The beginning of Virginia happened . . . when? That moment is lost in time. Early on, she was at the edge of my consciousness but still a writer whom, even as an English major, I had never read. Woolf wasn’t on the syllabus in any of my classes—not required reading in those days just before there were courses in feminist literature. After my graduation, I read Woolf with a vengeance. I liked the experimental novels well enough—Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, The Waves—but what intrigued me most was the gradual publication of her letters and diaries.


That wealth of material gave me a window on a life radically different from my own. For a period of years, I felt as if her friends were also my friends, and that the conversations she participated in were as important to me as they were for her. It was easy to achieve this intimacy. The diaries and letters are filled with minutiae, nuanced insights, deeply personal impressions, and remembered conversations. They offer more information than most people ever reveal about their lives. The details are so extensive. It would probably be possible to chronicle Woolf’s daily life for decades.


I learned about her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, and about Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf, a Jewish writer, editor, liberal politician, and the man with whom she founded the revolutionary Hogarth Press. I was fascinated as her relationship with Vita Sackville-West unfolded, a love affair between two married women, flirtatious and communicative—resulting in the high humor and euphoria of Woolf’s novel Orlando—only to find a quieter resolution as they drifted apart.


What attracted me to Woolf? My life was completely unlike hers. I was not born into the London literati. I had my origins in a small town in northern Wisconsin. I had no famous father and no brothers at Cambridge. We definitely did not spend idyllic summers in Cornwall in a large house on the English seacoast waited on by servants, walking the beach, and playing games of cricket in the garden. My family took car trips across the American West, slogging along the interstates to see our country, camping out to save money, and eating macaroni and cheese out of a box.


I came from people whom Woolf might have dismissed or even despised and ridiculed—from farmers, mill workers, and civil servants, from those who were uneducated, at least by Woolf’s criteria. My people did not read books as a means of understanding the self, defining feelings, or interpreting the world. They worked. They were mostly just trying to survive and get by. I came from them, and yet I still wanted to be like Woolf. I wanted to write. Virginia became, at least for a decade, my higher power.



It’s 2006. My friend Nancy and I are touring London. I am here partly in pursuit of my mentor—Virginia Woolf. At this point, I’ve read everything she’s written. I’ve waltzed through that embarrassment of riches—the printed pages she left behind—her novels, letters, diaries, essays, and articles. Now I’m walking the streets she walked.


It’s dusk when we board the London Eye for a bird’s-eye view of the city beginning to turn on its lights. In our glass car, we rise and fall while feasting on this unparalleled view of London. Although it undoubtedly looked different in her time, this is Woolf’s city—a place she inhabited in all ways. After the ride, we choose to dine at the café in the crypt below St. Martin’s in the Fields. I order mushroom stroganoff with delicate new potatoes and a fennel salad. Nancy has a dish with steamed broccoli, cauliflower, and Savoy cabbage. Our globed glasses of white wine fracture light into the vaulted space.


It’s wonderful, yes, and isn’t this a moment Woolf might have chosen to memorialize? It seems to me I should write about it. What are we saying to one another? What are my thoughts and impressions of this day? If I don’t get this down somehow, won’t it be lost forever? I wonder. Does that really matter? Isn’t it enough that Nancy and I are here sharing this moment?


Later, I lie awake with jet lag thinking about Woolf’s second novel, Jacob’s Room. After a galloping romp through a young man’s life at Cambridge, we learn that Jacob, the protagonist, has died as a soldier in World War I. The final scene of the novel has Jacob’s mother and one of his friends cleaning out his rooms. They find Jacob’s papers strewn across his desk as though he had left for a stroll in the park.


There’s a horror in this vision, a sense of futility and emptiness. A person—vital and rich with life—is suddenly gone. The novel poses the ultimate question. What is left of all that sensation, what remains of so much rich lived experience once the person has passed? It occurs to me that, in her novels, Woolf is almost always writing toward the same end game. Yes, this is happening—this vivid and incredibly complex life tapestry. Yet, it’s also disappearing. Suddenly, because of either time or death, a chunk of it is gone, lost forever.


