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2009 National Book Award Winner,

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Photo credit: Jacob Delafon
Keith Waldrop
Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy
University of California Press

Interview conducted by Craig Morgan Teicher.

Craig Morgan Teicher: So how do you feel being nominated?

Keith Waldrop: I was nominated once before for my first book. In a sense, for my first book it perhaps meant more. I was really surprised that this book was nominated.

CMT: You’re not only a poet, but a publisher and editor of Burning Deck Press, which publishes books that are often classified as highly experimental. Do you think it’s interesting that so many of this year’s finalists are often grouped under the experimental banner?

KW: I think of myself as actually very traditional, but that doesn’t mean I don’t experiment, of course. Any poetry experiments. It may be that there are more people willing to accept experimental poetry now. I think that’s possible. I’m not sure you could prove it by this, but it may well be. Of course it may be that people are less interested in poetry and therefore it takes something a little odd to make them realize there’s a book there. The public has always been a puzzle to me. I never really tried that hard to figure out who likes what, and certainly never wrote with the idea that here’s something people will like.

CMT: This is an unusual book—really three books in one, which you call a trilogy. Can you explain how you wrote them?

KW: It came about for a very specific reason. The problem was that I had to become the director of a program at Brown—it was graduate writing program. Back then it was part of the English department, but required somebody to be the director and there was no assistant director and only a part time secretary, so there was a lot of stuff going through. It was not a difficult job, but it was endless. I kept thinking after hours about what I should do tomorrow and what I didn’t do yesterday, and I found after some months that I was not writing any poetry, and I didn’t like that, so I decided midnight would be the hour when Brown would disappear for me and I’d work on my poems no matter what. I decided to do some collage work with my poems, and the mechanical part of it, just getting words from somewhere, I thought would be something I could do without thinking, so I got a batch of books and put them on the table—the plan was very simple, I put three books in front of me, all prose, a novel, then something psychological, then whatever I happened to have around. I would take phrases from these three books and make some stanzas, four, five six lines. Once I had that I’d make more stanzas of the same number of lines, and when that gave out, after a page or two, I’d say alright I have this poem now and I would take it to the typewriter and type it up and in doing so I would rearrange the stanzas alphabetically. I wasn’t worried about keeping the words exactly what they were—sometimes I changed words. I wasn’t trying to prove anything about collage, I was trying to write poems. Then I would put a title on it and put it aside. Then after a matter of weeks, I had something book length, when it wasn’t working anymore, I stopped. At that point I rearranged all the poems by title and that was the second part of the book. The first and third parts are mainly collage, a little less. I had different ways of working with it.

CMT: That second part of the book came out in French first, didn’t it?

KW: Yes, a French publisher wanted to publish something of mine, and wanted to see this book, and a very good translator agreed to do it. She wrote to me and said she realized that all the stanzas were alphabetical and asked whether she should try to preserve that in French, though it would be difficult. I told her translate each stanza as you would and once you have a poem in French, realphabetize the stanzas. This terrorized her, but I passed through Paris and showed her that it was very easy to do. She was worried about someone seeing it in English and French and thinking she mistranslated it, but I said it hadn’t been published in English.

Craig Morgan Teicher is a VP on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. His first book of poems is Brenda Is in the Room and Other Poems. A collection of fiction and fables called Cradle Book will be published by BOA Editions in the Spring. One of his poems appears in The Best American Poetry 2009.


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