An Interview with G.C. Waldrep
by Nancy Zafris
NZ: You're the Editor-at-Large of the Kenyon Review. Tell me
a little about working as an editor.
GCW: The wonderful thing about working as an editor is that it’s almost like writing, but without any of the hard work. True, you spend hour after hour sifting, but in the end, finding poems or essays or stories you passionately want to share with others is almost as rewarding as having written such pieces yourself. This is especially true if the pieces in question are written by authors with whom you were previously unfamiliar, or whose work has not yet found much of an audience.
Working as an editor for a journal such as KR is also useful in that one gets a decent sense of the literary tenor of one’s particular moment: what subjects, forms, and approaches have achieved a sort of currency (however devalued) among the larger community of writers. As an exercise in literary sociology it’s fascinating on its own merits. In the end, the less convincing pieces melt quickly from the mind like May snow.
NZ: What do you look for in a story?
GCW: Perhaps because I myself write primarily as a lyric poet, I look primarily for a sense of narrative structure, which sometimes takes the form we call plot. As a teacher and KR editor I read lyric poetry every day: when I devote my attention to prose, especially in any form longer than a page or three, I want something to happen. Or at least to have happened.
Perhaps because I am primarily a lyric poet, I also value a richness of language. I read stories in more plainspoken idioms with interest, but that richness must inhere in the structure, and/or the subtlety of voice, if not in the discursive language the author brings to bear.
NZ: Any big turn-ons?
GCW: I have a tendency toward fabulism and admire work by such diverse contemporary writers as Kelly Link, Colson Whitehead, Laird Hunt, Steven Millhauser, Brian Evenson, Haruki Murakami, and Antoine Volodine. I also admire work in a more realist vein, when it repays the reader’s attention.
At the end of Robert Penn Warren’s sequence “Audubon: A Vision,” the speaker says, “Tell me a story. // In this century, and moment, of mania, / Tell me a story. // Make it a story of great distances, and starlight. // The name of the story will be Time, / But you must not pronounce its name. // Tell me a story of deep delight.” This is precisely what I want from fiction.
NZ: Any big turn-offs?
GCW: There is a vein of realist fiction that believes, rather unhumorously (and even didactically), that the life of the imagination is a lie of the mind. This represents an impoverishment of what it means to be human, both individually and collectively.
NZ: How do you read a story collection, from start to finish, or somewhat randomly?
GCW: From start to finish. I assume that a short story collection, like a collection of poems, has been shaped by its author—that the stories, set in a particular arrangement, constitute a sort of architecture of the intellect and/or the emotions, either implicitly or explicitly. I don’t always find this to be true, even in excellent collections, but formally it’s where I start.
NZ: What are you working on now?
GCW: A book of short prose pieces rooted in the fable, tentatively entitled Precision Castanets, after a suite of early work from the ms. that was published in the Black Warrior Review in 2005. I always thought of them as prose poems, because I think of myself primarily as a poet, but recently the journal Ninth Letter accepted some as fiction, so perhaps they are that, too.
In the end, of course, all poems are fictions, just as all fictions are ghosts. And we want to be haunted, don’t we? Because we are lonely—or perhaps, not yet lonely enough.
G.C. Waldrep's first book of poems, Goldbeater's Skin, won the 2003 Colorado Prize for Poetry, judged by Donald Revell. His second full-length collection, Disclamor, appeared from BOA Editions in 2007; his third, Archicembalo, won the 2008 Dorset Prize, judged by C.D. Wright, and is due out from Tupelo Press in 2009. He is also the author of two chapbooks, “The Batteries” (New Michigan Press, 2006) and “One Way No Exit” (Tarpaulin Sky, 2008). His poems have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, Boston Review, New England Review, Georgia Review, Colorado Review, American Letters & Commentary, Tin House, New American Writing, and other journals. His work has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, the North Carolina Arts Council, the Campbell Corner Foundation, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, as well as a Pushcart Prize. He has been selected for residencies at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Headlands Center for the Arts, and elsewhere. He was a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Literature.
Waldrep holds degrees in American history from both Harvard and Duke and an MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa. He is also the author of a nonfiction book, Southern Workers and the Search for Community, which won the 2001 Illinois Prize for history. He has taught at Deep Springs College and Kenyon College. Currently he lives in Lewisburg, Pa., where he teaches at Bucknell University and directs the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets.