Face of Columbus: Scott Woods

Andy Downing

Scott Woods rarely walks a linear path.

No matter what role he happens to be adopting — poet, author, cultural critic, event mastermind, etc. — it's impossible to predict how he'll come at a given subject, and his takes are generally imbued with rich layers of meaning that demand deeper excavation. This is true whether he's dissecting the work of horror writer Stephen King in a lecture, performing a solo 24-hour poetry reading or hosting any of a growing number of arts events under his Streetlight Guild umbrella. And it's entirely purposeful.

“I'm drawn to art that challenges me on multiple levels because, to me, that's the art that best reflects how we live. No one lives on one level. The most racist person is still astoundingly complex,” Woods said. “I'm a social scientist. I look at something that's there, that we can all see, and then I look to the left of it. And that's what I pursue. That's where the new information is. That's where the answers are.”

Woods, who was born on an Air Force base in Barksdale, Louisiana, and grew up in Columbus, can trace this thirst for knowledge to childhood. Growing up, he'd pilfer from his two older brothers, reading everything he could get his hands on, from encyclopedias to the works of the aforementioned King. Perhaps more influential, though, were the records he borrowed from the pair, whose divergent musical tastes served as an early example of the human dichotomy Woods still finds pleasure in exploring (one brother filled his collection with white folk and rock artists, while the other gravitated toward black soul, R&B and funk acts).

Of these records, none cast a longer shadow than Stevie Wonder's 1973 album,Innervisions.

“Just the cover of that album ruined my childhood. It was the most frightening album I'd ever seen. But when you put it on, it had the most beautiful, haunting music. And the juxtaposition of those two things completely messed me up as a child, in all the right ways,” Woods said. “I was constantly looking for beauty in ugliness and ugliness in beauty — all that conflict. … It showed me how powerful art can be.”

Early on, Woods experimented with all forms of artistic expression, eventually landing on the written word as his primary means of exploration, because, as he explained, “It was the one thing that when I did it, people responded.” But while Woods grew up in a house filled with books (his mother was a teacher, after all), it wasn't until he visited the Ohio State University library as a freshman that he started to fully grasp the power words could wield.

“Walking through the stacks and seeing old thesis papers and books that are nowhere else in the country, it completely blew my mind,” said Woods, who attended OSU for two quarters before being expelled for poor grades. (He later took classes at Columbus State Community College but never completed a degree.) The experience also planted a seed that led him to his current career as a librarian, further fueled by that deeper, internal thirst for knowledge.

“[The library] was the fastest way for me to learn everything about the world that I needed to know,” said Woods, who recently cut back to part-time to focus more of his energy on Streetlight Guild. “Everything I wanted to do was in the library: Learn how to write. Learn about history. Learn about politics. Learn about how cities work. … Learn about racism, activism. All of it.”

Though Woods has been writing for more than 25 years, he said it's only in the last five that he has started to find his voice, explaining that “everything up to that was figuring out how to write.”

And now? “Anything beyond this point is discovering who I really am.”

Among the biggest revelations from this recent period of self-exploration was the importance of community, which has revealed itself in everything from Holler, a month-long, event-a-night dive into black arts that Woods spearheaded in March 2017, to Streetlight Guild, which recently took another evolutionary step when Woods took over a Main Street space on the East Side with an eye on hosting events.

“I have more years behind me than in front of me, so I'm at a point where I have to be producing constantly now. I need concrete things to show for what I'm doing,” Woods said. “That's why I got that building. I'm tired of telling people what to do. From here on out I just have to show people what to do.”