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10 Questions for G.C. Waldrep

It is not insistent. It is not desperately clinging
                                       to the is, the are.
           It is familiar with the dusk.
(I write, "It is familiar with the dusk," words.)
    It does not call
                Do you believe, do you believe.
—from "A Meadowlark in Arrow Rock, Mo." Volume 63, Issue 3 (Fall 2022)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The first poem I ever wrote, after many failed adolescent attempts (and more serious failed attempts at fiction as an undergraduate), was in 1994. I was hiking near the Linn Cove Viaduct in western North Carolina, and some words came to me, and I thought “how odd.” And then some more words. And a few more. And I realized they were lines—“it’s a poem!” But not considering myself a writer at that time, I had no paper or pen with me. I remember racing along the trail back to the parking lot at the trailhead, where I knew I had paper and pen in my car, to try to write it all down.

It was a visitation. I had never had such an experience before and wasn’t sure what to do with it. As it turns out, most of my poems—not all, but most—arrive this way. I try to make myself available in these moments. (And I always carry a notebook and pen somewhere on my person, just in case.)

I wish I still had that poem, but it disappeared sometime in the late 1990s. I can’t remember any of it now, but I’m thankful for it. My life changed that day.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
The thing about influences is that some come sooner and some come later; some last a lifetime while some last a few months or years and then gave way to other impulses. In my earliest work, most of which didn’t even make it into my first collection, William Stafford and Robert Penn Warren were the dominant influences, because they were two of the very few poets I’d read. Later, Milosz and Darwish, for a long time. Of contemporary American poets, Carl Phillips and Brigit Pegeen Kelly seemed foundational to me in the 2000s. Right now, Rene Char and Paul Celan seem to be the brightest stars in my sky, the two I steer by (when I steer). Of living poets nowadays, first and foremost Anne Carson.

I also think a good deal about the Russian/Chuvash poet Gennady Aygi, whose work has some formal similarities with Celan’s (with whom he corresponded) but which is also capable of great joy, despite the crushing circumstances of Aygi’s life. I don’t go in for Aygi’s all-out typographical experimentation, but there is perhaps a ghost of Aygi’s Field-Russia (in the excellent translation by Peter France) in “A Meadowlark.” Also a bit of Carl Phillips? And of course the poem is haunted by Shelley, Keats, and Wordsworth. I’m not much of a bird person by nature, nor a fan of Shelley, so this was a surprise (to me).

What other professions have you worked in?
I trained as a historian and went straight from undergraduate to graduate work at Duke, where I earned a Ph.D. in U.S. history in 1996. Then I took a sharp turn away from academia to join an Amish community, where I worked variously in a carpentry shop, a bakery (I had my own bakery for three years), and a vinyl replacement window shop. I returned to academia and to teaching—this time as a poet—in 2003.

For many years I was also a standardized test designer. If you were a child between 2003 and 2018 in Minnesota, Mississippi, Indiana, Virginia, South Dakota, New Mexico, or New York City, you probably had to read and answer questions about passages I wrote or sourced. I also worked on developing the late, unlamented SAT II writing test (with 30-odd other people, sequestered in a San Antonio motel over a long weekend). This was a side gig. I’ve often suspected it was evil work, but like most forms of evil it paid well.

What did you want to be when you were young?
As a child? An archaeologist, of course. Although the occupational aptitude test we had to take in 8th grade kept telling me it was “mortician” or bust.

What inspired you to write “A Meadowlark in Arrow Rock, Mo.”?
In September 2020 I was supposed to be on a fellowship at the University of Durham, but this was canceled due to Covid. So I invented other things to do. Had I remained a historian, I would have eventually written a monograph on the ghost town in American history—in fact I completed reams of research towards this in the 1990s, which I never returned to. I always felt faintly regretful about this. When Durham canceled, I decided to spend a few weeks in the upper Midwest, visiting (and when possible staying in) some of the ghost towns—or all-but-ghost towns—that I had studied in the 1990s.

One of these was Arrow Rock, Missouri, an early town on the Santa Fe Trail whose population peaked at around 1000 in 1860. Today it’s 56. What’s left of the town has been a state historic landmark since 1923 and a national historic landmark since 1963. I stayed in one of the original houses (via Airbnb). And it was a good week, writing-wise. Two of the poems from that week that appeared in Yale Review“At the George Caleb Bingham House” and “To Each Light of Which I Am a Brother”—were written the day before and the day after “A Meadowlark,” although formally they are quite different.