Woolf’s most autobiographical novel, To the Lighthouse, chronicles a family’s summer in Cornwall. But those moments are also lost. When they return to the house on the shore years later, the whole emotional tenor and tempo of their lives has changed. The mother has died, leaving them to struggle. The long-awaited trip to the lighthouse takes on a completely different meaning than it did on a day in the distant past when it was impossible to go because of bad weather.


At the novel’s end, Lily Briscoe, a peripheral character, takes center stage. She is a spinster and a Sunday painter, a woman not taken seriously by the male-dominated art world. Yet, she perseveres. Lily is at work painting the Cornwall scene when the family returns. Finally, almost giving up in frustration, unable to express the whole as she sees it, Lily declares a truce. The painting must be finished. There’s nothing more to be done. “I have had my vision,” she announces. And this seems the best we can hope for—to have that vision and attempt to record something about it even as the moment is passing.


Woolf tries to preserve those moments that don’t last, the globes of being and experience that simply disappear. She seems to be saying it’s important to celebrate the freshness, newness, and immediacy that make the world overflow. But the other side of this promise is the tragedy of time passing, the heartbreak of death and loss. I can clearly see this is Woolf’s vision. But is it mine?


After my trip to London, sick of the insistent need to turn every experience into copy, I stopped writing for five or six years. I told myself it was enough to have my experiences without constantly formulating words to describe them. It was an immense relief.  My mind felt free. And yet, there must have been something of a warring voice within me because I saved my notes—notes about that day in the city and the meal I shared with Nancy. I must have believed that, one day, I would need or want them, and I did.  But when I finally began to write again, it was with a different attitude. I knew I could live without writing, even without Virginia.



The Buddhists say that, to become enlightened, you must actually kill the Buddha, meaning you must destroy your idols. This comes from an old Zen koan attributed to the Zen Master Linji, a Chinese Zen Buddhist monk who founded the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism and who died in 866.


The saying says: If you meet a Buddha, kill the Buddha.


I guess I did this to Woolf after my trip to London. Not that I actually killed Virginia, but I doubted her. I saw her as a person, brilliant but limited, part of her own time, her class, and her culture. Woolf gave me a window on her world but not a passage into it. She had been my teacher, but perhaps I had learned what I needed to learn from her. She taught me to pay attention, to notice details, to hear my environment, and to listen to my own thoughts.  At this realization, there was disappointment and a sense of loss. It felt a bit like losing an old friend either to death or indifference. It’s all well and good to have idols, but suddenly, I knew I would never be this person who spent three weeks touring Greece with the painter and art critic Roger Fry.


Woolf’s festival of words took me somewhere. She got me to London and enriched my time there. But in the end, I returned home, leaving England for my own geographical and personal world. My physical and spiritual home for most of my life has been the northern boreal forest of North America. It’s a place where I walk on footpaths between towering trees, a place where I count my breaths while listening for the air rush of bird wings. This is where I belong.


This winter has been a hard one. Nearby, just off the footpath, several crows feed on the remains of unidentifiable dead animal. Busily tearing toward the center of the carcass for red meat, the two companionable black birds ignore this approaching human. Likewise, a soaring red-tailed hawk offers me no greeting as it flies overhead and beyond my field of vision. As I tread my forest path, I experience the spaciousness that exists outside and beyond words.


Don’t get me wrong. I love words for their capacity to partially tame the world’s wildness. I adore them as they lean into metaphor and traverse distances. But I see their limitations. Words are temporary containment fields. I believe that, although words were her medium, Woolf understood this. She was always writing into the void, always using language to push toward the no-word zone. In novels that exist on the margins of human experience—Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, The Waves—Virginia has taken me to regions where there is simply nothing more to say.


What can we know of poor Jacob after he has passed? Lives and loves succumb to time. Individuals exist for a while and then they are gone. The waves roll toward the shore, relentlessly washing away all footsteps on the beach. Eventually, through her suicide, Woolf crossed the ultimate barrier. No one could follow her into that beyond. Still, during her lifetime, Virginia returned to the place of making again and again. She tried to hold her ground even as that ground was slipping out from underneath her. She had a faith I sometimes lose. When I tire of carefully wrought language, I leave my writing desk and head into the woods seeking the place of no-words.


