in conversation with Kent Johnson
Looking for ‘one untranslatable song’:
on poetics, collaboration, American prisoners, and Frank Stanford — in conversation with Kent Johnson. This piece is 5,000 words or about twelve printed pages long.
Ms. Wright, whose work appeared in The New Yorker and elsewhere, was the author of more than a dozen volumes of verse. Among her best-known was ‘One With Others: [a little book of her days],’ a book-length, quasi-documentary poem that won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2010… Reviewing her 2008 volume, ‘Rising, Falling, Hovering,’ in The New York Times Book Review, the poet Joel Brouwer wrote, ‘Various aspects of her current style can be compared to the work of certain of her contemporaries, but considered holistically, Wright belongs to a school of exactly one.’…. In ‘One Big Self,’ a collaboration with the photographer Deborah Luster [which is discussed in this interview], Ms. Wright married her own verse to words she elicited in interviews with inmates of three Louisiana prisons… Carolyn Delores Wright was born on Jan. 6, 1949, in Mountain Home, Ark., in the southern Ozarks. Her father was a judge, her mother a court reporter. After earning a bachelor’s degree in French from Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis), she briefly attended law school at the University of Arkansas before thinking better of it and training her sights on poetry. She later earned a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from Arkansas… Ms. Wright’ s survivors include her husband, the poet Forrest Gander, with whom she ran Lost Roads Press, a publisher of poetry and fiction, for many years; their son, Brecht; and a brother, Warren Wright.
Ms. Wright was named a MacArthur fellow in 2004. Her other laurels include a Guggenheim fellowship and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Among her other books are ‘Translations of the Gospel Back Into Tongues’ (1982); ‘Just Whistle: A Valentine’ (1993, with photographs by Ms. Luster); and ‘Tremble’ (1996).
Paragraph 1 follows:
Kent Johnson: Stephen Burt, in a long 1998 essay on your work in The Boston Review, draws connections between your writing and certain tendencies of ecriture feminine that emerged out of French feminism in the 70s and 80s. One outgrowth in the U.S. of the literary practice advocated by Helene Cixous and others (‘more fluid, less narrative, less constrained by reason, and more given to juxtaposition and ambiguity than older norms of prose and poetry,’ in Burt’s summary) could be seen in the writers gathered during 80s and 90s around the journal How(ever), many of whom had aesthetic and political affiliations, in turn, to the ‘Language movement’.
But to my knowledge, you’ve never seen yourself as part of either of these groups, though I know you have acquaintances and close friendships with some of those writers… As a poet who has never really been ‘inside’ the various movements, schools, isms, of the past twenty-five years or so, I was wondering what you thought about the connection that Burt draws.
C.D. Wright: As to my own aesthetic associations / affiliations / sympathies: I have never belonged to a notable element of writers who identified with one another partly because I come from Arkansas, specifically that part of Arkansas known for its resistance-to-joining, a non-urban environment where readily identifiable groups and sub-groups are less likely to form. The last known poetry clan in my part of the country was the Agrarians. I was not of that generation, gender or class.
Moving around the country — especially to San Francisco — exposed me to the differences that were becoming loudly pronounced in the late seventies. An old friend of mine in New York had mailed me the first issues of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine before I moved West, but I did not grasp the arguments while in Arkansas. I suppose I was happily ignorant of the aesthetic differences which divide poets.
Everything for me was, and probably still is, personal. If I was somewhat paralyzed by the fractious nature of poetics in San Francisco, from the sidelines, I can admit I was also stimulated by the fray. I realized I could not name my own point of view much less put a fine point on it. Still, I think it might have been more depressing for poets who were from the city and not included. I could opt for the position that I had never ‘tried out.’
The theoretically-driven San Francisco poets who were in cahoots with poets in New York and conversant with European vanguard movements — they provided me with a need to become critically aware of my back-home ways; sharpened me to a degree. I’m grateful for the exposure, the education. I am indebted to particular poets’ work from that point in time, but I am not an intellectual in the sense that qualifies or requires me to belong to a manifestoed-group. And of course one comes to take some pride in one’s own outsider status.
