About two years ago, after fifteen years of off and on substance abuse, I was recently separated and coming out of a relapse that should have killed me. With two sparkling months sober, I should have been dead but had somehow emerged from the wreckage with certain essentials intact: my then four-year-old daughter, my close circle of friends, and my poetry. I stayed half of the time at my old apartment, split with my estranged wife, when my turn came to care for our daughter. The other half of the time I stayed on a friend’s futon. I would work, go to twelve-step meetings, and, late in the evening, back on the futon and safe for another day from the destructive offerings of the world meeting the emotional implosions that had led me back to booze and dope again and again, I would curl up with a good translation of Paul Celan or Inger Christensen and live through another night. In those days, I always woke early. It was winter and still dark. My friend’s second floor apartment overlooked a park and I would wait for the light to crack and bleed out and fill in the spaces between the trees’ naked branches.
I wanted nothing more than to continue living. My problem then, which I did not know I was not ready to face, was that I was learning to feel again but remained incapable of sustaining myself in the world I had so often sought to escape. My fulltime job at a used bookstore did not pay enough to cover my bills, my debts, and my half of my daughter’s expenses. I sold most of the little I owned, mainly books, and skipped one or two meals a day. Friends went to the university’s students-in-need pantry to get me food. A university in another town, where I had been all but promised a fulltime position when one would finally open, ultimately passed me up for a career-groomed poet with a puffed up CV, a PhD., and book on what we can openly call a vanity press. I did not have any professional options left. Somehow, though, I was glimmering. With my precious little window of sobriety, for the first time I could immerse myself in my daughter’s vibrancy, in the honest and boundless affection of my friends, and in the brutal poetry I wrote and through which I could witness a decade and a half of ugliness purging from me in bursts of black smoke and tar. I think now that if no one had intervened and shook me out into the world I would have stayed in that hiding place and eventually relapsed again. One more relapse would have killed me, I know.
One day at work I got an email from Joe Morra. I had never heard of him. He wrote, “I know this will sound odd,” and went on to tell me he needed my address to send me a check, an artist grant for which I had not applied. I had been doing okay, getting myself settled on the inside, but my first and overwhelming reaction was that the outside world was still out to get me, not help me, and that while my friends had opened their homes to me, I certainly was not in line for any manna from the heavens. With that cynicism, I looked up his institution, the Boomerang Fund for Artists, to determine who was messing with me. The website looked legitimate. I personally knew artists on their list of grant recipients, but they were all dynamite writers, way out of my league. Then I found out that C.D. Wright and Forrest Gander served on the advisory board, and I knew the thing was real.
In every encounter with C.D. and Forrest, certain elements remained consistent: they knew all about the magazines I edited and poetry readings I hosted, they each displayed a seemingly infinite enthusiastic knowledge of poets for whom I also had particular affection, and they so overwhelmed me with the generosity of their spirits that what could have been shame burned into reassurance in myself as a poet. I know many people who would say the same about them because C.D. and Forrest directly and indirectly forged dozens of my most cherished friendships. They would send poets to the magazines I edited or suggest I read someone’s work who would immediately become a favorite and often shortly thereafter a friend. While living in Brooklyn, I learned that nothing would drive my poetry more fiercely than finding myself in the company of fiery poets I called friends, and that in turn poetry offered no reward greater than those friendships. C.D. and Forrest’s genius as teachers resides not as much in their legendary abilities to pass knowledge along but in their determination to impel and nurture the perpetuation of poets thriving within their community.
It was not until that afternoon amid a bleak stretch of days that I realized poetry wanted me back in the world. C.D. and Forrest had thought to put my name forth for what was not an awful lot of money, but enough for a deposit and the first month’s rent for an apartment of my own, to get enough space between me and my bills that I could make several proper trips to the grocery store, and to buy a plane ticket to a conference where I would see friends when I needed to see them. I wandered the book fair explaining to one long-lost friend after another that yes, I was okay, great in fact, and that I would not be getting back together with my wife. I got to cry face-to-face with one friend over the death of Morgan Lucas Schuldt from cystic fibrosis, and I got to walk with another friend, also on the verge of divorce, while shopping for our kids in an outdoor mall. That little bit of money allowed me to get back on the plane knowing I would be divorced and happier, I would find a way to support myself and my daughter, and the cradle of happiness I had been gifted would need a permanent shelter. The little hovel of an apartment the artist grant afforded me provided a home of my own where I built my solo relationship with my daughter and learned to live continually sober in spite of the world and my former self.
One morning last summer, while working at the same used bookshop, I talked for two hours with an actor from Los Angeles who had a copy of C.D. Wright’s Tremble in his hand. It turned out he knew C.D. and Forrest personally, and I suppose it is universal custom to glowingly discuss their genius and generosity when two people realize they share their acquaintance. At the very end of our conversation we swapped names and discovered that the actor, Graham Hamilton, had read my first book, knew it well in fact, and that we each had received an artist grant from Joe Morra, by way of C.D. and Forrest. The story took a funny turn that afternoon, when C.D. Wright walked into the bookshop. I had seen her a few times while passing through to see her parents, but after they had both died she told me that her only two connections to Arkansas were Kathy Thompson, an old friend of hers and our best local artist, and me. However, her brother had moved to town and she was visiting. She had come to the store to buy him a Vance Randolf book and see if I was around. I told her I had met Graham, a wild coincidence that they were both in town, and we threw together plans to get pizza that night, all of us, with my girlfriend and Graham and Kathy and C.D.’s brother and his wife.
I was glowing, hanging out with one of my favorite living writers, who had done so much for me, among people who adored her as I did. Instead of being cool as I always had around her, I gushed like a fan boy. I told her exactly how much her work meant to me and how much it had helped me that she propped my magazines in front of the poetry world, and I told her of my situation exactly as it was when the grant had arrived and what the grant enabled me to do. She had not had any idea I had been struggling so badly. She and Forrest had simply wanted me to know my poems and my work for other poets were appreciated, she said. Then we talked about the university where both of us received MFAs—a stodgily conservative creative writing program which had completely ignored her for decades and with which I have always been at odds—finally having plans to bring her back. She wanted that completion, Arkansas’ best poet, back in Arkansas, despite their differences.
Then suddenly the future ended. She would never come to the university or back to town at all. There would be no completion, not in the way we planned. There would be no more emails signed off “As ever, C.D.” The three books she had forthcoming would never have her voice deliver them, but we all know that voice, can hear it now, and will find it whenever we open her books. In the days following C.D.’s death, I got on the phone and emailed with many of my old friends who shared ties to C.D. and Forrest, but most of all I talked to Joe Morra and Graham Hamilton, my newest gifts from C.D. and Forrest. The comfort I found in talking with them, a musician and an actor respectively, was not in poets and poetry but in shared awe for a friend who was a magnificent and otherworldly artist. We shared in the comfort of people knowing people and putting that first. Writing poetry is a lonely and often selfish act, but when it lives in a larger community, not in the academics and the awards but in the tiny magazines bound with thread and blood, in the languid nights spent with wine or tea and emphatic chatter, in the unexpected emails where one poet thanks another for writing something stunning, poetry does not have to count its losses. C.D. Wright’s legacy, which is in us as much as in her poems, reveals the gains we make together that have no number.