C.D. Wright Receives the 2011 National Book Critics Award for Poetry
C.D. Wright was awarded the 2010 The National Book Critics Circle award for poetry last night, at an award ceremony held at NYU. Wright’s book length poem: One With Others (A Little Book Of Her Days), published by Canyon Press in 2010, is a mixture of poetry and investigative journalism that follows a four day Civil Rights March in Arkansas. Wright’s collection specifically traces the story of Margaret Kaelin McHugh, the sole white woman to join the march.
Wright has published eleven other books of poetry. Of her total twelve, the 1998 collection Deepstep Come Shining and her 2003 work One Big Self: An Investigation, are the two volumes which best echo the kind of poetic journalism that shapes One With Others and gives Wright a distinct voice as a poet of the American South.
Wright’s father was a courtroom journalist when she was growing up in Arkansas and she was briefly in law school before she dropped out to receive her MFA in 1967. Within her work there is a definite element of courtroom scrutiny. In One With Others, Wright brings the careful approach of an investigator to the crafting of narrative, weaving excerpts of voices, facts, and documents together to allow small moments of truth to rise out of complex histories. The following is a passage from One With Others:
GRADUATE FROM ALL-WHITE HIGH SCHOOL, First Year of Choice:
When MLK died kids were laughing and talking about how they should have
killed that [N-word] a long time ago.
Did you hear the one about the [N word] that…
Do you know why the colored want to send their children to the white
So they can learn to read and riot.
Do you know what they sang at King’s funeral.
Memphis has one up on Dallas.
They got a president. We got a king.
So they slew the dreamer, and ever since they’ve been trying to slay the dream.
During a recent interview, when Wright was asked why she chose to weave and re-weave so many voices into a single account she replied: “I was drawing down on whatever I had at my disposal to make the whole thing move, without succumbing to telling a proper story.” As Dan Chiasson notes in his review in the New Yorker, the story of the Civil Rights Movement is a history so over documented that perhaps it can only be told truthfully by revealing the complexities that are left behind, after many facts and many voices are examined. So for both Chiasson and for Wright, this “proper telling” of the story belongs in the hands of poetry.
It is inspiring for me to consider that this major award was given to a poetic collection not only for its quality, but because it achieved something that other non-fiction genres cannot. Wright’s work, a 150 page poem followed by 10 pages of works referenced, has been acknowledged in a time when on the one hand we are ravenous for facts, and on the other, everyone and their mom has a blog and we value this ability of ours to say, pretty much, anything. It is interesting then, to consider a book of poetry that explores the Civil Rights Movement (a time when unshakable facts were being overthrown by other, unshakable, beliefs) as a testament to the contemporary potential of poetry in our society. In an age where on the one hand what we think or feel means less and less, and on the other, to be informed is to be informed of so many conflicting facts that what we “make” of them could mean everything, perhaps this collection of poetry, beyond being admirable work, is a nod towards some emerging place for the poetic, or what Wright refers to as “a poetry that doesn’t protect us anymore,” or at the very least, offers a new definition of reliability.
Other NBCC finalists for poetry were Anne Carson, Nox (New Directions), Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City (Princeton University Press), Terrance Hayes, Lighthead (Penguin Poets), and Kay Ryan, The Best of it: New and Selected Poems (Grove Press).
More from C.D. Wright:
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