Monday, December 14, 2009

Coffee Chat #2: G.C. Waldrep

I'm really enjoying the "conversations" I'm having with old poetry friends and new. In many ways this blog is a way for me to feel like I have an imaginary poetry friend to talk to whenever I want, a way to combat what I call "poetic loneliness". So in this spirit, I have interviewed a dear old friend and exceptionally talented poet and thinker named G.C. Waldrep. I ask him some questions that we have mulled over for years in wonderfully long and thoughtful emails or in person at various spots around the country. All the bold are my questions or follow-up questions. If you were to get a quick peek into his brain, it might blind you.

His latest book is Archicembalo, other books are Goldbeater's Skin and Disclamor.

1. Tell me about your creative process if you have one.

My poems typically start with a fragment of language--from my own head, or overheard. (Even, sometimes, misread: I have an eye condition that causes some distortion; I get some of my best ideas or starts from misreading.) It's a little bit like finding a stray thread on a sweater, and pulling--only what you want is for the entire sweater to unravel.

I'm a night writer, by nature--8 p.m. to midnight are my best hours. I keep paper and pens by my bed. I've said elsewhere that I often lie down to sleep, turn off the light, and then have to turn it back on 2-20 minutes later, to work something out.

Typically, I have to make it through a complete draft of a poem in one sitting, if I'm to move forward with it at all. It doesn't matter whether it's a short lyric or a long sequence: if something interrupts that initial drafting, I find it much, much easier to start something new rather than return to the interrupted draft. In fact, I can only think of two poems, from the past 14 years of writing, that I broke off in that crucial initial stage and then returned to successfully at a later date.

Every now and then I try something that's consciously intended to shake up my process. The battery poems (from Disclamor) were one such project--I had writers' block, and so I assigned myself a specific set of operations in a specific landscape that I hoped would shake the muse loose. (It worked.)

2. You seem like a poet that really pushes the boundaries of your prior work and of poetry in general. Do you agree with that statement and if so, do you do that consciously? And how do you do that?

There is always boredom. I assume that if I am boring myself with my poems, I am likely boring others. So I try new things.

But--what boundaries are you talking about, specifically?

I am thinking about how you seem to have a consciousness about what kind of work that you have written in the past (or your most recent project) and a desire to sort of move away from whatever project you just did. By boundaries, I mean what you have just recently done or have done in the past. This could mean short lyrics to longer sequences, or a book-length work to accessible short lyrics, etc.

Well, there is the aforementioned boredom. But there is also, for me, a sense of the enormous possibility that exists within language--within the sum total of human literature, of which we are, moment to moment, beneficiaries.

One can always keep writing the same poem. (Many poets do.) I find it much more challenging--exciting, even--to keep trying new things, new forms, new approaches. One can always return to what one already knows how to do.

3. You have been called a "prolific" writer, as has other poets like Carl Phillips. How do you feel about the use of this term to describe you and your work?

For a long time, I not only disliked it--I rejected it. I certainly didn't feel like I was "prolific."

But the truth is that I'm one of those writers who only feels like a "real writer" when he is actually writing. I have poet-friends who can write nary a line for months at a time and feel perfectly fine about it. For me it feels like an amputation. All the time spent not writing weighs against the actual time I spend writing....

I do view writing as a spiritual vocation, in the sense that Flannery O'Connor used the term. A form of discipline, a practice. And so the pages accumulate, as artifacts of that practice if nothing else. Some seem worth sharing.

Did you reject that notion of prolific because there's almost a negative connotation associated with it? Or did you reject that notion because you don't feel prolific?

There is a negative connotation associated with it, as I've sensed when the word is applied to others, from Carl Phillips to Noah Eli Gordon. In fact, I proposed an AWP panel on this very question a year ago that would have examined "economies of scarcity and abundance in contemporary American poetry." Steve Burt was going to be on it, and Alice Quinn was going to talk about Elizabeth Bishop; I'd also been in touch with Marjorie Perloff. Alas, AWP did not find it a seductive topic.

I do think we should talk more about what it means, in our cultural moment, to "produce" a lot. Are we still mired in the romantic sensibility that since every poem must be extracted as blood from the body of the poet's experience, "prolific" is tantamount to "shallow," "facile," "inauthentic"? Less is, necessarily, more? I've also heard it said that it is "unethical" to publish so much--that in doing so one is "taking space (or opportunities) away" from other poets. Is this true?

