Interview with G. C. Waldrep and a Review of Your Father on the Train of Ghosts

Poetry by GC WaldrepDespite being around two hundred miles south of the arctic circle, Fairbanks does indeed receive frequent visits from prominent poets and writers as part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Midnight Sun Visiting Writers Series. One of the most recent to make the arduous flight up north is G. C. Waldrep, who I had the pleasure of meeting during his stay and who was kind enough to answer a few questions for me during the following weeks. Many of the questions I asked were prompted by the fascinating conversations that seemed to constantly hover around him like Pig-Pen’s dust cloud, and I hope to share some of this poetic aura here.

AMB: While you were visiting UAF, a surprising amount of discussion about poetry and ethics came up. What, in your opinion, is an ethical duty poems (or poets) have when writing?

GCW: The poet’s only duty, ethical or otherwise, is to write poems. Sometimes, though, we have to rise from our desks, and then we become other people: parents, children, citizens, lovers, bystanders, consumers. We are implicated.

Of course, to write a poem in the first place—to set out to write a poem, in our day and age, our culture and moment—is an ethical decision in its own right, to the extent that one could always be doing something else, making some other choice.

AMB: So, is there in your view a service that poetry performs for society at large or for a segment of society?

GCW: I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I doubt I have anything more to say about poetry’s larger social purpose or function or goal than others have had. I do believe that poetry, like most art forms, can promote empathy—although, as the Nazi intelligentsia famously proved, this doesn’t have to be the case. More than that, though, I believe poetry in our cultural moment acts as a unit of attention: in a culture awash in noise, it forces the reader (and writer) to convoke all faculties in a moment that is at root, if not perhaps essentially, a matter of expression, in this case of text. Poetry-as-a-unit-of-attention is certainly at the ethical and social root of my role as a teaching poet, in the classroom.

AMB: You also have a nonfiction book out about southern textile workers in the 1930’s, Southern Workers and the Search for Community: Spartanburg County, South Carolina. How do you view your role as an author differently when you are writing from your background as a historian instead of as a poet?

GCW: Well, the sort of academic prose I wrote then—and still sometimes write—is rooted in an expository tradition, as well as a protocol of sources and sourcing; there is an ethics of sourcing, if you will, and in that way it differs rather dramatically from anything I do in poetry. (If I wrote more from transparent/external autobiographical narrative, the two modes would perhaps draw closer together.) As a historian, I was keenly aware of telling a story—and not just a story, but someone else’s story. There was ethical power in this, as well as definite ethical risk. I found and find it draining, even when I also find it ethically exigent, necessary.

I suppose that when I am writing poetry I feel I am a Maker, and when I am writing expository prose I feel more like a Recorder, a notary, an arranger—a clerk, in the medieval sense. But this distinction may muddy the waters even further. I do enjoy the thrill of “making it up” on the page—of not knowing even faintly more than a line or two ahead (if that) where the poem is going. It’s marvelous, to me, to watch something new take place and form in language, something that never was before.

AMB: So, as a poet—a Maker—your tools are language and your imagination? What role, if any, does autobiographical material—or the biographical material of others—play when you sit down to compose a poem?

GCW: I like responding to the wideness of the world, and I also like making things up. (We are, after all, creative writers.) I usually find the autobiographical material to which I have access to be the least interesting source upon which I can draw. I’m also chary of drawing on “the biographical material of others,” as you put it. My training as an oral historian taught me always to acknowledge, and to respect as much as possible, that boundary. For instance, I’ve often been asked to write more explicitly about my experiences in a succession of religious communities, but those relationships are quite intimate. In the case of the Amish community I helped establish in 1995, and which imploded over the course of 2000-03, I started writing a sequence of prose essays to help myself make sense of the grief…but later abandoned the project. The men and women I was involved with did not come into my life to serve, later, as characters in some poem or memoir I might write, however close to an objective truth I might hew.

Another way to answer this question is to insist that the imagination is autobiographical. Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge writes “If I imagine a ghost or a deer, both are true.” The life of the imagination is continuous with our externally verifiable existences—not separate. Everything I’ve experienced, externally and internally, comes to bear “when I sit down to compose a poem.” One thing I see in many students, and even in some colleagues, is a suspicion of the imagination, that it is somehow “Other,” somehow not as worthy, not as real as externally verifiable autobiographical detail. I reject this.

