Published on February 27th, 2013 | by Elizabeth Coleman0
We get poemcrazy with Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge
Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge is obsessed with words. Author of poemcrazy: freeing your life with words, which is currently in its 24th printing, Wooldridge works with adults, teachers and at-risk youth both privately and through the California Poets in Schools program. Her workshop are designed to cultivate artistic expression, and have changed the lives of countless students, who can now creatively express themselves through words.
Wooldridge uses many different techniques, but her teaching is almost always grounded in the notion of play. She begins by asking students to gather words, as many as they can, and make wordpools that they then share with each other. A favorite exercise is her “word ticket” exercise, where Wooldridge guides her students to find and cut out words from magazines and glue them to the back of tickets, which they can rearrange into poems.
“There is something beautiful about seeing the words in all different sizes, colors and font that is just beautiful,” Wooldridge said.
Although she has written her own poetry, Wooldridge doesn’t see herself as a poet.
“I don’t like being called a poet,” she said. “I don’t consider myself one.”
Rather, her work is bigger than just herself, since it helps others find their own voice and tap into unexpected sources of brilliance.
“I want to teach love and connection,” Wooldridge said. “I would love if art moved in that direction.”
I had the chance to talk to Wooldrige about her work. Warm and caring, Wooldridge expressed a genuine interest in Art Animal and my own personal writing. I immediately felt connected to her, as though she understood the driving passion that I have to write and express myself. (She pegged me immediately as a Pisces: a person connected intimately to the archetypal realms.) My favorite piece of her advice: “Your demons will start to evaporate, because they are imagined.”
Art Animal: I was so inspired by your ticket project. Can you talk a bit about that?
Susan Goldmsith Wooldbridge: There is something about the cut out words – writing them in your handwriting doesn’t have quite the same impact or authority. I think it’s our love of the printed word. When it’s our own handwriting, we are more critical, whereas when it’s printed, it’s coming from outside. It feels more separate, in a good way, like it’s a little message.
AA: You also teach people to make up words.
SGW: It’s wonderful to work with people and see them and break free from what they’ve been taught. I’ve found that when I bring in people like James Joyce with his famous and impeneratrable book, Finnegan’s Wake, people start to see how he is playing with language too. He calls “Romeo and Juliette” “Julio and Romiette!” It’s liberating to see Classical writers breaking rules like that.
AA: What do you do when you encounter someone who is resistant in your workshops?
SGW: It’s my favorite thing to work with people who are resistant. I’ve worked in juvenile halls and with emotionally unstable people — people who are literally petrified of expressing themselves because it’s always been used against them. Even reading a poem is scary to them. They think they are going to be asked questions and they won’t know the answers and they will feel inadequate. It’s weird what we’ve done to each other. So I tell them, “Steal words! As many as you can!” Without fail, people become mesmerized by gathering words. They don’t want to stop. They jump up and down, and spin, and shake the words out of their heads.
AA: Do you have any surprising moments that come out of your workshops?
SGW: I have so many surprising moments that I just am not surprised anymore. I just discover the brilliance of people. There was this one kid in juvenile hall: “I’m a brown gangster/ colliding with death/ I’m a rose/ Slamming love with hate.” That wouldn’t have come forth without the tickets. He wouldn’t have had that word slam, or collide. And they became his. The words become ours as we use them.
They jump up and down, and spin, and shake the words out of their heads.
AA: What made you start writing?
SGW: Well I was a very, very shy little girl. Reports from my teachers always would say that I didn’t participate. Forgive me, Papa, but I had an angry father and he would yell. He was very impatient. I became afraid to express myself. In classes, I would know the answers, but the idea of saying it out loud was terrifying and I would lose the thought. I was literally unable to speak, and it was a very big handicap. I had this freshman English teacher, Mr. Mabie, who assigned us a journal and encouraged us to write. He didn’t read it, so I felt free to write down the truth. The journal became my life, the only way I survived high school.
AA: Where do you get your inspiration?
