In a former life, I worked as the publicist for Copper Canyon Press, the venerable nonprofit poetry press based out of an old cannon repair shop in Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, Washington. At the time, the press was publishing the work of some major, award-winning American poets who most of my friends had never heard of (Ruth Stone, Ted Kooser), and some major, award-winning poets who maybe a few of my friends had heard of (Jim Harrison, W. S. Merwin). While I count working for Copper Canyon as one of the best experiences of my life—working daily with people so genuinely in love with, and committed to, the power of language—I grew a little weary.
The task of publicizing poetry can easily feel Sisyphean. It is one thing to love poetry; it is an entirely other thing to try and convince book editors with shrinking column inches to review a book of single-minded reflection when what people seem to be clamoring for are books with titles like Confessions of a Shopaholic. It was, I am sorry to say, easy to wonder if poetry does anything but offer sensitive, middle-aged folks a chance to, as I probably once wearily wrote in a press release, "glean moments of beauty and transcendence from the seemingly inconsequential details of everyday life." But then I discovered C. D. Wright and my mind exploded.
The opening line of Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil—
I believe in a hardheaded art, an unremitting, unrepentant practice of one's own faith in the word in one's own obstinate terms.
—published just as Wright was awarded a prestigious MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, best describes, in the poet's own words, the work of one of America's most important and idiosyncratic contemporary writers. (Worth noting: The title Cooling Time is derived from a line of defense unique to Texas courts that states if a person kills someone before having had time "to cool" after receiving an injury or insult, he is not guilty of murder. Also worth noting: The cover art for the book, a painting called Man/Beast by outsider artist Douglas Humble, depicts a man wrestling with a bloody-toothed animal that looks like a giant piece of meat.) There is no one like Wright. Her voice—crackling and edgy, corporeal and erotic—carries with it the sound and feeling of her birthplace, the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, though she's lived the last 20 years outside of Providence, where she teaches at Brown University. She has an uncanny and characteristic reverence for both the vernacular and the esoteric, which leads to riveting and rare depictions of American culture.
Wright's body of work, which includes 12 collections of poetry and prose, is nothing short of incendiary. Her last book, One Big Self, a collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster, was an astonishing journey into the Louisiana State Prison system. Luster took inmate portraits while Wright composed the accompanying multilayered text, which comprised inmate conversations, prison data, counts of things, and letters to try and capture the physical and psychic toll such confinement takes.
For such a demanding and avant-garde writer, Wright gets her due. Having worked as Wright's publicist, I'm aware of nearly everything any critic or reviewer has ever said about her, most of it glorious and true. Dave Eggers, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said, "For a long while now, C. D. Wright has been writing some of the greatest poetry-cum-prose you can find in American literature." When I read her latest book, Rising, Falling, Hovering, another critic's words entered my mind: "Wright gets better with each book, expanding the reach of her art; it seems it could take in anything."
In Rising, Falling, Hovering, a book anchored with a lengthy title poem that interweaves the war in Iraq, the war on illegal immigration ("to be ashamed is to be American"), and the challenges of parenting into an astonishing, deeply personal meditation on empire and human relationships: "The momentum of lives shifts into the absence of thought/The first task is to recover the true words for being."
It's been a while since I read an entire book of poetry in rapture. After finishing Rising, Falling, Hovering, I was reminded of why I love the medium, what it can do. I remembered something Wright once told me over e-mail: "Just because the commercial world does not count poetry in does not mean the private world counts it out. The numbers are discouraging, the determination isn't."
C. D. Wright reads Wed June 4, Central Library, 7 pm, free.