My sister went to high school with Scott Woods. This is mostly relevant because about four years ago, when I first started hosting Pen & Palette Poetry with very little success, my sister came through to a show. After seeing the small crowd, watching my poor attempt at hosting, and seeing that I wasn’t even writing poems, she suggested that I go to the much more established Writer’s Block poetry night down the street and introduce myself to Scott Woods. Mid-late 2011ish, I did. I was, at this point, starting to write mostly long-form jokes or social commentary articles and passing them off as poems, assuming that I would always just be a journalist-type who wrote a few things on the side to read at open mics. As most people who have met him/been around poetry know, there’s something very unique and powerful about any interaction you have with Scott Woods, even my first one where I told him who my sister was, and that she told me to come and say hello. He did what I now understand as his way of friendly assessment. He looked down over his glasses, in a most parental fashion and sized me up before finally smiling and saying, “Cool. Good to meet you.” and moving on. In the months that followed, I went to Writer’s Block, almost weekly to read some poorly crafted (but sometimes funny!) bullshit that I wrote generally that day, in between articles on the latest indie pop music sensation. Scott, without a doubt, is the reason I initially chose to elevate my craft. Before I was anywhere close to ready for a poetry feature, in early 2012, Scott put me on the Writer’s Block stage for 30 minutes in front of a packed house. When I somehow, with very little experience in poetry slam, ended up on a Rustbelt finals stage in 2012, I was full of nerves. Before going on stage, Scott patted me on the shoulder, shrugged, and said “have fun”. During a hectic first National Poetry Slam, as a rookie, Scott was back home emailing with me, reminding me of what was important. And, more importantly, standing up for the city from afar. Through so many things/interactions, and merely by existing in my life, Scott has given me a kind of permission to keep working at the craft. A consistent reminder that tells me You can do this. You’ve found something you’re capable of doing well, and you should chase it. So, with that in mind, it was appropriate to have him as the first person featured here. This was a real joy, taking into consideration that I count Scott as a friend, and someone who I rarely have a disagreement with. Unless it’s about music.
I’m really drawn to leading off with this question, because it is a thing I’ve wanted to ask for nearly a year now. You are absolutely revered by your peers, across the board. You’ve earned a certain level of respect, both locally and nationally. At the risk of opening with something ridiculous, how aware are you of that? Is there any pressure in being Scott Woods, or is it something that never crosses your mind until someone like me reminds you of it?
As a person of various reputations – some of them nowhere near as gracious as the one you offer – I’ve found that it’s in my best interest to expend my energies ensuring I maintain the respect of people whose opinions actually matter to the mission of my work. I don’t need to be the most popular person in the room if the right five people in the room have my back. So while I’m not one of those people who believe that other people’s opinions don’t matter, I know whose opinions count. That said, hearing that anyone respects you never gets tired. Ever.
As far as pressure goes, all pressure with me comes from trying to get better at the things I do, trying to beat the last project, or show an obvious improvement. No one puts more pressure on me than I do. I need it to be that way to accomplish all of the things that I’m trying to do. Pressure is power. When you control that, you control the game.
I think it was last year, when I got back from the National Poetry Slam, one of the things you said publicly in response to people having less than positive responses to the national poetry community was something to the effect of “Nationals is a week out of the year. Your community is built at home the rest of the time.” Since we share a scene/community, that statement really resonated with me. Since you’ve given so much of yourself to it, where do you see the Columbus poetry scene going, and how do you play into the future of it?
The short answer is, Columbus has a lot of work to do. You wouldn’t think it to look at it – there are four times the number of regular readings and at least three times the number of unique, practicing poets in the city than there were 15 years ago. There has always been poetry in Columbus and there will always be poetry in Columbus, and by all accounts it’s stronger – better, more popular, more respected, and more representative than ever. That said, the poetry scene is just starting to really find its wind as well as its critical mass but there is going to be some winnowing to go with the natural waxing and waning. The difference moving forward will be that the scale will be larger.
