Over a year-long period, poets John Gallaher and G.C. Waldrep exchanged poems through emails, sometimes at a furious pace. Your Father on the Train of Ghosts is the culmination of these exchanges, and represents one of the most engaging and expansive collaborative projects, a collection that Bin Ramke refers to as being "Powerful and elegant." What emerged from these poems was not a voice that either could say belonged wholly to Gallaher or Waldrep, but a third mysterious voice. Gallaher and Waldrep return to that experience in a series of conversations to discuss the process of writing the poems. In the first of six parts, John Gallaher and G.C. Waldrep tackle the aesthetic and philosophical concerns that often informed the poems in the collection.
Part 1: On the Conservative vs. the Real
G.C. Waldrep: What, then, is the real? Is the life of the imagination continuous with what we might call external (i.e., “consensus”) reality, or is it something else entirely, something that lies outside of that fabric? And what lyric form(s) does the real, this Real, take?
I have been thinking about this in connection with those vexed terms we so easily bandy about in the larger poetry conversation: “conservative” vs. “innovative” (or elliptical, or avant-garde, or post-avant: what have you). What, then, does “conservative” mean? A “saving with,” from the Latin: com-servare. So, a truly conservative poetry partakes of the tradition it extends—rather more obviously than what passes as innovative, avant, or new.
To what extent does each poem imbibe or express its ancestors, is another way of putting it—in the context of the imagination? Is it a question of posture, rather than of gesture per se?
John Gallaher: And once we say “posture” we have all manner of tones and counter tones that enter. Is this a posture or is this some sort of natural position to be in, right? This is fun. Let’s just ask each other fraught questions for a while. I think, for me at least, that is the real.
George Steiner’s Real Presences, which I read in graduate school, is a foundational text of how I’ve come to these questions. It’s been some years since I last looked at it. I think I’ll go back to it this summer. As I recall, it’s centered around/within paradox, a similar paradox that one finds in Wallace Stevens, that could just as well be termed a Real Absence. At least that’s how I remember it. Charles Wright, in what I consider his finest book, Chickamauga, works directly with it as well. I think he even dedicates a section of the book to Steiner.
And that “real” part of the real, as in “how things really are.” I remember listening to a couple actors from The Royal Shakespeare Company talking about the changing acting styles over the last century...the way we look back to the stage acting of early to mid-twentieth century and think it mannered. They had a very different take on it. They were in agreement that the style then was not to approach a manner, but to participate in the real. The Real, then, in that way, is cultural. What seemed real to Great Britain in the 1930s, with how they saw themselves in the world and as a culture, now seems mannered, stylized.
GC: The fraught questions are real, and they lead to imaginary answers. Does this mean imaginary questions will lead us to real answers? Or are we just stuck in Moore’s garden again?
We’ve talked about YFOTTOG so many times by now that it’s starting to resemble (in my mind) a Cubist version of its former self, all shimmery explosion-in-the-shingle-factory. What we thought and did blends into what we think we thought or did. I listened to Spicer’s radio—or my version of Jack Spicer’s radio—tuned daily by each of the poems you sent me.
One of the epigraphs we chose for YFOTTOG was from Spicer’s third Vancouver lecture: “Like somebody knocking on your door at three in the morning, you know. And you try to pretend that you aren’t breathing.” In Spicer’s lecture, the poem is the knocker-on-the-door; the poet is the one in bed, more responsible for non-reception than for reception as such.
I like to think of poems, books of poems, as intruders, as that which wants the reader to wake up. Wachet auf, in the German. Sometimes gently. Sometimes roughly. Wake up, friends, wake up.
G.C. Waldrep's previous collections of poetry include Goldbeater's Skin (2003), winner of the Colorado Prize; Disclamor (BOA, 2007); and Archicembalo (2009), winner of the Dorset Prize. His work has appeared in many journals, including Poetry, Ploughshares, APR, Boston Review, New England Review, Threepenny Review, Colorado Review, Tin House, Harper's, and The Nation, as well as in Best American Poetry 2010. He was a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Literature and received a 2008 Gertrude Stein Award for Innovative American Poetry. His anthology of creative, critical, and personal responses to the life and work of Paul Celan, co-edited with Ilya Kaminsky, is forthcoming from Marick Press. He lives in Lewisburg, Pa., where he teaches at Bucknell University, directs the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets, and serves as Editor-at-Large for The Kenyon Review.
John Gallaher’s previous collections of poetry include The Little Book of Guesses (2007), winner of the Levis poetry prize, and Map of the Folded World (2009). His work has appeared in such journals as Field, Denver Quarterly, Ploughshares, New American Writing, Colorado Review, and The Kenyon Review, as well as in The Best American Poetry 2008. In 2010, he won the Boston Review poetry prize. He is currently co-editor of The Laurel Review, and, with Mary Biddinger, The Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics.