Close listening with Keith Waldrop, 2009

Keith Waldrop reads at the Kelly Writers House, 2009.

Editorial note: The following has been adapted from a Close Listening conversation recorded November 5, 2009, at the Kelly Writers House for PennSound and Art International Radio. Keith Waldrop was born in Kansas and attended a fundamentalist high school in South Carolina. His pre-med studies were interrupted when he was drafted to be an army engineer. He received his PhD in comparative literature from the University of Michigan in 1964. Waldrop and his wife, Rosmarie Waldrop, have coedited Burning Deck Press since 1968. A Windmill Near Calvary, Waldrop’s first published book of poems, was nominated for the National Book Award. He has translated many French poets’ writings, and he has written poetry, fictional memoir, mixed verse, and prose. His poetry collections include Several Gravities (Siglio, 2009), a collection of collages; Transcendental Studies (University of California Press, 2009), a trilogy of collage poems which won the National Book Award for Poetry; and a translation of Charles Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (Wesleyan, 2009). Among many other works, he also wrote the trilogy The Locality Principle (1995); The Silhouette of the Bridge, which won the Americas Award for Poetry (1997); and Semiramis, If I Remember (2001). For his contribution to French literature, he received a medal from the French government with the rank of Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters. He has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Berlin Artists Program of the DAAD. He teaches at Brown University. This interview was transcribed by Kate Herzlin and has been edited for Jacket2. Listen to the audio program here. — Katie Price

Charles Bernstein
: Welcome to Close Listening, Art International Radio’s program of readings and conversation with poets presented in collaboration with PennSound. My guest today, for the second of two shows, is Keith Waldrop. My name is Charles Bernstein. Keith Waldrop grew up in Kansas and studied at Aix-Marseilles and Michigan Universities, earning a doctorate in comparative literature in 1964. His most recent collection of poetry, among many others, is Transcendental Studies from University of California Press, a trilogy of collage poems. Sun and Moon published a fictional memoir, Light While There Is Light. He has been a prolific translator of French poetry, from Charles Baudelaire to contemporary poets such as Anne-Marie Albiach and Claude Royet-Journoud. He teaches at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Keith, welcome back to Close Listening.

Keith Waldrop: Thank you, thank you.

Bernstein: Keith, can you tell me about your earliest experience or encounter with poetry as a young person living in Kansas? One of the poems you read in the first show, you had a line “at least I will not die in Kansas.” [Waldrop laughs.] Although you really can’t be sure of that.

Waldrop: Nah, I can’t be sure, though I haven’t been there for over fifty years.

Bernstein: Even so!

Waldrop: But it’s true, I could be going through there —

Bernstein: You could be abducted and brought back there. [Laughs.]

Waldrop: Yeah, yes. [Pause.] Well, until I went to high school, I think basically I read almost nothing but comic books and the Bible.

Bernstein: Which comic books did you like?

Waldrop: Oh, I read Superman and Batman, they were all in an early phase at that time, in the ’30s. And then I actually went to high school in South Carolina, to a fundamentalist school in South Carolina. And it was there I started really reading poetry and started trying to write it. I wrote — I remember writing a narrative poem about the universal flood, I hope no trace of it remains. I think it’s gone.

Bernstein: Actually, there are now ways we can retrieve things in the brain, bring them out, and make printouts.

Waldrop: No, not in this brain. [Laughter.] Actually, my first love was really theatre, and I was writing, trying to write plays mainly. And then —

Bernstein: This is high school still you’re talking about?

Waldrop: In high school. And then I started trying to do both poetry and stories. But I had thought I would — I never thought of myself as a writer, but I always thought, I’ll write, whatever else I do. And for some reason I decided I would become a psychiatrist. And so in college I was a pre-med. And went back to Kansas, actually, for college. And then I was drafted, but I lacked two courses of finishing my BA, and by the time I got out of the army — but it had started long before then — I had soured to the idea of being a psychiatrist. I had sort of come to my senses.

Bernstein: Let me back up for a second, because obviously this is something you evoke in Light While There Is Light. I’ll just use the term “artist” — literary artist, playwright, so on. How did that connect up with your surroundings growing up as a Christian, and how does Christianity itself — this is the big question in a way — 

Waldrop: Well —

Bernstein: — figure in your work, Mr. Waldrop, throughout time and eternity? But let’s talk about the first moment, in which the way, the art in relationship to the kind of belief systems that you were a part of and the surrounding relationship.

Waldrop: Well, I sort of realized from a fairly early time that my — this is especially in high school, but even slightly before that, but in high school it was definitely there — that I realized my only salvation, salvation, mind you —

Bernstein: I’m hearing that, that jumped right out at me.

Waldrop: — was to know the Bible better than the people who were telling me what to do. [Bernstein laughs.] And so I managed to get a very good knowledge, not [just] of the Bible, because I don’t know any of the languages it was written in, but the King James version, which I have a very good knowledge of. And in fact, I teach a course sometimes at Brown, which is called “The Bible as a Literary Source Book.” And I point out all the things in, or many things in the language that come from the Bible, which doesn’t indicate that the person using them is religious, or thinks of the Bible at that moment or anything. They’re part of the language because it’s a Protestant country in which everybody was reading the Bible. Even if they didn’t read it, they knew it, because they heard it. And that has been extremely important to me in my language. Years ago, I also wrote poems about biblical characters and such, but I haven’t done that for a while. But the biblical language and the, in some ways, something from the tone of biblical language, although I hope my poems don’t sound like the Bible, but —

Bernstein: Well, part of what you’re saying is that the King James Bible is a source for a whole range of metaphors and symbolic language —

Waldrop: That’s right.

Bernstein: Even if you reject it, it still pops up.

Waldrop: And for a kind of sound that is there.

Bernstein: And yet your work seems so relentlessly to avert, in that Emersonian sense —

Waldrop: Yes, yes.

Bernstein:  — a biblical sound of authority. That’s something that I never noticed in any of your works.

Waldrop: No, no.

Bernstein: You must be very consciously —

Waldrop: I have very consciously avoided, yes, you’re right, exactly. And it remains a background, nevertheless, one that’s in some ways completely rejected but in other ways I don’t try to avoid any sound at all from it.

Bernstein: Well you know, Claude Lévi-Strauss, who died a couple of days ago, compares the way to deal with the “other” as one system that we have in the United States, that we incarcerate it or attack it, but another system, as in cannibalism, is that you eat it, or you digest it.

Waldrop: Yes, yes.

Bernstein: So perhaps you’re —

Waldrop: Well, I digested it, all right. Yes, yes.

Bernstein: Now, you mention going into the army. And what was that like? What year did you go in?

Waldrop: Well, I was drafted, it wasn’t my idea. And it was an awkward moment, although it turned out to be something rather wonderful, because I went in — actually, at the very end of the Korean conflict, after it was practically over, but it wasn’t quite over, so I got the GI Bill.

Bernstein: Ah.

Waldrop: Technically, I’m a Korean veteran, though I never went near Korea. Instead, I was made into an army engineer, believe it or not [Bernstein laughs], and sent to the engineer school in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where I became a water purification specialist. And was sent to Germany. And so I was in Germany for some time, which is where I met Rosmarie. And —

Bernstein:  — who was also interested in water purification.

Waldrop: Well, the water there was —

Bernstein: [Laughter.] You could hear Rosmarie in the background.

Waldrop: Well, the water there was fine, but actually I became clerk typist once I was there because I was the only person in the company who could type fast.

Bernstein: What is a fictional memoir rather than an actual memoir or fiction?

Waldrop: Well, it’s a, it’s, I use — 

Bernstein: The choice seems real.

Waldrop: In a sense, it’s a novel about my family. And some of them are in there by name. But it’s not all true, and I wrote it as a novel — that is, I wrote it using the material of a memoir but writing it as a novel, which meant that it was more important to me how the formal things came out, how the chapters sounded, than to get the facts right. And much of it is fairly what happened.

Bernstein: Right, it evokes so much, from my reading of it, of what must have been your life experience.

Waldrop: Basically it is, but if you went into details, they’re not all right.

