RUDICK: I’m curious about the frog you saw during an art history class in junior college. You experienced visions during childhood, but this one has stayed in your work, and the way you describe it makes it seem like a more profound vision.
WOODRING: It was and it has stayed with me. It’s a presence I still feel. There was a time before I saw it when I could have almost anticipated that it was coming, because I felt that I had this sort of—this sounds silly to say—a guardian presence or a spirit animal or something in attendance. And when I actually saw the thing, I thought, That’s it, that’s my companion or my benefactor or whatever it is. I don’t even know how to describe what it is, because I don’t actually feel that it helps me or interacts in my life in any way. But it’s got some relationship to me, and the expression on its face is meaningful to me in a way that I cannot put into words. I’ve drawn that thing hundreds and hundreds of times, and in fact, even as we speak, I’m looking at a model of it sitting on my mantle.
RUDICK: Was there a difference between that vision and the earlier ones, aside from the fact that you felt it was a guiding force?
WOODRING: It just hit me so much harder, and it seemed to have a lot of meaning. Sometimes these things would happen and I’d go, What was that? What just happened? What’s going on there? And then I’d dismiss it as a meaningless neurological misfire. But when this happened it was, Hello! I had this sense of recognition, not like I remembered it from somewhere, but I just knew that it was significant for me. At the time it happened, I was extremely messed up. I was really repressed. I had no idea what I was going to do in the world. I didn’t know how to get along with people. I couldn’t relate to people. I couldn’t speak to people. I was in a state of serious confusion. I’d never been drunk. I’d never taken any kind of drug. I was just adrift. My parents had given up on me. I had friends who were interested in me because I was doing artwork, and so in some ways, I guess, I was an interesting person, but I wasn’t a very pleasant person to be around. I was not a very rewarding friend in the traditional sense. So when this happened to me, it was like a breakthrough. It showed me the power I had in my hands and the way I was oriented in the world that was meaningful and useful to me. It was my sign to get out of school and not go back. I’d been planning on going to junior college and then going to art school, and I abandoned those plans that evening. I thought, This is it, this is the milestone that shows me the path.
RUDICK: Was it the right path?
WOODRING: I think so. I wasn’t doing well in school, and I don’t think that I would’ve done well in art school. I think it told me that I had to depend on myself and to be an autodidact. It showed me that I could be independent and still succeed. That, probably, if I had tried to live in the world the way most people lived in it, I would have always been a failure.
RUDICK: Isn’t that also the time you became a garbage man and an alcoholic?
WOODRING: It was right before that happened. It was right after high school, and I was still living at home. Shortly after that I got a job as a garbage man, which enabled me to move out of the house, and immediately I started drinking.
RUDICK: Was that a period in your life you had to go through?
WOODRING: Yeah, I think so. It sounds terrible—alcoholic garbage man—but it was actually a better state of being than the one I had been in before, because I was autonomous and I had money and I was out there working alongside grown men and learning about the world, and I enjoyed drinking. I had a phenomenal capacity for alcohol it turned out, never had hangovers. I’d just come home from work and I’d get drunk, stay drunk until four in the morning, and run around and have adventures. It was bad, I guess, but a lot of interesting, fun things happened. So while not a good thing in itself, it was a necessary thing to go through and ultimately positive, I think—better than where I’d been before, for sure.
RUDICK: What can you tell me about the drawings you made as a kid, the ones you refer to in the introduction to The Book of Jim?
WOODRING: When I was real little, I did drawings of the things I saw that scared me. I must have seen a mouse that got its head clawed off by a cat or something, because I had this recurring image of a headless animal, sometimes it was a big animal, like a bison. If I saw a bird or a bison I would imagine it with its head missing. Sometimes I would more than imagine it—I would see it and I would draw those things. I drew this little man made of electricity who was my persecutor. I would try to draw him in such a way that the drawing would have the intensity he had when I saw him. It was in his eyes. He had these blank eyes that scared me so much that I was almost sorry I when I captured them in a drawing. But then, at the same time, I was glad I did it, because it I felt like it showed that I was in control of the situation. I would just draw things that scared me. It upset my parents to no end. They really thought I was nuts, and it was the days before children were routinely sent off to psychologists or given drugs.. I’m sure if Ritalin and that stuff had been around, my folks would have gotten me on drugs as quickly as possible. Instead, they just despaired and withdrew from me.
RUDICK: Did you create the Unifactor to contain your hallucinations, to put them into narratives you could control?