SGW: Poems come from many different places for me. Sometimes it’s images. I often write when I’m driving because of the rush of images flying past. Sometimes I write out of my sleep, as if the words were being delivered when I was sleeping. That probably happens to you as well. There are many different levels of poetry. We aren’t always going deep enough. Sometimes we need to visit the dragons in the depths of our souls.
AA: What are the differences between the books you have written?
SGW: I have a small chapbook called Bathing with Ants, which is a collection of my poetry. Poemcrazy is focused on what I’ve learned about teaching writing in the workshops. I actually just did an Audible audiobook recording of that, which is exciting. My other book, Foolsgold, is more about the creative process.
People had this idea that I was this sort of free-spirit nymph, bouncing happily through the world, eternally joyful.
People had this idea that I was this sort of free-spirit nymph, bouncing happily through the world, eternally joyful. In Foolsgold, I wanted people to know what I’ve been through. I had a knock-down, drag-out mental breakdown when I was 20. I mean, I was classified a paranoid schizophrenic. I was locked up for months. This happened during the Vietnam era, when I was in New York trying to write a thesis. The man I thought I was going to marry was sent to Vietnam. The Vietnam War messed with my generation in a big way. It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me, though. I would have a very different life if it hadn’t happened. My creative process helped me express myself and get through it all.
AA: What was it like to have a mental breakdown?
SGW: It was pretty unreal. I was completely conscious, and I remember everything. I became extraordinarily paranoid. I thought everything was centered on me. I was locked up in this asylum and shot full of drugs against my will, and I would hear these dogs barking. And it turned out they were doing animal experiments below me, which is horrible to think about. But I was convinced the dogs were search parties looking for me. It was classic, neurotic behavior. I thought there were cameras in drinking fountains. I was a crazy person, but I also wasn’t, if that makes any sense.
AA How did you get out of that state?
SGW: I wonder how much is destiny. My soul and spirit are very strong. I realized that all that really mattered to me was healing and love. It really taught me that none of us can really help our thinking. I faked it to get out of the hospital, and then I focused on nature, freedom, moving to California and healing. Healing became number one. I still am a depressed person. I have anxiety and dread. I’m helped by spiritual healing, things like A Course in Miracles. But having gone through all that helps me connect with the kids in juvenile hall, and with other people. I can tell them that I know what it’s like to be locked up too.
AA: Do you have certain images or themes that come up in your poetry now?
I was this nonstop faucet of poetry until poemcrazy came out.
SGW: I was this nonstop faucet of poetry until poemcrazy came out. And it was almost like since I was expected to be a poet, I couldn’t write. And then the man that inspired me to be a poet, Mr. Mabie, resurfaced in my life and became this crazy love. He fell in love with this woman who wrote poemcrazy and dedicated the book to him. It was quite the love story. He is this fabulous, wild and difficult man, and we are still in touch even now. Something about our relationship at the time stopped me from writing poetry. I’m just getting back to it, partly because I have this grandson now, little Liam, who inspires me. His favorite thing to do is throw his hands in the air and exclaim, “I dunno!” every time you ask him a question. It’s like Socrates once said, “All I know is that I know nothing.” I call Liam my Blessing Boy.
AA: Do you feel it is important to share poetry with others, or is it a private process?
SGW: There are certainly different opinions on this. Someone once said that he didn’t believe a poem existed until it was shared. And yet often we are just getting messages for ourselves that we don’t always have to share. A poem is a gift to another person, yet we don’t always understand what we are giving. A poem allows you to express secrets. They are a form of communication between souls and spirits. Though maybe I should just say what little Liam says, “I dunno!”
AA: Any last words to Art Animal readers?
SGW: I want people to know how profoundly creative each one of us is. As the poet Robert Bly said, “You came into this world as a radiant package of cosmic wonders, as an unspeakably sublime bolt of primordial resonance, as a barely coalesced jumbled of blinding beauty – and all your parents wanted was a good little girl or a good little boy.” People don’t believe their own innocence and beauty unless it’s demonstrated to them by themselves.
For more about Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, visit her website at www.susanwooldridge.com.