Entering this wordless zone is another way of killing the Buddha. But I know he isn’t really dead. I’ll be back at my computer soon enough. Tall pine trees creak in the wind. It seems that, though it is incomprehensible to me, they speak in a language all their own. And suddenly I get it. Virginia is the hawk flying away from me. She was here but she’s moved beyond my field of vision. I can’t say where she is now or what she is like. I’m not even sure what I am like, but I am resolved. I turn back on the path that will take me home. My house isn’t far away, really no distance at all.


Interview: Sandra Simonds



Sandra Simonds is a prolific poet, critic, mother, and professor. She is the author of five poetry collections: Orlando (Wave Books, forthcoming), Further Problems with Pleasure (University of Akron, 2016, and winner of the 2015 Akron Poetry Prize), Steal It Back (Saturnalia Books, 2015), The Sonnets (Bloof Books, 2014), Mother Was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012), and Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009). She is also author of a free electronic PDF collection,  Untitled Collage Poems (Bloof Books, 2016). A sixth print volume, Orlando (Wave Books), is forthcoming in 2018, and Simonds is working on another collection, Atopia. Please see five poems from Atopia and a review of Further Problems with Pleasure elsewhere in Aquifer.


Reading Simonds’ work is not unlike plugging into high-voltage poetica, fused with the hard metal of keen intellect, unmistakable humor, the reality of ourselves as sexual beings, and charged with political and social thematic waves. Nothing is at rest in these poems; they shout and taunt, but mostly they invite an engagement to language throbbing with 21st-century life.


Judith Roney for The Florida Review:
I’m thinking I was first introduced to your poetry when I received my May/June [2017] issue of The American Poetry Review, and was intrigued by your poem, “Dear Chris,” which is the first of three poems featured in the issue. It’s a hardworking poem, “long,” and of an eclectic construction that gives it restless energy.


Contemporary epic, or “long” poems, are my latest poetry-drug, so when I read an excerpt from Orlando in The Brooklyn Rail’s e-journal, I was smitten with its forty-eight flowing tercets, where the speaker seems to address the city of Orlando, but soon we’re accompanying the speaker in a kind of kinetic stream-of-consciousness journey, passing through the land of the body as if were a fantasy theme park like Disney World, which is referred to several times in the poem.


The form works fabulously against the energy, creating marvelous tension. Thoughts echo in my reader’s mind of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, yet I sense you, the poet, clearly enter at multiple points. For example, we see the speaker at their desk, trying to compose on a laptop, but they are interrupted, first by the action of another, then technology fails, and the work is lost. A hard-copy diary is remembered: “. . . and that is precisely the moment you fell out of love with me, / abandoning me to the very diaries and bookshelves of my consciousness, both as a teenage/girl and now as a middle aged woman, so I tried to figure out what I could have done back then, / what confession, what moment of weakness, what apology had driven you out of my life, / so abruptly . . .”


You have a collection soon to be published (2018) from Wave Books called Orlando. I’m excited about this as both a poet, and as a university instructor in Orlando; is the entire collection an epic poem, or is Orlando a long poem contained therein? Where did this spring forth from?


Sandra Simonds:
First, thank you for this question because I’m really excited to talk about Orlando, which I think of as an epic feminist poem that reads like fiction or memoir. In terms of structure, Orlando is composed of two sections. The first section is forty pages and each page is four very long-lined tercets; the second part of the epic is written in a kind of spiraling open form. The second part of the book, in fact, was initially forty or so discreet poems with titles that I, upon revision, transformed into one long second section called “Demon Spring.”


I chose the long poem form because I wanted to work in the tradition of the epic which is historically so heavily inflected with masculine energy. The “epic” has been coded “male” and I was interested in the challenges of writing an epic poem given the gender history. Who is allowed to write our history? Of course, I’m not the first woman to do this. Several feminist long poems that influenced me in this project come to mind including Alice Notely’s The Descent of Alette, Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts, and Loba by Diane di Prima.


You are right to note that “Orlando” in the poem is an unstable character—sometimes Orlando is a city, other times, Orlando is a lover, and other times Orlando is an idea or set of ideas. When I wrote the book, this instability wasn’t intentional but it turned out to be an effective way that I could talk about both love and relationships using this figure as well as broader cultural concerns, like materialism, entertainment, the surface and what lies beneath the surface and so on. So the instability of the figure creates a kind of creative and philosophical opening that worked for me and relates to the traditional concerns of epic poetry—telling a historical, social and political story about our times but through a distinctly feminist voice.


