Interview with William Wright

by CHLOE CAMPBELL

WILLIAM WRIGHT is author of eight collections of poetry: four full length books, including Tree Heresies (Mercer University Press, forthcoming in spring 2015), Night Field Anecdote (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011), Bledsoe (Texas Review Press, 2011), and Dark Orchard (Texas Review Press, 2005, winner of the Breakthrough Poetry Prize). Wright’s chapbooks are Sleep Paralysis (Stepping Stones Press, 2012, Winner of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative Prize, selected by Kwame Dawes), Xylem & Heartwood (Finishing Line Press, 2013) The Ghost Narratives (Finishing Line), and April Creatures (Blue Horse Press, 2014). Wright is Series Editor and Volume Co-editor of The Southern Poetry Anthology, a multivolume series celebrating contemporary writing of the American South, published by Texas Review Press. Additionally Wright serves as Assistant Editor for Shenandoah, translates German poetry, and is editing three volumes, including Hard Lines: Rough South Poetry (with Daniel Cross Turner). Wright won the 2012 Porter Fleming Prize in Literature. Wright has recently published in The Kenyon Review, Oxford American, The Antioch Review, Shenandoah, and Southern Poetry Review.

Chloe Campbell: I’d love to hear about your work as a writer and editor. Do you feel that editorial influence creep into your early drafting processes? What do those processes look like? How much time do you like to split between the two realms?

William Wright: Day to day, my life is extremely work-heavy, but it has to be carved around unexpected circumstances (most recently a hot-water heater that’s rusting out and a floor that needs to be replaced). Since I can never know what’s coming the next day, I have had to maintain a discipline that’s almost shackling. But I’ve done this to myself! I have no one to blame, and, frankly, I’m blessed to have these things to do.

As for editing: Every night before I go to bed I make a list of things I have to do the next day. Sometimes I dictate this into a recorder. The next day, if I get half of those things done, I feel like I’ve succeeded. Since 2003, I have edited and edited and edited. I don’t remember, after that time, when I haven’t been editing some project or another.

Writing is much different. While I do believe that sometimes I chance upon the “given” poem, the poem that seems to flow from the pen as though a ghost is writing through me, I more often than not have to work very hard to make something worth reading (like most of us, I assume). Here’s what I’ve done to make sure that work takes place: Every March, June, and October, I write a poem a day. I have three friends—scattered around the US—that do this with me. Each night, we’re all responsible for sending the poem we’ve written to each other before midnight—so there’s accountability there. No one needs to send criticism or appreciation, etc—we merely have to have the poems in everyone’s inboxes before the day is done. For three years this has helped me produce some of my best work, because it compels me to write the best first-drafts I can, as I know three other pairs of eyes are going to see them.

I’ve also gotten deeply into collaborative writing. I’m working with Amy Wright and Jesse Graves on two distinct books. I’ve found the collaborative process to me immensely fulfilling.

CC: I know when I was with The Greensboro Review, I felt my own identity as a writer allowed me what I felt was state of empathy and respect in regards to the work of others. Do you see these worlds, writing and editing, overlap in not just your writing, but in your view on the writing of others?

WW: Yes, absolutely. My epistemology has broadened—perhaps even exponentially—by virtue of my editing. I’m now open to myriad poetries and approaches, because I’ve been forced to think about what the poems are doing; more than that, though, I know there’s a human being with a mind and heart behind the writing, someone who wants an audience, and someone who’s (theoretically) trying the best they can for what’s essentially a very, very small audience. My love for the art has grown because of editing, as has my love for people.

CC: Is there a particular piece you’re excited about coming together lately from an editorial standpoint?

WW: I’m writing a long essay about contemporary Southern poetry by women that I’m excited about, and I’m also writing a nonfiction piece about a very peculiar man—my exterminator who knows Heidegger, Yeats, Hopkins, Derrida, Shakespeare, etc., a true autodidact. I’m really excited about both pieces.

CC: What are your favorite parts of working on The Southern Poetry Anthology? Do you have a favorite edition?

WW: Thus far, my favorite aspect of working on The Southern Poetry Anthology involves, as mentioned, all the people I get to know through their work. Because of this series, I’ve made lifelong friends—truly special people—who’ve enriched my life and quite often helped my own creative work by broadening the contours of what I consider “poetry.” These folks have helped me remain Socratically ignorant—I know that I know some things, but what I don’t know could fill libraries, and I appreciate that feeling, as it impels me toward knowledge and kinship.

Each of the six published editions is important to me for different reasons, so I can’t name a favorite, although the third volume, Contemporary Appalachia, broke the precedent for the state-by-state system. I felt Appalachia, a severely misunderstood region, needed its own anthology. I’m not Appalachian, but I do feel that much of the best, richest poetry is now being written there.

CC: What’s the biggest challenge you encounter as a poet and editor? Do you have feel one is overinfluencing the other?

WW: Lack of time. I want more time! Also, I have to remember to balance my work with my life separate-from-work, because this isn’t a 9 to 5 job; it’s more a “dark-to-dark” job. I sometimes get the sense that those close to me—friends and family—feel excluded from my life because I work so much. That’s something I’m trying to balance.

I don’t feel editing influences or dilutes my writing, and I don’t think my editing time (by any means) is hampered by my writing—so I’m ok in that regard (thus far).

CC: What's got you excited lately, as a writer and as a person?

WW: These collaborative poems. They’re becoming something beyond what I anticipated, something truly beautiful, and I owe that to the giftedness of my collaborators—Amy Wright and Jesse Graves. Both are truly wonderful people—outside of the quality of their amazing writing—and I feel privileged to know them and to work with them.

CHLOE CAMPBELL is graduate of MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where she served as poetry editor for The Greensboro Review. She is a recipient of the 2012 Academy of American Poets Prize and the Woodberry Prize. Her writing and criticism appear or are forthcoming in Fugue, Spoon River Poetry Review, The Pinch, storySouth, Quarto, Columbia New Poetry, and Writers' Bloq Quarterly.