You mentioned How(ever) magazine, edited by Kathleen Fraser, but that too was started in part as a response to what some saw as a feminist isolation from the inner circle of ‘Language’ poetry. I didn’t attempt to contribute to How(ever) not because I didn’t feel outside, or because I didn’t identify with feminism, but because I preferred finished work, and they were committed to more provisional stages of publication. I still prefer more finished work, crafted, which I know my own work doesn’t always attain.
Finally, I just never liked anyone telling me what to do or what to like. Or ‘versa vice.’ If the poetries I like cancel one other out at the polls, so be it. I’ll vote as many times as I please. I don’t think that drops me off in some dead zone. ‘If you will tell me why the fen appears impassable I will tell you why I think that I can get across it if I try,’ said Marianne Moore.
Kent Johnson: So you ended up in San Francisco in the early 80s as office manager of The Poetry Center, during the time and in the city where things are really happening, so to speak, in avant-garde American poetry. What’s the impact of that experience on a young poet from the Arkansas Ozarks?
C.D. Wright: As when learning a foreign language, the structure of your own becomes transparent; as Molière’s character comes to understand he’s speaking prose — it hastened the development of my self-consciousness. I was forced to ask what was I doing, why was I doing it and what was I going to do about it. That Silliman sentence, ‘No one expects baseball players to comprehend the implications of their work.’ It was time to re-examine, and still I lagged. My tempo has never been successfully urbanized.
Nevertheless, of all the Language Poets Silliman’s express-line writing was and is the one that stuck to my ribs. It was so thingy, so specific, so formally radical, so hard-headed, yet witty, and now and then, in spite of itself, lyric. I liked his post-industrial music. I loved Ketjak and Tjanting and Paradise… And the reach — the compulsion to pull everything in. What attracted me most about the Language poets was their big-headed endeavor to overhaul the language. What most repelled me was, by my lights, their collective snobbishness, their utter absence of self-criticism and cock-suredness, which ran, I thought, directly contrary to their ambitions on behalf of the art itself.
Kent Johnson: You mentioned ‘being indebted to particular poets’ work from that point in time.’ Besides Silliman, who else?
C.D. Wright: There were in San Francisco poets whose involvement with the language was already more or less familiar to me though the landscape, the light had changed, and a level of receptivity to change became mine. I don’t know, my list wouldn’t make sense to anyone else — I don’t even like to give it out except in the context of a book list for a given course when I can temporarily frame it into making sense.
I no sooner decide I can’t stand someone’s work than they come out with a book that floors me. I no sooner decide I am forever committed to someone’s work than I see them in the flesh in a setting I can’t erase and which forever galls my reading. On committees, when I feel that bile seeping in, I recuse myself. I’m not a reliable critic even for my own purposes.
Kent Johnson: To mention Burt again, at the Academy of American Poets in New York in May, 2000, he was on a panel with Michael Scharf, the poetry review editor of Publisher’s Weekly, as well as with the prominent critics Marjorie Perloff and Helen Vendler (transcription available in Jacket 12). In introducing Burt, moderator Susan Wheeler said, ‘Taking a group of diverse contemporary poets with the moniker ‘elliptical,’ he has single-handedly been responsible for my hearing, on several occasions, in conference with graduate students: ‘but I want to be an elliptical poet.’
Burt has referred to you admiringly as such, and the term ‘elliptical poetry’ has gained some buzz of late, including as the title of a lead article in one of the UK’s leading publications, Poetry Review, in which you are featured as a leading exemplar of the ‘mode’. I suppose the term would be used by some to subsume your last three books, String Light, Tremble, and Deepstep Come Shining, under a common aesthetic. Are you an ‘elliptical poet’?
What does it mean when a poet who grew up in Arkansas being able to name trees and snakes becomes thought of as ‘elliptical’ (which seems to connote obscurity), and, in a certain sense, a model for young academic poets to imitate?
C.D. Wright: Does it connote obscurity? I think Steve Burt is a total whiz, and his piece on my work in the Boston Review was embarrassingly generous. He’s so smart I half-believed he was talking about my work. Regarding the ‘elliptical’ business, I’m less enthusiastic. But I do think it is a stab at authentication of poets who don’t belong to a team and whose work is reluctant to be either excluded or subsumed by one or the other, yet has sympathetic concerns to certain strains and not to others.