As a poet, and poetry reader for The Florida Review, I find it increasingly rare that a poem both challenges and dazzles me. I find the poems of Further Problems with Pleasure just brilliant. How did you become involved with the subject or theme of your book?


I wanted to explore a number of themes at the same time: sexuality, sexual violence, sexual liberation, gender shame, the body, perversity, fantasy and how these things are constructed and defined in late-capitalist society. What are the norms? What is taboo? Lacan says, “Do not give up on your desire,” and I think that’s a sort of jumping off point of this book. Okay, well what does that mean for a single working mother living in the Deep South at this particular point in history? What part of our desire is “ours” and what part of it is manufactured?


In this collection, is there one poem that worked as the spark for the rest of the pieces? If not, which poem do you feel best anchors the collection for you?


I think the “Further Problems with Pleasure” poems that are positioned throughout the book anchor it because these poems bring the book back to the central questions surrounding the nature of desire and, when the book veers away a little bit from these questions, they are brought back to the forefront of the reader’s mind. I also have a lot of affection for the last poem in the book, “Dear Chris,” which I wrote in response to a poem sent to me by the poet Chris Nealon. I was thinking about all of the leftists who stand up in society against hatred and violence against the oppressed. I wanted to both acknowledge the struggles that we have encountered both personally and more broadly as leftists, what we are up against, what we will be up against, but also to say that what we do every day, our actions matter. That what we did here, right now, matters, to each other and to our children and that even though we all come from different backgrounds, my hope for the future, is that our children will not have to face what we have faced and if they do, that they will be comrades, that they will be on the right side of history fighting for the same things.


I’m always curious what literary fields a poet mines; what are you reading now?


I just finished Matthew Rohrer’s The Others, which I thought was great. His storytelling and the way he works with narrative is fascinating. I also just finished Rapture by Sjohnna McCray. I had the pleasure of reading with Sjohnna a few months ago and he gave me the reading copy of his book with all of his notes and directions to himself (Thank you, Sjohnna!). I love the way Rapture tells the complicated story of his relationship to his mother.


I think I’d go as far as calling your poetry “combustible” and timely for what’s occurring in the both the political and social arena right now. It’s like the lines are “plugged in” and feel energized, so I must ask, any writing rituals you’d like to share? That is, where do you write best, what time of day, tea, coffee, wine or a bag of chips?


My only trick is to write when you are so desperate that you can’t not write what you need to write—when you read things in the news, write, when you feel a sense of justice, write. That usually puts a bit of urgency into the writing and makes the poems more resonant, so that when you’re drinking a cup of tea, revising those passionate poems, you don’t take out the passion, but you have some passion to work with and frame. I guess that Wordsworth covered this area long before I did, though.


As a parent and an academic, a working professor, how do you find or make time to write? Is it easy for you or always a struggle, as in some sort of “compromise”?


It’s always a struggle to find time for me because I’m just a very busy person with two young children, but I think because I’ve been writing since I was a child, it’s like second nature to me. I think I’m probably a person who would write in any circumstances—in a jail or in a castle, in a factory or in an office. I can’t imagine not being a writer and writers write.


Who (or what) acts as your muse? Or, perhaps there’s a particular subject you find you keep coming back to again and again?


The dead, the people who have struggled before us for social justice, the unborn, the people who will need our writing when we are dead. My themes usually center around the political—I want to make poems that are both political and creative, that are political but not obvious rants or propaganda, that touch people, that make people think.


In your writing process, would you say you write more by logic (doing research, creating notes, etc.) or intuition, or some combination of the two?


I go on intuition and sound always. I have an idea or an impulse and I just follow my gut. Sometimes it’s wrong but more often than not it isn’t. I think that this kind of leap of faith is what you have to really develop and nurture.


Anything that people THINK they know about your poetry, that isn’t so?


I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what people think about my poetry so, honestly, I have no idea.


What projects are you working on at the present, and what subjects do you feel are calling you for future projects?


I’m working on an epic political poem called “Atopia.”