Poet Wright and photographer Deborah Luster visited three Louisiana prisons to produce a multimedia record of inmate life. One Big Self (Copper Canyon), is the poetic half of that collaboration.
While Luster was photographing inmates, what did you do to gather material for the poem?
I didn't know anything about prisons, so I did a lot of reading, watched a lot of movies: documentaries, feature films. Then I made several visits to the prisons. I created a questionnaire for the inmates, but it was completely fanciful—I'm not a sociologist. I was just trying to get an intimate profile of inmates, to ask about aspects of their lives other than the consuming fact of their incarceration. One or two people answered the questionnaire, but then I saw that it wasn't going anywhere—nobody wanted to answer it. After that it really just fell into a much more conversational mode. While Debbie was photographing, I talked with the people who were waiting to be photographed—it was all voluntary. People were friendly and willing to visit with me because I'm not really a threatening presence and I was somebody different to talk to. It's common to talk a lot in the South.
Did the prisons—and does the poem—portray a particularly Southern experience?
Every place yields its own lexicon. It was the right cadence for me; it was the right pacing. I knew how to tap into that kind of language, even though where I grew up—in the Ozarks—was different from the Deep South of Louisiana.
How does quotation figure into the poem?
I start the poem with mostly direct quotes from inmates, partly to establish multiple voices, diction, idiom, environment and a bit of the range of prison life, because it has, within its limits, the range of ordinary life. So there's humor, faith and fear.
Where do you think poetry and journalism intersect?
I've never been able to resolve that question. I just think that elements of the documentary are perfectly adaptable to poetry. I don't know what the limits are.
What are you working on now?
I'm just now returning to a civil rights project, which is showing me the limits of my own documentary skills—when can I make up? When do I have to change names? It's hard to figure out how to put in an edgewise word. But of course you always can. I'm hoping what little I know and my art will serve me well.