G.C. Waldrep was a year behind me at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And yet, during my last year there—his first—he seemed already a dominant voice in the generation of poets just then emerging. Whenever I picked up a poetry journal, Waldrep was in it; every conversation outside of classes seemed to be about his first book, Goldbeater’s Skin—winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry and published by the Center for Literary Publishing in 2003, the year he started at the workshop—his new poems, or his presence among us. He seemed to be a giant in the poetry world from the moment he entered it, and to my mind he has been, from that moment on, one of the best American poets writing. His subsequent collections are: Disclamor (BOA, 2007); Archicembalo (Tupelo, 2009); Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, written in collaboration with John Gallaher (BOA, 2011); Testament (BOA, 2015); and feast gently (Tupelo, 2018), winner of the 2019 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. In 2021, Tupelo will publish his seventh book, The Earliest Witnesses, in the US, and Carcanet will publish it in the UK. He has also co-edited two books: with Ilya Kaminsky, Homage to Paul Celan (Marick, 2011); and with Joshua Corey, The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta, 2012). Waldrep has been awarded the Dorset Prize, 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 teaches at Bucknell University and edits the journal West Branch. This conversation was held via email, at a leisurely pace, between March and September of 2020.
Image: What’s your first memory of poetry?
G.C. Waldrep: Childhood books. When I turned to poetry seriously, circa 1995, I remember thinking how strange it was that I could still recite poems from various Tolkien works (sadly, Tolkien was a terrible poet) and also the governing lyric behind Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence. In high school I went through an intense southern literature phase, embracing Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty, and Warren, and it is Robert Penn Warren I count as my “first poet.” I read his fiction first, then his poetry—I was given his Collected Poems as a high school graduation present, the first poetry book I ever owned. Warren is not my favorite poet, by a long shot, but all the same he has never quite disappeared for me. Especially Audubon.
The thing is, excepting some execrable verse I scrawled in my first year of university, I only turned to poetry because I had failed at fiction. And because poetry turned to me. It was a gift, a most unexpected gift—like the greatest gifts, not one I’d even wanted, or known how to want.
Image: How has that tradition of southern literature—particularly fiction—influenced your poems?
GCW: The most obvious answer is that reading Flannery O’Connor’s fiction led me to Flannery O’Connor’s essays and letters. These collectively constitute a charter, in my mind, for how a believing Christian interacts with the arts, and how a working artist interacts with Christianity. I read her essays obsessively in the 1990s, and they remain the single most important touchstone for me in terms of that relation. Her theology emphasized an incarnational logic anent both the necessary detail work of writing and language itself that imbues the literary project with a certain numinousness.
The Southern Agrarians had less of an impact on me. By the time I was coming to grips with my vocation in poetry, I was finishing up a PhD in southern history, and it was hard not to associate the Agrarian view with a problematic social vision, to put it mildly. (I was also reading a great deal of Wendell Berry at that time, but Berry’s strengths lie in his essays and to a lesser extent his novels, not in his poetry.)
And then there was Faulkner, for whom I fell very hard when I was thirteen or fourteen: “The Bear” first, then Absalom, Absalom! and the rest. As with O’Connor, I had to think and write circumspectly around Faulkner, because he loomed so oppressively large in my consciousness. Some great writers are permissioning—that is, the more time you spend with them, the more permitted you feel to speak, to respond, to participate. But other great writers, whom one can read and return to with just as much or even greater pleasure, have the opposite effect. When I read Faulkner I find myself slipping into Faulknerian pastiche in my own writing and then going silent. So I must ration my reconnaissances.
I think the real legacy Faulkner left with me, which I dimly apprehended even before I wrote poetry, was mystagogy, that leading through mystery and revelation. Not an explanation—and therefore an exorcism or dispelling—of mystery and revelation: rather a leading-through. Faulkner performed that for me, at the time, in terms of a shared southern past, in ways no other writer did or could.
Image: I understand your difficulties with Faulkner—I’ve always found John Ashbery oppressively large, and have wondered whether that meant I was in a (losing) agon with him. Are there writers besides Faulkner you find oppressively large, poets in particular? What qualities make a writer oppressive, even if the work is also pleasurable to read, even salutary? Or, is it not a quality in the writer, but rather in some space between the writer and reader?
GCW: I think I feel this more in prose than in poetry. Part of the allure of certain authors (Faulkner and Dickens, Murakami and Joyce) is that they feel replete—it feels as if they have conjured a universe. It is hard to conjure something on the scale of a universe in the context of someone else’s fully conjured universe—a problem of scale, perhaps. The thing about the lyric is that it implies a universe—universes—but it does not conjure them, not in toto: that conjuring lies with the reader. It is participatory. The poets I return to most are those whose work performs this in such a way that I feel invited to participate, to conjure alongside: René Char, Gennady Aygi, Raúl Zurita, Paul Celan, Aimé Césaire, Anne Carson. Gertrude Stein, of course. These are all major poets, and more or less prolific, but their presence—the presence of their oeuvre—never feels oppressive to me. It feels permissive.
I don’t have the same reaction to Ashbery, I think because Ashbery has never been important to me aesthetically or spiritually—I admire his work from a middle distance (and he was kind to me, and to my work, on two occasions). Perhaps the poet I feel most chary of in this way is Wallace Stevens. Stevens has long stood as a looming, brooding edifice in my inner poetry landscape. I visit rarely. Losing agon, indeed.
Image: You mentioned earlier that, initially, you hadn’t known how to want the gift of poetry. Has poetry taught you how to want poetry?
GCW: I think it has. Someone I read in my twenties—was it Seamus Heaney?—described poetry as a river or sea one looks out upon and then steps into. Step by step one is drawn deeper. Eventually, instead of drowning in the current, one realizes that one’s deepest experiences are flowing in and through that current.
That felt like a beautiful saying when I first read it—something to aspire to, like Jacques Maritain’s “habit of art.” So I aspired to it, and that has become my experience. Emotions and devotions are possible through poetry that don’t seem possible (for me) otherwise. Whether I am reading or writing, poetry represents an extraordinary widening and deepening of experience. Of possibility within experience.
Image: The first poem in the first section of your first book is titled “Against the Madness of Crowds,” and it ends with the line, “The rose of each lung blooms inside.” This is beautifully true, anatomically speaking, but could also be understood to mean the speaker of the line feels their speech blossoms most fully when they are away from crowds, presumably alone. Are reading and writing solitary experiences for you in themselves, or do they accompany solitariness? Does engagement with poetry seem more solitary than engagement with prose?
GCW: That’s a tough question. For one thing, whatever I say I say in the context of intentional Christian community, since I’ve never written poetry outside of this context: Christian commitment/community and poetry arrived in my life at the same moment. Writing is for me a solitary occupation, and I cherish both the solitude and the occupation—although not without questioning. (My collaboration with John Gallaher was driven directly by this questioning, by asking, alongside the Dadaist and Surrealist traditions, what sort of art poets can make with others.) The solitude—of reading, of writing, of praying—exists for me in dynamic tension with my life in Christian community.
What I think is that among the many other purposes it serves, poetry posits a life in between the public and the private: it posits intimacy, and in many modes of its transmission (say, the book, the printed artifact) it fosters intimacy. This is an invaluable space to preserve, nurture, and extend, socially as well as emotionally or spiritually.
One aspect of poetry’s social face that has long interested me is the way community arises, or at least can arise, among poets. I wrote “Against the Madness of Crowds” in 2002, a year before I went to Iowa, in part in search of a poetic community. MFA programs offer a prefabricated, perhaps ersatz, form of poetic community—and I met some fine people at Iowa, some of whom remain friends. But I also found myself reaching out across space and time to other poets, living and dead, through their texts. There is a mystery to this. The poem was a response and homage to the French poet Pierre Martory, whose work I had accidentally discovered. I knew nothing at all about Martory—certainly not that he had been John Ashbery’s partner for nine years. I was simply responding to his poems, with a poem.
The Amish community of which I’d been part had disbanded over the winter of 2000 and 2001 (at least as an Amish community), and I spent 2001 to 2003 in a sort of exilic purgatory, moving from house to house (sometimes from artist’s colony to artist’s colony), writing and grieving. Grief is another, different kind of intimacy: intimacy with whom or what has been lost, with absence. So establishing some sort of poetic community, as a form of intimacy, was extremely important to me then.
As for prose—specifically the novel—it’s just a movie theater inside the soul. There is always the smell of popcorn, the sounds of other people shifting around in the dark. One is never alone in prose.
Image: Your poems often explicitly engage with Christian histories, ideas, and figures, and, as you said, have always been written in the context of intentional Christian community. How, if at all, has your own poetry tightened or loosened your bonds with that community? Do you share your poetry with members of that community?
GCW: Neither tightened nor loosened, I think—again, the dialectic of exteriority and interiority. Every now and then someone from my community will ask to read my poems, and I will give them a few, and then we have a conversation: about modern poetry, about audience, about form. Like many traditionalist Christian communities, mine is very familiar with the poem as devotionary space: either outward-facing (i.e. hymn texts) or inward-facing, and above all as a vehicle of consolation. And of course rhyme and meter. Poems that interact with the reader, or with God (or with various idea[s] of God), or with various subject matters in other ways, or that manage effects other than via consolation—these elude them, on the surface.
But reading is important in Plain communities, and we do share a theological background and outlook. And really it is very good to discuss one’s work as a poet with dairy farmers. It is clarifying.
Image: I wonder whether you would be willing to expand upon that last remark. What do you find particularly valuable about their responses? How do they differ from responses of members of the poetry community in general?
GCW: It’s a question of vocation. Other members of my religious community have their vocations, which include farming, construction, machine work, restaurant work, nursing, parenting, caregiving, etc. These are very different fields of human endeavor, and I’m sure some of them feel, when I talk about poetry, the way I do when I’m listening to two farmers discuss bovine nutrition or the faulty hydraulic system on a tractor.
On the other hand, we share a faith commitment. And that faith commitment not only makes more than passing use of poetry—some forms of poetry—it also inheres inside the Johannine injunction that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This is an astonishing claim to make, and one of its effects is to tie the divine inextricably to language. So if I am writing poetry, and if my poetry has any spiritual claim at all, then we must have some common ground, however alien the strategies and formal trappings of modernist or postmodern verse may seem. A conversation locating and extending that common ground is intrinsically beneficial.
I’ve corresponded with other professing artists who feel their faith communities are obstacles to their creative endeavor or expression. That is very sad. I’ve never felt this—although there are times when individuals have asked me hard questions about my practice, or about specific poems. I’m thankful for that level of investment in me and my work, even when (especially when) I struggle to answer.
Image: Can one know one is writing poetry? And if so, can one know whether one’s poetry has a degree of spiritual claim? Which is easier to know?
GCW: I’ve written elsewhere about writing my first poem as an adult: it came to me, line by line, as I was hiking in the Linn Cove Viaduct corridor in North Carolina in late 1994. I realized it was a poem even before I got back to my car at the trailhead and started writing it down. “A poem!” I thought. “How quaint.” And then it happened again a few days later. And again. It was an exciting time, especially since I had given up any hopes of becoming a writer back in college after an abortive workshop experience.
If you want to get technical, I’d say poems exhibit a level of tension on language interior to the sentence, rather than among or between sentences (as in paragraphs, say—see Gertrude Stein on sentences, paragraphs, and emotions). If I can discern that tension, it’s a poem. If not, it’s prose.
That “degree of spiritual claim” is trickier. Mostly I side with O’Connor: if you have a viable spiritual life then it will be evident in your art (if not, not); and purify the source. In practice it is more complicated. Again, an important aspect of my revision process—often the part that takes the longest—is considering the poem not as a lyric artifact but as a specifically spiritual artifact, trying to apprehend its logics and turns. This informs the technical aspects of revision and is in turn informed by them.
As a writer I’m most on guard when a poem features explicitly and specifically “spiritual” subject matter. It’s so easy to fall into spiritual cliché in such a poem (as O’Connor repeatedly noted)—even if one means well. Especially if one means well. Spiritual cliché is a form of autopilot, of falling-asleep-while-writing. But if faith is real, it demands more than this. And if faith is real, it presents—in various ways—in almost any context. It is less a question of coaxing (or faking) it than of recognizing it in the writerly event. Learning to recognize it constitutes an apprenticeship, in life as in art.
As a reader, I make a “spiritual claim” on every text I encounter, no matter how explicitly “spiritual” it may seem to be (or not be), the author’s faith background (if any), etc. A surprising range of work returns this investment, perhaps in ways the author(s) never intended. Other work does not.
Image: Will you name a poet or two of great spiritual resonance whom readers might not think of that way? And what is it about their work that sets those resonances going? For me, Cavafy fits the bill—superlatively so.
GCW: And I have never really read Cavafy, although Edmond Jabès and especially Giorgos Seferis have told me to…. For poets writing outside the Christian tradition: Char, against his own ardent judgment, also Césaire. Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis, allowing for their complex relationships with Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—and Celan, with his equally complex juggling of Judaism and atheism.
I think what permits a Christian reading of René Char is his simultaneous sense of the thisness of the world, the ecstatic materiality, and a notional beyond or more. His poetry is built on what for most poets is a dichotomy but for him is an embrace. This is incarnational logic.
And then there is Stein. Everybody knows Four Saints in Three Acts, but there are also other, less famous works: “Lend a Hand or Four Religions,” “Saints and Singing,” and “Talks to Saints.” Her interest in the concept of sainthood (and in Teresa of Ávila and Ignatius Loyola in particular) was real, if conceptual, and she gets more right in these works than one might expect—especially about Roman Catholicism, in a sort of cubist deconstruction that recognizes both liturgy and sacrament.
Beyond poetry, there is José Saramago’s great novel Blindness. Saramago’s hostility towards Christianity is well known. But Blindness, like Camus’s The Plague or McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, is so rigorously committed to convoking an ethics that it invites a Christian investment. It can’t help but do this.
Image: In the work of the metaphysical poets, serious, thoroughgoing engagement with religious faith—lived faith—was always a palpable atmosphere. And while this is most apparent in their work, the same could be said for most of the major poetry in English before them, even when individual poems weren’t about matters of religion or faith. However, after the metaphysical poets (perhaps it would be more precise to say after Milton, but his work evidences a curious mixture; it is more a bridge than a wall) this quality seems to disappear from most of the major poetry in English. But its disappearance from poems does not coincide with a disappearance from the lives of the general populace, nor, it would seem, from the lives of the poets. If you agree that this is so, what do you think might account for it?
GCW: That’s a difficult question, and not one I would have formulated, because my own lineage (or the version of it that coalesces when beamed through the prism of specifically British poetry) runs from the metaphysicals through Smart and then Hopkins to Eliot (and even Auden, to a lesser degree). A large part of having a lineage is constructing a lineage: that is, choosing companions. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the landscape you describe when—again, speaking in a specifically British context—my twentieth century is dominated by public reception of Hopkins, Eliot, and Geoffrey Hill.
Then again, for a writer of faith, everything is more or less a “matter of religion or faith”—including the work of writers and artists whose own participation in any notional economy of faith is doubtful or nonexistent. That is to say, faith is the quality that makes all things tangent, exceeding the body’s or the intellect’s more limited efforts. One’s engagement with that work—with any work—is, for the writer or reader of faith, an act of faith. The engagement itself is a sanctuary, a temple, a field of encounter. Of course it is an act of faith (or will) to view it this way.
Image: You know, I had kind of forgotten about Hopkins (which is particularly strange given that I love his work and am in the middle of Robert Bernard Martin’s very good biography of him). But Hopkins nonetheless fits into the line of thinking I am falteringly pursuing. He might have been the first major poet since the metaphysicals to write poems in which engagement with lived religious faith was always a palpable atmosphere. But Hopkins was also probably the most radical English-language poet of the nineteenth century—he made a space for himself separate from the dominant poetries of his time (though situated within a very loud shouting distance) and in that space wrote as if he felt free to experiment well beyond the boundaries of said poetries.
I agree that for a writer of faith, everything is more or less a matter of religion or faith—including the work of other writers. But do you think it is necessary to create a space separate from the dominant poetries of one’s time to make poems intentionally marked by lived religious faith? If so, wouldn’t it be necessary to do so even if the dominant poetries of one’s time were themselves marked by lived faith?
GCW: I hadn’t thought about it this way either, but I suppose I do think that “it is necessary to create a space separate from the dominant poetries of one’s time to make poems intentionally marked by lived religious faith.” O’Connor implies that Catholic artists or writers working in a Catholic world—a world in which the host culture is “marked by lived religious faith”—would create differently than Catholic artists or writers working in, say, the twentieth-century United States. However, another possibility is that in such a milieu, Catholic (or Christian) writers wouldn’t write at all, wouldn’t see the need to evoke or carve out that separate space. Certainly I think most art of the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages supports this latter view. It is, for the most part, decorative—and I don’t mean this pejoratively, rather diagnostically.
The thing about Hopkins and Smart is that they were, for various reasons, unable to participate in the cultural commodifications and pieties of their ages. So they had to create at the margins. What is remarkable is not this, but that subsequent generations of readers and believers are drawn to their work.
My sense is that most religiously inflected art is designed precisely to prevent a deeper exploration of “lived faith,” rather than to provoke it. It is affirming and comforting, or else it’s palliative. I don’t mean that great art can’t be made in these modes—George Herbert—but it’s very difficult.
I think these questions speak to my current interest in architecture, in particular to the British architect A.W.N. Pugin, a nineteenth-century Catholic convert who insisted that a genuine, lived faith demanded genuine, lived architectures. For him this meant a return to Gothic medievalism, but his take on Gothic medievalism was distinctly his own (and was problematic to many nineteenth-century Catholics). Pugin contended that a Christian architecture must simultaneously reflect, nurture, and deepen religious experience, both individually and collectively. This is quite a lot to demand of architecture! Or poetry.
So what is called for is work “intentionally marked by lived religious faith” that is sharable, participatory (I avoid the vexed term “accessible”)—and yet wholly its own. An architecture through which others may move and feel both deepened and perhaps challenged in terms of their “lived religious faith” (if any).
Image: Your observation that most religious art seems designed to prevent rather than provoke a deeper exploration of faith seems true to me. When I search for an explanation, at least with regard to poetry, the best I can manage is: The writing of a poem is often an attempt to explore a subject with regard to which the author thinks they know or believe at least a little and would like to know or believe more; about the artifact of this attempt, the poem itself, the author knows nothing until the attempt is well underway, and perhaps over. The author discovers the artifact as they discover what they know or believe.
But people think they know what their faith is, and they think they know what a self-made artifact of that faith should be, or at least how it should function—they want to write an inspirational poem about the raising of Lazarus, sans any difficult consideration of death, for example. So they master the poem before they write it; so they defeat the poem before they write it; so the poem reads like a lifeless thing and must be injected with the life of the reader to be effective. It turns out I could go on and on about this, unfortunately.
But why do you think religious art is designed to prevent rather than provoke a deeper exploration of faith? How does one escape making such art?
GCW: It is one thing to “write an inspirational poem about the raising of Lazarus,” from this great distance in time and space, and another to be Lazarus: to be the one who is raised. I think any genuine religious art leads the reader (and presumably the writer) to a place of encounter, an encounter with radical otherness. Other scenarios in life can also lead to this, of course. When I read pious, rehearsed verse, what strikes me forcibly are the encounters it is avoiding.
You can’t “master” an encounter with radical otherness, unless you avoid it entirely. You can participate in it. Maybe the axis here is avoidance versus participation.
As for your question, I think “most religiously inflected art is designed precisely to prevent a deeper exploration of ‘lived faith’” because people, especially people of faith, don’t want that. They don’t want to be exposed in their pieties (and deeper impieties). They want comfort and affirmation within those received pieties. And these aren’t bad things to want, on their own terms. But there are other, perhaps harder things.
One escapes this, as both writer and reader, by moving forward in the path of resistance, by identifying the baffles, the obstacles in one’s spiritual life, and aiming for them. Or, if it’s more comfortable, aiming just a bit off to the side, in the hopes that when one walks out to pick up the spent arrows, one will draw nearer.
Image: Would living one’s faith in such a way as to welcome, even emphasize, the baffles be akin to writing a poem? And would that poem be a lyric or an epic?
GCW: I think so, and it’s a point affirmed by some recent scholars of what we call mysticism, for instance Mark A. McIntosh: that there is a poesis, a poetics, of the faith encounter.
Image: Let’s switch gears. Do you think your faith—or other people’s awareness of your faith—has affected your reception in the poetry world?
