1. Why did you start writing?
"I’m not sure to be honest—this is a tough question! I never had any serious ambitions to become a writer when I was growing up. I did write during my early teenage years, but it was throw-away fanfiction that I kept to myself. I definitely liked writing, but I wouldn’t call myself a writer then. I wouldn’t even call it a hobby at that point.
I guess toward the end of high school is when I got interested in poetry, and then it was very much a teenager-y, vent-y kind of impulse. I didn’t know anything about poetry—I wasn’t even aware that there were still poets around, as wild as that sounds! It was mostly just lineated rants. I can be hesitant to share my emotions, so I wanted to have a place to put my angst so I didn’t take it out on others. I think that still rings true (at least partially) for why I write."
2. What is your method of writing? Notebooks, computer?
"I almost exclusively write on my laptop nowadays. I used to be very much into the whole longhand thing—I’d fill a journal every couple of months with poems—but I have some health issues that affect my ability to write like that now. I think my brain works better when I’m typing too. I can get the thoughts out before I have a chance to pre-edit them, whereas with pen and paper, it’s so slow going that I don’t really feel like I’m getting the truest expression of my thoughts. I do use the notes app on my phone if I have a thought in the middle of the night, but I never finish poems on the phone. It never feels right!"
3. Where do you draw inspiration?
"From anything I can get my greedy little hands on. My brain needs to constantly be engaged, so I absorb a lot of content in my day-to-day, whether I’m reading, watching TV, writing, listening to music, playing video games… the list goes on! My series of Sue poems is inspired by the character of the same name from Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade. I used to do a lot of Greek Myth persona work, inspired by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Analicia Sotelo, and Madeline Miller. My more poem-y poems (for lack of a better explanation) are often inspired by music or other poems—especially the work of Melissa Ginsburg, Jennifer Chang, and Suji Kwock Kim."
4. How do you know when a poem is done?
"I really don’t. I tell my students all the time that—regardless of genre—a piece of writing is never truly done, but you just have to get to a place of satisfied enough. I could read work I was proud of a year ago that I felt like was done then and have a million edits and revisions in mind. I’ve ripped poems apart in revision that I was proud of at the time of writing. It’s a never-ending cycle to me. Some people might find that intimidating, but I find it comforting—that the poem can grow and change and move through life along with me, and maybe someday, I’ll unlock the secret it wanted to tell me all along. I feel so ungrounded when I talk about poetry this way, but I really believe it!"
5. You are currently pursuing an MFA at Northern Michigan University. What brought that about?
"I guess I didn’t know what else to do! It felt like a logical progression for me. I didn’t feel ready to enter the job market after graduation, and I didn’t feel like my poetry was ready for bigger projects and submissions. I don’t know why I thought applying to MFAs was going to be easier—I just thought I had nothing to lose!
I really love the classroom workshop, too. I think the most valuable part of my process is talking through my work with others, seeing what others are doing. I find I learn the most when I need to critically examine the work of people right in front of me and see their composing and revision processes. It’s certainly not necessary to get an MFA to be a successful writer, but for the way my brain works, it felt like an organic progression.
MFA programs in general are a difficult nut to crack though, so if you’re reading this and are interested in applying, just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into. So many of them are very racist, sexist, and queerphobic, and NMU is no exception. NMU as an institution is rife with issues—faculty are working without contracts, graduate students are paid a starvation wage, and the administration is full of people who certainly don’t have our best interests at heart—and I’m affected by these issues in very direct ways. Still, I’m grateful for the community of writers at NMU. They’re some of my greatest friends, and despite the institutional issues, I’ve never felt more confident in my work."
6. You are the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Von Aegir Literary, a brand new poetry journal. Congrats! Why did you decide to establish your own magazine?
"Over the past year, I’ve been an associate poetry editor at Passages North, NMU’s literary publication. I found a lot of satisfaction in that work. I love the act of reading and responding to poetry, so it felt inevitable that I would eventually open a mag of my own. I’m a huge fan of Fire Emblem—I’ve been playing since I was 11 or 12—so I really wanted to carve out a niche for poetry about and responding to the franchise. I’ve done a lot of work revolving around Sue, a background character from Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade, and I wanted to see how other people resonated with characters from the franchise. It’s been an amazing experience to see how enthusiastic people are about this, and I really appreciate it! Even after only a couple weeks, I feel like Von Aegir is already a success, if only for what I’ve learned in the process."
