Those without stories are preordained to repeat them
Charles Wright, “Polaroids” (2002)
The poet Charles Wright was born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee in 1935. He spent his youth and early adulthood in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. He graduated with a B.A. from Davidson College in 1957, then joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Verona, Italy from 1957-61. After his time of service, Wright earned an M.F.A. at the University of Iowa in 1963, then was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Rome, 1963-65, as well as a Fulbright Lectureship at the University of Padua, 1968-69. He has taught at the University of California at Irvine and now teaches at the University of Virginia. Wright has published fourteen volumes of poetry as well as translations of Italian poets Eugenio Montale and Dino Campana. He has also produced two collections of nonfictional essays and interviews, Halflife (1988) and Quarter Notes (1995). His stature as one of the most compelling voices at work in contemporary American poetry is evident in his numerous prestigious awards for his verse, including a PEN Translation Prize in 1979, an Ingram Merrill Fellowship in 1980, a Lenore Marshall Prize for Chickamauga (1995), a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for Black Zodiac (1997), and an Award of Merit Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
On the surface of things, Charles Wright would seem at odds with most of what has traditionally defined the Southern poet. The Southern emphasis on storytelling is missing from Wright’s doggedly nonnarrative verse, since there is only the faintest trace of a story line present in his poems. He does not use religion in a conventional way either, for he is quintessentially concerned with the question of nontranscendence in an age of “postbelief,” as he puts it succinctly in “Polaroids” (2002). As for the Southern marriage of memory to place, that time-honored tendency to root memory in the soil itself, we are almost as likely to find Wright imaginatively wandering in Italy, California, or Montana as in the South. Even when his poems are set below the Mason-Dixon, there is often as much a sense of placelessness as there is of place in his abstract and repetitive, peopleless landscapes. Wright does occasionally use Southern dialect to punctuate his metaphysical explorations, but he is overarchingly a poet of abstraction and eclectic intellectualism who exploits an extensive and learned diction. Though he is bound to the past, he does not practice a wistful or unreflective nostalgia; in fact, he self-consciously exposes the Southern penchant for nostalgia in “Nostalgia” (2002). Presented with the traditional checklist of these stock motifs of Southern poetry and culture, Wright confessed wryly, “I’m out on all counts.” Even though his poetry contains overtones of place and religion, it is “not the same fundamental bedrock conviction that most Southern writing seems to employ or deploy.” Given that he avoids or critiques several of the main tenets typically associated with Southern poetry, it may seem out-of-place to invoke Wright within this context. However, it is precisely his inversion of these traditional literary and cultural staples that enables him to breathe new life into contemporary Southern verse, marking him as arguably the South’s most trenchant “postsouthern” poet. The design of this interview is threefold: (1) to gather Wright’s thoughts about his relation to the canon of post-World War II Southern poetry, (2) to allow him to tell us his story by filling in some of the details of the oblique backdrop for much of his verse, and (3) to ask him about some of the significant changes in his subject and form over the course of his career, which has spanned now over three decades. The interview was conducted in two parts, with the first portion taking place in person at Wright’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia on April 11, 2003 and the second being transmitted via his written responses from his cabin in Troy, Montana on May 26, 2003.
DT: What would you say is most Southern about your poetry? How do you relate your work to this tradition?
CW: It’s hard for me to relate to that tradition because I don’t write narratively. Although I’ve tried, I just can’t do it. I don’t have that particular gene in my DNA that lets you tell a story. I guess I’m mostly a Southern writer because of the place of my birth, west Tennessee. My mother’s and father’s families are all Southern. So, by geography and definition, I’m a Southern poet. I went to school in the South, and all of that. And I feel myself as a Southern poet, but apart from the tradition. I’m trying to think of current poets who would be on the same side of the main narrative track—people like Yusef Komunyakaa or Ellen Voigt, who’s sort of narrative, but not as narrative as most of the guys are. Donald Justice tangentially—he was my teacher—but he also is much more narratively inclined. There aren’t many of us who are doing the associative, imagistic progression in their poems, although as I get older, I get more garrulous and more snippets and little bits of narrative tend to creep in. I wish I could get more in, but I just don’t seem able to. I’m much more impressionistic and cinematic, I think, in my presentation than narrative.
DT: No need to apologize. You seem to be doing quite well with your nonnarrative style.
