Daniel Woody teaches courses in academic and creative writing at NYU Shanghai, a portal campus of New York University. Although primarily a poet, Woody's work often crosses disciplines, incorporating painting, photography, and other visual mediums.
This interview was conducted on November 2, 2021, via Zoom between Shanghai, China, and Madison, WI. The transcription has been edited for clarity.
Thank you so much for doing this interview, Woody—which device would you like to talk about?
I thought I’d actually do my computer, the phone is pretty boring right now.
How would you orient someone else to your computer space? How does this device relate to your network of other devices?
So I had a Google Chromebook in Chicago, and that was my main computer; every file that I used was through Google Docs, Google Drive. Now that I have this MacBook that the university gave me, I don’t use a Chromebook anymore—but I still do almost everything through Google Drive, which I feel like is more and more common.
Microsoft Word is in Chinese here, and uses Chinese measurements and Chinese norms. So when students are turning in work and trying to meet MLA format, I can’t figure out how to help them. So I almost always tell them to “just use Google Docs.” I don’t know, I think it’s the future.
How is your Google Drive organized? With both individual poems and larger projects? How do you navigate to a particular piece?
The titles of documents are often little jokes, and I just know them by heart. So I actually don’t scroll through and look for things—I just type what I’m doing in the search, like “on a life half-lived.” I don’t know what that means, but it just sounds like it’s a deeply reflective memoir project. But really, it’s just my everyday thoughts…. Whatever dumb in-the-middle-of-the-night thoughts I have, I just put them here. For example, once in the middle of the night I was like, “How do you like… find yourself?” I searched that online, and it said, “Make a list of 40 things that would blow your mind.” And then I just sat in this document and made this list. Sometimes I go back to this list and read it and think about how I can combine or use some of these items to work or to write or to, I don’t know, be okay?
How much of this document is in chronological order rather than a raw dump? Are you going back and inserting things, or just adding to it?
This is like the raw, identity-based material, just my life; and sometimes within it I do word scouting, where I find language that kind of stands out to me for whatever reason. And then I list the words in order and do a matter-of-fact analysis of this collection of strange language. It’s weird! Like, “no, strange, before, secret, goat, dry, dead, healthy, Iran, always, help, voice, brisk, promises.” These are just words, right?
So psychoanalyzing yourself but poetically, or something?
Basically. And very little of this ends up being poetry that I actually, like, share, but sometimes I think, “Oh, that could be a poem…”
But this document goes…. 67 pages… of trying to translate this kind of gibberish from my unconscious.
There’s also a document, “blacademia,” which is stuff related to being Black and working in the university. And “aereogravitia” is another long one. Some of them end up being really short, because I think they’re going to be something and then they’re not. But “aereogravitia” is a longer one—there’s John Milton’s essay, “Areopagitica,” but this is like, my version, where everything in here is kind of about gravity, or forces pulling. Then there’s “WHAT’S THE TEA: Sipping tea in China during the Coronavirus outbreak,” and this is where I’m writing about tea and moments in my life where tea has appeared.
I went through a few years ago and labeled all these documents “poetry in progress”? So that I could find them.
How frequently do these documents correspond to an end product? Is having these divisions part of the same process, or is each document going into a different project direction?
I don’t know, I have no agenda. Really, I just do it. And if I feel like, oh, I should publish a poem, then I go look through these documents and see if there’s anything that could be a poem, and pull it out, edit it, and send it out.
“WHAT’S THE TEA” is maybe a little different than the other ones, in that I do think of it as a project meant for outside readers.
So it’s a combination of creating this reservoir of material for yourself, and more defined projects. How do you go about keeping separate drafts, or do you?
I usually edit in response to some kind of requirement—I’m not constantly revising just to make it beautiful or something. So like here, where I’m submitting to Ugly Duckling Press, here’s a chapbook arranged for them. If I sent that out again, to another press, I would make a copy of this document and edit it with the new press name. So revisions are all always tied to different publishers.
What is the relationship between writing / personal / professional materials in this space? Are they all just kind of coexisting in this big swirl within your Google Drive? Are there other types of media?
