Carolyne Wright’s latest book is This Dream the World: New & Selected Poems (Lost Horse Press, 2017), whose title poem received a Pushcart Prize and was included in The Best American Poetry 2009. Her co-edited anthology, Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace (Lost Horse, 2015), received ten Pushcart Prize nominations and was a finalist in the Foreword Review’s Book of the Year Awards. A Seattle native who studied with Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Hugo, and William Stafford, she is author of nine previous books and chapbooks of poetry, a book of essays, and five volumes of poetry in translation from Spanish and Bengali—the latest of which is Map Traces, Blood Traces / Trazas de mapa, trazas de sangre (Mayapple Press, 2017), a bilingual sequence of poems by Seattle-based Chilean poet, Eugenia Toledo (Finalist for the 2018 Washington State Book Award in Poetry, and for the 2018 PEN Los Angeles Award in Translation). Wright teaches for Richard Hugo House and for national and international literary conferences and festivals. A Contributing Editor for the Pushcart Prizes and a Senior Editor for Lost Horse Press, she has received grants from the Fulbright Association (Chile and Brazil: Fulbright Study Grant; Bangladesh: Senior Research Fellowship), the National Endowment for the Arts, 4Culture, and Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture, among others. Wright returned to Brazil in mid-2018 on an Instituto Sacatar residency fellowship in Bahia.
Over the past six months, I’ve had the opportunity to communicate by email with awarding-winning poet Carolyne Wright about her most recent book, This Dream the World: New & Selected Poems. From the confessional poems about being introduced to a sister the poet didn’t know she had, to the poet’s experience of the bikini-clad women of Bahia, the collection’s subject matter and language are richly intoxicating and altogether dream-like.
Much like the poems in the collection, Wright’s responses to my interview questions are lavish and exemplify Wright’s deeply immersive life a contemporary poet. Wright is a wonder—as are the poems in her dynamic collection.
Sarah Jones: Throughout the first section of This Dream the World, you address the theme of sisterhood. How important was this theme going into the production of this book?
Carolyne Wright: Sisterhood evolved as the theme of the first section of the book in part because my own sister was so absent during my childhood; and yet her absence, along with the silence surrounding her existence, turned out to be a deeply resonant presence in my life. As the title poem indirectly implies, and the “Mute Sister Sequence” recounts, my older sister Maurine was profoundly disabled by birth trauma, so much so that my parents, unable to care for her, took her to live at the Rainier State School in Buckley, Washington, when she was four years old and my mother was expecting me. Maurine lived there, receiving excellent care until her death in 1999. I became her legal guardian upon my parents’ deaths.
But except for one fugitive memory, disconnected from any other experience of my childhood—when my parents took me at about four years old to the Rainier School, on what may have been the last time they took my brother and me with them on their visits—I had no awareness of even having a sister until I was twenty-three years old. As the poems indicate, during that talk with her when I was twenty-three, my mother confessed that she couldn’t simply leave my father and return to her mother, sisters and their families in New York—there was someone she could not leave behind. That person turned out to be my sister.
The mystery and silence surrounding my sister began to infiltrate my poetry years after my parents, and Maurine herself, had passed away. Soon after my mother’s revelation, my parents asked me, or I volunteered, to be my sister’s guardian when the time came, and I began to learn more about her. As her guardian, I was closely involved with her care and consulted with her main care provider at the Rainier School.
But the first poem I wrote that directly alluded to a sister was “this dream the world is having about itself…,” the title poem of This Dream the World. Here is what I wrote about that poem, for The Best American Poetry 2009, in which this poem was reprinted:
Early one morning toward the end of the last millennium, I awakened from a vivid dream in which I was walking across a prairie landscape in golden afternoon light. A line from a William Stafford poem (“This dream the world is having about itself….”) was echoing in my head, though I didn’t recall which poem it was from. (It turned out to be the first line of “Vocation,” from Stafford’s early book, Traveling Through the Dark.) Bolting awake, I wrote down the line, then others that crowded in afterwards—full of storm clouds, high winds, and dry plains sloping towards the blue silhouettes of mountain ranges on the horizon: a terrain familiar from the Inland Northwest plateaus of my native Washington state. There were also images from childhood: the Columbus Day windstorm during the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, photos of my mother and her mother in those flowered dresses from the 1940s, memories of my father watering the front yard with a hose before the advent of lawn sprinklers.
