form I was proud of. To call myself an “earthquake/of meat,” to really consider the color of fat—these moments made me feel alive as a poet, like I was doing something a little taboo. It’s kind of become a hallmark of my poetry in general, this acknowledgement and embrace of gross things. I obsess over it, and I simply love it. In the words of one of my dear friends, this is my “poetics of disgust”: just write gross stuff! Don’t be afraid to get a little gross!
JB: Like many writers, you’re in the middle of a really difficult balancing act right now: how to survive, how to be a good literary citizen, how to teach, how to create…our resources are finite, but the list of things to balance just keeps getting longer. Can you speak to your position as a poet and a writer in the middle of…the 2020 of it all?
HJW: Gosh, I really wish I had great insights in pocket to share, but really, I’ve just been taking it day by day. A lot of people seem to be struggling with writing creatively write now. There is simply too much happening outside of the literary world to feel like I’m able to consistently engage as a citizen. And yet here I am, typing my answers to this interview, right? Trying to engage. So let me give it an honest go:
Last month, I started my MFA at Northern Michigan University, and part of the deal is teaching one of their first-year composition courses. Every class, I read my students a poem before we get started, and I’ve tried especially hard to center queer and/or BIPOC voices in my selections. Black voices especially have to be heard right now. I suppose that’s my position right now. Anti-racism, advocacy, radicalizing what poetry is to my students. That the canon doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be a bunch of dead white men’s boring sonnets. That poetry is so much more.
JB: What are you reading right now that excites you?
HJW: I recently read the poems “Pastoral” by Melissa Ginsburg and “Pastoral” by Jennifer Chang. They have absolutely got to be some of my favorite poems (and poets!). I love the way both poems engage with language and are unafraid to let feeling preclude meaning if it’s ultimately in service of the poem. I’ve read both every single day for weeks now.
As far as poetry collections go, I have a stack of books I keep on my bedside table that I am constantly reading and re-reading: Refuse by Julian Randall, Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Mother Love by Rita Dove, Dear Weather Ghost by Melissa Ginsburg, Some Say The Lark by Jennifer Chang… I recently read Toi Derricotte’s “i”: New and Selected Poems, and it has since been added to the club as well.
I recently finished World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and it basically radicalized my perception of myself in nature. I just finished On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, but I haven’t sufficiently processed my feelings enough to say anything other than you should definitely read it. House of Leaves of course continues to be an inspiration, and it’s never too far from me.
JB: What’s your favorite bone?
HJW: I spent a semester of undergrad collecting enamel samples from teeth, so I’m super tempted to say teeth (premolars specifically!) are my favorite bones. Dentition in general was my favorite unit in Human Osteology, but in non-human osteologies, I find the teeth consistently interesting. Have you ever looked at a cow’s teeth up close? That’s truly a mouthful of nightmare-worthy poems that I am too scared to write!