August 8, 2012KR BlogBlogChats

An inheritance reassembled: G.C. Waldrep on finding and keeping

G.C. Waldrep believes in paying attention, and in Disclamor, he pays a very specific kind of attention: to the psychological ambiance of place. More than just “place” in general, the poems in Disclamor explore a number of decommissioned military batteries and bunkers in the Marin Headlands—sites that once showcased American martial power but which now, as newborn ruins (the gun batteries were shut down during the Cold War), serve as a bulletin board on which the collective consciousness pins its own thoughts. State regulations aside, these messages are available to anyone; the quips, threats, memorials, oeuvres, signatures, and manifestos they encompass have taken on a radically public nature. These comings and goings seem aware of their mercuriality, but nonetheless undermine the institutions of government and property. They are, as Waldrep notes in the series of poems he partially devotes to them, bizarre and arresting and telltale. These forts still stand, though a lack of upkeep since their construction circa 1890 ushers them toward obliteration; built to keep hostile ships out of the San Francisco Bay, they fulfill a modern need doubtlessly foreign to their architects. Waldrep’s poems honor this mutability. His poems are mental as much as physical acts of documentation, archiving geography while pressing at its edges, both chronological and ahistorical.

What sets Waldrep’s work with found text apart from that of his poet-finder peers is its congruency. Phrases of found language in his poems are usually delineated by italics, but otherwise, they are lodged in the poems; their status as objects is both “other” and organic. He handles the conundrums of found text not by means of investigating “first principles,” by digging up the root of language’s inherent materiality, but by drawing parallels between the worlds of formal discourse and that which intrudes into it. At times the narrative voice of Waldrep’s battery series—poems titled after the Marin Headlands fort they were composed at—is authoritative (in the sense of there being a locatable author responsible for the creation of a work) and distanced from the graffiti it observes, but it can also seem to blend into the bits of recorded text. When this happens, the division of the original from the borrowed dissolves under the fact of all language’s being on loan from some past: the project of the poet working with such materials becomes as much a matter of aesthetics as it does testimony. Trained as a social historian, Waldrep’s background is apparent in the sequence itself and in his dedication to citing—as one might a tract or study—the sources of the text he quotes, whether moss-covered walls or Miwok chants. His undertaking is an ethical one at root: there are texts in unlikely surfaces, stories beyond those that appear to be our own. And there is a duty in recognizing them, in putting forth an understanding of lineage like that of “Battery Mendell.” “Inheritance, then: / that which cannot be refused,” he writes, “that which is beyond purchase; / that which is a given, / given.”

I first met G.C., a Kenyon Review Editor at Large, at Bucknell University’s Seminar for Younger Poets when I stayed there as a fellow in June. By then, I’d already read Disclamor, as well as many of his other writings (including Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, a collaboration with John Gallaher that interrogates co-authorship in its own way), and was taken with its on-again, off-again relationship with narrative. Hard at work at MacDowell—and on preparing The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, an anthology he co-edited with Joshua Corey for Ahsahta Press, for publication—G.C. took the time to answer some questions I sent him.

The Kenyon Review: How do you think of your own writing in relation to found items, whether they be explicitly material (anonymous graffiti) or non-material (eavesdropped speech, anecdotes, etc.)? How much of our experience do we, in fact, own?

G.C. Waldrep: There are two ways I could answer the question. The first would involve my experience in the Marin Headlands in the spring of 2003—more about that below. Faced with seemingly impenetrable writer’s block, I set myself a site-specific compositional rubric. As part of that rubric, I gave myself permission to utilize found text at each of the sites in question. The result was “The Batteries,” a sequence that became part of my second book, Disclamor. Since I cited (and sited) the graffiti I appropriated, I don’t think I really “owned” it, as such.

A second key might be “eavesdropping.” As it happens I have deficient eyesight and hearing, not enough to impair my regular function but enough that I can, as my colleague Karla Kelsey puts it, “squint,” either with the eye or the ear, without difficulty. Some of my best lines—especially the generative lines, the bits of poetic grist from which poems develop—come from phrases I’ve misheard in conversation or (at least initially) misread as text. I guess you could say I “own” such material—I make a lyric and creative claim to it—by mishearing or misreading it.

I tell my students, often, that if you’re truly paying attention, you don’t have to make anything up, to succeed as a writer: material is all around you. (That said, I also love making things up.)

Fort Barry (Flickr/CreativeCommons; swerdroid)

KR: In the first section of his poem, “On Being Numerous,” George Oppen’s speaker claims that “There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / Is to know ourselves.’” Keeping in mind Oppen’s thesis, what is it to see an object, especially in a world chock-full of them?

GCW: Oppen’s hymn-like demand for purity (in writing, in seeing, in living) is always a goad to me, especially since he violates his sterner precepts willfully in his best poems. Note that Oppen is not saying, here, that objects in the material world act as mirrors: we do not see them and (through them) see ourselves; we see them and, through some curious metaphysical process, come to know ourselves. I think it’s a little like echolocation in bats: the sounds we make bounce off the material world, whereby we know where (and, if we are lucky, who) we are.

I think true sight is an act of sustained attention, and sustained attention is something we have all too little of in our cultural moment. There is, of course, a poetry of inattention, that rides the delirious crest of cultural reference and noise. But to see is something else again. It takes time, a curious imbrication of sensory input and intellectual consideration and allusive context. I personally am less interested in knowing myself more perfectly through sight than I am in sight on sight’s terms, as a cathexis, a protocol of apprehension of what is not-me.

KR: To what extent is language itself a found thing? I mean this in two senses: one, for the “forgers” of language, whoever they are and whatever that means, and another for those who are born into a language—who “find” it that way.

GCW: Linguists have a lot to say about this, don’t they? About language acquisition and appropriation. Virtually all humans (with the exception, perhaps, of the congenitally deaf) are born into language… and reborn into it day by day as they mature. It serves as a tool, a conduit running in both directions. If one is a writer, then there are vast storehouses of prefabricated language at our disposal, and not just for what we normally think of as “literature.” This is our inheritance. It’s all ours.

If what you’re asking, though, is about the extent to which poetic language is pre-existent, then I think the question is more specific, and more serious: because it introduces an ethical component. I was trained as a historian, and the rules for citation and usage were very clear. They’re not as clear in poetry, where allusion and appropriation are organic to the creative process.

One of my former teachers once told me that there are three sorts of “found” language, and that one may appropriate two of them at will, on the poem’s terms. The first is non-poetic language (language coming from sources other than poems). The second is archival language, language from the literary tradition that is of sufficient age (and in the public domain!) that one feels secure in adapting it to present purposes. The third kind of language, according to my former teacher, is language from living poets. You do NOT appropriate such language, he felt, without explicit citation and permission.

I see the ethical root of this argument, although to my inner historian drawing the line at that point seems odd.

As for forging: maybe that is the question. If we do not cite sources, in the traditional manner(s), then to what extent are we placing appropriated language under pressure? What sorts of pressure? How different must the resulting language be, in order to stand on its own?

Fort Barry (Flickr/CreativeCommons; swerdroid)

KR: In a essay about “repurposing” text written for the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2011, Kenneth Goldsmith said: “With an unprecedented amount of available text, our problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, parse it, organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours.” This implies something about the lineage of all writings: that they partake liberally of their ancestors, that acts of creation are really acts of presentation (or re-presentation). Is originality, if possible, still something to be striven for?

GCW: What Goldsmith’s assertion ignores is true vision: I mean in the mystico-spiritual sense, a la Blake, Yeats, Smart, et al. In other words, my (partial) objection to Goldsmith’s argument is necessarily theological: something “new” can indeed be conjured out of nothing, or from beyond (if you prefer Spicer’s formulation), or channeled from some divine source. I have experienced this as both a reader and a writer, and theologically I am committed to the possibility.

It is possible Goldsmith would view this position as a romantic mystification of an essential condition. I view it as a theological clarification of an even more essential condition.

Whether one ought to “strive” for originality is also a theological question, for me. In my case, one “strives” for a closer walk with God; the poetry is (or is not) a tangible emblem of that relationship.

Fort Barry (Flickr/CreativeCommons; Repoort)

KR: Does the author using found text have any ethical obligations in doing so? In lieu of a citable author, should some other fact about where the work was “found” be offered—geographical coordinates, description of the location, date discovered, etc.? Or is there something about the act of appropriating text that’s “out in the world,” so to speak, that makes attribution moot or even counterproductive?

GCW: My swiftest answer is a categorical yes. An author consciously appropriating someone else’s text should find a way to cite—or at least cue—his or her sources. On the other hand, most poets I know—including those who engage in appropriation regularly—have a distinct aversion to cluttering up the results of their poetic labor (their poems) with citation apparatus.

I understand this—at times I have shared the feeling—but I’m also intrigued. Why the opposition to footnotes in poems? They interrupt the reader’s experience, sure, but then so do many other rhetorical moves: so does the line break itself, almost by definition. They suggest that a larger world outside the strict parameters afforded by the poem; they remind the reader of this fact continually.  And this is… a problem? How or why?

One would think we’d have come further since the brouhaha over Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land.

Of course, it’s not just footnotes (or endnotes). There are many means, with varying degrees of specificity and accuracy, of citing one’s sources in and out of the weft of the actual poem. We’ve even had whole books of poems (Jenny Boully, Kristina Darling) consisting solely of citations, using the footnote as the basis for a new lyric form.  I’d like to see more work that explores this relationship.

As it happens I’ve been in warm (if not hot) water twice in my career as a poet for allusions that were not apprehended as such by readers. In one case, I’d quoted a few lines from a poet I thought of as a major American voice, assuming others would recognize them; it turns out the poet in question is not so well-known, and many readers missed the reference. (One reviewer even selected those particular lines for praise, until I saw a copy of the review and corrected it.) In another case, a poem that was meant as an homage was misinterpreted by the individual it was intended to honor. In both cases I wished I’d somehow made a more explicit record of what I was doing, or trying to do.

KR: Kent Johnson, in a comment on Matvei Yankelevich’s recent open letter to Marjorie Perloff in the Los Angeles Review of Books, mentioned that a piece in the Claudius App falsely ascribed the authorship of a book to him. “It would seem the ConPos [conceptual poets] have turned from textual appropriation towards strategies of authorial 
subterfuge and outright nominal theft,” he wrote. Is any text off-limits—names, for instance?

GCW: Appropriation is different from misattribution. Misattribution strikes me as a much more serious matter (even if Spicer got away with it, on occasion). I personally find it hilarious that Kent Johnson protests misattribution in this instance, but maybe that’s just me.

I’ve long heard—I don’t know whether it’s actually true, in legal practice—that titles can’t be copyrighted (while the texts they organize can). I find this interesting. Could one write a book called Some Trees with each poem’s title taken directly, and in order, from Ashbery? But have each poem explore totally new material? Graham Foust tried something like this (across genre lines) with his Def Leppard Panama project some years ago. Given the way these poems crept into his subsequent book, A Mouth in California, I’d love to know how that turned out, vis-à-vis Def Leppard.

At one point I was planning to spend this summer working on a project appropriating the titles of all of Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings from his metaphysical period, in chronological order, and writing poems to go with them—again, finessing the ethical question by going cross-genre (and to the dead, no less). But then this spring I received a submission to a journal I edit of…poems all reusing the titles of de Chirico paintings. So I gave that plan up. (Although a true ConPo would presumably have seen this as yet another level of intoxicating opportunity and run with it.)

I think my categorical answer has to be that no text is off-limits for poetic appropriation, but that every text so appropriated raises ethical, formal, and procedural issues specific to the case.

Battery Townsley (Flickr/CreativeCommons; LisaW123)

KR: The conversation around found text often focuses on found “content” and not so much found “forms” (permit me that reprehensible binary for a second here). But received forms are handed down, are themselves object-vehicles that change hands and owners. Poets like Ron Silliman have argued that all poetries, even those apparently formless, enact some mode of form; on this interpretation, the existence of form isn’t ever really avoided, but encountered. Is there really such thing as a non-received form?

GCW: I think this is the same question as whether, having been born into language, one can ever truly come up with anything “original” (since all conscious thought is filtered through acquired language). For me the attraction of working in fixed forms is that the constraint forces new language into being—forces the poet’s mind to go places it wouldn’t normally go on its own terms.

Of course there are nonce forms; poets develop them all the time, for a variety of purposes. Mostly they echo other formal conventions:  syntax, prose, song, Facebook, personal ads, whatever.  Remember Creeley: “form is never more than an extension of content.”

KR: The lines of found text in “The Batteries” were taken from graffiti in the gun emplacements— some over a century old—at the demilitarized Forts Barry and Cronkhite in Marin County, California. Can you tell me about the experience that led you there, and what prompted you to start writing down what you saw? You mentioned, once, that you wrote them in notebooks before cutting them up and rearranging them; how did this affect your process?

GCW: I had a case of severe writer’s block in Marin. (There were many reasons for this, I think, but the two main ones were grief and the context of an alien natural environment.) I gave myself the assignment of spending several hours over 2-3 days each at the eight gun emplacements (batteries) that once made up Forts Barry and Cronkhite. I allowed myself to take one book with me (often Darwish’s Unfortunately, It Was Paradise), but I told myself I had to remain on site for the duration of my assignment, no matter what happened—rain, tourists, boredom—whether I wrote anything or not. I took a notebook and freewrote. Later, for each battery, I typed up my scrawls and began to rearrange and reduce them. I added almost nothing to the original freewriting.

I initially copied down graffiti in desperation, because I wasn’t coming up with much—the project demanded language, and I wasn’t giving it any, so I started copying the only text at hand. Gradually I became more and more interested in the very concept of graffiti: this was a former US Army military installation-turned-National Park. What would anyone want to write, in public, at such a place?  There were the usual expletives and romantic declarations, but there were many odder bits, psychological and social loose string inflicted on the landscape. What graffiti does is what signage does, in a less sanctioned way: it makes language part of landscape. If the poem is a sign, in the semiotic sense, then so were these odd, discrete scrawls on the concrete of former bunkers.

As for my process: generally when I write poems I put myself (or am put) into something like an ecstatic state. It is very quick, when it works; most of my lyric poems were first drafted in less than five minutes (not counting the weeks/months/years spent revising). “The Batteries” were an attempt, on my part, to slow the process, to make it more intentional, to bring it into temporal relation with something outside myself.

Fort Barry (Flickr/CreativeCommons; Everfalling)

KR: When you were collecting the found materials that would make their ways into “The Batteries” (which later became part of Disclamor), were you conscious of wanting to write “about” history, the passage of eons, etc.? I ask this because of your background as a social historian, and also because several of the poems in the series, such as “Battery Townsley,” nod toward cultural genealogy and the limits of appropriation: “Nothing is off limits, now / everything is permitted,” you write, and at another point, “I am not afraid of the story you ask me to tell. / (In any case it is no longer / my story.)”

GCW: When I was on the academic job market, I was often asked how my training as a historian affected my approach to poetic practice. The easiest and most honest answer is “It doesn’t,” although after facing some disappointed expressions I learned to say other things in this connection. One common line I fed hiring committees was that my work as a social historian was about exposing and investigating silences in narrative, which gave me room (in interviews) to discuss silence as a poetic medium, a tangible or palpable substance that is as much a part of poetic practice as language, that figured not-silence.  —All of which is true enough, but it was a reach, I confess.

I’m still interested in historical narrative, but that interest is almost exclusively at odds with my poetic practice. Two very different lobes of mind in operation, never at the same time.

The two extracts you quote were, for me, nods to the ethics of my practice when I was composing “The Batteries.” I was involving myself in others’ lives, quite intentionally and in a way that seemed doubtful to me. Since those poems do, in fact, explore (or take as a point of departure) the geological, botanical, anthropological, and historical narratives of the Marin Peninsula, I felt a need to make my own position as poet part of the poem, part of the record that was the poem.

For me, the relationship of history to poetic practice is essentially one of parascription, of liminality. “The Batteries” represented a writing-around-place, just as “Noli Me Tangere” (from my first collection, Goldbeater’s Skin) represented a writing-around-narrative.

KR: Your poem “Syrinx,” from Goldbeater’s Skin, includes an italicized line from Simone Weil: “Thinking absolutely unmixed attention is prayer…” This same aesthetic approach to incorporating found text is adopted in “Luminous Bodies,” in which Plato, Epicurus, Empedocles, and others are also quoted in italics, also; like Weil’s quote, theirs are made flush within the body of the poem—the emerge not next to but within some of your sentences. How does this change the way the found text interacts with the poem as opposed to direct attribution, as is the case with the book’s epigraph from Julian of Norwich?

GCW: Julian was a remarkable woman who shut herself up in a cell for the sake of communion with God: a communion that took place twice, first in vision and then in language. She wanted to make her life flush with the body of her God as she apprehended Him. Weil wanted something very similar, in the event—and it killed her. How close do we want to get? To whom, or what? What will it cost us?

KR: Are the social-historical and poetic significances of graffiti in places like Forts Barry and Cronkhite the same? What does it mean to you, as a human being, that people come to such desolate places—that they make pilgrimages to American ruins, if you will—and leave messages, screeds, and devotions there, some signed and some unsigned?

Fort Cronkhite (Flickr/CreativeCommons; LisaW123)

GCW: Are you asking if an epigraph, a quotation, is a form of graffiti?  I think so: it’s scrawled on a public surface (the surface of the poem). As a textual usage, it sets itself off from other text in the same way that actual graffiti sets itself off against all that is not-text, against the non-textual (or sanctioned textual) environment. It’s a sign, an advertisement, a precipitating gesture.

Where Marin is concerned, I think what it means is that we all want to leave a message at the end of the world, however one defines that. Ancient graffiti in extreme locations abounds from the sub-Arctic to the Sahara. I don’t think it’s an accident that most such graffiti involves either love or violence, those two essential mysteries. As C. D. Wright put it in her excellent book of essays, Cooling Time, “Poetry is the language of intensity. Because we are going to die, an expression of intensity is justified.”

I suppose one way of looking at the exigencies that go into making any poem is this sense that “an expression of intensity is justified.” Some poems invoke such expressions; others curate them. In “The Batteries,” I felt I was more a curator—a steward, in language. I felt keenly that I was responsible (ethically, aesthetically) for my manipulations, but also that they had a purpose and that the way towards fulfilling said purpose led through the poem, the act of composition.