Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, we hear from Bradley Trumpfheller, who reads poems from C.D. Wright and discusses identity, influence, and questioning categorization of poets. Thank you for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read C.D. Wright for Lyric Essentials?
Bradley Trumpfheller: C.D. Wright is among that pantheon of writers that I just wouldn’t be the person or poet I am without. For me, any conversation about influence or the traditions I might be working within has to invoke her and her incredible oeuvre. There’s not a lot of dimensions of my writing that don’t owe some debt to Wright: how I approach the page, the sequence and its relation to the book-as-form, punctuation and sound, collage, and on and on. Too, I think her work does what may be my favorite thing that a writer can do, which is point to her influences and debts in a way that opens those writers and artists to the reader. In the back of One Big Self, maybe my favorite of her books, there’s a catalog of all the books she “cites” in the poem. I love finding things like this in books, because it’s so tuned to the way I read: beginning in one place, and if I really like it, finding the texts that influenced it and then reading those, perpetually expanding outward and backward. So, through Wright, I was able to find Jean Valentine, Raul Zurita, Viktor Shklovsky, Frank Stanford, and so many others to whom I am indebted. Wright never really aligned herself with a “school” of poetry (thankfully) as so many American poets did (and weirdly, sometimes, still do), but she made it clear that she was speaking from a certain tradition: contextual, personal but not private, and international in its orientation. Tradition-making is something I’m very invested in, particularly when it’s against canon-making. Wright was a real exemplar of this while she was with us, and I think that’s well worth honoring.
EH: From Wright’s expansive catalog of books, is there any particular reason you chose to read from Deepstep Come Shining?
BT: Deepstep Come Shining was the first book of Wright’s that I ever read as an undergraduate. I had read a few loose poems before that, and was aware of her as a popular contemporary poet that had died about 8 months prior. I feel like so often I come to the writers who affect me the most immediately after they pass away. I remember vividly being in my cousin’s house in Alabama the morning that Lucie Brock Broido died, reading poem after poem and having that same feeling. And Sean Bonney, last November, may he rest in power. As for Deepstep, though, it was the first one: it’s one of Wright’s books in that period of her life where she became really interested in the book as a form unto itself: Just Whistle, One Big Self, One With Others, from the mid 90’s into the 2000’s. Deepstep is a book length poem, as with those other works, that effectively is an account of a road trip through the South. Locations transmute, images are recorded; the obsession at the heart of the book is with looking, what it means to fix something (and to fail to fix something) in your gaze. Wright didn’t invent the idea of bringing in citation into the poem the way that she does in that book, but it was the first time I had encountered something like that, and was baffling to me at the time. Reading what you think is a lyric poem and then there’s a Kurosawa quote in the middle of the page, and then there’s a car dealership, and then there’s a sign that says “birthplace of John Coltrane”. The page, and I love this so much, becomes a field of relation. Wright looms so large over my own writing partially because when I first read her, I was so confused. The texts that stay with me are the ones that ask a lot of me as a reader, that have a surface tension. Not impenetrable, per se, though that has a value as well, but you have to spend time with them to get the scent, to catch the tune.
EH: Do you draw any inspiration from Wright’s work in your own, as a fellow “socially conscious, Southern” poet?
BT: When I was a younger poet (I say, as if I am not only twenty three), I think I was a little bit more attached to the idea of a “contemporary Southern poetics,” of which I would have counted Wright’s work as a grundnorm. But, I’m not sure how invested I am in that now, for a few reasons. On the subject of Wright, she was certainly a poet whose work returned to the landscapes of the South quite a bit, especially in Deepstep and One With Others, but I’m unsure of there being some quality of irreducible Southern-ness about her work. Or what that would mean for any writer, beyond the realm of images and a particular embedded topography. Wright spent the last half of her life living in California, Mexico, and Rhode Island: her time in Mexico was probably as important to her work as her time in Arkansas and Memphis. None of this is to say, you know, that it’s not an interesting hermeneutic to look at where a writer is from and what role that place has in their writing. That can be generative, has been generative for me in certain ways. I’m just a little more suspicious, for now, of that kind of sub-categorization in American literature, what differences it might be erasing, what assumptions underpin it. What does it mean to be a Southern poet—does the region need to be present in the work? We can go further, too: what does it mean to be Southern in the 21st century? Who says what is or is not Southern? I ask because I genuinely am not sure.
Also, it elides something really important about the work that Wright was doing in Deepstep and especially in One Big Self. My favorite thing about her, I think, is her intransigent commitment to self-criticism, even when it makes for a more confusing or hesitant poem. In both of those books, part of that criticism is emerging from her position as an outsider. Wright returned throughout her career to James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; Agee was himself an “ex-Southerner” who had moved North. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is saturated with his own suspicion of himself, of why he’s writing about these working-class tenant farmers, of his inability to put the real into language. What comes from that particularly anxious relation, in both Agee and Wright’s work, is what you could call an apophatic poetics, a poetry of the unsayable. And I think that gets at about what I’ve come to believe is an essence of writing: that it, like all language-work, is a project of already-failing. And committing to fail more rigorously anyways.
EH: Lastly, is there anything in particular you are working on right now that you’d like to share with our readers?
BT: Well, I think I’m sort of increasingly superstitious. There’s that old Yiddish joke, “How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans.” So, I can’t say too much about specific dimensions of projects I’m working on. I’ve just started in the MFA program at the University of Texas in Austin, which I’m very grateful for, and is giving me an immense amount of quiet time to listen and read. Right now, I’m reading through all of Susan Howe’s work, who’s really phenomenal, and instructive in presenting a pretty singularly contumacious mode of reading-as-writing. Also Anna Kavan’s Ice, Catherie Keller’s body of work on negative theology, re-reading some Marx, China Mieville’s novella This Census Taker; poetry-wise, Johannes Goransson’s translations of Aase Berg are holding me captive in a really wonderful way, plus works by Sean Bonney, Kevin Lattimer, Harmony Holiday, Joanna Klink, and Zaina Alsous’ totally underrated debut Theory of Birds, which was maybe my favorite book of poems I read last year. I mention all of this so as not to duck the question entirely, but because I think whatever work ends up emerging out of this period of time will inevitably be inflected by all these other writers and luminaries.
Carolyn D. Wright was a Southern poet from the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas who received a MacArthur Fellow, A Guggenheim Fellow, and acted as Poet Laureate of Rhode Island from 1994-1999. She published twelve books of poetry, two state literary maps, and a collection of essays. She earned several awards and accolades in her lifetime, including the 2011 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for One With Others (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), the 2009 International Griffin Poetry Prize for Rising, Falling, Hovering( Copper Canyon Press, 2008), the Lange-Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University for One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana (Copper Canyon Press, 2003), and was elected as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2013. Wright taught at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and worked as the former coeditor of Lost Roads Publishers. She died in her sleep on January 12, 2016, at the age of 67.
Bradley Trumpfheller (they/them) is a trans writer and student. They are the author of the chapbook Reconstructions (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020) and the co-editor of the website Divedapper. They’ve received fellowships from MacDowell and the University of Texas, and currently live in Austin.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/