C.D. Wright Interview with Kent Johnson for Jacket
Looking for one untranslatable song: An interview with C.D. Wright on poetics, collaboration, American prisoners, and Frank Stanford
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 Burts 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, youve 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. Im 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 L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. I didnt attempt to contribute to How(ever) not because I didnt feel outside, or because I didnt 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 doesnt 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. Ill vote as many times as I please. I dont 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.
Q: 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. Whats the impact of that experience on a young poet from the Arkansas Ozarks?
A: As when learning a foreign language, the structure of your own becomes transparent; as Molière's character comes to understand hes 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.
Q: You mentioned being indebted to particular poets work from that point in time. Besides Silliman, who else?
A: 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 dont know, my list wouldnt make sense to anyone else I dont 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 cant stand someones work than they come out with a book that floors me. I no sooner decide I am forever committed to someones work than I see them in the flesh in a setting I cant erase and which forever galls my reading. On committees, when I feel that bile seeping in, I recuse myself. Im not a reliable critic even for my own purposes.
Q: 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 Publishers 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?
A: 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. Hes so smart I half-believed he was talking about my work. Regarding the elliptical business, Im less enthusiastic. But I do think it is a stab at authentication of poets who dont 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.
Ive 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 doesnt mean I am opposed to their existence. As Cary Nelson has written (and Im 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 dont like and so much that I do. I am impatient with the notion that theres nothing good much less new under the sun. Theres plenty thats good and enough that is new; insuring their notice is another matter.
Im not as cranked up as I used to be. I cant 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. Its 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 couldnt repeat myself if I wanted to.
My work is not obscure, its maybe cranky, idiosyncratic, privately allusive, but I am not as conceptual as even I would want to be. Nor do I attempt to pander. Its project by project for me by any means necessary; thats enough of a directive. Im fairly aware of the contradictions in my work and personality. Im country but sophisticated. Im particular and concrete, but Im probing another plane... elliptical is alright, but its 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.
Q: 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 doesnt seem to peg it. If Im right in my impressionistic estimation that its a departure, how so?
A: Deepstep Come Shining is my rapture. I dont know if I can get there again. Everything about its composition was either inevitable or serendipitous. Orthodoxy isnt 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.
Q: Collaboration between poets and poets or between poets and artists of other mediums seems to be much in the air of late. Youve 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?
A: 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 shed think of something or Id 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 dont know. But I am glad for the experience of visiting the prisons in Louisiana and acting as Debbies factotum on some of her shoots. We collaborate because we have twin sensibilities: politically, aesthetically, humorously. I dont 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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 ones 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 Ive heard and yet not heard. Such cracks are a given between one collaborator and another. Thats 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.
Q: 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.
A: 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 womens 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 visitors 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. Its 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.
Debbies 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 couldnt tell you, and to some degree I dont believe these are important questions. I think its important to see what you can while you can. I think its 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.
Q: What arrangements do you make with the prisoners before photographing them?
A: 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 dont 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 mens 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 womens 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.
Q: And so if you didnt expect to change anything, does that mean there is not a political urge or intent behind this project?
A: 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 dont know if its as hard as Americans conventionally make it out to be to keep art art, and let it show its political stripes. I think its all in the mix. I know its 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 dont have a problem with arts 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, dont 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. Whatre 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 visitors 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?
Q: Yes, very much so I think when the interview is printed that it will be important to show some of these photos. [Ed. Note--click here to view 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, youve brought out a new edition of Stanfords 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 its 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.
A: I dont 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 wasnt in his own abilities as an artist. There were no misgivings in that vein. If he felt thwarted artistically, it wasnt 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.
from Jacket 15. Copyright © C.D.Wright and Kent Johnson and Jacket Magazine 2001. Online Source.
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