NEA Literature Fellowships

Amy Woolard

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Amy Woolard

Photo courtesy of Amy Woolard

(2019 - Poetry)


Was born a shamble. Was raised, as many, by a marrow & a follow.
Made first fortune before first word. Had it made. Follow left

The house each morning. Marrow worked to the bone. One
Sinister, one borrow I loved more than my own stalled self;

Early knew for certain one tomorrow I’d make a great ain’t. I
Lived from we to we. Tried to save my crumpled singles. Put on

A bold lip, pulled firm on my love like hinging down
A set of attic stairs. What a racket. What a small cord

Attaches us. My heart, still the spelling bee I throw each time
On purpose: we had words, then slept like ice in the slit

Of a tucked top sheet. After a spell, sure I slow-ached, sulked
My way awake. Once upon a table: coffee with chicory & make-

Shift bliss. My eyes, bigger than blue-plates—truth, it was almost
Too much to swallow. Took it to go. Clocked myself out. A time

Or two had my lights knocked out, my knee socks knocked off,
But soft. But still—a ceiling fan, a sill, & a souse who hung

On my every world. No two ways about it; I fell for us, hot &
Mussed as all get out. Took my Eastern time across to the Pacific,

Doubled down & doubled back. Put my face in the path
Of another’s full-palmed slap—struck by how dumb I was

Struck. Inked myself clear until I was sure as sure was
Numb. Got my house in order but never quite could give up

The drink, the way it confects me, the way I stay spoked
With what wrecks me. Curled myself all the way inside

The inside of our last joke, the punched line we lured
The most, as thicket as our thievery, our ashed plot

Unfallowing me like a neck’s own woods toward a choice
Choke of light: I can’t imagine, I reckon I can only imagine.

(Originally appeared in The New Yorker, April 16, 2018.)

Amy Woolard is a writer and legal aid attorney working on justice and poverty policy and legislation in Virginia. Her forthcoming debut poetry collection, Neck of the Woods, received the 2018 Alice James Award from Alice James Books. Her poems have appeared in publications such as the New Yorker, Boston Review, Ploughshares, Fence, Virginia Quarterly Review, & the Best New Poets anthologies, among others, while her essays and reporting have appeared in Slate, the Guardian, Pacific Standard, and the Rumpus, as well as Virginia Quarterly Review, which awarded her the Staige D. Blackford Prize for Nonfiction in 2016. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The direction is always push. Just the past few years, I’ve been called an emerging poet, an older poet, a new poet, an insider, an outsider, a dark horse, a poet-lawyer. I am all of it & none of it & it is a privilege either way. 

This fellowship is a kind of mercy granted to me: to the lawyer-who-writes-poems me, to the dust of me who crawled out from a 12-year poetry drought, to the bartender/feral poet me of the mid-90s who was patched together with bourbon, cash tips, hair dye, & salt. Back when my stacked ones & fives never laid flat. 

My manuscript-in-progress, Precariat, reckons with the decade during which I worked full-time in restaurants. I did not have health care. I lived from shift to shift, did not have savings. I worked late into the night and walked alone to my car with cash in my pockets. Somehow, I kept myself alive.

It's true I’m a lawyer now. I represent people in challenges I struggled with myself, or might’ve. I represent people who must rely on others’ kindness or forgiveness, on their own hustle. And while I am a lawyer, I’m a poverty lawyer. My law school debt remains a mortgage on my brain. I am constantly reminded that my life of precarity is perched waiting for me, one paycheck away.
If there is one feeling I work to keep in my lungs, it is gratitude, the breadth of which has deepened & radicalized every year I’m lucky to be alive. And now & yet again, gratitude—for this fellowship, for the company of my fellow artists, for the safety it affords me to become wilded by the new work I’m making—& I hope to offer it back through the grace that poems conjure in me, for however long they continue. Poems are my penance for being excruciatingly alive in this world. 

Thank you to the National Endowment for the Arts, the fellowship committee, & the communities of artists who survive themselves in the perilous direction of push.