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Honoring and Remembering: on Allison Hedge Coke and C. D. Wright

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Allison_Hedge_Coke_Headshots-1I am delighted that our Poet Laureate selected Allison Hedge Coke as our new Witter Bynner Fellow in Poetry. Allison will come to the Library on Wednesday, March 9th, to read from her work and talk with Juan Felipe Herrera. And then we will officially award her the $10,000 fellowship, as we have for 19 years. Allison will be in good company, too—previous fellows have included Claudia Emerson, Forrest Gander, Heather McHugh, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Carl Phillips. She will also be the second fellow in the past three years from Oklahoma, after Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. We look forward to presenting a reading with our new fellow in conjunction with the wonderful folks at the Oklahoma Center for the Book, hopefully sometime this May.

To check out the work of Allison Hedge Coke, you can visit her personal website as well as her pages at the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation. And you should come meet her in person in just a couple of months, here at the Library!

Before the Library’s fellowship was established, the Witter Bynner Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters honored young poets with the Witter Bynner Prize. The prize ran from 1980-2002, and in 1986 it was given to a young poet with only two books to her name. This poet had received grants from her state arts council and from the National Endowment for the Arts, but this was her first big prize—and in the years to follow C. D. Wright was to earn many more, and become one of our major talents.

C. D. Wright credit Forrest Gander.

I first met C. D. (who died yesterday at the age of 67) in 2002—my friend Nadia Colburn and I interviewed her for my literary magazine. Her house was undergoing renovations, and she, her husband and her son were living in a big room above their garage. Basically her life was in upheaval, and in the middle of the interview we all went over to the local laundromat and folded her family’s clothes together. I cannot think of C. D. without first remembering that moment, and how sweet it was—how like C. D. and her work, to be so open. She was the kind of person who just drew you in. I had other memorably informal moments with C. D. too, like sprawling out on the floor of one of those nameless convention center lobbies with her and bunch of friends—we were at AWP, and she had just given the big evening reading. She also gave the first reading I was a part of at the Library of Congress—I had literally just started my job.

I was hoping the Library would give C. D. a reason to come back to DC, this time for the 2016 National Book Festival. To that end, I called C. D. just a couple of weeks ago. She was the same as always: warm and thoughtful and insightful and straightforward and humble and funny. I teased her about the long title of her new book, but also said how excited I was to continue celebrating her work—work that showed a mind ever-searching for new forms to see and speak through. I’m happy I got a small chance to celebrate C. D., and I am thankful the Witter Bynner Foundation continues to celebrate and support poets.