I scribbled a couple of pages before my feet hit the floor that morning, but I did nothing more until several months later, when I began to fashion a poem from this seemingly random trove of images. The generating line from Bill Stafford’s poem (by now I had recalled its source) insisted in its quiet, not-quite-prose way that it had to remain as the opening. But the lines that followed did not gain rhetorical momentum until I found myself writing “That summer in our late teens, we walked all evening through town.” Here, the plural “we” coalesced into an imagined recollection of two sisters walking through a prairie town. Once the older sister’s fear of dying in her twenties emerged a few lines later, I began to follow the patterning that suggested itself—of advancing each movement in the poem by a decade, so that the oblique narrative would unfold according to the next decade in sequence. The trope that emerges to direct the poem’s progression is of the speaker and her sister walking, decade by decade, through the small Western town of childhood—a setting that seems to haunt my imagination.
As I wrote, I didn’t consciously reference “Vocation,” but I noticed how echoes from the Stafford poem arose—as elements from a sort of shared inner landscape of origins? Or else I had internalized more of Stafford’s world than I knew. This poem is only indirectly autobiographical: I never walked anywhere with my older sister, who had suffered severe trauma at birth and lived in an institution almost all her life. But her presence-in-absence resonated throughout my childhood, and the reality of her life and death (in the final weeks of the previous century) has had a persistent influence.
Author’s statement from The Best American Poetry 2009, ed. David Lehman & David Wagoner (Scribner Poetry, Simon & Schuster, 2009).
SJ: In your career as a poet, you’ve made good use of form. There are three beautifully written ghazals in the first section of your book, and each has a political bent. What made you confident that the ghazal was best for the content of each poem?
CW: That is an astute observation—thank you!—the fact that all three of these ghazals has a political resonance. In fact, each one had a political occasion as its impetus.
I didn’t start writing ghazals until the very end of the previous millennium, and the first one I completed was actually a “quasi-ghazal,” loosely based on my incomplete understanding of the form. The second ghazal I wrote was “Woman at the Well.” In the days after 9-11, I was shaken as much as anyone. And like many people, I was seeking an image of healing, of unity and harmony, and I kept hearing a phrase in my mind: “The Woman at the Well.”
In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, the Woman at the Well is the Samaritan woman from whom Jesus asks for water, and who is amazed that this Jewish man has addressed her in a direct and kindly manner. The well at which he encounters her is the ancestral well of Jacob, who is one of the patriarchs of the Jewish religion—by the time Jesus talks to the woman there, the well has had resounding significance for hundreds of years for the Jewish people.
This ghazal achieves its meaning, its emotional affect, by using the rhetorical properties of the form—particularly the refrain that concludes each couplet. From couplet to couplet, the Woman at the Well appears in imagery of all three closely related religions of the “People of the Book” (the Jews, Christians, and Muslims), as they are highlighted by the cultures of the three religions and in imagery for each: Judaism (the well of Jacob, Jacob’s ladder); the transitional era of Yeshua of Nazareth (the Jewish rabbi speaking to the foreign Samaritan woman at the well), whose life, sacrificial death, and teachings led to Christianity; and Islam (the minarets, the cedars of Baalbek, the night of destiny when Gabriel descends).
So the Woman at the Well becomes a symbol and touchstone in which people of all three religions and their respective cultures can meet and get along, focusing on common roots and less on differences.
Did I know all of this when I started writing? Not really—I was just seeking a unifying image that was shared by all three religions and their respective cultures, a figure common to all three. The figure of the Woman at the Well is meant to achieve a universal resonance by the end of the poem—the universal Everywoman who witnesses and endures all, and both survives and continues to affirm life and provide the unifying continuity for all of us.
