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C.D. Wright remembered for thoughtful, innovative work

Colleagues, friends, family remember award-winning, brilliant poet

Carolyn “C.D.” Wright, professor of literary arts and award-winning poet, passed away in her home on Jan. 12. Wright was 67 years old, but her life was full of accomplishments and experiences that inspired students and colleagues to share in her passion of writing on the truth and the beauty of the world.

Wright was a wordsmith and with her intelligence, she quickly became an uncategorizable poet. Her innovative writing and thoughtful truth constantly renewed a reader’s sense of purpose. She was always adding something new to her craft.

Her husband, Forrest Gander, also a professor of literary arts and comparative literature, wrote in an email to The Herald that Wright’s words enchanted others. “She spoke her mind with a quirky, funny particularity, with an ever fascinating language, from an original angle.” He added that her intelligence was so uncommon, everyone she met was instantly drawn to her.

In addition to her ability to captivate others, Wright “was an enthusiast — for people, for ideas, for landscapes,” wrote Gale Nelson, assistant director of the literary arts department, in an email to The Herald. “She never stopped savoring that which caught her eye, her heart, her mind. She lived in the moment, but each moment was processed through deep and constant reflection."

Wright’s poems are distinct in their breathtaking lyricism and fluid nature. In her piece “Op Ed,” Wright captured the essence of poetry, writing, “I believe the word was made good from the start; it remains so to this second. I believe words are golden as goodness is golden.” It was her love of words that gave her light and cemented her decision to become a poet.

Melissa Rabb, associate professor of English, teaches a class called “The Practice of Poetry Today,” and students often do not believe that poets make deliberate decisions to create patterns of sounds within each body of work. Rabb wrote in an email to The Herald that when Wright visited the class one year, a skeptical student asked her if she consciously thinks about making patterns with particular sounds. “Without missing a beat, (Wright) said, ‘Oh, yes. I’m really into low open vowel sounds right now.’” Rabb wrote “I could have thrown my arms around her in gratitude.”

Wright loved to experiment with new sounds and new patterns.

“C.D. never let language get boring, even in a meeting or in class,” wrote Thalia Field, professor of literary arts, in an email to The Herald. “Her verbal antics upped everyone's game and created space for creative thinking.”

Cole Swensen, department chair of the literary arts program, wrote in an email to The Herald that the power of Wright’s words made her a revolutionary teacher. “She was such a model of frankness — she knew instantly how to get to the heart of an issue in a piece of writing — it was a kind of intuition, and it was always spot on.”

Through her insight and constant innovation, Wright produced several collections of poems, including “Just Whistle” in 1993, “Deepstep Come Shining” in 1998, “Cooling Time” in 2005, “One Big Self” in 2007, among many others.“Rising, Falling, Hovering” — published in 2009 — won the International Griffin Poetry Prize. Her collection titled “One with Others,” published in 2010, is one of her most successful collections. It was named a finalist for the National Book Award along with winning the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the National Critics Circle Award.

Rabb wrote of Wright’s accomplishments, “All of the adjectives that critics use to describe her work are true: brilliant, honest, poignant, funny, experimental, deeply moral and respectful of human life and its struggles.”

Gander wrote that Wright’s work sparked interest in readers of all ages. “There are other famous contemporary poets writing now, but none of them have had the influence on the younger generation of writers that C.D.’s work has.”

Carole Maso, professor of literary arts, said in an email to The Herald that the influence of Wright’s numerous works will persist. “She was a ballast here: true, driven, irreverent and brave. Her astonishing work will survive for a long, long time.”

Swensen also wrote that Wright’s reach to the younger generation is a testament to her natural, raw talent. “She didn’t just write poems or poetic books or essays, she simply wrote in an email to The Herald — and that’s the attitude that allows a writer to go beyond the restrictions of genre and to use language beyond the limits of convention.”

Wright’s language was unparalleled. She had a unique relationship with words.

Her originality and wit did not go unnoticed in the literary community. Over the span of seventeen years, she continued to receive accolades for her work. She won the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1987,was named the poet laureate of the state of Rhode Island in 1994 and won the MacArthur Fellowship in 2004. Her writing only grew stronger with maturation and experience. In 2013, Wright was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Wright’s work stems in part from her experience living in the deep South, the West and New England. Wright was born in Mountain Home, Ark. to a judge and a court reporter. From an early age, she understood the importance and the influence of words. Wright attended the University of Memphis in Tennessee, earning her Bachelor of Arts in French studies.

Upon graduation, she returned home and attended the University of Arkansas for the MFA program. After her schooling, Wright made the decision to head west to San Francisco, where she met Gander. They married in 1983, and that same year, the two journeyed to Providence to teach at Brown. Together, they had a son named Brecht and ran the publishing company Lost Roads Press.

Gander said in an email to The Herald that Wright had not slowed in the months leading up to her passing. Rather, her writing had strengthened. “She was at the peak of her career as a writer: Her last books, the new book of essays just out are among the most magnificent books of literature in the century.” Gander added that the books express diverse themes such as empathy and politics.

Maso wrote, “I can’t imagine just now how we’ll go on.”

Wright will continue to be remembered for her sharp mind and keen eye. These attributes allowed Wright to write piece after piece. She never lost her passion or insight. Her poem from “The Obscure Lives of Poets” will be published by the Poetry Foundation next month as a special fold-out bind-in to accommodate the length of its lines.

Wright wrote of her everlasting love for poetry, “I poetry. I write it, study it, read it, edit it, publish it, teach it … Sometimes I grow weary of it. I could not live without it. Not in this world. Not in my lifetime.”

— With additional reporting by Taneil Ruffin


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