A Beautiful Voice for Appalachia
You might never have heard of the poet Annie Woodford. She’s singing the truths of mountain folks in a gorgeous voice that never flinches. It’s time you listen up.
A few years ago, while ordering a former high school student’s book from Groundhog Poetry Press in Roanoke, Virginia, I browsed around to see what other books Groundhog had published. I came across another name I thought I recognized: Annie Woodford.
After a search or two, I found the first — and at that time only — poem of hers I’d read, first published in Southern Humanities Review and called (get this casually vivid and strikingly long title) “A Poem in Which I Grab My Poverty Like That Jaguar in the Video Grabbed a Crocodile Out of the River and Carried It Into the Jungle.”
I don’t recall how I first stumbled on that poem, but I know I was transfixed, immediately and completely. After a page and a half of visually staggered lines that lavish the senses, it closes like this:
[…] while all over town
tonight people sleep
in their own piss
must make profit.
A coyote tried
to hide behind
the trashcan at the jail
today but it was shot.
Inmates used to shout
from out the window slots
until those slots were sealed.
You’d think it was catcalls
or something unspeakable,
but it was really the wind,
if God is the wind
and sometimes takes the form
of human voices.
Annie Woodford reads “A Poem in Which I Grab My Poverty Like That Jaguar in the Video Grabbed a Crocodile Out of the River and Carried It Into the Jungle"
At the time I first encountered Annie’s work, she had one book, “Bootleg” (2019), and I ordered it for three clear reasons: I liked that poverty-jaguar poem, I wanted to support a press in my native Virginia which also happened to support my former student, and it turns out that Annie is from Henry County, Virginia, the same county where my father has lived for 15 years.
I tore through “Bootleg.” Sometimes you come across art so resonant, it feels like the artist is speaking through you, or you’re speaking through the art as you listen, watch, or read. I suppose that feeling amounts to “You are not alone,” but in some cases that art speaks to your own concerns and perceptions so directly it almost feels telepathic (“Whoa! That’s exactly what I feel. I’ve noticed the same thing.”). In 11th grade, reading Jack Kerouac did that for me; in 12th grade, it was the music of Dinosaur Jr. In my first year of college, it was Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.”
Now, when I am 49, it’s Annie Woodford.
Her mother was a nurse, and her father was a plumber. Annie grew up in Bassett, Virginia, a mill town near the North Carolina border, in the Piedmont region between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the coastal plain, aka the Tidewater. Her mother’s family moved down from the mountains to work in the furniture and textile mills, which were once the foundation of the region’s economy, which has since been decimated. She is no stranger to poverty.
Annie Woodford’s words speak about — and for — Appalachia and its people in ways that few other living Southern writers can touch. “Bird dogs and roses / spill out of my chest,” she writes in her poem “Sacred Hearts of Henry County.” It’s a simple couplet, but it speaks volumes about the feelings Appalachian folks have about the mountain communities that raised them.
Woodford’s poetry is never ignorant of the poisons of this world, and indeed seems designed precisely to answer that damage. It is protective — of the body, of the soul, of a larger, wider, deeper history than many acknowledge.
“Bootleg” was like a tour through that region, to specific places I’d been while visiting my dad. Collinsville, where the YMCA with an outdoor pool was. The Fieldale Bridge: My dad took my family and me fishing near there one summer. Fairy Stone State Park, where my dad swam as a kid (“Man, that water was cold.”) while they pumped Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” over the P.A. The town of Bassett where a couple of friends lived. I’d devoted my life to the arts — primarily poetry and music — since 10th grade, but I’d never seen Food Lion mentioned in a poem before. When I was growing up in Virginia Beach, that was where we got groceries. “Lonesome Dove,” the epic Larry McMurtry novel-turned classic TV miniseries my dad and I still cherish, one (along with minor league ice hockey in Norfolk, Virginia) that helped us forge a better relationship after my parents’ divorce.