Here’s what I mean, and I apologize for the following geek-out moment:
20 years ago there were approximately 2-3 regular, publicly-known open mic poetry readings in town (including a monthly). They averaged about 15 readers each, and a lot of those poets overlapped. 18 years ago there were about 4 readings, and the unique poet headcount doubled to around 45. 15 years ago readings were popping up and dying off as fast as venues could be found, so you still only had about 5 regular readings at that point, with a lot of poet overlap and small audiences on average. In 2014 the number is holding around 8 or 9…again, this is regular weekly/monthly readings with public interest. Columbus has an average unique poet count of around 80 poets per week. Some weeks that number spikes to close to 100 unique poets. On top of that, the audiences for a third of those readings are of notable size. On top of that, there is only slight overlap in each reading’s core audience, which means more people are accessing poetry than ever before, poet or otherwise. In short, Columbus is bursting with poetry right now, and has been for a few years.
Now, that all sounds awesome when you chart it out, but Columbus won’t sustain those numbers without concentrated, quality development and opportunities for artists to advance their craft and whatever treks (features, publishing, etc.) they may be considering with poetry. For a scene with the track record Columbus poetry has, there are a lot of things that should be in place that aren’t, and there are far too few poets addressing that with quality vision and practice. Everybody’s answer to that for 20 years has been to start a new reading. Columbus doesn’t need another poetry reading; it needs poets willing to not only advance their craft, but to learn what the word “stewardship” means. If they don’t, when the waves break again? They’re going to find themselves with half of what they have now.
As far as my part in all of that goes, I just keep trying to come up with new and unique ways for people to interact with poetry. I keep a file of poetry ideas – not poem ideas; poetry event and platform ideas. I keep it right next to the document with all of those figures I just rattled off.
Suffice it to say, I think about this a lot.
I don’t know if you would self-identify as an activist, but I think I’ve become so much more aware of your brand of activism as I’ve gained more insight into what seems to drive you. It strikes me as something in the vein of Dick Gregory, or even Chappelle. Is your decision to attack issues of social injustice with humor something you feel makes the acknowledgement of those injustices easier for a wide audience to cope with?
Not cope with…ADDRESS. I don’t just want people to be able to weather strong language or issues. I want them to go into the world and fight with new ideas and emotions they’ve acquired from encountering poetry and the ne’er-do-wells that commit the act of it. I do that with humor because it’s my thing, and it is very much my activism, but also because it’s an easier virus to infect people with. It can be difficult to relay to your racist co-worker something you read or heard from Dr. Cornel West or Marimba Ani in the heat of the moment. By contrast, my infection is funny and easy to recount, and makes most people ponder less what I’m saying and more how they perceive what they’re feeling and thinking in response to what I’m saying. So the humor lets me give them something they can use and it makes coming to see a room full of grown folks reading things out loud a pleasure.
I don’t go around calling it activism because to label it publicly is to give people a reason to block it out or frame it oddly before they even encounter it. I’m more of an intellectual and cultural shiv than a scalpel. I’m the wrapped up toothbrush that’s been sharpened on a toilet. But it is very much a replacement for the kind of straight-up activism I used to do, which was, if I’m, honest, less effective and not completely believable coming from me.
That said, there are also moments of extreme sharpness in your approach. I find this translates to your poems, where your voice from poem to poem can shift in unexpected ways. Where in your process do you decide the direction of a poem?
Usually from the beginning, when I’m formulating the idea for a poem in my head. All of my poems start in my head and don’t come out until I have the right title or a key line that sounds right. Sound in public poetry circles is vastly underrated in a traditional sense, but not in my head: I have to hear it and believe what I’m hearing, no matter who the narrator is. And I always try to sneak in a piece of humor if I can, even in a poem about killing your grandmother.
I hate to bring up something that you have spoken on to the point of exhaustion, I’m sure. But I think there can always be a further public distinction made. Understanding that I already know the answer to this (at least to some extent), why is it that you don’t want to be called a “spoken word poet”.
Because it doesn’t adequately describe what I bring to the table as a poet and we’ve abused it to the point of ghettoization. That’s the short answer.