CW: [Laughs.] No, I don’t apologize for a moment. It’s just that mostly I’m not considered a Southern writer because I don’t follow the tradition, the five things you mentioned, and because I lived out of the South from the age of twenty-one until forty-eight. What else would I say? There’s a very famous—maybe I’ve said this before—Czech photographer named Josef Sudek. He had only one arm. He was a great photographer and he used this big view camera and he did landscapes and still lifes and things like that. He was once asked why there were no people in his pictures. He said, “Well, I don’t know. There are always people there when I start, but by the time I get everything done and take the picture, they’ve all gone.” And that’s sort of the way my poems are. I think of them as being populated with people who are whispering stories in my ear which I then launder in my own way and present, and by the time the poem gets presented, all the people are gone and nothing’s left but the whispers. Once the people go, there goes your narrative.
DT: Good riddance.
CW: [Laughs.] Yeah, I kind of think that. I mean, there are plenty of people doing narrative.
DT: And it seems that your work makes an important intervention into the tradition of Southern poetry precisely in inverting or ignoring or resisting that checklist, which has become quite conventional by now.
CW: I think that by default perhaps my defects have helped to turn some of my stuff into a positive. For a while, I was the only one doing that in Southern poetry. If you can make your defects into positive things, I guess you’re all right.
DT: I was intrigued by what you described a moment ago as your “cinematic” poetics. Could you say something more about this aspect of your practice?
CW: I’m not really sure. I haven’t thought about it a lot, but I think that I have probably been more influenced by the Italian movies that I saw in the late 1950s and early 1960s than I have allowed myself to previously acknowledge. I was looking at some of my poems just the other day and I realized that the openings are always immediate. There’s no sort of lead-in—they just jump into the poem. And that gesture—that’s the movies. I’m a great fan of Fellini and Antonioni and Mario Monicelli, and all those Italian directors of the 1950s and early 1960s. I saw their movies with great passion back when I was younger, and that was about the time when I was trying to learn to write poems. I’m sure that there’s been some influence that I haven’t even thought about, but the more I mulled it over the other day, the more it seemed apparent to me that this sense of immediacy, direct presentation, rapid movement from one image to the next, owes something to the quick cut and the jump cut of the movies. Fellini, of course, has a terrible Romantic and excessive streak that I adore, and of course, you always try to keep that down, but some of it keeps seeping through. I can’t have kept all of that out of my poems, even though the subject matter is different. Well, not entirely…he writes and then shoots a lot about memory, and he’s got people in there, but I bet he could shoot it without people if he wanted to.
DT: Like Fellini, your poems are intensely visual, reveling at times in instances of spectacle, but also kinetic, as you noted. You use painting a great deal, but your poetic images are rarely static—they’re moving pictures.
CW: Yeah, I’ve always thought painting had been an influence, and I’ve talked about it until the cows come home over the years. It’s just in the last month or so that I’ve begun thinking that maybe it’s more the movies that have influenced me. I was thinking about it because I don’t go to movies anymore. I find the movies very unsatisfying nowadays. I know the minute I see a fireball I’m not going to like the movie, and most movies have fireballs in them now. [Laughs.] And I was thinking about when I did love the movies, Truffaut and Godard and those French as well as Italian directors—I guess I have to say the European directors since that’s where I was during my twenties, in Italy. And I began to think it probably had quite an effect on me, even though I hadn’t thought about it.
DT: Would you talk a bit about your memories of growing up in Tennessee and North Carolina?
CW: I was born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee. My father was an engineer for the TVA, which was government work and he was glad to get it. And we moved around for about eight years to various dam sites, Knoxville and Hiwassee Dam, North Carolina, until 1942, during the Second World War, when we went to Oak Ridge, Tennessee for more government work. So the first ten years of my life—I was born in 1935—through the end of the War, we were fairly peripatetic, moving around. And since we were in government housing—in Knoxville, we weren’t, we lived in a regular house—and my father was in government work, I guess I didn’t feel the Depression as much as someone like Donald Justice, who writes agonizingly about it. His father was a carpenter and Don is ten years older than I am, so he was of an age to react to it in some ways that I guess I wasn’t because the Depression stopped at the beginning of the War in 1941, more or less, and I was six then, so I didn’t really feel the effects. And I don’t know that my parents did, since my father was always employed during that time. I have no memories at all of Pickwick Dam—we left there when I was either six months or one year old—then moved to Corinth, Mississippi across the way, then Knoxville, Tennessee, then Hiwassee Dam, North Carolina, which I remember very well and with great fondness. It’s just a two-road town for the dam site and a thin, old bridge which I remember well. Then we moved to Oak Ridge during the War, where everyone wore badges and you had to come in and out of gates. We lived next door to a two-star Admiral, who was working on the Manhattan Project. And my father was working on the Manhattan Project, not as a scientist, but as a civil engineer. He was in charge of one of the two buildings where they did all the work. He never talked about it. I don’t know what being in charge of the building meant, but that’s what he finally told me he did after I badgered him about it. He did tell me once that he bumped a three-star general off a plane going to Denver, so God knows what he had in his pocket. After that we moved to Kingsport where I really grew up after age ten. My father had a small construction company. His partner was a man named Tom Rentenbach, who was supposed to leave his construction company in Knoxville to join my father’s firm in Kingsport. About a month before Rentenbach was supposed to come, he got the job to build Neyland Stadium, so he never left Knoxville.
