Consider the Poet: C.D. Wright

CD Wright

“With what then will we hail the next ones, the ones who have to pick up around here long after we’ve been chewing the roots of dandelions?”

–C.D. Wright, Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil

A few years ago, my dear friend told me her professor advised her to stop writing poetry. At the time, we were making a zine together with the working title “I’m just like my shoes: complicated, beautiful, and leather.” This zine was to include my stories that I called poems placed next to her dress sketches. I imagined a zine-release party in which we read poems while people modeled her final creations.

Quit writing poetry, her professor advised.

While pursuing an MFA in visual art, my friend had started to earn some buzz for her paintings. After trying to incorporate poetry into her practice, her art professor told her to focus on this craft instead. He said she’d never be a good writer. This response devastated my friend, devastated, devastated my friend. It stopped our zine. Devastated, she couldn’t finish it. I considered his devastating response.

***

During a recent graduate poetry workshop at the University of New Orleans, Louisiana’s poet laureate looked at me, and asked, “Do you consider yourself a poet.”

As a nonfiction writer in the out-of-genre workshop, I was the only “non-poet” (& a journalist, no less) in the room. Put on the spot, I paused. Let’s say I used a visual caesura. A straight-identified male pornstar who sleeps with men on camera is often referred to as “gay for pay.” When no money’s involved it’s usually called experimentation. I’m sure you see where I – a prose writer in a poetry workshop – am going with this line of reasoning.

The poet laureate was exceedingly generous and kind. Friendly. Her question was curious, not confrontational. Still, I responded, “I consider myself a writer.”

With poetry, the most I felt I could claim was                   e x p e r i m e n t (a t i o n).

***

Experimentation brought me to C.D. Wright. For the same poetry workshop, we had been given a “mentor” assignment. We were required to read a selected volume or five books of our mentor poet’s work. Then we had to track changes in the poet’s writing style, form, and content.

As a “non-poet,” I asked for suggestions. Knowing my nonfiction focus, my professor immediately suggested Wright, whose poetry often includes oral histories, inventories, interviews, and other devices found in nonfiction writing. The Academy of American Poets notes that Wright’s best-known work is “characterized by experimental forms.”

coolingtimeI read selections of Wright’s poetry, and I searched for her on YouTube. I especially like her reading of “Lake Echo, Dear” at the Dodge Poetry Festival. While I had originally wanted my mentor to be a gay male Southerner, I soon couldn’t shake Wright’s work.

Wright’s expansive writing opened the landscape. “Poets use a lot of angles to bring their integrity to the fore,” Wright said in an interview with Pen American. “I remain interested in those angles.” In the course of my reading, she invited me to her house. Come up on the porch with me, I’ve got good peaches; I don’t mind if you smoke. [1] After hearing about my friend’s cruel professor, I had started to think of poetry as exclusive, as a you-can’t-ever-be-a-poet type of writing. Wright’s work, though, said I could sit a while and let’s have some tea. In her work, we are allowed to listen to the land, to the land and the crickets, and the night.

***

Recently a cockroach scurried out from under the latest edition of the American Poetry Review, which I kept on my desk. New Orleans cockroaches are the biggest I’ve ever seen. They’re the size of a child’s palm. This APR cockroach’s long antennae touched my hand and made me jump back. I nearly fell back onto my bed.

This pull-back-my-hand-and-disrupt-my-whole-morning reaction is how I’ve come to think of Wright’s poetry. Near the end of “Wages of Love,” she writes:

As for the tenants whose waters will break

in this bed

May they live through the great pain;

may their offspring change everything –

Because everything must change.

Wright happens to be this year’s judge for APR’s First Book Prize; the cockroach happens to still be living, probably somewhere in my room. I stayed up all night memorizing “Wages of Love.” Both Wright’s poems and cockroaches make me lose sleep.

***

A brick bookshelf stands in my roommate’s bedroom. From it, I picked up Kim Addonzio’s Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within. When I opened the book, I saw Addonzio’s poem inspired by Wright’s “Nothing to Declare.” Wright, right there, on the first page that I saw. “Once you’ve figured out at least some of what the poet is doing,” writes Addonzio, “try a poem of your own, borrowing those techniques.” [2]

The first sentence of Wright’s poem:

When I lived here

the zinnias were brilliant,

spring passed in walks.

Addonzio’s version:

When I loved you

the nights were neon

martini glasses edged in light.

And mine:

When I learned songs

the notes were pitchy,

tunes disrupted the night.

Addonzio’s prompt is an exercise in understanding a poem: its line breaks, rhythms, and patterns.

It’s line breaks

breaks, rhythms, and patterns

and patterns it breaks.

***

“It had been my own aspiration, when I first undertook to write poetry,” says Wright, “to read and make poetry, that it would bring people together.” She has published 15 books. One with Others won the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award. The book mixes journalism, interviews, and so much more to create a poem that sprawls beyond the page’s borders.

one with othersOne of the book’s Amazon reviews:

I’m no academic and, regrettably, can’t often slow myself down enough to read poetry so forgive my lack of canonical grounding (or don’t, it’s up to you), but i have to say this is the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever read. And, for those of us who are normal nine-to-fivers, living outside the literary milieu – blessedly accessible. Punctuation customer’s own. [3]

Over the past couple months, I have tried to read as much of her as possible. I take her on my morning bus commutes. In the house, my neighbor’s baby, crying, crying, crying, punctuates her verse. These layers – of community, landscape – come alive in Wright’s work.

***

I have heard, against a chorus of prophylactic concern, that you are turning toward poetry [4].

Yes. A flyswatter, green plastic, hangs from a clear thumbtack. I wait for the roach. “The house is watched, the watchers only planets.”

Your utmost, is it not, at worst, a self-constructed alternative to caving in. Is it not also greater than the sum of your assets.

Devastated by cruel responses, I have not wanted to approach doors. To find if a door is locked, I must first turn the handle, turn the handle, then knock.

It is from one’s own deficiencies that this stuff issues, gets translated into something implausibly worthy of setting down. If this is your epilogue of love.

You have made me, made me consider the poet, made me consider me. I was hungry and you offered a bowl of peaches, plums. I was hungry, and you offered me a feast of words. I was hungry, and I found your door wide open. You don’t even mind if I smoke.

[1] Taken from “The Next to Last Draft,” String Light (1991).

[2] I leave this here, dear reader, as a prompt. Do with it what you will. 

[3] Punctuation retained from Amazon review.

[4] Italics in this section taken from “Dearly Belated,” in Cooling Time.

– Tyler Gillespie is he palest Floridian you will ever meet. He’s the co-author of The Awkward Phase, forthcoming from Skyhorse. He’s on Twitter @TylerMTG.

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