The second ghazal here, “Ghazal: the Price of Oil,” also has a Middle Eastern focus, in keeping with the origin of the form. The poem makes use of the repetitive qualities of the refrain to (may I say it?) drill down on the subject of the poem and the burden of its meaning. Once the Iraq War began in 2003 by a president whose own electoral legitimacy was dubious, I—like many poets who demonstrated against this war—found myself writing as an act of protest and resistance. One result of this writing was “Ghazal: the Price of Oil.”
Like many Americans, I was alarmed and disgusted by the shifting justifications that the Bush regime and its masterminds and apologists gave for starting the Iraq War. All the blatant hypocrisy and distortions of the Bush regime added up to what many called “weapons of mass distraction,” meant to divert Americans’ attention away from their true motive for starting the war.
The true motive for starting this war was to keep access to Middle Eastern oil in the control of American multinational corporations. The phrase echoing in my thoughts that generated this poem was “the price of oil”—not just the price of gas at the pump, but the price in human lives, environmental destruction, the destabilizing of entire nations and regions caused by this war for oil. And of course, all that I have stated here is evoked in the poem in much more compelling and resonant language than this blunt prose!
“Ghazal for Emilie Parker” was written quickly, in response to the murder of twenty young students and six educators by a deranged shooter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012. The world was horrified by this event; outpourings of grief dominated the news and social media; and like many people I felt a need to respond in some way, as I followed the unfolding story over the next few days. But the poem began only after I heard the NPR report on December 16, 2012, which featured Dr. Robbie Parker’s tribute to his daughter, Emilie, one of the murdered children.
I wrote a few lines that afternoon, inspired by this news report. Emilie’s father said, “I’d been teaching her Portuguese. So, her last conversation was in Portuguese. She told me good morning and asked how I was doing. Said I was doing well. She said that she loved me. Gave me a kiss and I was out the door.”
Those first two sentences of Dr. Parker’s were galvanizing for me—I stood up as I heard them, went over to the radio and crouched beside it to listen more carefully. The fact that this grieving father’s last conversation with his daughter was in Portuguese was the small, oblique, but (to me) moving detail that prompted the poem. I had learned some Portuguese years earlier in Brazil, when I spent several magical weeks in São Salvador da Bahia during Carnaval. Brazilian Portuguese has been close to my heart ever since; and more recently, I had been learning more of the language through speaking with my Zumba and Brazilian dance teachers here in Seattle.
I wrote the first lines that afternoon—they are Dr. Parker’s words almost verbatim. The poem formed itself into a ghazal right away, as the word Portuguese concluded both lines of the first couplet, thus establishing that it would be the refrain word required by the ghazal form. I wrote a few more couplets, each one ending with this refrain word. Later that same evening, I heard the broadcast of President Obama’s tribute speech for Sandy Hook at a candle-light vigil held in Newtown. This speech ended with the President reciting the names of the dead children—and I found myself quickly hand-writing the twenty names on the closest piece of paper at hand, a file folder cover, as President Obama stated them. I knew right away that this recitation of names would be the conclusion of the poem.
One reader of this ghazal, Samantha Updegrave, observed that, in the last two couplets, the refrain word is supplanted by this list of names. She noted that “listing the names is an interruption of the form and mirrors the interruption of these lives.” Exactly: Portuguese, as language and as refrain word, ends when the girl’s speech in any language is silenced, and her and all her named classmates’ lives are interrupted by death.
At the end of each of the poem’s final two couplets, in the place where the refrain word would be, there are the two names that rhyme: “Chase” and “Grace.” The order of these twenty names at the end is the order in which President Obama recited them—except for Grace, which I put at the end for the sake of the rhyme. Though the refrain word had broken off, the end-rhyme pattern needed to continue to the conclusion of this modified ghazal.
Though it is modified, this ghazal does contain the traditional “makhta,” the signature couplet in which the poet traditionally names him/herself. In the final couplet, at the end of the first line, is the name of one of the dead children, “Caroline.” This is the saddest of happy accidents, of course, based on the tragic loss of this girl’s life. If none of the dead children had had a name that was a version of the poet’s name, “Carolyne,” I might have done something else to conclude the poem. This ghazal happened very quickly, with a confluence of unfolding events and language that helped to create it.