I’ve enjoyed the promise and limitations of several ‘monikers’ but never claimed them for myself. And I have never been invited formally or otherwise to join an identifiable group, which doesn’t mean I am opposed to their existence. As Cary Nelson has written (and I’m broadly paraphrasing), it is energizing to have an enemies list. It’s useful for other reasons as well, including the sharpening business.
There is a host of work I don’t like and so much that I do. I am impatient with the notion that there’s nothing good much less new under the sun. There’s plenty that’s good and enough that is new; insuring their notice is another matter.
I’m not as cranked up as I used to be. I can’t keep up and in fact the time in which most of us can is fairly brief, but when someone puts something under my nose that I like the smell of, I check it out. My first response is why do I like this, and the second is, can I do this; do I want to try. It’s generally a friendly response if a tad competitive. I am very negative about any and all readily classifiable responses including my own occasional knee-jerk defensiveness. But I do not warm to everything, and if I can find no feeder path, I let it go. I take my own path which I couldn’t repeat myself if I wanted to.
My work is not obscure, it’s maybe cranky, idiosyncratic, privately allusive, but I am not as ‘conceptual’ as even I would want to be. Nor do I attempt to pander. It’s project by project for me — by any means necessary; that’s enough of a directive. I’m fairly aware of the contradictions in my work and personality. I’m country but sophisticated. I’m particular and concrete, but I’m probing another plane… ‘elliptical’ is alright, but it’s something I would apply when it applies, not overall. There are many times when I want to hammer the head. Other times I want to sleep on the hammer.
Kent Johnson: In an essay, you once referred to your poems as ‘succinct but otherwise orthodox novels’, which is a surprising definition, to be sure. This was before your latest book, Deepstep Come Shining, an extended sequence that might be seen as ‘novelistic’ in its novella-like length, but certainly not ‘orthodox’ in any way.
All the admired signature effects of your writing are there — sudden eruptions of odd or secret vocabulary, a specificity that telescopes hidden detritus or ruin, a no-holds-barred eroticism — yet the book is quite a different thing from its immediately preceding ones, String Light, or Tremble. Like them, perhaps even more so, Deepstep is viscerally eyeful and tactile, but the word ‘succinct’ doesn’t seem to peg it. If I’m right in my impressionistic estimation that it’s a departure, how so?
C.D. Wright: Deepstep Come Shining is my rapture. I don’t know if I can get there again. Everything about its composition was either inevitable or serendipitous. Orthodoxy isn’t really my bag, regardless of what I said in my mercifully statutorily outlived youth. But there are traditional elements in all of my writing. Narrativity has never been anathema to me. I just want to keep the writing interesting, pressing, first of all for myself, and secondly for anyone who bothers to read it. But I am always looking for my ‘one untranslatable song.’ The Argentine poet Roberto Juarroz said we were all so entitled.
Kent Johnson: Collaboration between poets and poets or between poets and artists of other mediums seems to be much in the air of late. You’ve been doing it for a number of years with the accomplished photographer Deborah Luster. What has this collaboration meant to you? And could you talk a bit about the projects you have done and are now working on?
C.D. Wright: Yes, I have in recent years fallen into the habit of collaboration. I was beginning to be bored with my solo act. Then I had an opportunity to put together a touring, multi-media exhibit, and I relished the experience. I continued to work with Deborah Luster, an old, close friend, and an emerging photographer. A beginner really, but a very fast learner, and ready to make up for lost time.
So she’d think of something or I’d think of something and we would put it together: I wrote a long, twisted erotic poem and she was trying out some toxic French technique, mordancage, and we put that together. She was printing on big sheets of aluminum in the spirit of Mexican retablos, and I wrote some poems for the images, and had them translated so they could appear bilingually.
Then she started photographing prison inmates, and I tail-gated her into that one — which is our current project. I am attempting to write the text for what turns out to be a very intimate form of portraiture printed on metal in a manner akin to tintypes. Whether the result will approximate the experience, I don’t know. But I am glad for the experience of visiting the prisons in Louisiana and acting as Debbie’s factotum on some of her shoots. We collaborate because we have twin sensibilities: politically, aesthetically, humorously. I don’t know if I could collaborate with anyone else. Maybe.