GCW: I don’t know. I hear things anecdotally, third- or fourth-hand: for instance, a journal editor who supposedly said he would never publish a poem (of mine) with any whiff of Christianity in it. So much of the larger arts world is disquieted, if not outright frightened or disgusted, by art that contains non-ironic religious references—and for good reason, given this moment in our collective cultural history.
But for me the problem cuts both ways. Since the vibrant “Christian poetry” community is largely circled around devotional poetry in its more or less easily received forms—work building on the rhymed-and-metered hymn tradition, or from a narrative or confessional base—my work is just as often missed by writers and editors who have an explicit stake in Christian testimony through the arts: because it’s not legible as Christian art in those received ways. This is much more frustrating to me. A few years ago, another prominent editor, who I believe is also a professing believer within his tradition, remarked to a mutual friend, “Oh, is Waldrep a Christian? I never would have known from the work.”
But every act of reading is also an act of non-reading, or unreading. As an editor myself, I try to pay attention to those moments, when I’m reading work of any kind in our submission queue. What am I missing, and why or how am I missing it?
Poetry can do many things. Poetry does faith—or faith does poetry—in so many modes, and this has been true since biblical times (cf. the Hebrew lyric tradition, with its modes of prophecy and warning, or Jesus’s parables, which are foundational to my sense of faithful, exploratory writing). When I read a challenging book by Peter O’Leary, David Mutschlecner, Gina Franco, or Karen An-hwei Lee—to name four—or David Brazil, Tirzah Goldenberg, or Kazim Ali—to name three more—I want to know how it is doing faith, and how faith is doing it, with or against the author’s intent. These are long and fruitful ruminations.
Image: I wonder whether the legibility of your faith is not in fact an issue of legibility at all, but instead an issue of receptiveness. Might it be the case that many contemporary readers of poetry are not prepared to recognize emblems of faith in a poem? Might it be the case that at least some readers resist recognizing sincere expressions of religious faith in poems? (Perhaps non-ironic is a better term, though irony can of course be sincere—and in fact requires sincerity.) Do you think readers might find ironic expressions of faith easier to, well, read? Why might this be so?
GCW: The question of irony vis-à-vis a poetics of faith is interesting, speaking of the submission queue. West Branch is flooded with work that is haunted by religion, by ideas of religion and the inherited symbolic languages of religion, even if the poems themselves emphasize rejections and negations, usually via irony. This appropriation of religious language and subject matter in a context of ironic negotiation, if not always outright repudiation, is an important current of our moment. What to make of this?
My suspicion is that irony is the only readily available cultural tool with which we handle doubt. To ironize is not only to doubt—it’s also to demand a distance from which to practice doubt, the dialectics of doubt.
I myself went through a period in my life as a poet, say 2004 to 2008, when irony was a tool I resorted to, especially in my prose poems. The underlying doubt in question was not about my core faith, but about my ideals of Christian community. Suffice to say, many life changes purged me of that (the irony, not the Christian community!), and I’m not sorry. But I do think this irony, this palpable absurdism, provided an entrance for a certain type of reader: a door that’s now all but closed in my work. Hopefully there are other doors—primarily image and sound, which for me remain the first doors, the always-open doors.
Image: What in poetry most excites you these days? The answer could be a poet, a technique, a poem, or a metrical foot—whatever. For example, Wordsworth’s “The Ruined Cottage” is really doing it for me right now, and by extension blank verse.
GCW: I am always excited by spondees, as well as their bulkier siblings, the molossi. My life improved when I learned “molossus” was a word: three quick stressed syllables, bam-bam-bam.
But mostly I am more excited about architecture than poetry these days—I keep walking around the works of both A.W.N. Pugin and Frank Lloyd Wright, thinking, humming, noting. But of course poetry is a kind of architecture, a structure for thinking. It’s all but cliché now, I realize, but Giacommetti’s The Palace at 4 a.m. is a perfect expression or illustration of this.
This fall I am set to embark on a sustained rereading of Gennady Aygi, a poet whose work (in English translation, as my friend Ilya Kaminsky likes to remind me) is important to me. He is the “happy Celan,” in some ways. I have been thinking this summer about the distinction between healing and wholeness, what this distinction might mean theologically, and what work of the imagination goes on inside the difference. Celan of course speaks into this, in anguish. Also Édouard Glissant, if obliquely. But if there were a modernist poet of wholeness, of joy (let’s make it an Aygi construction: joy-abiding-in-wholeness), it would be Aygi, and I want to reread Field-Russia in this light.
Image: It has been said that Poe’s poems benefitted from translation into French. One of my favorite poems is Tomas Tranströmer’s “Two Cities” (“Två Städer”), as translated by Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassl. And while it’s possible I would love “Two Cities” just as much in the original Swedish, it’s also possible I wouldn’t. Just as the sounds of Swedish contribute to the effect of the poem in Swedish, the sounds of English contribute to the effect of the poem in English, and it is the whole poem, sounds and all, in this particular English version, that I love.
With regard to your reception of Aygi’s poems, does it matter that they’re translations? Is anything gained or lost by keeping a poem’s status as a translation in mind while reading it?
GCW: Well, Ilya suggests that Aygi’s poems are better in Peter France’s English translations than in the original Russian. I can’t evaluate that, but wouldn’t it be a happy accident? If a poet’s work could actually be enlarged by the act of translation, rather than diminished by it?
In my dreams I teach a translation theory class featuring Jonathan Stalling’s work with Chinese poetry, Mónica de la Torre’s Repetition Nineteen, and Brent Armendinger’s Street Gloss. But I’m effectively a monoglot—I have enough German and residual Latin to get along, and a smattering of Welsh, but no fluency whatsoever outside English. So I would feel like a hypocrite at best to offer such a class.
On the other hand, many years ago a German translator adopted my work and got a contract with a small German publisher to release a book of my selected works in translation. Working with the translator (Ron Winkler) was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve done as a poet. He would write to me, “In this poem I think you’re doing X and Y through device Z. But it’s not possible to do that in German. We can do X and Z. Or X and Y, with the addition of Q, which will take the poem to a place entirely other than Z: T, let’s say. Here are some options. Which do you choose?” It was terrifying and wonderful, and Winkler was frankly one of the best readers of my work I’ve ever encountered. I was very sad indeed when the press went under while the book was in proofs.
What interests me about translation is its relation to reader-response theory. All of us have experience with poems; those experiences stand as nonce “translations.” But actual translation reifies the experience of reading into a new artifact. And in this manner the poem moves forward, in surprising ways.
Image: Yes, creating a nonce translation is exactly what reading poems is, though I hadn’t thought of it in that way before. And if one is an avid reader of poetry, many thousands of shards of translations are embedded in one, and to some degree constitute one. And with each interaction with poetry, one is both further wounded and further constituted. To end where we began, but more wounded and more ourselves: What is your most recent memory of poetry?
GCW: I think about this all the time, the way poems—by which I mean, our experiences of reading poems—become part of us. The critical project I’m working on now is, in part, about what and how it means that we return to poems, to certain works of art and literature. For those of us who are makers, those incorporated experiences then body forth into new poems, if not “translations” as such.
As we were conducting this interview, I visited Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. It’s a place I’d never been before, although I lecture on it in my ecopoetics class, usually anent Brenda Iijima’s poem “Panthering.” I drafted a new poem there. As it happens the poem is explicitly about wounds and wounding—among other things. But what strikes me now is how the poem bears trace memories of other poems and poets in itself. I simply could not have written this poem (whatever its merits or demerits) without other poems, other poets. Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge are the two I see most readily. I wasn’t thinking of either Kelly or Berssenbrugge when I was at Effigy Mounds—but their poems were thinking of my poem, which is something poems can do, stepping briefly outside the constraints of time.
Aygi famously called each poem an “unrepeatable temple.” I like that definition. Even when we return to a poem, we ourselves are different, so the re-encounter is different; we are augmented or diminished in different ways. The question Aygi’s quotation begs, though, is the nature of what we, as readers and visitors, do at the unrepeatable temple of the poem. Are we tourists? Do we worship? Do we hurry past? There are so many options. But we do something, and we accrue something in return.
Shane McCrae’s most recent poetry collections are The Gilded Auction Block and Sometimes I Never Suffered (both from Farrar, Straus and Giroux). He teaches at Columbia University and serves as Image’s poetry editor.