An Interview with GC Waldrep
Interview by LISA TALLIN
Black Warrior Review: So first of all I just wanted to ask you—you had a reading last night, and how do you feel reading your work out loud?
GC Waldrep: How do I feel? I like to read my work out loud. I trained as a singer and the idea that poetry should be performative on some basis—that it should live in the tongue—is important to me. There are poems that don’t do that—or don’t do that primarily, that are meant to be transmitted through the page. But I hope for my work that the sound quality is important. In Archicembalo that was all there was: the sound quality. Some of those poems have deeper ideas and meanings, and some of them are just beautiful noises as the poem goes by–and if you don’t read them out loud, I’m afraid some readers would miss that quality. I read them out loud; I revised them obsessively out loud when I was working on them.
So I like to read; I think it’s an interesting thing to do. I do think the poem on the page is different from the script as performance. These are sort of two different things. And my relationship with the poems changes when I read them out loud. As I found out last night when I couldn’t see my page and had to make it up—that was a very different relationship with the poem. Oh terror! Terror is here! But I do enjoy reading out loud.
BWR: And when you write, do you ever think about –you were saying the musical aspects are important—so when you write are you reading it out loud even as you’re creating?
GCW: Not in the first draft, no, but revision for me is almost all out loud muttering as I work through things. —Which makes relationships difficult, sure, talking to yourself on a regular basis! But when I’m drafting—that’s silent.
BWR: You also mentioned the collaboration that you worked on. I know you said a little bit about how that got started; can you talk a little bit more about that?
GCW: I had met John Gallagher, who teaches at Northwest Missouri State University and edits the Laurel Review, at AWP, twice. Sometimes you meet someone and you think “oh, they’re nice, we could be friends if things were different, if there was time.” I felt that way pretty strongly about him and – have you been to AWP yet?
GCW: Well, it’s a cast of thousands, so you see all kinds of people. And I guess it was three years ago now, we went to AWP and went out and enjoyed each other’s company and started emailing back and forth. He wanted to engage me in a critical conversation about poetics. At that particular moment, that was the last thing that I wanted to do, because I had just lost an important friendship with another poet over such a conversation. Poetics and theology are very intertwined for me, and I actually don’t talk about them much unless I know the person well, because the one set of terms seems in common but the other set of terms is not common and socan be offensive, depending on the person. I was not in the mood to discuss aesthetics!. So he would send me a long critical email and I would in annoyance write back a poem. And then he would send me another and I would write back a poem. And then he got annoyed and wrote a poem back and we got through 2 or 3 poems. This was just after AWP in late January ’08. Then we sort of took stock and said ‘this is fun!’
I had just tried to have a collaborative relationship with another poet, who is a wonderful friend, and we had written some things back and forth, but it had never really gotten off the ground: we were both very busy and we tended to write things and want to scurry back into our little corners and take our poems with us. As close a friend as she continues to be, that had not really taken off. So I was hungry for that, and when John seemed willing to do it, we just ran with it. We didn’t ever expect it to go as far as it did. We wrote from late January of ’08 through the end of ’08. There were some pauses in there, but we wrote that whole year. And then we thought we were done and taught the spring term of ’09 and then in the late spring and summer, we had another round of it. We called that “the Boomlet.”
So it was hundreds and hundreds of poems altogether. Sometimes 2 or 3 a week, sometimes 6 or 7 a day; we would just go back and forth. I don’t even remember drafting half of them, I mean I know I did because I have the emails, but we were working so quickly and there was that different energy. I would get his poem and depending on what I was thinking or doing…there was a point at which I would circle all the nouns in his poem (I would read it very quickly, circle all the nouns) and draw a little diagram with the nouns and pick half of the nouns and I would write my poem. This all happened in like 3 minutes, then back to John. And you know, back and forth. Other times we had other little protocols. Sometimes we didn’t have a protocol for how to do it and it was great fun. It was like not working. (laughs) We told people we weren’t writing because it didn’t feel like “writing” at that point. But the pages piled up.
BWR: And how about the revision process then?
GCW: Well, that was different. It was easy to cut about half of it, because when you write that much, some of it is not so good. And because we were writing so quickly certain obsessive themes and images kept coming up, trains and kittens and museums and fathers and buildings on fire. Parades: there were parades every 8th poem for a while. So we cut a lot. After that, it was harder. The revision was more difficult than the composition because we were revising in tandem. Trying to revise toward a single manuscript was important to us. We could have split it up and had two books….Actually it was important to John, but it was essential for me. I would have seen the whole project disappear rather than publish separate books. Because it’s not like my poems would have existed in some other form without John. They wouldn’t have existed at all. They were locked together in a kind of relationship.
Revising in tandem toward a common manuscript was a little choppier than the actual composition—the composition was all whipped cream, you know, rainbows and unicorns; it was just fun. But the revision was harder. We passed this manuscript back and forth. I think it started at 350 pages after the first great purge of bad poems, and then it slowly whittled down to 142 as we revised, cut poems. We cut a lot of poems that were quite strong and published in good journals, but they duplicated gestures that were found in other poems. If you’re putting a book together it’s not about the process anymore, it’s about creating an aesthetic artifact that a reader will find moving, interesting, engaging—bearable—and we knew this was going to be a long book. Actually we just got the typeset version back and it’s 240 pages typeset, which is a long book of poetry. We knew that there was going to be a fatigue issue there and we didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. If we had 3 poems that did exactly the same thing, 2 of them had to go even if they were good poems.
BWR: Do you think you’ll do anything else with some of those pieces?
GCW: Well, I don’t know. We were sending these poems out individually to journals before and during the editing process of the book. So a lot of them were well published. Others are still out there. We had an idea that we would have a bootleg, some version of…I kept invoking REM’s Chronic Town LP, the B sides, we’d have our Chronic Town out there. I don’t know if that will ever happen or not, but those were fun poems too and we liked them too.
BWR: Have you continued working with him?
GCW: Well, we’re friends. We’re closer friends now than we were then. He keeps trying to—you’re going to put this in an interview, someday he’ll read it, he and I both read Black Warrior and this is for Black Warrior right? We both read it, we both admire the journal. We were both recently rejected by the journal and we were very sad about that. …But John keeps trying to lure me back into this process. He’ll send poems to me and I’ll say “No no no, we’ve done that! We’re not going to go back there.”
Whenever there is, I think, a new thing in your writing, there’s an apprenticeship process, and eventually if things go well there’s a kind of mastery of whatever the idiom or the form or the gesture is. Then there’s a decline into facility when it’s easy and then of course, ultimately, there’s glibness if you’re not careful. And we both got very good at writing in that idiom. We both got very good at writing a Your Father on the Train of Ghosts poem, as we called it. It felt very comfortable, like an old shirt that’s got holes in it but you like it because it feels good on you. So comfortable that by the end I distrusted falling into that: it was just so easy. I could write those poems in my sleep. (Given that I don’t remember writing some of them, I probably did.) So I wanted to break away from that. But John…I don’t know what he wants out of that now. When he does that, sends me new poems, I get very emotional. I say “Don’t send me anymore poems! Don’t draw me back into that back and forth!”
BWR: Do you think that maybe you would collaborate with another artist?
GCW: Yes, I would love to! …but not anytime in the near future, because the energy is still too close to Your Father on the Train of Ghosts. It would be too easy to fall into the same rhythm. It would have to be a different person and a different idiom and a different rubric, some kind of different project. And it would have to be down the road.
I have no academic background in literature. My academic background in the arts is all in music; I guess the only area of literary output or history that I would even pretend to have serious critical knowledge of is Dada and Surrealism. That’s a period that is really fascinating to me. I’ve taught a class on Dada and Surrealism. What seems strangest to me about those movements now is how collaborative they were across genre: I mean these people did things together all the time. It was really a wonderful sense, a heady and provocative and generative mix of personalities that were coming together then between 1919 and 1932, say, in those groups. And there were problems there too, but….
What we do as writers in this culture is so private, and I was just tired of that. I’m committed in my religious life to a community, a model of religious expression, of spiritual expression that is communal—that is community-based. Aesthetically I was drawn to the Dadaist and Surrealist example: I wondered what it would be like to work with other people on a writing project. So I really wanted that, badly. But it’s hard for writers to do; like I said, I tried it with several people. Sometimes the idiom just wasn’t the same or the personality wasn’t right. Even a close friend…just because you’re friends with someone doesn’t mean you can work with them closely. Sometimes it would start promisingly and then the other party would get a good poem and want to scurry back off to his or her ghetto or garret: “oh my little precious poem!” And that was the end of that. You have to be willing to give up ego to a certain extent and realize that your work [in a collaboration] is not your own. And that’s really hard for many of us. I think one reason it worked for John and me is because… I hate the word, but we are accused of being prolific. And I guess compared to other people we are: we write a lot of poems. And so we knew that if this didn’t work, we could always go write more poems. [Which made us feel more free, in the collaboration.] There’s always more poems to write. They aren’t, you know Gollum’s ring, they’re not our little preciouses. You know you can write another poem. Does that make sense?
