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Poet CD Wright Weaves History, Reporting, Storytelling in Verse

April 26, 2011 at 6:12 PM EST
Brown University professor CD Wright weaves oral histories, news reports and interviews into her poetry. Her latest volume, "One With Others," looks back at the civil rights era in her native Arkansas.
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MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, another in our series on poets and poetry.

CD Wright is a professor at Brown University who weaves oral histories, news reports, interviews and much more into her poetry.

Her latest volume is a book-length extended poem titled “One With Others.” It looks back at the civil rights era in her native Arkansas.

CD WRIGHT, poet: “One With Others” was mainly intended to be a tribute to my friend V., who was a self-educated woman with seven children, no income of her own, who lived in a town in eastern Arkansas. She was a very singular individual.

And for my part, it was the honor of my life to know her.

“She had a brain like the reading room in the old British Museum. She could have donned fingerless gloves and written ‘Das Kapital’ while hexagons of snowflakes tumbled by the window panes. She could have made it up whole cloth. She could have sewn the cotton out of her own life while the Thames froze over.”

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Along with many, many other towns in the Delta, especially in the year immediately following Martin Luther King’s death, those towns began to explode, one by one. And this town was no exception. My friend V. was a white woman who got involved in all of these activities and ended up being arrested. Her car was burned in the police parking lot. Her husband denounced her, divorced her, took custody of the children.

Once V. got involved, she became a pariah in the town. There was a mass arrest of black students. They had gone — left the grounds of the all-black high school, gone to the all-white high school, linked arms and sang “like a tree planted by the water,” one of the standards of the civil rights movement.

The kids were put in the swimming pool because they had no room for that many people in the town jail and they didn’t know where to put them.

“The cool water is for white, the sun-heated for black. This chair is not for you [N-word]; it is for the white buttock. This textbook is nearly new, is not for you [N-word]; this plot of ground does not hold black bones. Today, the sermon once again, ‘Segregation After Death.’

“After the pool was drained for the season, they arrested the kids who marched to the white school who stood and sang ‘like a tree planted by the water.’ They took them to the jailhouse in school buses. They took them to the drained pool in sealed 18-wheelers. The sheriff told them they were to be taken to the woods and there shot. Then the sheriff told them they were to be taken to the pool and there drowned. Granddaughter of V.’s babysitter, who was put in the pool she had never seen before then. He was one mean man, that sheriff.”

I wanted to write a book of poetry that gave no quarter, as far as it still being a serious work of art but that was also a page-turner. It’s a hybrid form. So it uses prose. It uses documentary materials. It uses the local newspaper.

There were lots of records to be found. I interviewed a lot of citizens in that town who are still there, you know, who are still working night shifts and still doing neighborhood watch.

I think poetry aims to see better, to see more clearly, to see things, as Agee says, the cruel — looks for the cruel radiance of what is, tries to articulate that. I think it still does all of this. It’s harder to — for it to reach its field of ears than it ever has been.

“To walk down the road without fear, to sit in a booth and order a sweet soft drink, to work at the front desk, to be referred to as ‘gentleman,’ to swim in the pool, to sit in the front row and watch ‘Run Wild, Run Free,’ next week, ‘Death of a Gunfighter,’ to make your way to the end of the day with both eyes in your head. Nothing is not integral. You want to illumine what you see, fear reflected off an upturned face, those walnuts turning back in the grass. It is a relatively stable world, gentle reader, but, beyond that door, it defies description.”

MARGARET WARNER: The volume “One With Others” is CD Wright’s 12th. It was recently awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

You can see Wright read more from her work on our website’s poetry page.