G. C. Waldrep is a poet and historian. He currently teaches at Bucknell University and serves as the editor for Bucknell’s literary magazine West Branch. Waldrep’s most recent poetry collection is Feast Gently.
Waldrep was scheduled to be visiting UP tonight in the Brian Doyle Auditorium; however, due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 virus, the Garaventa Center will instead be recording a conversation with him this evening along with readings of his poems, so that students and staff will have the opportunity to have a “virtual” encounter with the poet.
1. How do you come up with titles for your poems? Is it hard to give a poem a decisive name, or does the title come earlier in the process?
For me titles are always either the very first thing, or the very last thing. (When they’re the very last thing, finished poems often repine in my revision folders for years, awaiting the right title.) Sometimes it’s as simple as asking The Little Man Who Lives In The Back Of My Head for a title. Many of the poems in my most recent collection, feast gently, come from him: “Like a Fire from Which Sparks Emitted Do Fly Upwards,” “Fox-Breath (Para-Chantry),” “Neither Winter nor a Golden Dust,” “The Fear Was in the Northeast,” etc.
Other titles are self-explanatory, for instance “On Setting Myself on Fire.” (It was an accident.)
“Cancer Poem” is unique in this regard. A well-known poet-friend had told me that my work was too obscure and that if I wrote a book of poems about being a cancer survivor and called the book “Cancer Poems,” it would sell more. (I am a cancer survivor.) I was so annoyed by this unsolicited advice that in pique I went home and retitled every poem in the manuscript “Cancer Poem.” Later I changed them all back, but then one night “Cancer Poem” arrived, on its own terms. We eyed each other uneasily for some time, it and I. I think now perhaps we are friends.
2. Is there a certain text or piece of media that has especially informed/inspired your work?
You read anything, everything. And some things you like, and some you don’t, and some stay with you, and some don’t, and some inspire you, but most don’t: it’s very difficult to predict. I spend years in the shadow of certain poets whose work I adore, and then, it seems, I step away, towards something else. T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, the French poet Rene Char, the Russian poet Gennady Aygi, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, Darwish, Adonis, Celan, Cesaire, Vasko Popa, Sylvia Plath, Geoffrey Hill—all have been intensely important to me at various times.
And we never do quite leave the books of our childhoods behind, do we? For me, above all others that means the 19th-century Scottish fairytale writer George MacDonald. And then Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, both of whom I encountered when I was 13. O’Connor’s letters and essays have been absolutely foundational for my sense of how faith and writing relate to one another.
3. Is there a particular place or activity that you find inspires poems? More broadly: how do ideas come to you?
What usually comes first is a bit of language that presents itself, that seems shiny—I am a magpie poet, I like shiny things. Sometimes that bit of language arises unbidden in my mind. Often it’s something I misread or mishear: both my hearing and my vision are less than optimal. Misreadings and mishearings have actually become a delight to me. At any rate, it seems that more of my poems begin with bits of language than with recognizable ideas or experiences. Typically I don’t want to write a poem that’s about an experience; I want the poem to be the experience.
There are exceptions. The diptych “Poem in Which I Pretend You Are Still Alive” I wrote on a plane crossing North America, having just received an email minutes before I boarded that a close friend was hiding under her bed as the bombs fell in Damascus, in February 2012. She sent a file containing her most recent poems as an attachment, “just in case.” Of course I emailed her back immediately, but I had to board the plane—I was en route to a writers’ conference—and there was nothing else I could do. In the end it was three days before I found out she had survived the bombing (but lost electricity, so she couldn’t email to tell me so).
It seems trains are good for me, for writing. It seems walking is even better. Process questions are endlessly fascinating to practitioners in all the arts, but it takes time, patience, and effort to determine what works best for any one person.
4. What drew you to poetry over other kinds of writing?
I wanted to be a fiction writer more than anything: that early influence of Faulkner, O’Connor, and Welty. (I’m from the rural South, so their novels and short stories spoke to me with particular intensity.) I took a fiction workshop as an undergraduate, but it went badly: I was told I had no talent, no creativity. And I believed that, for many years, while I pursued a Ph.D. in history.
It was only after I walked away from that, underwent a Christian conversion experience, and was in the process of joining an Amish community that the poems began to come, without warning. No one was more surprised than I. At first it was a novelty. But they kept coming, and I began to devote myself to poetry as a spiritual discipline. It was and remains a gift. I am very grateful.
5. Your works have a very musical feel to them, with intentionality in each sound. Is there a certain method to getting the sound right? Do you ever read a poem aloud when it’s in progress?
Thank you! My artistic background as an undergraduate—with the exception of that lone, failed fiction workshop—was all in music. I trained as a tenor and countertenor, and as a choral conductor; I harbored secret plans for graduate study in voice and conducting at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, with an emphasis on what we call early music (medieval to high Renaissance). That didn’t happen, but my musical training was serious, and when I started writing poetry, that was the training I had to fall back on. (I took two English courses as an undergraduate, both in the novel—no help there.)
So the fact is that for me the logic of the poem is first and foremost musical. A close second is image, what sequence of images the poem offers. Music + image = poem. Often someone, for instance my mother, will say “I don’t get your poem.” And I will say “But did you get the musical qualities of the language?” “Yes.” “And what about the images, did they not come across to you?” “They were very vivid.” “So, you ‘got’ the poem.” “But I don’t know what it means.”
By “meaning,” usually we mean that we don’t know how to paraphrase the poem, to turn to someone else and say “This poem is about a trip the poet took to Newfoundland” or “That poem’s theme is man’s inhumanity to man.” Another way to look at it is that poetry is speech that is not paraphraseable. It is meant to linger with the reader on its own terms. And that lingering is where “meaning” happens. It can take a long time: a whole life. Indeed, the project of making meaning from some texts, from the Hebrew scriptures to Beowulf to Shakespeare, has been going on for centuries, millennia even. We are a small part of that.
Back to your question: I don’t compose aloud, but yes, I revise aloud. Fortunately I live by a large cemetery, and I often walk in it—at night—working out poems in the register of the tongue. The advent of Bluetooth etc. has been very helpful: I don’t avail myself of such technology, but the sight of a man walking along apparently talking to himself is not quite so jarring as it was a few years ago.
I want my poems to live on the page, and in the reader’s mind. But I also want them to live in the tongue.
6. If you could only write poems on one subject for the rest of your career, what subject might you choose?
I let my subjects choose me. The will to write I can control, and the patient exercise of craft, to some degree. But beyond that, one must apprentice oneself to something larger than oneself. In that sense—in a very specifically spiritual sense—poetry is a vocation for me, inside the larger vocation that is Christ.
Listen to Waldrep’s conversation with the Garaventa Center here.