DT: Those are some interesting overlaps between your personal history and the general history of the South, from the TVA to the Manhattan Project to Neyland Stadium. I was particularly interested in the intersections between the TVA and the South. What are your feelings about how the TVA changed the South?
CW: Well, it put food on our table, so we liked it. But it seems everybody else, Robert Penn Warren and Andrew Lytle and all those, thought it was terrible socialism. Andrew Lytle lost his family farm and land, which is now under water, so I understand how those people might feel. But, of course, there was no electricity in that area of the country when the TVA came in. My father had been working for Louisiana Light and Power in the swamps of Louisiana and southern Mississippi before he was hired by the TVA. As it turned out over the years, my father was really a socialist, which I didn’t know at the time. I’m sure he was really in favor of this, bringing something good to people who didn’t have anything. So I basically think that the TVA was a good thing. I know that people don’t like the government interfering in their lives for the most part—until they need the government to interfere. I’m sure my father had no second-thoughts whatsoever. He once said that when he first moved to Pickwick Dam, it was such open country that he could take his gun and his dog and go from the house to the building site and get his limit of quail in the morning on the way to work. You can’t even find a quail anymore, unless you go to some plantation down in South Carolina or southern Georgia. And this was in the mid-1930s. No electricity and lots of quail.
DT: That’s the old South.
CW: That’s the old South.
DT: How do you feel such experiences influenced your poetry?
CW: As I got older, they influenced my poetry more. In the early days, I was just trying to write poems or poetry, whatever that was. I didn’t know what it was, so I would get some abstract subject matter. When I wrote a poem called “Dog Creek Mainline” (1973), which was the turning point for me halfway through my second book, I realized what I wanted to write about: my life. I wanted to try to figure it out and I’ve been doing that ever since. So I have to say that my early experiences—or let’s say reflections from images of echoes from my earlier life—have been a profound influence on my poetry. My poems often come out of the stories from my life. This came to a head when I wrote a book called The Other Side of the River (1984), where I tried hard to do some narrative and wrote some narrative-esque poems. After I had written that book, I said, “Well, I’ve done that. To hell with that. Let’s go back to what I like to do, which is the impressionistic stuff.” And that was the end of my poems about my childhood too because then I moved back to the South, to Virginia. I finished that book in California, where I had been living for seventeen years. Once I moved back to my home area, I never wrote another poem about my childhood, which at the time I thought was weird, but now it makes perfect sense to me because I was thinking about it all the time, thinking back to my past. Once I came back to the South, I didn’t—I just didn’t do it.
DT: In fact, you wrote a poem, “Tennessee Line,” which describes precisely that process of thinking back on your Southern identity from a remove in both time and space. The poem shows you out in Monterrey, California reevaluating the influence of the Tennessee line, both literally and figuratively, on the making of your self.
CW: Yes, I used to write about it all the time. As Ezra Pound said, things have ends and beginnings. Once I came back here, that was the end of that. So I just sat in my backyard and wrote a couple of books about the landscape.
DT: Yes, you’re arguably the most concerted landscape poet at work in Southern poetry today, though you go about it in an extraordinary way. Your poems seem consumed with the idea of place, but you exhibit a very different sensibility about this subject than most of your poetic contemporaries. There’s a sense of abstraction to the point of placelessness when you write about Southern sites.
