When Catherine Woodard reads from her latest book and first full-length poetry collection, Opening the Mouth of the Dead, she brings a bucket of moonpies with her to cities not in the south. She urges each person to take one, heat it up in the microwave when they get home and enjoy their bites of “Southern Souffle,” as she calls it.
A southerner herself, the award-winning journalist-turned-poet grew up in the small, eastern town of Kenly, NC. To put it in perspective, Kenly consisted of about 1,400 people, 12 churches and two grocery stores, Woodard said.
“But the sense of community was real to me,” she said, sharing some of her background before reading from Opening the Mouth of the Dead at Hanes Art Gallery on Thursday, Nov. 9.
Woodard did not bring moonpies for the crowd gathered at her alma mater, but she did bring one of the 59 copies of the limited-edition letterpress book art edition of Opening the Mouth of the Dead as a donation to the Z. Smith Reynolds library collections.
The limited-edition letterpress book art edition includes 20 poems of the 63 and complementary artwork that make up the full trade paperback edition. It is bound in an accordian format, and was extended on a table for guests to explore before the reading began. In addition to the 20 selected poems, the edition includes additional hieroglyphic-inspired art by Margot Voorhies Thompson.
The primary narrator of the poetry collection is a third-grade girl who is growing up in the 1960s in North Carolina. She uses the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead to navigate her complicated relationship with her father. The last 24 poems of the trade paperback edition, however, are from the perspective of the same narrator, but as a young adult looking back.
“Third-grade seems to be when the world really expands,” Woodard said, commenting on her choice to write primarily from the perspective of a young narrator. “It was a writing challenge to keep the tone consistent.”
Yet as Woodard read 20 of her selected poems aloud, her voice animated the phrases like a curious, third-grade child would. While reading the final poem of the collection, “Unanswered Note,” she paused with the cadence of the poem, letting silence fill the air between phrases.
“There is a matter-of-factness to the prose, but also somewhat of a mystery,” said Tim Youd, a visiting performance and visual artist whose 100 Novels project is currently on display at the Hanes Art Gallery.
Part of the collections’ mystery is in the lack of a written resolution for the narrator after her father’s suicide. But when asked by a journalist what ended up happening to the narrator, Woodard responded, “Well she went to Wake Forest, so she ended up okay.”
Woodard’s poems resonated with Provost Rogan Kersh, who grew up in the small, mountain-town of Brevard, NC and worked at Newsday at the same time as Woodard.
“The fact that the narrator was a Wake Forest alum who grew up in North Carolina was so powerful,” Kersh said. “It had its own sort of magical potency.”
Woodard now lives in New York City and is Vice President of the Poetry Society of America. She also helped bring Poetry in Motion back to the New York subways and was the former president of Artist’s Space, which promotes visual art and supports artists.
“My appreciation for many arts developed from Wake Forest,” Woodard said.
On campus she served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Old Gold & Black, whose office was located in Reynolda at the time. When she needed to take a break from the newspaper she would walk the halls of the building, admiring the Student Union Collection of Contemporary Art. Woodard’s love for visual art deepened while she studied at the Worrell House in London during the fall of 1980 with Professor Bob Knott. There, she was able to visit various museums in European cities. She was also a forward for the women’s basketball team for two years and played in the first women’s ACC tournament in 1978.
Today she continues to play basketball for fun and volunteers with the News Literacy Project. She received her MFA in poetry from The New School University and her MS in journalism with a concentration in metropolitan reporting from Columbia University.
“Poetry was a surprising swerve for me from journalism,” Woodard said about her career shift in 2001. “But learning to write poetry has had a bigger impact on my prose.”
In writing Opening the Mouth of the Dead, Woodard was inspired by renowned 20th century poet Sylvia Plath, who gave her the idea of a troubled parent who seems like he’s dead. With the idea of a parent seeming mummy-like to a child, she then took to the bookshelves of her elementary school daughters in search of books about Egypt. In one of them it mentioned the Book of the Dead. She ordered two translations and was able to view actual, preserved copies of the ancient text at the Brooklyn Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art. The spells and rituals that exist in the ancient text originated as tomb paintings and inscriptions as early as 2670 BCE.
“It’s not for nothing that these stories have been told over and over,” Woodard said.