Spring had come to Cincinnati, and so had C.D. Wright. Straight into town from Arkansas via Rhode Island. I was not yet a student at the University of Cincinnati, so that I have an Elliston story to tell from that spring is even better I think. The Elliston poet, in that era, would teach two classes a week for five weeks. Lesley would be off in McMicken (this long, narrow, lasagna-like building with two lions out front) and I would be looking for news: “So what is C.D. Wright like?” She had them writing an abecedarium. I found out that she liked Bob Dylan. Everyone likes Bob Dylan. But I found out that C.D. Wright might have liked Bob Dylan with the same intensity that I liked Bob Dylan. (I was then working on an advance elegy for him, never completed. I must have on some undetectable level wanted him to live so he could sing through more rags.)
I am from southeastern Ohio. Cincinnati is in The West. Folks from southeastern Ohio are denotatively Appalachian, but they are not southern. But, they might be mistaken for being southern. (Once my mom visited the northern city of Columbus, OH—birthplace of Jim Cummins—and was questioned intensely by some salesman about her accent.)
C.D. Wright is southern, legitimately. She also learned from The Waste Land that the connections between things don’t need to be made clear. I wasn’t a student, but I was already a student. I was some kind of lurker, wishing I could gain some entry into the class.
And then one day she said something like, Does anybody know anyone who records things? I wasn’t in the room.
But that was me. I was all about recording things. I had a Pro Tools rig and had made it a goal to be some kind of homemade recording artist. (That sounds like I was baking bread.) When Lesley came home with the news, I affirmed that I could do it, while in some way I also probably tried to communicate that I wasn’t a pro. Shyness coupled with intense interest makes for one sorry dude.
Wright needed to record four pieces from her recent collaboration with Deborah Luster called One Big Self. The poem and photographs lyricized and documented life in the Louisiana prison system. Through anaphora, Wright becomes a sort of shorthand, contemporary Whitman:
Count your fingers
Count your toes
Count your nose holes
Count your blessings
Count your stars (lucky or not)
Count your loose change
Count the cars at the crossing
Count the miles to the state line
Count the ticks you pulled off the dog
Count you calluses
Count your shells
Count the points on the antlers
Count the newjack’s keys
Count your cards; cut them again
She writes of the poem:
What I wanted was to unequivocally lay out the real feel of hard time. I wanted it given to understand that when you pass four prisons in less than an hour, the countryside’s apparent emptiness is more legible.
We lived on Salutaris Ave. And when C.D. Wright walked down that street in the super daylight, I remember thinking about walking away. I was a bit shy and of course anxious. No need. We climbed the stairs. The “studio” was on the third floor. She met our spaniel, Bailey. It’s never unexpected when someone is nice to your dog, but it is nice. Bailey is prone to spinning (she’s still around, spinning) and would’ve spent the session elsewhere.
In Cincinnati that spring we had a plague of cicadas. You have heard that word; you may have seen that bug in person. You’ve certainly seen that bug plague poems. But those bugs did come up out of the ground, and if you were to experience them, you’d ban them from poems. They made the city into a motor. In 2004, in Hamilton County, they were a brood labeled specifically Brood X.
I didn’t figure there were cicadas in Louisiana, at least not when C.D. Wright and Deborah Luster visited the prisons. So I taped the third story windows with egg crate (I had inherited it from somewhere). I would be paid by Brown University for this work. There could be no cicadas.
We would record four excerpts of the poem. The poems were to be played at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. Gallery goers would pick up a phone and hear the poet’s voice. There could be no cicadas.
I had handed her CSNY’s Déjà Vu to use as a lectern, or stand. Unfolded, it is a perfect surface. She asked me who the bass player was? It was Greg Reeves, a former Motown bassist schooled by James Jamerson. Reeves was possibly as young as 15, though more likely 19. Stills would ask him to leave the group when he began to believe he was an Apache witchdoctor. I wonder what might have brought that on.
We began recording. I think she wore headphones so she could hear herself. This is recommended of course. There’s no narcissism in hearing what you are doing. Or perhaps I wore the headphones.
She read parts of the poem. There were lines that she skipped. She would cut whole sections. The slashes over the type spoke to both a sense of improvisation and preparedness.
It was a sunny day outside. I could hear the cicadas. But C.D. didn’t hear them, nor did she hear the phone ring—a landline—that would have set the poems far from Angola. But then one of the opening lines of the poem reads:
Count the times your phone rings
We did multiple takes. I looked for the tracks last night, but my old Mac can’t seem to find the data. I can see though where one track was over 15 minutes long. And I seem to remember her reading the line “This is where you enter the eye of / the fart” numerous times.
A week or so later we had dinner at Arnold’s Bar and Grill. I think she ordered a Caesar salad and fried green tomatoes. Lesley probably had something with chicken on it. I had salmon en croute. Arnold’s is not the kind of place where you order salmon en croute. They are known for their Greek spaghetti. I am not sure what makes it Greek. It’s an olive oil and garlic sauce. You can have it with bacon or olives, or both.
Over dinner, she talked about T.S. Eliot freeing everything up. I wonder what he would think about her prison poem, or Deepstep Come Shining. Depends on which Tom she would get.
I recall saying something about feeling like a “citizen” again since I was (temporarily, at least) no longer in graduate school. She seemed taken aback by this, and said: “I am always a citizen.”
I remember feeling like I shouldn’t have said I wasn’t a citizen. I definitely shouldn’t have ordered the salmon en croute.
Wright was good fun while on her post as EP. She was good for beers at the Mecklenburg Gardens. Like most great poets that I have had the fortune to meet, she was a normal person. (I recently drove Sharon Olds to a dinner. She was wearing a Cabela’s hat. Normal, folks.)
Wright had everyone over to her hotel suite a few times. I remember trying to get iTunes to work so we could listen to music. She was reading the fat Dylan biography—the one with shades on the cover—that I hadn’t yet read.
A month or so after she left Cincinnati, I got a check from Brown University. It was for a couple hundred bucks.
This was all nearly ten years ago. They seem like bright days. There was always so much sunlight. I am not just being wistful, though that would be right.
And there were cicadas: a different kind of “one big self.”
Joshua R. Butts received his doctorate in English from the University of Cincinnati in 2009. His first poetry collection, New to the Lost Coast, is forthcoming from Gold Wake Press. His poems have appeared in Harpur Palate, Quarterly West, Sonora Review, and other places. He teaches at the Columbus College of Art and Design.