AMB: This discussion brings up an interesting distinction between genres of writing for an author. But as a reader, how does your experience or expectations change when reading works of prose—non-fiction, fiction, or even science fiction and fantasy—as opposed to poetry?

GCW: Well, fiction is fiction: it’s made up. I always feel cheated when I discover a work of fiction I enjoyed is “based on true events,” etc.—just as I feel cheated (or worse) when a nonfiction writer confesses to having made things up. There’s an element of trust there, on the reader’s part. John d’Agata, I love you, but I will never buy or read anything you purvey under the “nonfiction” label again.

Perhaps my reactions are rooted in my prose training as a historian, versus my love of the feeling of weightlessness I associate with “making it up”—which includes luxuriating as a reader of fiction, too. Poetry is interesting, because it straddles—or ignores—the divide between “fiction” and “nonfiction.” It simply is. Prose means having to make a choice.

AMB: Also while during your visit, I had the pleasure of attending a craft talk that you gave. During this talk, you posited that poetry is at its best when it is parabolic, in the sense that it is like a parable carrying the seeds of its own interpretation, and apocalyptic, in that it is an unveiling. Do you have any authors or poems that you point to as examples for these traits?

GCW: I didn’t say “poetry is at its best when it is parabolic”; I said that I was interested in poetry’s parabolic (as well as apocalyptic) function. Each poem—any complex poem—unfolds multivalently, along many faults or fractures of reference, impact, and denotative meaning. You can spend time there and allow levels of meaning, as it were, to accrue. In this sense any good poem is parabolic.

As for authors I would recommend—all of them? (Because any good poem can be read in this way.) I read Hopkins in this way, and I read Dickinson in this way; Dickinson is perhaps an easy answer. I read Stevens in this way—as with Dickinson, the poems often seem to beg for this sort of reading—and Darwish and Milosz too. Among our contemporaries, Brigit Kelly and Carl Phillips, of course. —But this devolves into a list of poets I simply like to read. Taste and reading praxis are intertwined.

AMB: Does a poem being something of a parable mean that poetry should have an element of didacticism or a moral for the reader?

GCW: The purpose of a parable is to serve as a vehicle, i.e. for meaning to arise in the act of reading, in the reader’s mind. I’ve often said that I hope my best poems mean more than I myself put into them—than I intended. The problem with even well-intentioned didacticism is precisely that it shuts down the parabolic properties of a good poem—it curtails possibilities of meaning, and bowdlerizes the gesture.

AMB: In a recent issue of Poetry, you and several other authors discuss how your spirituality influences your writing. In this article you discuss how Americans “compartmentalize” their aspects of themselves and their beliefs. What challenges have you experienced being a contemporary poet living a lifestyle that is “united and made complete in Christ”?

GCW: First, “a lifestyle that is ‘unified and made complete in Christ’” is an aspiration…although I suppose poetry (Poetry, as an art) is also an aspiration, an ideal to which each poem aspires.

I have always viewed poetry as a spiritual vocation. As I said in the longer interview from which the Poetry piece was excerpted, poetry is not, for me, the same as prayer, but there is an oblique relation between the two, as if they are separate apartments that share a wall. With Hopkins I share a wish that everything I do be spiritually useful, in some way, but with Hopkins I find myself following the demands of form into places I might not otherwise go, in or aside from my faith. This is not necessarily a problem, for me; often in the moment it is an exhilaration. Later, though, as part of the revision process, I find myself asking difficult questions of poems. There are many spirits, but only one Holy Spirit, etc. We are imperfect instruments, and the best of what we share comes from beyond us.

AMB: I relish for you to have brought up Hopkins. I can’t exactly explain why, but I get a similar feeling when I am reading Hopkins’ work and yours. Are there any other ways in which you see your writing practices as similar to Hopkins? Or other influences he has had on you?

GCW: If Hopkins and I have anything in common—and in all humility I very much hope, as it turns out, that we did—it is, I think, the sense of vision-in-language. Our best poems are not recordings of visions, a la Blake or Yeats; they are visions, occurring in language as the poem bodies forth. Language is their nativity and their fabric, not their archive or their end.

AMB: In the same issue of Poetry, you—while talking about the religious group you belong to—explain: “We aspire to integrate pacifism (we prefer the larger term and concept “nonresistance”) and stewardship (which can include environmentalism) into our lives, individually and collectively.” A continual war, or a war that is still going on but is forgotten, seems to be a reoccurring theme in Your Father on the Train of Ghosts. What relationship does a poet’s political views have to the work he or she creates? Do poets have any sort of obligation to advocate for their political views in their work?

GCW: Ah, yes, the war. It doesn’t seem to be going away, does it? But then, it never does: it just bears new faces. As a Christian of a particular persuasion I have some ideas about that.

But the poems: have their own ideas about that. In Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, John and I were listening keenly—as time went on—to the third voice that was developing in the interstices of our intentions, in and through the poems. It seemed to take the war—the condition of war—for granted. If I had to say more, I’d say the third voice in YFOTTOG views everything as aftermath.

As I said, I don’t think poets have any sort of obligation to anything except to write poems. As men and women, we may feel we have other obligations, ethical or otherwise, and we may act on them. When acting on a moral obligation takes precedence over the poem, however, bad poetry…is usually the result. (Even the most cursory look at American poetry in the 1930s, 1960s, or 1970s proves the point.)

I suppose I believe that any strongly-held belief—spiritual, political, anything at all—will find its way into a poet’s verse, regardless of whether the poet consciously attempts to introduce it. The deepest beliefs and images always find their way(s) into poems. When a poet seems to feel a burning desire to incorporate a spiritual belief or political view into a poem, that does not seem organic to the poem—to the constituent gestures that comprise the poem—I wonder how deeply-felt that belief or view is.

There are many things in life we do out of a sense of obligation. I am not sure that poetry—reading it, writing it—should be one of them. Because there is also pleasure. There is also joy.

* * *

For readers unfamiliar with his work, Waldrep’s most recently published book of poems, Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, was written in collaboration with John Gallaher. This, rather hefty, book repeats and manipulates thematic elements and images—trains, fathers, wars, suburban settings, ghosts, a persistent feeling of choas or elation about to break through to the surface. I can most concisely compare my reading experience to listening to a Bach fugue (or, better yet, Steve Reich’s Different Trains): each element is familiar yet profound. The profundity evolves from continual re-contextualizations.

For example, one of the more complex themes to develop throughout YFOTTOG is the relationship of humanity to architecture. In “Overgrown War,” the buildings humanity inhabits begin to empathize and become a part of the universal “we” that pervades the book:

And the buildings missed it as well,

the overgrown war, the war

we couldn’t find

no matter how we looked. We’re missing it again

as we speak.

The poem puts pressure on the repeated verb “miss”—we can read it as “to overlook” or as “to long for.” Instead of offering an interpretation that excludes one possible reading, the poem offers both as equally valid. As the buildings are also noted as performing the multifaceted act of “missing,” they too join in—at least on the grammar-level—even “as we speak.” However. buildings take on another connotation in “Landscape with Missing Elements,” which begins at a funeral. In this poem, they are a comfort that we must grow beyond rather than one of us:

A field of people running.

Or a nest of buildings

where the winds aren’t favorable,

but let’s start out anyway.

A sense of camaraderie evinces as we—like hatchlings—leave our “nest” to an inhospitable world before us. The funeral’s attendees have the option to stay in the transitory safety of the funeral service with “Bits of flowers / all over us,” or they could seek comfort in one another “drinking in the parking lot.” But even though the buildings do not offer the same level of solace that humans can offer one another, they integral and beautiful part of our constructed environment. In “Can’t You Sit Still For Once,” children flying kites at the park hear the buildings—presumably their own echoes off of the buildings—and enjoy the what they offer by merely existing:

If we listen well, we can hear

the buildings down one side

of the street

and up the other.

We never knew the buildings

could be so pretty.

The innocent pleasure of noticing something new in the quotidian allows a reader for a moment to forget the unfavorable winds or an war that has become overgrown reminds us how good it feels to read Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” after a contemplative go at “Songs of Experience.” And how experience is needed in order to examine innocence.

YFOTTOG shows a welcome restraint in a daily life with access to twenty-four-hour news networks and an LCD screen always within arms reach. It approaches the writing process with the question, ‘how much can I do with as little as possible?’ rather than strive to give the reader something new and shocking on every page. The voices of the two poets merge into an encompassing “we” that speaks throughout the book—and welcomes us to join.

Author Bio: Aaron Bauer lives in Fairbanks, AK with his partner and his daughters. He received my undergraduate degrees in Music and English Literature from the University of Colorado and his MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He also is the editor for Permafrost, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spillway, Superstition Review, Prism ReviewThe Furnace Review and other literary journals.