Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil. Copper Canyon Press, 2005; 108 pages; $15.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
An unruly paean to American poetry, Cooling Time blurs the divisions between poem, memoir, and essay, while borrowing regularly from the peculiarities and backwaters of the American idiom. The book's title derives from a line of legal defense, unique to Texas courts: if a person kills someone before having time "to cool" after receiving an injury or an insult, he is not guilty of murder. Ever focused on possibilities, C.D. Wright -- who was called "one of America's oddest, best, and most appealing poets" by Publishers Weekly and who just received a MacArthur fellowship -- demonstrates that "the search for models becomes a search for alternatives." Filled with humor, eroticism, and a hypnotic fascination with language, Cooling Time is a prickly love-letter to the life of poetry.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly: A determined and idiosyncratic book of critical thoughts -- and not a "poet's memoir" à la Nick Flynn or Katy Lederer -- Wright's latest offers criticism, speculation, and personal recollection, most of it divided into self-sufficient prose units, from one sentence to several pages in length. Though she teaches at Brown University in Rhode Island, Wright, who won a MacArthur genius grant this year, hails from the Ozarks, as both her matter and manner often remind us: "I poetry... I also Arkansas," she writes; "sometimes these verbs coalesce. Sometimes they trot off in opposite directions." ...Readers in the know will decode information about Wright's poet-partner Forrest Gander. The longest memoiristic passage concerns an English teacher; another pokes fun at American poets' habit of joining rival schools, and another describes a car trip through the American Southeast, with its "landscape of big dogs, big melons, big-car longings and dreams big as distant capitals." Readers who seek not autobiography but cogent thoughts, ideas, quotable claims about the state of the art (or about the state of Arkansas) will find themselves delighted.
From Booklist: Wright presents a saucy ars poetica, a set of flinty prose poems about the art of poetry in general, and her Arkansas-bred aesthetic in particular. Poetry about poetry might sound deadly, but it is, in fact, a supple tradition used to broach a spectrum of personal and social concerns, beginning with the forces that induced one to become a poet in the first place. Wright writes, "Of the choices revealed to me, crime and art were the only ones with any sex appeal," hence her calling as a poet who ponders art and the art of being, crime and crimes against art. As her subtitle implies, poetry has a precarious hold on life in America, so she musters her case and defends her beloved practice with a bravura pastiche of memoir, poetry, criticism, and sass. Along the way she pays scintillating tribute to writers (Gertrude Stein), painters (Georgia O'Keeffe), and musicians (Miles Davis), expresses resistance to and appreciation of the academy, and doesn't neglect the landscape of love.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Daughter of an Arkansas judge and a court-reporter mother, C.D. Wright was born in 1949 in Arkansas. "Brought up in a large, unaestheticized house littered with Congressional Records and stenotype paper by a Chancery judge and the Court's hazel-eyed Reporter, who took down his every word, which was law. Throughout my childhood I was knife-sharp and aquatic in sunlight. I read," Wright wrote in "An Autobiographical Preface." She also wrote, in that same piece, "I aim to carry the smoked ham of my voice to Beulahland. I do not intend to write as though I had not gotten wind of 'this here' or 'that there' semiotic theory, regardless of which if any one theory prevails." Wright is author of nine books of poetry and teaches at Brown University. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with poet Forrest Gander and their son, Brecht.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
"What do friends call you?"
"C.D. The C's for 'Carolyn. '"
I asked, "If somebody were to say, 'What do you mean by the subtitle to Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil what would you say?"
"I thought it had to do with staying up and being present for what was around, abiding by it, by that sort of old candle of poetry -- being present and trying to explore the genre in my own contemporary time."
"It also seemed to me, after I'd finished the book, as if the subtitle urged other poets to a call to arms. Is that accurate?"
"I don't know if I meant for other people to do the same. I wanted everyone to put their shoulder to the task they saw for themselves. Especially in terms of the language."
Ms. Wright spent her first 17 years in Arkansas's Ozarks. Reading Wright's poems, I've more than once faulted myself for my fondness for what I think of as her "Arkansas poems." I said to her that I saw her as "standing knee deep in her Arkansas experience and language, but as also consciously moving beyond that material."
(In "An Autobiographical Preface," Ms. Wright wrote, "Typically young, American and miserable. Then I moved: Vicksburg, Springfield, Memphis, New York, Atlanta -- going to colleges and working until 1972 when I returned to attend graduate school at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where I stayed until 1979.")
Ms. Wright responded. "Recently I was answering a questionnaire about Southern poetry -- which I found very irritating, actually -- but, you know, you begin wherever you are. I think mobility has been the mark of our lives since World War II. If the writing doesn't reflect that movement or kind of curiosity about what's outside your own drip line, then your creek is going to get wormy. So I think it can very quickly become a very tired identification and a limitation, and I think most serious writers realize that. I like the South, but I like to sit with my back to it."
As a young woman Ms. Wright read little of fellow Southerner Robert Penn Warren. "In fact," said Ms. Wright, "I still haven't read a lot of Robert Penn Warren. When I was in my 20s, I read his book-length poem, 'Audubon.' That's the only thing that has stuck with me of what I read."