Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Franz Wright, Into Light Through Stormy Nights

Breakthrough, not breakdown: Through mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction, child abuse, to Pulitzer Prize for poetry and to daily Mass.

Harder to breathe
near the summit, and harder
to remember
where you came from,
why you came

– from “The Word ‘I’”

One morning when he was 15, spending time in Clair Lake Oaks in Northern California, Franz Wright went for a walk in a walnut orchard. It was there that he had an epiphany of sorts that set in motion a trajectory in his life that would lead to his life’s calling – poetry. “It was a sudden, ecstatic moment,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “Almost like a religious conversion"...

That revelation amidst nature at such a young age was not “all euphoric” for the budding artist. “It was also very scary even though I almost felt at that very hour that this is what I was fated to do,” Wright says. Part of the fear was related to the looming shadow of his father James Wright, also a renowned poet. “My father had a huge influence,” explains the younger Wright.

That first poem he wrote after the revelation in the orchard, which Wright remembers vividly, is not something he is particularly proud of. Like many artists, he is uncomfortable with his early efforts. “My mother probably has a copy somewhere, but she is under strict supervision not to reveal it.” So embarrassed he seems about those early poems, we joke that if they ever saw the light of day, his recent Pulitzer Prize for Poetry might be rescinded.

In addition to the 2004 Pulitzer for his collection Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, he is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts grants, a Whiting Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, a prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among many other honors.

For many years, after getting his degree from Oberlin College in 1977 where he studied English literature, philosophy and religion, Wright traveled extensively all over the U.S., spending spans of time in New York City, New England, Northern California, and Ohio. “I was trying to learn how to write,” he says. “I led a very marginal, desperate existence.”

During these travels a lot of friends helped him out. He relied on his grants and awards to keep him going. “I could live on very little,” he says, making dollars stretch as far as they would go. Sometimes he would take on “dumb jobs” from painting houses and working at a gas station to working in kitchens and even some “illegal things.”

Those itinerant years proved formative in Wright’s struggles to become a poet. It was during those wanderings that he understood that he would “either do this seriously or die.”

A year ago today
I was unable to speak
one syntactically coherent
thought let alone write it down: today
in this dear and absurdly
allegorical place
by your grace
I am here

– from “Thanks Prayer at the Cove”

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1953, Wright believes that his birth overseas and early years of moving around with his parents never allowed him to put down roots in any one place. “That pattern was set very early,” he says.

Hear Franz Wright on NPR


Not having roots has its benefits for Wright’s chosen vocation. “I feel like I have many pasts and that helps my writing,” he explains. “But, I also don’t feel like I come from anywhere, and that’s disturbing.”

His parents divorced when he was 7 years old, and the young Wright went to live with his mother. While he would see his father periodically, it is a correspondence that he shared with his father for ten years that Wright speaks of with fondness. The two wrote letters back and forth while the younger Wright was between the ages of 15 and 25.

These letters were about life, but more importantly about poetry. As he started to publish at the age of 19, Wright found in his father’s letters “great patience and honesty.”

What the younger Wright also shared with his father, and his younger brother Marshall, was a proclivity for addiction and mental illness. Wright’s journey as a poet has been extraordinary and yet riddled with the all too familiar clichés of the tortured artist. He is very open in talking about the length and arduous nature of his struggles with mental illness and addiction.

Wright speaks with stark clarity about his “manic depression, schizoid affective disorder coupled with delusions and paranoia.” He has been hospitalized several times, although not in the last ten years, for these troubles, and for attempted suicides.

The mental illness was either the root of, or at least exacerbated by his addictions to alcohol and drugs. Wright tried “every single drug in existence,” although his preferences were for opiates like heroin. “I never had a sober breath for thirty years,” he says, quickly adding that today he has been in recovery for seven years.

As part of that recovery he attends daily AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings in Waltham, goes to Catholic mass in Boston each morning at 7 a.m. and works with others who are addicts and mentally ill. He considers that last the “best treatment because you realize you are not alone in the world and that these things are not a moral state of sin or crime.”

Wright knows the depths of his own misery, feeling that he would never get well and that the end was always near. He once did not leave his apartment for two years. And yet, he has managed to continue writing and winning accolades. “I share myself as an example that severe mental illness and addiction is not the end of the road.”

It is the hour
the moment
when it becomes possible
to distinguish a white
thread from a black,
so prayer begins.

– from "Shaving in the Dark”

The two main sources of Wright’s salvation are his wife Elizabeth (they married in 1999) and his conversion to Catholicism at the age of 47 when he got baptized into the faith.

He wakes up at around 4:30 each morning, drives to St. Clement Catholic Church in Boston by 6 a.m. Before the daily mass at 7 a.m. he listens to a group that chants in Latin. He loves this routine. “I know that every 24 hours for one hour I will be completely happy,” he says.

While Wright is grateful for the awards he has won because it helps him financially, accolades don’t help with the struggles of trying to create consistently. However, one award does stand out because of its historical significance. The 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry that he won, coupled with the same prize his father won in 1972, make them the only father-son team to achieve that feat.

“It’s fabulous,” he says of this historical event. “It’s an incredible honor, as my father was like a god to me. To be mentioned in the same breath as him still astounds me. I can’t take it in.”

Since his recovery he has been writing about his conversion, his addictions and about getting well. He is concerned with what happens to someone after this ecstatic conversion. “It is strange to go to such heights and then return to reality,” he says, speaking about the hard work and discipline it takes to continue writing in a meaningful way. Since he knows all too well about long periods of despair and doubt, he struggles even today because he doesn’t “want to fade away.” [Source]
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