I just hope I can do this project justice since the material is so charged. I would not want to distort what we see to suit what I want to say. Collaboration is the buzz these days, and I was as late as I have been about everything else to get involved. I think artists in America just feel so irrelevant, it makes the undertaking less lonely and so, less seemingly futile.
Kent Johnson: There’s a complex tension, always, in any art of human portraiture, between the subject’s awareness and the artist’s intent. Sometimes there is a large gap, and the danger exists that the artist’s aesthetic ambitions are realized through a kind of ‘going beyond’ the subject’s participation in, and understanding of, the collaboration. For some, this raises certain ethical questions.
Much of the controversy around the photography of Sally Mann, an artist you happen to personally know, for example, has revolved around this issue.
And having seen samples of the photos from the Louisiana prison series, I have to say that there is a certain edginess and power to the work that seems to come from pushing the artist / subject tension to a kind of limit, where the viewer is asked to contemplate the issue of the artist / subject gap and very much straight in the face, so to speak, through the eyes of the prisoners staring back. I don’t know if I am making sense here, but I’m asking about the potentially controversial nature of what you and Luster are doing because the question seems important and interesting.
And so I wanted to ask you to talk more about the prison series, the aesthetic and political (if that term is relevant) energies behind its making. And in particular, I wonder if you could talk about how you and Luster might have perceived the prisoners’ perception of their role in posing as subjects. What is their relationship to the total art of this project?
Place of birth: Edgard, LA
Entered LSP: 1972
Photo 17 Jan 1999
C.D. Wright: The person I work with is a photographer with whom I have a great many affinities and have a history of shared experience; so there is an essential expectation that we will be coming down on the same side, the right side of the fence. Neither of us is apt to be tagged as a fence-sitter. There is also in the very bone of collaborating, a willingness to make mistakes. After all, no one is in total control. One is always attempting to say or see something through the other one’s mouth or eyes. And since this is impossible, mistakes are made. Communication mistakes, at the baseline of the whole operation.
Though a writer, auscultation (‘listening carefully’) is not my strong point. And it takes time to work it in — what I’ve heard and yet not heard. Such cracks are a given between one collaborator and another. ‘That’s how the light gets in.’ Any chosen subject is undertaken because it beckons your attention. The greater the gap between the subject and object, the greater the risk for misapprehension. When living human subjects are involved, the risk is painfully obvious. None of which seems sufficient an excuse for avoiding any subject.
Kent Johnson: And I’m sure you know that the ‘human subject’ issue has become a hot legal / ethical topic, having been the focus of recent lawsuits and substantial revisions of research protocol in academia, as Lingua Franca recently highlighted in a feature article.
And so the current project — please speak further about it.
C.D. Wright: The project concerns prisoners of Louisiana. For the past eighteen months, Debbie has been photographing inmates at three prisons: a maximum security male prison, a minimum security male prison, and the women’s state prison which is minimum, medium and maximum. I have accompanied her on a few of her shoots though most of the time she has gone alone. She lives in Louisiana; I live in Rhode Island. I have maintained a rich diet of books, films, and correspondence with inmates to fortify my attention. I have moved ahead, as I believe Debbie has, by trying to get it. And get at it. Or as Biddy did in Great Expectations, by ‘turning to at it.’
At the time of doing, you are just trying to keep the surface clean and clear. You want to be able to see into it even if that surface is made of concrete. Photographing incarcerated people on a visitor’s pass for an art book is definitely on the brink. My own contract with any project entails a couple of cardinal rules: in the first place, everyone you meet is a whole person; secondly, the guest should honor her host. It’s a start.
The popular perception is that art is apart. I insist it is a part of. Something not in dispute is that people in prison are apart from. If you can accept that — whatever level of discipline and punishment you adhere to momentarily aside — the ultimate goal should be to reunite the separated with the larger human enterprise, it might behoove us to see prisoners, among others, as they elect to be seen. In ‘their larger selves.’ The viewer may glimpse the damage, but also its limits. This is their portrait. The discrepancies between the photographer, writer, viewer and inmate are multiple, blaring.
Debbie’s mother, to be blunt, was murdered in her bed; my father is a retired judge and my mother a retired court reporter.
