Sunday, July 26, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with G.C. Waldrep

G.C. Waldrep is the author of three full-length collections of poems--Goldbeater's Skin (Colorado Prize, 2003); Disclamor (BOA Editions, 2007); and Archicembalo (Tupelo Press, 2009: winner of the Dorset Prize, judged by C.D. Wright)--as well as two chapbooks, The Batteries (New Michigan Press, 2004) and One Way No Exit (Tarpaulin Sky, 2008). His work has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, and the Campbell Corner Foundation, as well as a Pushcart Prize, a Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative Poetry, and residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. He was a 2007 fellow in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. He currently lives in Lewisburg, Pa., and teaches at Bucknell University.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Goldbeater’s Skin brought with it a strange sense of the public that I had not experienced—not in terms of my work—over the course of the eight preceding years, since I’d been writing poems and even since I’d begun to publish in journals. The book was a made thing, both an object in its own right and a collection of texts that were familiar to me, that were in their small ways like children. For the first several weeks I kept moving the book around my apartment, taking it with me in my bag to work, etc., thinking about the sheer physicality of it—and also about the fact that other people were experiencing it in this same, physical way, whether or not they had any prior acquaintance with the poems. What I am saying, I guess, is that in its physicality the book created a site, a public space for the work that had not existed before.

Newer work: for me, each project or lyric impulse is different. Sometimes the result is a full- or chapbook-length manuscript, sometimes not even that. Some impulses are cul-de-sacs, and some are ghosts—or are inhabited by ghosts, that is to say other voices. In practice it amounts to the same thing.

I began work on Archicembalo (my most recent book, released by Tupelo Press in April 2009) in December 2002, just as I was finishing Goldbeater’s Skin (which at the time hadn’t yet found a publisher). I was reading Stein and Berssenbrugge and Geoffrey Hill and thinking a lot about music—my original arts training was all in music, rather than literature—and wondering what a poetics grounded in music theory would constitute. The poems are essentially prose poems, but they exist in a kind of musical space—if not a rhymed or metered space, then at least a space with duration and (im)pulse, with assonance and alliteration, a music of the mind. I wanted to write poems about music on music’s terms. Much later, when Tupelo asked me to summarize Archicembalo, the only thing I could come up with was a question: “What does it mean to listen to poems the way poems listen to paintings?” This isn’t quite right, but it’s close.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I’m not sure. As a young person, in high school and college, I wanted nothing but to be a fiction writer, in the mold of my heroes: Faulkner, Welty, Warren, O’Connor. I wrote some poetry on the side—bad poetry. And very bad fiction too, as it turned out.

I started writing seriously in the spring of 1995 as I was making the decision to leave academia—I had earned a Ph.D. in U.S. history—for life in a small Amish community. It was a surprise to me then, and it’s a surprise to me now. I do subscribe to the practice of poetry in vocational terms—Flannery O’Connor’s sense of writing as a spiritual vocation—but each poem remains for me an act of intuition. I’m never more than a line or two ahead of myself in the compositional moment. If I know ahead of time what I want to say, it comes out as prose.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

It varies. In general my poems come quickly, when they come at all. With one exception—the “Batteries” sequence from my second book, Disclamor, which was designed to accrue in duration, to take place compositionally over a longer time span—I’ve never spent more than one hour drafting a lyric poem, or a few hours on a long poem. I have to find my way into and then out of the lyric space of the poem in a single sitting. If I’m interrupted, that’s usually it. It’s easier for me to start a new poem than it is to re-enter that generative compositional space.

All but a handful of my lyric poems have been through-composed at one sitting. I revise obsessively, but revision is usually more a matter of re-visioning, of trying to see the poem in fresh light and then make small changes (line breaks, quick tucks or additions) accordingly. I rarely make major structural changes to poems after the first few hours or days, though I do linger over the finer points of each gesture and music for months, years even.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Never with an idea. Sometimes with an image (ekphrasis), but more often—most often—with a shred of language, something I overhear in public or something I pull from my own unconscious. More than a few poems have originated in creative misreadings: I have keratoconus in both eyes, and the distortion sometimes catches me off guard. Felix culpa.
I usually have at least two manuscripts-in-progress on my desk at any given time. One is a “project” book—a sequence or series that is governed by some sort of rubric, some explicit, overarching subject matter or compositional strategy. Archicembalo was a project book. The other manuscript is composed of discrete poems that either do or don’t convoke some sort of constellating energy as they accumulate.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I wouldn’t say readings have anything to do with my “creative process,” though I don’t mind them. Sometimes I even enjoy them. Since my original arts training was in music—as a singer—I do believe the poem is in part a text that demands vocal expression: that wants to live in or on the tongue. On the other hand, the poem is also and simultaneously a meditative object, something on the page that works in the intimate, even private space between writer and reader. Some poems are more one than the other. The poems in Archicembalo, for instance, feel very intimate, at least to me. I’ve only read from this manuscript once in public up to now.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

No, or not in terms of what we usually mean by “theoretical.” The terms of my concern are affective and theological, which is to say, formal. Part of the writing process is discovering what the questions are in the act of intuiting the answers.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

The role of the writer in any culture, past or present, is to write. For me, this implies both a sustained engagement with the writer’s world and a position from which that engagement can take place. Different writers claim or acquire different positions, different engagements.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

It depends on the editor. Confronting an Other on the grounds of one’s own, intimate work is necessarily bracing. When we were finalizing my second book, for instance, I argued that the manuscript was too long—that it needed to be trimmed. My editor agreed. But when we sat down together with our lists of poems we each thought were good candidates for cutting, we discovered the lists were mutually exclusive, almost to the poem. We had the same manuscript before us, but we were perceiving, through that manuscript, wildly different cores.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Doesn’t that change over the course of a writer’s life? I circle back to so many bits, some from living poets and friends, others from our inheritance, the literature. For instance, this exchange, translated and paraphrased from Jose Saramago’s Blindness:

—Do you mean that we have more words than we need.

