Interview with G.C. Waldrep

G.C. Waldrep will serve as final judge for The Journal’s inaugural poetry contest. His most recent collections are Archicembalo (Tupelo, 2009), winner of the Dorset Prize, and Your Father on the Train of Ghosts (BOA Editions, 2011), a collaboration with John Gallaher, as well as a chapbook, St. Laszlo Hotel, from Projective Industries. Other recent work appears in recent or forthcoming issues of Boston Review, Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, Threepenny Review, Boulevard, The Nation, Harper’s, New American Writing, and Best American Poetry 2010. A past National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Literature, Waldrep lives in Lewisburg, PA, where he teaches at Bucknell University, edits the journal West Branch, and serves as Editor-at-Large for The Kenyon Review.

NM: You’ve recently become the editor of West Branch. Congratulations! Let’s say, as many physicists have proposed, that time is simultaneous. You have three submissions left in your submission manager inbox: Elizabeth Bishop has sent you “In the Waiting Room,” Langston Hughes has sent you “Let America Be America Again,” and Walt Whitman has sent you “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” You have room for only one in the issue. Which do you publish, and why?

GCW: “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Because we will have already waited long enough, and this is one of those poems that actually lets America be America again, for a little while.

NM: William Carlos Williams said (to paraphrase) that a poem is a machine made of words. If the perfect poem were a Rube Goldberg device, what would it look like?

GCW: It would be invisible, and we would want to sleep with it, only we wouldn’t know how.

NM: Your own word-machines (of the non-Goldberg variety) come in all sorts of shapes and sizes—from small sonnet-like blocks to prose forms to large and sweeping type-scapes that utilize white space in interesting ways. At what point in the process of writing a poem do you typically decide on the shape it will take (or at what point does the shape present itself), and how do you know when you’ve found the proper shape for a given poem?

GCW: Almost immediately, i.e. within the first 2-3 lines (if lines they be). Form is never more than an extension of content, to quote the famous Creeley-Levertov exchange. It is intuitive, for me. On the rare occasion that there seems to be a jarring, that is unworkable, match of form and impulse, I either switch gears mid-composition, or else I abandon the poem. Major formal shifts in revision are not my forte! (Although I much admire poets for whom this is the case.) It’s easier for me to start a new poem.

NM: Last year, BOA Editions published Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, a collection of poems you wrote collaboratively with John Gallaher. It’s a fascinating book; I personally would like to see more poets taking on collaborative projects. If you had the opportunity to read a book written collaboratively by any two poets, living or deceased, who would you like to see team up, and why?

GCW: Oooh, that’s a good question—if also, of course, an unanswerable one. Let’s say Darwish & Hopkins, only this time, they get to write in French. William Logan will critique the results. From Magadan.

NM: These days, with the Supreme Court deliberating the Affordable Care Act, constitutionality is something on many Americans’ minds. If you had to rewrite the U.S. Constitution in the form of a single haiku, how would it read?

GCW: You can’t force me to commit prescriptive form in public, Nick. You know that.

NM: Speaking of form, you stated in a recent interview in Hayden’s Ferry Review that you see spirituality manifesting itself in your work through the form of the hymn as well as through allusions to Christian scriptures. I’m quite interested in the different ways contemporary poets address questions of faith and religious tradition—certainly through form and allusion, but also by way of directly addressing the experience of living within the context of a religious community or heritage. One of my favorite poems in your collection Disclamor is “Feeding the Pear,” in which the speaker, while attending a musical performance at a church, is handed in a pear and, in a wonderfully strange moment, asked to feed it. The speaker finds himself at a loss. The uncertainty in the poem brings to mind some other contemporary poetry that investigates faith and doubt—Mark Jarman’s Unholy Sonnets and Questions for Ecclesiastes or Andrew Hudgins’ The Never-Ending, for example. Do you, as a devout person of faith, see your work as a part of the contemporary conversation about faith and doubt, and if so, how do you understand your work in that context?

GCW: That’s a good question. One aspect of my own personal faith journey is that I have never been afflicted with doubt as to the principles of my faith and calling. Self-doubt, yes: and doubt of others, and of the church: to varying degrees at all times. But of the central tenets of my faith, no. This has been a gift, one I am unworthy of and that surprises me every time I’m led to consider it.

That said, I think one could make the argument that my poems take part in that conversation. They experiment with doubt in ways that I do not, on occasion. (I watch from a distance and cheer them on.) Many of the poems in Disclamor, for instance, keep picking away at the scab that is the Cain & Abel narrative (although I wasn’t aware of how strong a thread that was in the collection until I was revising the manuscript for publication).

“Feeding the Pear” is a dream-poem, one of those rare (for me) poems that arrived fully-fledged as a dream transcription. (“What Lived in Our Mouths” is another one, from Disclamor.) Most of these, when they do come, I discard, as psychological flotsam. “Feeding the Pear” hit a sweet spot.

NM: Every so often, someone publicly declares poetry to be dead. If you had to point to one recently-published poetry collection as definitive proof that poetry is still very much alive, which would it be, and why?

GCW: All of them? Because it’s the sum total of poetic production at any given moment that proves the art’s vitality, in any sociological sense. (And it wouldn’t matter that you were recommending all recent poetry titles to “someone,” because “someone” clearly isn’t reading contemporary poetry anyway…or s/he would not make such a ridiculous comment.)

The poetry-is-dead argument is interesting in that it locates the vitality of poetry in a historical experience to which the speaker has access via pedagogy, in and through the past. In other words, it’s as much or more about nostalgia (specifically, one’s lost youth) as it is about poems.

NM: I, too, sense an exciting electricity in the air. I encounter new, vital poems on a near-daily basis. All good poems are different, of course, and good in different ways, but I’d be interested to know what it is that you hope to see or experience, generally speaking, when you encounter a new poem. In other words, what excites you most about the poems you love? In poetry workshops and writing groups, poets often discuss innovations in form, freshness of language, unexpectedness in narrative and lyricism, emotional impact, and on and on. Would you point to any particular aspect of the poems you love that seems, for you, to be the locus of what is compelling or exciting in a really good poem?

GCW: First and foremost I want fresh language, deployed in surprising ways. Without that, it’s hard even to get my attention. (I blame teaching, editing, and the general noise of American culture.) Without freshness of language, how can “emotional impact” even register?

The problem with narrative/confessional poetry is that it loads all its eggs in a single basket, that is, the intrinsic interest of the event being narrated. If it’s not that interesting, the poem fails. Actual artistry and vision can make even the most pedestrian narrative interesting (one hopes).

One area of contemporary poetics that surprises me—in a bad way—is what I’ve heard called Eighth-Wave UMass Neo-Surrealism: the plasticized raft of poems that body forth by way of surprising/absurd flat statement followed by surprising/absurd flat statement, until they exhaust themselves. In part this stems from the cultural and pedagogical impact of poets like James Tate, Dean Young, and Tomasz Salamun. In part it stems from any praxis that makes something difficult look not only easy, but fun. The younger poets who do this in the most interesting ways, to me—Christopher DeWeese in his first collection, Heather Christle in the first half of her new Wesleyan book—have deeper architectures and aspirations in view, around which the seemingly arbitrary flat statements that comprise the poems constellate. There is a meta-cohesion to the voice, to the array of underlying concerns.

But I still think everybody needs to grapple more with Geoffrey Hill, and read more Notley and Darwish. These are textures and poetics that demand more of us: as poets, as readers, as humans.

NM: Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: Sappho, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Emily Dickinson walk into a bar. What happens next?

GCW: I wouldn’t know, because I don’t walk into bars, so I’d have no way of verifying the results. As a thought experiment, though, it might be more interesting to have Sappho, Goethe, and Dickinson walk into Wallace Stevens. (You can figure him as a bar-shaped Stevens, if you like.) What color will the dog be?

Nick McRae is the author of Mountain Redemption (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), winner of the Black River chapbook competition, and of Moravia (Folded Word Press, 2013). His recent work is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, Hayden's Ferry Review, The Southern Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere. He has recently been a Fulbright fellow in the Slovak Republic and a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. He is now Poetry Review Editor for The Journal.