C. D. Wright (1949–2016)

aka: Carolyn Wright

Carolyn Wright was a poet whose work won acclaim for its experimental variety and rich colloquial sound. As a publisher and an exhibit curator, she was a long-term advocate of poets and poetry. Wright was a National Book Award finalist for her 2010 volume One With Others: [a little book of her days], which won the National Book Critics Circle Award that year.

C. D. Wright was born on January 6, 1949, in Mountain Home (Baxter County) to Alyce E. Collins, a court reporter, and Ernie E. Wright, a judge for the chancery and probate court. She has one brother, Warren. Wright grew up in Boone County, graduated from Harrison High School, and received her BA in French from Memphis State University in 1971.

She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) in 1976 with a poetry thesis, Alla Breve Loving. In 1977, Lost Roads Publishers, founded by Arkansas poet Frank Stanford, published as its first volume Wright’s poetry collection, Room Rented by a Single Woman. After Stanford’s death in 1978, Wright took over directorship of Lost Roads, carried on his tradition of publishing work by young poets, and began publishing translations of poetry previously unavailable in English. In 1979, she moved to San Francisco, California, where she met poet Forrest Gander. He was her co-editor at Lost Roads until 2005, when the publishing company moved to the state of Washington under new direction. They married in 1983 and had a son, Brecht.

In 1981, having received a National Endowment for the Arts Award for poetry, she moved to Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico, and completed her next book, Translations of the Gospel Back into Tongues (State University of New York Press, 1982).

In 1983, she joined the faculty at Brown University in Rhode Island, where she has served twice as director of the Graduate Program in Literary Arts and now holds the Israel J. Kapstein Professorship. Her many awards include two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and (with Deborah Luster) a Lange-Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University for the exhibit, One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana. She served as the Poet Laureate of Rhode Island from 1994 to 1999.

She was organizer and curator of the 1994 Lost Roads Project: A Walk-in Book of Arkansas, a multimedia exhibit including letterpress broadsides by Arkansas authors and photographs by Deborah Luster, which traveled the state for two years. The project was awarded funding by the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Foundation and was published in book form, with Wright’s accompanying text, by the University of Arkansas Press. Accompanying it was “The Reader’s Map of Arkansas,” a poster documenting the state’s writers from the Hernando de Soto narratives to post–World War II poets. Other books by Wright are Terrorism (Lost Roads, 1979), Further Adventures With You (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1986), String Light (University of Georgia Press, 1991), Just Whistle (with photographer Deborah Luster, Kelsey St. Press, 1993), Tremble (Echo Press, 1996), Deepstep Come Shining (with photographer Deborah Luster, Copper Canyon Press, 1998), Steal Away (Copper Canyon, 2002),
Cooling Time (Copper Canyon, 2005), and Rising, Falling, Hovering (Copper Canyon, 2008).

In November 2004, in recognition of twenty-five years of poetic and cultural achievement, the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation granted Wright a five-year, $500,000 fellowship to continue pursuing her creative goals. The MacArthur Fellowships Program announced, “No single description adequately captures Wright’s work; she is an experimental writer, a Southern writer, and a socially committed writer, yet she continuously reinvents herself with each new volume.” In 2010, Wright released through Copper Canyon Press One with Others, which explored the 1969 trek of Lance Watson (a.k.a “Sweet Willie Wine”) and other African-American men through Arkansas; the book was nominated for the National Book Award for poetry. In 2013, she was elected as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

From volume to volume throughout her career, Wright worked language in new ways for startling effects. Her poetry is full of sudden shifts: snatches of conversation, Latinate polysyllables, phrases in Spanish or French, allusions to other poets or to her own poems, and reminiscences of Ozark Mountain living. “Those dark arkansas roads    that is the sound / I am after    the choiring of crickets,” she writes in “Key Episodes from an Earthly Life” (Tremble). Rural Arkansas permeates her poetry: “The author,” she writes in “The Next to Last Draft,” “wanted / this book to be friendly, to say, Come up on the porch with / me, I’ve got peaches; I don’t mind if you smoke” (String Light).

Wright died on January 12, 2016, just days after the release of her book 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.

The C. D. Wright Women Writers Conference, held at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway (Faulkner County), was established in 2017 to recognize, promote, and encourage women writers, with a special emphasis on writing inspired by or written in the South. It is named in honor of Wright. In 2019, Copper Canyon Press published Wright’s Casting Deep Shade: An Amble Inscribed to Beech Trees & Co. In 2022, the literary magazine Conjunctions published three previously unpublished poems by Wright.

For additional information:
C. D. Wright Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Grandy, Claire. “The Documentary Photo-Poetics of C.D. Wright and Deborah Luster.” Contemporary Literature 60 (Summer 2019): 253–281.

Henricksen, Matthew. “Remembering C. D. Wright.” Arkansas Times, January 21, 2016, pp. 20–21, 26. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/RockCandy/archives/2016/01/15/in-memoriam-cd-wright-1949-2016 (accessed January 25, 2023).

Johnson, Kent. “Looking for ‘one untranslatable song’: C.D. Wright on poetics, collaboration, American prisoners, and Frank Stanford.” Jacket 15 (December 2001). http://jacketmagazine.com/15/cdwright-iv.html (accessed January 25, 2023).

Wright, C. D. “The New American Ode.” Antioch Review 47 (Spring 1989): 288–89.

———. “Provisional Remarks on Being / A Poet / Of Arkansas.” Southern Review 30 (Autumn 1994): 809–811.

John DuVal
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville


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