Talking Guerilla Poetry With C.D. Wright
Arkansas’s native poet expounds on the division between urban and rural, pacing of Southern poetry and encountering poetry in unlikely places.
Resident poet Zachary Lundgren continues his series of National Poetry Month interviews with C.D. Wright, born in Mountain Home, Arkansas. She has published numerous volumes of poetry, including the 2011 award-winning One With Others in which she examines a racist event, along with several other books and two state literary maps. Wright’s later poetry is characterized by a strong sense of place, most rooted in the Ozarks and her adopted home of Rhode Island. She served as poet laureate of Rhode Island from 1994-1999 and now teaches at Brown University. Read some of her poetry here.
What sparked your initial love of poetry?
I first noticed poetry as a sharply distinct tongue when a history teacher at a girls’ school in Mississippi recited E.E. Cummings’s “Buffalo Bill’s Defunct” – beyond that it was college. English classes and an audo-didect who interjected poetry into conversation as readily as she did curses.
In what way do you believe poetry most differs from fiction?
The pressure falls most heavily on the language, not on character or plot, or a narrative. The tensions are inherent in the material, but in poetry they are advanced by word choice, cadence, breath, the field of the page, syntax, etc.
Who are some of your favorite poets/authors?
There are many more than it is meaningful to name. It is easier to respond to what I am reading now:
Forrest’s Gander’s translation of Alfonso D’Aquino, Fungus Skull Eyewing (I’ll be teaching it next week), CA Conrad’s Ecodeviance Soma(tics) of a Future Wilderness (I just taught it and he is coming to read in a couple of weeks), Frank Stanford’s What About This: Collected Poems (it is just out from Copper Canyon Press, a long time coming), Raul Zurita’s Country of Planks translated by Daniel Borzutzky, a talented poet himself (it is just out from Action Books).
In an interview with Modern American Poetry, you said that “the division between urban and rural is the only serious border left to us.” With seemingly never-ending urban sprawl, how do you see this division being negotiated? In an increasingly divided country, do you see this split between urban and rural as one of the main factors?
I used to, true. But the country is becoming so urban or suburban or exurban or ghosted, that country/city seems a dated division. Writing and reading are more international, and where there remains a regional clinginess, I am inclined to believe it is more often a reactionary stance than a measure of literary identification. I miss driving on dirt roads, Ozark rivers and trees, other things. Many of my friends from the first decades are widely dispersed and I am truly frustrated by the hard right turn of the South; so are, I am sure, many of its lifelong residents.
A work in prose with the extravagant title: The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All will be out later this year. A book of poetry ShallCross will be out next year and then Casting Deep Shade, also in prose (with photographer Denny Moers).
What are some of the most prevalent ingredients that go into the concoction that we call a Southern poet?
I may not be qualified to answer that anymore, but many of my books have been ‘set’ (so to speak) in Arkansas or Louisiana or the Southeast. A different diction sometimes obtains a different twist on the humor. Pacing is still a marker. The landscape is always potent and particular. My most recent manuscript concerns European beech trees of which Rhode Island is virtually ground zero, so after 32 years here, I have ‘set’ a text in Southern New England. Different diction, pacing, landscape. The humor comes with.
It seems that social responsibility plays a major role in your poetry. Could you speak more to the social responsibility (if there is indeed one) for the poet, the writer, the artist?
Social responsibility belongs to us all. I think an ethos is implicit in any undertaking that is wrapped up with trying to see into things, trying to understand what we are doing here. The aim is not to idealize, absolve or redeem. The aim is to ‘get it.’ That inevitably digs onto the political strata.
In 2015, why is it important that we celebrate National Poetry Month?
I do not know that there is any data indicating more poetry books are bought during April. Certainly more readings fill the calendar. The audience, I suspect, is what it would be without the designation. It does flag an aspect of our culture people have become increasingly oblivious of. I think it might be more effective if it were taken up as a guerilla action. Poetry in places where it is ‘prohibited’ or at least where people are least likely to encounter it — menu-of-the-day inserts, laundromats, lighting the sides of buildings, waiting rooms, diodes of businesses, Jumbotrons of sports arenas, under windshield wipers, hotel room bedside drawers, streaming from the nostrils of the bull on Wall Street. Even if Allen Ginsberg did not succeed in levitating the Pentagon, he tried.
C.D. Wright photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.