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Arts & Culture

Poet Elizabeth Willis celebrates C.D. Wright

Literary Arts department honors late Professor C.D. Wright, features readings from different poets

contributing writer
Monday, October 23, 2017

The large photograph of poet and Professor of Literary Arts Carolyn “C.D.” Wright on the projector screen stood as a symbol to the grand impact of her writing as it was emphasized by esteemed poet Elizabeth Willis’ lecture on Oct. 18. The speech served to inaugurate the C.D. Wright Lecture Series, which, according to Literary Arts Professor Cole Swenson, aims to “honor the memory of our deeply valued colleague C.D. Wright, who died in 2016, and to perpetuate the study and circulation of her work.”

Wright was born and raised in Arkansas and was the Israel J. Kapstein Professor of English and Professor of Literary Arts at Brown. Her honors include the National Book Critics Circle award for her book “One With Others,” a MacArthur Fellowship and a membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Invited by the Literary Arts Department to speak on the impact of Wright’s work, Willis discussed Wright’s style of writing and the important influences in her work.

“Willis is a prominent critic who knew C.D.’s work extremely well, and is also, herself, a well-known and excellent poet. We knew that she would write a talk that was inventive, dynamic and in every way worthy of C.D. and her work,” Swenson wrote in an email to The Herald.

Appropriately opening the lecture, Willis discussed the concepts of beginnings and endings, both in life and in Wright’s work. She drew attention to the question of nativity in Wright’s writing and her practice of “tracing the branch back to the root.”

Willis extended this idea of beginnings by accentuating how Wright’s upbringing as a daughter of a court reporter and judge piqued her fascination with the law. She said that Wright is a “poet of the dictionary, and of the law and of the book.” She referenced Walt Whitman’s poem “Respondez!” from his 1855 collection “Leaves of Grass”  to elaborate on how Wright’s work has the ability to talk back to power and advocate for a kind of disobedience.

Another idea Willis evoked was the performativity of Wright’s language. “What the poet does best is make the reader see,” Willis said. Wright’s language “doesn’t describe, but springs into action,” she added.

Louise Akers GS, a graduate student in literary arts, enjoyed Willis’s analysis, saying she “was interested in the way that she evoked the performativity of language, especially in terms of the scripture and law.”

Willis amused the audience by alluding to C.D. Wright’s love for particular lexicons of particular occupations.  She also entertained and showcased her poetic prowess through the quip dedicated to C.D. Wright: “I came, I saw, I Arkansas.”

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