Featured Artist 

“Writer with a mountain-shaped soul”
 William Woolfitt

Will Woolfitt at Plenty Downtown Bookshop, Sawmill Poetry Series, 2024: photo by Erin Hoover


We spoke with multi-genre writer and native West Virginian William Woolfitt recently. Will is marking 2024 as the year when he published two new books. The Night the Rain Had Nowhere to Go, a much-anticipated poetry release from Belle Point Press, was released in June, 2024, and his book of essays, Eyes Moving Through the Dark is forthcoming soon from Orison Books. Of his new poetry collection, poet Joan Kwon Glass says “these poems are both elegiac and reverent, grounding in their histories and stunning in their imagery.” Will’s book of short stories, Ring of Earth, was released from Madville Publishing in 2023. (Read our review of Ring of Earth.) Additionally, Will has authored three poetry collections: Spring Up Everlasting (Mercer 2020), Charles of the Desert (Paraclete Press, 2016), and Beauty Strip (Texas Review Press, 2014). His fiction chapbook The Boy with Fire in His Mouth (2014) won the Epiphany Editions contest judged by Darin Strauss. 

His writings have appeared in scores of literary magazines, including AGNI, Blackbird, Image, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, Gettysburg Review, Poetry International, African American Review, Indiana Review, Ruminate, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, Epoch, Spiritus, 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 Review

Will founded and edits Speaking of Marvels, a gathering of interviews with the authors of chapbooks, novellas, and books of assorted lengths. Speaking of Marvels just celebrated publishing 500 interviews with writers. Will is associate professor of English at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee where he lives with his family. 

Still: The Journal:   Thanks for talking with us, Will, and what a big year for you: two books releasing in 2024! Could you talk about your new book of poems, The Night the Rain Had Nowhere to Go, recently released from Belle Point Press, and your new book of essays, Eyes Moving Through the Dark, forthcoming from Orison Books? What do you want readers to know about them?

Will Woolfitt:   Both books try to answer questions like these: Now that I’ve moved from West Virginia to Tennessee (very different parts of Appalachia, five hundred miles between them), what am I choosing to observe, hear, take in? Now that I’ve become a parent, what do I want my children to learn about their families and communities, about empathy and responsibility, about our planet that’s threatened by greed and wars and climate change?

The title The Night the Rain Had Nowhere to Go reminds me of an album title, and among other things the book gathers poems that pay homage to and try to learn from the singers and musicians who have made folk music, early country, protest, blues—who sing in a land that’s spoiled and stolen and strange. One example is my poem “In the Pines,” named after the American folksong covered by Bill Monroe and Lead Belly, first published in The Vassar Review

The title Eyes Moving Through the Dark reminds me of potato roots running through hills of dirt in my grandparents’ garden, and it’s an attempt to reflect on my son’s language delay and my grandmother’s decreasing ability to talk. In addition to that, it’s an alphabetical travelogue in which I consider sites of wonder and devastation in Appalachia and beyond, moving from the aquarium in Chattanooga to the zinc violets that grow in the metal-contaminated soils of Westphalia, Germany.

Still: The Journal:   You seem equally home in multiple genres: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Could you talk about what helps you determine which of your writings will be poems, essays, or stories? Do you work on more than one thing at a time? Talk to us about what it’s like for you to write and publish in many genres.
Will Woolfitt:   When writing new pieces, I work with one genre at a time—for a season, or a year, or longer. I often choose genre, mode, form, and sometimes even word count before I write something new. I’m a slow writer, a reluctant first drafter, someone with a certain fear of the blank page, and so it helps me to imagine what kind of container I’m trying to fill. I’m also willing to change any of those initial choices when a draft stalls or stays dull and flat. I’m reminded of Jessie van Eerden, who says that she watched her mother keep old washing machines for spare parts and learned that a writer might work with spare parts too, that it can be useful to “cannibalize parts of essays, or whole essays (or even sections across genres—failed poems or short stories or novel chapters) and use them in new work.” My essay “C Is for Cumberland Plateau” is a good example of this. When I was in my essay-writing phase, I rescued it from my pile of stuck and broken-down poems, and took out the line breaks, and added some personal details, and connected it to Kathleen Norris and N. Scott Momaday, and tried other moves that an essayist might try. And then, a year or two later, having switched from essays back to poems, I cannibalized it again—I pulled two passages from “C Is for Cumberland Plateau” and radically expanded them and shaped them into two poems that are quite different from the essay scraps they grew out of.  

Here's part of my essay “B Is for Boxes” that further explains what I mean when I say that for me, writing is like filling a container with words:
Louise Nevelson was the daughter of Russian Jews who had fled the pogroms in Ukraine. In her forties, she walked the midnight streets of New York, Little Italy, Skid Row, gathering scrap wood from trash cans, scrap wood with nails sticking out. She said that she was giving the scraps “an ultimate life, a spiritual life that surpasses the life they were created for.” She also gathered wooden vegetable boxes and wine crates. At dawn, in her studio, she dipped all the wood she had found into troughs of black paint.
Later, she would arrange the scraps in boxes and display them in art galleries. Later, she would stack the boxes full of scraps and make walls, and then installations, and monuments, and altars, and a chapel.
My younger son convinces my wife and me to gather sticks and daisy-like weeds with him wherever we go—the playground, the greenway, the field beside the church. Sometimes, he ignores the sliding board, collects fallen leaves instead. He loves to work with cardboard boxes from the grocery store, dog food boxes, diaper boxes. These he crayons, and climbs in, and builds with, and tears into pieces.

