Rhode Island’s First Family of Poetry

Words, Words, Words
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  April 8, 2010


Husband and wife Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop will be giving a reading at the Providence Central Library, on Washington Street, on Sunday, April 11 at 2 pm. That’s no small matter for poetry lovers. It’s good to watch their words leap on the page, but it’s even more absorbing to watch great players in action.

By any measure, they earn their praise. Keith’s name has been a bit more prominent recently because he won the National Book Award for Poetry last year for Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy. The commendations are not handed out casually — no award was given between 1985 and 1990.

Keith, who was shortlisted for the book award in 1968, teaches at Brown University. Both have authored numerous volumes of prose and poetry, and in Rosmarie’s case, two novels. The Waldrops have published many translations, both from Rosmarie’s native German and from French. For the latter, they were each made Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 1999.

They founded and co-edit Providence’s Burning Deck Press, which since 1961 has published experimental poetry and prose. The late poet Robert Creeley, an eminence grise among poetry lovers, dubbed Rosmarie “a very exceptional poet.” As Publishers Weekly describes Keith, he is “among the most important writers, translators and publishers of avant-garde literature in our time.”

For the reading at the library, Keith expects to be drawing mainly, and “perhaps only,” from Transcendental Studies, and Rosmarie expects to read from several of her collections.

For that occasion, they answered a few questions from the Phoenix via e-mail. Answers are edited and condensed for space.

FOR BURNING DECK PRESS, YOU ARE ALWAYS ON THE LOOKOUT FOR FERTILE AVANT-GARDE IMAGINATIONS. WHAT KNOCKS YOUR SOCKS OFF FROM A POET WHO IS NEW TO YOU? Rosmarie: You never know beforehand. You just know when it happens. Gertrude Stein said, a bell goes off in the head. Keith: I do look for new poems, but I am also sometimes just as unsocked by work from earlier decades or centuries.

WHAT’S ADDED BY THE POET IN A POETRY READING THAT ISN’T FOUND ON THE PAGE? Rosmarie: This is a good question. People often tell me they understand the poems better when I read them. I suppose a reading adds interpretation. The voice makes things like tonal shifts more immediately obvious, or lines of thought that continue across inserts/parentheses. But I wonder if it isn’t simply that the listener has to take in the poem at the right speed, in my case more slowly than we tend to read on the page.

FINALLY, TO WHAT EXTENT ARE YOU A BETTER POET BECAUSE YOU’RE MARRIED TO ONE? Keith: I’m not sure I know when my writing is better or worse. It is helpful to have a reliable in-house critic. Rosmarie: It is wonderful to have an in-house reader who is sympathetic, but also knowledgeable, demanding, and critical. It is wonderful to be able to discuss problems with someone who understands the problems.

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