Sunday, April 10, 2011

On Not Waiting Alone - Your Father on the Train of Ghosts

John Gallaher & G.C. Waldrep

GCW: For me, the origin of Your Father on the Train of Ghosts was a set of largely inchoate ideas about poetry and community—about art and life. It seemed to me that we were all still mired, largely, in a Romantic conception of the poet as a solitary singer: that poetry, from both a writer’s and a reader’s standpoint, was something isolated and isolating. But this wasn’t how the Dadaists and Surrealists viewed it. As someone who has committed his life to a certain ideal of community outside the classroom and written page, the presumption bothered me. What sort of poetry might arise out of collaboration, that is, artistic community? Out of friendship?

It’s a question I’m still pondering, even after the 16 months of poetic exchanges from which YFOTTOG was sculpted. Can reading and writing be public/ collective/ collaborative acts? Rather than personal/ private/ individual? What sort of literature—what sort of poetry—might result if they were?

JG: The creation of YFOTTOG was a social act (and it still IS, as we figure out what to do with all the poems that are not in the book). That’s one of the things I really enjoyed about it. We didn’t have a purpose or plan, other than what was in front of us. It’s interesting to hear you mention the “solitary singer” conception. It’s one of the many things I didn’t know about you when we started, but it’s something I’ve also been contending with for a long time. This “solitary singer” is just as fraught (or, as I’ve also heard it termed, “authenticity”) as is “originality.” What I mean is that the notion of this Romantic I with its “authenticity” gets passed around a lot, and I think it’s largely a fantasy. Just as “originality” is largely a fantasy. These are relative terms, not absolutes.

Poems, in reality, come from everywhere the poet can find them: memory, environment, gum wrappers. It’s all reaching out into the context to add something new. The poet just tunes in to whatever works. It’s been my general feeling all my writing life that all writing is collaborative. One collaborates with the world. Working on this book has made it literal. It’s given the world an email address, so to speak.

For many years these two questions have continued to tap me on the shoulder:

What are you going to listen to?
What are you going to listen for?

I think they’re two of the fundamental questions for artists, whether the artist thinks directly about it or not, as the answers to these questions become the metaphors the poet will use to tune into the process. If the poet believes poetry comes from inside, this singer you mentioned, the poet will tune to that. If the poet believes poetry comes from outside, the poet will tune to that.

That’s the LISTEN TO. And it matters, because what one listens to will exclude things that one could listen to. So one has to have a belief as to where poems come from. Then there’s the LISTEN FOR. And what one listens for matters, because when one tunes to one thing, one will invariably miss other things. Like conversations in a crowded room, something will/must get filtered out. But, either way, the inside and the outside will both still get in. There is always bleed-through.

I found myself circling this formulation many times during the back and forth that became YFOTTOG. A poem written by you would pop up in my inbox, and I was to read it and then respond. And what form would that response take? We both went through many versions of what “responding” meant.

GCW: Jack Spicer says “The words are counters, and the whole structure of language is essentially a counter. It’s an obstruction to what the poem wants to do….” So, if language is a game—if poetry is a sort of game we play with language—what then is a “response”? What are the words, the poems in earnest of?

JG: Spicer’s been important to both of us in this way, I think? I suppose, to use his terms, the response is predicated upon what furniture we leave in the room for the voices to inhabit. How we prepare. Or unprepare.

GCW: Although sometimes, it’s the voices that turn out to be the furniture. We live here, we move some things around, some things move us around. A heart attack. A radio. A poem is a vessel, or a poem is searching for a vessel. Or…something else, entirely?

One of the reasons I liked using the particular Spicer quotation for an epigraph for the book—“Like somebody knocking on your door at three in the morning, you know. And you try to pretend that you aren’t breathing”—is that I’ve never been entirely sure just what the space opened up by poetry is.

A colleague of mine here at Bucknell recently defined the poem—a poem, any poem, literature itself—as essentially a space of waiting, in part because while you’re reading, you’re not really “doing” anything. In another context, I’ve written “Poetry is like entering a room someone or something has just left. Maybe it’s a homey sitting room, fire crackling in the grate, inviting; maybe it’s a sumptuously-appointed hall. Either way, you’re the only one there. There was music playing, but it’s quiet now. You’ve missed someone or something important by minutes, perhaps even seconds. The telephone has just been ringing—somehow you know this—and you pick it up, just in time to hear click.”

For me, this was part of the essential mystery of YFOTTOG—writing poems in this voice that was neither John’s nor mine, but somehow a stepping-outside of our usual voices, perhaps of Voice itself.

What do poems do when we’re not reading them? …is one way of thinking about it. What are they up to?

JG: I swear I saw some minor poems of Wallace Stevens’s wandering aimlessly in the soda aisle at Walmart the other night. They seemed rather forlorn. For me, this sort of defining is fun, as it creates an architecture, or a landscape where we can think of poetry going, not just the singular poem. I’ve always been more interested in poetry than poems, if that makes any sense. There’s a form of letting go involved. Neil Young talks about it. How technically proficient musicians can play better than he can, but they come to a wall. He likes to go through the wall. Collaboration is a form of that, I think. At least it felt that way to me. I was writing talking to a friend and I had no idea where we were going, where it was taking us. The friend part, the poem I was responding to, took over, and then whatever happened happened, wall or no wall.

GCW: The last time this happened to me, with a friend, we wound up eating Ethiopian in Brooklyn....

I’m interested in that wall, though. Is it keeping us from something, or is it the something from which we are being kept? Should we try to scale it, or decorate it, or blow it up? Sketch it in pastels? Tell our pets about it, late at night?

JG: Now that we’re no longer writing YFOTTOG, I have a recurring sense of loss. While we were exchanging poems (the average, I think, was that between us we wrote 2.5 poems a day) everything I was doing was to feed the poems. I felt like all my receptors were open. And now, I have only myself to wait for. There’s a loneliness to that. I wonder if others who have worked collaboratively feel this way.

Just a minute ago, I went looking for the title of a collaborative book I read years ago, to mention in this exchange. It was written by Olga Broumas and Jane Miller, and is titled Black Holes, Black Stockings. While looking for it, I came across a book with the subtitle “New Ideas for the Imaginative Quilter.” That’s just the sort of thing that would have gotten directly folded into the collaboration. I would know that what you’d send would relate to imaginative quilting. There would be a connection, as there’s always a connection. And then I’d just tune in. But now what do I do with this thing? This little scrap? I have to wait to think of something or for the voices to speak or something.

There’s a definite sense of loss in that. Just as I feel this sense of loss about the 290 or whatever poems we wrote that didn’t end up in the book. Where are they to go? Seattle or something? They don’t exist for me or you, they exist for each other. If we don’t do something with them together we won’t do something with them, right? Will they become mercenaries? Competitive quilters?

GCW: They will form their own support groups, certainly. I can see them sitting in little circles in church basements, late at night, saying “Hi, my name is ‘New Ideas for the Imaginative Quilter,’ and....”

JG: “… and I’ve wasted my life waiting,” yeah. Now we’re back to waiting, and one of the definition of poetry. So is that how it ends, then? They wait? Or we do? Either way, I would suggest collaboration, and others would as well, as I’m seeing more collaborations these days. It must be something in the water. Maybe that’s one of the things about long exposure to fluoridation the Keep America Committee tried to warn us about.

But at least when you collaborate, you don’t have to wait alone.


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