I want to give him my attention, be present to him, but I also want to start writing again. I try to think of a way forward. Later, while he naps, I will try to find some scrap—a detail, a sliver of memory, a chunk of text I might quote from—and to cobble from that a sentence or two. Maybe I’ll puzzle together a box of words. Later, if I have enough of these, I will try to arrange them, stack them, fit them into an essay of many small parts, a segmented essay—sort of like Louise Nevelson stacking her crates to make a wall.
And it just now occurs to me that I also made this essay from parts of an old poem: “Louise Nevelson Resurrects the City’s Refuse to Create the Exhibit Moon Garden + One,” first published at Cerise Press.

Still: The Journal:   Tell us about where and how you grew up. Were you one of those kids who knew right away you’d be a writer? What was your writing path like, informally and formally?
Woolfitt:   I grew up near Farmington, West Virginia. Six years before I was born, the Farmington mine disaster killed 78 miners. Farmington High School began to sink and crack a few years after that due to mine subsidence and had to close. My parents often took me to visit my grandparents and great-grandparents, and that meant I grew up knowing people who raised gardens and cattle, who had worked in coal mines and chemical plants, who foraged and canned, sewed and crocheted, recycled and invented, who gave to the poor and taught vacation Bible school and spoke in tongues. Because of them, I grew up knowing land the way Ann Pancake describes it: “land around my shoulders, land up over my head, hill, hollow, ridge, creekbed, riverbank, draw, that land pushing up into my throat, word-birthing land.” 

Woolfitt's grandparents' farm in West Virginia

I wanted to be like Grandma Doris, Pa, Grandma Hazel, Papa, great-aunts Ruth Ellen and Clarice, Pap, Uncle Larry, Aunt Sam, my parents. They gave me Kennebec potatoes in brown paper bags; they gave me beginnings, family stories, food for body and soul. “Two Sketches Pulled from the Gray Air,” published at Salvation South, is one of my newer poems about Grandma Doris and Pa.

In that world where the very earth beneath our feet might explode or swallow us whole, I began to imagine that I might become a writer, that instead of farming I might grow something from words. When I went to college, I was an assistant editor for the literary magazine Kestrel, which introduced me to the writings of Denise Giardina, Irene McKinney, Maggie Anderson, Lucille Clifton, Maxine Kumin, and Natasha Trethewey. From them, I learned that writing poems and stories could be a way to survive, resist, fight back, to groan with all creation, to mourn the ruined earth.

Still: The Journal:   One of the overarching themes that ties your writing together are the histories of place and  environmental abuse, specifically the exploitations of the coal, timber, and chemical industries in Appalachia, but also a mourning for all that’s been lost. Your abecedarian poem “West Virginia in the Later Anthropocene” from your new poetry collection is a good example of that particular theme. How do you see your role as a writer who cares about the places and the histories where you live? Would you label yourself an “environmental” writer? Would you use other labels to identify yourself, such as a place-based writer or an Appalachian writer?

Woolfitt:   I agree with Brittney Corrigan’s assertion that “poetry has the potential to move people, to spark their curiosity, to make them think and question, and to encourage them to take action.” Anna Laura Reeve suggests that the writer’s role in society might include being “influential, critical, [or] observant.” Maybe my writing can do some of those things on some small scale; maybe it’s starting to do good work if it at least critiques and observes me, spurs me to action.

I like the labels you suggest, especially when they help me discover possibilities and connections. One other label I like to claim is “West Virginia writer.” Justin Wymer writes, “The West Virginian landscape—emotional, spiritual, and natural—is something that creases the soul into the shape of a mountain, with its dark valleys and sun-licked summits.” Maybe “writer with a mountain-shaped soul” could be another good label.  The ten counties of North Central West Virginia, the part of the state I know best, have been home to a remarkable constellation of writers, a welling up—a “freshet bursting out of the side of winter” (here I’m borrowing words from Irene McKinney)—Amy M. Alvarez, Maggie Anderson, Jonathan Corcoran, William Demby, Bethany Jarmul, Lucien Darjeun Meadows, Laura Long, Laura Leigh Morris, Renée K. Nicholson, Matthew Neill Null, Jayne Anne Phillips, Kirsten Reneau, Ida Stewart, Natalie Sypolt, Doug Van Gundy, Jessie van Eerden, Ian C. Williams, Meredith Sue Willis. (I’m probably forgetting somebody.) That’s an assembly of writers I turn to again and again—writers whose work stirs and awes me, widens my view, breaks the ice when my words are a frozen creek and everything looks like winter, everything looks gray and washed out.

