An Interview with Christian Wiman
Then I read Christian Wiman's essay, "The Limit," and, to borrow Wiman's phrase below, it woke me up. It begins: "I was fifteen when my best friend John shot his father in the face." His story of growing up in West Texas, and his friend's hunting accident that only chance prevented from being his own, was lean and tense, and it made suffering through the rest of the anthology worth it. As soon as I reached the end, I went back to the beginning to read it again. The essay is included in his 2008 collection Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, and the rest of it is as good as "The Limit." He manages to write about faith while maintaining intellectual integrity and his dry wit keeps his essays on poetics and philosophy from slipping into a heavy handed dullness.
Wiman is also a poet -- his collection The Long Home won the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize. He is the editor of Poetry, which, you may have heard, was left a whole lot of money by pharmaceutical heir Ruth Lilly a few years back. What follows is a chimera of conversations, from an in person interview a few days after AWP to e-mailed correspondence, all zipped together in one transcript.
How was your AWP?
It was all right. We had the poet Craig Arnold staying with us, and we experienced it mostly vicariously. He would stay out until four in the morning and then tell us about his adventures when he woke. That part was fun.
There was a very good event for Poetry magazine, with Ange Mlinko, Craig Arnold, A.E. Stallings, and Jacob Saenz. They all read poems of their own that had appeared in the magazine, as well as poems by other Poetry contributors.
Didn’t you also have something with Stop Smiling? Or was that a different thing…
We weren’t involved with the Stop Smiling event, but on Saturday night we sponsored a big reading with Heather McHugh and August Kleinzahler. I missed it.
You’re like me. I sponsor readings all the time and never go to them anymore. I really liked your essays, and the one that was in the American Scholar recently. You know, it’s incredibly unfashionable to be religious right now, especially Christian. Does that come up in conflict, especially with “the intellectuals”?
I rarely get directly confronted (and would have little to offer but silence if I were), but I certainly hear religion disparaged all the time, even by some of my friends. Being anti-religious is in a way the last accepted form of bigotry.
But I can understand it, at least partly. So much about religion in this country is appalling and, if you think of yourself as both a Christian and an intellectual, embarrassing. But there are also some profound and very relevant contemporary religious writers -- Marilynne Robinson comes to mind.
Regarding your essay about going back to the religion of your childhood… Was it a conscious decision, or was it because it was the language you understood?
Well, as I say in that piece, I don’t think you really can go back to the religion of your childhood. Life changes us too utterly, or at least it should. At the same time, I’m not sure we can ever completely escape the forms and language in which we first felt something transcendent. There’s a theologian named George Lindbeck who says you can no more be religious in general than you can speak language in general. You have to have some sort of form in which to feel your way toward… God, let’s call it God. I was raised Christian, so for me that’s my language, those are my forms. I can’t change it, though my understanding of Christianity is very different from anything I grew up with.
As for how my own return happened, frankly I was simply overwhelmed. It was not a “decision,” it was a deep answering instinct to what I experienced as a call. Similar to how I’ve experienced poetry in my life, actually -- at least the few poems I’ve written that still seem to me to be poems. Just like poetry, though, faith doesn’t last. Many mornings I wake up an utter unbeliever -- worse than any atheist, probably, because it’s an anguish for me.
And you were raised in a restrictive Christian home.
Very much so, yes. We were fundamentalist when I was growing up, but now my mother describes herself as a charismatic evangelical. She goes to one of those churches -- I go too when I’m home -- where they have a kind of numbing gospel rock music for about half the service, and then the guy preaches for half an hour. He’s a very good preacher, actually, and quite smart. The church is huge and very diverse.
One of the Texas mega-churches.
I lived in Texas for a while, so I’m familiar.
Were you raised religious yourself?
I was raised atheist. Or, more accurately, we went to church every week as a social activity because my father owned a business in a small town, but it was made clear to us that my family did not believe that Jesus was the son of God, or in God himself.
Would you call yourself an atheist now?
A series of catastrophic events.
That’s interesting. That’s how a lot of people come to it. People often assume it’s weakness that drives a suffering person to God, but another way of looking at it is that it simply takes suffering to destroy our illusions of strength. At least that’s been my experience. How did this play out for you?
When I was a kid, I was religious, or whatever you want to call a 5-year-old who believes in God. And then my family’s nonbelief eclipsed my belief. Eventually I realized the whole nonbelief thing wasn’t working for me.
Was there one moment when it just happened?
It happened slowly, and I fought it for a good year.
Would you call yourself a Christian?
No. I took too many women’s studies classes.
There are feminist Christians.
I know. I tried, but I can’t get beyond it. That's not the whole reason, though. The stories, and the ideas, and the language of Christianity don’t hold much for me I’ve found. So I don’t have a word for it.
What form does your faith take? I mean, how do you practice it? How does it seem to be part of your life?