And I once heard a close friend say "Oh, Carl Phillips, he writes so much, I couldn't keep up with a book every year, so I just quit reading him altogether." Is it about the finitude of our attention spans? What, exactly?

4. It seems like we live in a culture that is enamored with "backgrounds," for example, a writer who lost all of his/her parents; a writer who is blind; etc. etc. As someone who also has an interesting background as someone who converted to the Amish faith, what do you think about this?

Of course we're all interested in the private or semi-private details of other human beings' lives. The problem is when "background" becomes a substitute for actually reading the work. You feel you have some grasp of a poet's "background," so the work itself recedes in importance. It's the same whether one is an African American poet, Amish poet, ex-Gulag poet, etc.

What is different is how one engages, or chooses or tries not to engage, on that level. The recent brouhaha over the Dickman twins' debuts was instructive.

I'm often asked when I am going to write directly from my experience(s) as a conservative Anabaptist Christian, currently of the Old Order River Brethren persuasion. My usual response is "What makes you think I haven't?"

5. As a poet who seems equally comfortable transversing the "accessible" and the "less accessible", how aware of this are you when you are writing? Or do you not think about such things until your work is published?

Not so much, oddly enough. I'm very aware of it when I am reading--I read and enjoy quite a variety of contemporary poetry. When I am in the midst of a poem, I let the poem find its own form, its own level of "accessibility."

6. What is your view of the current poetry landscape?

I find it invigorating that there is no hegemonic style or practice or school of verse right now, at least in the USA and Canada. What others sometimes view as balkanization, I tend to see as possibility. And I am heartened indeed by the broad recent interest in poetry in translation.

I suppose if I'm weary of anything, it would be the critical/popular tendency to reduce a poet's work to an easily paraphrasable, preferably autobiographical soundbite. That some poets seem complicit with this approach makes me sad.

7. You seem like a poet who values equally the writing process and the publishing process. Do you think that is true? And can you speak more to this?
I don't value "the publishing process." What I do value is the ongoing conversation that for me constitutes "literature." Being an active part of this conversation--the ongoing, public aspect of this conversation--requires that one publish one's work.

8. Tell me about your latest project and how that came about. And what sorts of artistic challenges are you facing currently?

In 2008 and early 2009 I worked on a collaborative manuscript with John Gallaher. This involved stepping away from the increasingly dense, even impacted work I had been producing and trying to open my style--myself--up to what John was doing, on a generative level. Together we wrote 400-odd poems over 16 months. (So much for "prolific.") BOA Editions has the book that resulted, Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, under contract for an April 2011 release.

Since then I've mostly been working on shorter lyrics, as impacted as anything I've written but more slender and, I hope, more elegant--more approachable, if not more "accessible." The first of these are coming out soon in Denver Quarterly.

When I was in Scotland this past summer I also drafted a book-length long poem. I've never even attempted such a thing before. I'm more than a little afraid of it. For now I keep it under heavy wraps.

Why haven't you worked on a book-length poem in the past?

Hmmm. Because I never felt drawn to it? Because most of the examples I can think of from the Modernist heyday--from Pound's Cantos to WCW's Paterson--I regard as failures? (Splendid failures, to be sure.) Maybe because I distrusted the idea of a long argument, at least in terms of the lyric....But of course there are very good contemporary long poems too.

I guess the upshot is that I never much attempted it before because I never had anything I wanted to say--to explore--in verse that would take up space. This time I found that something--or it found me--and so.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Coffee Chat #1: Dan Beachy-Quick

One of my favorite things as a poet is to talk to other poets in person. And another favorite thing about my day job is interviewing people. Since I don't get to talk to poets in person much these days, I thought I'd interview by email some poets that I've been reading for years, those poets that have provided me with stimulation and inspiration in so many ways. This is the first of my "Coffee Chats" minus the loud music and distracting espresso noises in the background.

Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet I have loved and admired for years. What I love about his work is how it challenges me with each subsequent book. I also love his music--all of his books are exceptionally lyrical and I've learned a lot from his language. He was gracious enough to indulge my curiosities.

