Poet and editor Christian Wiman admits that he is "terrible with
money." He has never had a lot of it and is careful about what he
spends. So when he began his current job almost a year ago, he
hesitated before making his first big purchase: a box of paper
clips. The irony here is that Mr. Wiman edits Poetry magazine, the
richest literary publication in the United States.
Wiman's unease with money is just one example of how he defies
expectation. As editor of Poetry, the oldest monthly devoted to
verse in the English-speaking world ($35 a year), he holds one of
the most influential - and enviable - literary jobs. Everywhere he
goes, poets want something from him. Yet when a guest arrives at his
Chicago office, the first thing he does is offer her a cup of tea
and apologize that there isn't anything else.
This impression - of unexpected contradictions - reveals a lot
about a man who, at 37, is quietly reshaping the literary landscape.
Since he began at Poetry, Wiman has already restored an energy and
edge that had been missing for some time. The poems are sharper,
more finely crafted, with opening lines that crackle. The prose,
likewise, is more incisive and readable (www.poetrymagazine.org).
Wiman says his goals are twofold: to publish the best poetry
being written and to "create a place for everyone." To achieve the
latter, he's introduced several features to the 92-year-old journal,
which helped launch the careers of major poets, such as T.S. Eliot,
Wallace Stevens, and Carl Sandburg.
These new additions include "debates" by poets - "Is Garrison
Keillor good for poetry?" - and editorials in which Wiman raises
pointed questions, such as: "Should poetry survive? What is the
point of persisting with this art at this time?"
Future issues will also contain commentaries by nonpoets.
Journalist Michael Lewis, for example, will explain why he doesn't
like contemporary verse.
That frank, self-critical tone marks a major shift for Poetry -
circulation 11,000 - which is trying to attract a wider, more
general audience to the magazine and the art form. The famous $100
million gift from heiress Ruth Lilly in 2002 vaulted the magazine
into the public imagination briefly. But now Wiman and his
colleagues at the Poetry Foundation, the magazine's publisher, must
turn all that attention - and all that money - into something deeper
and more lasting. If he succeeds, he'll have found the genre's holy
grail and become the most unexpected of heroes.
When his appointment was announced in May 2003, he was unknown to
many in the literary world. Some poets wondered why a more seasoned
writer, such as F.D. Reeve, wasn't offered the post. Wiman, however,
represents a new generation, a fresh way of thinking.
As a teen he worked in Texas oil fields, and in college he
studied economics until his junior year when he began to write
seriously and switched to an English major. After graduation, he
held several teaching posts, including one at Stanford University.
But he also traveled the globe, living briefly in England, Mexico,
Guatemala, and the Czech Republic. These experiences add depth to
his writing and shape his open-minded perspective.
That's crucial, say people at the Poetry Foundation, because no
other literary organization has ever had the challenge of deciding
how to spend so much money. What is the best way to support writers
and build a long-term audience? …