But more than geographic coincidence, there was the voice and the eye, and what the heart does in between sensing and saying. I love Woodford’s “Joy Kills Sorrow.” In that poem, beneath the ravages of economically and environmentally exploitative industry, Woodford finds salvation in community and, fittingly, in music. As the speaker and her companions listen to Bill Monroe’s “Roanoke,” the speaker imagines the song traveling all over the county:
sound sound waves still ringing,
sound through dirt, the water table
sound welling, the benzene-soaked rock
sound fracked. Collapsing.
sound Joy killing sorrow.
sound Even in the dark.
Poet and editor Marianne Worthington calls “Bootleg” “a union of spirit and flesh,” the poems “hymns of delight and damage.” She says it’s “a melodious antidote for this tough old world.” I find “antidote” to be just the right word: Woodford’s poetry is never ignorant of the poisons of this world, and indeed seems designed precisely to answer that damage. It is protective — of the body, of the soul, of a larger, wider, deeper history than many acknowledge.
Woodford’s new book, “Where You Come From Is Gone,” winner of the Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry and published by Mercer University Press, continues ever more deeply and boldly into that territory. Poem after poem has moments of expanding awareness, unfolding consciousness, revelations of pain and glory. Viewers’ interaction with the cover art by Woodford’s since-childhood friend, the painter Allison Hall, will enact that same realization: What at first appears to be simply a plain back cover is actually, when you spend the time, a pattern of short, dot-like gold lines that can be re-seen as many different patterns. Just beneath that simple surface is a world of detail, complexity, nuance, pattern and disruption.
Many of the poems and concerns of “Where You Come From Is Gone” gave direct rise to my questions in this interview, which was conducted over e-mail between September 2022 and February 2023.
Smoking and Talking With Aunt Audrey
FOGLE: The book’s title comes from Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood,” which you also have as one of the book’s two epigraphs: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.” How long did you have the title in mind?
WOODFORD: It was originally titled “Piedmont Blues.” I still love the idea of that delicate bird-song blues [style] that I first heard played by the Foddrell Brothers of Patrick County and then, years later, realized was North Carolina’s Etta Baker’s style as well. The title from O’Connor helped to focus the collection around loss and mystery, which is what I ultimately felt like those poems were about. The late Michael Williams, a poet and Episcopal priest I met at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, once explained to me that the O’Connor, like Jesus, worked in parables — parables could only be contemplated as doorways to mystery and truth. They were designed to upend systems, not uphold them. I’m fascinated by that idea.
FOGLE: Speaking of which, the title poem is about an aunt who, among other devastatingly beautiful things, told you “to read ‘Wise Blood’ / and pay attention to the glasses.” I would so love to just hear more about her. Did you in fact first read that novel because of her?
WOODFORD: Oh, I was rich in aunts and uncles. I have five aunts, three of whom are still alive. The oldest was my Aunt Lovelene, and she was the one who had the beauty shop in her home. She kept me all the time when I was little. She was a very exacting student of beauty and had an incredible sense of design. She could color hair, strip furniture, and dress better on a working-class budget than anyone I’ve ever met. The rigor and discipline of her artistry is something I aspire to in my own life. The aunt who told me to read “Wise Blood” was my Aunt Audrey.
"She was a reader and would talk to me about books, guiding me in what to read, giving me selections, like O’Connor, that were always a little out of my reach, but that delighted and disturbed me in their mystery and power. God, I miss smoking cigarettes and talking books and words with Audrey."
FOGLE: Related to that, I imagine some conversations in your life have led to poems. Have any of your poems led to conversations?
WOODFORD: Yes. My poem “Textiles” in my first book has brought people to me who remember those Royal Velvet towels, who want to share something about work and memory with me, about loss.
FOGLE: From what I’ve read about you, it sounds like you didn’t consider being a poet as part of your future until community college, or maybe even later when you transferred to Hollins University in Roanoke and realized that “poetry was a thing that people still did, people from all sorts of backgrounds.” Even though, as a kid, you loved your mom’s old literature textbook, it seems like it wasn’t a thing people still did, in your perception at that time. Is that right? Would you say you became a poet by accident/chance?