SJ: “Ghazal for Emilie Parker” genuinely captures the heartbreak of the Sandy Hook shooting, and the poem is a great segue into “Stealing the Children,” the second section of the book. While reading this second section, I was crushed by the devastating imagery in its title poem “Stealing the Children: After a Big Wind in Wyoming.” Can you tell me more about this poem?
CW: Stealing the Children—the original full-length first book of mine—is comprised of lyric-narrative, mainly free-verse poems, selected from the miscellany of my Syracuse University Master’s thesis manuscript as well as poems that I wrote in a several-months-long burst of poetic output after finishing that thesis. The lyrical voice of this early poetry explores what Donald Dike in his Introduction to Stealing the Children calls “the human nexus,” amidst Northwest and Rocky Mountain settings that “map and re-map the inner life of ongoing relations with others and with oneself.”
These poems are concerned with “mapping” the inner transformations of the life of the spirit, including the dynamics of human relationships, as echoed in the contours of the landscape. The title poem you ask about, “Stealing the Children: After a Big Wind in Wyoming,” is one of a sequence that undertakes a journey across the physical landscape of the speaker’s native West, including the movement outwards from the family of childhood into adult life and relationships. The circumstances that generated this poem? The summer after finishing that Master’s degree, I was visiting friends in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for a few days, and one windy afternoon I took a walk to the edge of town, following the railroad tracks—Cheyenne being a major hub for shipping by rail: grain, cattle, coal and ore from the various mines.
Though it was a gritty, rural-industrial town, with a lot of Richard Hugo-style dreariness—dilapidated warehouses and empty lots strewn with abandoned machinery, scrap metal, and trash—the natural landscape of Cheyenne that June was all sage green: the green of prairie grass and low vegetation and wild flowers stretching off to the rolling horizon that rose gradually to more distant foothills. As I walked, the wind picked up, dust blew and rain spattered—this must have been the rainy season in these parts—and after I returned to where I was staying, the rain turned into a high-country storm, with rumbling thunder and jolts of lightning in the fast-darkening sky. I lay down to rest, but kept sitting up to write more lines, all of which became this poem.
That pervasive sage green and the persistent, dust-laden wind fill the poem, as they did my imagination that day; but the figures of children abandoning their play to “clamber into the front seat of the wind” and ride away in the wind’s “long, black station wagon”—that scene was purely imaginary.
The scene of children leaving their homes and families behind, though, is one that has appeared in other poems of mine—it seems to fascinate me, the mystery of the departing children’s fate. Could this be because once I turned eighteen and was in college, I kept leaving home—for jobs out of state, for writers’ conferences and residencies, for a few months in the U.K. and Europe, for a year in Chile on a Fulbright grant? I was restless for experience out in the world, but unlike the children of the poem, I was always certain to return to the “family abode” in Seattle—my parents, especially my mother, were always supportive of my interests and my efforts as a writer, so I could always come home. They enjoyed having me, and I enjoyed returning…knowing that I could depart again on the next quest—graduate school, job, residency fellowship—the next stage of the writer’s career. But I was fascinated by the perspective of those left behind as the children departed, perhaps never to return. Maybe I was indirectly empathizing with the fears that my parents no doubt felt every time I took off on the next adventure—as parents everywhere must feel for their children.
SJ: There is an anxiety around motherhood and family in “Premonitions of an Uneasy Guest,” the third section of poems in This Dream the World, particularly in “The Speech of Children” and “Awakened at 4 a.m. to My Mother’s Insomnia by My Brother’s Playing the Piano.” In fact, most of the poems in this section seem to harbor the fears present in the speaker’s dream life. Were these poems constructed from a dream journal?
CW: That’s an interesting observation. Many of these poems do, in fact, emerge from dreams—either those episodic dreams that resemble fractured narratives, which I write down in my journal if they are sufficiently compelling and if I remember them upon waking; or those oneiric borderline moments while falling asleep. At those moments, as the mind relaxes, sometimes the person falling asleep starts to perform familiar actions in her thoughts—almost like mentally practicing those actions. These lines seem to be received, not composed: as if they were being given to me, as if from some source beyond—but at the same time within—myself. When this sort of oneiric moment of inspiration occurs—and it is not very frequent—I have to force myself to wake up and write down the lines, or they dissolve and vanish in the deepening current of sleep. Such lines are gifts—they arrive effortlessly, but they are very tenuous! “The Speech of Children” that you mention in your question, for example, is one of these gift poems. The lines came to me as I was falling asleep, so I forced myself to sit up and write them in my journal (which I always keep beside the bed, just in case).
