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.


  1. Wonderful questions and wonderful responses!

  2. Love it. Thanks for sharing, GC, and thanks to Victoria for putting this together.