CW: Most other Southern poets are much more interested in the history of the place, or the history in place. I am more interested in it as I look at it, as I see it. Again, this is where the painting motif and the cinema motif come in because I’m interested in the surface of it as I see it and what’s possibly behind the surface that I don’t see, whereas they see the history in the place and it’s not so much what they see but it’s what was there and what it meant to people. I’m more interested in what it may mean to me. So it does tend to break down into abstracts because place or landscape substitutes for ideas and reactions more than it has to do with things of the present and things of the past. There is some difference in how I perceive what landscape means to me and how narrative poets explain what landscape or nature means to them. I usually see landscape as a screen for abstract ideas of what’s behind the place; narrative poets tend to see it as a long tunnel into the past or a long, well-lit hallway into the past. And that’s fine too. We simply look at things differently. I can’t imagine Mr. Warren, for instance, looking at a landscape and having the same reaction to it as I would. For me, it is abstract and that’s where—for lack of a better word—the spirituality comes in. I find a spirituality in landscape instead of a history in landscape. It’s not something as simple as “Nature is the great church of man.” I don’t mean that. I mean that the landscape translates and reinterprets. It’s a kind of string of associative feeling that runs through most of us. The Southern narrative tradition looks at landscape as history, a door into the dark, as it were. I tend to look at landscape as revelation, a door into the light. When I look at the landscape, I see what’s not there. Of course, my eyes aren’t so good anymore. [Laughs.] I may not be seeing the right things.
DT: Two of your volumes from the 1990s, Chickamauga and Appalachia, seem to gesture toward that kind of deep-structure narrative history that you disavow: Chickamauga as hallowed Civil War battlefield, Appalachia as the South’s most economically deprived, yet culturally distinct subregion. Given that these places have so much history condensed in them, why did you choose them for the titles of volumes in which you explore most intensely this sense of landscape as a form of abstract revelation? Despite the titles, the volumes present a vision of landscapes drained of history.
CW: The poem, “Chickamauga,” shows a pretty abstract idea of history. I took it as the title of the book because that’s where my great-grandfather was wounded out of the Civil War and I wanted to have some connection, some familial connection with that particular volume, since I had the Dante trilogy in mind. Black Zodiac was the second book, which would have been the purgatorial part. Appalachia was the final book, the book of the dead, since I couldn’t write a Paradiso. The reason Appalachia was called Appalachia was because Chickamauga was called Chickamauga, which is to say that each title has four syllables. Black Zodiac also has four syllables. These are silly reasons, but it had something to do with it. Also, Appalachia is the exact opposite of what one might think of as a paradisal place, but, growing up in it, I loved it. I tend to think of western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, southwestern Virginia, that part of Appalachia, as containing heavenly aspects, which I know is not true for most people, but they were for me. This again comes back to all the landscape business. You think about what’s behind it, but you’re left with what you can see. I always wanted to have a book with a Southern title, so I picked Chickamauga and on the front of the book there’s a picture my wife took of me saying “Chickamauga.”
DT: That seems a perfect instance of a “postsouthern” moment, as you invoke the sanctified place-name of Chickamauga in a parodic manner. You empty it out of its narrative history, reducing this storied past down to a mere four syllables.
CW: Yes, I think so. I wasn’t interested in history in that way. Poets like Fred Chappell, David Bottoms, and Dave Smith are more involved with that kind of narrative history. All of those guys are storytellers. I’m a listener.
DT: How would you place your poems of an abstract, peopleless South in relation to Wallace Stevens’ ethereal vision of the South in poems like “Anecdote of the Jar,” “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “In the Carolinas,” or “Some Friends from Pascagoula”? Does it make a difference that you grew up in the South instead of just passing through, like Stevens?
CW: Wallace Stevens was a major carpetbagger. A really swell-looking bag, and nothing but beautiful things inside. But a carpetbagger nonetheless. No one has ever had a finer bag, and patterned beyond the normal imagination. My own unreconstructed pieces are of little note in comparison, and certainly of a more primitive nature. Though primitive does have its own kind of beauty, and its own kind of integrity, and a strength to stand its own ground. And it is my ground, if nothing else. Still, his magic, foreign-looking bag.
DT: How do your Southern landscapes compare to your Italian landscapes? Or Montana? Or California? Either in memory or in your poetry.
CW: In memory, all my landscapes are the same. In reality, too, come to think of it. Different trees, different hills, but always the same iconostasis, always the same groping for grace.
DT: In “Sprung Narratives” (1995), you describe older Southern roadways that have been bypassed by a newer system of highways:
The valley has been filled in
with abandoned structures
New roads that have been bypassed
By newer roads
glint in the last sun and disappear.