I pray, I study. My ballet class feels like a spiritual exercise to me, because it’s my daily dose of discipline. Finding faith has caused a complete shift in the direction of my life, and it’s something I have to find over and over again. It’s slow work figuring out a way to cultivate that feeling, it’s almost like a daily realignment. But the moment I step into a church, I start intellectualizing and arguing and I lose it.
Hmmm. I do go to church, because I think of faith as communal as well as personal, and I find I need the reminder of that. But I can’t pretend I don’t know what you’re talking about. I read a decent amount of systematic theology, and much of the time I’m just sitting there wondering what in the hell I’m doing -- all the arguing, all the systematizing, all the blah blah. I wonder, though, you said that you realized that unbelief “wasn’t working” for you. What did you mean by that? Do you think of faith as purely pragmatic -- you believe because it makes your life better?
It’s not pragmatism. It’s like I realized the arguments I had for being an atheist were bullshit. I started feeling this longing, and I couldn’t explain it, and I couldn’t talk myself out of it or ignore it. I did choose to confront it, but getting rid of those arguments was like slowly dismantling a wall. Luckily, I had William James to hold my hand.
Simone Weil was like that for me. She made me realize that this enormous No in me was actually trying to be a Yes. If that makes any sense. She made me see that what I was experiencing as emptiness could actually be a kind of abundance.
When did you first read her?
I first started in my 20’s. Mid-20’s, something like that. I’ve read her so hard, though, especially that one book Gravity and Grace. I have a lot of it memorized by this point. And yet I do find her a little frustrating now. She stops in places I want her to push past. Her sense of spiritual destitution is so absolute, so acute and exhaustive. I haven’t read anyone except maybe Dickinson who articulates it so perfectly. But there’s no sense of fruition in Simone Weil, it’s all destitution. Do you like her?
I read her before William James and found her too frustrating. After the William James, I was more receptive. I feel like I can only take the weight in her writing for so long, and then I have to go find something a little more optimistic.
There’s some quality of willed suffering there that’s, I don’t know, distorting, maybe even a bit deranged.
Even in the way she died, made me feel, “Oh well, that’s hopeful.”
Not a good model. Seamus Heaney said in an interview we ran recently that he thought a poet’s life really did matter in terms of how you view the work. I wonder. I want to agree, but there are some poets I love who as people were pretty lousy. Like Larkin. Gosh, there are so many examples like that.
It seems this romantic idea of the poet destroying himself in order to produce the art… I don’t know how I feel about that.
It’s usually shit. So many people use that to excuse lousy behavior. So many mediocre poets finding a license for their “wildness.” Especially middle-aged poets. Especially middle-aged male poets.
In the beginning of Ambition and Survival you said you traveled instead of going to graduate school. When you taught, is that something you told your own students?
I taught undergraduates, so I tried to steer them in interesting directions. But I’ve always felt so inadequate giving advice. I feel like I’ve just bumbled along from one thing to the next. Even this job. I never thought of editing a magazine. It never even crossed my mind. It was good advice for me, though, to get away from schools, to travel -- although I never wrote about those years of traveling.
Well, there was one essay.
“Milton in Guatemala.”
Where else did you go?
Prague for a year, and England for a good while. Spain, Morocco, Mexico, Guatemala. Paris for a while. All over this country, too. Are you from Chicago?
No, I’m from Kansas. And did you come to Chicago for a job?
I took a job at Northwestern, yeah. Then I was only there for a year when this job opened up.
Do you like Chicago?
I do like it, but it’s taken me a while. I really love the west coast. I’ve lived in San Francisco and Seattle and I love the openness of both places, and the way the natural environment so permeates the city. But Chicago’s an interesting place, with a lot of interesting people. It’s a city that doesn’t exactly reveal itself as immediately as a place like San Francisco, and it doesn’t impose its identity on you like New York. I would go crazy in New York.
Would you ever go back to Texas?
I would. Under the right circumstances. That landscape is just in my blood, and I find it so useful to my work to be there, it stirs things up in my consciousness. And talk about interesting people!
But there are certain things about Texas that drive me insane. The politics. The religiosity. I would probably be a militant atheist if I had stayed in Texas.
I also find Texas -- my Texas -- to be a very desperate place. I sometimes think I’m in a Cormac McCarthy novel when I’m there.
How long have you been at Poetry?
Six years. A long time, but you’ve been editing Bookslut for seven.
Yes, but I was very half-assed at it for the first three years. Unless you had a TV here with Law and Order playing three hours a day, you’ve spent more time actually editing a magazine.
It seems like -- and I don’t know how to put this without sounding a bit like an asshole, so I apologize in advance – I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Poetry as if they all think they can do your job better than you can. Are you able to filter that kind of thing out?
You’re hanging out with the wrong people!
Actually, I know exactly what you’re talking about, and yes, I’ve become pretty good about filtering things out. It bothered me for a while, no doubt. The criticism is constant, from all directions. The avant people think we’re too conservative, the conservatives scream about the experimental stuff we publish. I think it’s just the nature of the beast -- if there weren’t a lot of noise around the magazine, we wouldn’t be doing our job. And there’s a strong upside too, of course -- our circulation has tripled, for instance, and there have been a lot of positive articles on the magazine -- so it’s easier not to dwell on the complaints.