Most of the people who look at photography books have been acculturated to do so. We are two fairly brazen women who can handle our mortgages and walk out any door we please, whereas poverty is the common denominator of the vast majority of prisoners. And the door is most definitely locked. Illiteracy, abuse, mental impairment are all evident in extreme disproportion to the ‘free world.’ These disadvantages Debbie and I did not inherit or incur on the road. The effects of these disadvantages, especially in combination, are catastrophic.
So, who the hell are we; what can we possibly expect to achieve besides indulging in our own artsy version of voyeurism?
I couldn’t tell you, and to some degree I don’t believe these are important questions. I think it’s important to see what you can while you can. I think it’s more important for people to be able to look out than for us to look in. And for those of us who deign to look, to see the photographed as they would be seen: top button of work shirt done or gunshot, knife wound, and botched suicide scars bared. Crudely made and crudely stated tattoos on display or smudged in an effort to obliterate the message. On their knees, hands posed for praying or in fighting stance, fists up.
Kent Johnson: What arrangements do you make with the prisoners before photographing them?
C.D. Wright: It goes without saying that the subjects are voluntary and waivers have to be signed, and some officials are less receptive than others to outsiders — these are formalities, legalities, personality issues and don’t address either the isolated tension between photographer and photographed, writer and subject or subject and limited public.
The very willingness of men and women to be photographed exposed a number of motivations: to send prints to a spouse or parent (usually mother) or children or girlfriend, boyfriend or pen-pal; the prints are free and prisoners usually pay for every material thing they want; to have a record other than a mug-shot of what they looked like when; to better view their own countenances: as at the men’s maximum prison the mirrors are metal and the men genuinely lose a sense of definition of their own image; and, at least in one stated case, a young baker, at the women’s prison, for her portfolio.
One mother of seventeen children said that not one of her children or umpteen grandchildren would have any contact with her since she had been imprisoned (armed robbery, no priors, no loss of life involved). She hoped the pictures would soften them — to see her as she looked out at them — a handsome, tall, bi-focaled woman with a single gray streak in her full-bodied black hair. She resembled, I thought, my nearest neighbor.
Some were convinced that if you appeared in a book, you joined the ranks of the famous. And fame in America is considered a good thing regardless of how it is gained.
Did I think what we were doing could change anything? Well of course not.
Kent Johnson: And so if you didn’t expect to change anything, does that mean there is not a ‘political’ urge or intent behind this project?
C.D. Wright: Politics, politics: they are an aspect of everything, and I make no effort to purge them, every effort to comprehend the implications of my work and my messy part in every messy situation. I don’t know if it’s as hard as Americans conventionally make it out to be to keep art art, and let it show its political stripes. I think it’s all in the mix. I know it’s key among my own motivations, and I know how hard it is to synchronize what you say what you mean and why you do.
But I don’t have a problem with art’s relationship to politics or vice versa. They are related, okay.
The rate of incarceration is an American phenomenon. The length of sentences likewise. The death penalty, don’t get me started. The erosion of public support for any possibility of and thus programs that would implement the possibility of ‘rehabilitation’ is effectively buried under the rubble of vengeful rhetoric and active indifference to the lot of people not programmed to succeed on the up and up.
Add to this the aggressive withdrawal of serious measures to head off the great swath of destructive acts — education, healthcare, housing, job training — in preference for building prisons, prisons, prisons. In lieu of having what used to be called a society, we are opting, more and more, for a permanent, ever-expanding underclass. Excuse my syntax. What’re an American photographer and poet to do?
Well, go there, ascultate, poke around, come back and report, and put it on view. I did not talk with anyone I wanted to see rot there; but I heard the details of some acts which caused me to tremble, no, shudder. I feel a hyper-protective fear for my young son, that he ever become a taker or be taken; of any harm to come. And just to copy the Louisiana address of the Parents for Murdered Children organization made me clutch my guts.
But on the ground, face to face, it was the prisoners’ view; these individuals forcibly separated from the larger world, I sought to share something with them. On a visitor’s pass. Perhaps the gain is mine alone. I know I am as glad to have been at the Louisiana State Institute for Women and Angola and East Carroll as I am to have been to Macchu Picchu. I know everybody you meet is a whole person. But am I even in the vicinity of your question?