Buying Snowball Pumpkins in Athens, Tennessee

My sons wrong-turn in the corn maze, then shriek at light-up skeletons, plastic bones, neon green spider webs. I’m ignoring the gnat-like hum of worry-nerves in my chest. There’s tire mountain, there’s sliding hill the boys zoom down, I’m not testing the weather, not wondering about the sun, the heat, is it mild today, yolk-yellow, not too bright, not too warm. I’m trying to look carefully, see only tractor ride, zip line, my sons at the hay jump, the pig race. Sara and Maybelle sing, when the world’s on fire, tide me over in the rock of ages. Not long ago, in the Mountain State, a hundred-year-flood: the Elk River guzzled all the rain, swallowed bridges and roads, spread trash and mud everywhere, ruined the houses of families who then had to live in campers and tents on Walgrove Road, at Blue Creek. Not long ago, the coal-washing foam that Freedom Industries spilled into the Elk, whiff of licorice in the tap water, nausea and rashes, diamond darters the spill may have wiped out. Not long ago, derecho, hard winds, no electricity on the hottest day of summer, senator from my hometown siding with fossil fuels again. I’m buying sprinkle donuts for my sons to eat on the way home, I’m not feeling buzz in my chest, lump in my stomach. Maggie Anderson says, it’s hard for a river to carve a valley, pulling toward the sea on its hands and knees. My sons ask me to name what they see out the windows: paper mill, vinyl goblins, skulls that glow. There’s Mouse Creek, crystalline stone, patch of clear sky, what might be earthly, little, still free.

"Buying Snowball Pumpkins in Athens, Tennessee," by William Woolfitt from The Night the Rain Had Nowhere to Go (Belle Point Press, 2024). Used with permission of author and publisher.

Still: The Journal:   
Who are some writers that have influenced your own work? 
Woolfitt:   In addition to the writers I’ve named already, I’d like to add Harriette Simpson Arnow, Andrew Bertaina, Jenn Blair, Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, Rebecca Harding Davis, Louise Erdrich, Cathryn Hankla, Charlotte Holmes, Denton Loving, Julie Otsuka, Ann Pancake, Mary Lee Settle, and Anne Spencer.

Still: The Journal:   You are a full-time English professor and you’re raising two children, so we know you are extremely busy. In addition, you founded and edit the Speaking of Marvels blog that features interviews with authors of chapbooks, novellas, and books of assorted lengths. How do you carve out any reading and writing time for yourself?
Woolfitt:   The unvarnished truth is, I am often unable to carve out time, I don’t switch from genre to genre with ease, and it took ten or more years of writing to get to two books releasing in 2024. I was able to finish a book of short stories and a book of essays because I had a few summers when one or the other of my sons was in daycare three days a week: those days were prose-writing days. Now that my sons are older and home all summer, I am often trying to figure out what kind of writing I might be able to do in the scorch of June and July, the overheated and fast-passing weeks before school starts again. It often seems impossible for me to parent, teach, and write at the same time, but I like to think (like to tell myself) that each of these can feed the others, each invites me to pay attention more closely, think more deeply, learn more about the beauty and power of words.
Still: The Journal:   What advice would you give to writers who want to explore and write beyond their comfort genre? What are some tips for the poet on essay writing or for the storyteller on writing poems? How do you see these genres connected (or not)?
Woolfitt:   Here are some things that seem to have helped me: Read widely. Start small. Have a pile of stuck drafts you can look through and draw from when you’re trying a new genre.

If poetry is my comfort genre, then creative nonfiction must be my genre of unease, the one where for a long time I felt like 
I was flailing in a vast body of water, sliding down a cliff, trying to find a handhold. My initial idea for a creative nonfiction project was a chapbook of 26 tiny essays (each of them no longer than a page), one for each letter of the alphabet. Then I thought of also writing tiny essays for what one scholar calls “the ghost letters” that were present in earlier versions of the English alphabet, are archaic now—ash, wynn, yogh, thorn, and so on. And then the project ran away from me, grew past the initial boundaries I had imagined for it, swept me along.

Still: The Journal:   Good luck, Will, on getting your two new books out into the world this year. As if that’s not enough, we’re always curious about a couple of things: 1. What are you currently reading that you could recommend to us? and 
2. Could you talk about any projects you’re currently working on?
Woolfitt:   I would say I have a few glimpses-through-the-fog of what I might work on next, but right now I don’t have a current writing project. I hope I find one.

Some books I’m reading this summer and would recommend are Book of Altars by Clara Bush Vadala, Inland Sea by Lynn Domina, Boomhouse by Summer J. Hart, Like This by Susanna Lang, The Bones That Map Us by Maggie Rue Hess, Benedicta Takes Wing by Veronica Montes, The Box by Mandy-Suzanne Wong, and Gatherer by Todd Osborne.


Home     Archives     Fiction     Poetry     Creative  Nonfiction     Interview     
Featured Artist   Reviews     Multimedia    Masthead     Submit