One of my favorite of his books is Spell and he is the author of several other wonderful books, North True South Bright, Mulberry, and his newest book, This Nest, Swift Passerine, and A Whaler's Dictionary (prose pieces, admittedly, I haven't read this though).


1. Do you have a writing process? If so, how would you characterize it? How does risking failure fit into that writing process?

I wouldn’t say that I have any writing process in particular. I should also say that whatever that process is it has also changed fairly radically over time. It also differs based on what genre I’m writing—poems and essays seem to require something different from me. For the past year or so, maybe even two years, my writing of poems has become a very slow process, but slow in the strangest of ways. I’ve forced myself not to write simply to write, and so instead wait until I hear a line—for me, almost every poem begins with a line in which I hear a kind of music inside the language. I have the archaic sense that once a line is found, once it is written down, that a certain kind of fate has begun, and that the entire poem is somehow located within the line, and my work as a writer is to be patient enough to see how that line can unfold into a poem outside the mere compulsion of my intent or will or desire for it to do so. I find myself meditating on the line at odd times until, in some unbidden sort of way, I can see a way forward, usually no more than 2 or 3 lines, and the active patience of the process begins again.

Essays seem more a full immersion into the work, a daily writing for fear I might lose the connective threads that seem to hold the thinking together. I suppose I trust a poem more to discover itself, to do its work in me rather than my doing work on it. I don’t quite have the same trust when working in prose.

As to risking failure, I think for me it is a continual resistance to working out of habit, or to return to an activity (writing) that I find pleasurable simply for the pleasure’s sake. Of course, I don’t know if “pleasurable” is how I would qualify how the work makes me feel—but it does make me feel a certain way, and rather than give in to that feeling, the compulsion toward that feeling, I tend to be skeptical of it, to resist the allure of the page, to reach that point where writing seems the inevitable outcome of whatever process endures itself through the distracted days, and then I sit down and write. I don’t know how that risks failure, save that a poem to me is never certain, that a poem undoes certainty, and in thinking about what it knows undoes what it knows. This is also to say I suspect that one cannot risk failure by intending to risk failure—it cannot be “poetic” in any normal sense of that word. Failure is something else. The possibility of giving into the gravity the poem tries to resist—save here gravity is different than the gravity we know, but is, nonetheless, a force that runs counter to the poem’s dearest trajectory, whatever that direction might be.

2. How did your latest book project (This Nest, Swift Passerine) come to be?

It’s only in hindsight that I can see This Nest, Swift Passerine as a fairly recognizable extension from the book previous, Mulberry. At the time I was writing it—some four or five years ago—it felt wholly new to me, a kind of departure and arrival at once. What concerned me was what I observed—that birds make their nests not only of some inherited innate pattern, but also that they use material not of their own making: grass, mud, spider-webs, holiday tinsel, grocery lists, and so on. I found it very moving, somehow, that their place of dwelling, and their place of song, was not in any typical way “original.”

The link that started me writing was that my own relation to language felt the same to me. I began to think of the work of the poem as the creation of place of dwelling from which it was possible to sing—the barest notion of dwelling though, one open still to the world (the world of which it is made). It also made me feel not only that language is not in the poet any sort of original work, but that my voice was formed by other voices—more, that perhaps the importance for me of being a poet isn’t in saying that which I alone can say, but to speak or sing in such a way that other voices can be heard again in the voice—my voice—they make possible. It is, in its way, a kind of Aeolian Harp, save that the lines are poetic lines rather than wires. I wanted to find a way to extend a metaphor over the course of a book, not as a cleverness, but as the essential work of mimicking in language the very thing I was trying to consider—the nest, and language as a nest. I wanted to include as honestly as I could everything that made possible the thinking I was trying to do, to interweave notions of self and other, to give as simply as possible the full difficulty.

3. Your work has evolved and taken leaps from book to book, yet you seem to retain your distinctive voice. Do you try to do this? And if so, how?

I don’t think I try to do this—maintain a consistency of voice through projects that have always felt to me to be departures from one another. But I suppose that any actual departure—a term by which I mean a willing abandonment of the ground a previous project has uncovered, and having uncovered, makes available for further use—forces one to rely more necessarily on basic resources. Voice may be one of the primary resources, not as a style, but as reduction to some fundamental need to express what one experiences in the world, a kind of witness or evidence or humble claim to existence.

