Last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced that the Arkansas-born poet C.D. Wright was one of 23 recipients of its 2004 fellowships, the so-called “genius grants.” Like the rest of the MacArthur fellows — a group ranging all over the scientific, artistic, and humanitarian spectrum — Wright will receive $500,000 over the next five years, no strings attached (though many past fellows have used the award to set up fellowships and foundations of their own). Established in 1981 by the Chicago-based John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation and awarded through an anonymous nomination process, the fellowships’ stated purpose is to reward “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”
After almost four decades as a poet, C.D. Wright certainly fits that bill. Born in Harrison in 1949, Wright received her B.A. from Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) and her Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Arkansas. Wright is currently a professor in the English department at Brown University. The former State Poet of Rhode Island, she is the author of 10 volumes of poetry,(Go here
for some of Wright's work) including “Deepstep Come Shining” (1998) and “The Translation of the Gospel Back into Tongues” (1981), as well as a collaborative work with the photographer Deborah Luster, “One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana.” That book had Wright trekking to prisons across Louisiana and writing companion texts for each of Luster’s luminous tintype photographs (for examples, go here
and scroll down for examples of Luster's photographs.)
Recently, we caught up with C.D. Wright for a chat from her home in Providence, R.I.
AT: In addition to the honor of being chosen, the MacArthur Fellowship also includes quite a bit of money. Have you decided what you’re going to do with it?
CDW: I know a couple of big projects I’m going to work on, but I’m not ready to start talking about them yet.
AT: Do you think it’s a hopeful sign that in this day and age the MacArthur Foundation is willing to award a poet like this?
CDW: I don’t know if you looked at their list of awardees, but there were some very interesting awards. They always award artists. This year, there were artists and scientists and economists. There was a man who started a bookshop in his barbershop and then started a book festival for Hispanic literature. There was a businessman who had learned how to leverage some economic advantages to free prisoners of conscience in China. There was an interesting spread of awardees. There was one poet this year and that happened to be me, but they have awarded poets in the past.
AT: Speaking of the past, how long have you been a poet?
CDW: I’ve been floundering around in it for several decades. There have been some pieces I have been very proud of, some books I have been very proud of — I’ve been glad to muster it together so I could write one better each time. But since my early 20s, I’ve been signing on to poetry.
AT: Is it getting harder or easier the longer you do it?
CDW: It’s getting harder.
AT: Really? Could you elaborate on that a bit?
CDW: It gets harder partly because the more you know the more challenged you are. The more you know about a particular art practice, the more challenged you are to do a good job at it. So maybe it has to do with a loss of innocence, which maybe should be phrased “a loss of ignorance.” Also, your life gets increasingly complicated as you get older. There are a lot of different things pulling on the same kind of attention. The demands you have on yourself increase in terms of what you want the yield to be from a given work. Maybe you become your own worst critic.
AT: Do you get back to Arkansas?
CDW: Yes, of course. My parents are in Harrison, my brother and sister-in-law are in Harrison. I get back once or twice a year. I’m feeling I’d like to get back more. My parents are quite senior now.
AT: Does the state still inform your poetry the way it did when you were younger? Is “inform” the right word there?
CDW: That’s probably a good word. It does, but it’s more integrated now as an important part of my life, and a formative part of my life and my intellectual life as well. It’s not the only thing that informs my writing. At one time it was very primary, and now it’s just part of the picture.
AT: I’ve seen your work lumped into so many different categories. I’ve seen you called a “Southern writer” and I’ve also seen you call a “New England writer” now that you’ve been at Brown for a while. Do you accept tags like that? Do you feel like a Southern writer or an Atlantic coastal writer?
CDW: I don’t know for whom those labels are useful. They’re not too useful for me, though they may be useful for other people. It usually depends on the package they’re putting together. I don’t think those are very useful terms, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think geography is important. I do. I think almost any adjective you put before the noun “writer” is going to limit the writing in ways the writer is going to be resistant to whether it fits or not. It depends on the circumstance as to whether it fits or not.
AT: This is another adjective, but I’ve also heard your work called “magical realist.”
CDW: I would say that is a misnomer.
AT: It is, however, something that might fit. Your work does deal with a lot of fabulous, dreamlike detail. It’s rooted in the real world, though it toys with reality.
CDW: I think of myself as a realist. That doesn’t mean I’m hostile to the imagination. I’m not. In my most recent work with Deborah Luster, I was more of a documentarian than I was a fabulist.
AT: Yes, I wanted to talk to you about your work with Deborah Luster. I recently saw some of those pictures online, and they are gorgeous.
AT: How long have you worked on the Louisiana Prison project (“One Big Self”)?
CDW: Deborah is still working on it. That is, she’s printing and she’s still exhibiting. We incorporated, into one of the most recent shows, text in the form of sound in the exhibition space. I would say the project took about four years.
AT: I think of poetry as a sort of solitary art form. How was it different collaborating with somebody on a project?
CDW: I’ve been working with Debbie on projects for about 10 years. We started with a project in Arkansas called the Lost Roads Project. I feel very compatible doing projects with her. I really enjoy it. I expect to do more projects with her and with other groups as well.
AT: Changing the subject to a bigger concern, maybe the biggest for you: With our lives moving faster and faster, is poetry still valuable in the modern world?
CDW: (Laughs) I think it’s a necessity of life. It’s not that I don’t ask that question a lot. I do. But I guess I just don’t believe that poetry has to be defended. I think it matters. I think it matters to have a kind of articulate expression in your life, and I think it matters that people are sensitive to the language. Certainly it is wildly misused by a lot of powerful people. It seems like one of the things poets do is what Confucius called the Rectification of Names: in other words, making sure that it’s not badly used, that the words say what they mean and mean what they say. In a way, I feel like the poet’s job is to keep meaning from being totally drained out of the language. That seems like an important job to me.
AT: I suppose what you’re talking about when you say “powerful people” is things like advertising — people sort of usurping language for their own gain.
CDW: Advertising, yes, but also political language, newsspeak, celebrity language. There is an onslaught which seems to sap the language of any significance. I just wonder how much significance we can have if our words don’t mean anything. I mean, we’re just stardust anyway (laughs).
AT: I always try to get around to that big “Why” question whenever I’m talking to an artist. Why poetry for you? Why not painting, or boatbuilding or something else?
CDW: I don’t know. Eventually I felt like poetry chose me, but it was partly a process of elimination. I would love to be a painter (laughs), but this is what I do. Once I felt like this was a path that maybe I could take from now on, it started being the place I wanted to be.