The Wolf Interview: C.D. Wright
Lynn Keller: You were chosen to be a MacArthur Fellow in 2004. In receiving that marvellously generous ‘genius award’ that comes to its recipients out of the blue, you acquired a singular honour, perhaps some burdensome expectations, and a wonderful opportunity. What has that award meant to you, and what has it enabled?
C.D. Wright: Like many people I have a conflicted relationship with the reward system—the obvious part being that although the dollars are always welcome, and can always be put to use (time, tuition, taxes), the exhilaration of being tapped is nevertheless very short-lived. On the heels of exhilaration comes the sense of being undeserving. Being selected, and being aware of the field, means being aware of the talent not being rewarded. In poetry, there is no shortage of talent; there is a surfeit. People who say otherwise aren’t reading enough or they are only reading the most visible, most rewarded. I am astonished by the spectacular ranks of the young who continue to commit to the demanding ‘call’ to poetry; by the ingenious strategies they employ to get the language to reveal its possibilities to us, indeed, our possibilities to us. I am humbled by the poets who practice to the end of their days with such integrity and sway. And among peers, where comparisons are most inevitable, it is easy to think of others whose work I take in deep with a high and generally healthy degree of envy. The MacArthur did not free me up to become an even better poet because my own psyche is too busy setting its traps, rather it kept the pressure on the weak spots always wrangling to defeat my strengths. So, it added another set of challenges, albeit challenges worth contesting.
LK: Toward the close of the introduction to the new text-only version of One Big Self you say, ‘The popular perception is that art is apart. I insist it is part of.’ And you go on to suggest that the aim of the book is to encourage readers to see prisoners—who are held ‘apart from’—‘as they elect to be seen, in their larger selves. If we go there, if not with our bodies then at least with our minds, we are more likely to register the implications.’ Yet, writing in the Chicago Review about composing your most recent volume, Rising, Falling, Hovering, you echo Auden’s assertion that poetry ‘makes nothing happen’. How do these two statements fit together, and what do you see as poetry’s possible efficacies? (A similar tension, I think, appears within Rising, Falling, Hovering: in the context of the American bombing of Iraq, you write, ‘This is no time for poetry’ (15); in contrast to Akhmatova, you say you cannot describe the horrors of this ‘media borne war’; you assert, ‘Nary a death arrested nor a hair of a harm averted / by any scrawny farrago of letters’ (23). Yet you do write the poem nonetheless, saying, ‘The first task is to recover the true words for being’ (28).
CDW: Well, who at this point in time can obliterate the tensions between feeling the utter necessity of poetry, and the near total disregard for its existence? Who can even explain its stubborn persistence in the larger culture? Recently I was asked to do an interview on National Public Radio for a programme that usually interviews people writing timely nonfiction or who are noted players in the sociopolitical sphere. I scheduled it in, and then I was notified I was to be replaced by someone with a history book just out, and the interview would probably be rescheduled later. The rescheduling never occurred. I didn’t think it had anything to do with me or the merits of my book, Rising, Falling, Hovering, I thought it had everything to do with the very capable interviewer not wanting to be caught out having to read a book of poetry; then having to discuss a book of poetry on the air for an hour. A reason was never given, so I have had to supply one as a matter of speculation. I recall watching a video of Robert Creeley being interviewed in which he said something to the effect that like playing the harmonica, it will come back, if that is what you do. Beckett’s ‘You must go on. / I can’t go on. / I’ll go on’, even as ‘[the voice] dies away in a vault [...] vast enough for a whole people…’ underlies any encounter with forces beyond one’s control. And along with many others of my generation, it is not a state of fragmentation in which I strive to write, nor of assimilation, but one of reintegration. The seams should show, but the container must hold. It’s one thing to be ascribed a plurality of selves, often pitted against one another, and quite another to be denied one’s quite particular selfhood.
