'Being Prepared for Joy': An Interview with Christian Wiman

By Domestico, Anthony | Commonweal, May 2, 2014 | Go to article overview

'Being Prepared for Joy': An Interview with Christian Wiman


Domestico, Anthony, Commonweal


Christian Wiman is the former editor of Poetry magazine and a current faculty member at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. He is the author of three collections of poetry, the most recent being Every Riven Thing, as well as a translation of Osip Mandelstam's poetry. In 2013, he published My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, a work of prose that Marilynne Robinson described as possessing "a puring urgency that is rare in this world." His new collection of poems, Once in the West, will be published by FSG in the fall. Commonweal literary columnist Anthony Domestico conducted the following interview by e-mail.

ANTHONYDOMESTICO: You edited Poetry magazine for ten years. That grueling, very public, frequently controversial work must have influenced everything from the kinds of poetry you were reading to the hours in which you were working on your own stuff. How has your life--as a poet and as a reader--changed now that you're the former editor of Poetry?

CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Oh, Lord, my life has completely changed. Not only do I no longer have a hundred emails in my inbox every day, I'm also not buried up to my eyeballs in contemporary poetry.

I didn't like editing Poetry at first--or, more accurately, didn't like being known as the editor of Poetry. It didn't

Funding for this interview was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. accord with the "image" I had of myself, for one thing, but I also didn't like negotiating the politics and personalities of the job, and I absolutely hated having to reject my friends. I would have resigned after two years had I not become sick. That trapped me--and, in a way, saved me. The great enemy for all of us is the "I" we interpose between ourselves and experience, the self we mistake for our soul. Nothing but difficulty destroys that "I."

I learned to look outward more, learned to think of the magazine as a means to support poets and poetry and not as some absurd extension of my own ego. I never felt quite myself in the job, but I did love the people I worked with, both inside and outside of the office. I'm proud of what we accomplished there, proud of the writers we discovered and what they've gone on to do, and I feel extremely grateful that I was given enough time to see things more clearly.

Now--poof--it's all gone, and I spend my days among people who don't know anything at all about the poetry world. (Some of them know quite a lot about poetry, but that's not what I mean.) It's frightening sometimes to have my familiar world, and my place in it, just vanish. But mostly it's a relief. There's a clarity of purpose to what I am doing now, which is engaging literature and religion with budding ministers and musicians and professors and social workers so that they can go out in the world and teach the word of God in ways this desperate and deafened culture can hear. It feels like a great privilege to be here and to have these students, and I am working hard to be worthy of it.

AD: You currently teach at the Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, and you've taught previously at a host of other schools--Stanford, Northwestern, Lynchburg College, and the Prague School of Economics. How, if at all, has teaching changed your writing and reading? And how does teaching at a divinity school compare with teaching poetry within an English department?

CW: I wouldn't say that teaching (or editing) has ever had an effect on my writing, aside from the obvious way of demanding time. I work, when I work, in an iron cage of inspiration (if that metaphor sounds strange to you, you should try living it), and for better or worse I am impervious to the world when the world, through my work, is most available to me. I'm talking about poetry here, not prose, which is an altogether different order of experience.

Teaching at a divinity school is not at all similar to teaching in an English department, or at least teaching at Yale Divinity School isn't (for the record, my primary appointment is with the Institute of Sacred Music). …

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