INTERVIEW WITH NANCY LYNÉE WOO
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In “Somewhere in Montana, Maybe,” there’s a really interesting tension between the very regular organization of the poem into couplets and sections but then the way the sentences and ideas spill over with relentless surprise. How did you arrive at the structural choices of the poem?
Nancy Lynée Woo: The poem started as one long, disjointed tirade with a rather confusing list of images, most of which didn’t make the final cut. I will sometimes just let my subconscious vomit a bunch of weird stuff on the page first, and then go back and revise toward cohesion and surprise. My instincts had directed the poem into couplets from the beginning, though. I love couplets. For a poem like this, I can take advantage of the expected, steady structure and rhythm, and then use line breaks and language to create multiple layers of bizarre. I can thank my peer writing groups for the suggestion to break it into three acts.
RR: We love the sense of humor in lines like “Like, do dogs in space still kick in their sleep?” Do you see humor as a way of getting at deeper or more serious themes? If not, how does humor play into your writing?
NLW: I am not an especially funny person, at least not when I try to be. I can laugh at myself for days, but only recently has humor begun to enter my writing. I spent so many years writing in a pool of angst and sorrow that I honestly just sort of got bored of it. I think I eventually healed a lot of trauma and learned to take myself less seriously. Now, I am most interested in finding a balance between levity and heaviness. If I can sneak in a bit of humor, I am quite delighted with myself. I find that humor helps break up the density of pain and makes difficult topics more palatable.
RR: We were drawn in by the distinctive, memorable voice in your poem. Can you tell us a little about your writing process and how you think about and develop voice as you draft?
NLW: Thank you! I love this question. I recently taught a workshop on The Art of Voice, by Tony Hoagland, and was recently mentored by Chen Chen in my M.F.A. program at Antioch. Both poets use voice to great effect, and I have always loved voicey poems that manage to poke at a certain depth of feeling without neglecting imagism and rhythm. I want it all.
I think voice is central to any writing because we all live in a world of language. We hear voices all around us all the time—on television, radio and podcasts, in books, social media, text and memes, and in our homes and workplaces constantly. I keep a running list of found language and interesting lines I overhear, which sometimes make it into a poem. I realized as a teenager that when I heard a distinct voice, my brain naturally wanted to mimic it (though I learned not to do this out loud). For example, my internal narrator spoke in the voice of Tom Sawyer for like a week when I first read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.
My voice, like my “self,” may be grounded in a central body with definitive experiences (creating a unique “I”), yet is so deeply influenced by all the language I hear around me that I sometimes feel like all I do as a poet is simply listen, and then scurry to write what I hear. It is, I suppose, the words we choose and the order we put them in that could be called poetic voice. Right now, I very much enjoy an intimate yet authoritative voice punctuated by cavorting images.
RR: Considering your commitment to community and social justice, what is your approach to expressing political ideas in poetry?
NLW: Poetry is absolutely a place for politics. The personal is political, and in a functioning society, citizens enjoy a healthy relationship with their political structures. Historically, human societies have shown no absolute, objective consensus about how to govern ourselves best, and social mores change over time. But I am not a political scientist or essayist, nor a practicing sociologist (though that was my undergraduate degree); I am a poet.
So, I know what I believe right now: in short, political leaders should be beholden to the collective good over personal gain, fascism is bad, protecting the environment is good, unchecked capitalism is dangerous, and every individual should have the opportunity to contribute their gifts meaningfully to society without suffering from institutionalized poverty or oppression.
If I can explore a political idea in a compelling way through image and language, that’s really all I am going for. I’ve got plenty of diatribes in me, but, like humor, if I can sneak in a moment or two without toppling the poem, that pleases me.
RR: We understand you lead a community poetry workshop, and you write in your bio that you believe in the power of the arts to bring people together. We love that! How have your writing communities responded or changed this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
NLW: Yes! I run a workshop called Surprise the Line. It started as an in-person small-group workshop in Long Beach, California, where I live. I love teaching, and learn best when sharing. The pandemic urged it into a virtual form, which has actually been amazing. For years, I was resistant to conducting workshops online for fear of losing some of that physical circle magic. Then when the pandemic hit, that was the only option left. And it turned out to be wonderful in ways I never could have predicted.
So I revved into gear and on April 1st, I started hosting a daily writing group called Rise & Shine, which was donation-based and open to anyone who could use a space to write, process and share. I provided a poem and prompt, and for six months as the pandemic progressed, people came and went, with a small group of regulars. I’ve also hosted a series of committed weekly workshops and a quarterly submissions party. I’m building out more workshops now, and the pandemic, despite its obvious hardships, has actually shifted me into very productive, inspired territory. Through Zoom, I have actually made friends across the states and in different places worldwide. So I am greatly motivated to keep building.
I have personally realized how we can use technology to connect with each other in fulfilling, meaningful ways (rather than vapid, depleting ways). It has been absolutely stunning to see how easily strangers are willing to express themselves to each other—from anywhere on the globe—in a supportive, uplifting and empathetic community. Of course, we don’t remain strangers for long when we’re meeting in this way.
The Surprise the Line community has an open door. Encountering different perspectives in real time with each other can be exceptionally expansive. I am grateful for the brave souls who dare to write themselves onto the page and read it aloud. I keep the space tight with respect and integrity, and there is a lot more than “just poetry” that happens in these spaces. Every time we sit down to write, we invite discovery onto the page. I believe writing poetry serves a great and practical function in the world, though art for its own sake is enough. However long we’ve been writing, we all learn from each other. As Tony Hoagland says, we help each other become “more experienced thinkers and feelers,” which is not a horrible way to spend an hour or two.
Nancy Lynée Woo’s work in Issue 8.1: