How has your first book changed your life?
75. G.C. Waldrep
Goldbeater's Skin won the 2003 Colorado Prize for Poetry--how did you find out? How often had you sent the manuscript out by then?
I sent my manuscript out to about a dozen first-book contests between October 2002 and January 2003. I was lucky: I was rejected by the first publisher to get back to me, was a runner-up with the second, and was selected by the third.
Stephanie G'Schwind of the Colorado Review called with the good news in early March. At the time I did not have a permanent address; I'd been using my parents' contact information in North Carolina. As it happened I'd been traveling and had just returned to my parents' house after something like 17 hours on a Greyhound bus. The telephone rang as I was standing in my parents' foyer, still clutching a suitcase. I answered, thanked the caller, and then fell (partly clothed) into a spare bed. I had to call back the following morning, both to make sure that I really had heard what I thought I heard and to apologize for my previous insensibility.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Yes. I was underwhelmed with Colorado's history of book design, but in the end both Stephanie and I were very pleased with the cover. It took some time to get through to Anselm Kiefer (via his New York gallery), but in the end he not only gave me permission to use his work, he also waived his usual fee. Which meant as much to me as anything relating to the book's publication.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
My author's copies arrived in a box at my apartment door in mid-December, 2003. I was sick in bed with the flu at the time and didn't even make it to the door for another day or two.
Oddly, I can't recall what I felt, or thought, when I actually did open the box. Sometimes when we return from the country of illness we find certain pages have been ripped from our passports. I suppose I must have been very happy. I wonder whether I took a copy back to bed with me. I'm guessing that I did.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
There is something ontologically affirming about seeing one's work achieve a presence in the physical world.
Well, people know the book, and the work, and this is nice. Having a book out in the world opens other doors. I suppose the biggest practical difference was that when the time came to shop a second manuscript around, I was largely able to avoid the contest scene by querying editors based on the success of Goldbeater's Skin.
What have you done to promote the book and how do you feel about it?
I have an ambivalent attitude toward book promotion. On the one hand, I dislike and distrust the economy of self-promotion (which, when one publishes with a small press, is the only kind of effective promotion there is). On the other hand, I do like reading my work aloud. Having trained originally as a singer, rather than as a writer, the quality of the work on the tongue is important to me. Readings, then, are less a chore than a pleasure.
What kind of singing did you study? And how extensive was the training and why did you not become a singer (if that was among the reasons for training)?
I trained in early music while I was an undergraduate. The Boston area was, and continues to be, the center of early music performance and scholarship in North America, so I was in a good location. I also had access to very good teachers, including tenor Frank Kelly and countertenor Jeffrey Gall. I sang in several groups over the course of four years and took coursework in conducting.
In any human endeavor that requires both training and innate physical prowess (music, ballet, football), there comes a moment when you have to ask yourself whether you really have a sufficient gift to move forward with it, base your life decisions on it. I had a nice high lyric tenor voice that was suited to the early repertoire, which I loved. But my voice was rather undependable, for performance purposes (I have my father's family's tendency toward sinus infections). Nor did I have the theory background I needed to continue with conducting at the conservatory level. At the end of my senior year I received a fellowship to study U.S. history, so I did that instead.
Do you still like to sing?
Yes. I have distant family connections to the folk musical tradition known as shape-note singing. About the same time I began to think about not pursuing early music in a serious way, I started singing in that very different repertoire and tradition, out of the Sacred Harp and other nineteenth-century American tunebooks. I still do, as often as I can.
And did history somehow lead you to poetry?
No. I don't know what led me to poetry, to be honest. I had "wanted to be a writer" when I was a teenager, but mainly fiction; I even took an undergraduate fiction workshop at Harvard. I started writing poetry after I dropped out of academia and joined the Amish, in 1995. Suffice to say it's as much of a mystery to me now as it was then. I remember thinking "Poems? Why am I writing poems?" Sometimes we find what we were looking for. Sometimes what we didn't know we were looking for finds us.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
I don't recall anyone offering advice, beyond the admonition that I should remember it was, in the end, my book, and should remain so through all subsequent negotiations with editors or publishers.
What advice would you give to someone about to have a first book published?
As above. Also, be proactive in the process. Do not assume--especially if you are publishing with a small press--that everything is moving smoothly ahead just because you haven't heard anything lately. Small-press editors and interns are as overworked as they are passionate about poetry. Sometimes they make mistakes. Although I had an excellent experience working with the Center for Literary Publishing, not everyone I know who has recently had a first book published elsewhere was that fortunate.
Many publishers will not appreciate your attempts to infiltrate the design process--if this is important to you (as it was to me)--but if you go into the process with artwork you recommend in hand and a cogent take on what you do and don't want, you'll stand a better chance of being heard when the time comes. Do your homework ahead of time. Be prepared.
The existence of a book, however magical, has a residual tendency to reify the writing it contains--to somehow separate it from process, from the active, generative ground of a writer's life. I suppose in my case the publication of Goldbeater's Skin and my forthcoming collection (Disclamor) have both encouraged me to think "There, I did that, I'm done with that. What's next?"
How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your subsequent writing?
Goldbeater's Skin received five reviews (that I'm aware of). I'm always grateful for the attention of others and vaguely surprised that anyone read, or liked, the work at all.
The strangest part of a book's reception is when it passes into the hands of persons unknown to the writer. Perhaps because the world of contemporary poetry is so intimate, it never really occurred to me (before the book was published) that the book would be read, and possibly even appreciated, by people I'd never met, or even heard of. This has proven both flattering and deeply unsettling.
Literature has always been, on some crucial level, a conversation, among poets, among poems. Poets and poems speak to one another in odd, unpredictable ways, both in the contemporary moment and across the chasm of death. The most rewarding critical response to my work is when another poet mentions that he or she read a poem of mine and wrote a new poem in response. This is how literature extends itself, unfurls in the culture and in our lives. It is deeply humbling to imagine playing some part, however small, in this ramification, this unfurling.
This question is, for me, essentially theological. Do you presume we get to choose?
That would be telling, wouldn't it? (grin) But yes, in the end, I think it can. Not often, perhaps. I think poetry is essentially a response to this world, to the existential condition of being in this world. And, of course, to the parallel and even less tractable condition of being-in-language. When we read a poem--a poem that moves us, that marks us--it becomes part of our subjective, existential experience. We are changed. And, thus incorporated into the act of being, the poem influences what we are able to allow ourselves in the future: to witness, to hope for, to bear.
This is no small thing, it seems to me. Of course, other experiences may have the same effect. But poetry's peculiar distillation of being into language renders it voluble, I think, in the moments that matter most. It becomes a way of speaking the world back (in)to the world, which is not only an aesthetic performance, but also an ethical act. This is what I value in the poetry that most moves me, whether Stein or Milosz, and in contemporary voices as diverse as Carl Phillips, John Taggart, Anne Carson, Lyn Hejinian, and Brigit Kelly.
A poem from Goldbeater's Skin by G.C. Waldrep:
Varieties of Religious Experience
with apologies to William James
I want to lie down in a room of blue sand.
The light is brighter here, or rather
In the room of blue sand will be a
Walking out this morning I enjoy the presence of a companion.
That I want what I cannot have
My companion whistles beside me.
I want to draw a circle large enough in the snow
Understand: that the room of blue sand presupposes
Third error: dream of a common language
For my companion there is no such room, nor should he want it.
I desire this room for myself alone.
In my dream, my companion and I stood in a snowy field.
To posit a mountain is to presuppose
Phenomenon: subdued thunder of the ram from the spring-
To posit a mountain is,
Phenomenon: flow of water from the spring-hollow,
The faint tapping in the room of blue sand promises security,
That I wish to lie down at all is at best a grave impropriety.
Also a moist dripping from the walls,
My companion and I walk down to the lower of the ponds
Phenomenon: stab of pale beaks in the cold water.
Seven today, four males, three females.
We walk across a low causeway.
I consider the possibility that the room of blue sand may be subterranean.
I cannot help myself. Before I know it
. . .
. . .