BWR: Yes, absolutely.
GCW: So it was safe, in that way, between us: if this didn’t work, so what. We could always write more poems, we hadn’t lost anything. I wonder if I get that from Michael Martone, because you know he was my first creative writing teacher. He was totally counter to the creative culture such as it was at Harvard [circa 1988], but he was very strong on “you know, it’s just writing.” Anyone can do it. You can do it right now, you can do it in bed, you can do it while you drive—that’s not safe, but. When I was nineteen he made us go to one of those photo booths, you know when you put the money in and you take four photos. We had to go and put our money in sit in and write in the photo booth. That was the formal constraint. Once it was done taking its pictures—whatever we did, we could engage the camera or not, but that was the time we had and we had to get out of the photo booth then, because the lights went off. He had us do things like that. Deeply offensive to Harvard at the time, but it was about creating works of art. And of course you don’t know what will be a work of art, [before you try to make it]. So maybe we could blame all this on Michael. I would like that.
BWR: Yeah, that would be fine. I’m sure he would appreciate that. So you meant in prolific being maybe a negative, or having a negative connotation?
GCW: It does. I don’t understand that. I tried actually suggesting a panel at AWP. They didn’t take it on. What did I call it? “Economies of Scarcity and Abundance in American Poetry.” What does it mean when we say someone is prolific? What does that mean? It’s said about Carl Phillips ,another poet who is extremely important to me. I really felt like he was one of our best living poets, and I noticed as I sort of thought along in this direction, telling people that I love Carl Phillips, many people said “Well I used to read him, but he comes up with a book every year, and I just couldn’t keep up ,so I gave up on him.” And so there’s that argument, like is our attention span such that we just can’t cope with that? Is the other argument that if poetry as authentic it must come as a scarce commodity? If you’re writing too much that somehow means you can’t be authentic? I understand these ideas, but I don’t know where they come from, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a conversation about how these weird tropes —how these superstitions about what poetry is and where it comes from—work. I’ve never seen any kind of discussion about what’s happening here in this culture. Does that make sense?
BWR: Absolutely, yeah.
GCW: I have a dear friend who writes in Utah. She not so much writes poems as they accrete, sort of over geologic time, and if she gets a poem, if she gets two poems a year, she’s happy. She tells me a good day is “I wrote a paragraph—I wrote a stanza—or three lines that I can keep.” That’s a wonderful day for her. It’s like listening to whale songs, you know, it’s so slow. And you know for me, I write so fast, it’s all about getting it out quickly before it goes away. I’ve never—except for Disclamor, the Battery poems in Disclamor that I wrote a rubric to try to break the pattern—I’ve never spent more than 8 or 9 minutes drafting a poem. That’s my process. That’s how I write. I have to get the complete emotion out on the paper. If I get interrupted or something, it’s just over, I never go back. That’s the process, it’s very different.
BWR: Are you living right now in that Amish community?
GCW: No, the Amish community I was originally part of disbanded over the winter of 2000-2001. We have 500 years of practice in intentional community living, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, and it doesn’t always work. And that one didn’t work. So I am a member of a community, we would say a “district,” in eastern Pennsylvania, but I actually live at some distance from most of the rest of them because of my teaching job. It’s not ideal, but we are making it work.
BWR: Were you raised in intentional community?
GCW: No, I was in graduate school in history and basically walked away to join the Amish. Which was a sort of an advanced reaction to graduate study, but…
BWR: Yeah [laughs] it’s a unique response, sure.
GCW: I don’t know if it was unique or not. It was the right response for me at that particular moment. I was trained as an historian and I was writing about poor working people trying to make viable, durable forms of community out of basically nothing in the South during the early 20th century, and it just occurred to me at one point that the graduate student and faculty and community that I was part of at Duke, which was a very dysfunctional, toxic place in the 90s—in English and in History—that this was a kind of parody of community. That this was a guild pretending it was a community, but a very toxic guild mentality at that. And I just thought, I could be living what I’m writing about rather than writing about it while pretending we have some kind of, set of relationships here. Aand so I bailed. I just thought “I don’t want to be with these people, I don’t want to be like these people, and I really don’t want to become these people”—the people I was working with. That sounds unkind…
BWR: Well, you were taking care of yourself.
