After encountering G.C. Waldrep’s stunning new poems, we caught up with him to ask a few questions. Because he currently teaches at Bucknell University (and because Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, is many, many miles away from Albuquerque), we corresponded over e-mail, where Waldrep kindly indulged our curiosities about aesthetics, process, and poetry-at-large. Be sure to check out his recently released collection Susquehanna, which came out in April of 2013.
Blue Mesa Review: Your work seems to, at times, engage in an aesthetic conversation between lyric and narrative poetry. For example, in the poem “Varieties of Religious Experience,” the speaker says, “My companion whistles beside me. / He is an optimist, committed to narrative and therefore / the possibility of redemption. I envy him,” which suggests a tension between the two. Can you talk about that tension and perhaps where you might situate your own work along that lyric/narrative continuum?
G.C. Waldrep: I think of my work as essentially lyrical — and it has become much more so since “Varieties of Religious Experience,” which I wrote in 2001. Narrative is one infrastructure that can support the lyric, but it’s not the only one; I’m interested in others. My artistic training was in vocal music, not literature, and so the music of our language is (or can be) another infrastructure, another way for the lyric to body forth. It’s not so much that I’m opposed to traditional narrative in poetry as I am deeply doubtful of, even bored with, the rather prosaic details of my own existence. When I do write a self-consciously narrative poem, it’s either rooted in a strong dream narrative, or else in a particular bit of externally verifiable autobiography that won’t let me go.
BMR: I am curious how you approach form. Your last collection, Archicembalo, was such a cohesive and unique project. Can you tell us a little bit about where the inspiration for that collection came from, and the process of deciding on its form and structure?
GCW: Archicembalo began as an experiment, in late 2002. On the one hand, I was reading a lot of Gertrude Stein. For all the musicality of her language, Stein did not care nearly as much for music as she did for literature and the visual arts, about which she wrote continuously. I wondered what a “Steinian” take on music, music theory, and music history might sound like. On the other hand, my arts training in music wasn’t leaving my poetry alone, and rather than have it keep infiltrating poems that had nothing to do with music per se, I decided to let that part of me have its full expression, to see where it might lead.
Interestingly, although Archicembalo received some gratifying attention as a work of prose poetry, I never thought of the poems as prose poems. I tended to think of the paragraphs as “strophes,” representing a single, wrapped long line. I was very conscious of rhythm and sound when working on them — at one time I could actually conduct them, in shifting time signatures.
BMR: The three poems in the current issue of BMR are prose poems. Is that a form you are exploring for a future collection or was it content that drew you toward that particular form?
GCW: Those three actually are prose poems! In 2004, I started writing a series of prose squibs, again as an experiment, or exercise. I thought forcing myself to write one a day, for five minutes — pen (or keyboard) down, then up — might be interesting, perhaps in a Jungian sense. For a while I did this every night at precisely the same time (8:32 p.m.), regardless of where I was or whom I was with. I never thought I would publish them, but in 2005 the Black Warrior Review asked me for a chapbook manuscript, and I sent them what I had and they generously published a selection.
I don’t work on them as regularly or programmatically now, but it’s still an impulse I recognize and, from time to time, pursue, often in between other projects. Someday I will put together a manuscript of them, but not yet.
BMR: Your Father on the Train of Ghosts is a stunning collaboration between you and John Gallaher. How do two poets co-write a book? Are there poems that are co-written or are you both represented separately? When it was finished, did it resemble your original vision of the project?
GCW: John and I have talked about this quite a lot. There’s a series of blog posts we did for our publisher, BOA Editions, and another for Craig Morgan Teicher’s PWxyz blog at Publishers Weekly. We discuss how the project got started there, and our (very different!) “original visions” for what we might achieve via collaboration. It was a wonderful way to be friends, for 16 months.
The poems are all either by me or by John; we wrote them call-and-response, poem to poem. But we edited them collaboratively too, to the point that we sometimes forgot who originally wrote a given poem. (The collaborative editing was much, much harder than the initial creative generation.) Originally the poems alternated between us, but as we winnowed 700+ pages, the one-to-one correspondence gradually eroded. We decided not to say, in the book, who wrote what because we were frankly more interested in the “third voice” that seemed to develop.
BMR: When speaking with poets I often find that they have their own “writing rules,” craft axioms they pass on to their students and apply to their own work. If you had to name three “dos” or “don’ts,” what would they be?
GCW: Hmmmm. Prescriptive advice is always difficult. One thing I do tell my students is that giving yourself the freedom to write — which includes writing badly — is important. So many talented writers I know suffer from various forms of writer’s block, a cruel affliction that is often traceable back to some inflexible idea or ideas about what the final product must resemble. I myself went through that for years. It’s much easier, more pleasant, and more surprising to let the writing happen on the writing’s terms, and see where that takes you. But you have to write to do that: you have to find or make the time and generate the text, one way or another.
Giving oneself the permission to explore — to write badly — is a great help, in the short run. In the long run, one can revise, critique, self-analyze, etc. (In the longer run, we die.)
What else? OK, don’t use the word “plop.” I hate the word “plop.” All other words in the language are eminently suitable for poetry, in various modes, but not “plop.”
And I do believe all that Richard Hugo goes on about concerning the “triggering subject” vs. the “real subject.” We write from what we know (or think we know) into the unknown, often into what we don’t even know we don’t yet know. That’s part of the pleasure and excitement.
BMR: Who are your favorite contemporary poets?
GCW: Some essential voices, among the living and in the generation(s) ahead of me: Anne Carson, Carl Phillips, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Alice Notley, Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, and the British poets Peter Larkin, Alice Oswald, and Geoffrey Hill. Of the recently dead, Gustaf Sobin, Czeslaw Milosz, and Mahmoud Darwish. I spent last summer immersed in the late poems of the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas and the Russian-Chuvash poet Gennady Aygi: I’d liked both poets in the past, but somehow reading them in tandem made me love each of them even more. (I strongly recommend Aygi’s Field-Russia, from New Directions.)
Or these are the ones that come to immediate mind. This changes, of course, over time and circumstance: some poems and poets seem essential and important at various junctures in one’s life, while others accompany one throughout a life.
BMR: What are the best books of poetry you have come across recently?
GCW: In terms of books I’ve encountered in the past year that have excited me: definitely Marosa di Giorgio’s Diadem: Selected Poems, in translation from BOA Editions. Di Giorgio was a 20th-century Uruguayan poet whose work I had previously not known. I also really enjoyed Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal, a debut collection by a young British poet; Cole Swensen’s Gravesend; Bruce Beasley’s Theophobia; Cal Bedient’s The Multiple; Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water; and Aaron McCollough’s No Grave Can Hold My Body Down. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Arthur Sze both have new books coming out soon that I’m excited about.