My relationship with this word has changed over time from generally dismissive to wholesale disgust. It used to be my beef with it was merely that people used it to not sound like stuffy poets. “Hey, I’m not a boring-ass POET poet…I’m a spoken word artist!” Time made me adjust that position to something more complex because its use was spreading and people who weren’t spoken word poets – or poets at all – began using it in ways that began to limit the avenues for poets, sometimes bordering on derogatory.
We’re at a point now where “spoken word poet” as a label is largely (not exclusively – largely) used in one of three ways: a) by poets who call themselves spoken word artists because they feel they are committing an act of poetry beyond what the page can capture (which is generally a limitation that says more about them as an individual artist than it does of poetry), b) by hip event organizers to make their events sound cool on a flyer, and c) by poets no one would ever confuse with a performance poet of any stripe who feel the need to draw a line between what they do (real poetry) and what un-publishable neophytes are doing (spoken word). Not being any of those poets, my answer stands: the label simply does not describe my relationship with poetry.
When you call me a “spoken word artist”, what are you basing that on? It’s nowhere in my bio or on my website. I don’t use the term in the advertising of my shows, and I’ve been doing that for 18 years. I’ve published more than a lot of non-performance poets. I got a Wikipedia page and it doesn’t appear there (swear to God, I never touch the thing). If you follow me for more than five minutes on the issue you’ll find me railing against its use for years. So it really doesn’t apply to me more than “poet” does. I don’t always correct people when they say it, but as I get older I find dissent falls out of my mouth more and more on the matter. Call yourself what you want. Call those guys over there what you want. But if you call me a spoken word artist it just shows you don’t really know what I do, and I’d rather not be discounted before I even open my mouth based on a label that’s gotten bad rap. I get why some of the traditionalists use it: the see me performing my poetry and it’s not boring, and I have a background in Slam, so clearly I’m a spoken word poet. I get it. It’s just lazy. And if laziness were the only outcome of it all, I’d care less. As it stands, there are real opportunities to be had for poets that are taken seriously as poets. Sadly, spoken word poets are largely being relegated to poetry’s ghettos and most of them don’t even know it.
You have been responsible for a lot of people chasing after the art form, myself included. If not for that first Writer’s Block feature you threw my way in 2012, I may have just committed myself back to writing album reviews. So, with that in mind, who is responsible for you pursuing your poems?
I’ve always written poetry, and that was a very natural process. I tried my hand at all of the arts: music, fiction, screenplays, painting, etc. I still do. But I found that some of the things I wanted to express only worked as poems, so that’s where I put those stories. As time passed and the poems began to outstrip the other arts in my life, I began to focus on that intently. So I didn’t come to it through anyone, so much as I fed the natural need to express myself…much like every other kid in high school who didn’t get the prom date they were hoping for.
As I began to perform poetry in public, that was a slightly different story. My first opportunity to do so was at an apartment reading – the 3125 Poetry Club or something like that – that was started right after the movie love jones came out. I had been writing for years at that point, so when they gave me the floor I was already in a different weight class than a lot of the cats who suddenly became poets when they saw Larenz Tate bedding Nia Long to a Coltrane song the month before. I had a folder (which I still use at gigs) with something like eighty poems in it while most of the people in the room had two. So once I caught that bug, it was all over.
I had to teach myself everything about poetry, so developing idols and examples to draw from came much later in my writing career. I wasn’t in college long enough to take a poetry class, so I had to teach myself from scratch. Developing my own set of standard poets – my qualitative bars – came much later.
(God, the things I’d be doing now if I only had someone show me the way from the beginning. Stewardship in poetry communities is vastly underrated.)
Speaking of Writer’s Block, I think that the one thing often forgotten due to how wild the night often gets is that hosting, especially in the manner you do it, is hard work. You’ve been at it for nearly two decades now, and you’re still on top of your game. In 1996, no one was asking Michael Jordan when he was going to hang it up, but still. Are you going to ride this out until you’re no longer alive? Would you even trust anyone else with that ship?
I’ll die on stage. It is, in fact, my intent to die on a stage at a poetry reading. I’m not looking to do it anytime soon, but that’s certainly how I’d like to go (preferably by Nature’s hand and not at the end of a pistol held by some jerk who doesn’t want to wait to read at the end of the list anymore).
