If there’s anything you want to know about Pulitzer Prize-winning Martins Ferry poet James Wright, just ask Jonathan Blunk.
Blunk, Wright’s authorized biographer, has spent decades studying Wright — the last 20 years “in earnest” — tracing the footsteps of the poet’s life; talking to Wright’s poet friends; spending time with Annie Wright; poring over his journals and letters; reading what Wright read.
“James Wright: A Life in Poetry,” published late last year, prompted the revival of the James Wright Poetry Festival, set for Saturday, April 21, the first fest since 2007.
It was at the urging of Blunk that Tom Flynn decided to bring it back. Flynn has served on the festival committee since its inception in 1981.
Blunk will join a notable guest list at the Martins Ferry Public Library — Wright’s second wife, Annie; and poets Stanley Plumly, Maggie Anderson and Dave Lucas, Ohio’s poet laureate.
JAMES WRIGHT — THE MAN, THE POET: 1927-1980
“(James Wright) had a firm moral compass and a big heart that embraced all the people he knew,” Blunk said. “The depth of humanity in his poetry is still something that you can feel if you know nothing about him and pick up a poem at random, that quality of his mind, his intellect, wedded with that deep emotional sensitivity for other people’s suffering,” Blunk said, speaking from his Peekskill, N.Y., home earlier this week.
Unfortunately, Blunk missed the opportunity to meet Wright in person, but he did have all of Wright’s journals, notebooks, correspondence, drafts of poems and drafts of translations at his disposal. He spent hours speaking to hundreds of people connected to Wright — all toward his “lifelong search to track him down.”
The writings and interviews gave him much insight into the man, the poet.
Wright had a great love of country music — he grew up with the Jamboree U.S.A. broadcast from Wheeling. He also loved classical music. He loved to travel and, with Annie, spent many months in Paris and Italy. Everyone who met James Wright remembered him vividly, the way he cocked his head, the way he pushed his glasses up his nose, but especially his voice. (Listen to him read several poems here.)
“He had a phenomenal memory. … One of the great fascinations that never ceased to amaze anyone who met him was his ability to recite thousands upon thousands of poems by heart. And not only poetry, but whole chapters by George Orwell or Charles Dickens or any number of writers who were important to him,” Blunk said.
He was not a good parent, but he served as a great teacher to his son Franz, also a poet. They are the only father-son duo to win Pulitzer Prizes for poetry. According to an online interview with the New Yorker in 2001, “Franz Wright recalled that, as a teenager, he mailed his first poems to his father and received a curt note in reply: ‘I’ll be damned. You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.’” Wright took his son’s writing seriously. “He had mentorship that any writer would’ve been blessed to have,” Blunk said.
“One of the great joys of the work is the opportunity to speak with so many great writers who were friends of Wright and who admired him. One of the remarkable things that I now think back on is some of the poets that I’ve mentioned [Galway Kinnell, Robert Bly, C.K. Williams, Phillip Levine, W.S. Merwin] … all of those poets in different ways, and a couple of them using the exact same words, deferred to James Wright … he was … ‘THE poet.’ This is really striking to me. These are some of the most accomplished writers we have in America, and they’re gesturing toward James Wright as THE poet of their generation,” he said.
“It’s kind of a sense of gratitude they felt … that they had known him and spent time in his company, and I think that speaks incredibly highly for who James Wright was. He couldn’t help being a poet. He loved poetry more than anything.”
And that “made some of the decisions in his life more difficult,” Blunk said. His family suffered. His teaching career suffered. He suffered.
Blunk notes there was “real sadness in his life, but poetry was the most important thing to him. … The work really came first. … He had some of his darkest days in Minnesota, yet he wrote some of his greatest poetry there.”
Wright’s later years had more balance, more joy, Blunk said. “There’s a lot more light in his later work, and there’s a lot of darkness in his early work. A lot of light of Italy came flooding into a lot of those late poems. … He found great happiness at the end of his life, and you can feel it in the poems.”
THE BIOGRAPHY: 2017
Blunk was introduced to Wright’s poetry as a student at Cornell University in the late 1970s by a poetry teacher who suggested he read “The Branch Will Not Break.” The first poem in the book, “As I Step Over a Puddle at the End of Winter, I Think of an Ancient Chinese Governor,” invokes an ancient Chinese poet.
