April 05, 2012

G.C. Waldrep, a member of a Mennonite community, prefers not to be photographed. This is his hat.

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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Assistant Professor of English G.C. Waldrep talks about how poetry helps us explain the world.

Question: As part of your scholarship, you have examined ecological themes in poetry. How has the examination of ecology through poetry changed over time?

Answer: As human beings, we worry about our own existence as a species. Natural themes dominated the poetry of the Romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries but the world they described is not the world we live in now. We can try to walk in the woods and talk to a bird like (John) Keats and (Percy) Shelley did, but we are more likely to run into a discarded McDonald's clamshell. A contemporary poet, Evelyn Reilly, recently wrote an entire book of poems inspired by Styrofoam. We have created a substance that will last longer then we will! It's astonishing. In class, we teach students how to read sonnets. We teach them how to read poems about the human experience. We do not usually teach them to think about something like Styrofoam, but to most Americans, Styrofoam is more real than that bird out in the woods.

Q:  What role does place play in your poetry?

A: I grew up in the rural South, and I still feel rooted there in many ways, but it does not play as big a role in my poetry as you might think. On the other hand, in 2009, I traveled to Scotland, Ireland and Wales for my Bucknell junior leave — places I had never been before. I lived in a 14th-century castle in Scotland, and then an 18th-century manor house in Ireland. Then, I walked across Wales. In each place, I found myself walking every day, trying to place myself in the landscape. Thousands of years of human habitation have left their mark there, much more so than in North America. The sense of history was different and intoxicating. All of that has influenced the poems that will go in my next collection.

Q: You have taught a first-year foundation seminar about apocalyptic literature. Why have we as humans been drawn to this topic seemingly throughout time?

A: The word "apocalypse" has two meanings. One meaning is the end of the world. The other, more literal meaning is an unveiling or revealing of knowledge. I picked four contemporary novels for the course that asked the question: How will our world end? Some of the themes were political, some were ethical, some were ecological. One thing we discussed in class is that the students all signed up for a class called "Apocalypse Now." Why? These are not happy stories. Why do we tell them?

As a professionally trained historian and editor, as well as a teacher and poet, I am always interested in the stories we tell ourselves. It's fascinating. Right now, for instance, there are a lot of stories about soldiers returning home. We didn't have those 10 years ago, and now we do, because many soldiers have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and are coming back. We also have a lot of stories about zombies, and I'm less sure of the cause of that. People have always been fascinated with the end of time, and with time in general — because we really don't understand it. It is so much bigger than we are.

Q: How does one teach poetry, and what should a student of poetry hope to learn?

A: One way to teach poetry is to give students good models. Usually, I start with famous poets such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, from which a lot of contemporary poetry takes its cue. The key question I ask is not so much "How does it work?" or "What does it mean?" as "How does it mean?" I use writing prompts to draw students out of their initial comfort zones. It takes some work to draw out the human experience and craft it into an original work of art.

One prompt I often use in this way is to have each student write a character type and an action on a sheet of paper. Then, I have them rip the paper in half and hand the character to the left and the action to the right. What each student gets is his or her prompt — and they have to write from that. One of the best poems I received from a Bucknell student was from this prompt. The student received "Harry Potter" as the character type and "...cries" as the action. The poem she wrote was in the voice of Harry Potter, talking back to his creator, J.K. Rowling, asking why she never let him cry in her novels.

Interviewed by Julia Ferrante

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