GCW: Well, I was. I had friends who were able to slough off, to just distance themselves from that kind garbage in that kind of academia and just remain decent human beings, committed to their research and their families and whatever else they were committed to. I was not that person. I was getting sucked into all of the academic debates and the sort of downside of academic life at that point. I was not handling it well. So I bailed.
BWR: And then once you entered [the Amish] community, is that when you started writing poetry?
GCW: It was as I was making that decision that I started writing poetry.
Curtis just asked me if I consider myself a Christian poet. I hadn’t been asked that in a long time. I’m a Christian and I’m a poet, and I hope there’s some connection between the two—because those are the two essential parts of my identity. And they came at the same time, so they’re intertwined and have always been intertwined. I can’t imagine being one without the other at this point. It’s not that…I suppose one could give up one or the other, I just can’t imagine that because they’ve always been together for me.
BWR: And then you’ve had some residencies which I would then call intentional communities. They might be mini-communities, or temporary situations—
GCW: Temporary! People ask me that. You know that’s come up at a bunch of residencies. After my first intentional religious community failed, I had two and a half years of being sort of homeless and unhappy. I had tried to move into a couple of other communities and it didn’t work out for various reasons. I had sold my property in North Carolina—I had a little over eight acres, I think, a house and a barn. And I made a choice to use that money and try to write for a year. I was what, 32, and I thought, you know, it’s either now or never. I had been writing for several years at that point. I had published in journals, although I had never studied writing. The one class I had with Michael Martone my sophomore year in college was the only creative writing exposure I’d ever had. So I decided to take the year off, and then it turned into two and a half years. And it was scary—I used that money from my land to live off of, and it turned out to be totally the right choice, but it was terrifying at the time. So I applied to all of these residencies that I had heard about and then to my shock I got into a bunch of them.
I think I spent out of 28 or 30 months, I think I spent 14 months at residencies over that period. And it was a hard period, it was a strained period since I had devoted so much of my life at that point spiritually and temporally to community. Not having a community, it was like a divorce. Like a really ugly divorce and I was in grief a lot of that time for what we had lost. But the residencies were wonderful. And I encountered other people who were in exile from their lives. There were people who had lost their jobs, and several people—good writers—who had lost their relationships and were doing the same thing I was doing, basically, filling time and trying to redeem it in a creative sense even as the rest of life was hard to deal with. I did Yaddo, I did MacDowell, I was at Bread Loaf five summers in a row as a scholarship student. Where else did I go? The Atlantic Center for the Arts, Headlands Center for the Arts, Ucross in Wyoming. And they were all wonderful. Because I was focused on history as an undergraduate and then on singing, and that was performance—I was a performer—I had never hung out with other artists before. I was never part of the artsy clique. Totally not in high school, and not in college either. Being with composers and sculptors and painters and choreographers and just listening to them talk about what they did was so generative. I just loved that, it was wonderful.
I still think it’s generative. You can go to your parents’ basement and have a residency if you want, have dedicated space and time, but that’s not the same as going to someplace like MacDowelll where everything is set up to try to tell you that “We think what you do is important. We think it’s crucial to our work with the culture, and we’re going to pay for it.” And then having these other people around. My first time at MacDowell, the person in the studio next to me was Meredith Monk, a choreographer and singer who has been a hero of mine for years. Having her in the next studio—you know, if I needed inspiration I would just roll down my window and hear her singing across the way. It was the muse! That was really important and still is important. I know not everyone does them [residencies]. Some people can’t because of their family commitments or their job commitments, and that’s sort of sad to me. Other people feel those [artists’ colonies] are sort of artificial crutches. I guess if your idea of inspiration and community is artificial, then you would think that, but I thought they were wonderful.
They were, in terms of community, ad hoc and temporary. You come together and work together—if you do; most residency programs are totally unstructured. Some people just go and seclude [themselves]. Some people do collaborative work.
BWR: Do you feel like you have something like that now, associated with your teaching and the community of writers where you are now?
GCW: No. No, we’re all very busy, and two of my four creative writing colleagues at Bucknell have small children, and so they have their community—their residency project—it’s called toddlers! So they go home. Which is wonderful, but it doesn’t encourage that kind of working together. We’re aesthetically very different, the five of us who teach at Bucknell, also.
BWR: Do you encourage your students to collaborate or to construct those relationships?
GCW: I try. I’m not sure—I teach mostly introductory creative writing courses to undergraduates, so we’re talking sophomores, juniors who have never really written poetry before. And some who have, and so you have to un-teach a lot about that. You get the occasional “I’ve been writing in my journal since I was six!” and you go “Oh, that’s lovely, but that’s not necessarily what we’re doing.” You know, there’s therapy and then there’s art.
BWR: Right. And you also taught at Deep Springs?
GCW: I taught at Deep Springs. After Iowa I taught at Deep Springs for a year, I taught at Kenyon for a year, and then at Bucknell.
BWR: So I just know that Deep Springs is a—I would consider that an intentional community, the fact that it’s very small and isolated…
GCW: Sixty-something people on the campus, which is the ranch, and the campus is I believe ninety thousand acres in a hanging valley up in the Sierra Nevada. And the nearest other human beings-—here were ranchers like twenty-five miles away—the nearest town was Bishop, which was a little over an hour away by car, and that was literally “town.” There were no commercial establishments any closer than that. People would occasionally drive four and a half hours across the desert to go out to eat in Las Vegas, and that was where we flew out of.
That was an interesting intentional community and theoretically it was a vision that I felt extremely attracted to, for obvious reasons. Practically, I felt committed to it and attracted to it. But it had its problems also. I could have stayed there, but I decided not to. Also, I had taken the job thinking there was a related group of my religious persuasion about four and a half hours away over the mountains, and I had thought, “Well, I can get down there twice a month, only four and a half hours away, I can drive that.” What I did not know is that the four hours are over Yosemite Pass, which closes every year sometime in September or early October and does not reopen until early May. It’s the highest state or federal highway pass in the country, and they just close for snow. So I got there and it took me a few weeks to get settled in and then I was ready to go. I told one of my colleagues, “I’m going to go down to Salida to visit this community, this church,” and my colleague said, “You’d better call to see if the road is open.” So I called and they said “Oh, we just closed it” and I said “Well, when will it reopen?” and they said “May.” This was October. And so that was the end of that. I wound up once or twice a month driving four and a half hours to Las Vegas and then flying to Iowa to go to church, and that got old, but it was important. …So I didn’t stay at Deep Springs.
BWR: So was that a time when you did a lot of writing? Did it create an environment that was inspiring to you?
GCW: No. I had just finished at Iowa and I found out after classes were done—in May of ‘05—that I had cancer. Iowa had wonderful healthcare. They didn’t have insurance so much; if you were an employee, you could just basically walk into the university hospital and get what you needed. And it would be great. And so, I was not feeling well, and I thought “I better go—especially before I go out into the desert—I had better go and have a full physical.” To make a long story short, they found a very rare and aggressive form of cancer that was about to take me out. So, you know, we’d graduated from Iowa, all my friends had left town, and I went to the hospital to have surgery and then had adverse reactions. The cancer surgery was successful, but then I had one of those multi-system collapses that you read about, and an infection, and so I almost died. They called my family, they called them in and said “we’re losing him.” I was in the hospital 30 days I think, and then bedridden for six weeks after that.
I didn’t die. I’m here, but it was close. When I got to Deep Springs, I could walk maybe fifteen feet unaided, with a cane. I was severely convalescent, and so I had a different project [that year]. When people ask me “what did you write at Deep Springs,” I say “I was a performance art piece called ‘I’m Not Dead Yet.’” That was what I did. The landscape was incredibly rugged, and it was a gift to me in that sense—that I basically threw my body, what was left of it, at the landscape. I hiked: every day that I could, I hiked in the Sierra Nevada, and I began slowly regaining strength. I wrote maybe four poems. It was the least I’ve ever written. They’re good poems, I think. But it was a different relationship with the landscape.
I was also teaching history. I thought when I moved out there that they wanted me to teach literature and history, because they were short on both those things. And I discovered that I couldn’t really go back to teaching history and work lyrically at the same time. So: that was all about convalescence, Deep Springs was like killing the bug. And it was good for that. It was problematic in a lot of other ways, but it was really good for that. It’s a very strange place.
