C.D. Wright could be two things at once. In her poetry, she was a voice from very far away that spoke directly and intimately to our secret interiors. In her life, she was a venerable genius who shocked younger generations of poets by constantly championing our work and encouraging us to write ferociously on our own terms.
The poet and the person were not separate, but I struggled to understand where exactly they conjoined.
When I first met her I had already read her work closely and knew quite a bit about her life. She grew up in Mountain Home, Arkansas, and attended the graduate program in creative writing at the University of Arkansas, in Fayetteville, where I received my degree almost three decades after her. We had studied with some of the same professors, who were very traditional and formalized in their visions of poetry, and we had both taken those lessons and gone in the opposite direction with our own writing.
But it would be more accurate to say that Wright always went in her own direction. She absorbed the canon, as well as the various manifestations of the avant-garde, but was never part of any group — her singular, ever-evolving vision of poetry and its possibilities stood alone.
Despite the fact that she published with Copper Canyon, the largest poetry-only press in the country, taught at a top graduate creative writing program at Brown University, and had won a Guggenheim, her name was never uttered, not once, in a single class I attended at the University of Arkansas. I always had the sense that she was not discussed because she had surpassed her peers and teachers there so quickly and unequivocally.
Nevertheless, as graduate students somewhat stifled by our coursework, a few of us discovered her poems, which miraculously spoke from the place where we were living and showed us how to transcend that place through poetry, by unhinging our voices on our own terms.
My classmate, Tony Tost, whose first book, “Invisible Bride,” Wright selected for the Walt Whitman Award in 2003 and who now writes for the television series “Longmire,” describes the kinship we felt to her work. “I think it’s because the language claimed a self in its usage, but that self kept using language to transform itself,” he said. “The language was always surprising and fresh, but it wasn’t just words on a page. There was some kind of real need driving the poetic invention.”
After graduate school, while teaching middle school in Harlem, New York, I saw the need that drove her poetry translate into the minds of my students. They immediately connected with Wright’s early poem, “Tours,” which, with taut, matter-of-fact language, describes a young girl at the periphery of her parents’ abusive relationship: “A girl on the stairs listens to her father / Beat up her mother.” The frank declaration of the brutality made my students believe in Wright’s voice, and the girl’s watchful and fearful distance from the violence presented my students with a mirror of their own realities. They immediately saw what I have seen graduate students struggle to see: that poetry can hold our existences up in front of our faces, so that we can better understand who we are and what we are up against.
In her 2005 essay-poem “Cooling Time,” Wright declares that she looks “to poetry for supernatural help.” Aware of the contradiction that she is at once rooted in place while also attempting to expand the self through the possibilities of poetry, she says: “Whether I can get away with what I write and withstand the vicissitudes and contradictions of my own character, I can’t forecast. If I don’t, better writers than I definitely will.”
In looking beyond herself, Wright often turned to younger poets, particularly her students. Claire Donato, who studied with Wright at Brown University and now teaches at the Pratt Institute, explains that in her teaching Wright “invested in genealogy, the exchange of ideas and tenderness between people who had passed through the same regions (not only topographic but also of the mind), not to mention mutual support. Her spirit links us.”
In “Cooling Time,” Wright humbly defines this type of unguarded self, certain of her starting points and roles but relinquishing control: “I poetry. I write it, study it, read it, edit it, publish it, teach it … Sometimes I weary of it. I could not live without it. Not in this world. Not in my lifetime. I also arkansas. Sometimes these verbs coalesce. Sometimes they trot off in opposite directions.”
With each new book, she redefined her poetry. Her poem “Like Something Flying Backwards” in the 2009 collection “Rising, Falling, Hovering,” reflects her slow but forceful process of personal creative evolution: “Her vocabulary refined by years of looking through the screen at the lilac that absorbed her witness.”
Moving from the visceral images of her early books to the luminous, lyric observations in “One Big Self” and “Deepstep Come Shining,” Wright’s poems always remained clearly her own. Devotion to observation, to language, and to poetry as a source of promise never left her work. Each poem, from the first book to the last, carries with it an admission of pain and a resilience to continue through it. In “Deepstep Come Shining,” she writes, “See this hand. See this. Come shining. / The hand that peeled the bark from my birches. / The hand that stirred the pencil of my life.” Then, in constantly facing the pain, she finds relief in acknowledging it and moving forward:
Place yourself inside the damage
Lights approaching top speed
Blur in, blur out
A need for linear relief
Everything going awful fast
Trees agitated by wind
Keep the setting simple
A bowl of sugar on a table
Separated by a chair
Not an inkling what it means
Urge to withdraw
Pull the ladder up after
Every time I met her, I was intrigued by her investment in my poetry and in the communities I built with my magazine and reading series, which seemed to come from a completely different person than the lonely seer who wrote those poems that spoke to me so directly from so far away.
Joe Morra, a friend of Wright’s and the president of the Boomerang Fund for Artists, on whose board Wright served with her husband Forrest Gander, says, “She recognized that a writer’s life is often by design solitary, and that of a poet, even more so. And she never lost track of the fact that there are many, many fine writers who live challenging lives, often in obscurity, but whose work is extraordinary and worthy of recognition. She had a special spot in her heart for unsung poets who create communities in areas that do not necessarily have a thriving arts scene.”
Perhaps that insurmountable loneliness I found in her poems drove her to reach out to us as she did. But along with reaching out to younger poets, she reached back for poets who were lost. She championed Arkansas poet Frank Stanford’s poetry for over thirty years after his death — keeping his poems in print on Lost Roads, the press they had founded together, and eventually seeing his works collected in a massive volume from Copper Canyon last year. She handed Lost Roads off to a former student, Susan Scarlata. Naming their book prize after another under-recognized Arkansas poet, Besmilr Bingham, they publish books by women from non-urban areas. Scarlata says that Wright “gave so much to so many and shown an authentic spotlight on writers like Besmilr Brigham whose work may have otherwise languished. Writing was a vocation for her and she influenced humans of all variety with her laser-focused dedication to the word and the art.”
In another evolution of her own work, Wright’s 2010 book-length poem “One with Others” brings the documentary elements of her poetry into focus. The book tells the story of her mentor, a civil rights activist who was disowned by her husband and expelled from her home. Wright combines her own memories, interviews with people connected to her story, and historical documents — churning and repeating these materials, fugue-like, into brilliant lyricism: “You have your life / until you use it. You forfeit the only life you know / or go to your grave with the song curled inside you.” The documentation of another became the assertion of a larger self.
For Wright, there was no decision, just an outpouring of poetry until it ceased when she ceased. There is silence now, but there is also the work, an endless system unto itself, the outline of her vision.
When I shyly told her about my first book’s acceptance by a small press, she said, gleefully and assertively, “That’s fantastic — What’s next?” The arc of her work shows the triumph of that mantra.
Matthew Henriksen is the author of two books of poetry, “The Absence of Knowing” and “Ordinary Sun,” from Black Ocean. He lives in Fayetteville.