Poets Waldrep and Wilkinson read at Prairie Lights

BY TOMMY MORGAN JR. | MARCH 03, 2010 7:30 AM

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Joshua Marie Wilkinson writes poetry with form in mind. G.C. Waldrep is content to let the form come naturally to him.

Both, by nature of being poets, tend to write in solitude. But when Wilkinson and Waldrep read tonight at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., they will present collaborations with other artists.

The reading is at 7 p.m., and admission is free.

Wilkinson, who teaches at Loyola University of Chicago, will read from Selenography, his latest book of poetry. Each poem is accompanied by a Polaroid photo taken by Califone singer Tim Rutili.

When Wilkinson toured with Califone for a different project, he began working on the poetry that would eventually become Selenography, and he later arranged the poems to work with the musician’s photos.

“I dug through this big box of Polaroids he has,” Wilkinson said. “I gathered up a batch of those and figured out which ones seemed like they worked.”

Even when he’s not collaborating with other artists, his poems take on different forms and styles in each of his books. This is a conscious decision to put form above content, meant to challenge him and keep things fresh.

“I think it’s a desire to want to change. It’s a desire to want to evolve,” he said. “More morosely, it’s a fear of repeating oneself.”

For Selenography, Wilkinson looked at the form of Snowpart, one of the last releases by the late poet Paul Celan. Wilkinson at first tried to mimic the short, minimalist style of Celan’s poems, but ultimately his texts took on a shape of their own.

“[The model] broke down and fell apart,” Wilkinson said. “Something happens when you do that, and usually it doesn’t work, but it gets you somewhere. I abandoned it. You take the [restriction] off, and then you can start messing with it in your own way.”

Waldrep, in contrast, begins with the content and allows the form to come together on its own.

Waldrep, who teaches at Bucknell University, said he’ll begin with an image or a phrase and develop it in his mind before putting it on paper.

“I believe in form. I believe it exists,” said Waldrep, an alum of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He noted, however, that form isn’t necessarily a conscious element but is often “all intuitive” and that he “often knows within a few lines” the form of the poem.

At Prairie Lights, Waldrep will read from his own collaboration, with poet John Gallaher, titled Your Father on the Train of Ghosts. The book, which will be published in April 2011, contains poems by both writers but does not specify which poet composed which poem. The project stemmed from an e-mail conversation between Gallaher and Waldrep — who originally met at a writers’ conference.

“John had sent me some e-mails about what he was thinking about poetry, and I responded with poems,” Waldrep said. “He got frustrated and started writing poems back.”

From there the two poets continued sending poems back and forth, building on previous work. Common themes began to develop. Waldrep said that during the initial writing process, the poems he wrote came out quickly.

“I don’t think I spent more than five minutes on any poem in the early draft,” he said. “Later, we revised the work quite a bit.”

The collaboration did present its challenges, the poet said, including keeping the project going and making sure not to save his best ideas for his own work.

“Poets tend to be private people with their art,” Waldrep said. “You have to open yourself up to the other person and his work.”

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