BWR: I can imagine. But it seems like landscape has come into your work, and has always been important.
GCW: Yeah, it always is. I don’t know why. I grew up in the rural South. And the rural South that I grew up in is gone, for the most part: the poverty, the racism. I was deeply marked by that landscape when I was still a child and a young person there, and then maybe keyed more into that since then because it is…it’s just erased. The town that I grew up in was all tobacco farming and textile mills, and that’s gone. Both of those things are gone. And those were particular ways of being in the land—being in landscape. The mills are closed, and most of them have been torn down. They’re physically gone. The tobacco—after the federal subsidy dropped out of tobacco, whenever that was, ten years ago now—there’s still tobacco growing in North Carolina and Virginia, but comparatively very little. Huge swaths of the landscape are now derelict or grown up in pine trees for the pulp mills, that kind of thing. I don’t know if it’s like that around here too with the cotton. You don’t get out of Tuscaloosa, do you?
BWR: I don’t really get out much.
GCW: I know this area. I grew up as a shape-note singer, a Sacred Harp singer, so I’ve been in and out of Alabama all of my adult life singing folk music, and I know this area….
So, yeah, landscape is important. When I wrote the Battery poems in Disclamor I was so stuck—it was my first time in California. I had spent two days in L.A. for a convention [before] and [now] I was in this incredible landscape and I was utterly locked, I could not write. I finally just thought “This is ridiculous. The light is different, the mold smells different, everything is different, the fauna, the flora, everything is different….” So I gave myself this assignment that you are going to go three or four days each to these nine places—these old gun emplacements in the landscape. All but one of them have these very good views because of what they were designed to do, which is shoot things. (The one that doesn’t was the one that’s hidden and you were supposed to shoot things up and do trigonometry and hit things that way.) And so I gave myself this assignment that I was going to go three to four days for several hours a day [to each place], and I could take my notebook and one other book of any kind, and when in doubt I could read my other book at least until I was done with it and then I was going to free-write. And it just killed me. I mean, I copied graffiti down—it was in a National Park, so there was graffiti. I copied and used graffiti. I wrote everything I saw. It was a very different process for me, but it was still in the landscape. That was my desperation ploy to solve the writer’s block problem: to come to some kind of relationship with this alien landscape, “this is how I’m going to do it.” And it worked. I haven’t done anything like it since.
BWR: It also seems like music is a big part of…
GCW: Well, I trained in that. That was what I had planned to do.
Archicembalo started out as a game. I felt like my training as a musician was invading other poems that weren’t about that, in sometimes problematic ways. I’d been to Bread Loaf for the first time and I’d shown poems there and people just weren’t getting what I was doing. And part of what they very explicitly weren’t getting—they didn’t know this because they didn’t get it—but what I was beginning to understand was these musical motifs were going into poems that weren’t about that and if you didn’t have that training, you weren’t getting it. Because the poems weren’t about music: there was no external cue. So I just decided to start playing around and say “OK, music past,” you know, “I’m going to channel you into finding a form that you can express yourself in,” and get it out. That was in early ‘02.
BWR: Did you get it out?
GCW: I don’t know; I think I did. Archicembalo is the book that I’m closest to, personally. That’s the only book [of mine] that’s really a stream-of-consciousness: that is, my consciousness—you know, arriving on the page without any intermediation from the other faculties. That’s how it is, and so for that it’s like my special child. I’m still shocked it got published. I’d sent it out repeatedly and editors would write back and say “This is a beautiful, wonderful work. It’s also unpublishable. We can’t imagine an audience for this.” I had actually given up trying when I recommended that particular prize [the Dorset Prize] to a colleague who was shopping her manuscript. The day before the deadline, I sort of pegged her and said “Did you send your manuscript in to the contest?”—because she was having some doubts—and she said “Well, no I didn’t because they announced CD Wright was going to be the judge, and she would not like my work, so it would be a waste of time” And I said “Aw, you’re right. She probably wouldn’t like your work.” And then I thought, well wait, she might like mine! And so I mailed it in the last day of the deadline, but I had otherwise given up on ever publishing that book.
So that’s the music book. It was beautiful and it was fun to do. And that one was I guess exorcising in the sense that I had given up my plans to be a professional musician—a professional singer—and had never quite [dealt with that]. It was sort of accidental: I got a scholarship to go study history at Duke rather than stay on in Cambridge, which is what I was thinking about doing…and take some extra music theory and then apply to the Schola Cantorum in early music which is what I really really wanted to do. At that point I knew I would never be a steady performer because I have sinus issues and I’m unpredictable in the voice, but I was studying conducting—I’d taken almost two years of conducting at that point—and that was where I wanted to go. But then this big, big scholarship came to go study history at Duke, and I did that and never got back to it. So Archicembalo was a kind of way of…
BWR: …reconnecting with that?
GCW: Yeah, in a way it was. I dedicated the book to my choir advisor and teacher at Harvard. He was in retrospect the most important teacher I ever had. Although I didn’t obviously know this at the time, but he’s the one I remember the most. And he’s always—I mean that experience is always in my head in terms of aesthetics, in terms of how I think about poetry and what it does. I still have a basically—and I have an MFA now from Iowa; that was late-breaking—but it’s the musical vocabulary that influences how I walk into a poem and structurally apprehend it, take it apart, put it back together.
BWR: And you mentioned that in terms of the audience, there was no audience for this book, but what do you think that says about the type of poetry that you turn out, or what labels…?
GCW: But it did have an audience, as it turned out. It sold better than the first two books. It got reviewed in the New York Times. I’m floored. I’m floored that anyone likes it, because it is such—I mean, again: my special child. And I mean “special” in all the colloquial senses of that word. I just assumed that it was a kind of autistic savant book that no one would get. It is different from a lot of other things that are out there. I workshopped those poems at Iowa and people loathed them. Dean Young, my dear friend, hated them with a passion. Cole Swensen, my advisor, who is a wonderful poet and also a dear friend…“I must not be the intended reader for this work,” I believe is what she said. But some people seem to like them. I don’t know how to read that. They make pretty music if you read them out loud. That sounds reductive, but there were certain poems in there—there are poems in there as I say that have deeper meanings and that speak to me in deeper and different ways, but some of them just jangle in a nice way. And I’m delighted with that! I’m very happy with that.
BWR: For me, as soon as I opened it up it seemed like I had to read this out loud and I would make other people listen to me read them out loud.
GCW: I can’t read the Britten Kittens poem with a straight face. I’ve tried. For me it’s just hilarious.
BWR: Why not? It’s so good.
GCW: I was reading the Whitman poem “I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing.” And Britten is incredibly important to me. He was important to me as a performer very early, and he’s still important to me as a musician—as a composer. I really wanted a poem for him in the book. And I had almost given up because he’s so important to me that it was shutting down the kind of free association that led to those poems. I couldn’t go into Britten in my mind, I got too intentional. That was one of the last three I think poems that I wrote—on the fly, actually. I was going out to dinner at Iowa and I was thinking Britten kitten, Britten kitten, Britten kitten— literally, that was what I was thinking—and then I just sat down and typed it and then I went to dinner. And when I came home I looked at it and I thought it was working. I don’t know what it’s doing. I was just being silly [at the time]. “Speaking about kittens concluded”—it just felt right.
BWR: Got a big laugh last night, when I quoted you.
GCW: I had been reading—oh, the Irish post-modern humorist—why am I blanking on his name? At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman, oh this is horrible, it’s like not remembering your mother’s name. Anyway, you can look him up. [Ed. Note: Flann O’Brien.] But I had been reading him. He’s a wonderful—he’s a kind of parody of Joyce in some ways, but he’s also very much his own writer as well, and he’s very funny. He’s doing all this bizarre postmodern stuff and you never know whether to take him seriously or to take him humorously. And I think the answer to that dilemma is yes, both. It’s always both. It’s a kind of weird suspension that he creates in those books….And so I had been reading him too. Originally the epigraph to Archicembalo was a paragraph from At Swim-Two-Birds, but that got cut. It was a much longer manuscript. It was about 120 pages as opposed to the portion that won the prize…which was 64, I think. But again, it was too dense. And thinking about the reader, I had to think “just because this is the arc this project took for me doesn’t mean this is the artifact that I want to hand to the reader.” So there were less interesting poems that fell out. Some longer poems that fell out. The “What is Opera” poem that’s about Max Ernst has a twin, which was an opera treatment for The Phantom Tollbooth which is a children’s book. That [poem] was never as successful as I wanted it to be. —Yeah, it is very dense, and I think it did have to be shorter. It took me a long time to write my way out of that. Once I got really used to writing like that—once I became competent at that—and was moving from mastery, maybe, towards facility, I felt like the poems were becoming so dense and impacted that they were becoming little black holes from which not even light could escape.
That was part of what the gift of the collaboration [with John Gallaher] was. I didn’t know how to get out of the black hole. I felt like my poems were these totally occluded, twisted, melted little artifacts, because after that, the writing was like that, only more so. I had no idea what was happening. Working with John Gallaher, whose idiom is more conversational and open, exploded that for me. I tend to be on about a two- to two-and-a-half-year cycle with idioms and projects. I tend to like to run with something for a while, and and then I get bored. And I think if I get bored, then other people might be bored too. So then I change it up.
I don’t know. Right now I’m on a sort of cusp after Your Father on the Train of Ghosts. I went overseas for the summer and fall and I wrote a lot. I’m very happy with it [the new writing], and it will be a book someday. I’m busy digesting and revising those poems. I think the “Anthem” poem that I read last night is, if not the last poem from that set of work, then close to the last. It feels…it feels final-ish, and I don’t know what will be next.
BWR: So you said you had been in Wales?
GCW: I got a residency—a month-long residency in a castle in Scotland and then a month- long residency in Ireland, back-to-back. And then I walked across Wales. That was entirely gratuitous. I thought, “I can’t be this close and not go!” It was a wonderful, wonderful summer and fall. Those were great residency programs. I met lots of people. I had never been overseas before. Just never got around to it. People were very kind.
BWR: Were some of the other people in the residency from other countries in Europe?
GCW: Various. In Scotland there was myself and two British poets, an American expat poet in London, an Irish novelist, and an Egyptian novelist. And then in Ireland it was mostly Irish writers, some English and some American. There wasn’t anyone from the continent or elsewhere when I was in the castle…I don’t think so. But it varies.
BWR: How did that feel being overseas in terms of–did you get to reconceptualize anything?
GCW: Well, in Scotland I didn’t. I realized the English and Irish poetry scenes are much more aesthetically conservative than they are here and what passes for experimental writing over there would have been interesting in this country circa 1968. I shouldn’t say that ,but we’re in very different kind of place aesthetically. If you’re over here and you value work from Lisa Robertson—which is very important to me—and they’d never heard of her, Alice Notley, these are writers who aren’t in their heads at all or culturally present. So I felt a deep disconnect from what the other poets were doing. The first month when I was in Scotland, I didn’t care because I was working on two new projects that I had been just sort of holding off working on, this new idea that I’d had. I just sort of ran with that. And I also had brought with me a couple of Alice Notley books, Lisa Robertson’s new book, a Carla Harryman book, Jack Spicer’s new collected poems just out from Wesleyan. So I was immersed in my own kind of self-made world there. And then I wrote through that in a month and I read through all those books and so when I went to Ireland I was paying attention to what other people were doing more.
The residency program there [in Ireland] had every book ever published by the two principle Irish poetry publishers, which are Bloodaxe (although they’re based in England) and Gallery. I knew Medbh McGuckian a little bit, she’s an Irish poet. And of course I knew who Seamus Heaney was, because he had been at Harvard with me. And I’d read some Paul Muldoon—he wasn’t very interesting to me but I knew who he was there. But I started ripping through contemporary Irish poetry—all these people I had never read before—not all of whom were interesting at all to me, but it was like learning another language. It was like “This is where they are, as a culture, as a people, poetically. The sum total of what they are is this.” That’s sort of Gallery’s project, I think—Gallery’s the Irish press. And then Bloodaxe not only publishes a lot of Irish poets but they also have a huge Eastern European poetry in translation series. So all those poets were in there as well. And when I was done ripping through two dozen Irish poets—I was reading two or three books a day at that point—I started in on that [the books in translation]. There was Miroslav Holub, who I knew and loved and reconnected with. But then all these people I had never heard of: a Czech poet named Sylva Fischerova—never been published here, but a wonderful book. There were some Finns, several Finns that I had never heard of. So the first half of Ireland was really Irish poets, but the second half was Eastern European stuff. I felt like that was, I don’t know, broadening. It was like learning to speak another language, both of those halves of that month.
And then I ran off to Wales and hiked. I didn’t write when I was in Wales, actually. I tried the first day, and then I had this intuitive grasp of the fact that this wasn’t going to be about writing, this was going to be about Wales and me.