Also, I have always found the isolation of poetry from other public discourses a hard pill to swallow. The only time I felt that I was truly successful in bridging the separation between poetry and an uninitiated public was when I undertook a multimedia project called The Lost Roads Project: A Walk-In Book of Arkansas. Because I was able to enlist artists from other media and because there was a mechanism set up for the project to tour, I learned I could use the tools of one art form to enhance another. It might have an attraction for communities in which poetry did not normally have a snowball’s chance in hell of reaching without compromising poetry’s inherent resistance to ‘reach out’. You only have to touch on the difficulty of poetry and the infotainment-driven context in which it gets made to know the gap is more akin to an abyss. That said, I would not be characterized as a populist. I do believe more people could engage with literature than are even minimally exposed.
LK: Could you elaborate about being denied one’s quite particular selfhood? Where do you see or feel this happening, and how? Is this something you have experienced yourself?
CDW: I just wanted to make a small claim for an individual consciousness, and the singular expression thereof, not for a mere transcription of subjective experience, but for the intermediate values the mind brings to bear on what the physical individual picks up as she makes her one earthly pass. I wouldn’t go so far as to trumpet a unified, stable identity.
LK: My second question follows from your comments about using one art to enhance another. Visual art has been an important component in many of your works, and as I recall, you ended up working on Deepstep Come Shining almost as if it were a visual installation on the walls. Are there other ways, besides enlarging the audience for poetry, in which the visual arts or the visual imagination have changed your poetry or your sense of poetry?
CDW: Simply put, I like to look. I see things I would otherwise miss through someone else’s eyes. If I could paint it or photograph it, I wouldn’t write it down. Deepstep was as close as I have ever gotten to a conceptually visual work, including my method of composition—on the wall. The forms inherent to one medium are not transposable, but they do penetrate the others’ borders. And they throw up possibilities to one another. I am very fond of what I call layering, of texture, building up and cross-hatching, if you will. I have never aimed for a smooth surface. I don’t know where else I could have gotten these notions if I did not like to look, and did not see for myself certain prospects for an application in language. And what I cannot perform in one medium that another can, I can still operate alongside. In collaboration can we create a third language, as translation arguably does.
LK: The cover images on your recent books are unforgettable photos. I’d love to hear more about those images and their meaning for you.
CDW: For the past two decades my covers (with one exception) have been photographs by either Deborah Luster or Denny Moers. With Deborah there is an ongoing collaboration. With Denny there is a complementary relationship to the text. In both cases long-standing friendship and mutual regard for image and writing are givens. The covers render the book whole. One can always take an image from the Getty’s mega-reservoir or from a museum. For me it’s personal, intimate, connected, grounded. I have known Luster since my fitful scribbler beginnings in Arkansas, before she in fact chose the camera as her instrument. Denny is one of my oldest friends in Providence; I met his images before I met the individual. Both of these artists use very idiosyncratic, labour-intensive means to get at photography. I like that. I remember one collaboration with Deborah when she was developing on the roof wearing a WWII gas mask (a process that quickly thereafter could be mimicked in Photoshop). Denny chemically paints his black-and-white images in the darkroom, rendering each image unique. Aside from my husband, Forrest, these are the people with whom I regularly talk about, fester over, question art.
LK: Your two selected poems—Steal Away, published in the U.S. in 2003, and Like Something Flying Backwards published in 2007 in the UK—have very different cover images that create very different effects. The cover of Steal Away, in which a ladder curves over a stark hill, suggests to me a mysterious but calmly open-ended expansiveness; I’ve only seen a small reproduction on the web of the image that appears on the new and selected poems published in Britain by Bloodaxe, but the wildly costumed and masked figure standing in thigh-deep water that appears there strikes me as a far more frightening, perhaps almost frenzied image. Why are the images for these similar collections tonally so different (or would you read them in other ways than I have suggested)?
CDW: The cover of Steal Away by Denny Moers is of an ancient hedge (a privet? in Portugal?). The hedge is so gargantuan, a long contoured ladder leans against its body to climb to and over its top; a snug opening has been cut in the hedge to allow ground passage. The title is from a well-known spiritual, and is put to secular, albeit spectral, use in an early poem including the lines ‘steal away / shadows of old boyfriends’. It seemed applicable to the collection, which I actually hoped to becalm in part with the title, and there was an obvious synergy with the cover image.