—I mean, we have too few feelings.

Or this, from the painter Mark Rothko: “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token.”

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I can’t do it. Either I am writing prose or I am writing poetry. There is a switch in the mind.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

A difficult question. I returned to full-time teaching (after more than a decade away) in mid-2005 and have not yet recovered a rhythm of regular writing. Generally, though, I write at night, between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.—when I write at all. (An exception: in transit. I write on buses, on trains and planes and in airports and stations, any hour of the day.)

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

There are writers I can return to with pleasure, at any moment, and read seriatim. Some of these also perform in this generative office. For instance, I can read any five consecutive pages of Stein or Jabes and find myself writing again, toward or away from what I’ve just read. Often, the results sound nothing like Stein or Jabes—but somehow the chemistry is always there.

13 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?

It would depend on what sort of fire. (There is always some sort of fire.)

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Often visual art. I haunt MoMA and the Museum of American Folk Art when I am in New York City. But music even more so. The terms of my critical training, including my reading, remain grounded in music. You might say that for me poetry is essentially synaesthetic.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

For the work: Faulkner, O’Connor, Warren, Welty. Always Stein, always Hopkins, always Milosz. Christopher Smart. Edmond Jabes. Raul Zurita. Jack Spicer. Geoffrey Hill. John Taggart seems important to me right now, and Anne Carson. Rosmarie Waldrop. George Oppen comes and goes, as a sort of prick to the lyric conscience.

The Christian Bible is, for me, an ambient, living text. By which I mean it forms a sort of substratum of affect and reference. I belong to a conservative Anabaptist denomination, meaning there is a daily sense in which both my life and my work are in dialogue with that language, that narrative, that particular tradition of making and discipleship. I don’t think a reader has to share in that tradition in order to enter or appreciate the poems, but it is essential to my own reading, my own writing.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

In spite of my Southern roots I have never written explicitly from or towards that past. I was the last generation to remember de jure racial segregation in the South—to see the last of the signs go down, to witness school integration in southside Virginia during the early 1970s (following the campaigns of so-called “massive resistance” and “freedom of choice”). The world I grew up in—where the descendants of slaves still lived in cabins without plumbing or electricity on lands held by descendants of slaveowners; where poor whites lived in company towns—is completely gone now. I mean the infrastructure (grounded in tobacco monoculture and the textile and furniture industries), the economic and legal underpinnings of class and race. Even the landscape has changed, as tobacco fields grow up in pine or get plowed under for new forms of economic development and the old mills and villages are razed. It’s not that there is no there there, as Stein said of Oakland; it’s as if the there in question never existed. It has all become a sort of dark fairytale, and it has taken both the good and the bad of my childhood with it.

As a historian I once wrote a monograph about the transformation of life in and around the Southern textile mills, but I’ve never found the language or form to address these transformations on a more personal level.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

If I had it all to do over again, I would retrain as a plumber. No, I am not joking.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

See #2 above. When in 1995 I made my decision to leave academia—after eight years of preparing for nothing but that—in order to join the Amish, something happened. As decisions go this one was joyful: the freedom of choice it represented to me, both spiritual and practical, seemed large. And yet it did mark a major break. I’ve theorized often, and elsewhere, that poetry emerged at precisely that moment in a subconscious response to that decision, that change: “This is my letter to the world / That never wrote to me,” Emily Dickinson says.

I prefer to see a theological element in the writing. For me, as a believer, it is not the same thing as prayer, but it emanates from a space adjacent to where prayer resides. It’s as if the two shared apartments on the same floor of a building, with no discernible door or other connection between them, but such that each occasionally hears, in its muffled and fragmentary way, sounds from adjacent rooms, other apartments, halls and corridors to which it has no physical access.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Great book: probably Alice Notley’s In the Pines, though others might not find it so. New encounters with divers old friends, including Spicer, Cesaire, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Saramago, Kadare, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, et al. Some Tzara and Char. One measure of “greatness” in literature is that as we grow and change—and as cultures evolve—the works grow and change with us. They are larger than we are, in our momentary capacities.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I just finished a collaborative manuscript with the poet John Gallaher, tentatively entitled Your Father on the Train of Ghosts. It is very different from anything I have worked on or published before. What comes next: I have never really brought together my prior academic training as a historian and my work as a poet. I want to try to write around the life of my great-grandmother, which is filled with lacunae: pregnant as a young girl, thrown out of her family, living on her own in various jobs across the northeast and Midwest, eventually settling down to become, of all things, a Christian Science doyenne. Her life was extensive and improbable, and she made up great chunks of it as she went along. Can flesh be made word, rest, jib, answer.

12 or 20 questions archive (second series);

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