An Interview With Poet Christian Wiman

Kevin Nance

Best known as the young and sometimes controversial editor of Poetry magazine, Christian Wiman created a different kind of stir earlier this year with the publication of an essay in the American Scholar that revealed, among other things, that he has a potentially fatal illness. Wiman, 41, suffers from Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia, a rare and incurable blood cancer.

In the essay—included in Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, a collection of autobiographical prose and literary criticism to be published next month by Copper Canyon Press—Wiman describes his diagnosis as part of a seismic shift in his life and work. A devout Baptist during his youth in west Texas, Wiman had spent most of his adult life feeling estranged from religion, but now has returned to it. Around the same time, he began writing poetry again, an activity that had come to a three-year halt.

In an interview at the Poetry offices in Chicago, Wiman—looking robust after a workout—talked about the changes in his life and their effect on his work as a poet and editor. He also addressed controversies at Poetry, including a protracted and passionate debate over the merits of Garrison Keillor’s anthology Good Poems, as well as a recent New Yorker article critical of the Poetry Foundation’s efforts to broaden the audience for contemporary poetry.

Poets & Writers Magazine: Your essay in the American Scholar has gotten a lot of attention.

Christian Wiman: The most gratifying attention has been from tons of people who’ve contacted me who are just moved by the essay, or have been helped in some way—people I don’t know at all. I’m used to publishing things and not getting any response.

P&W: How is the essay, which is very personal and intimate, different from confessional poetry, which has a bad reputation in some circles?

CW: Among certain people, yes. With poetry about a very personal experience, for me, it usually gets transformed in some way by the form of the poem, just the demands of the art. I find that the essay is similar, actually—it requires a kind of discipline that removes you from the intensity of the experience, and helps to alleviate the intensity. I think it is possible to be much more personal in prose than in a poem, at least for me. But I was still aiming at making something structured, a formal work, not just my heart bleeding out on the page.

P&W: You’ve also written about prose being less precious than poetry.

CW: I find I can always get prose written, whereas in poetry, there is some element of givenness that you have to depend on. I’ve gone away for a month or two months or six months, and not been able to write. In confessional poetry and prose, what’s bad is when it seems like what you’re getting is just the person’s experience, and it’s important only because it happened to them. What I respond to, and what I aim for, is to try to get something that speaks to experience itself.

P&W: How is your health?

CW: My health is great. I don’t want to go into anything else, but I can tell you I ran four miles yesterday. What I have is very mysterious, and they don’t understand it. The prognosis is completely unknown.

P&W: Is the word "remission" applicable?

CW: "Dormant" is what they say.

P&W: You were raised in a religious home in Texas.

CW: Snyder, yes. It’s a little town in far west Texas, about an hour and a half south of Lubbock. We were Baptists, you know—"charismatic evangelicals" is how we defined ourselves.

P&W: That sounds Pentecostal.

CW: Yeah. It wasn’t snake-handling, or anything like that, but it was very visceral, very emotional.

P&W: Speaking in tongues?

CW: I never saw anyone do it, but it was certainly believed in. My childhood was just saturated in religion. We went to church three times a week—twice on Sunday, and Wednesday nights. We prayed before every meal. We used to have to memorize Bible verses and say them before the meals. It was the context in which we understood every aspect of our lives, and still is for my family.

P&W: You believed in God, Jesus, and so on?

CW: It never occurred to me to doubt it until I went to college. I never met a single person who wasn’t a true believer until I was eighteen years old, at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

P&W: Where the liberals got their claws into you...

CW: [Smiles.] It was a conservative school.

P&W: Maybe for west Texas it was liberal.

CW: Yeah. It fell away very quickly for me—the whole structure fell away like that [snaps fingers]. But the charge of it, and the absence of it, I felt, and never stopped feeling.

P&W: Another interesting part of the essay has to do with your having stopped writing poetry, and then starting again, and the connection of that to your rediscovery of religion.

CW: I stopped writing poetry for a full three years, starting about a year before I became editor of Poetry. I think I had pushed things in one direction as far as I could. For a long time I was writing poems that circumscribed an absence that I couldn’t define, and I think this was the absence I was feeling. I hope the poems I’m writing now, and am trying to write, are more filled with presence. I don’t just mean the presence of God; I mean just simply being present in the world. The earlier poems, particularly in my book Hard Night, are often about not quite experiencing the world, about that absence. And I consider not being able to write as a manifestation of grace; I think grace sometimes can be anguishing.

P&W: Not being able to write was a manifestation of grace?

CW: Yes, because I was having the thing that I thought was most important in my life taken away from me, and so I was forced to cast around. In some way I had to become destitute to realize what mattered.

P&W: So is it possible that your hiatus from poetry has led you toward your best work, or at least toward the essentials of what you want to say in poetry?

CW: I hope so, although I can’t judge. Certainly there are examples of poets whose best work came out of exactly this destitution that I’m talking about, and they didn’t write so well if they became happy or more content. And then there are others...

P&W: Eliot, say...

CW: He seems to me a good example of somebody who maintained it at all different parts in his life. The Waste Land and "The Hollow Men" are all about destitution, about being empty and not being able to hold things together. But "Ash Wednesday" and "Four Quartets" are the complete other side of Eliot. They’re full of this feeling of fruition and joy.

P&W: How has all this affected you as editor of Poetry? Has it led you to make different choices for the magazine?