Actually I was entirely blindsided by “A Meadowlark” when it appeared late on the evening of 9/10/20—I had already drafted three poems that day, and I’d thought I was written out, definitely for the day, perhaps for the week. And there it was, followed immediately by the coda (“draft 2”). “Draft 2” made me laugh aloud when it made its appearance. It still makes me smile.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
My background arts training was all in music, in singing (I trained as a tenor and countertenor) and conducting, at least prior to going to the Iowa Writers Workshop in 2003. This flavors my compositional process and my thinking about poetry in ways I am still unraveling. But it also means that I can’t write when music is playing, because music is…its own art, (for me) the primary art. And I revise in part by reciting my work aloud, sometimes singing it or even conducting it, so obviously I can’t have anything else playing.

I wasn’t actually listening to the meadowlark while writing the poem (the meadowlark had been earlier that day). But I was acutely aware of the poem as in some sense a musical score while I was writing it.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I feel very blessed to have friend-readers I turn to at varying points. Poem by poem, I sometimes send work to Victoria Chang, Dana Levin, Karla Kelsey, Ilya Kaminsky, and/or Angela Gardner. “A Meadowlark” comes from a new manuscript, The Opening Ritual, which as a manuscript also went past Bruce Beasley, Karen An-hwei Lee, and Shane McCrae. These are inestimable and longsuffering people. I am very grateful.

But the first reader for most of my poems is . . . whichever journal editor I send them to (if I send them out at all). In the case of “A Meadowlark,” that would be the good people at Shenandoah (who turned it down).

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I miss my musical training so much. But I have chronic sinus issues, which meant I could never have been a professional singer (despite my training), and my convoluted plans to sneak away from the Duke history program and pursue formal training as a conductor at the Schola Cantorum in Basel came to nothing. Then in 2001 my vocal cords were damaged by the rough insertion of a breathing tube (after I stopped breathing following sinus surgery, of all things), and there went my singing voice.

I still sing Sacred Harp (shape-note) music, as I have since I was 19, because it’s a folk tradition and one can sound however one may. But the early music repertoire that was so important to me in my youth is closed to me now.

What are you working on currently?
I sent my new collection, The Opening Ritual, to Tupelo in July, so I think it’s done (or I hope it’s done). “A Meadowlark” is part of it.

Since 2012 I’ve been working on a long cycle—really a set of cycles—of ecologically-focused work, entitled Glebelands, and I’m trying to finish the final movement, which is centered around a deserted medieval village in West Suffolk and a 40-year controversy over access to the site via public footpaths. What is this thing we call “landscape,” who gets to access it, and for what purpose(s)? This is very different work—lots of collaging from the legal decision in the footpath case, as well as tiny lyrics from my own “ground-truthing” of the site. Its shape is a palimpsest—lots of overwriting.

“The Illuminator’s Arm”—the elegy for Jean Valentine—is part of a sprawling body of work I drafted in early 2021 while a fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge. Cambridge was in the grip of the UK’s third and fiercest Covid lockdown, so all I could do was order food for delivery and wander the seemingly deserted city, finding various sites to sit and write (and keep out of the bitter wind). I’m not sure where this body of work is going, although more pieces from the project will appear soon in Conjunctions.

The first reader for “The Illuminator’s Arm” was Ilya Kaminsky. Thank you Ilya!

What are you reading right now?
If I’m honest, the answer is “nothing,” because the school year has begun again. But this summer I read Amy Lowell and Karl Shapiro for the first time. I was also reading a new translation of Yvan Goll, the French poet who is sadly best known for the plagiarism controversy his widow, Claire Goll, instigated with Paul Celan.

Some other standout reading from the summer included Vahni Capildeo’s Like a Tree, Walking, Roger Reeves’s Best Barbarian, Tim Lilburn’s Harmonia Mundi, Angelo Mao’s Abbatoir, and two volumes in translation by the Spanish poet Antonio Gamoneda, of whom I’d never heard until quite recently.

One has never read it all, or even “enough.” For me, this is a happy thought.

G.C. WALDREP’s most recent books are The Earliest Witnesses (Tupelo/Carcanet) and feast gently (Tupelo), winner of the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. Recent work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Poetry, Paris Review, New England Review, Yale Review, Colorado Review, The Nation, New American Writing, Conjunctions, and other journals. Waldrep lives in Lewisburg, PA, where he teaches at Bucknell University.


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