C.D. Wright--An Autobiographical Preface
People were going around with chickenfeet
People were going around with bibles. "History of John Stoss," Frank Stanford
There was plenty of loud talk at the table, late corn, continuous palaver in other parts of the house; a handsome brother with principles and the future on his mind, who came in good time to counsel the mentally unbalanced. None of the Wrights so far as that goes are inordinately stable. Or else, neurotically so. We are a smart bunch. Verbal down to the altogether illiterate. 1949, the year stoically captioned by one poet as "A whore blowing smoke in the dark" I was born. On Epiphany, a podalic version. "You tore me up," my mother swore, "No more," and her womb blew back into the trees. My first words--I've been told--were obscene. My highchair was handed-down and painted over white. I remember the hard heels of my white shoes chipping at the paint of the rung. Brought up in a large unaestheticized house littered with Congressional Records and stenotype paper by a Chancery Judge and The Court's hazel-eyed Reporter who took down his every word which was law. Throughout my childhood I was knife-sharp and aquatic in sunlight. I read.
There was an impotent public education, never enough music in the home, not enough bathrooms. Books in heaps under beds, on the lid of stools, on the formica counter and the dining table with the cat who had lost its tail hair. After "lights out" I tunneled into the closet onto a wad of abused fluffy toys and plaid schooldresses with The Razor's Edge, Jo's Boys, The Olde Curiosity Shoppe, Pride & Prejudice, a Nancy Drew mystery, The Fountainhead (I wasnt particular), and pages and pages to go...
Lived in Ozarks until I was seventeen. Typically young, American and miserable. Then I moved: Vicksburg, Springfield, Memphis, New York, Atlanta--going to colleges and working until 1972 when I returned to attend graduate school at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville where I stayed until 1979. Too long. Now those tangles have been combed out and I still have most of my hair, I can say, I am largely Ms. Vittitow- educated but cannot stop to explain. That is, she was critical and I cant adequately cipher the layers of her space, time, causality, much less the uncanny way whereby she took literature in whole and gave it back lustrous and living.
The geographic sovereignty of my state of origin goes unchallenged by me. For its natural resources, no other single land mass is more suited to being a country than Arkansas. And were such a thing to come to pass, no other country would more resemble the dread South Africa. For that matter, I haven't met with much of well-heeled America exempt from such a comparison. In the case of Arkansas I do not miss the persistence of tar-paper siding, segregation, right-to-work laws, dried-apple dolls, religious disturbances, or the screened and lagging informational flow. Not the dominion of football. Those HOGS were lost on me. At no point was I interested in the care and feeding of grown chickens. But among the many elements I do miss, which if not in bounty, survive, no, thrive, in pockets; so, it isnt mere nostalgia to name them: four full and even seasons, hardwood and green waterways, mockingbirds, barges, berry jellies, the Missouri Pacific line, one-lane bridges, variety gardens. I pine for the shade-tree ingenuity and speech of its citizens, Sunday's Gazette, along with a diurnal faith in the earths near permanence which residence in the interior permits.
The particulars of hill society have shaped my work more than any certain somebody. Re-reading the Writer's Project Guide to the State, published first in 1941, and extrapolating from descriptions of individual hill women, I have no trouble spotting myself: bony but strong as a weed, an abiding refusal to smile or sing; a relentless if not brutal honesty; streaks of the mean, the grotesque in humor. Thomas Hardy's descriptions of the peasant yeomanry of England, quoted in the same guide, are likewise faithful to my relations: "blond, grey-eyed, slim, with straight mouths, determined chins, independent and hidebound, adaptable to circumstances, free of outside influences, not complacent and don't fight well unless cornered. Then to the death." In my family until my parents generation, all were dirt farmers on the father's side, railroad workers on the mothers. Both sides have taken root in the most stubborn sense of the word in similar topography for a couple hundred years: Alleghenies, Blue Ridge, Smokies, Ozarks; with a scant sampling forging as far West as the Oklahoma Badlands.