Bernstein: Right. So, place names, and characters, things like that.

Waldrop: Yes. I kept the original names of my immediate family, though my siblings all have a different last name, and I never put that name in anywhere.

Bernstien: Do you want to tell us what that is now?

Waldrop: Black.

Bernstein: Black? [Waldrop laughs.] You had, I thought, a hysterically funny line, which I remembered from before. That you were “between two generations. [Waldrop laughs] The drunk and the stoned —”

Waldrop: Yes, Yes.

Bernstein: And I’m taking that, like a reference to the King James Bible. That is actually a cultural reference, not just a literary reference, between baby boomers and perhaps what Tom Brokaw calls, “the greatest generation.”

Waldrop: Yeah.

Bernstein: And in a way, confessional poets, and a certain texture, people drinking in the ’50s versus something else. So I’m interested in how you think about that in terms of your own literary affiliations and affinities, which remain very open and ambiguous. I mean, you’re a poet who’s managed to not be looked at always in the context of a number of other poets or within generations, schools, groups [as they] often get configured in the New American Poetry. And this comment was very funny, from that point of view, to me.

Waldrop: Yeah, well I’ve always felt — not belonging to a … there’s a generation older than me and there’s a generation younger than me, and I don’t, I wouldn’t feel comfortable being mainly in one or the other, or either one. I feel sort of in-between.

Bernstein: Yeah, I mean, you’re for me, you and Rosmarie, although you both, you fit slightly outside my exact crazy dates but fit into what I think of as a very important generation of people who are very young during the Second World War. And so therefore, older than the so-called “baby boomers” but also younger than the main New American poets. So Susan Howe, for example. Clark Coolidge, Robert Grenier. All of whom are actually characterized in a way by a deep sense of disaffiliation, as I would call political, but the very fact of disaffiliation would suggest it wouldn’t want to be characterized as political in a way.

Waldrop: Yeah, right, right, exactly. Yeah, you’re quite right.

Bernstein: So what was your sense of the poets who you first sort of connected with, either somewhat older than you or your own contemporaries, that gave you a sense of context for your writing? Not people doing what you were doing, but sort of, you felt, maybe even a camaraderie with.

Waldrop: Well, I read the Lowell/Wilbur generation. And actually, I like their poems — that is, I like Wilbur’s, and I like early Lowell; later’s something else. But then I discovered Creeley, and that group. And they meant a great deal to me. Trying to think of who —

Bernstein: Do you feel that there is a conflict between these two configurations, as has often been figured, especially in terms of the ’50s?

Waldrop: Well, I never felt it as a problem. I know at that time you were getting the war of the anthologies, and you were either called an academic or a beat.

Bernstein: Raw and cooked.

Waldrop: I always thought that was rather silly, so when we started the magazine Burning Deck, I continuously made the point that this was a — it was not an academic or a beat, it was something that was to publish the poets that we liked, whatever side. And we reviewed — I reviewed mainly — people of all sorts.

Bernstein: And yet your own work, would — again, not from your point of view, but from an external point of view — seem to clearly fall into a New American Poetry context and not into the other context, as it has a social and external reality, not talking about the internal dynamic of the work.

Waldrop: Well, that’s partly because my earlier poetry wasn’t mainly published at all, and it would give more of a doubt to that, you know. It would be more balanced between very formalized metrical things and rhyme and such.

Bernstein: And you’re talking about your work before Windmill Near Calvary?

Waldrop: Yes.

Bernstein: Yeah, ’cause it comes somewhat later in your — I mean, you were young, but not as young. So, well there is an interesting issue too. Goes back to a generation older than you, and what we’re talking about, but the sort of free verse or what I would call nonmetrical, or polymetrical poetry —

Waldrop: Yeah, yeah.

Bernstein: And metrical poetry. Which is something I know you have continuously been interested in and work in. How do you think about that? Now, I’m not asking about what you think about the larger issue, in terms of American poetry, but in terms of your own work. I wouldn’t characterize your work as “free verse”; for one thing, I don’t like that term — it implies a lack of patterning and sound.

Waldrop: Well, I, in looking through my poems to find something to read for this, I was very surprised how many rhymes and how many metrical lines there were in the first book. And before that, I had been writing some completely metrical things, and for a while then I got away from it completely. Now I don’t consciously think, you know, I want this to be something like five feet long or so many syllables, but I don’t think of it as free in the sense that it’s like prose.

Bernstein: Well, it’s like you’re saying with the King James Bible; it’s sort of internalized in your ear so it may come out in a dispersed way.

Waldrop: Yeah, exactly. Yes, yes. 

Bernstein: I want to come back to that, the second one when I ask you about collage. But I want to ask you just to talk about one poem that you read, The Locality Principle. Talk a little bit about the sources of that poem, any kind of compositional thoughts or structures you may have had beforehand, or looking at it in retrospect.

Waldrop: Yeah. The Locality Principle is an unusual book for me because it was all written in one year in a particular place; we were living in London. It’s the only one of my books that has a date line at the end telling you when and where it was written, because otherwise I usually have things that I wrote ten years before or just put in or whatever. It’s mainly a book which is prose and proceeds; it’s not a novel, but it has a kind of story in it. Then at the end, it has a group of poems which sort of compress the main elements that were earlier in the prose, so that what I read of “Theme,” for instance, very differently tuned, like violin and piano. There’s a small chapter in the prose talking about the fact that a violin is tuned. If it’s playing with a piano, it tunes to A, but then the other strings are tuned by beats rather than by the piano, and therefore they’re really, they’re tuned differently than the piano. And of course, really when you’re playing a violin it doesn’t make that much difference, because you don’t usually play, you use the open strings anyway, put your fingers somewhere, and you cancel that difference. But it’s two instruments playing with a different tonality and yet they go together, and so the poem in the back sort of brings that into a small statement, and in a way the poem only makes sense if you’ve read the rest of the book, or read the earlier part of the book.

Bernstein: Thinking of polyphony, or chordal overlayering –– I want to ask you about your use of the term “collage,” your interest in collage. But in multiple senses. You have a new book of your visual collages — that is to say things that are made by taking cut-up pieces and pasting together — but there are poems in relationship to that, so it has an ekphrastic aspect, that is to say essentially poems that relate to or interact with the visual work. But you also speak of work in your new book, and otherwise of your own work, as collage.

Waldrop: Yes. 

Bernstein: So, could you talk about those multiple senses of collage and what they have to do with abstraction, representation, organization, polyphony?

Waldrop: Transcendental Studies is probably my only full book that is basically collage poems. I started doing them because I had to become the director of a program, you will appreciate this, maybe. [Laughs.] I found that I was —

Bernstein: At your job at Brown University?

Waldrop: And Brown, yes, in the writing program. I found that –– it wasn’t that the job was difficult –– but it was one of those endless things where you keep thinking, you try to think of anything, you think, tomorrow I must do this or yesterday I should’ve done this, and I found I wasn’t writing any poetry, and so I decided I must. There are various ways of writing poetry. Well, in any way you write poetry, there are certain amounts of drudgery to it, of doing some things that are not part of really, you really don’t have to think about. And for instance, if you’re translating, just to get the meaning of the words, what does this text mean, and then you have to start really translating. So I decided I would do a kind of collage, and simply put some books out and get phrases from them and see what happened. And this was simply my way of finding poems, it wasn’t that I was trying to do a particular kind of collage. I wasn’t trying to prove anything about collage. Once the collage elements managed to make a stanza, let alone a poem, I would change things if I felt — well that word isn’t good, I’d rather have this other word. And someone who is passionate about, you know, this is supposed to be collage, would say, “That’s not fair.” But I didn’t really think anything about collage; I wanted to find poems.

Bernstein: But you were using a range of different sources that were external to your own composition, re-editing or remixing them —

Waldrop: Exactly, yeah.

Bernstein: — mixing them up, and then reediting and remixing them.

Waldrop: Yes.It’s like what Wilbur claims [is] the advantage of writing rhymed poem; that is, you have the necessity of finding a rhyme for this line. Well, that means that the first word may be wrong, you may not find one, you may have to change that. So that makes your imagination work.

Bernstein: So it’s an external constraint, although in this case it’s a soft external constraint rather than an OuLiPo-ian one.

Waldrop: Yeah, exactly, that’s right, that’s what it is.

Bernstein: So what’s the relationship of that to a visual collage? This is not an answerable question, by the way, because it’s very hard to discuss the difference between verbal and visual work, but still, since you’re raising it in such an interesting way in that book, where you have those visual collages and then you have the poems, I’m curious as to how you’re thinking about that now.

Waldrop: Well, I’ve never really done very much where there was visual and verbal collage that went together. In fact, the main poem that’s in there, I must say, doesn’t have that much to do with the collages. Although —

Bernstein: Until it’s in the book.

Waldrop: The editor, it is in the book, yes — 

Bernstein: Well, once it’s in the book, it has everything to do with it because there it is, bound together.

Waldrop: Well, I’ve done collages for many years, and often I find myself doing them to get away from words. Because I just don’t want to use them all the time.

Bernstein: You say something very amusing, which I could relate to — you often do in many of your works. But in the introduction, you say, “It’s because I couldn’t draw” that I took to collage. [Laughs.]

Waldrop: Yeah, yeah. And I’ve always intended to do more of interlacing the words and the images, but in a way that goes against what I’m getting out of it, and that is that when I get tired of images I use words, and when I get tired of words I use images. And it’s, I don’t know … I’ve never felt that they quite go together, the verbal collages that I do and the visual collages. But I enjoy doing both of them, so I do them.

Bernstein: With the visual collages you don’t have the symbolic associations, for example, with the Bible and so on. You don’t have those kinds of resonances.

Waldrop: Right, right.

Bernstein: Or metrical or sonic references, so to some degree it frees you up from that. But do you feel there are ways in which working on that reflects on your poetic work, or inspires a different sort of way that you were working with the words? I’m now talking about the California book of collages. Is that influenced by your visual collages? That would be another way to ask you that question.

Waldrop: I wouldn’t say that it is, actually. Though I mean, it probably is in ways that I don’t understand. [Laughs.] But when I start doing a verbal collage, I don’t think, oh, this is like bringing in a picture from here, tearing a piece of that off.

Bernstein: That’s why I said in the beginning it was an impossible question to answer, The fact that you don’t make that analogy and that you don’t understand it are one of the things that contribute to making the work so interesting. 

Waldrop: Yeah, yeah.

Bernstein: That there’s an activity which you can’t rationally connect up, but you’re using the same word for it, so that it really raises this issue of the visual and the verbal.

Waldrop: Yeah, yeah. Well, it does come from tearing something up and making something else out of it.

Bernstein: You’ve done a lot of translation, and I want to end with that, and for a wide range of poetry, nineteenth and twentieth century. How do you feel that translation as a practice affects your poetic work? I could ask you more specifically with a specific translation, but I’ll just leave it that way.

Waldrop: Well, translation, I’ve always translated. I’ve picked for a particular translation works that are not like what I would ordinarily do, so that in a way for instance if I translate Anne-Marie Albiach, I could never write anything like that. But it gives me a possible range that I wouldn’t have otherwise, that I can write it because I’m writing her, her work. And I don’t think anybody looking at my work after that would really find anything but, maybe I’m wrong, I can’t imagine they’d read my work and say, “oh, this must be a person who’s translated Anne-Marie Albiach.” I don’t see that there’s much connection. And I’ve translated very different people. Paol Keineg is very different. And I’ve translated a number of very young French poets. And it — I always, I’ve always had this sort of suspicion that something creeps over into my work from what I translate, but I can’t see it, I don’t know what it would be. I don’t think of it as changing my work at all, outside of looking for more things to translate.

Bernstein: Except perhaps you are a Baudelairian poet. [Waldrop laughs.] You’ve been listening to Keith Waldrop on Close Listening. This program was recorded on November 5, 2009, at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. James LaMarre is our engineer. Close Listening is a production of PennSound, in collaboration with Art International Radio. For more information on this show, visit I am your humble servant, Ch. Bernstein, on assignment in … Close Listening.