Charles Wright was U.S. Poet Laureate from 2014 to 2015. The following excerpts are from an interview conducted at the Library of Congress during his term.
Grace Cavalieri: [in response to Wright reading “California Dreaming”] That is such a good sample of Charles Wright. Because we have the colloquial, the philosophical and the self-questioning, which is so characteristic of your work.
When I read that poem, I had a feeling that you, it was different from the other poems in your process. And I wondered if you would care to take a minute and tell me. A very long poem is a very different kind of writing. Did you collect images and fragments and braid them together, or did you write…for instance, it seems to turn corners. That poem turns many corners. And so I’m wondering how you put it together, if you wouldn’t mind telling us the process.
Charles Wright: Well, most of my longish poems are really a bunch of short poems stuck together, and I don’t pretend to have a narrative quality to them, except within themselves. And so, if you had the book, you’d notice that there’s a line drawn between each of those stanzas, and they jump from one to the next, but they all have to do with where I am writing the poem, which was 1771 Thurston Drive in Laguna Beach, California. And these things all happened in Laguna Beach, and that’s what more or less keeps it together, that and the idea that Californians really are a little different from easterners, in an odd way.
The thing that I’ve never told anyone is that the first stanza, which I liked almost better than anything else, is taken from a dog book, which describes the world of dogs. We are not brethren. We are not underlings. We are another nation. But it seemed to me to fit into the way certain Californians think of themselves, and so I started out with that, and then the other things just came as they came. It took some weeks to write this, but once you’re writing a longish poem, your mind is always concentrating on what that poem is trying to get to, if not narratively, at least imagistically and stylistically. And my poems all move imagistically.
I like to think from one image, basically, to another, and in the end they all sort of come together with a kind of luminous image that floats back through the poem.
Cavalieri: [in response to Wright reading “Jesuit Graves”] It occurs to me that your middle name is “Perspective.” Everything you write is in relation to a vision, or a hill, or a tree, or an idea; there’s always a perspective geographically, as we saw in your first poem about California. And it’s about, you find a space, it seems, and you seem to write from that space like the romantics did, and then you come back to that space. But do you agree with me about perspective?
Wright: Yes, I do. I do. Almost every poem I write comes from something I’ve looked at, comes from something visual. You know, a line starts when I’m looking at something, and a line comes into my head, and then I go on. And I hope ideas will eventuate inside the poem, but the poem never starts with the idea, really.
Cavalieri: One thing: sacrifice is the…
Wright: cause of ruin.
Cavalieri: Lack of sacrifice is the cause of ruin. Would you just say a word about that? Sacrifice is the cause of ruin; lack of sacrifice is the cause of ruin.
Wright: Well, everything is the cause of ruin, isn’t it?
Cavalieri: Ah, but what else is there but ruin?
Wright: I don’t know, it’s probably too quippy, I shouldn’t have said it.
Cavalieri: I think that we wouldn’t have a job if—the poet’s job is to find the ruins.
Wright: Actually, one of my main subjects is the way we ruin our lives. So that’s probably how that came about. Or the ruins.
Cavalieri: I don’t get that.
Wright: Our lives turn into…
Cavalieri: Yellow dust, you say in another poem. I don’t get that at all from your work.
Wright: Well, I try to keep it hidden. And every once in a while it’ll pop out in something like “sacrifice is the cause for ruin.”
Cavalieri: [in response to Wright reading “American Twilight”] The earth is not my home.
Wright: I’m only passing through.
Cavalieri: But the dream of heaven. What would we have if we didn’t have the earth to start with?
Wright: That’s right.
Cavalieri: And your whole work is about the dream of heaven.
Wright: My whole work is about the dream of heaven and saying that it’s here.
Cavalieri: Absolutely. In the trees, in the caribou, in the mountains. If we could sum up that characteristic, I believe that’s it. That heaven is all around us. And will go on without us.
Wright: If we let it, and don’t destroy it, you know.
Cavalieri: There you go again with your cautionary tale.
Wright: That’s not a cautionary tale; that’s a fact.
Cavalieri: [In response to Wright reading “Lullabye”] Do you believe that’s a prayer?
Wright: Basically, all my poems are prayers. I’m not trying to be smart-alecky. I feel that.
Cavalieri: I think it’s a good thing to say.
Wright: That’s how I make my religious bones.
Cavalieri: You take the corporeal world and turn it into a spiritual state of being.
Wright: I try.
Grateful acknowledgment to Grace Cavalieri and Forest Woods Media Productions’ “The Poet and the Poem” for permission to print this interview.
Grace Cavalieri's newest publication is Other Voices, Other Lives (Alan Squire Publishers, 2017), a compendium of poems, plays and interviews. She has nineteen books and chapbooks of poetry in print, and has had 26 plays produced on American stages. She founded and still produces "The Poet and the Poem," a series for public radio celebrating 40 years on-air, now from the Library of Congress. She is the poetry columnist for The Washington Independent Review of Books. She received the 2013 George Garrett Award from The Associate Writing Programs. To read more by this author: Grace Cavalieri: Winter 2001; Introduction to "The Bunny and the Crocodile" Issue: Spring 2004; Grace Cavalieri on Roland Flint: Memorial Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Whitman Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Wartime Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Evolving City Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Split This Rock Issue; Grace Cavalieri on Ann Darr: Forebears Issue; Grace Cavalieri on "The Poet & The Poem": Literary Organizations Issue.