Interview with C.D Wright (conducted by Joshua Kurtz)
C.D. WRIGHT has published over a dozen volumes of prose and poetry including four book-length poems. She is the recipient of numerous awards including a MacArthur Fellowship and the Lange-Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Her most recent book One With Others: a little book of her days won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Lenore Marshal Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Wright was born and raised in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas.
Towards the end of One with Others, you write, “Nothing is not integral/you want to illumine what you see.” These lines remind me of Bernadette Mayer’s declaration in Midwinter’s Day, “Everything there is has everything there is to look at.” How do you see this inclusivity functioning in a book setting? How do you collage? What gets left in? What gets left out?
I think she’s a much more inclusive writer than I am in that she lets a lot more in. I enjoy the editing process and most of that involves either tweezing particular words into position or mass removal- urbanization. So I’m fairly selective about what’s going to stay in. But in the first few rounds I let the mess in.
Were there particular voices in One with Others you wanted to come through more than others?
Well, I wanted V’s voice to be well defined. But otherwise the quotation that goes on is partly actual and partly fabricated. Much of it is actual. I didn’t think of them as being particularly distinct as voices, just distinct as what people said.
There seems to exist a dichotomy between the language of the poet and the language of the journalist- or, the language of the few and the language of the many. You work, which often times bridges these two modes, challenges both the definition of poetry and standard conceptions of its uses. Does poetry, especially documentary poetry, serve a social function? Can journalism serve an aesthetic one?
I’m very interested in the way people express themselves- their own speech patterns and their own vernacular. So I like to have a good ear to that. I don’t think I have a journalist’s voice. I don’t think that I ever really stand on much of a neutral “I.” At the same time I don’t think I have very much of a persona other than just a very active writing creates a medium between you and the immediate, and that that in itself is a kind of thin persona. But I’m not interested in establishing a significant persona, either as a journalist or poet.
Do you have a social/political function in mind when you start a new project?
Yes, I assume it’s going to be a part of it. Even the most recent manuscript I did was on beech trees, but I knew it would not be devoid of the political and of social context. That was a dynamic and important part of the beech tree itself, and of its existence here in Rhode Island.
This text, amongst your other works, is deeply rooted in landscapes, both internal and external. You write, “It is a relatively stable world… But beyond that door/It defies description.” Is the role of the poet to travel beyond that door? Are you particularly interested in capturing the narratives of those who do?
Do landscapes shape your poetry or vice versa?
Well, both. I think I have always been shaped by my landscape, and always affected by it. My geography has been important to me; a couple books ago I wrote a book set in Rhode Island and Mexico, and both of those places were really important to me. I couldn’t have set a manuscript in San Francisco since I only know the city a little bit; I wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to integrate it. But if it’s something I know really well I like to tap into it. Where people are shapes a lot of who they are.
Once you have a project in mind, what is your process of interacting with that landscape?
I have to make up my procedures. If the subject is something that I don’t already know something about or only have opinions about or just a minimal kind of orientation towards then I like to do a lot of reading, and I like a lot of personal contact with the place and with the people. So with the beech trees I visited hundreds; I call it visiting but I went to see hundreds of these trees, many of them many times over. I took hundreds of terrible pictures, and I got to know arborists and florists. I went to arboretums and cemeteries and estates. So all of that was part of it for me; that was my research and my fieldwork. But I don’t have a real methodology. I just have to have some experience in the subject. This is not a work of the imagination, but other projects I’ve done that do have a petty strong documentary inflection are still works of the imagination.
Rilke once commented, “These trees are magnificent, but even more magnificent is the sublime and moving space between them, as though with their growth it too increased.” For you, is poetry an invocation of these sublime spaces? How does silence factor into your work?
I’ve been trying to figure out how silence factors into my work because I have more and more respect for it, both for people who practice silence as a matter of attention and also as a poetic tool. But I’m from a very wordy, verbose family; we all talked over each other all of the time. Books were my next of kin outside my immediate family, so I’ve always been pretty attached to words. I would like to have a deeper knowledge of music, and I think that poetry and music and more mute mediums like photography, painting, and sculpture all think about silence. Sculpture is about space as a poet thinks about silence or a musician thinks about rest, so I think that part of what makes the music of the writing is silence. It’s attention to it and manipulation of it. It is another poetic tool, but also a pause, a place where reflective activity, one of the important functions of poetry, can be built in.
Are the white spaces in your work moments of your reflection, or the moments in which you hope the reader will reflect?
I think that kind of work on the poem comes late into the editing process; at that point I’m pretty consciously thinking that space is needed, not at the time I’m making my notes or writing first drafts.
Do you have a favorite writing exercise or prompt that you would recommend?
Well I probably do but I don’t like to tell it, because I don’t like to overuse them. I have been asked a few times to contribute to anthologies of writing exercises, and I’ve never wanted to do that, though I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I’ve just never wanted to codify it. But I have some that have been very successful, so that makes them hard to resist using, but that doesn’t mean that I pull them out every time.
Does the writing exercise vary with the project?
In terms of the classroom it would depend on the texts that we’re reading at the time. I just read a review of Mark Baumer teaching fiction when he was a TA here (Brown University) a couple years ago, and he turned everything on its head in terms of what kinds of procedures he would use. During one class, the students had to sit in silence for an hour. He’s also quite committed to surprise and to destabilizing expectations, and there’s something to be said for that, which is another reason I think I have more of a… what is it?... a hedgehog more than a fox. So I don’t have a zillion exercises up my sleeve but I can construct one fairy simply and quickly, and I am resistant to codifying them.