WOODFORD: Yes, though in some ways I have always been sort of instinctively intentional about the whole enterprise. I have always had a tactile relationship with words and books. I was obsessed with a typewriter my parents bought for me when I was a tween. I would practice typing passages from books and magazines. However, I don’t think I articulated to myself that I was a poet until I was in my 30s. I have always been confused and driven by the immediate, by sensation-seeking.
FOGLE: Speaking of “by chance,” there’s also “by choice,” which seems like how you remain and persist as a poet, despite poverty. It seems like being a poet for you — maybe regardless of what actual poems one writes — is a socially conscious act. Calling on banjo player Charlie Poole, you’ve said, “I have faith in the idea that working people, poor people, people who don’t come from privilege are often the source of artistic innovation. I relate to the idea of making art despite the fear and exhaustion of being a member of the working poor.” I’m so heartened by this. It’s almost a-capitalist (like amoral, apolitical). Even as one might be a victim of capitalism, choosing to persist as an artist is partially a defiance of being defined by quantitative value. You know, like, “Well, I guess maybe I could make more money doing something else, but…” and creating space in one’s life to create art, and to hell with money as ruler. It seems to me a form of faith.
WOODFORD: I’m in a poetry group with a wonderful poet named Johnny Horton, and his email signature is a quote by Robert Graves: “There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money, either.” Capitalism tells us that most of the poetry being written is worth very little, but it said the same thing about the work my family has always done, about Poole’s life. Capitalism tells me, has proven to me over and over again, that my life’s work a poet and a teacher is worth very little, if worth is measured by money. So I guess there’s much faith and glorious foolishness in how much fun I have as a poet and a teacher.
Photographs by Annie Woodford
On How We Talk
FOGLE: You’ve noted before how your friend, artist Alison Hall, told you “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.” I’m in love with the multiple prepositions natural to much Southern language like “Inmates used to shout from out the window slots” (Poverty/Jaguar), and I delight in saying “I can’t get there no other way” (“I Must Be Born Again”). You’ve also expressed gratitude for Hollins teachers making you feel that your voice and accent were “okay instead of something to be ashamed of, even fending off a workshop classmate who tried to correct my pronunciation of words such as ‘peony,’ ‘Appalachia,’ and ‘aunt.’” I’m struck that someone in southwestern Virginia, and in a writing workshop, would judge in such a way. What’s up with that?
WOODFORD: Some upper middle class folks from the Northeast still think it is funny to associate a country accent with stupidity. Appalachian writer Silas House points out that what they are actually showing is class hatred, since accents like mine are associated with poor people, and poor people are the ultimate pariahs in our society.
FOGLE: Oh, I thought it was some kind of self-hating denial thing from a fellow Southerner. I’ve seen similar elitist, ignorant assumptions in my upstate New York high school classroom. But do you see any of these language judgements happen within the South?
WOODFORD: My husband’s second wife, who was also a Southerner, liked to tell him, “Your Alabama’s showing” when he said something particularly redolent of the shortcomings of his cis-white male, boomer-era Alabama upbringing. Ironically, I think it’s also a uniquely Southern witticism — there’s that metaphorical underwear or something shameful showing there as well, right? But that’s all done generally in a sort of barbed fun, and Sonny (my husband) and I fall into an almost exaggerated country cadence when we talk to each other. Same thing with our families.
I do have to remember to try and use proper grammar as best I can in other spaces. I definitely think shame about accent is prevalent in the South, perhaps in a uniquely venomous way because it’s a way some insecure folks can distinguish themselves from their neighbors. I have always wondered if I found acceptance at my current job [teaching writing at Wilkesboro Community College in the mountains of North Carolina] because the county is still graced — even at its highest levels of leadership —- by a broad and lyrical accent unique to the region. Maybe some of those other places where I interviewed in Virginia couldn’t see past the socioeconomic marker of my Henry County accent.
What Lies Underneath
FOGLE: You say your teachers “made me love language and myself enough to become a poet.” I bet one could substitute other materials and vocations in place of “language” and “poet,” but how tightly entwined are your loves for language and for yourself? Did either precede the other? Is one more ultimate? Are they codependent?
