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C.D. Wright: The Obstacle Worth Engaging

December 4, 2012

The poet C.D. Wright discusses book-length works, the political in art, and more.

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Image from Flickr via John Ong

Poet C.D. Wright’s book Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil is just what its subtitle says it is: Wright keeps watch over a corner of literature that is enduring but under-bankrolled, even under-read. Stitching together epistle, memoir, essay, and verse—an approach emblematic of her recent work—she charts her own path to poetry and her evolution as a poet. She does the same for poets we wouldn’t likely know otherwise, scattering their often unassuming but attractive biographies among pithy musings from artists of all stripes—Thomas Merton, Gertrude Stein, and (more than once) Miles Davis. What results is an attempt not only to bear witness, but also to summon. Wright dubs one of Cooling Time’s epigraphs a “call to words,” and you could call the book the same: its author endeavors to make clear why one would choose a field as impractical as poetry; then she sells that choice hard.

Wright is the recipient of Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships and the author of fourteen volumes of poetry and prose. The daughter of the judge and stenographer of an Ozarks courtroom, Wright originally thought she was bound for a plainly useful occupation. She did time in law school before bailing for an MFA. She has written that “a few carelessly set mental fires [including] a fateful encounter with a poet my age who wrote in a lexicon known to the marrow of my bones, lit for me, poetry.” That poet her age was Frank Stanford, a fellow Arkansan, whose prolific record of early publication and early death garnered him cult-status. Corresponding via email, I asked Wright about Stanford, as well as poet Besmilr Brigham, both of whom she has championed and whose lives typify the stories she seems to adore: each embodies a refusal of normative ambition and a stubborn devotion to their art alone. As she says in Cooling Time, “Uncommitted people don’t hold my interest period.”

Wright told me that she finds poetry at times wearying, but indispensable. We discussed mythmaking, the pleasures of book-length verse, and the unavoidable political aspects of art.

—Reed Cooley for Guernica

Guernica: In Cooling Time, you write that you “contest those writers whose end is (reviling-all-the-way) to prevail” and you give us the stories of several writers who decline to self-promote. What’s the goal of a poet like Besmilr Brigham who won’t publish except on the insistence of someone else?

C.D. Wright: Well, Besmilr Brigham did publish quite a lot. She happened to be uncovered at a point when the magazines were scouring for women. She was, however, sought out only for about a decade. She lived a rural, itinerant life. It didn’t mesh with having a “career.” She had a calling.

She said she had written all her life, and I think that’s true. She said that when she was little and was told to churn the butter she would churn the butter and then write a poem about it.

Guernica: You suggest in the book that Brigham perhaps didn’t attempt to publish—that her husband sent her poems to magazines and only upon request. I’m wondering what impels someone to toil at making poems and then refrain from sending them out into the world.

C.D. Wright: I do believe Besmilr participated in getting her work out and she corresponded with writers and editors for years, but Roy was her amanuensis. He kept track of her work and her publications. He also built a cabinet for her manuscripts. She put the manuscripts in black binders and wrote their titles in what appeared to be fingernail polish on the binder spines.

She said she had written all her life, and I think that’s true. She said that when she was little and was told to churn the butter she would churn the butter and then write a poem about it. Writing was never toil for her. Churning butter was just something she did so she could write about it. She says in an interview that she and Roy once gave a boy some money to go to the circus and then come back and tell them about it (so she could write about it).

She did not exactly pay attention to her career as a poet, but I believe she liked getting attention while it lasted. For the most part her life was with Roy and their daughter Heloise, and they roamed around a lot. Roy negotiated people better than she did. One aspect of her isolation as a writer had to do with that, I would say. She was, as her daughter said, difficult.

Guernica: In championing someone like Brigham, or Frank Stanford, do you worry about the myth of the writer eclipsing the work?

C.D. Wright: There’s not much mythology built up around Besmilr Brigham. Frank Stanford was very conscious of his own myth-making tendencies and participated in them. The work is phenomenal with or without the mythology. 

Guernica: In what ways did Stanford participate in his own myth-making?

C.D. Wright: Frank Stanford did not find the facts very interesting. He was not given to the truth on the ground. Self-mythologizing was a piece of his imagination that was always on overdrive. Making himself a character of his imagination was part of his romanticism, but also, I think, part of his self-protective coloring. 

Even though I get blatantly sick of poetry… I cannot for the life of me imagine my life without it. By extension, I wonder, how can anyone live without it.

Guernica: Cooling Time acknowledges poetry’s somewhat limited audience in the United States and seems to yearn for a broader caucus. What would it mean to “vigorously cultivate poetry” as you bid in the book?

C.D. Wright: Even though I get blatantly sick of poetry… I cannot for the life of me imagine my life without it. By extension, I wonder, how can anyone live without it. Poetry takes you into the recesses of the language, the neglected corners, cracks and crannies and to the big sky of wonder. It opens the door to a critique without which you have rather boring analytical tools by comparison. To cultivate poetry means to stay with it. Not to abandon hope, but to abide. There is an idealism associated with poetry I would not dispel but question. It doesn’t change anything except within. It shifts your insides around. Poetry is not going to reach the numbers of people by which we commonly consider a large audience. It just isn’t a stadium-filler. It could still galvanize people during a crisis, but let’s just say, as I heard Heather McHugh tell an ample audience, there are two points at which poetry is indispensable to people—at the point of love and the point of death. I’ll second that emotion.

Guernica: You’ve called yourself a “keen, but unsystematic student” of book-length poems, which I’d say have a much smaller audience, especially in non-poet circles, than short ones do. What’s their draw?

C.D. Wright: I have taught the long poem off and on for years. The more book-length poems I read and studied and taught the more interested I was in the possibilities in writing a poetry that applied formal and substantive options of narrative and non-narrative, lyric and non-lyric. I found many pleasures in this kind of writing. The long poem is as old as the art form.

I think a book-length poem stands about as good a chance as a collection of individual poems in reaching its field of ears. This does not mean I have not found some of them too daunting to read all the way through, but it would seem there ought to be some ambition on the writer’s part to create a work that would be “a read” all the way through. If not, all the pleasure belongs to the maker, and that in itself is something, an achievement.

Guernica: Some of your more recent books represent a movement toward longer-form, mixed-genre work, and also engage overtly with political issues (mass incarceration, the 60s civil rights movement). I’m wondering if this is coincidence, or if there’s something about non-discrete forms that allows you to address these issues more directly.

C.D. Wright: I have approached the political aspect of my writing as just that, an aspect, as politics insinuate themselves into everything.

I have never found it as forbidding as some poets to include a particular point of view in the rest of the writing, not as a subject but an aspect. Forrest Gander and I have been teaching a seminar on Robert Creeley and company. In an interview, Creeley responded that he thought [that] to banish the political from poetry was an extraordinarily suburban idea, but he had himself written only a small amount over the years of overt political content. He said that he had already surrendered so much mental energy to the damned war, that he would be damned if he would give it his language. But even a poem as wandering and fragmented as “Histoire de Florida” is very preoccupied with the “politics” as it were of aging, the isolation, the loneliness, the confusion, and the American disconnect on that score.

So, I think the political is unavoidable, but what kind of dance you do to avoid it might be the more interesting consideration than how you address it. I have found the obstacle worth engaging.

Reed Cooley is an Editorial Intern at Guernica.

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