Fear Fighter

Poet C.D. Wright’s latest book honors a fierce struggle and a friend’s memory

It was a four-day “March Against Fear” into Arkansas in August 1969. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been dead a year, the civil rights movement established. Across the South, conflicts erupted. A man known as Sweet Willie Wine led a contingent of black men from West Memphis to Little Rock, Ark. Whites in Big Tree, Ark., braced themselves. But one white person in Big Tree joined the march—Margaret Kaelin McHugh, a.k.a. V.—and she was banished by her town for crossing the color line. V is eulogized in C.D. Wright’s 2010 National Book Critics Circle-winning One With Others (Copper Canyon Press, 2010).

“I had the idea for this book brewing for a long time,” the poet says during a recent phone interview. “V was unruly, interesting, a funny autodidact.” Wright, now 62, was 17 when she met the civil rights activist who would be become her mentor. V, who earned her nickname for reading Thomas Pynchon’s novel V in the presence of Wright and her peers, died in 2005. Wright went down to the Arkansas Delta to research a long narrative eulogy, a book that merged investigative journalism and poetry, blended documentary impulse and lyrical postmodernism. The more Wright returned to her native state, talked to people and read the chronicles of that time, the more she realized she had to hone in on V’s life and context during that summer of ’69.

Scenes of students at “the Negro high school” being held at gunpoint at the bottom of a drained swimming pool are offset by moments in V’s personal history and linked together with grocery prices and angry newspaper op-eds from that era.

“I’m not a proper journalist,” Wright says. “I make up [for] the tools and experience that I lack. I do a lot of reading, make a lot of trips, and conduct interviews, many over the phone. I’ve only done a few projects in this vein, and I take liberties, as any creative person would, to ensure the book is a good read.”

Indeed, though The New Yorker praises One With Others for its “multiplicity of voice and tone,” the book has the energy and staccato language of a crime film.

“My books possess a cinematic quality and borrow strategies from film. The lines of genre have been blurring for some time—poets like to write like journalists, journalists like to write like poets. I wanted to make something that was resolutely art yet a page-turner. As far as staccato moments, it was a tense time then. If you’re making a record of that event, it needs to be tense.”

Wright, a Brown University professor, says she sought to give her book “a sweeping quality” so people would keep reading. (“Poetry isn’t always composed that way,” she says. “It’s a reflective art.”) She laughs when asked about an ideal director for an adaptation of her book. She finally says “Jonathan Demme.”

For 30 years, Wright has composed ambitious collections—from her Southern road epic (1998’s Deepstep Come Shining) to her collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster documenting Louisiana inmates (2003’s One Big Self: An Investigation). She has won every conceivable arts award (Guggenheim, MacArthur). Her humility, then, is refreshing in its honesty.“I labored under the idea that [One With Others] was a failure and nearly gave it up. I’m just so glad I pushed through and that it has been so well received.”

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