WOODRING: No, it wasn’t that at all. It was an attempt to use the reductiveness of art to create a model of the world that could be understood. I heard something recently by Richard Feynman, and he said that understanding the way the universe works is like extrapolating a huge checkers game from a regular game of checkers. Checkers is an easy game to play, but if the board were huge and you had many, many checkers, it wouldn’t be easy to play anymore. While you can understand the universe somewhat while examining a small component, when it’s right in front of you, when you think about the extent of it and how it all works together, it completely escapes you. Trying to think about the moral universe, the political universe, the nature of consciousness, the question of what consciousness is—all that stuff is easy to do if you create a small system that’s got tight borders and contains a limited sphere of action. That’s what the Unifactor is for me—a little thought laboratory, with just a few characters in it and a limited number of forces, and those forces have a limited range. Even though they all correspond to things that I see existing in the real world, they’ve been reduced to a size that allows me to play with them and think about them and mix them up and see how they react with each other.
RUDICK: In getting closer to those forces, do you think you’ve come to understand them better?
WOODRING: I don’t understand them at all. Well, not through my work, anyway. I think that everybody has a different way of understanding what’s going on, and probably, as much as we can understand, we don’t get very close to the truth. Some people like to think of the universe as a machine, some people like to think of it as an entity, some people can’t comprehend concept of a moral universe. I can. It makes perfect sense to me, that morality is something that exists innately like consciousness, and that concept helps me to understand things. I feel that all the answers exist, for me, in seeing the universe as an entity in seed form. The answers exist in there.
RUDICK: Does your work try to describe an aspect of reality?
WOODRING: I wouldn’t say it tries to describe it. I’d just say that it just enjoys thinking about it, pondering it. Pondering it is no little thing. In Christianity, what God thinks about you doesn’t matter. It’s what you think about God. God will just stand by and wait for you to make the right decision, which will affect you, Christians believe, for eternity. That’s a very heavy thought. The power of pondering turns out to be infinite and eternal. It exists in Hinduism, which is my own discipline, in a different way—the more time you spend thinking about God, mediating on God, talking with God, relating to God, the more aware of God you become. You would think that if God wanted you to know these things, you would just know them. It’s interesting to think that you can develop a capacity for having spiritual experiences.
RUDICK: You practice Vedanta. Are there specific ideas from that set of beliefs that inform your stories?
WOODRING: In Weathercraft, there are overt references to Vedanta. In fact, in Weathercraft there’s an om, the little Sanskrit symbol for God, worked into the line work on every page. There are a hundred oms in the pages of Weathercraft, an overtly Vedantic story. One of the themes in Weathercraft is that art is like drugs—it will show you places but it won’t get you there. There’s a strong drug reference that runs through Weathercraft. The creature that Whim morphs into or combines with is a Salvia divinorum plant, a shamanistic plant. They say it’s the most powerful naturally occurring hallucinogen, and I believe it. It’s very powerful and very unpleasant and very alien, and that’s what I used as a symbol for the drug experience. It’s the idea that if you’re interested in art because it has a profound meaning for you, the time comes when you need to step away from the art and address that meaning directly.
RUDICK: You have to step away from the drugs or the art in order to find your own path?
WOODRING: Yeah, exactly.
RUDICK: Your introduction to Kenneth Patchen’s The Walking-away World is intriguing. It often feels as though you’re writing about yourself. You say of the poet, for instance, “He saw light in divinity and darkness in man” and that “he saw God everywhere” but “could take no comfort in a promise of Heaven.” The same could be said of you, couldn’t it?
WOODRING: No, I don’t think that’s the case. He suffered so much more than I have, and I think he was more morally evolved, and more outraged at the presence of evil, so he took a much bleaker view of the world and of humanity than I do. I think he couldn’t reconcile the horrors of life with the goodness of life, and I can. I think that conflict really bothered him tremendously. That’s what a lot of his work is about. That collection of his drawings called But Even So is an expression of the way things don’t come together for him. Oil and water, good and bad—it’s as if he refused to accept evil as having a natural place in the world.
RUDICK: In one of the poems, he writes, “The world is nothing that can be known / In the shadow we shall see the color of God’s eyes again.” Is God in your work?
WOODRING: If he is, it’s not because I put him there. When someone asks me if I believe in God, I say, “That’s like asking, ‘Is it a fast car?’” You can’t answer that question until there is a mutual understanding of what those words—you, believe, God—mean. I don’t know how Patchen felt about God, for all he invoked the word. His work is so secular, there’s so much protest in it, so much social politics in it, as if he felt he had to be a crusader against cruelty and sadness and bad behavior. I’ve never felt that was my job.
RUDICK: If we defined God as a form of self-realization about the nature of reality and it’s illusory quality, would you say that’s what you explore in your work?
WOODRING: From my standpoint, the existence of God is a given. My work is about the observable phenomenon, which has various layers of things hidden behind it. God is something I can’t begin to have anything to say about. It’s just way too big, and I just don’t understand anything about it. In between the concept of God as the ultimate realm of being and the world we can see and understand, there are infinite steps. You can rise above where you are at any given point and see a little more evidence of God, if you want to. There are a lot of things we don’t see and we don’t understand that are subtle and superior to our lives and our situations, but that are not anything near the ultimate experience of God. They’re just intermediate forces. My work is about intermediate, invisible forces.