from Hayden's Ferry Review, Fall / Winter 2011
G. C. Waldrep is the author of four full-length collections of poetry, most recently Your Father on the Train of Ghosts (in collaboration with John Gallaher). His work has appeared in recent issues of New American Writing, The Nation, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, Tin House, and other journals. He lives in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and teaches at Bucknell University. He also serves as Editor-at-Large for The Kenyon Review. This interview took place in April 2011.
How did you start writing poetry, and who are some of your earliest and most significant influences?
I wrote a little poetry as an adolescent, but my real aspirations then were in fiction: to follow in the footsteps of Faulkner, O'Connor, Welty, Warren, and McCullers, then the stars in my literary sky. I grew up in a small Southern town on the tail end of desegregation, and I wanted somehow to move the style and focus of Southern writing—Faulkner's rich signature style, together with O'Connor's exacting focus—into that milieu of disruption and change. I failed, more or less extravagantly.
Much later, after I'd returned to the South (I was living just outside Milton, N.C., a scant half hour from where I'd grown up), I started writing again, this time primarily as a poet. Why poetry, rather than fiction? I'm not sure. I was working as a baker then, and much of what I read I read between tasks in my bakery. Certainly reading a poem between risings or kneadings or batches of bread in the oven was safer than, say, sinking into a good novel, or even a short story (because if it was too good, I would fall into it and forget what I was supposed to be doing, but if it was bad, I risked falling asleep—I often worked through the night, then—which was worse).
My reconnaissance of contemporary poetry began with the Southern poets: Warren (the only serious poetry I'd read as a teen), and then a handful of more contemporary poets like James Seay, David Bottoms, and Betty Adcock. Ron Rash, Kathryn Stripling Byer. From them, with the help of UNC-Chapel Hill's library, I expanded outward. I found Ammons, and William Stafford (who I spent several years imitating before I realized Stafford had spent many years imitating himself, so there was no need). I also read the early volumes of the Best American Poetry series, which constituted a quixotic education in their own right. I remember exactly where I was standing (or sitting)—in my bakery—when I first read Carl Phillips's "As from a Quiver of Arrows" and Brigit Pegeen Kelly's "All Wild Animals Were Once Called Deer."
We don't always get to pick our influences, you know. But it was Kelly's work that first made me want to drop other interests and make poetry a sustained and integral part of my life.
I live in the South now and hear a lot about certain attributes and peculiarities to "Southern writing," such as the Southern Gothic mood. Do you feel your inventory of Southern writers, even the fiction, has had any lasting influence on your poetry?
I'm sure it has, although I'd be hard-pressed to say how. The relationship between any sort of formally inventive poetry and the Southern experience, as we've come to understand it, is tenuous, nearly to the point of nonexistence. Why is that? Is it because Faulkner sucked up all the oxygen at the apex of High Modernism? I look at C.D. Wright's Deepstep Come Shining and feel as if it were an outlier from a tradition that never quite developed.
What attracted you to surrealism? A certain writer, perhaps, or do you think it more of your temperament?
I'm interested in the various economies of the human imagination. I came to Surrealism late—in the early 2000s—at a moment when I felt possibility had all but been wrung out of the confessional and anecdotal lyrics that dominated American poetry in the 1970s-80s. What Surrealism emphasizes, of course, is the possible: the Marvelous, as Breton put it.
"What is still possible?" has been for me, for many years now, a sort of aesthetic mantra. The Surrealists, and their predecessors, the Dadaists, asked this question over and over again: in art, in politics, in life. Or, to quote from the famous exchange between Lewis Carroll's Alice and Humpty-Dumpty, "The question is ... which is to be master—that's all."
Why do you think surrealism—and not to contextualize that term in any way with the historical context of Breton and so on—has made such a resurgence in literature in the past few decades?
For the same reasons which produced it in the early 1920s: political exigency, combined with aesthetic and emotional exhaustion.
What is your approach to the political? I'm thinking of Trakl or Celan, whose approach to politics was one of feeling, or to be more precise, the expression of a particular feeling of what it was to be in that time in contrast to an explicit statement on politics, such as Yeats did in his middle years.
To choose to live, in faith or in art—to make an intentional, sustained choice—is a political act. The life is a statement, and the work is a statement: twinned sides of a coin, or a moon.
As for "explicit," I am living and writing as explicitly as I know how.
What kind of poetry do you find most important right now? Why?
Aesthetically, I appreciate work from many camps and traditions. There are a few more aesthetically conservative poets writing now whose work I admire (Rick Barot, Matt Donovan, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, B.H. Fairchild), although in general I tend to like more complexity—of affect and language—than most narrative poetry affords. The living poets I return to most often are Carl Phillips, Brigit Kelly, Anne Carson, John Taggart, Alice Notley, and Geoffrey Hill.
Hovering just past the far edge of the living: Darwish and Milosz, and Gustaf Sobin.
"Important"? It is all important. We live in bodies, we are ambulatory, we possess—each one of us—the capacity to harm. In this context choice is what matters.
Where do you think your poems come from? Whereas some earlier poems seem to come directly from a real life on the earth, your newer poems draw more and more from the imagination. What, to you, is the relationship between the two?
There is Spicer's answer, that true poetry comes from outside—from the Martians, or else from the ghosts—his Low Ghost (play on logos). One could argue for that Logos. Certainly I would, in theological terms.
Your question presupposes, in part, a dichotomy—or at least a fundamental divide—between "real life on this earth" and the life of the mind, of the imagination. I reject this. The imagination is continuous with "real life"; it is an integral component of real life. As Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge writes, "If I imagine a ghost or a deer, both are true."
Spicer is obviously wildly popular today. Not to beg the question, but what makes Spicer so suddenly attractive? I myself read him quite a bit in the past half-year and know what I took away from him that was most valuable, not only in technique but theme. What about you?
I could just say that the ghosts are out there, and they are restless. Or I could point to Spicer's troubled publication history: his work was unavailable for a long time, while a few poets carried torches for him. Now it is available again, and it has zealous advocates.
I think it's Spicer's lectures that move me most: his blend of sharpness (of mind—an Oppen-like "clarity") and his unabashed visionary openness. He does not take himself very seriously. He takes poetry very seriously indeed.
I'd like to talk about a specific mode you've frequently used, one which I've been interested in a long time: the prose poem. The definition alone seems never to be agreed upon, but what is a prose poem to you? Under what circumstances do you make use of it?
I have no idea what a prose poem is. I'm not even sure that Archicembalo is a work of prose poetry, although it is frequently cited as such. I wrote Archicembalo in prose blocks because I was attempting—or exploring—the idea of approximating musical effects in language. Line and stanza breaks actually impeded what I was trying to do, so I went with lyrical prose.
I've also written fables, which seem to be a sub- or trans-species of prose poem, as well as pieces in short prose strophes that may be essays. I think perhaps they are essays, although they've been published as both poems and fiction.
Poetic form for me is generally intuitive: within a few words of starting a poem, or even trying to start a poem, I have some idea of its shape, its shapeliness.
Recently you gave your AWP talk on spirituality in poetry. What was the talk about? How was it received? Tell me a bit about it, the other participants, all of it.
I was interested, at the time, primarily in poetry and faith as complementary, even imbricating architectures. But Kazim Ali was interested in performance and Bhanu Kapil wanted to write about Tarot reading as spiritual/poetic practice and Catherine Imbriglio was trying to explore ideas of God through off-rhyme ... etc. Since all four of us improvised, to a certain extent, in the event, and the panel was not recorded, I can't be 100% sure what we did say.
What has remained with me, though, is a question from the audience from a young man who feared the formal innovation of his poetry was driving him further away from the spiritual community in which he felt rooted. Bhanu Kapil answered. Essentially (as I recollect) she said that the bridge between the self and a community is not language, but the body: that if one is committed to community—both in theory and in fact—with the body, then the forms of connection (including language, including "difficult" poetry) will follow. And if one is not, well then one is not, and no amount of versification is going to make up for that distance.
This is a beautiful and challenging summation of how aesthetics, faith, community, and gesture approach one another, in spite of the distorted mirrors our minds and bodies make.
What, to you, is spirituality? And what is spirituality in poetry?
I can only answer this question as a Christian, as a Christian of a very particular (devout, indeed sectarian) flavor. To me, "spirituality" is a disciplined, passionate (in both senses of that ancient word) life in Christ, and in the community of believers which constitute Christ's bride. YMMV, as the children say.
I'm not sure what "spirituality" is or can be in poetry, qua poetry. I accept William Carlos Williams's basic definition of a poem as "a machine made of words" (although it can of course also be other things, perform other functions, in other offices, depending on the poem and the occasion). Flannery O'Connor argued that "spirituality" inhered in the writer, not in the text.
How does spirituality play itself out in your poetry?
At the base level, I suppose it extends through form (the hymn and its discontents, as a school or subset of poetic form) and through allusion (scriptural references). Conceptually, I take my cues from the Christian tradition of the parable—although not every poem of mine is a parable (far from it). Faith is real, to me: as real as anything else in this life, as real as (for instance) the imagination. Indeed, one can view the imagination as the necessary backdrop against which the inner and external lives play.
You've made an astonishing adoption of an Amish lifestyle. How does this affect not only your poetry, but your life? I confess I'm thinking of Wendell Berry here, a man who lives close to the life he feels he is bound to morally live, and of course all of his writing emerges from that. How does this happen with you?
I joined a Mennonite congregation in 1992, then stepped back into an Amish community in 1995. That community disbanded over the winter of 2000-01, although I remained Amish for all intents and purposes (including adherence to my district's ordnung) until 2005, when I reaffiliated with a related group, the Old Order River Brethren. Of which I remain a member.
