Welcome to “Behind the Byline,” the column in which NER shares conversations with our current writers. Poetry editor Rick Barot spoke to G. C. Waldrep about G. C.’s new poem, “Chipping Campden,” which G. C. calls “my favorite single poem of the last five years of my life.”
RB: “Chipping Campden” has a visual, emotional, and even metaphysical grandeur that immediately captivated me. Can you talk about the poem’s origin, and the process of composing and revising that led to the poem that’s now in NER?
GCW: I had a sabbatical in 2013–14 and at one point was staying in a 17th-century former banqueting house on the edge of Chipping Campden, in the English Cotswolds. The town is famed for its picturesque qualities, as well as for its role in the early 20th-century Arts & Crafts movement; dwelling for a week in the surviving outbuilding (the mansion is long gone, a victim of the British civil war) constituted a small oasis in my life, which at that time was dominated by an array of creeping neurological symptoms that might have been Parkinson’s—but thankfully, in the end, were not.
I didn’t know that yet, though. Suffice to say I was even less at home in the body than usual. I scrawled the poem longhand in my notebook on 30 June 2014, more or less intact; the revisions were all essentially edits, tightenings. The pear tree in what had been the orchard, the sheep that kept trespassing from their lower pasture—all this is just reportage, as Oppen averred. Midas creeps in on his own terms, which are the terms of misplaced value, not of the reality of any shared experience (and which of course leaves him, in the end, so tragically alone).
RB: The poem feels like it’s in conversation with the great lyrics of the Romantic era, from Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” to Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree My Bower” to Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” Were you thinking of the Romantic tradition while writing “Chipping Campden”?
I wasn’t thinking of Shelley or Coleridge, certainly—but it’s difficult to walk in the English countryside, even now, and not be aware of that tradition. I wasn’t thinking explicitly of “Tintern Abbey” either, but I like the idea that this poem is in conversation with that great poem, although the loss of childhood is different from the loss of the body, gradually, that still travels with us, in mutual time.
Oddly, I was thinking of Eliot. The insufficiently acknowledged and deeply gracious poet Peter Larkin, with whom I’d corresponded, had driven down to Chipping Campden to meet me in person, and he offered to escort me on a walk, over Dovers Hill, with the goal of trespassing onto the grounds of Burnt Norton—yes, that Burnt Norton, which, he said, was owned by a gentry family seated in (if I recall correctly) Staffordshire. He’d visited the rose garden and the drained Edwardian swimming pools a few times in the past. We let ourselves in by a back gate and spent a few moments pondering said roses, said pools—they have not much changed since Eliot’s day—even reciting bits of Eliot’s poem. I then wanted to see the house, which we wandered up to, only to discover (a) the gentry were indeed in residence and (b) we had blundered into a swanky garden party. Eventually we were accosted by one Lady Harrowby, who explained, politely but firmly (once she realized we were gate-crashers), that this was private property. We were escorted off.
I had never been evicted from a poem before. It is an experience I recommend (although I did write a formal note of apology to Lady Harrowby once I was back in the USA). “We were warned off the site of life / as we are warned off the site of death” refers to that eviction—as well as to other evictions, of course. The phrase “likely prop of attention” quoted in the poem comes from Peter Larkin’s poem “Pastoral Advent.”
RB: With Joshua Corey, you recently edited The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, a brilliant and challenging anthology. Did the work on that anthology influence the poem in any way?
Not this poem, I don’t think. Our work on The Arcadia Project took place mostly in 2007–10, a good bit earlier in the scheme of things. Other work of mine in more recent years is more directly responsive to ecological stimuli . . . although in the necropastoral sense there is always the reality that we are shepherding physical forms towards their eventual disintegration, whatever else we do or believe. I was very close to that reality, vis-à-vis my neurosystem, in Chipping Campden.
RB: Who are the poets, old and new, who are on your radar these days?
The poets who are always with me—Hill, Char, Celan, Darwish, Milosz, Gennady Aygi, R. S. Thomas. C. D. Wright, of course, who has left us, and Alice Oswald and Anne Carson, who have not (and who have new books coming out later this year). Alice Notley, mostly in terms of her epic-length Benediction. A lot of 5th-to-8th-century Syriac mysticism, including The Book of Steps. I was glad to spend time with the new Keith Waldrop Selected Poems, although he (like Leslie Scalapino and Susan Howe) works best in rangier, book-length structures—for instance The House Seen from Nowhere or Transcendental Studies.
Some newer books that have interested me include Martin Corless-Smith’s Bitter Green, Gabriel Gudding’s Literature for Nonhumans, Zach Savich’s The Orchard Green & Every Color, Robyn Schiff’s A Woman of Property, Robin Coste Lewis’s The Voyage of the Sable Venus, Brian Teare’s The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, and Anne Boyer’s Garments against Women.
This summer I plan to reread all of Nelly Sachs. And also all of Brenda Hillman and Cole Swensen—it has been many years since I read their fine early collections. Hillman insists in Practical Water that the poem “doesn’t abandon you,” and Peter Larkin also refers somewhere, I think in a more ecological sense, to a “counter-abandonment.” I am interested in this definition of poetry, as that-which-does-not-abandon.
Here is the link to where I was staying: