On October 9, 2016, in an event cosponsored by the 92nd Street Y, the Academy of American Poets, the Center for the Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center, Copper Canyon Press, Poets House, and the New York University Creative Writing Program, poets, family, and friends gathered to pay tribute to the poet C. D. Wright (1949–2016), who was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets at the time of her death.
The event featured Lee Ann Brown, Peter Cole, Mónica de la Torre, Carolyn Forché, Brecht Gander, Brenda Hillman, Ben Lerner, Deborah Luster, Frances Mayes, Jane Miller, Michael Ondaatje, Brenda Shaughnessy, Arthur Sze, Jean Valentine, Anne Waldman, and Michael Wiegers, as well as musical performances by Richard Leo Johnson and Toni Hall and a dance performance by Eiko.
The following is a transcription of the introductory remarks made by Academy of American Poets Executive Director Jennifer Benka at the event. Read the text and watch the full video of the event below.
Good evening. I’m Jennifer Benka, the executive director of the Academy of American Poets and it’s my honor to welcome you to a tribute to one of our great poets, C. D. Wright.
I want to thank the Center for the Humanities and Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative at the Graduate Center for hosting us. And, also tonight’s co-sponsors: the 92nd Street Y, Copper Canyon Press, Poets House, the New York University Creative Writing Program, and, especially, the Poetry Society of America, whose tremendous efforts have made this gathering possible.
Ever generous and open, C. D. worked closely with all of our organizations, giving readings, publishing work, and teaching workshops. In 2013, she was elected to the Academy of American Poets’ Board of Chancellors, an honorary body of esteemed poets that has included W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Lucille Clifton, Adrienne Rich, and Mark Strand, among others who have helped define the art of poetry in the United States. We think of our Chancellors along the lines of poets laureate, because in addition to assisting with our programs and prizes, they help champion poetry in the public sphere. And C. D. was one of poetry’s great ambassadors, deeply touching the lives of her many students and advocating for the art form in her own work.
As she once asserted: “Nobody reads poetry, we are told at every inopportune moment. I read poetry. I am somebody.”
I also want to acknowledge Forrest Gander, C. D.’s husband, and Brecht, her son, as well as her other family members who are with us tonight. The readings, remembrances, and performances that will be offered are for all of us here who admired and cherished C. D. But, they are really for you.
There is a series of questions you ask yourself when you lose someone you love— among them: why isn’t time stopping? How is it that the earth is still revolving and people are carrying on with their daily rituals?
Tonight, in this space, we will stop time. We will make what C. D. called a “transient clearing.” We will step outside of the ordinary to recognize the extraordinary contributions to American poetry or “American poetries”—as she would remind me—made by C. D. Wright.
The poet and critic Stephen Burt said of her, C. D. is “one of the figures who changed what the language can do, one of the writers whose lines and titles, sentences and similes are going to last at least as long as American English.”
Hers is an American poetry, to paraphrase Ben Marcus, written in "another language that happens to be English." Employing "distorted rhetoric, down-home rhapsody, a mixture of speech that seems lawless yet possessing a deep logic," C. D.’s writing is impossibly energetic and inventive, bending and blurring form and genre.
And somehow, this ambitious and original poet, author of more than fifteen books of poetry and prose, recipient of prestigious awards and accolades, this known and recognized genius—C. D. Wright—walked in the world with utter humility.
When she began receiving congratulations on being named a Chancellor, she wrote to me: “I thought I had won the lottery—but knew I had only bought one ticket in my life.” And then she declared that the praise directed at her was “over the top.”
She was not above or beyond—but right there, sitting right next to you, so present, unaffected, listening.
The poet Muriel Rukeyser famously asked and answered, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
C.D.’s poems are rooted in that kind of radical, revelatory authenticity. And her deep belief in people, this human project, and poetry was resolute.
“If I wanted to understand a culture … I would turn to poetry first,” she wrote. “For it is my confirmed bias that the poets remain the most 'stunned by existence,' the most determined to redeem the world in words.”
Our world, our country, with C. D.’s poems forever in it, is better. May we use them as shields against rhetoric and guides during dark times. For C. D. has left us lasting light.