“He’s talking about a Tang Dynasty poet named Po-Chu-i. That poem means a great deal to me … that’s what set me off on a study of ancient Chinese poetry as James Wright and Robert Bly had done in their own practice. … Somehow, James Wright being able to speak to a poet that was alive in 800 A.D. … His ability to resurrect this poet had a profound influence on me. When I think back now, maybe that’s what gave me the idea that I could write a biography. If James Wright could converse with this poet from a thousand years ago, maybe I can write this book, maybe I can write this biography. ”
It was in 2002 that Annie Wright asked him to write the biography.
“So it has a long history. I think writing biography is kind of a fool’s errand. There’s so much work involved. It’s about writing history. It’s about getting all the facts right. It’s just an enormous amount of work, and I have to say that I don’t regret any moment I’ve spent in James Wright’s company. He was a magnificent writer and just a very remarkable human being with an amazing story to his life, coming from poverty in a steel town in the Ohio River Valley to win a Pulitzer Prize and become one of the most revered poets of his generation. It’s really an astonishing story.”
And he went to great lengths to research that story.
“One of the virtues of the book,” Flynn pointed out, “is it really gives you almost a day-by-day account of what was going on in Wright’s life. In 1955, if he was in Vienna, you know exactly where he went, whom he was with, what he did, what he was reading at the time. Funny for me, just doing this [coordinating the James Wright Festival] for so many years, I had a second-hand sense of Wright, but it’s fascinating to see just who this person was and his strengths and his trials and sufferings, too.”
“I don’t pretend that I understand James Wright as a person,” Blunk said. “It’s not that I tried to imagine I was him, but … the things that I learned by physically following him to all these places … where James Wright lived … I made these journeys in order to make the book come to life, really.
“My book begins with looking at a particular day in his life in Minneapolis in the summer of 1958, and I happened to mention he climbed 12 plank steps … in the heat of that early afternoon. That’s because I went and knocked on the door of the woman who lived in the house where he and his first wife had lived, and I asked her if I could go through her home …. I climbed the 12 plank steps. That’s the only way those kinds of details find their way into the story. I know this is an important part of making the reader feel like they’re there watching the story as it happens, and of course, that’s the hope that the reader becomes involved in his life as he was living it.
“I was given a responsibility to tell what is an important American story. I wanted to give readers a strong, clear glimpse of James Wright. I didn’t feel I needed to create a story out of his life … it’s all there. It’s my job to stay out of the way and let James Wright tell the story through his writings and through his voice.”
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Blunk also included much of the poet’s unpublished material in the biography, works that he describes as “so rich and so vast.”
“That’s what I wanted to use in the book itself so that readers could have some access to that remarkable trove of writings that aren’t yet known,” he said.
“I think I was very lucky having James Wright as the subject of my book because he was just great company. I just loved being with him; he was so smart, I learned so much from him.”
THE FESTIVAL: 1981-2007, 2018
The James Wright Poetry Festival began in 1981, bringing poets — some well known, some lesser known and many with a direct connection to Wright — to Martins Ferry until 2007.
A couple of goals were on the minds of members of The Eastern Ohio Arts Council when they conceived the festival, Flynn explained: sharing Wright’s hometown with readers and inspiring Martins Ferry writers to become poets.
Because many of Wright’s poems are “poems of place,” Flynn said, “as you read his work, you develop a sense of the world he lived in, and then, if you could provide his readers with an opportunity to visit that place and see what the sites looked like and see what he saw, hear the people he spoke with, it would enrich the readers’ experience with the poem.
“And also, too, over the years, the motivation was to not only to call attention to Wright but, by bringing in poets, to inspire the next generation of poets. Wright is such an unlikely character, given his background, that he should’ve emerged as the poet that he is … there’s no reason there can’t be another James Wright or Jane Wright in Martins Ferry who might catch the star.”
Flynn, a literature and composition professor at Ohio University Eastern, has many fond memories of the festival.
“The 10th certainly was a highlight when we brought people back, just got such a great turnout … and we had people read at the high school. I’m sure that [for] all of the poets that really gave them an insight — he [Wright] was in those rooms, he walked those halls. That was exciting.”
