Magazine article The Christian Century

Pain, Prayer, Poetry: An Interview with Christian Wiman

Magazine article The Christian Century

Pain, Prayer, Poetry: An Interview with Christian Wiman

Article excerpt

CHRISTIAN WIMAN is a poet and editor of Poetry magazine in Chicago. His most recent book of poems, Every Riven Thing, was published last fall by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Why did you become a poet?

Some existential glitch in my brain, I guess--some soulwound, some little abyss at birth. You look up one day to find that you're addicted to playing with language and that the glitches and wounds and abysses of your brain seem to be soothed by that. You never really become a poet, though. It's an ideal definition, always as elusive as the next poem.

What about your background--growing up in Texas, for example-helped

you in the process of becoming a poet and what hindered you?

It was great to grow up in a storytelling culture, and in one that was, at least then, still so close to the earth. It had an intellectual rift between heaven and earth, body and spirit, and it took me a long time to get past that (maybe I'm still not completely past it). And maybe I'd have benefited from having a few books in the house. But overall I'd say that the flatlands of west Texas are as good a place as any to become a poet.


Can you recall an early encounter with a poem that got you interested?

I don't recall reading any poetry before I went to college other than that in the Bible. Certainly I didn't know there was such a thing as a living poet. I trace the moment when poetry's arrow struck and stayed in me to an afternoon in Oxford when I was on a summer fellowship. I had bought a book that had selections of Yeats and Eliot in one volume. The sounds electrified me--and just that, sound, for I understood little of what I was reading. Those sounds released something in me too--a tight knot of existential tension I hadn't even known was there. There was no looking back.

What effect, if any, has your recent turn to Christianity had on your poetry?

I hope my poetry has been utterly changed. It's the same voice, the same style, and I don't really think I turned to Christianity so much as assented to a faith that had long been latent within me. (I think this faith, often expressed as a lack, is everywhere in the earlier work.) But now there is more air in the poems, they veer into directions that in the past I probably would have closed off, and they are more open to simple praise and outright joy.

As someone who reads hundreds of poems monthly for Poetry magazine, you are perhaps uniquely qualified to speak about the state of poetry more broadly. Where is the zeitgeist of con temporary poetry?

I think poetry is largely in a holding pattern, trying to figure out what it wants to be, or what it needs to be as the culture-economic, spiritual--collapses around it. For decades there has been a premium on language as subject, and more recently many poems present an ironclad irony that mirrors the culture's death mask.

What do I see now? Poets trying to find their way out of this, trying to find some way of speaking of "ultimate things" with some sort of credibility. It is already happening.

What contemporary poets do you think CHRISTIAN CENTURY readers should know about? Can you name some important poets who might not be on our radar screens yet?

I still read anything new by Richard Wilbur, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill or Kay Ryan. I think Anne Carson's "The Glass Essay" is one of the best poems of the second half of the 20th century. Among younger or less-established poets, Ilya Kaminsky, Atsuro Riley, Don Paterson and Laura Kasischke have all written original and beautiful books. And if you're willing to search the Internet to find some poems by poets who don't yet have books, look for Note Klug or Averill Curdy. And of course, look in Poetry magazine, where you can find all of these poets.

For some people, writing is a kind of prayer--a meditation on experience, under God, about the deepest questions. …

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