7. What do you hope people take away from your work?
"I have no idea! I’m just a dude. That’s a really cop-out kind of answer, and I’d like to think of a better one, but I really can’t. I just try to be honest about how I see the world and how my memory works, and I hope people take something away from it. Even if they hate it or are annoyed by it, I think my work portrays my reality, how I experience the intersection between physical and mental illness. Memory comes to me in shattered images. While I have the training and knowledge to make beautiful images—that’s really present in the work I was doing in undergrad—I find it much more fulfilling to craft a sincere representation of my mind. There’s a chair. There’s a tomato and a knife. Whether or not the tomato means anything to anyone isn’t as important to me as the simple fact that these objects exist in the same space. I think there’s beauty there. I just want to make poems that exist, and hopefully that work resonates with others!"
8. What other project(s) do you hope to take on some day?
"I haven’t been able to pull together a chapbook or full-length that I’m proud of yet, so I think that’s my next big hurdle. I’m a pretty unreliable poet! I can’t be trusted to write about one theme or character consistently, so crafting a collection is a pretty dauting task. I move from Sue to more personal work to pastoral poems to fanfiction… etc. I’d really like to have a book, and I believe I will someday! I just need to buckle down and think about what I want out of these poems, what story is most pressing to me. Obviously I’ll need to figure it out, as I have a whole creative thesis looming on the not-so-distant horizon!
I’d like to complete a musical project someday, too, if I can ever force myself to try to write songs! I can play guitar well enough, and I can write poems well enough, but the intersection between those things eludes me. There’s some kind of muscle that governs the alchemy of these things (probably something to do with melody) that I just can’t quite grasp. Again, I believe I will someday! I just need some time to focus on something new, and between writing and teaching and learning, I don’t have a lot of time to devote to music."
9. What writing advice do you find totally useless?
"Writing every day, reading every day. I’m only human! It’s hard for me to force myself to write when I feel like I’m not feeling. Like, if I’m not ready to give the material up, if I feel like I need more time to figure out exactly how I feel about the material, whatever comes out of me is going to be underwhelming. I don’t handle that outcome well. I have to wait until I’m comfortable and settled with a feeling before I can make myself write a poem. This isn’t to say I don’t believe in inspiration—I think I’m almost always inspired—I just don’t really know what to do with it. Ultimately, I think I’m a poet when I need to be a poet, even if that’s only once a month.
With reading, it can just get so exhausting, especially if I’m reading poetry. My brain tends to get caught up in the craft aspects—lineation, caesura, enjambment, etc—so it almost always feels like an assignment. It takes a lot out of me to read a poem, so I’m pretty slow in my work. My brain just can’t take it. I’m much better at reading novels, and I think it’s because I have such limited formal education about their craft. I’m not trying to figure out how to write a novel while I’m reading. I’m just enjoying the story!"
10. And finally, what do you enjoy doing that you don’t talk about enough. Tell me about it!
"I’m tempted to talk about fanfiction here, which is really embarrassing—yikes! But that’s how I cut my teeth, so I feel like I need to honor that in some way. I wouldn’t be a writer without it! I have two WIPs right now, both currently sitting at about 30,000 words, and I’m vaguely planning what I’d like to do for NaNoWriMo this year. Since I spend so much time encountering writing in formal academic settings, it’s such a relief to be able to step away from that and write about my favorite video game characters instead!
Unfortunately, I think I’m a pretty boring person otherwise! Pretty much all of my hobbies point back to my creative work. Even sleeping, which is my favorite thing to do, produces dreams, which sometimes become poems! In general, I’m an active dreamer, and I love dreaming. Lots of my dreams are—as dreams tend to be—incomprehensible and meaningless, but there’s almost always this unsettling undercurrent to it all. It’s hard to explain, and it’s even harder to explain why I enjoy it so much. I love the logic and movement and entropy of dreams, even if I also find it all deeply disturbing."
Hear Heath read his poem "ORIGINS."
Heath Joseph Wooten (he/him) is an MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University, where he is an Associate Poetry Editor at Passages North. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Von Aegir Literary, and he has played every Fire Emblem game at least five times. You can find his work in or forthcoming from perhappened, Lammergier, Eunoia Review, and others. You can tell him he's pretty on Twitter @edgy2003blond.
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Heath Joseph Wooten