It's funny you should mention Berry, because I was reading quite a bit of him in the early 1990s: he was influential (alongside Thomas Merton, his sometime friend) in lending me the courage I needed to step away from the life I was then planning and leading to a more serious faith commitment, a life-changing and -shaping commitment.
Since my return to creative writing as an adult coincided with this move, these choices, I can't really separate the two. They have always been intertwined for me.
What, finally, is the relationship between the life a poet lives and the life they live through their poetry?
It is not a "relationship." Life and art constitute a unity. To live otherwise is dangerous, for you and for those about you.
I'd like to talk now about your newest book, Your Father on the Train of Ghosts. Explain a bit about the book and how it came about.
John Gallaher and I started writing poems back and forth in February 2008, right after the 2008 AWP convention. We weren't friends, really—not yet—but we were on the cusp of friendship. As I remember it, John wanted to start a conversation about aesthetics, but I was resistant, because I had just lost a close and dear friendship to that same sort of conversation. So he wrote me a few long e-mails about contemporary poetry, and I responded with poems—sometimes reincorporating language from his e-mails. Eventually John wrote a poem back to one of my poems, and off we went.
We wrote back and forth, call and response, for eight months in 2008 and then (after a break) for another four months in the spring of 2009. All in all we wrote 400-odd poems—more than 700 pages of material—before pulling back, winnowing, and editing the results. The book contains 140 poems, I think—70 from each of us.
Although we published individual poems under our own names in journals, we decided to place both our names on the cover of the book and not indicate which poems were whose. We were drawn by the development of a third voice, neither my usual voice nor John's (although the governing voice in YFOTTOG is in fact closer to John's usual idiom than to mine). Readers are free to play a guessing game about authorship, of course, if they want, but that's not what was important or interesting to us, either in the writing or in the editing.
Collaboration is obviously increasing in, for lack of a better term, popularity—certainly it is a style unto itself. What does collaboration mean to you? As a poet, what does it bring out in you?
John and I blogged about the project and the book for Publishers Weekly in April, and I think the best answer I can come up with is one I wrote in that context:
For me, the origin of Your Father on the Train of Ghosts was a set of largely inchoate ideas about poetry and community—about art and life. It seemed to me that we were all still mired, largely, in a Romantic conception of the poet as a solitary singer: that poetry, from both a writer's and a reader's standpoint, was something isolated and isolating. But this wasn't how the Dadaists and Surrealists viewed it. As someone who has committed his life to a certain ideal of community outside the classroom and written page, the presumption bothered me. What sort of poetry might arise out of collaboration, that is, artistic community? Out of friendship?
It's a question I'm still pondering, even after the 16 months of poetic exchanges from which YFOTTOG was sculpted. Can reading and writing be public / collective / collaborative acts? Rather than personal / private / individual? What sort of literature—what sort of poetry—might result if they were?
I also like the way John ended our little dialogue for PW:
Now we're back to waiting, and one of the definitions of poetry. So is that how it ends, then? They wait? Or we do? Either way, I would suggest collaboration, and others would as well, as I'm seeing more collaborations these days. It must be something in the water. Maybe that's one of the things about long exposure to fluoridation the Keep America Committee tried to warn us about.
But at least when you collaborate, you don't have to wait alone.
Thematically, what is it you found yourself consumed by in the writing of these poems?
At one point, we described the book as "a user-friendly self-help manual for the end of time." As we edited and winnowed, shaped and rearranged, we saw many themes iridescing in the water. War, the environment, faith. Love and loneliness. And of course the Jungian counters that we—sometimes I, sometimes John, sometimes both of us—kept inserting: museums, trains, fathers. Hands, fire, ghosts. Cosmology and medical experiments. Parades.
Lastly, what is it, in the end, that you are trying to do with poetry? Are you trying to accomplish anything, find anything, define anything? Or is it largely a discovery, a kind of spirituality of language, or just something you are compelled to do?
I am much, much more interested in the question of what poetry is trying to do with me. If one accepts Spicer's basic argument—that we are instruments—then the most one can do is try to remain open, receptive, flexible. Pay attention. Listen.
I hardly ever know what I am going to write more than a line or two before writing (if that; sometimes it's a real tightrope shuffle, word by word). For me, the joy of composition lies precisely in discovery: I don't know what I mean until I see what I say, as the old saw maintains.
As for the spiritual, G. K. Chesterton put it this way: "It is not a question of Theology. It is a question of whether, placed as sentinel of an unknown watch, you will whistle or not."
About the Interviewer
Sean Patrick Hill is the author of The Imagined Field (Paper Kite Press) and Interstitial (BlazeVOX). He was recently awarded a Zoland Fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center and is currently attending the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. He lives in Kentucky.
Arizona State University
Poetry Editors: Dexter Booth, Hugh Martin
Prose Editors: Laura Ashworth, Kent Corbin
Managing Editor: Beth Staples