Last night, I had the great pleasure of traveling the 30 miles or so down I-40 with my poet-friend and PTC colleague Angie Macri to go hear C.D. Wright read at the University of Central Arkansas. Wright's name has been part of my poetry mythos since I arrived in Fayetteville, AR in the fall of 1999 to begin my MFA. Wright's name hung in the air there alongside Frank Stanford's. I've read bits and pieces of both of their works, so I was excited to be able to attend Wright's reading from her new book One With Others, just out from Copper Canyon and recently shortlisted for the National Book Award.
|C.D. Wright (photo from Brown's website)|
...Wright returns to her native Arkansas and examines an explosive incident from the civil rights movement. Wright interweaves oral histories, hymns, lists, newspaper accounts, and personal memories—especially those of her incandescent mentor, Mrs. Vititow—with the voices of witnesses, neighbors, police, activists, and black students who were rounded up and detained in an empty public swimming pool. This history leaps howling off the page.
I admit that the semester has gotten the best of me and I hadn't had time to buy the book or investigate it, so I came to the reading cold. Unlike other authors I've heard read in the past, Wright didn't read from any previous works, preferring instead to focus on the new book. She admitted at the beginning that the book is so new that the reading would be a bit of an experiment. Then, she read the introductory poem that sets the scene of "a town, a time, and a woman who lived there." Once we had a sense of this small town in eastern Arkansas in the late 60's ("the king lay mouldering in the grave" (or ground, I didn't write the quote down) experiencing the racial strife typical of the time, Wright dipped in and out of the rest of the book offering us glimpses of the story. While the book is one long narrative, it is not told sequentially, as Wright's goal is to "sublimate" narrative, to "distill it, to crystallize it," and for her "narrative is mutable." (All quotes, except for the attempt at the king line earlier, come from the Q&A session.)
One of the things I came away admiring was Wright's ability to incorporate social justice into her poems without appearing heavy-handed. I've never been comfortable writing a political poem, and last night I was able to see and hear a master of that form at work.
When asked about her writing process, Wright confessed that she doesn't actually enjoy writing, but it is what she is good at. She said that she "likes to articulate what she sees, but a lot of that is grunt work, dread, dross, practice, stalling out, and all of that is unpleasant." I loved the honesty of that.
When asked how she knew she was going to be a poet and not some other type of writer she said it was when she realized that "the words were more important than...the music of the words was more important than..." anything else. She called poetry a "strange vein" of writing. I liked that too.
Again, while our styles are not necessarily similar, I'm glad I went to the event, and I'm thankful to everyone in Central Arkansas who works so hard to bring poets and writers to our auditoriums, our stages, our barrooms, and living rooms. Especially a poet as charming as C.D. Wright!
Dear Reader, I confess, I don't usually have blatantly po-biz related dreams, but last night's was too blatant to ignore. I was working in a shared office with another poet, possibly in a teaching environment. The phone on my desk rang. It was Rita Dove. She told me that Blood Almanac had been chosen for the prestigious Matthew Chase Award (one of my real-world colleagues is a man named Matt Chase...he is into writing fiction and teaching composition), but I had to answer twenty questions correctly to win the $10,000 prize. I was incredibly excited but didn't want the other poet in my office to know what was going on. I felt guilty about this. Rita Dove proceeded to recite one of her poems over the phone. (I've read a lot of Rita Dove in the real world, but in the dream world, I was not familiar with this poem.) It was a long poem with an intricate rhyme scheme. I guessed that the first question was going to be about the form, so while she was still reading, I googled the poem. I felt guilty about this. The rhyme scheme was something like ABAB AABCB CDCD CCDEC, etc. In other words, I could see the rhymes but I didn't understand the form, so I got out my Princeton Poetics and tried to find it. You guessed it, Dear Reader, I felt guilty about this. The form was something like an Endulsian or and Englashiatt. I didn't recognize any of the forms in my Princeton reference and I was panicking. Needless to say, Rita Dove hung up after reading the poem because I took too much time to answer the expected question: What is the form of this poem?
|Rita Dove (photo from UVA's website)|
I've been waiting to hear good news about my new manuscript and the stress is starting to show.
The NEA rejection still haunts.
I have some buried guilt that needs to be excised.
Rita Dove is making up new forms and not telling anyone what they are. :)