Yeah, everything is just in there. Sometimes I like to record reading really good stories aloud, do you do that?
No! What inspires you to replay and listen to the recordings?
I guess if I’m feeling panicked, or something, I just remember that Alice Munro exists. So, because I trust her writing in a way that I don’t trust a lot of authors, I know she’s going to take care of me emotionally. So I’ve recorded maybe five or six of her stories, and maybe I’ve only played each of them two or three times. But the process of recording them and saving them is just something that soothes me.
Because you’re kind of ingesting them, or taking part in them or something?
Yeah, and I also really like to do it with a story that I’ve never read before. I just pick up a random Alice Munro story, and then record reading it out loud. And then I save it and then I listen to it later.
[Scrolling through Google Drive] Sometimes there’s another kind of document, where I’m imagining teaching something in the future. Do you know Patchen? I never encountered any of his work, but thought it was so cool when I did. So I started stealing a bunch of representative poems and images from his books to make this ideal packet for a class, where someone could read these 26 pages or so and have a pretty good understanding of Patchen.
Woah, and I haven’t opened this document in a while. When I was in Paris, I had a dream with the letters R O X L O that kept appearing in the whole dream, like floating letters. I was trying to figure out what it meant, and discovered there was some poet named Conrado Roxlo—so I started trying to translate some of his poetry in this file.
How does what you have in Google Drive relate to what’s on your desktop?
The desktop could be anything, totally random. Every so often I make folders that I just drag things into, but it’s not really a planned organizational system or anything—just something I do every six or seven months when things feel too cluttered.
How much of that process is reorganizing versus, like, purging?
I think it’s mostly reorganizing, because I don’t really delete a lot. Sometimes if there’s a lot of Untitled Documents, and then inside there’s just one word—like “dog”—I’m like, “Okay…” and will consolidate a little.
If your house, and by house I mean Google Drive, were on fire and you could only grab a few things, which are the items you feel most protective of or connected to? What would you “grab”?
Ha if the Geek Squad could only save like one gigabyte of file… Let me see… I guess I would save this book manuscript I’ve been sending out, or maybe photos… Maybe I would grab this folder, because it’s like the equivalent of a box of photos in the attic or something. Some leaves I was photographing at the time, all my photos from my American iPhone. Like America in a folder.
If you were no longer here, what would you want to happen to your archive?
Oh, destroy. So many thoughts are experimental thoughts—like, DO I think this? WHY do I think this? And sometimes it’s not even me, like sometimes the person writing is a person of my imagination. I just feel like because I don’t label things, no one can understand that.
For example, this shadow poem… It’s like, “Oh, you are my shadow. You are my darkness. You’re my fear,” all this stuff. It’s a translation of someone else, but if someone were to open the file, they would think that I’m thinking all of those thoughts. Maybe it’s true that I chose to translate that poem, and so maybe those thoughts do apply to me… But I just don't like being defined by things out of context, you know?
[Scrolling through Google Drive] Oh, another thing—are you still recording?
I used to use my Google Drive for a bunch of freelance writing work, like I haven’t done it in a year but it would be for different technical companies or people who needed a ghostwriter, and I usually saved the assignments because they helped me get new jobs. But I’m just making this connection now—I wonder if this whole process of writing in response to like, collected or scouted language, has to do with my training as a technical writer? Because the way they’d give me my assignment was with these keywords, and I’d have to somehow use the words in the article that I wrote. And this was before I went to grad school, before I started creative writing, before anything. So I wonder if that’s why this method of collecting words is so natural for me…
Sometimes they would have me discover which keywords to use, so I would search for how often a word is used in Google searches, and then rank which words or phrases I should actually use and submit them with the article; then they would adjust the keywords and tell me if I should swap any out. So dumb because it’s all these like bars and clubs in Vegas, but here there’s lists of keywords like “DJs,” “hotels,” “nightclubs,” “restaurants,” “shows,” attached to the top, kind of how I do in my more creative writing files now.
A live discovery!
That’s incredible, thank you so much, Woody!