Photo (c) Sarah Heidt
Thanks to poet David Baker for inviting me to participate in the writing process blog tour. You can read his own response here.
1. What am I working on?
In December I finished two manuscripts I’d been working towards since 2006 and 2009, respectively. There’s always a sort of trough or lull for me after completing a major cycle of work: time for reading or sleeping or thinking (or editing; the last time this happened, I co-edited The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral). For me each cycle of work begins anew, or at least afresh; it’s not quite, but almost, a starting-over. Doodles and feints, re-tuning the mind to the ghost.
That said, I do have a longer cycle of work I am periodically focusing on. Tentatively entitled Glebelands, it’s a cycle that focuses on poetry as site-specific ecological practice. The first movement, entitled Susquehanna, was released as a chapbook by Omnidawn last year; a second movement, “Amphitheater,” is complete. There will be two or three more.
In May 2015 BOA Editions will release a long poem, Testament, that I composed in the summer of 2009 whilst a happy inmate in a Scottish castle. It is about Mormonism, Chladni patterns, cloned sheep, and the question of whether gender can be a lyric form...among other things. I keep it in a locked box, lest it move around in the night.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
As essentially an autodidact where poetry is concerned, I’ve never been either overly comfortable or overly concerned with thinking about how my work fits with or differs from my peers’. It does seem that my focus on the external beauty of the poem-object, as well as my penchant for recondite vocabulary, is a problem for some innovative/avant-garde editors and publishers, while my work is much too formally demanding for those who prize lyric “accessibility.” I’m somewhere else, or in between, and while this creates a few problems on the professional end here in the USA, it’s where I want to be.
3. Why do I write the way I do?
The easiest way to answer this is to say that for me, writing is both a gift and a discipline. I receive it gratefully as a gift, and I ply it is as a spiritual discipline because I feel I have a vocational calling to do so, whether or not anyone is interested in the results. It is part and parcel with my spiritual life, with which it arrived, inextricably, nineteen years ago.
Recently I had an exchange with an old friend, the poet John Lane, on the twin subjects of voice and audience, which are also questions of community, actual or imagined. We discussed some of the writing by younger poets we’d been reading: the “I am trying to tell you” voice, earnest in one sense, inescapably ironic in others (liberal doses of Ashbery), a voice that communicates while suggesting true communication may be impossible. The results can be haunting, beautiful, witty, delightful, or any or none of the above. In my case, though, I find myself less and less interested in those terms of engagement. As I told John, I am talking either to God, myself, an absent lover, or some combination. You may listen in if you like.
And occasionally to a close friend.
It seems to me that there is little time left, either for me or more generally, and I want to expend that time and my remaining energies in the direction of what is possible. God is still possible. Love is still possible. Poetry is still possible. In the life of the spirit and the imagination, all three.
4. How does your writing process work?
I’ve written about this elsewhere, and it hasn’t changed much over the years, although I like to keep myself exposed to all sorts of experiences, art, and music to keep the process stirring. For me, most poems start with a fragment of language: dreamt, overheard, smithed, acquired. (A not inconsiderable number of my poems have started with misreadings of other texts, courtesy of my evolving keratoconus.) I feel or intuit a sense of the possibility in such fragments: they shine, a bit; they are iridescent in my mind. I worry them in my mind, like smooth stones in the pocket, at least for awhile. Eventually they either produce a poem, or else they do not.
I do write from specific images, but only rarely from narrative—from events as such, whether in waking life or from a dream. It may take years for an overtly “poetic” experience (such as being struck in the chest by a live owl in downtown Philadelphia, while out walking with the poet Brian Teare a few years back) to find their way into a poem.
All my lyric poems have been written in one sitting, most of them in five minutes or less. The only real exceptions have been the “Battery” poems in my second book—which were the product of a site-specific rubric of poetic investigation, designed in part to slow down my process—and the current Glebelands project, which has a similar praxis and goal. Even Testament, the 120-page long poem coming out next spring, was initially drafted in just 12 trance-like days.
Revision is something else. For me it’s mostly an extended period of trying to apprehend the poem, the poetic artifact, on a variety of levels: image, sound, audience, theme, all the rest. It’s more thoughtwork than editing, because the editing depends upon the thoughtwork. That said, most of my lyric poems go through many drafts, from five or six to forty or more; a dozen is typical, over a period of months or years.
The Romanian poet Lucian Blaga wrote “Our duty, when faced with a true mystery, is not to explain it, but to deepen it, to transform it into a greater mystery.” For many years now this has struck me as one of the best summaries of poetic process, purpose, and revision I have read.
G.C. Waldrep’s most recent books are The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta, 2012), co-edited with Joshua Corey; and a chapbook, Susquehanna (Omnidawn, 2013). BOA Editions will release a long poem, Testament, in 2015. Waldrep’s work has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, APR, New England Review, New American Writing, Harper’s, Tin House, Verse, and many other journals, as well as in Best American Poetry 2010 and the 2nd edition of Norton’s Postmodern American Poetry. Waldrep has received prizes from the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets as well as the Colorado Prize, the Dorset Prize, the Campbell Corner Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, a Gertrude Stein Award for Innovative American Writing, and a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature. He lives in Lewisburg, Pa., where he teaches at Bucknell University, edits the journal West Branch, and serves as Editor-at-Large for The Kenyon Review.