WOODFORD: When I am happiest, I am reading or writing. Not doing both of those things is a sign of a real sickness in my life, and it means I am operating in “limp mode,” to steal a concept from the owner’s manual of my crappy old car: A transmission will go into limp mode when part of it is damaged. Thankfully, I have always read, even during the period in my life when I did not write. During that time, I definitely missed the feeling that I was curating, elevating, celebrating what I had observed and experienced through the act of writing.
FOGLE: In the sequence “Quiet as It’s Kept,” there is one section, called “Sunken Cities,” which is a single sentence: “In the South, there is a mythos of reservoirs.” Could you say more about how the image of a reservoir functions mythically or psychologically within Southern culture?
"I grew up on manmade lakes in Virginia, mainly Philpott Lake in Franklin, Patrick and Henry counties. The stories of what was down there before they filled in the lake always made me curl my toes when I would jump off my dad’s bass boat."
WOODFORD: Well, James Dickey, for good or ill, pervades my writing like a Coca-Cola-addled addict of self-mythologizing, and I did read “Deliverance” at a young and very impressionable age. I grew up on manmade lakes in Virginia, mainly Philpott Lake in Franklin, Patrick and Henry counties. The stories of what was down there before they filled in the lake always made me curl my toes when I would jump off my dad’s bass boat. I’ve since come to recognize that the Tennessee Valley Authority irrevocably altered the landscape, nature, and culture in much more painful ways in places I have come to know a little bit more in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. And then you read about how Lake Lanier in Georgia was created by stealing property from Black folks? Did you see that “Atlanta” episode that opens with the lake becoming like an underworld entity that grabs a fisherman out of a boat? Where I grew up, there was a lot of significance placed on Philpott Lake as a marker of time before and after bad floods happened in Bassett, Virginia. “Before the dam was built…” is a refrain I heard from my two oldest aunts. And then my mother grew up about a mile from the lake, and, until I was in kindergarten, we lived in a trailer beside her childhood home, so there was always this idea that a few hills over was this massive body of mysterious, seductive, possibly dangerous water, covering up what was once farms and rattlesnakes and stills. Maybe a worker’s body was interred in the dam, the story goes.
FOGLE: That gets me thinking about the relationship between economic and technological progress on one hand, and poverty and displacement on the other. There’s often this erasure happening, this whitewashing of what a place is, a simplification of what it represents. In cities, we see it with gentrification. This may be be both too simplistic and too symbolic an angle, but with dams, we impede the progress of something at point A in order to contain and build up its power at point B, so we can then draw on that power for ourselves, at the same time as we have buried and displaced others. All that seems like a metaphor for structural racism and/or class warfare.
WOODFORD: So much is obscured and repurposed not only in our individual psyches, but in our collective, communal spirits as well. It makes me think of how dominant narratives can be unclear. For example, in Martinsville I grew up fascinated with the story of the Liberty Heights Swimming Pool, which was located where the mall is now. It was a two-story, coliseum-shaped pool. The pool was constructed of concentric rings that grew increasingly deep toward the center, with a diving platform in the middle. There was a dance floor. It was constructed by the Lester Lumber Company to also serve as a water source in case of fire. It sounded incredible to me as a child, and my mother took me there to see it before they tore it down to build the mall. The official story that you will find in all the historical records is that it was closed in 1957 due to maintenance issues and city water becoming available to put out potential fires at the lumberyard, but massive resistance [to racial integration] in Virginia was at full steam around that time, and now I can’t think of that pool without thinking what a Jim Crow space it was, surrounded by neighborhoods of kids who weren’t allowed to cool off in it. However, that history isn’t recorded anywhere that I can find in official records in our community. That was the genius of Beth Macy, who wrote “Factory Man” about the rise and fall of Basset Industries as a local company, and Henry Wiencek, who wrote “The Hairstons,” which chronicled the story of the most prominent Black family in our area: He talked to people no one else had ever bothered to listen to before.
Someone Needs It More Than I Do
FOGLE: “Racial reckoning” is a phrase I hear a lot to describe America since March 2020. How do you think we’re doing wrestling with our demons?
WOODFORD: White people are doing a terrible job with it. We are the ones who need to do the work. We want to be innocent, but whiteness never exists in a historical or moral vacuum. We need to be listening and reading people who aren’t white and talking amongst ourselves about the toxicity of whiteness as a social construct, a false god we lift up to justify atrocity. I don’t think people of color are ever surprised about our racist families, communities, colleges, etc., but we sure as hell seem to be, so I guess the racial reckoning needs to happen within white spaces, white spaces that need to turn their gaze inward to their own toxicity. I know I have much to do in this regard. Because racism in white culture runs so deep. At least in the white culture I know. For me to truly do the work, I am going to be dislocated from so many things/people/spaces I thought I knew or that once seemed innocent to me. And then we have to think about how it warps our souls to be a part of these racist systems, whether those be families or ways of reading and thinking and experiencing art or communal spaces.
"America worships money and despises the poor, seeing poverty as a moral failing. Nevertheless, I live in fear of poverty because I know what it means in this country. It means being crushed."
FOGLE: What do you think people should know about poverty?
WOODFORD: That the greediest motherfuckers you will ever meet are often the richest, and it’s poor people who don’t ask for help. My community college students always say, when thinking about writing for a scholarship essay I have them do, someone needs it worse than I do. That poor people are more likely to help you. As my mother would say, her father would “give you the shirt off his back.” That no one should be ashamed of being poor. That someone who seems poor to an outsider might not consider themselves poor at all. That they might not be poor within the context of their community. America worships money and despises the poor, seeing poverty as a moral failing. That nevertheless I live in fear of poverty because I know what it means in this country. It means being crushed. I’ve known many a brilliant student falter for want of a few thousand bucks.
FOGLE: The first poem of yours I ever read was “A Poem in Which I Grab My Poverty Like That Jaguar in the Video Grabbed a Crocodile Out of the River and Carried It Into the Jungle,” in an issue of Southern Humanities Review. That poem’s closing image — and maybe something like its lyrical argument — echoes the opening. It starts with your daughter saying, “You think it’s the wind, / but it’s the highway” and ends with a similar correction, but this time, that correction takes readers back to the wind:
You’d think it was catcalls
or something unspeakable,
but it was really the wind,
if God is the wind
and sometimes takes the form
of human voices.
Those mistaken catcalls are the memory of inmates shouting out of jail windows, but those calls are then asserted as God speaking through the wind of human voices. I’m fascinated by that transformation that keeps unfolding and swirling through redemption, despair, the child as holy, the locked-away as holy, God as invisible witness. What’s your relationship with religion?
WOODFORD: I’m a natural-born heathen who grew up going to no church, but who was surrounded by adults who were obsessed with questions of God. My granny read to me from the Jimmy Swaggart “Old Testament Illustrated for Children” — that was probably the extent of my religious education, but my mother and her oldest sister, who took care of me as a child, were very sincere in their quest to come closer to God, to develop disciplines of prayer and behavior that would open them up to the love that they saw Christ representing, and that was therefore the true nature of the universe. So my relationship with religion was infused by the extreme absurdity of the ’80s televangelists and this more quiet, “Church of the Brethren, go-pray-in-the corner” attitude.” My dearest childhood friend was also very religious and had experiences where she believed she was communicating with God, or felt the presence of God. I was always on the outside looking in (still am), but poetry is definitely the place where I say my prayers. I love Nathaniel Mackey’s idea that songs have no ending, that we step into the stream of song and that endings are just something we feel we have to impose on something that in its true nature is infinite. I also think my first poetry teachers wrote from an ethos of love: I remember reading a story by Cathryn Hankla that was written from the perspective of a developmentally disabled person, and it just opened up my teenage brain to the idea of the infinity inside another human being. And R.H.W. Dillard has these incredible moments of tenderness in his long poem “Radical Primaticism,” where he uses the refrain “there, there” — a gesture reaching outside the poem, toward the reader, offering comfort and a belief in how we, ape-nature and divine, can “[console] one / another in grief or pain or loss.” In the book that poem is in, “Not Ideas,” he writes,
Caught, Caught, all together now, now
Caught, Recklessly redeemed, unclocked,
Caught, Insecure in our unknowing yet
Caught, Knock, knock, knocking, God
Caught, Sped to where we’re going …
What Bubbles Up From Poor Folks
FOGLE: What gives you hope?
