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“Poetry,” C. D. Wright once said, “is a necessity of life.” She could not imagine how to live without it. Only poetry, she believed, was capable of giving voice to the “zones inside us” that yearned to be freed. Wright, the Israel J. Kapstein Professor of English and a professor of literary arts who had taught and written at Brown since 1983, died unexpectedly on January 12. Her death came less than a week after her sixty-seventh birthday and only days after the release of her last book, a collection of essays with the exhaustive title The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All.

CDWright.jpg
John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
C. D. Wright in 2004

Unassuming in person and slight of build, Wright, whose voice still retained inflections from her upbringing in the Ozarks of Arkansas, was a bold, fearless, and adventurous artist, without doubt one of the leading poets of her generation. In 2013 she was chosen to become a member of the Academy of American Poets’ Board of Chancellors, whose past members included W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, and Adrienne Rich—poets, in the Academy’s words, “who have helped define the art of poetry in the United States.” Wright’s work, the Academy said in a blog post after her death, is “on fire with with life and passion for what matters.”

She was also a devoted teacher who served as a mentor to dozens of students—she had taught an advanced poetry course fall semester—and she helped to bring poets to readers through Lost Roads Press, a small publisher of poetry and fiction that Wright took over in 1978 and ran with her husband, Forrest Gander, the Adele Kellenberg Seaver '49 Professor of Creative Writing. For her commitment to Brown, in 2013 President Christina Paxson honored Wright with one of the first two Brown University Presidential Faculty Awards. Among her literary awards were a Lannan Literary Award and the 2005 Robert Creeley Award (she taught at Brown with Creeley until his death in 2005). She  also earned Guggenheim, MacArthur Foundation, and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. A poet whose work was always rooted in place, from 1994 to 1999 Wright was the Rhode Island state poet.

Wright published more than a dozen books, most of them collections of poetry. But she also wrote essays and collaborated on works, such as the 2003 One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, that are not so easy to classify. An inspiration, she said, was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans, a book grounded in documentary photography and reporting that was transformed by Agee’s passion into a searching and intimate prose poem about human struggle and social injustice. Like Agee, a fellow Southerner, Wright’s poetry and prose were firmly grounded in language and poetics but also incorporated reportage, sociological field work, and Wright’s seemingly endless capacity for empathy. “I draw on a mash of other disciplines to make it authentic,” she told the BAM in 2011.

One of her best known books of poetry is One With Others (a little book of her days), published in 2010, an homage to a white woman friend known as V, a rare small-town Southerner who joined African Americans in a Memphis march held after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. As a result of her involvement, V’s husband left her, taking custody of their seven children, and she became a pariah in her eastern Arkansas town. She eventually settled in New York City, where she lived in a one-room apartment in Hell’s Kitchen until her death in 2004. One With Others, a National Book Award finalist, won the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award.

To describe Wright’s books in terms of their narrative content is to miss their brilliant and often strange language. In 1998 Wright’s photographer friend Deborah Luster asked her to collaborate on a book of photographs of inmates in Louisiana’s state prisons, including the notorious one in Angola, home to 5,000 men, most of them serving a life sentence. Wright’s vivid and economical text in One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana is a wondrous work of the imagination, seeming to call up the inner lives of hardened convicts. On capital punishment, she writes:

You want to be Westinghoused or Edisoned
Your pick     you’re the one condemned

Tennessee’s retired chair available on eBay.

Born Carolyn Wright on January 6, 1949, in Mountain Home, Arkansas, she was the daughter of a judge and a court stenographer, one reason, perhaps, for her lifelong dedication to social justice issues. The South—its people and its landscape—would serve as an inspiration all her life. She received her undergraduate degree at Memphis State (now the University of Memphis), one of a group of “fairly erratic students,” she told the BAM in 2011, “but we were passionate about books.”

She fell in love with the poems of Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins, but couldn’t figure out how a small-town Southerner could become a respected poet until she met the poet Frank Stanford while Wright was in graduate school at the University of Arkansas, from which she earned an MFA in 1976. Three years later, after Stanford’s death, she moved to California to teach at San Francisco State, where she met Gander. In 1983, she joined the Brown faculty.

In a statement posted on the Academy of American Poets website after Wright’s death, the poet Anne Waldman wrote, “Brilliantly astute, generous, witty, panoramic, celebratory, C. D. Wright is one of our most fearless writers, possessed with an urgency that pierces through the darkness of our time.” About Wright, the New Yorker noted, "Wright has found a way to wed fragments of an iconic America to a luminously strange idiom, eerie as a tin whistle." And the New York Times Book Review concluded, "Wright belongs to a school of exactly one."

Wright is survived by her husband, Forrest Gander, and their son, Brecht.