Whenever I read this poem to myself or at a reading, I relive that memory of inspiration, of effortless arrival of this poem as a gift. The images of children this poem, in fact, seem to embody the very act of living in such a state of continual inspiration—the sort of blessed state that Wordsworth claimed to experience in his own childhood—and then the quiet disappointment of the adults pacing back and forth in the final lines, as this perpetual connection with childhood dream fades from their lives. The erasing print of the book they no longer believe in—that is also the very sensation of dream lines vanishing as the dreamer awakens. That book they no longer believe in? That for me is a mysterious image—it could represent any belief or sense of wonder that many adults grow out of, or it could be an oblique suggestion of some faith text, such as the Bible, that will inevitably disappoint us if we depend on it too much.
So, for me, poems that arrive in dreams, or that seek to embody the resonance of dream, evoke a sense of wonder, of mystery and infinite possibility. Of course, as you note, dreams are not only enactments of states of wonder, but may also represent the dreamer’s fears or anxieties or disappointments. But the dreamer—at least the protagonist who moves through the dream like a narrator through a short story, or a poem’s speaker through a poem—is not necessarily identical to the person dreaming, in the same way that the speaker of a poem is related to, but not identical to, the poet herself. So, the dramatic situations that exist in dreams are not necessarily replicas of the circumstances that motivate the dreamer in her waking life.
SJ: The fourth section, from “Seasons of Mangoes and Brainfire,” takes us to Brazil, where we meet many different colorful characters—we’ve heard that you have another trip to Brazil in the very near future, can you tell us a little about the nature of your trip, and how Brazil has influenced your work and continues to influence it?
My first experience of Brazil was a physically and emotionally intensive month of pilgrimage in early 1972—half-way through my Fulbright year in Chile—by train and bus from Santiago to Bahia, where I aimed to experience the legendary Carnaval do povo, the People’s Carnaval, on its own terms, as authentically as I could: dancing a cachaça-doused samba at Carnaval in São Salvador da Bahia; hitchhiking through post-Ash Wednesday rain in a long-haul lorry with young Brazilian and European backpackers from Bahia to Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais; staying with rural families in the interior and with journalists from one of the country’s leading newspapers in the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Santa Tereza; hanging out with Brazilian students at concerts by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa; and dreaming through lyrics of their songs printed on flyers included with record albums: lyrics that I still recall to this day. As you know, many of the poems about that time, that experience, appear in Seasons of Mangoes and Brainfire.
Fast-forward a few decades in which I sporadically interacted with Brazilian culture and language; and then in mid-2011, I discovered Zumba, taught by a Brazilian instructor from Bahia! Soon thereafter I was also taking classes from him and his American wife in Afro-Brazilian dance. All the fervor of years ago returned, with greater depth and cultural grounding, and then the possibility presented itself, of studying Portuguese in a more organized manner for the last two years through university classes. With all these webs of association, I have felt as if I were back in Brazil, right in Seattle! Then I learned of and applied to the Instituto Sacatar, based on the Island of Itaparica in Bahia—an organization that supports residency fellowships for creative individuals of all nationalities and ages. Fellows are invited for two-month periods to work within and across their respective creative disciplines to promote increased intercultural understanding and global interconnectedness.
This return journey to Bahia will be…what? A re-encounter with a people and a culture that I experienced in an earlier era, a chance to re-connect and extend what started all those years ago, an opportunity to write with greater depth of respect and insight. I have some projects in mind, some pieces partially written; but in whatever I produce, I intend to support Sacatar’s mission to promote increased intercultural understanding and global interconnectedness.
SJ: The fifth section of This Dream the World takes us from the Season of Mangoes and Brainfire‘s Brazil to all over the globe in A Change of Maps. This section begins with a quote from Elizabeth Bishop, “Thus should have been our travels.” How does this quote inform these poems? Were these words in the mind of our speaker as she traveled and formed these poems?
CW: Good question! “Thus should have been our travels” is the opening of Bishop’s “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” a poem she started in the 1930s (during travels in Western Europe and North Africa), but did not finish till 1948, well before her life-changing voyage to Brazil. This poem was included in her slim second book, A Cold Spring; and it was in the first version of her Complete Poems, one of the books I carried with me on my own travels in the mid-1980s in the U. K. and Western Europe, where some of the travel poems of A Change of Maps were started. I had actually written an essay in graduate school analyzing “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” and it remains one of my favorite poems by Bishop.
The poem’s title refers to one of those illustrated encyclopedias that every well-read family in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries used to keep in their library or display on bookshelves in the front room. Here is the complete first sentence of this poem:
Thus should have been our travels:
I think that Bishop meant her line to be ironic—the travels that her speaker has undertaken in the poem have not met the “should have” standards of an ideal trip. The poet seems to be comparing literal trips with journeys vicariously undertaken in travel books—no literal journeys could be as “serious and engravable” as those of the armchair traveler. But I think that Bishop may have been smiling in a wry manner past the seemingly straight-faced tone of this opening line—at least that is how I read the line in the context of the entire poem.
When I put the poems in the manuscript of the individual collection of A Change of Maps into their final order, and Lost Horse publisher Christine Holbert and I were looking through images of antique maps for the cover image, I realized that I wanted to open my book with an epigraph that would invite readers in, and also reflect obliquely on what they would discover within the poems. As I thought about what to use as an epigraph, that opening statement from Bishop’s “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” leapt to mind. It was brief and mysterious enough to be intriguing, and to resist easy paraphrase; and it could also be a wry comment on travels of my own, travels which happened to cover some of the same ground as did Bishop’s travels upon which she drew for her poem.
So, this line serves as an indirect—perhaps ironic!—connection between Bishop’s speaker’s experiences and my own travels that take place within the pages of A Change of Maps.
SJ: The final section of the collection, draws its poems from Mania Klepto: The Book of Eulene—a book comprised of persona poems. I’ve long been a fan of the persona poems, especially those of Eulene’s! What do you find alluring about the persona poem, and how do you see these allures represented in the Eulene poems?
CW: Thank you for the kind words about Eulene . . . and her poems! Eulene thanks herself for her allure, as reflected in her poems, and complements you on your brilliance in noticing!
Okay, Eulene, enough from you for the moment! (Eulene flounces off to pout, and plot, in the corner!) As you can see, I as poet spend a lot of time reflecting Eulene’s voice and actions. channeling her through this poor vessel—this low-fidelity speaker called Carolyne—who keeps on wrangling the ironic and ever-shifting relationship with this persona, like mirrors reflecting mirrors reflecting mirrors, etc.
A bit of history involving Eulene’s miraculous birth. In grad school, a series of poems came to me, involving a sort of shadowy, nameless, double or Doppelganger figure . . . upon whom Carolyne could project deeds, and screeds, she dared not attribute to herself as a responsible member of the poetic body politic: at that point, the graduate poetry workshop. But this figure soon demanded a name, a handle, and–like characters in novels–once she revealed her name, Eulene assumed a life of her own. She insisted on moi as her vatic instrument, her mouthpiece and representative. She was no longer a figment of my imagination, or even a pigment of my hallucination . . . but was there a certain freedom from constraint and consternation for Carolyne whilst in the thrall of Eulene? Who besides Eulene can say?
I used to claim that Eulene was some sort of projection of my own poetic voice . . . but somewhere along the way, Carolyne became a holographic projection of Eulene. Now, whenever anyone refers to the Eulene poems that Carolyne has written, I am compelled to assert that it’s not Carolyne, but Eulene!!
In sum, it is very difficult to give a straightforward, straight-faced and strait-laced, non-ironic response to any question in which Eulene is entangled, like flotsam in a fishnet. (Don’t. Ask. what is entangled in Eulene’s fishnet stockings!!) Such answers can only be enacted, not theorized.