In the summer of 1998, the poet and English professor C.D. Wright received what she would later call “a summons.” Her old friend and sometime collaborator Deborah Luster was photographing inmates in Louisiana prisons and wanted Wright to collaborate. But as much as Wright relished the prospect of driving around Louisiana with Luster, the prospect of making art out of inmates’ lives made her queasy.
Luster, who lives in Monroe, Louisiana, persisted, and Wright, who is a former Rhode Island poet laureate and the Israel J. Kapstein Professor of English, agreed to travel south and at least see what had so captivated her friend. For a week she tagged along, lugging equipment and helping with release forms as Luster photographed at three Louisiana prisons: the 100-bed, minimum-security East Carroll Parish Prison Farm for men at Transylvania, in impoverished east Louisiana; the Louisiana Women’s Prison at St. Gabriel, which houses 1,000 inmates in minimum-, medium-, and maximum-security units on the coastal strip known as Cancer Alley; and the maximum- security Louisiana State Prison at Angola, which is also known as The Farm. Located on an 18,000-acre former slave-breeding plantation, and surrounded on three sides by Mississippi delta waters, Angola houses 5,000 men—mostly lifers.
East Louisiana reminded Wright of her childhood in the Arkansas Ozarks. “I hadn’t seen that kind of poverty in a long time,” she says. “Something burning everywhere, nothing is level, everything’s up on cinder blocks. Children are everywhere; nobody’s got a job. The guards live next door to the inmates’ families. It’s all the same economy.”
Angola challenged her preconceptions. Driving away after their first visit, Luster turned to Wright and asked what she thought now. “Those are the nicest people I ever met in my life,” Wright replied in broad irony and utter seriousness. Retelling the story this winter, she laughed: “Debbie almost rolled the car. But I meant it.” The contradictions captivated her: the extreme poverty and the violence it can breed, the politeness of both inmates and guards, the clanging of metal doors, the immaculate grounds at Angola. “You could eat off the floor there,” she says. “And you would not believe the flowers—of course they’re all tended by inmates. If it weren’t for the concertina wire and the guardhouse, you could look around the women’s prison or Angola and think you were at a community college.” She was hooked.
“Prison culture sucks you in,” Luster says. “Everything seems inconsequential when you get out.” Over the next three years, she continued to photograph in the prisons—she estimates she took 45,000 images—while Wright, back in Rhode Island, immersed herself in prison lore and literature—Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Jack Abbott. “One book leads to another,” she says. To keep the sound of clanging in her head, she watched prison movies. When she could get away from her teaching and family responsibilities, she returned to Louisiana. Gradually she gathered the fragments she would eventually spin into verbal threads and then braid into an extended poem.
That process reached its fruition in December, with the publication of One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, issued by Twin Palms Publishers. The book met with immediate acclaim. In the New York Times Book Review’s annual roundup of the previous year’s best photography books, reviewer Vince Aletti compared the emotional impact of Luster’s portraits to that of tintypes of Union soldiers heading off to war. “Rather than attempt to echo or amplify the photographs,” Aletti continued, “Wright has wisely followed her own ear, creating a kind of chapbook of Southern prison lore.”
ON THE FIRST PAGE of the ledger book containing Wright’s notes for the project, she pasted a “Get Out of Jail Free” card from a Monopoly game. In the year after her first trip with Luster, Wright returned to Louisiana three times, spending about a week each time. She interviewed penologists, wardens, guards. She spoke with inmates as they waited to be photographed. “I’d ask where they were from,” she says, “how many brothers or sisters they had, what they missed about the outside—never what they were in for.” She didn’t take notes in front of inmates; “I didn’t want anyone to think I was a reporter,” she says. At lunch in the staff cafeteria, or back in the motel at night, she’d record the day’s observations, which sometimes contained sharp, unexpected details: snippets of conversation, stories of escape attempts, a wren she saw nesting in the razor wire.
Then she’d return to the aerie-like former schoolhouse where she lives with her husband, Forrest Gander, who heads Brown’s creative writing program, and their son, Brecht. There, she’d sift through her notes and clippings. From the start she knew she wasn’t going to write discrete poems, but finding a structure that would bring together all this disparate material and give it cadence took time.
One day in a prison, a chance remark suggested a structure: “They’re always counting something here,” Luster said. Wright began to create stanzas about the count, the five-times-daily process by which inmates are accounted for. (One of those passages is among the excerpts that accompany this article, on page 49.) Back at Brown, Wright saw mounted on the wall at Machado House a copy of The Mansion of Happiness, the first board game produced in America. Its unforgiving tone hit home, and the game became another element in her emerging poem. (“It was real hard to get to the Mansion of Happiness,” Wright says.) To create breathing space, she sometimes addressed readers directly in letters. “My Dear Affluent Reader,” begins one letter. “Dear Errant Kid,” starts another. “Dear Fugitive, No one’s beat the dogs yet.” She was on her way.
In Louisiana, Luster continued to travel back and forth between her home and the prisons. She would arrive with two cameras, tripods, and a duffel bag of equipment, then use duct tape to hang a black velvet drapery wherever the warden permitted and the light was okay. That was her makeshift studio. As she handed out a dozen or so wallet-size prints to each of the inmates she’d photographed on her last visit, long lines would form as men and women gathered to be photographed. They posed in whatever uniform they were wearing that day: kitchen workers came in chef’s whites; Angola rodeo stars wore their striped shirts; on Halloween the women came in costume.
The final portraits, printed on three-by-five-inch aluminum plates, feel solid in the hand. Luster says that as she watched inmates trade their prints like baseball cards, she came to see the collection as a physical record of the prisons and of the men and women who live there. To house that record, she created an altar-like case, with metal drawers for the portraits and a space for Wright’s books and words. (The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art bought it, and Luster has since commissioned a second case.) Midway through the project, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke awarded Luster and Wright the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize—a $10,000 grant recognizing the WPA photographer and writer and encouraging further collaborative documentary work.
A friend showed Luster’s portraits to Jack Woody, a graphic designer and founder of Twin Palms, which is best known for reproducing the work of highbrow photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe and William Eggleston. Woody agreed to design and publish the book. Wright expected her text to be walled off from the photographs, relegated to the front or the back. Instead, Woody wove the words and images together, using each to illuminate the other. The juxtapositions are subtle, as is the pacing.
ON THE OAK COFFEE TABLE in Wright’s living room this winter lay a copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the classic documentary portrait of Depression-era Alabama produced by writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans. She’s teaching the book this semester, and it’s impossible to read One Big Self without thinking of it—for the physical detail with which both writers depict their subject matter, and for their occasional, wry humor. Agee mocks himself (“a spy traveling as a journalist”) and Evans (“a counter-spy traveling as a photographer”). Wright echoes him: “No we’re not parole officers / No we’re not church ladies / The redhead here is a photographer and I’m her humble factotum.” And like Agee, Wright has a profound respect for the men and women she interviewed. Even though some of them are guilty of horrendous crimes, she is determined to count them into, not out of, society.
Wright is deeply concerned with outsiders. She’s a bit of one herself, having grown up in the Ozarks. So did Luster, who characterizes the two of them as a pair of hillbillies. Still, Wright’s father was a judge and her mother a court stenographer, and their house was full of books. Wright fell in love with the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Butler Yeats as a teenager. It took years, though, before she came to see how a girl from Mountain View, Arkansas, could traffic in such rarified stuff. She earned her MFA at the University of Arkansas, in Fayetteville, and in her twenties she met up with the poet Frank Stanford, who wrote with the same idiom and accent she did. It was a revelation—that she didn’t have to be dead or Irish or a priest to be a poet. In 1979 Wright moved to California, where she taught at San Francisco State and met Gander. When Brown offered her a job teaching creative writing in 1983, the two moved east to Providence.
Over the years, Wright has published eleven books of poetry, accruing a string of honors. She’s been a Bunting Fellow at Radcliffe; she’s received hefty awards from the Guggenheim and Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest foundations and from various agencies that support the arts. She’s become known variously for the eroticism, the physicality, and the maverick style of her poetry. Her vocabulary is formidable. Despite twenty-five years in New England, her work retains a strong southern accent (“It’s pretty portable,” she says). Many of her poems also reveal an old-fashioned lefty impulse that stands out, if not at Brown, then in class-conscious New England.
In 2002 Wright reached a milestone with the publication of Steal Away: Selected and New Poems (Copper Canyon). A brief review in the New Yorker described her as “a chronicler of the travails that take place ‘between midnight and Reno,’ deeply interested in the social realities of America’s poor and restless and in ‘towns with quarter-inch / phone books.’”
When Luster first approached her, Wright was wary of romanticizing or idealizing the conditions she found in prisons. She didn’t want to aestheticize them. She knew, too, that the wardens “are only going to let you see what they want you to see,” and she didn’t want to “come off as stupid.” In an interview published in the literary Web magazine Jacket, she described the cardinal rules she observed: “In the first place, everyone you meet is a whole person; secondly, the guest should honor her host. It’s a start…. The ultimate goal should be to reunite the separated with the larger human enterprise.”
Luster’s photographs accomplish that on both the individual and a larger, social level. One woman, a mother of nineteen, who had not seen any of her children in the fifteen years of her incarceration, sent home Luster’s prints, and four of her kids showed up to visit. In an exhibition of Luster’s photographs in a little African American museum in Shreveport, Louisiana, she says, a man came up to her. “You’ve made my job a lot harder,” he said. “I’m a prosecuting attorney, and I send men to Death Row.”
If Luster gives faces to the anonymous, Wright gives voice to the mute. “Damn … I done got old,” a kind-looking Angola inmate named Franklin laments upon seeing his picture after years of squinting into stainless-steel mirrors.
FOR THEIR NEXT collaboration, Luster and Wright are discussing a project about places disrupted by unresolved violence. Luster’s mother was murdered several years ago, shot by a hired killer as she slept. The shooter was convicted, but Luster says prosecutors couldn’t build a case against the man they believe did the hiring. Making sense of violence has fueled her work since. Although this next project might intimate that Wright is moving toward more documentary work, she says that’s unlikely. “I’m drawn to things that haunt me,” she says.
In the meantime, she and Luster are planning more exhibitions based on One Big Self, hoping to integrate sound with the images. And they’re giving interviews to critics from both literary and arts magazines. One of the purposes of collaborating, says Wright, was to reach a wider audience, to increase what she calls “the yield.” Twin Palms printed 2,000 copies of the book, a significant print run for a poet—if not exactly an entrée to the bestseller lists. “We [poets] are always jockeying for space next to the cash register at Stop & Shop,” Wright jokes. Then she adds, more seriously, “The market for poetry is limited. Collaborating is a way to counter that.” A more pragmatic approach might have been to write nonfiction, but Wright argues that poetry is slower, more reflective, and can therefore produce a deeper impact.
“Some things,” she holds, “can be said more memorably and more penetratingly in poetry than in straight-ahead prose.” And in truth, few arguments about capital punishment carry the irony or punch-to-the-gut social criticism of these lines from One Big Self:
AC or DC
You want to be westinghoused or edisoned
Your pick you’re the one condemned
Tennessee’s retired chair available on E-Bay.
For a selection of photographs and poems from One Big Self check out the print edition of the BAM. Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM’s managing editor.