As twilight sinks in
Across the landscape,
lights come on like the light next door…
What is the significance of the recurrent images of these seemingly “lost” highways (US 11, US 23, US 52, US 176, etc.) in poems like “Lonesome Pine Special,” “The Southern Cross,” “Lost Bodies,” or “Gate City Breakdown,” all from The Southern Cross (1981)? Why do you return, time and again, to these remembered roadscapes?
CW: I was referring there to a simple four-lane highway between Kingsport and Bristol, Tennessee. It took them years to build it and when it was finished it was already outdated. I meant it as a part of what is past or passing. I continue to refer to the older highways—U.S. 11, U.S. 23, U.S. 52, etc.—because those were the ones I drove on, those were the ones that linked my life to “elsewhere.” They were my youth, my (by now) treasured and glittering youth. You’ll see. The highways aren’t lost, my youth is.
DT: In your experience of the Southern highways, what was the effect of these roads on the changing of Southern culture as you witnessed it?
CW: The same as a lump of butter melting in a hot skillet. Of course I wasn’t there to witness this disappearing and clarifying act. I left the South in 1957 and didn’t come back to live there until 1983. By then, it had all congealed into a fait accompli, as we used to say in Kingsport. Interstates and television—Hello, Nashville, goodbye.
DT: There seems to be a broad shift in your poetry from the rambling, open space of the rural highways to a more stable, confined—yet resolutely metaphysical—suburban space, where the echo of traffic on the nearby bypass is a faint reminder of the movement, speed, and pace of the highway. Just as your persona has become increasingly static as you reinvent your “I” voice as a wry and reflective kind of lawn-chair philosopher, your poems themselves have become more compact, compressing much of the sprawl of your mid-career highway poems. What accounts for this shift in your poetic interests and style?
CW: Advancing age, most likely. Also, there was a conscious attempt, after Country Music(1982), to lengthen my line and my scope of experience, hence the technical spaces and lengths in The World of the Ten Thousand Things (1990). Just as consciously, the poems in Negative Blue (2000) attempted a combination of those impulses in Country Music and The World of Ten Thousand Things: compression and extension—long lines and vistas in a compact space, the idea of Emily Dickinson beside Walt Whitman’s road. Also, one tries to convince oneself that the older one gets the less time it takes to say what one has to say. I attribute this canard to the miscalculation of hope over experience, and a certain amount of truth.
DT: How has the sense of memory changed from your earlier poems to your later poems?
CW: I’m not as interested in it as I once was and it’s not as interested in me as it once was. Neither is as important to the other as we once were. It’s darker now, and objects are not as clear as they once were: they do not appear larger in the rearview mirror any more than they actually are. Ultimately, memory tells you only what you want to hear. Bad advice.
DT: Can you gauge the influence of Christianity, and of the Episcopal church in particular, on your life and poetry? To invoke Flannery O’Connor, are your poems “Christ-haunted” in terms of form? That is, the ecclesiastical, psalmic, almost vatic quality of your rhythms seems to bear the traces of Christian spiritualism, yet your poems tend to thematize a sense of nontranscendence, of the severe limitations of traditional belief in an age of “postbelief.”
CW: God-haunted perhaps, but not Christ-haunted. Christ-haunted would be the extreme Christian poets—Hopkins, Herbert, Donne, Merton, Lowell in his Catholic period. I don’t fit in that company. The ritual call and response of the American service, the cadences of the King James Bible, early country music, the looney “spritualism” of the Sky Valley Community in my early teenage years all certainly played a part in the pastiche of my life and poetry. So yes, a tangential Christianity. I remain, however, a God-fearing non-believer, though Christ doesn’t really enter in to it.
DT: You once commented that you write out of a “negative sublime,” placing yourself between—or, more properly, beyond—both Wordsworth’s egotistical sublime and Keats’ negative capability. To me, this sense of a self-negating sublimity seems to derive from the insistent and accumulative power of your poetic rhythms. Although you are not a strict formalist, the ghost of meter pulses through your verse, lending it a sublimely negating force. Could you say something about your conception of the relation of sound and sense in your poems?
CW: Good sounds make good sense. At least we hope so. Pure style is pure meaning. At least we hope so. Negative transcendence is a virtual reality. How you say it, in the end, becomes what you have to say. Or vice-versa. Though others will say otherwise, you have to dance to the music.
DT: What do you see as the future of poetry?
CW: Oblivion. But oblivion, like Wallace Stevens’ bag, has its own warm glow.