CW: It’s an interesting question. The magazine was extremely controversial the first two years I took over. We were trying to shake things up and bring new life into it. Occasionally there were debates—

P&W: About populism versus elitism in poetry, for example, the whole Garrison Keillor thing.

CW: Right. And I still think that’s very important, and we wouldn’t shy away from a controversy if it presented itself. But I am drawn to much more sober—not sober—much more thoughtful, in-depth considerations of things.

P&W: I was thinking that as you were considering submissions, you might be looking to run a different kind of poem.

CW: I hesitate to say, but it’s quite possible that I do look more for a poem that’s hopeful and full of life. Inevitably you read according to your own prejudices, and so no doubt beforehand I was reading according to my own view.

P&W: Contemporary poetry being kind of gloomy, generally.

CW: I think that’s a fair impression, although there are a lot of people out there who go against that current quite a bit.

P&W: People point to Billy Collins as someone who does that. Does he represent that life-embracing sort of poetry you want to move toward?

CW: We publish plenty of Billy Collins, but the two poets who immediately come to mind are Richard Wilbur and Kay Ryan, who seem to me to do two things at once. They have incredible formal capacity, great technical virtuosity, so you admire their poems for what they do. But they are both joyful people, and you feel that in the poems. You also feel a real undertow of tragedy and sadness. If all you feel is that buoyancy, then you’re probably not getting a great poem. I think you need both.

P&W: Let me ask you about that article by Dana Goodyear in the New Yorker, followed by David Orr’s sharp response to it in the New York Times. What was that all about?

CW: I can’t get my mind around it any more than you can. I thought it was unfortunate. Look, the New Yorker had a great occasion to focus on poetry and they didn’t—much.

P&W: The piece seemed to be harking back to the Keillor debate—the idea of popularizing poetry versus maintaining standards.

CW: It’s a very simplistic distinction. What I believe, and what we believe at the Poetry Foundation, is that there are a whole lot of Americans who are perfectly capable of reading serious poetry, complicated poetry, and what’s happened is that there’s been a breakdown between the poetry that gets written and the people who read it. Our argument is that there has to be some way of healing this rift. We believe that if we put good poems in front of people, they’ll want to read them. Some people interpret that as dumbing down poetry, that you have to put bad poems in front of people for them to read them. We just don’t feel that way.

P&W: It was interesting that in the next issue of the New Yorker, after the article ran, you had a poem in the magazine. Was that coincidental?

CW: Oh, I doubt it. They accepted it some time ago, but I seriously doubt they put the article in one week and my poem the next and it was a coincidence.

P&W: Goodyear described you selecting some poems for Poetry in part because their author was young and hadn’t published much.

CW: Well, it’s true that we’re very interested in discovering people at the beginning of their careers. If we can get someone and it’s their very first publication, it’s a big deal for us. This summer, for example, we’re only reading manuscripts from people who have not been in the magazine before, for just this reason.

P&W: Which is sort of the anti-New Yorker way of doing things.

CW: Exactly. And I'm very proud of that. Poetry is much more of a place to be discovered. But part of it’s just logistics. You think of how few poems the New Yorker can publish in a year, when they only have two or three a week.

P&W: Another controversy at Poetry was when you published some letters from Franz Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose poems you’d rejected and who was having a sort of meltdown over it. It was surprising that he would have written the letters and that you published them. The kind thing, from a certain perspective, would have been not to publish them.

CW: Yeah. I think he regretted sending those letters, and I probably wouldn’t publish them again, that’s for sure. Anyhow, we’ve patched it up; he was a translator in our April issue.

P&W: Do you foresee Poetry becoming less controversial then?

CW: You know, the magazine has a big audience now. Our circulation is up to thirty thousand, which is triple what it was four years ago. People complain, sure, but they keep reading it because it’s so lively. So I’m not about to make it a dull, staid literary magazine.

P&W: I hear a "but" coming, though.

CW: Well, there are certain things I think have run their course. We used to run short reviews, and some people thought those were way too harsh, because people were getting blasted. What we were trying to do was just bring back honest reviewing to poetry generally, because it’s just fallen away. If you open up most literary magazines, the reviews read like publishers’ blurbs, and I don’t think anybody’s paying attention to them. So we wanted to call attention to that by having sharp reviews, lively reviews, funny reviews. But I think maybe they got a bit too harsh. We still run negative reviews, but we’re looking for different ways to review books where maybe the tone isn’t quite so sharp and acerbic.

P&W: There’s a fine line, isn’t there, between expressing disapproval and...

CW: Being asinine, yes.

P&W: ... and just stomping on somebody and ripping their heart out. And that’s a line that some people would say has been crossed in the pages of Poetry in the last few years.

CW: Yeah, that’s what a lot of the letter-writers have said.

P&W: Some have also questioned whether the newfound wealth of Poetry, which received a $100 million bequest from pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly in 2002, is a good thing. Is there a downside to having all that money?

CW: Well, the upside is that the magazine gets so much more attention, and consequently our poets get so much more attention. I frequently have poets, even the most famous poets in the country, write me to say they’ve never gotten as many responses as they get from Poetry magazine, even when they publish in huge places. We’re getting people’s work in front of many, many more people. The downside? There’s a bit of a glare of publicity that can get sort of exhausting, at least for the editor, and every decision gets scrutinized. Although maybe that’s not really a downside.