The Earliest Witnesses: An Interview with G.C. Waldrep

PK Eriksson: You evoke rich and complex relationships between the speaker in your poems and God. It is really refreshing to come into contact such an intricate depiction of a Christian relationship with God at this point in time when Christian faith is presented in such black and white, cut and dry imagery, not to mention in such a polarizing glare as the former President has done however intentionally or unintentionally. What might you say about this difference? How is faith, as you understand it, different than how the popular “understanding” of it right now?

GC Waldrep: I’ve never understood the cultural politics of evangelical Protestantism, which is probably why, in my youth, I took the conservative Anabaptist path instead.  I would much rather model a manner of Christian faith and living than I would talk about it.  As for the political, to choose this—to try and “model a manner of Christian faith and living”—is indeed a political act.  Whether that attempt—that modeling—is persuasive, to others, remains a question.  But it seems to me, especially in this moment in history, a necessary act—to keep alive, as an option, the sort of community the Amish, conservative Mennonites, et al. have evolved.

I’ve never felt coerced or oppressed by my faith, or by the elders in the faith communities of which I’ve been a part—and certainly not as regards poetry.  (When I hear from those who have felt this, in my tradition or others, my heart aches for them.)  For me, orthodoxy is a very, very large room, or house, or estate—there is so much to see and do; it is continually enriching.

The book proceeds in part from faith, in part from illness, in part from walking, in part from ecstatic apprehension of the created world (which includes language).  I hope it will, by turns, surprise a reader—because all of these poems surprised me, in their moments of composition and subsequently.  Many of them still surprise me.

PE: Do you expect your book might offer much to a non-believing or agnostic readership?

GW: I’m interested in what any reader, from any background (of faith or otherwise), makes of the poems.  In line with reader response theory I’ve always thought that the poem, as an artistic act, completes itself with each reading, over and over again down through time, across innumerable individuals—this is, for me, part of the miracle of art, that it can do this, that indeed as long as it circulates it necessarily does this.

A few years ago, when my last collection appeared, one of my poet-friends who is not a believer of any kind said to me, a bit pensively, “I’ve always known you were a Christian, and I’m not, but I’ve always been able to read and enjoy your books without reference to your faith.  This book (feast gently) is the first book of yours that makes me take your faith seriously on your faith’s terms.”  He wasn’t exactly thrilled about this and offered it as a warning for how others might take it.  But it was actually a very fine bit of feedback.

Reading—anything—is necessarily an empathetic act, I mean in the root sense.  Different texts make different demands on a reader.  Superior texts make multiple demands, on multiple levels.  You are invited to place yourself—your intellect, your psyche, your spirit—into another context, a different context:  it is not about you.  And yet, as you read, “it”—whatever the poem carries—is returned to you, or rather, it returns you to yourself, in changed ways.  Most of us read too swiftly these days to appreciate this, but I think all of us can name works we read that changed us, that returned us to ourselves different.

And within this difference, new things are possible, sometimes astonishing things.

PE: How do you see the poetry audience today? Do you believe it has much life beyond the poets who also read contemporary poetry? Who is your ideal or not-so-ideal audience?

GW: Amazon’s author page informs me that my audience is primarily in eastern Iowa, South Carolina, New York City, the Los Angeles suburbs, and Pittsburgh.  I have no idea what I am to make of this.

Some poets’ works survive their lives.  Most don’t.  Fortunately none of us are around, as far as I know, to observe this process directly.  It is a very quirky process, in parts predictable, in parts unpredictable.  (This is the sort of question I usually pass on to my Inner Social Scientist—my primary academic training was in history—and let him gnaw.  Really I pass most po-biz questions to him.  It gives him something to do and keeps him out of trouble.)

My poems tend to be dense, to make demands on a reader.  This book seems to me  especially predicated on an idea of the poem as a space of intimacy, intimacy as something that exists in between, or perhaps entirely outside, the public-private divide we hear so much about.  There is public speech, there is private speech.  And there is intimate speech.  I suppose then my “ideal audience” is whoever is on the other end, holding the book.  

PE: Many poems in the collection take place in Norfolk, England and the British isles as a whole. Does this setting inform the poem? Can you explain the setting’s role?

GW: Only two poems are set in Norfolk!  Others are set in Ludlow, Crowland, Ely, west Suffolk, Hartland in Devon, and the tiny village of Morwenstow in Cornwall in the UK, and in New Hampshire, west Texas, North Carolina, the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and rural Pennsylvania in the USA.

Many of these poems are walking-poems, poems I wrote while walking in landscapes. There’s a long literature about “writing place,” but I wasn’t interested in that when I was working on these poems:  I was interested in how place writes us, how place draws aspects of self to the surface.  Place lures the self into showing itself, or aspects of itself.  For me that meant, among other things, faith.  It also meant illness:  all of these poems were written in the wake of a round with cancer, as well as a much more frightening round with a neurological condition that seemed to be on the Parkinsonian spectrum.  And of course it meant poetry:  poems I have loved, poems that have moved and changed me.  One of the mysteries I most appreciate is the way that poems, novels, artworks of any sort disappear into the pool of the self and then rise to the surface again, not always in predictable ways.

I’m “from” none of these places.  (One comes close, a former textile company town in western North Carolina in a part of the world my family is from, and where distant cousins of mine labored and died.)

A place, as place, is an invitation.  What is possible there?  Other than colonizing it, consuming it, as tourists do—although a few poems in the collection may come close to that, including “North Walsham,” one of the Norfolk poems.  How can one be present in a place without being a tourist? is one question the book asks, that I keep asking.  At the other end of the spectrum, what does it mean to dwell?

PE: I understand you have a background in history, which was one of the nine muses. Do you believe history would benefit from a poetic eye? Or might poetry benefit from some historical perspective? 

GW: When I was at Deep Springs and Kenyon I taught a course called “Poetry and the Uses of History” that tried to explore the borderlands between the two disciplines—which are, to me, very different disciplines.  (For one thing, modern history almost always takes place in prose.)  Some of the texts I used in that class were William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Tomas Tranströmer’s “Baltics,” Theresa Cha’s Dictee, a good bit of Milosz and Darwish, John Keene’s Annotations, and Raul Zurita’s Anteparadise.  If I taught it again now I would certainly include Césaire and, as a provocation, Inger Christensen or Marosa Di Giorgio.

The truth is I find it almost impossible to wear both hats—poet and historian—at the same time.  They make different demands on me, as reader and as writer.  This past fall, after struggling through a Covid infection, I went to the American Midwest to visit towns I’d researched in the 1990s for a historical monograph I never finished—I wanted to use that research somehow, if not as a historian, then as a poet.  This was a very difficult assignment.

As a journal editor I do seek poems that were sited within a historic sensibility, alongside what we tend to call “historical fiction”—but as it turns out there’s not much of this, of quality.  I feel the same way about the hard sciences—whenever I receive a poem, essay, or story from someone who evidently has more than a passing acquaintance with those disciplines, I get very excited.  Other ways of knowing—and, in turn, of being known.

PE: I have been rereading Plath. I heard of bit of her in your work, particularly the “I Have a Fever and Its Name is God.“ It may have been the mythos that sweeps through her work and this poem of your more specifically and the speakers in both. What poets do you feel a debt to in your work?

GW: Now you have made me very happy—I would be thrilled if anyone heard echoes of Plath’s complex and insatiable music anywhere in my work.  That is what I go to Plath for:  the insatiable music, which is met and matched by the psychological intensity.

As for poet-preceptors:  that varies over time, doesn’t it?  And occasion.  My “essential” poets, that I keep on a special shelf, include Hopkins, Milosz, Darwish, Adonis, Césaire, Celan, Eliot, Stein, and Carson.  Other poets come and go.  Zurita and Vasko Popa, William Carlos Williams; Plath and also Jack Gilbert; Friederike Mayröcker and Marosa di Giorgio.  Carl Phillips, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Brenda Hillman, Cole Swensen, Arthur Sze, all of whom I studied with; Tim Lilburn, C.D. Wright, Peter Larkin, Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop.

The Earliest Witnesses also owes a debt to Michael Palmer, a poet I’d read with interest and pleasure in the early 2000s and then not returned to for 15 years.  I hadn’t realized that some of my syncopated, passacaglia-like rhythms might have come from him, as much as from Carl Phillips’s staggered and punctuated rhythms (in, for instance, The Rest of Love).

PE: It seems one of the greater experiences a poem can provide a reader nowadays may be an extended foray into an imaginative or metaphorical experience that may be characterized as aesthetic or mystical or a guided dream. This untethers us from the pressures of existential modern life and provides us with fresh vision to see our worlds anew. I felt this as I read “[Additional Eastnor Poem (I)]” which enriched me with so many novel metaphors to regard the natural world. It begged a question, might poetry serve this role for a culture which generally keeps poetry at arm’s length? Or is it really only for those on the search?

GW: Poets have three magic tricks, if you will:  metaphor, enjambment, and rhyme.  As others have pointed out (Kathleen Norris is the first I myself recall), for Christian poets, we have a rather mighty charter in the opening of the Gospel of John:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  This remains an astonishing claim to make—on behalf of either God or language.  We are, by necessity, makers and namers—and wherever language is involved or invoked, God, the promise of God is right there.

Without use, the human faculty of metaphor atrophies, like a muscle.  (Or else we become passive consumers.)  But without metaphor we can’t speak to the three essential, irreducible things:  love, death, and God, all of which can only be approached or expressed through figurative language.  Poetry has spent thousands of years trying to perfect the perfect love poem, the perfect elegy, the perfect devotion.  Every poem is an attempt at one or more of these things.  Every poem is to some degree a success in its way—and to some degree a failure, or at best merely provisional, which is why we keep writing.

Perhaps you are not interested in God.  Or you are not interested in love.  (In which case, I’m really, really sorry.  But don’t worry, death is certainly interested in you.)  Perhaps poetry serves some other purpose in your life, as reader or writer.  But when we lose metaphor—metaphor not as artifact, but as act and process—we lose a great deal of the human capacity to address things that are larger than we are, not to mention each other.

PE: Where do you see a place in the greater contemporary American culture for the stuff of poetry, whether in poetry, the arts or outside of it?

GW: This is the relevance question, isn’t it?  I guess I think anything that addresses love, death, and/or God—or justice or the environment, to invoke two other exigent hyperobjects—is relevant.  All the arts at their best bring us to the chasm of our understanding, which is also the chasm of self.  They bring us there consensually and, in general, constructively—as opposed to the other things that bring us there without our consent, e.g. racism, sexism, violence, poverty, mental and physical illness, hunger, loneliness, regret, loss.

Poetry, like music and cinema but unlike, say, painting, takes place in time, demands that we experience it in time.  Poetry demands that you pause what you are doing and…do something else, hopefully in the service of some greater doing.  Most poems are short, or at least shortish, so the demand isn’t exorbitant.  But it is a demand.

And on the other side of that chasm, of understanding and of self, is…something.  Perhaps it is a vision of what the polis could look like, what true citizenship might resemble.  There may be other ways to get there, but I prefer the value-added path, not the stripping away.

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