In the post–James Frey world, there is much debate about where to draw the line between nonfiction and fiction. The essential argument concerns literature’s responsibility to the facts: Can a memoir engage in a degree of imagining in the service of telling an emotional truth? Is an autobiographical novel really a memoir trying to pass as a work of fiction? And what of poetry, a genre in which fact and fantasy commingle? C. D. Wright’s One Big Self—the poetic half of her collaboration with photographer Deborah Luster (the photographic version was published as a limited edition in 2003)—attempts some answers.
Wright and Luster visited three Louisiana state prisons in order to “unequivocally lay out the real feel of hard time,” each in her own medium. Wright’ s interviews with male and female inmates serve as the basis for this rambling work, which shifts between prose, lineated verse, lists, letters, and other forms. She quotes prisoners verbatim (“See what I did was, I accidentally killed my brother”), riffs on official paperwork (“Q: Where were you on the night in question A: Watching reruns”), writes letters to her “Conflicted Reader”— Wright’s voice betrays an ambivalence about how not to rob the inmates of their integrity for the sake of art, and Wright assumes the same uneasiness of her readers— and peppers the book with the kind of biting wit (“No condoms for the heart”) for which her poems are known.
Wright embellishes the drama of inmates’ stories using the tools poetry offers—juxtaposition, accrual, disorientation, rhythm, rhyme—in order to enact their sense of confinement and regret (“Count the wrong turns you took to get here”) and her own uncertainty about what to feel: “I thought. I could write. An exculpatory note. / I cannot. Yes, it is bitter.” She also conveys her subjects’ complicated relationships to the world beyond the prison walls: Of one inmate, Wright recalls, “When I said I lived in New England / he asked if I ever saw Princess Diana”; elsewhere, she observes that “Some have their baby and are brought back on the bus the next day.”
In this hybrid book, Wright portrays real events and emotions using poetry’s particular bag of tricks, not just the facts themselves. This blend of lyricism and journalism penetrates to the heart of the matter more ably than perhaps either genre could have on its own and offers one of the most powerful accounts of prison life to be found. “Behind every anonymous number, a very specific face,” Wright intones, and One Big Self tells something about each inmate without having to mention them all. In this, she follows a maxim from Emily Dickinson, an immortal American journalist if ever there was one, who wrote, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”