For a writer who has lived a fascinating, unconventional life, the poetry of G.C. Waldrep is remarkably devoid of ego.
While other writers with Waldrep’s life experience might be tempted to use their own story as window dressing, Waldrep never succumbs to such a temptation. Instead, he allows his personal experience to drive his aesthetic choices. The end result is poetry that is both rich in sound and deeply layered in cultural meaning.
Waldrep grew up in the rural South as a shape-note, or Sacred Harp, singer. “I’ve been in and out of Alabama all of my adult life singing folk music,” Waldrep told Lisa Tallin at the Black Warrior Review:
I was deeply marked by that landscape when I was still a child and a young person there….The town that I grew up in was all tobacco farming and textile mills, and that’s gone….And those were particular ways of being in the land—being in landscape. The mills are closed, and most of them have been torn down. They’re physically gone…Huge swaths of the landscape are now derelict or grown up in pine trees for the pulp mills.
Community has been the central theme in both Waldrep’s life and creative work. He was finishing his Ph.D. in history when he “walked away to join the Amish.”
“It was the right response for me at that particular moment,” he told Tallin:
I was trained as an historian and I was writing about poor working people trying to make viable, durable forms of community out of basically nothing in the South during the early 20th century, and it just occurred to me at one point that the graduate students and faculty and community that I was part of…was a kind of parody of community….And I just thought, I could be living what I’m writing about, rather than writing about it while pretending we have some kind of set of relationships here. And so I bailed…It was as I was making that decision that I started writing poetry.
While the subject of doubt and faith may underly Waldrep’s writing, it is not front and center, as it is in the work of other “Christian” writers like John Henry Newman, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, or C.S. Lewis. Gerard Manley Hopkins may be Waldrep’s closest poetic counterpart, for both poets are concerned with their work being “spiritually useful.”
“One aspect of my own personal faith journey is that I have never been afflicted with doubt as to the principles of my faith and calling,” Waldrep told Nick McRae at The Journal. “Self-doubt, yes: and doubt of others, and of the church: to varying degrees at all times. But of the central tenets of my faith, no. This has been a gift, one I am unworthy of and that surprises me every time I’m led to consider it.”
As Waldrep explained to Black Warrior Review, a life-threatening battle with cancer, a series of residencies at artist colonies, and the demise of the Amish community he joined after leaving graduate school were critical turning points:
After my first intentional religious community failed, I had two and a half years of being sort of homeless and unhappy. I had tried to move into a couple of other communities, and it didn’t work out for various reasons. I had sold my property in North Carolina—I had a little over eight acres,… a house and a barn. And I made a choice to use that money and try to write for a year. I was what, 32, and I thought…it’s either now or never. I had been writing for several years at that point. I had published in journals, although I had never studied writing. The one class I had with Michael Martone my sophomore year in college was the only creative writing exposure I’d ever had. So I decided to take the year off, and then it turned into two and a half years. And it was scary—I used that money from my land to live off of, and it turned out to be totally the right choice, but it was terrifying at the time. So I applied to all of these residencies that I had heard about and then to my shock I got into a bunch of them…
I spent 14 months at residencies over that period. And it was a hard period, it was a strained period since I had devoted so much of my life at that point spiritually and temporally to community. Not having a community, it was like a divorce. Like a really ugly divorce and I was in grief a lot of that time for what we had lost. But the residencies were wonderful. And I encountered other people who were in exile from their lives. There were people who had lost their jobs, and several people—good writers—who had lost their relationships and were doing the same thing I was doing, basically, filling time and trying to redeem it in a creative sense even as the rest of life was hard to deal with.
I did Yaddo, I did MacDowell, I was at Bread Loaf five summers in a row as a scholarship student…The Atlantic Center for the Arts, Headlands Center for the Arts, Ucross in Wyoming. And they were all wonderful. Because I was focused on history as an undergraduate and then on singing, and that was performance—I was a performer—I had never hung out with other artists before. I was never part of the artsy clique. Totally not in high school, and not in college either. Being with composers and sculptors and painters and choreographers and just listening to them talk about what they did was so generative. I just loved that, it was wonderful.
I still think it’s generative. You can go to your parents’ basement and have a residency if you want, have dedicated space and time, but that’s not the same as going to someplace like MacDowelll where everything is set up to try to tell you that “We think what you do is important. We think it’s crucial to our work with the culture, and we’re going to pay for it.” And then having these other people around.
My first time at MacDowell, the person in the studio next to me was Meredith Monk, a choreographer and singer who has been a hero of mine for years. Having her in the next studio—you know, if I needed inspiration I would just roll down my window and hear her singing across the way. It was the muse! That was really important and still is important. I know not everyone does them [residencies]. Some people can’t because of their family commitments or their job commitments, and that’s sort of sad to me. Other people feel those [artists’ colonies] are sort of artificial crutches. I guess if your idea of inspiration and community is artificial, then you would think that, but I thought they were wonderful.
As Waldrep described to Tallin, he has also found a sense of community in his collaboration with poet John Gallagher. The book Your Father on the Train of Ghosts was the result:
What we do as writers in this culture is so private, and I was just tired of that. I’m committed in my religious life to a community, a model of religious expression, of spiritual expression that is communal—that is community-based. Aesthetically I was drawn to the Dadaist and Surrealist example: I wondered what it would be like to work with other people on a writing project. So I really wanted that, badly. But it’s hard for writers to do….Sometimes it would start promisingly and then the other party would get a good poem and want to scurry back off to his or her ghetto or garret: “oh my little precious poem!” And that was the end of that. You have to be willing to give up ego to a certain extent and realize that your work [in a collaboration] is not your own. And that’s really hard for many of us. I think one reason it worked for John and me is because… I hate the word, but we are accused of being prolific. And I guess compared to other people we are: we write a lot of poems. And so we knew that if this didn’t work, we could always go write more poems. [Which made us feel more free, in the collaboration.] There’s always more poems to write. They aren’t, you know Gollum’s ring, they’re not our little preciouses.
Confession has no place in the poetic world of G.C. Waldrep; it is the interaction of language, sound, and imagination that drives these original, intricate poems.
“I like responding to the wideness of the world, and I also like making things up,” Waldrep explained to Aaron Bauer at Permafrost Magazine.
(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.
I have always viewed poetry as a spiritual vocation….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…
As for poetry’s larger role in the culture, Waldrep is ruminative: “I do believe that poetry, like most art forms, can promote empathy…,” he told Permafrost Magazine. “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.”
I have four poems from G.C. to share with you today—four pieces that represent his range and skill across three very different collections: Archicembalo (2009), Your Father on the Train of Ghosts (2011), and Disclamor (2007). Enjoy!
Many Of Us Identify With Animals
Half a toy being better than
none. A forest being better than none.
An argot, a pidgin. And the miraculous brevity
of small objects. A broken comb. Detach’d
leg of a beetle. One thinks of children
on their crutches, their encounters with ghosts.
Of all shapes & sizes. Thin branches
of the river myrtles reach through them.
They move in slow groups, as if just returning
from a war. They are trying to believe
something they have forgotten.
Or to make us believe it.
In the same way that the elaborate
miniature landscapes surrounding a model
train set make us believe. In the world outside.
The tucked fields, the milkman and his lantern.
Not so much pinprick. As bezel.
Obtrusion of the syncretic.
Half a quantum being better than.
A history of the papacy during the Renaissance
is very depressing, a friend told me.
Lumps of coal for the boiler smaller than pebbles.
And fitted out. With pine boughs sighing.
With microscopes. Whether zoo or
vitrine. To attract. The approaching children.
Who will remain silent or else cry out
in wonder. Which is it we most long for.
Which is it that they fear.