Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Interview with G. C. Waldrep

Archicembalo is the latest work by the poet G. C. Waldrep and my favorite work of poetry to come out in 2009. It is one of those rare works that seems to be about everything but the actual words it contains. It is structured like a "gamut" or "musical self-instruction primer that often prefaced volumes of 19th-century American sheet music," with the titles of the poems all being questions like "What is a Zither" and "Who is Friedrich von Schiller." Mysterious and beautiful. Intellectual and enchanting. Musical and challenging. Archicembalo accumulates exploration and linguistically dazzles. Below is an interview with G. C. Waldrep.


How did you discover the word "archicembalo?"


It was a nickname of sorts, something my college choral conductor--Jameson Marvin, to whom the book is dedicated--used to cry when I sharped an eighth or a sixteenth of a pitch, as I tended to do in my higher registers when I sang tenor and countertenor in my teens and early 20s, there in Cambridge. "Archicembalo, archicembalo--36 notes to the octave--you're singing one of those notes--STOP!"


The question and answer format, whether in the catechism, a topical primer, or a gamut has fallen out of favor as too dogmatic to be educational. Do you believe there are opportunities for exploration beyond dogma in this format?


I grew up in the rural South, where call-and-response is still a basic element of some worship practices. The instructional "gamut" that prefaced so many compilations of 19th-century vernacular hymnody was meant for self-instruction: "distance learning" we might call it today. The results, in terms of musical composition and style, strike the modern ear as original, strange, and beautiful. You can hear bits of this strangeness, this rough, antiphonal beauty, in the various Smithsonian Folkways recordings of Sacred Harp singing, Primitive Baptist hymns, Sea Island singers on the South Carolina coast, etc.


The epigraph for the book asks "Accomplished students of happiness and experts in the full range of pleasure and joy--what leads us now to acknowledge another kind of learning in us, an understanding to which there remains deep inside us an indefinite number of witnesses?" Do you have an answer to that question? Or, if we are not led to "acknowledge another kind of learning in us," what is preventing us from doing so?


The quote is from the French writer Pascal Quignard, in translation, from his experimental novel disguised as the daybook of a wealthy Roman matron of the 4th century AD. I suppose one of the mysteries of music is that, in its wordlessness, it somehow does manage to draw forth affective responses. We listen, and we feel--something. As a poet, I wanted to try to explore this: only through language, rather than music itself.


As for that other kind of learning within us, that which witnesses, which responds: each has to answer for him- or herself, I think. The space between the poem and the reader remains one of the most mysterious spaces of all, to me. What happens there, by whose hand, and to what service?


Music and poetry have always had a close relationship. How would you describe that relationship and what is learned about each medium from that relationship?


Well, the language has a music--is possessed of a music. Twentieth-century standard written English has a particular music, which is different from French, or German, or Farsi. I wanted to write something that took my language's music seriously, on language's terms.


Music has a language of its own--sonics, harmonics--but it is not a human language. We can only get so close to it, I think.


And poetry--is somewhere in between, since the poet is always conscious of both the music and the meaning of the words he or she deploys. Poetry acts as a sort of busy messenger system between what we think and what we feel, what we do and what we see and what we know.


There are many words and names in the book most people wouldn't know (or at least, that I didn't know). Do you think literature has a responsibility to introduce people to new words and names? Is there a cumulative effect created by these unknowns, and if so, what should that effect feel like and what should a reader do with it?


I do think it is poetry's responsibility to keep the language fresh and supple. C.D. Wright has said "It is poetry that remarks on the barely perceptible disappearances from our world such as that of the sleeping porch or the root cellar. And poetry that notes the barely perceptible appearances." This is as true for language--for words--as for anything else. Poets live closest to language, at least on language's terms.


But that doesn't explain or excuse my penchant for obscure or difficult words. I just love them. Years ago some well-meaning friends performed an intervention wherein they demanded I not consult the OED for one whole year. I did it--for them--but it didn't help much. Discovering a new word is, for me, like what a painter might feel if he or she discovered a new color, a new pigment. I want to use it everywhere, immediately.


I would hope readers of Archicembalo would be able to let "meaning"--qua "meaning"--go, for just a little while, and enjoy the music. We tend to assume that the inherent music of our language must be subsidiary to its annotative meaning. In the instructions I was just reading on how to restart my oil furnace, which shut off for some reason earlier this evening this is just fine: preferable, even. But not always, and not in Archicembalo. I wrote these poems with the music of the language foremost in voice and mind. There is annotative meaning there, but it arrives by way of song.


One of my favorite lines in the book is "Some countries of the world exist now only in the form of obsolete postage, as angels or capitals. This is considered perfectly normal. We call a hole a grave if we value what goes into it, a mine if we value what comes out." What role, if any, does or should poetry play in the forgetting of nations and the categorizing of holes?


C.D. Wright's comment about poetry as a sensitive recording instrument--for the most minute appearances and disappearances in our language, our culture, our lives--seems apropos here also. You might think of a poem--any good poem--as a hole you can fall into, or climb out of: a quantum absence. That is somehow also a presence, on the page, in our lives.


Then again, as Wright says further, "It falls on the sweet neck of poetry to keep the rain-pitted face of love from leaving us once and for all."


Who is the most important poet not being read?


By whom? The saddest aspect of the various warring camps in contemporary American poetry is that even many poets are making a point not to read certain other poets, not to hear certain voices, certain songs. Years ago I was told, in all seriousness and with some heat, that I couldn't like both W.H. Auden and Gertrude Stein. It wasn't allowed. This is almost mind-bogglingly self-defeating, in terms of the possibilities that dwell in language.


I suppose if I had to name one Anglophone poet, it would be
Geoffrey Hill. He has his champions, but he is far too "difficult" for the disciples of Billy Collins or Sharon Olds, and far too "traditional" or "conservative" for most strands of what passes as the avant-garde. I am also drawn to John Taggart's work, which will finally be showcased in a New & Selected from the University of California Press later this year.



Alice Notley is quite well-known (and well-read) in certain circles, all but invisible in others. I thought her last big book, In the Pines, would earn her a larger audience as well as garner a few major poetry awards. But it seems to have disappeared more or less without a trace.


And then there is poetry in translation. Raul Zurita (Chile) is one of my favorite poets, but his masterwork, Anteparadise, has not gotten nearly the reception it deserves in the Anglophone world. His Purgatorio and INRI are also very good: formally challenging and deeply moving. I'm pleased that Mahmoud Darwish is finally getting more attention in the Anglophone world (albeit after his recent, untimely death). His work is essential to me.


What are you reading now?


Right now? Julie Carr's 100 Notes on Violence. I've been reading quite a bit of poetry in translation, including Heiligeanstalt and
Raving Language: New & Selected Poems by the Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker, and also Concentric Circles and Riding Pisces, by the expatriate Chinese poet Yang Lian. I just finished a few excellent first and second books by younger American poets, including Barbara Claire Freeman's Incivilities, Lytton Smith's The All-Purpose Magical Tent, Matvei Yankelevich's Boris by the Sea, and Sherwin Bitsui's Flood Song.

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