The impressive roster the 10th festival, 1990, included: Pulitzer Prize-winners Franz Wright and Stanley Kunitz; Maggie Anderson, Donald Hall, David Ignatow, William Matthews, Ed Ochester, Stanley Plumly, Gerald Stern, Peter Stitt, Kevin Stein and David Dougherty.
Some other poets who have attended throughout the 27 years have included: former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins; Pulitzer Prize-winners Mary Oliver, Carolyn Kizer, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Yusef Komunyakaa and Robert Hass; as well as Denise Levertov, Leslie Silko, Li-Young Lee, Joy Harjo, Hayden Carruth, William Matthews and Gibbons Ruark.
“We have had an awful lot of great readings,” Flynn recalled.
In 1992, one of the festival events was billed as the 1992 World Tour. Festival-goers visited sites that were mentioned in Wright’s poems. Claude Colvin, a professor at Ohio University Eastern, read the poems as the bus stopped at Shreve High Football Field, Hazel-Atlas Glass, the WPA swimming pool, Pearl Street, 23rd and Water Streets in Wheeling, and others.
“I really liked the pairing of Galway Kinnell and Stanly Plumly [in 1982]. At that point, Plumly was quite young, and Kinnell was quite established. That was something we tried to do, put an older poet and a younger poet, and there was a nice synergy between them.”
Plumly and Maggie Anderson, who are returning this year, have both been at the festival three times and have connections to the area. “It seemed fitting — they have to be the two people who have been here the most often,” Flynn said.
Plumly was born in Barnesville in 1939, and Anderson moved to West Virginia at the age of 13, and eventually taught poetry in West Virginia and in Ohio.
Dave Lucas, recently named Ohio poet laureate, also has local connections. His father’s side of the family has lived in Belmont for the last 100 years. “My father (who passed away about 10 years ago) would have loved the idea of his son reading poems so near to his own hometown,” Lucas said.
At the festival, Lucas will direct a writers’ workshop at 9 a.m. Blunk, Annie Wright, Plumly and Anderson will talk about the biography at 11 a.m. An open reading is set for 1:30 p.m., with a reading of Wright’s work at 2 p.m., followed by readings by Anderson at 3 p.m. and Lucas at 4 p.m. At 7 p.m., Annie Wright will welcome guests, followed by remarks by Blunk and a reading by Plumly.
“Most of the people who will be attending are people who have attended previous festivals, sort of a reunion quality to it, which will be nice,” Flynn said. “That was always a nice part of the festival, seeing the same people year after year.”
“The festival has such a community spirit to it,” Blunk said. “It is unique in American letters to have a festival in honor of a writer that sustained itself for 27 years. I know of no other festival of any kind that even approaches that kind of devotion to the writing of an American poet or any kind of writer really.
“[That] speaks to how readers are drawn to his work and respond to his work and … it really matters to them. I think he would’ve been very pleased to know that. I think that was part of his intention … that he wanted to include the people of his hometown in the audience of his work. … It wasn’t about impressing poets but it was about using tools of tradition to speak to a wide audience that includes all the people he knew while growing up on the banks of the Ohio River.”
At Wright’s final reading before he died, held in October of 1979 at Harvard University, he had this to say about his hometown, according to Blunk, who quoted him in an essay in a recent issue of the Georgia Review: “I find myself going back to Ohio again and again, with some affection. I’ve written kind of harshly about the place at times, and I’ve troubled some people back in my hometown back in Martins Ferry, Ohio. They thought I was just attacking the place. That wasn’t it. It was and is to me still an important American place.”
Blunk said, “My idea for the biography was to return him to the conversation, and I think the festival had a huge and laudatory part in sustaining James Wright for all those years … after his death. It kept him in people’s minds. There’s such a great love that people have for his work, that it was a sustaining event for all those years, and I’m really happy we have the opportunity to gather again by the river to read his poems.”
FESTIVAL DETAILS: For information about the 28th James Wright Poetry Festival, visit www.ohio.edu/eastern/community/JamesWrightFestival.cfm. The daytime portion (9 a.m.-5 p.m.) of the festival has reached capacity, but the evening readings are open to the public. The Martins Ferry Library is located at 20 S. Fifth St., also known as 20 James Wright Place.
• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigalhas joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.