Kent Johnson: Yes, very much so — I think when the interview is printed that it will be important to show some of these photos.
Just one final question: Someone you knew as a ‘whole person’ was the poet Frank Stanford, about whom you published, a couple years back, what I believe is a stunning memoir in Conjunctions. More recently, through Lost Roads Press, you’ve brought out a new edition of Stanford’s epic, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. I know the book has been receiving quite a bit of attention, including among poets in England.
I think it’s safe to say that Stanford is one of the real ‘cult’ figures in American poetry. His life has a mythic aura around it, which perhaps is out of balance with the direct knowledge that exists of his work. To conclude, please talk a bit about Stanford and the reception of his poetry.
C.D. Wright: I don’t know that I do think Stanford is a neglected artist. He wrote a great deal at a very young age and developed as a poet to an incredible level of maturity though he was dead before he was 30. He was born August 1, 1948, and committed suicide on June 3, 1978. He published quite a bit in his lifetime, albeit with a small literary press (Mill Mountain Press, edited by Irv Broughton), and a range of magazines, from those as absurd as Seventeen (in which a poem appears under a pseudonym) to Ironwood which was his favorite.
He did not finish undergraduate school, though he stood out, evidently, from his first breath. He made a living as a land surveyor. He married twice. He packed quite a bit in in the time he allotted himself.
He did not attend an Eastern college. He did not move in or gravitate toward established circles of literature or standards of success, but he corresponded with poets as diverse as Allen Ginsberg and Alan Dugan. He did not belong to ‘a team’ nor did he wish to. Nor was his relation to poetry oppositional. He started a small press, Lost Roads Publishers, out of advocacy for the talent he found on hand.
In whatsoever he lacked faith, it wasn’t in his own abilities as an artist. There were no misgivings in that vein. If he felt thwarted artistically, it wasn’t because he did not consider himself to have options. Since his death his reputation has not waned. It has stood its ground. It has taken root and grown. More than any single other thing, all the noise and distortion that goes with a self-willed end has encumbered the work. People forget to see what there is to see inside it. The re-printing of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You is an opportunity to take a long, soulful look.
C.D.Wright has published eight collections of poetry, most recently Tremble (Ecco Press, 1996), and Just Whistle, a booklength poem in collaboration with the photographer Deborah Luster (Kelsey Street Press, 1993), and Deepstep Come Shining (Copper Canyon Press, 1998). Wright’s awards include the Poetry Center Book Award, the Witter Bynner Prize from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a General Electric Award for the literary essay, a Whiting, a Guggenheim, and a Rhode Island Governor’s Award for the Arts. In 1981 she received a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, which prompted a move to Mexico. In 1994 she was named State Poet of Rhode Island, a five-year post.
On a fellowship for writers from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation, Wright curated ‘a walk-in book of Arkansas’ multimedia exhibition that toured throughout her native state for a two-year period. Wright teaches at Brown University. With poet Forrest Gander she edits Lost Roads Publishers. They live with their son Brecht near Providence, Rhode Island.
Photo of C.D.Wright by Forrest Gander
Deborah Luster’s photographs are toned, silver emulsion on prepared anodized aluminum plates, 5×4 inches. Information concerning the represented inmate is etched on the back of each plate. The approximately 300 images from three Louisiana prisons are housed in a black steel cabinet (pulpit sized). In order to view the portraits, the viewer must open and remove the plates from the heavy drawers that contain them. They can then be held and viewed or arranged on the cabinet top for viewing. One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana will be published by the University of Texas Press as part of the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern and Mexican Photography Series from Southwest Texas State University and edited by Bill Wittliff. The release date is Spring 2002.
Kent Johnson’s latest book is I Once Met: A Partial Memoir of the Poetic Field (Longhouse, 2015). His annotated translation of Cesar Vallejo’s only known interview appeared as a letterpress object from Ugly Duckling Presse last year. With Kristin Dykstra, he has edited Materia Prima: Selected Poems of Amanda Berenguer, also to be published, in 2017, by UDP. You can read his translations of some poems of Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz (translated with Forrest Gander) in Jacket 8, and his interview with poet Henry Gould in Jacket 10. Like everyone else, he is currently writing a novel.