Comments (10)
01/15/16
 
I spent time with Wright at her home, by the bay and at Brown, profiling her for the PBS Newshour. She was incredibly invested in Brown and in making the world a better place. Here's a link to the piece "in her own words": 
 
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-jan-june11-poet_04-26/
 
Anne Azzi Davenport '85
01/15/16
 
I was moved and inspired reading about this luminous, courageous, and brilliant woman. What an incredible legacy she has left. I was especially touched by the story of V, and I can imagine the ardor with which Wright wrote "One With Others". What a loss for all of us. Thank you for writing a piece that did her justice. She really left an indelible mark on the world.
 
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01/15/16
 
Glad to learn that there is a professorship honoring Prof. Kapstein---a great teacher and a wonderful human being.
 
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01/16/16
 
Her passing is a great loss for the Brown community, but her works live on in print and the spoken word, and her students (past and present) will no doubt carry her legacy forward.
 
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01/16/16
 
I had always made it a point to meet the holders of the chair endowed by an alumnus in my late dad's honor, and as a result C.D. and I became friends. We exchanged lengthy letters about once a year. She was a great and stirring poet, a fine person, a warm teacher, a lover of words, of students, of family, of people, of the world, and not in any order but all at once. Brown and all of us are lessened by her passing. With sad fondness, JK Brussels, Belgium
 
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01/18/16
 
I am deeply saddened to hear the news of C.D.'s passing. As one of her former students whom she inspired in class and ever since, my heart goes out to her family. I am deeply grateful for having known her even just a little bit and for her words of wisdom, her inspiring work and her encouragement to keep going, reading, writing!
 
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01/25/16
 
C.D. Wright is the most remarkable voice of her generation that devoted itself to understanding 
and recovering the layers of histories buried beneath the soils of the South along the Mississippi River--an understanding that helps us all to uncover the 
multilingual, multivocal, multicultural, and multiracial intertwinings and bindings that characterized the South from its beginnings. I was privileged to talk with her in 1985 as a Ph.D. applicant--an extraordinary 
"moment" for both of us. I wrote to her shortly after her gifted appearance on PBS several years ago and passed that note to her through Marilyn Netter of the Dept. of English. I followed Wright's career because I found her 
voices to be extraordinary, whether pursuing the South or Eastern Europe or another deep subject. In some ways I still see her walking on the banks of that Mississippi River. As I examined images of her on google, I was deeply moved by the photo of her intertwined with a beautiful drapery of green palm-like leaves, or is it a weeping willow's gracious enveloping of her as though she has become part of the tree itself?  
She was so gifted that she still seemed to be what we 
describe as an "emerging" landmark in American poetry in spite of already pointing us to one unforgettable path after another. I still see her diving and soaring yet firmly 
rooted in American poetry. Her youthfulness made me feel that she was going to write for another fifty years and take us to many more places than we could imagine. I believe she has done exactly that,and we will begin to see that genius vision of hers as we continue to place her 
alongside Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes,Adrienne Rich, and her other poetry peers.  
 
It is a sad truth that we canonize our poets once they 
are memorials for us rather than while they are living alongside of us. But I still see Carolyn Wright as 
that unique living memorial who will be read for as long as there are readers to read, as Shakespeare reminds us in one of the most remarkable and remembered 
sonnets in the English language. 
 
My condolences to Forrest Gander and their son as well 
as others in their inner circle and my appreciation for 
their caregiving. I have been a caregiver to my husband Chris Frigon since two major heart attacks in Hawaii in 1994 so I know what such a commitment can mean. I am pleased to say that he continues to play the piano and to edit his musical compositions as well as to remember his research work at Harvard Medical School and his students at Berklee College of Music and the Adamant School for Pianists. He also still enjoys recalling his work as founding coeditor of Twayne's Music Book Series with me.  
 
Camille Roman, Editor, The New Anthology of American Poetry 
P.S. Please feel free to quote me as you think it 
useful and to edit me as well. I will contact Wright's department to advise it of my email to you.
 
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01/27/16
 
I studied with CD. Loved her work and her kind heart. My condolences Forrest. You were a great team!
 
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02/03/16
 
My sincere condolences to her family. She touched so many lives with her inquisitive observations, humor, and clarity. Grateful for her teaching, and in admiration of her tremendous work.
 
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02/13/16
 
She opened up my life, contributing to "The Sorrow Psalms: Book of Twentieth Century Poetry." (wa.) All woman, lyricist, cvil highs fighter she did no some n in workbooks but in quiet Southern accent told me bout he life one summer cooped up wih "the bo" her Brecht, evoking both b, herself, he clausropobia and love, living on skateboards in country terrain. Tenderness. Torrents of torment that come with. 
 
Lynn Strongn 
Poet 
Pulitzer Prize nominee
 
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