The thing is, I only became the MC I am in recent years, so it’s not like I’m burning out on it. Once I made a conscious decision to put on a different kind of poetry show, my MC style had to change to fit that, and that skin is just starting to get comfy to me. The show has become an extension of who I am and how I express myself and my mission as an artist and a political agent. So there isn’t anything to hand over per se. It would be like handing over an arm. If the question is, “Do you trust anyone else to run the show so you don’t have to?” the answer is anyone can run the show. I take weeks off here and there now. They just can’t be Scott Woods. Fortunately, I pick people to run it who are themselves engaging and sharp, so the show just morphs to them. I’ve tried to create a show with lots of rituals and buy-in from the audience so that the MC isn’t carrying all the weight.
One time, when discussing the book of another poet, you told me something about hitting a stage in your career where you become aware of the fact that you aren’t going to do this forever, and you have to leave something behind that will hold up well after you’re gone. I have a high opinion of the book, but I must ask the author, is We Over Here Now that thing? Or is there something else you envision?
As much as I love my own book, it’s just the beginning for me. If I’m not beating that book in a year I’m doing something wrong. That said, I’m proud of it and people seem to like it a lot, so if I die on stage tomorrow I’ll have no regrets. It is a fine record of who I was a year or so ago. I have no qualms with that. If, however, the record of who I am a year from now is less than that, I have more work to do.
I think your opinion of Janet Jackson’s career is still far too low. That said, how does music play into the things you create?
Rest assured that Janet Jackson’s career is commensurate in the pantheon of my opinions with her abilities and output. She had two great records, one good record, an okay record, and the rest is tripe. That she is a Jackson only makes matters worse because she falls beneath expectations. That said, I am of the firm belief that there are at least five Janet Jackson songs that belong on the next Voyager time capsule.
Music generally doesn’t feed too much into my poetry unless I’m talking about it as a subject. I use it to some extent in my creative process to get the blood going, but after a while the playlist ends and I’m still writing. As muses go, it’s just grease one the wheels of my creative engine, not fuel.
Now, in the event that I’m doing something like my chapbook Watering Hole: Juke Joint Poems or a poem like “Everything You Need to Know about Prince in 13 Songs” or “The Purpose of Kenny G” – where music is the subject – that’s obviously different. Music is my first love, even more than writing, so I approach it with great reverence and copious amounts of research to find the parts that haven’t been picked over by a hundred poets before me. In those instances, it is important for me to strike a tone and rhythm that fits the subject, among other devices…more so than when the subject is something else. Anything else, in fact. Music gets its own effort from me.
Finally, who drives you? Who has work that challenges you and forces you to create on the days that you do?
The criticism of Thomas Disch, Harlan Ellison, Ezra Pound, Mary Ruefle and Jeanette Winterson; coupled with healthy doses of poetry by Kevin Young, Stephen Dunn and Billy Collins are basically my touchstones of the last seven or eight years.
Disch constantly reminds me that even the poets we think are doing something have a lot to atone for. Ellison generally girds my heart with a great desire for artistic battery on any given day. I have devoured the souls of a couple handfuls of poets when the exigency to correct bad advice or opinions on poetry derived from contending with Pound’s erudite criticism and his personal failings consumed me. Winterson and Ruefle always reign in the rampaging that Disch, Pound and Ellison frequently commit upon my mind, though with completely different tools.
For the poets, Young is by far my greatest wellspring of inspiration, not so much by the examples of his voice or style so much as by the examples of his daring. I love the things he tackles and how he tackles them. Dunn, the same thing. Collins, I love for his rhythms, wit and carelessness.
Scott, this has been a joy, and as you know, I appreciate you.
SCOTT WOODS: is the author and editor of over nine books and has been featured multiple times in national press, including multiple appearances on National Public Radio.Scott’s first full-length collection of poetry, We Over Here Now (Brick Cave Books) was released in 2013. He has curated the Writer’s Block Poetry night in Columbus for nearly two decades.