WOODFORD: My students’ voices. My mom gifting me a new word she remembered from her childhood: “hoojer.” As in, “You can’t do nothing with them, they’re old mountain hoojers.” The music of my favorite community college dropout, Tyler Childers. Some of the most interesting people in the world are community college dropouts.
FOGLE: Speaking of hope, I see this little motif in “A Poem in Which I Grab My Poverty…” of replacing lost or discarded things: A half-deflated playground ball gets tossed back into a yard, a lost sweater is draped across gate. There’s some kind of everyday-holy gesture in there, right? Taking the little things, returning them to where they came from, or setting them up in a spot in which they might be found — and with no thought of being recognized for such happenstance courtesy.
WOODFORD: Oh, I love that phrase, “happenstance courtesy.” Don’t you love seeing a single glove propped up along a place where people walk? Maybe someone will find their mate?
FOGLE: “Extended Family Love Song” is a chant of praise for, among other things, bourbon and Mello-Yello, a cigarette, Mel Brooks, Roman candles, the act of sharpening lawnmower blades, a beloved’s hair, “the work week as devotion,” restringing a guitar — and all of that in the face of what sounds like lung cancer. The poem begins “Let’s not talk about,” acknowledges the details of disease, and then moves into a litany of things to be talked about. Rather than a cynical reading of this as denial, I see it as an insistence on beauty and spirit, a cherishing of the little things that are both minuscule but everywhere. Is this attitude more an instinct or a choice?
"I was rich in uncles. We had fun. There were many moments of incredible tenderness — against the instinct to give up, to sink into depression, to live forever in mourning of the dead."
WOODFORD: A choice, a formal admonishment to myself in a life filled with regret and sorrow. That I was loved. That I was rich in uncles. We had fun. There were many moments of incredible tenderness. Against the instinct to give up, to sink into depression, to live forever in mourning of the dead.
FOGLE: In “Mama and My Aunt and Even I,” when you write “I wanted to be Truman Capote, / the God-listener, the filter / through which violence passes / and becomes rain.” I think that’s one role of the poet: a kind of filter for transformation. We try to honor, record, report, bear witness to what we experience, be it first- or secondhand, but the poem emerging from that witness is always some kind of new creature. Any truth to that, for you?
WOODFORD: Yes — I love that idea of being a “filter for transformation.” At the very least, poetry’s act of attention and creation is transformative for me, and if the event, the emotion, the reality can be transubstantiated in some way through the act of being named in the poem, then that’s the closest I can come to the eternal.
Where You Come from Is Gone
a poem by Annie WoodFord
was about squatting under She once told me the only poem she ever wrote
was about squatting under the porch
was about and passing a leaf through the bands of light let in by a gap in the boards.
She told me to read Wise Blood
was about squatting and pay attention to the glasses.
My first boyfriend said he’d never seen someone smoke so much:
Which is why upholstery steeped she lit one with another, which in turn lit another.
Which is why upholstery steeped in chain-smoker’s grief
Which is why upholstery steeped will always make me think someone is listening.
Which is why upholstery steeped A child, prone
Which is why to slapping her sisters, prone to seeing angels in the trees,
Which is why upholstery steeped hides in the cool dust-space of a porch
that has itself turned to dust. There is a leaf.
that has itself turned to dust. There is There is a hand.
that has itself turned to dust. There is There is a hand. There is a band of light.
Reprinted by permission of Mercer University Press, ©2022.
Andy Fogle is the poetry editor of Salvation South. He is the author of Mother Countries (forthcoming from Main Street Rag), Across From Now, and seven chapbooks of poetry, including Arc & Seam: Poems of Farouk Goweda, co-translated with Walid Abdallah. He’s from Virginia Beach, spent years in the D.C. area, and now lives with his family in upstate New York, teaching high school.