The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: Did you come up with the idea of using candling as the central metaphor of “Candling” before you started writing, or did it arise organically as you were writing?
Annie Woodford: I wrote this poem last Easter, so I had eggs on my mind. I have a theory that poets love eggs because they are such perfect metaphors for so many things: life, mystery, fragility, rebirth. I think that in the process of trying to write about eggs, I came across the term “candling” and it took me back to this childhood memory. Or, perhaps I recalled this event in childhood and had an image of a candled egg in my mind, which I then researched? I can’t remember which came first, but the poem started with the image of that illuminated egg, which originated in my childhood. One of my closest childhood friends was one of the twins whose father came to speak to my fifth-grade class about his egg farm. I remember so vividly the video he showed. That video was the first time I ever heard the term. The imagery in the poem about what the actual candling looks like is a mixture of memory and research. After I got the idea that I wanted to write a poem about this memory, I looked up images of candling and did some reading about the process.
RR: Both “Melisma” and “Candling” deal with themes of growing up and development. What draws you to these themes?
AW: I write about my daughter and my childhood pretty obsessively. I don’t really know what draws me to these themes, but I guess they’re where I feel most alive and aware. On some level both of those poems are about being on the cusp, developmentally, as a child. They are also about the presence of death and aging in our lives. I have written about the boy in “Candling” before. He passed away from an accidental overdose in 2011 at the age of 33. By the time he died, we were not really in touch, but he was one of the great friends of my youth. I can’t think of my childhood without thinking of him. He was an artist, a skateboarder, and a kind person. “Candling” was one of my attempts to pay homage to his life, to prove that I “was paying attention,” to quote Mark Strand. He and his brother were, as the poem points out, one of the few sets of twins in our community. When my daughter was in kindergarten, there were twin boys in her class and all the children sort of revolved around them: they were the social center of that class. I have also taken two developmental psychology classes over the last few years, so perhaps that awareness of life-stages seeped into my work. I do remember reading somewhere that in every classroom there will be a child or two who is the social center of everything. Witnessing my daughter’s fondness for the twins in her class made me think about my own childhood and how twins have always seemed to me to be lucky and beautiful and mysterious. Answering these questions also makes me realize this: I probably identify most strongly with the father in “Candling”. I am about the same age or even older now than he was then. I feel a parent’s horror at the thought of losing a child and great sorrow for that family. “Melisma” was inspired by my daughter’s ardent love of pop music and how she sings along with songs containing innuendos she doesn’t directly pick up on, although the energy of the songs communicates something very powerful to her. She also loves Delilah, the syndicated radio host, even though she only half understands the emotional drama of the stories shared by the women who call into that show.
RR: What experience, if any, do you have with candling?
AW: Alas, none, with the exception of my friend’s dad coming to our fifth grade class almost thirty years ago.
RR: Both “Melisma” and “Candling” draw from other fields (music and animal husbandry, specifically). How do you approach writing about such fields, and what’s at stake in using one domain to explore another?
AW: I guess one major thing at stake would be leading people to mistake metaphor with expertise. Sometimes I feel like my knowledge runs wide but shallow: I know very little about either music and even less about animal husbandry. I do find out lovely and strange things, though, when I start to research a topic to which I have been lead by my writing, such as that beautiful quaver perfected by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston is called melisma. Googling image searches of candling produced page after page of illuminated eggs, which really helped fire the memories I had from my brief exposure to the practice of candling. I think there can also be a danger of being attracted to novelty over emotional connection, though. I often hear words or concepts, especially jargon related to a specific field or arcane scientific facts and make a note of them, but I can’t build a poem unless I can connect them to my inner life in some way.
RR: What are you reading these days?
AW: Right now I am dipping into The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield. I love how the stories, especially the ones set in New Zealand featuring the child-protagonist Kezia, have this incredibly alive sense of setting—the houses, the plants, the sky. Some of the stories from The Garden Party, which was, I guess, was her second collection, take the top of my head off, as Emily Dickinson would say. One called “The Voyage” is just the perfect blend of sentiment and realism. In it, a little girl has lost her mother and is going to stay with her grandparents, perhaps indefinitely. The goodness and the beauty of life is captured so well in this story—in descriptions of the grandmother’s surprisingly nimble ascent up to the top bunk of their berth in a ship to the description of the grandfather, who is still in bed when the child and her grandmother arrive home at dawn, but welcomes the child into his arms, “like a very old wide-awake bird.” The shadow of the grandparents’ mortality is always present in this story and the reader realizes the tenuousness of happiness and security. Mark Doty’s My Alexandria is a collection of poetry I picked up last week. There’s an image of lovers from the poem “Days of 1981” in an “empty suburban park,” with its “blueblack sky rinsed at the rim,” the speaker’s “head thrown back” that is so powerful, almost kinesthetic in its energy and gesture. To me, it takes on the resonance of the poet’s (our) gesture outward, toward the world. I am also reading Wild Hundreds by Nate Marshall—I love the dense net of cultural allusion and imagery in that book, as well as how it is organized according to a historical, geographical, and highly personal landscape. Those poems make me work, in a really rewarding way, as a reader. The assertion of a rich cultural identity flowering, however beautifully or violently, among the disenfranchised and the invisible, speaks to me as a writer, even though I grew up in a very different sort of context in the rural, southern, NAFTA-decimated world of Henry County, Virginia. The Collected Poems Franks Stanford, Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts, and a collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s essays are just a few additional books that have been important to me this year.
“Candling” and “Melisma” appear in Rappahannock Review Issue 3.3
Annie Woodford lives in Roanoke, Virginia, where she is a teacher at Virginia Western Community College. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, The Comstock Review, Cold Mountain Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Waccamaw, The Normal School, Tar River Poetry, Bluestem, and Town Creek Poetry, among others.