Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Rural Poetry Series: C.D. Wright

I’m country but sophisticated. I’m particular and concrete, but I’m probing another plane. . . . There are many times when I want to hammer the head. Other times I want to sleep on the hammer.
     - C. D. Wright

C.D. Wright was born in Mountain Home, Arkansas, and her experience within the Ozarks and her native region have left an unshakable mark on a career that's seen the poet and her work meet with audiences across the country.

Wright is the daughter of a judge and a court reporter; this biographical note helps to provide a familial and regional context for poems which can stun and dizzy readers in their abilities to transcend normal temporal and spatial expectations. In books such as Like Something Flying Backwards: New and Selected Poems (2007) or the much-loved Deepstep Come Shining (1998), Wright utilizes a one-of-a-kind amalgam of narrative, collage, and lyrical techniques - yet, unlike a great many of her contemporaries, this stylistic DNA is not an end in itself, but a way of telling stories deeply rooted in local experience. 

Her most recent book, One With Others, was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award in Poetry. Dan Chiasson, writing in The New Yorker, offers this excellent introduction to both the book and Wright's poetics:
In August, 1969, a Memphis man known as Sweet Willie Wine led a group of black men on a four-day March Against Fear, from West Memphis to Little Rock, passing through the small towns of the Arkansas delta. One with Others the Arkansas-born poet C. D. Wright’s new, book-length poem, tells the story of the march, and of the only outsider to join it, a small-town white woman, Margaret Kaelin McHugh, whom Wright calls V. The gnomic title suggests the bargain that V made: the act that momentarily unified her with others permanently singled her out. Becoming “one with others,” she ended up a pariah—one with others. The book is foremost an elegy for McHugh, whom Wright, in interviews, has described as “a giant of my imagination, an autodidact, deeply literary, an outraged citizen, a killingly funny, irresistible human.” 

The era has been so memorably captured in documentaries that, even when you imagine it, you end up drifting into documentary conventions. It turns out that the literary genre least likely to get in the way of this story is poetry, which, despite its reputation for gilt and taffeta, comfortably veers close to “documentary” conventions. It comes especially close in Wright’s angular strain of postmodern poetry, which draws on refractive techniques now a hundred years old: collage, extensive quotation, multiplicity of voice and tone, found material, and, often, a non-authorial, disinterested stance. “One with Others” represents Wright’s most audacious experiment yet in loading up lyric with evidentiary fact.
Here is video of Wright on PBS NewsHour reading a selection from One With Others from her home outside of Providence, Rhode Island; an excerpt from the long poem is also included below:

If white people can ride down the highways
with guns in their trucks
I can walk down the highway unarmed
Scott Bond, born a slave, became
a millionaire. Wouldn’t you like to run wild
run free. The Very Reverend Al Green
hailed from here. Sonny Liston a few miles west,
San Slough. Head hardened
on hickory sticks. A reporter asks a family
of sharecroppers quietly watching the procession,
Does this walk mean anything to you.
The father says, the others nod,
It means that Sweet Willie Wine is walking.