G.C. Waldrep and Your Father on the Train of Ghosts
Matthew Thorburn asked me awhile back about G.C. Waldrep’s poems:
“I'd love to hear what you like about the Waldrep book, John. I know everybody's crazy about his poems, but I can't figure my way into them.”
Good question. At the time, I didn’t want to reply, because I have a close relationship with a lot of Waldrep’s poems, as we’ve written a (or two, depending on how you look at it, but more on that below) manuscript together, and I wanted to be able to talk about that, but at the time he and I were in conversations about publishing it, and I wanted to wait until there was a resolution. So, anyway, there is now a resolution, and the book, titled (probably) Your Father on the Train of Ghosts will be coming out from BOA Editions in the Spring of 2011, and it’ll be around 140 pages long.
Needless to say, I’m not an unbiased reader of G.C. Waldrep’s work. So here’s what I want to say, first off, about Archicembalo. It’s written in the “manner of a musical primer” as Rosmarie Waldrop writes on the jacket, and all the titles are forms of the question Who or What is something: “Who is Thelonious Monk,” “What is Counterpoint.” These are jumping off places, not places for direct investigation, in my reading.
I read these poems in prose as a sort of intellectual autobiography, or maybe in the way of “Everyone’s Autobiography.” That sort of thing. The book incorporates a panoply of tones, and a possibility of tones, where the reader is given a kind of ethics of involvement with the world (or in the world). Take, for instance, this little bit, from page 16:
Stage direction: wires and harness. (See What is Roman Catholicism.)
First off; of, course, there is no entry in Archicembalo for “What is Roman Catholicism.” Just as there are no entries for the numerous parenthetical notes that readers are directed to. But what does this line do then? It finds itself in a poem titled, “What is Opera.” It’s a stage direction bringing to mind the omnipresent deus ex machine, and then a nod (and editorial comment) toward its place in Roman Catholic belief and practice. It’s a very small moment, and easy enough to track. But then the poem moves directly to this:
The first touches of grace and unresolved games are being prepared here.
The poem doesn’t let itself resolve. It won’t, and Archicembalo in general won’t, allow for the reductions of final thoughts. It won’t be just a little joke on Roman Catholicism, any more than it’s an endorsement of any one thing other than further contact. It’s an investigation of our interior complexity where “grace” and “unresolved games” can be placed together as a unity. Anyway, that’s how I read it.
And then, moving on to this “accidental book” (as G.C. called it). I can’t remember why we had an email exchange. But I do remember that I affixed a poem that I had just written to the bottom of an email to him, as I often do. His response was something along the lines of “I like to respond to such things with poems of my own, so sending a poem to me is a dangerous thing.” I could look it up, as it’s still there somewhere in my email, but that’s the gist of it. My response was something along the lines of “bring it on.” And so we started sending poems back and forth at a rather furious pace, lifting things from each other, riffing off things from each other, and speaking back to something, some tone or subject or maneuver, from each other, to the tune of something like 200 poems.
Undaunted, a year or so later, which was this last winter/ spring, as we were finishing up putting the manuscript together, which we were now calling Your Father on the Train of Ghosts (which came out of a mash-up of images we were finding recurring in the poems), we started writing poems back and forth again in the same way, this time, to the tune of 140 or so poems. Many of these poems (the fist run and the second) are now being published in journals (I’m reading some of his right now in the new Quarterly West, for instance) with his or my name on them, but when the book comes out, the individual poems won’t be attributed. It’s much cleaner just to put both names on the cover, and let that be it.
Writing that many poems with someone does not leave one unchanged. I feel very lucky right now to have had this experience, and I look forward to the experiences to come (reading together this fall in Colorado, and then going through the production process, and then, of course, the question of what to do with the hundreds of poems that don’t make it into the book. I’ve suggested a designer line of wallpaper, just so you know.)