5Q :: ‘Apples of Arcadia’ scribe tackles poetryDuluth author and publisher Jeffrey Woolf takes a break from crafting novel No. 2 to release a poetry chapbook, "Octopus Moons, Vol. 1." Plus: A "reprint" of the feature Matthew R. Perrine wrote about him in 2008.
To celebrate the release of his new poetry chapbook, “Octopus Moons, Vol. 1,” the Budgeteer asked local author and publisher Jeffrey Woolf a few questions about the words he loves to ponder so:
Budgeteer: Since poetry is such a unique and personal art form, how would you describe your approach to it to anyone out there that knows nothing about it?
Woolf: My approach to poetry is very much visceral. There isn’t any intellectualism involved — or if there is, it’s snuffed out rather quickly, usually with a hot bath and a few glasses of wine. I’ll be honest here: I place no more importance on the act of writing poetry than in cooking an excellent Italian meal for a dear friend or tossing your lover’s belongings out the front bay window after a tiff.
It’s all passion, and, if it isn’t, then I have no use for it. I suppose the difference with poetry — and all art I guess — is that the passion involved isn’t wholly a destructive passion but rather an insurmountable energy that must be expelled somehow without blowing one’s brains out in the process. It’s this innate rebuilding in art and life that poetry must attempt to encapsulate … after completely annihilating everything first, prior to tapping out the first word.
… For anyone interested in the “approach” of writing poetry, I’d say, “Try first understanding why the sun rises. Or, better still, [try understanding] why when the sun rises your neighbor feels impelled to perform his daily rites, which seem so alien in the grand scheme of things that you question his very existence.”
Then look at your own life and ask the same question. It’s the absence of poetry, I think, which compels folks to write poetry. Once the void is filled, and filled with whatever is solely at your own choosing, then of course there is no more need for poetry.
It’s better to tend to that lover whose belongings are strewn about the front lawn — chances are therein lies true happiness. That’s poetry for me, I think.
On the subject of poetry, didn’t you say you hated poetry in our last go-round? What changed?
Not exactly; I can’t remember ever saying I hated poetry.
I think in “Apples of Arcadia” I made mention of having despised poetry — which is not the same thing, of course: Hating one thing and despising another is very much the same difference as avoiding one thing and confronting another.
I suppose I felt I had to confront poetry. It’s this drive in me to blend uncomfortable things and situations into my own being. Once it’s there, there’s nothing left to hate or despise, or even to confront anymore. It’s all the same as split pea soup, as far as I’m concerned.
When I was a kid, a school boy, the very smell of split pea soup made me nauseous to the point of passing out. Now, in adulthood, it’s one of my favorite soups — with enough salt and pepper to taste, and perhaps a few bits of bacon for texture … ugh! The texture of dull, bland pea soup!
See, I had to confront this thing called “split pea soup” and find out what it was that repelled me so. And I discovered it wasn’t so much the soup as whoever served it to me had no idea how to serve a delicious bowl of split pea soup. I had to teach myself not to despise split pea soup, but rather to learn how to make split pea soup which tasted good to me.
That said, regarding poetry, I did learn a lot from the seasoned chefs — Rimbaud, Whitman, Baudelaire, Bukowski, some unnamables — then take from the ingredients the good bits to serve myself. If others take from my own poetry the way I took from [those poets], I would very much like that, I think. But that’s not the point. I’m satiated, and that’s all that matters to me.
You held a contest to determine your new chapbook’s cover art — what drew you to Sarah Powers’ winning submission?
Sarah is a fine artist and any writer would be lucky enough to have her images grace his/her chapbook cover. And I was lucky enough she decided to submit her art in my measly contest. I didn’t know Sarah before she decided to submit her work in my contest, and I still would never admit to knowing her as an artist or a person.
What she did submit, however, was a visual depiction of what I was aiming for — that is, what I had written and was soon to be distributing among those outside the Ethernet. I find it incredible she gathered from very scant subject matter this depiction. She seemed to understand this character called “Jeffrey” and what it was he was trying to say in pithy verse, namely the search for the self down a dark alley with only his own shadow as company. Not in any depressing sense — the “shadow as octopus” lends a nice comic value to the cover, I thought… — but a bending toward the hopeful with the rough brick and water-colored cobblestone as backdrop.
Sure, what author wouldn’t choose her submission for the cover, given the subject matter? Of course, there must be other reasons, but Sarah would be the best person to answer for those.
Have you started writing the follow-up to “Apples of Arcadia”? Have you found it to be easier/quicker with novel No. 2? Any hints as to what you’re cooking up?
… The act of writing never becomes easier, just less strenuous. I can sum this up best by referencing another profession: medicine. As symptoms become more and more recognizable, and in relation to the disease which spawned them, the physician spends less and less time asking himself, “Why these gray spots on the tongue, and what means this pensive desire to gorge on month-old dairy products and moldy bread with dead lettuce? What odd curiosities this fellow adopts….”
No, the matter here is not so much the what, but the why, and then the why notor the when not. Or, better yet, the how not. Once the symptoms have been fully observed and recognized and remembered as symptoms of a particular disease, the cure becomes more and more evident, and the healing is effected.
Is this terse? Alright, imagine a pilot attempting to land a plane armed with only a jar of peanut butter, a dull knife and a cell phone with one power bar left on the charge and no knowledge whatsoever as to the meanings of the buttons and levers. Rather f-----, I’d say. But there is a way, a possibility that lends itself always in every situation.
As to what is being cooked up, let’s just say I’ve learned very well how to prepare one hell of a peanut butter sandwich with little help from my expiring cell phone connection — even if the sandwich still be made with moldy bread. At least I’m wise enough now to leave out the lettuce.
Finally, who is this Jimmy Henry fellow you’ve dedicated “Octopus Moons, Vol. 1” to? And how did he affect your life?
I made some effort to write a short memorial to my friend, Jimmy Henry, at the tail end of “Octopus Moons, Vol. 1.”
Internally, I had some reserve in printing this short epitaph, as initially I felt unworthy. So many other artists throughout the country — and even within our own city — knew him so much better than myself, so I thought I may be treading on unwelcome territory.
However, for me, Jimmy was someone I knew personally, and in that I felt justified writing and printing that short, inadequate dedication.
First and foremost, Jimmy Henry was a damn fine poet, and a [messed]-up human being second. But the beautiful thing about Jimmy was he acknowledged that not only was he, himself, f----- up — but that most things in this world are f----- up, damn near irreparable. And, for that, he considered himself par for the course.
In fact, it was his acknowledgment and acceptance of this [messed]-up nature of the world and himself which singled him out as somewhat of a prophet — and I don’t use this term “prophet” often.
Why I use it now, about his poetry and his person, is because Jimmy offered not only in very explicit terms the problems and ills of our society as it stands now, but in the same breath expressed solutions to be explored toward attaining a higher goal, a higher purpose or standard.
… Through art, his poetry and being, Jimmy exemplified the meaning of acceptance and the work that follows after. In no way do I consider myself the only person affected by the life and poetry of Jimmy Henry, but I most certainly felt obligated to acknowledge in “Octopus Moons” — a book which I feel has come to symbolize in some ways my own acceptance of the same themes on a similar level — a man which, for me, was a teacher and a compatriot. And for that I am incredibly honored.
Learn more about Duluth writer Jeffrey Woolf on his publishing house's Web site, www.blackumbrellabooks.com.
Note: The following article, "Jeffrey Woolf: Everything in its Right Place" — which was also written by Matthew R. Perrine — was published March 9, 2008, in the Duluth Budgeteer News.
The first words you read in “Apples of Arcadia,” Jeffrey Woolf’s debut novel, are “To the Unnameable.”
An odd dedication, to be sure, but the Twin Ports hasn’t spawned an author like this in some time — if ever.
The Duluth author recently sat down with the Budgeteer to discuss the six-years-in-the-making “Apples” and Black Umbrella Books, his upstart publishing house.
Recalls and reflects
Woolf was born in Beloit, Wis., and raised in Superior, but the novel-writing process didn’t even really start to take roots until his senior year at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. (Woolf describes his college experience as, more or less, an extended episode of sleepwalking. He had no real ambition to attend, but he knew that it was “the thing to do.”)
“I was still kind of sleepwalking until I got interested in scatological literature — books that, at one time or another, had been banned, usually for lewd content,” he said. “I don’t know how that happened; I think I was just looking to entertain myself.”
It was during this time that Woolf sought out Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” which he had heard a lot about.
“I picked it up and immediately recognized it as something that was extremely different from anything I had ever read — different in the voice that was used,” he said of the controversial 1934 novel. “It wasn’t actually academic, even though it was very intelligent.
“It spoke in a very unique and individual voice.”
After reading it three times back to back, Woolf knew he had found his calling. As is the case with most authors, he experienced many “fumblings” between that decision and “Apples” — including writing music reviews in the Reader Weekly that were, according to him, less about music than him trying to fit favored words into any given sentence.
“I was still looking to find out what this whole writing business was,” he concedes. “Not if it was worth pursuing, but how to pursue it.
“A lot of my time writing happened very privately — very, very privately, where there was only one or two people who even knew the type of stuff I was writing.”
Woolf said he never set out to write a book like “Apples,” which he describes as 80 percent nonfiction and 20 percent “license.” Rather, he was on a journey to find his voice — a journey that took almost three years.
“A lot of what you’re reading in the book I was living,” he said of the novel’s middle pages, which move beyond earlier bartending anecdotes and sexual conquests (like the explicit “Tropic of Cancer,” “Apples” isn’t for impressionable readers). “All those experiences were taken directly from myself trying to find out what my voice is.”
After he found that fabled “voice,” Woolf said “Apples” really started to take care of itself.
“… To the point where all I really had to do was show up and drink a lot of coffee,” he said, laughing about how cliché the process turned out to be. “And Radiohead helped out a lot too.”
The plight of the creative artist
Novel done, where does the novelist go?
Like just about every talented wordsmith before him, Woolf attempted to “shop” his novel to a number of different houses — at least to as many as he could afford. (While “Apples” is no “In Search of Lost Time,” a healthy 400 pages still equates to hefty postage fees.)
“After two years (of little response) I looked at myself and said, You could quit now, and say you gave it a hell of a shot — or you can continue, pursue it and see what develops,” he said. “I was always extremely serious about it, and it was never really just a hobby for me.”
Enter “How to Publish Your Own Books,” a simple how-to Woolf discovered at his place of employment’s donated library while waiting for a weekly team meeting to start.
“I just thumbed through it, you know, and it was so simple,” he said. “It was just like, Why isn’t anybody else doing this? Or: Why hasn’t somebody told me how simple this was?
“By that time, I was telling my book idea to anybody who would listen — and even people who wouldn’t listen.”
With his newly acquired knowledge of the DIY book-publishing biz, Woolf launched Black Umbrella Books. (To secure the trademark, he quickly released a chapbook of his poems.)
While he is not currently seeking submissions, Woolf hopes to get another Black Umbrella project going by the end of the year.
“I don’t mean to make my venture into publishing sound trivial — it was accidental, but I take it extremely seriously, and I want to showcase, of course, the Duluth literary arts,” he said. “I think that there’s a lot of music happening here, but there’s also a lot of literary things that are happening.”
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