“Neck of the Woods” Examines Grief, Social Change, the Power of Shared Experience

Amy Woolard’s debut collection, Neck of the Woods, explores the friendship of two young girls set in the American South. The language of fairytales and the Wizard of Oz make appearances as one girl undergoes a hero’s quest where she must work alone to save herself. Amid disasters, a strong voice emerges, and both speaker and narrator find themselves in a world wholly changed with no clear path back home. 

I recently spoke to Amy Woolard about how her collection first came about, the fairy tales that weave their way through their collection, and how the South becomes its own character. She also discusses how poetry can help girls carve their own path through an unforgiving world, and how creative writing itself can play a part in social change

Let’s start at the beginning. What was the triggering point that made this collection of poems materialize? Was it a particular poem, a character, a story you wanted to tell?

There are a few poems in Neck of the Woods that are older than the idea of the book—ones I wrote in the mid-90s either during or just after I finished my MFA. Even then, though, I can see I was writing about a grief that had not yet learned its own origin story: in the early aughts, my best friend—a sister of mine, really, a kind of fraternal twin—died by suicide. She’d struggled with her mental health for the entire 12 years I knew her, but we (U.S. society, her family, the two of us) did not yet have the words or the healthcare system to recognize it, validate it, destigmatize it, diagnose it, or treat it. Being a woman of color meant that she was rarely taken seriously by the medical establishment. Being a low-wage worker meant she didn’t even have access to healthcare coverage. It was a deadly conspiracy. And, like many of us who survive it, we implicate ourselves.

For quite a few years after her death, I was consumed with the notion that I had to be faster than grief. That I had to stay up later than my grief. That I had to be more charming, more seductive, more demanding than my grief. That I could reinvent myself so well that my grief wouldn’t recognize me if we were in the same room. 

From the day she died until I wrote “An Engine That Won’t,” the page was blank for me. I went into a writing drought lasting over a decade, & it wasn’t until I finally reckoned with the notion that I was not fast enough, not compelling enough, not driven enough to ever outsmart my grief that I began to write again. What came out was part elegy, part testimony, part mythology—poems wrapped up in the kind of story that helped prepare me for the world as a child: the fairy tale. The girl-hero who saves herself.

And of course, part of reckoning with grief is becoming vulnerable to it, which for me manifested in the poems, the book.

What role did fairy tales play in writing these poems?

Fairy tales, in their original forms, are not afraid of the dark. They are reckonings: with ego, with fear, with death, with grief, with leaving home. They have a code, but they don’t have rules—a wolf can talk, a house can be made out of sugar, a girl can defy expectations. Using the tropes and scaffolding of fairy tales and childhood stories helped me talk about my path through this grief in a way that I hope helps it become more than just narrative. 

Fairy tales are also so vibrant and surprising and playful—I wanted to try to stir some of that into the stories I was telling. To add the alchemical wit into the mix.

In these poems, the South is often its own character. What do you think sets literature written in and about the South apart from other regional literature? 

The South is an incredibly fraught place that is also an incredibly loved place. There are ways that, historically and presently, the South shapes families that is so particular. Landscape, of course, is one such way—what we know of as “the South” was built upon pain and devastation. The region is the stormfront that develops when grief meets beauty. Rebecca and I were inseparable for over a decade. We finished each other’s sentences, had our own language. There are jokes and memories in my life that don’t take form anymore because she’s not there to complete them. For me to reckon with why she died, I had to reckon with why I was still alive. Part of that journey took me through the physicality of the environment where I grew up—the rural South. There will not be a book I ever write, I’m thinking, that doesn’t necessarily have the South as a character. I’m too connected to it, obliged to it—& I’m responsible for that pain and devastation and grief upon which it’s built. It’s my debt, too.

Can you speak to the significance of The Wizard of Oz in these poems?

For me, The Wizard of Oz was a childhood touchstone. Before streaming services, before on-demand, even before cable tv itself, we watched television on four networks (for some amount of my childhood, on a black-and-white television). Once a year, one of the networks would screen The Wizard of Oz in the evening—it was one of the first movies I remember ever seeing. I’d remember just enough of it & forget just enough of it to be rapt with it each time. But the story complicated me, too. Even watching it as a young girl, I understood that the “Wicked” Witch of the East lost a sister. I didn’t understand why Dorothy necessarily wanted to go back home & leave her friends & weird new land, but I did understand her bravery. And despite how fantastical her story was, I felt betrayed when she woke up and wasn’t believed.

Neck of the Woods is a story about the loss of leaving home. It’s a story about the grief for a sister. It’s a story about courage and confusion and trauma—all qualities of the best fairy tales, the most meaningful hero quests. I cannot rewrite the story of Rebecca’s death—that belongs to her. But I can write the path in front of me into existence to try to find my way out of my grief. Those are the lessons I take from The Wizard of Oz and from other girls in the stories of my youth. 

A lot of these poems speak to femininity and how young girls often need to save themselves and carve their own way through the world. You write “When I asked for a hammer, they gave me a kiss.” How do you think creative writing and poetry could help girls create their own path through this often scary and threatening world?

Gwendolyn Brooks. Emily Dickinson. Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. Sylvia Plath. Rita Dove. Layli Long Soldier. Claudia Rankine. Sappho. Natalie Diaz. Wisława Szymborska. torrin greathouse. Adrienne Rich. Morgan Parker. Lucie Brock-Broido. Audre Lorde. I could go on and on and on. I know that poetry can help young people across and beyond the gender spectrum to create their own path because we have such amazing examples to follow already. These poets, and so many more, are the shining stones left on the moonlit path for us to follow, and I’m so grateful. 

I notice you work in civil rights and legislation. What part do you think creative writing plays, or could play, in social change? How can it be used as a tool to make the world a better place?

Frederick Douglas said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Since the dawn of oppression, there have been activists and movements working for change. Here in the U.S., we have so much work to do, but it’s important to recognize the courageous, inspiring work of so many civil rights activists—yes, those in whose honor we build monuments, like MLK, and those we must learn about outside of traditional classrooms, like Ella Baker. But also those whose names most of us will never know because power has tried to erase them. What they all have in common is organizing, and organizing is the key to social change. Art and music and poetry are all exceptional tools of the organizing trade—they bring people together, not just in a physical space but in a commitment to challenging power. I don’t necessarily believe that poems, in and of themselves, create “social change,” but I do believe they create new spaces inside of people to allow such change to take shape.

I believe this completely, even though I do not use my own poetry as my primary means of doing the work: my job as a legal aid attorney is my contribution to the work & it would swallow me whole if I’d let it. That may change in the future. We’re not promised the next poem much less the next book, so I cannot foretell whether my worlds will meld any more than they already have. What I can promise is that I work with compassion in both arenas. I work towards a living connection and intimacy, and a commitment to beauty and reckoning of the human relationship to our own existence and environment in both arenas. 

For others, it’s a more direct link. I think of Claudia Rankine, who often works in a documentary tradition, who said in a TriQuarterly interview once, “In any kind of conversation, language determines what’s possible. What gets said allows or disallows the next moment.” That is a testament to what part poetry can play in any movement. I do think Rankine and I and others who write in even different ways than either of us all work in the mode of interrogation of human experience and intimacy, and that is, of course, both political and lyric. How we care about words and beauty shapes community narratives, which in turn gives shape to relationships like civil rights. We need art because we need the truth.

Neck of the Woods
By Amy Woolard
Alice James Books
Published April 7, 2020