4. Do you think about your audience while you write, and if so, how? And if not, why not?

I don’t. For me, the idea of an audience feels very theoretical. I am deeply grateful that anyone would read the books I write, and so, I guess, also surprised. To be read—it’s a gift. But while I’m writing I feel primarily in connection or conversation with what I’m writing, and what by writing opens up to be thought about, to be attended to. There is a compensatory nature to such work I find thrilling—a kind of reciprocity in which to think about something other than myself opens myself up in unexpected ways. (I suppose this also has something to do with the question above.) To think too much about audience risks severing the basic relation between the writer and what’s being written about. The reader, the audience, that is in this equation some unaccountable for grace, some impossible to predict gift, and I worry that to write for an audience breaks that trust or sullies that hope—that is, the hope that someone will find the work, and do so unbidden.

5. You are a very lyrical poet. Where does that sensibility come from? Do you have to work at achieving a lyrical sense in your writing?

I think I’ve always been impelled toward music in verse, and through music, toward a particular kind of lyric sensibility. Lyric, here, for me, referring quite directly back to the instrument Hermes constructed out of a turtle shell and gave to Apollo to appease the sun-god’s anger at the theft of his sacred cattle—that is, the song that results from audacious trespass and a sense of needing to offer a gift to balance out a wrong. There is in lyric tradition a sense of breaking a rule, or even an order of being, and then through the gift of song repairing that damage while not simply re-asserting the broken order. But it’s also reading Hopkins who taught me how deeply music can be thought to be the primary mode of meaning in a poem (if not in the world entire), a sense which reading Zukofsky and Ronald Johnson furthered. I finished reading those authors’ works feeling as if I could let go of easier hearkening after fact or accuracy and trust the music inside the language to reveal itself, and so to reveal what the music itself is “about,” more than I could ever manage. There is a lovely and strange place in Valery’s essay “Poetry and Abstract Thought” where he says, as he’s walking down the street, that he hears an entire symphony orchestrate itself in his head, but as he didn’t know how to write down the music, didn’t know how to record the astonishing gift, that the “sequence amazed my ignorance and reduced it to despair.” Somehow, though the thought is not fully formed in my head, I think that lyric tradition offers a way in which both language and music may co-exist, opposites that nonetheless do not destroy each other, but continually reduce the other’s dominance as a representative mode. It is work, but a strange kind of work—one that lets the notion of work subside into listening.

6. At the same time, you've been described as "experimental." Do you agree?

Well, I’d like to think so—that is, if the etymological source of the word can be the fuller meaning of it: the danger of being in actual experience. I’d like to think—though maybe it’s na├»ve—that all writing aims at being experimental in this way. My fears about the word, and the designation (both it being applied by some, and hearkened after by others) is that it has come to designate a gesture of style and little else. I certainly do not see Tradition and Experiment at odds with one another, nor being traditional as a refusal to being experimental. I think ideally they are opposed directions that merge helplessly in the poet.

7. What do you think about the current state of poetry?

It is too large a question for me to answer responsibly. There are contemporary poets, at many different stages of their poetry careers, that I love, and without whose work I’d be a lesser person and lesser poet. One thing I do notice, maybe worth mentioning, is that it seems to me that we are in a poetic climate now not as filled with particular “camps” as 20-30 years ago. It seems to me that many of the discoveries made by, say in particular the Language poets, have somehow trickled down into a more general usage—as if the so-called experimental push has through whatever mechanism been somewhat subsumed into a more “typical” practice. I suppose I feel that there is a kind of poetry given to a particular style or sound or gesture that signals to a reader of poetry “experimental” but without the undergirding risk in thought and perception that makes it actually so. There are many surfaces, dizzying surfaces (there are also false depths). Of course, I suppose this somewhat jaded view is true of every age. Nor do I think it indicative of this one—just a tendency that I take note of, to little end other than the noting of it.

8. Tell me something your readers don't know about you or your writing.

This question is hard to answer, as I don’t know what my readers do know about me or my writing. As for the writing, I hope that in it there are the answers to the questions someone may ask. As for me—I don’t know. I’d like to take a year off and learn classical Greek.

9. What do you want to do with your work going forward?

I want to work. I might reverse the terms of your question. I want to find out what my writing wants to do with me.