Creation is forward-looking even when the setting is bygone, and I have known many get-cracking artists from the Ozarks: visual plastic, musical, literary and I continue to know and honor their work as it changes and grows. Some have stayed on, more have moved off. I resent the city which goes uninformed by the country, or which minds the woods only long enough to pluck out a naif to pronounce visionary, to patronize for a flash and just as promptly forget. I hate to see someone whose imagination is pure, taken by someone whose careerist intentions are obscene. Similarly I feel discouraged when the country is too incestuous and defensive to recognize the living intelligence of the city. I aim to carry the smoked ham of my voice to Beulahland. I do not intend to write as though I had not gotten wind of "this here" or "that there" semiotic theory, regardless of which if any one theory, prevails.
The last book I completed, Translations Of The Gospel Back Into Tongues, is a lamentation for the late Frank Stanford, poet from Arkansas, and a tribute to the great American experience of jazz. It is told in that odd way I have. But my life, ergo my life's work is not the same now as it was then. A year after Stanfords death I moved, in near ruins, to San Francisco. Literarily, the cumulative effect of what I've been laid open to here has been at the outset paralyzing. But I am beginning to walk upright again; to see what they have out here I can take back for my fire. I will not say this hasn't been reciprocal that Californians have not been interested in a country perspective. But once, after a reading, I overheard a man say to another main "She's a real one, a real hillbilly." I thought he was a patronizing fart but I am, irrevocably, a purebred hill person. I do not see the literary life as being either scalded from or hidebound by that fact
When I began to write seriously I wrote strictly dialect with aberrant spelling, subject-verb disagreements... I wrote blue tick hounds accompanied by untunable git-tars and ocarinas (a simple wind instrument known in the vernacular as the sweet potato). Until recently my writing has continued to reflect the pitch of that speech. Now that I can recognize it from the outside, I can reproduce it at will but am no longer committed to pursuing a course whereby my language is rife with idiom Ozarkia. I mean I can only yammer and yam my way through so many hundreds of lines, living as I do between the Wisconsin Street Housing Project and the San Jose Freeway, in a flat that oversees the shipyards of Bethlehem Steel. It is a warboat they are assembling at the waters edge, a far cry from midwifery in Leslie or Evening Shade (a community alternately called Hookrum). While I prefer cornbread crumbled in buttermilk to sushi I do not write from my lost life alone, any more than I dictate every term by which I do write.
My poems are about desire, conflict, the dearth of justice for all. About persons of small means. They are succinct but otherwise orthodox novels in which the necessary characters are brought out, made intimate (that is, they reveal themselves), engage in dramatic action and leave the scene forever with or without a resolution in hand or sight Each on the space of a page or less. Obversely, my prose is private, meditative; without a cast, discernible intention, goal or dramatic fulcrum. My prose is about language if it is about any one thing. It is possibly this functional switch whereby the prose serves language first and the poem story, that gives my work its greatest definition. I didnt choose this method and the limitations of it drive me wild, but I abide, accepting in so far as I can, that I am taking the only road open to me, the only one I'm allowed to drive on this way until some unforseen detour alters my course.
In my work I'm led by my senses but I understand practical matters. I am neither interested in preserving nor exorcising the poetry of the hills. There are luminous albeit terrible facts I must simply transcribe. I the scribe. Others, transform. But on the same point, I submit you have to strike down your own mythology, about yourself, your loves, your ravishing and atavistic homeland. I am interested in the vision beyond this confrontation. Boundaries of illumination between the created, the recreates the newly gleamed, the as yet incomprehensible. Speaking for myself, this scribbling saves me from missing a minute of what would otherwise go unspecified, unstyled. Writing is a risk and a trust. The best of it lies yonder. My linguistic skills expand on the horizon. So does the horizon. My goals are higher-minded than they once were. Once you could say, I had ambition. I never could write any old way. I would like to write so well I don't have to sever my writing from my positions; like many from my generation I desire the integrated life. Uncommitted people don't hold my interest period. Now that I have some know-how, even some readership, I'm hungrier; I dont want to break bread with the word unless convinced I have something in the mix that bears kneading. And someone to finish off the wine with, who is listening. Who is intent. Who'll read me the riot act when I shut up.
From Further Adventures with You. Pittsburgh: Carnegie-Mellon UP, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by C.D. Wright.
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