Writing From Memory with Annie Woodford

Annie Woodford is the author of the poem, “The Walls are Four Feet Thick.” She resides in Roanoke, Virginia, and teaches at Virginia Western Community College. She earned an MA in Creative Writing at Hollins University. You can find her poetry in Appalachian Heritage, The Comstock Review, Cold Mountain Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and The Normal School, among others. Alexandra Reynolds speaks with Annie below. 

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“The Walls are Four Feet Thick” is built on a series of images and descriptions related to an old house. Do you consider this an imagist poem? What poetic genre do you prefer to write within? 

I don’t consciously think about genre when I am writing a poem, but I do try to hold myself true to the image and to let that resonate. Your question helped me to see my process more clearly. I do love William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Marianne Moore. I’ve been trying to read Moore lately, and I aspire to that “rock crystal thing to see” you find in her work. I don’t feel like I write in tradition, though, except in terms of trying to stay true to the music I hear in language. 

Where did you gather the inspiration for your writing, particularly “The Walls are Four Feet Thick”?

Memory. The past. The dead. A mythologizing of myself, I guess, if I were honest. This poem comes from my memories of my paternal grandparents’ house in Bedford County, a place of intense sensory experience for me as a child. 

How do you revise your poetry? Do you have specific practices?

I read things out loud over and over again. I record myself on my phone and listen to them while I re-read them on the page. I print copies to see how physical changes to the poem appear to me. I try to let them sit awhile. This poem started probably five or six years ago. I started composing it to myself while I swimming laps, believe it or not, which is not how I normally work. It was a very different poem in its first incarnation. I sat on it for a long time because it had way too much personal stuff in it to feel right for me. I just knew it was wrong, gut-wise. Then, I started heavily revising it in January of this year—I added a beginning and then I cut that new beginning out and returned to how it starts now, which is pretty much the same as it was at first. Over many revisions, I tightened it up into the shadow of the sonnet form you see today. Writing about it to you makes me realize that the process of the revision and editing of this poem mirrors what I am trying to say about this house. My mother always did want to strip it down to the log body and find its original 18th century beauty. 

I will say that revision is skill that did not come naturally to me. When I was in college, I really had a hard time revising my work. 

What was the most important thing you learned while completing your Creative Writing MA at Hollins University?

Well, I didn’t know it at the time, but I think it is to practice habits of compassion, both to my students and myself. My professors there were so kind to me and the memory of their belief in me still sustains me in my writing and serves as a model for how I hope to treat my own students. Of course, they taught me wonderful things about words and texts as well, but it was the humbleness and humor and kindness of the community they created that has continued to help me find my own way as a reader and a poet. 

Who influences your work? Have any teachers or writers given you advice that changed the way you write? 

The teachers in my writing program at Hollins were very influential, of course. 

My childhood friend Alison Hall, who is a visual artist and a great reader, gave me some advice last year that has shaped my work since then. She told me, in effect, to write like I was from Henry County, where we are both from, and that the best part of the poems I was sharing with her had a colloquial resonance to which I should try to stay true. 

My favorite moment in the poem was the final line, “I would lean in to hear the hum within.” What strategies do you use to create effective endings in your poetry?  

Wow—it’s so wonderful to have careful readers such as yourselves. Thank you. You know, right before I sent that poem to The Roanoke Review, I cut the last line of it, which had something about alfalfa fields in it. When I did that and it ended as it does now, I felt that wonderful buzz I get when I know a revision has really worked. I realized I had to cut that last, “precious” line (I had resisted for months!) about alfalfa because it took us away from the house. I had to cut the darn alfalfa. 

Do you remember when you decided to become a writer? 

No, but I think it had to do something with loving what I was reading so much that the next natural step was to try to emulate those written words.