Like Something Flying Backwards is a more startling, somewhat hysterical title. The cover by Deborah Luster is of a participant in a country Mardi Gras. The masked figure appears to be rising out of a circular pool of water, but is actually on his knees on a trampoline. And I thought this title, this image, reflected the more untameable aspects of the collection that I hoped to foreground. It is, as you say, a near opposite approach to some of the same material. And I thought the points where the two collections diverged supported both ‘takes’.
LK: How else does Like Something Flying Backwards differ from Steal Away, and what accounts for those differences?
CDW: Neil Astley, the editor of Bloodaxe, wanted a larger representation of the poetry as he rightly assumed he was introducing me to a UK audience; so he included all of Deepstep Come Shining, whereas that title was still in print in the US, and so only a sample appeared in Steal Away, the US selected poems.
I included in the Bloodaxe edition poems I had not yet, and might not be, printed in a collection in the US, such as the gangly narrative ‘A Farm Boy’, written as a tribute to my father on his ninetieth birthday, along with poems that would end up in Rising, Falling, Hovering. Even with a new and selected, a consistent priority of mine is to make a book—a book in its own right, not just a collection. The composition of the book is very central to my aesthetic, and that would obtain even if the work were only to appear online. A chronology is a useful place to start in creating a selection of one’s writing but not satisfying enough to constitute the sole organising principle for a book.
LK: Your last three books of poetry, Deepstep Come Shining, One Big Self, and Rising, Falling, Hovering, employ a shared technique of repeating phrases or parts of phrases that make up the collage, weaving them through. Yet it seems to me that these repetitions may serve different functions in the three works with their quite different preoccupations or projects.
CDW: Along the way I discovered, beginning with Just Whistle: a valentine, that repetition is a very flexible convention. It has obvious sonic value. It shifts, emphasizes, accretes, augments, alters meaning. Repetition has a built-in momentum and thus can be used to establish or at least insinuate cadence. Very pleasurable. And when you are working on a longer work, repetition serves as a significant point of return, in lieu of a predetermined destination or definite narrative arc. It provides a breath-catching point of orientation. Very serviceable.
LK: Rising, Falling, Hovering depends on a foregrounded integration of very personal and broadly cultural situations; the recurring wounds and scars, for instance, are on and between lovers, and also in colonized cultures, or in the war-torn international world. What do you see as the role played by the personal material—the erotic connections, the tensions within the family, etc.—reported by the first-person speaker in this particular work?
CDW: Micro/macro, the dissonant self, the discordant world it inhabits. Our messy lives play out in this anarchic arena.
LK: And in this ‘anarchic arena’, how do you think about the uses of lineated writing and of prose? When do you use which one and why?
CDW: I recall Angela Carter saying that when a student asked her a pointed question about dialogue, she said, she had never been adept at dialogue, so she avoided it whenever possible. Dialogue being fundamental to writing fiction, and lineation being fundamental to writing poetry, I felt a considerable amount of relief in her response. I have never been confident in my sense of lineation, conditioned as I was to more or less end-stopping. But with the computer, lineation could be tried out every which way without the physical labour of re-typing; so I began to work more with the eye, the visual field, and to come to some understanding of language against space. I learned to enjamb, of course, but I do not find that a reliably effective device. It’s a conspicuous manoeuvre with an obvious result. I found the caesura more attractive as it directed both eye and breath. I prefer cadence to measure, but I have not fully developed its possibilities. Prose is more inclusive. I just don’t always want to leave so much out. In composing a long work, prose and poetry activate one another, take a cue from the other. A paradigm to which I aspire, unpunctuated, ineludible folding of line after line, cadence risen from the ground up is still beyond my reach. If I got there, I’d probably stick with it. Until then I herk and jerk my way through. I nevertheless consider it fortifying what Angela said in passing, as I knew it necessitated a great deal of artful negotiation to successfully avoid a staple of the art.
Reprinted by permission of C. D. Wright