Saturday, July 17, 2004

Here Comes Everybody

Lance Phillips Interviews G.C. Waldrep


1. What is the first poem you ever loved?   Why?

I remember being exposed to poets as diverse as Langston Hughes, e.e. cummings, and William Wordsworth in grade school.  I remember liking them, but not loving them.  In high school, I discovered Robert Penn Warren, whose verse (coming as it did from a similar point in time & culture) moved me deeply.  I suppose, then, Warren in general, “Audubon” in particular. 

2. What is something/someone non-“literary” you read which may surprise your peers/colleagues?   Why do you read it/them?

My love for what is rather narrowly called “children’s literature” has flourished untrammeled long since I left childhood behind.  The beauty of a superb piece of such literature, of course, is that it operates on multiple levels for children and adults.  I continue to reread the classics from my own childhood—Susan Cooper, Alan Garner—as well as newer works, including Philip Pullman, Cornelia Funke, and, yes, J.K. Rowling. 

3. How important is philosophy to your writing?   Why?

If you mean classical philosophy, from the Greeks down through John Rawls, then not much.  I am, in terms of my writing, at least, a sensualist; abstract philosophical reasoning has never held any interest for me, much less any purchase in what passes for my mind. If, however, by “philosophy” you mean (or could mean) “theology,” then much, altogether.  Although I would never say that I write “Christian poetry,” I do write as a Christian, and the narratives and tropes of that tradition are very active at every level of my thought, regardless of whether a particular poem makes obvious use of them. 

4. Who are some of your favorite non-Anglo-American writers?   Why?

The basis for this question is interesting, not to mention contentious, in the sense that it begs certain (unexamined) questions of geographic, cultural, ethnic, and/or political orientation. Taking “Anglo-American” to mean writers not from the US or UK—as our host has suggested—Milosz; Holub; Saramago; Celan.  Akhmatova, I suppose.  I am fond of Popa & Swir.  Some lesser-known contemporary Europeans:  Tymoteusz Karpowicz and Elena ShvartsJabes & Blanchot.  Darwish.  Of the South Americans, Raul Zurita first and foremost, along with Adelia Prado & Roberto Juarroz; Borges, of course. George MacDonald, the old Scot.  Now & for always. 

5. Do you read a lot of poetry?   If so, how important is it to your writing?

I read a great deal of contemporary poetry, both in journals and in book form:  probably four or five journals and ten or twelve books of poetry a month, on average.  Also I’m always dipping back into the canon to discover or rediscover some writer I’ve missed. I think it’s important to keep the machinery of composition oiled and ready.  Reading, for me, is a substitute for writing:  when I’m not writing, I’m reading, more or less consistently.  I also think it’s very important, if not precisely requisite, for any poet to have as broad an acquaintance with the canon (by which I simply mean the inherited totality of the written word) as possible.  Poetry is a conversation:  between poems, between poets, perhaps most importantly between the living and the dead.  To eschew the canon for reasons of ideology, taste, or laziness is simply self-limiting. 

6. What is something which your peers/colleagues may assume you’ve read but haven’t?   Why haven’t you?

Coming to poetry outside of any formal academic training—in creative writing or in literature—has its advantages.  The chief disadvantages are (1) the amount of time it takes to jump certain technical hurdles in the early going and (2) the shocking gaps in one’s reading.  Two or three times a year I consciously focus on a poet whose work I have never read—beyond, perhaps, the ubiquitous anthology pieces—and spend a few weeks immersed in his or her works.  Recent choices have included Frost, Neruda, and Max Jacob.  Next up:  Marianne Moore, John Clare, Vallejo, Montale. 

7. How would you explain what a poem is to my seven year old?

That would depend, of course, on your particular seven-year-old. One can always fall back on that old chestnut, “a poem is a machine made of words.”  I am rather more fond of Ammons’s contention that a poem is temporary stay of disorder through language. One retreats from the fact of the poem into generalizations, technical (mis)apprehensions, or further metaphor. And so:  A poem is a cube with five sides.  Three are painted with human faces, one with a wide-branching tree.  The fifth side is blank— Your turn. 

8. Do you believe in a Role for the Poet?  If so, how does it differ from the Role of the Citizen?

The Role of the Poet is, axiomatically, to write poems.  This is the essential manner in which the poet acts out his or her citizenship in the world.  The act is the poet’s passport.  Beyond that, we are as various as we are human. 

9. Word associations (the first word which comes to mind; be honest):











(No, I’m not making those up.  On this particular morning, those were the first words that came to mind.  Don’t ask.)  

10. What is the relationship between the text and the body in your writing?

Explicit and ongoing.  As a Christian I am convinced that the Incarnation is the most important physical and metaphysical fact of human existence.  To separate body from spirit—at least in this life--is to commit what various church authorities have at various times identified as the Manichaean heresy.  I refuse.
Even beyond any theological allegiances, the fact of the body is the place from which all poetry must start:  not pure mind, for mind is housed in body, and subject to same.  Often I am not very happy with my own body, or with bodies in general.  But we are stuck with them.
Speaking my own poems aloud to myself is an essential part of my revision process.  They must live in the tongue, as well as in the mind and on the page.  If there is a singer, there must be a song.


G.C. Waldrep's first book of poems, GOLDBEATER'S SKIN, won the 2003 Colorado Prize for Poetry.  His poems have appeared or will soon appear in POETRY, PLOUGHSHARES, BOSTON REVIEW, COLORADO REVIEW, GETTYSBURG REVIEW, NEW AMERICAN WRITING, AMERICAN LETTERS & COMMENTARY, TIN HOUSE, QUARTERLY WEST, OCTOPUS, and other journals.  He is the recipient of recent awards from the Academy of American Poets and the North Carolina Arts Council.  He is also the author of a nonfiction book, SOUTHERN WORKERS AND THE SEARCH FOR COMMUNITY (Illinois, 2000).  Currently he divides his time between North Carolina and Iowa.