You’re not up at 2am, Googling your name, looking to see what people are writing about you?
Never would I Google myself. Never. A shameful activity. Never, I tell you. Well, maybe once.
It’s horrifying, don’t do it. Do you enjoy editing Poetry?
Yeah, there are things I enjoy, things I don’t enjoy. I really like the people I work with. It’s a great group, both at the magazine and at the foundation. The job would be impossible without that.
And I still get excited when we can find and support younger writers. They’re so thrilled. I remember what it was like when I was desperately trying to get something published. It just makes such a huge difference in your life -- psychologically even more than professionally. It’s a big deal for us when we can find someone who hasn’t published at all, and we’re really happy about it.
I like the prose -- pairing people with subjects one wouldn’t expect, prompting writers I admire toward pieces they wouldn’t have thought to write otherwise. And working with people like Fanny Howe, Michael Hofmann, Kay Ryan, Clive James -- people who are just so smart. It’s a joy.
Of course there are things I don’t enjoy so much, like AWP. It sometimes seems like people want something from me. Most of them probably don’t, but awkward situations have come up enough that I’ve grown wary. Also, some poets we work with or reject can be, um, difficult.
Any particular stories you’d like to share about outrageous behavior by poets?
No, I think I’ll keep quiet.
It’s the exception, not the norm. It’s just that the exceptions can be so dramatic that they tend to color everything around them for a while. I’m sure you know the type.
It’s ego, nothing but ego. The paradox is that you need a strong ego to make art, but too much of it and the work is corrupted. You can see whole careers stained with it. To my mind, Philip Roth is a pretty good example. He’s a wonderful writer, but his ego has just completely saturated his work; it’s all you feel when reading him. I’m put off by it.
I’m very glad to hear you say that. I feel exactly the same way about Philip Roth.
Don Share and I just recorded our monthly podcast this morning. We had Fanny Howe as a guest. She’s a devout but pretty obviously unorthodox Catholic, and I asked her if she felt there was a tension between writing and religion. There has been for some people. Gerard Manley Hopkins stopped writing for several years because he felt it was not consistent with his profession of being a priest. I have a friend who’s off to divinity school right now, and in part I think it’s because he feels the pull of poetry is so strong that it’s distorting the nature of his faith. We talked about that with Fanny Howe and she said she understood why someone would give up writing, because writing is always the assertion of the ego, and faith the eradication of it. I have found this tension very hard to negotiate in my own life.
If you had never considered editing before, what was the learning curve coming into Poetry like?
The learning curve was managerial. It was learning how to manage a business, essentially. The budget is a million and a half dollars, there a staff, a board, a boss -- all these things you have to deal with. I’d spent a few years in universities, but for all intents and purposes I’d never had a real job. That was a steep learning curve, and for two years I worked seven days a week trying to get everything done. Now things are better.
Now you’re set.
Yeah, now I know how to do it. I’ve got great people working with me, and I don’t micro-manage them. And when poets scream at me, I don’t scream back.
Does it allow space for your own work?
It does now. I’ve partitioned my week so that I’m here all day on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and then I’m home Thursday and Friday. I still have a lot of manuscripts to read on those days (I find I can’t do this at all in the office), and some things to edit, but my mind is clearer. Partly, too, the shift is psychological: I’ve just become better at compartmentalizing, and not letting the job seep into all of my other thoughts. I’ve actually done a lot of work in the past three years. I have a book of poems I’m about to send off to my publisher.
Are you writing prose? It seems like you’re writing a lot of prose lately.
About a year ago I began writing these things -- I’m not quite sure what to call them, actually; “essays” seems a bit overstated. The piece you mentioned earlier, the one in the American Scholar, was the first one, but there are others in other magazines and in the works. I wanted to try and say something clear but perhaps not altogether contained about religion, if that makes sense, something that combined poetry and prose. They’re all in little pieces, and they all cohere around one experience or idea of faith.
Those little fragments? Like Gravity and Grace?
That’s what I like to read, and that’s the way my mind seems to work, in this fragmented way. I try to write sustained essays and I just get tangled up in my own thoughts. It’s a lazy man’s way of writing prose.
It’s a poet’s way of writing prose. Who else do you read with that sort of structure?
Camus’s journals I love. Nietzsche had a huge effect on me for years; he’s a similar sort of writer (similar to Camus, I mean!). When you leave I’m going to think of a hundred people.
I’m glad you liked Metropole, by the way.
I really liked it, and would never have come across it if you hadn’t mentioned it on your blog. I’ve thought about that book so much, the relationship with that girl, how he can’t even say her name, that absolutely stunning and heartbreaking scene when they make love. It’s weirdly funny, that book.
I know! It’s wholly traumatic and yet really funny. I was worried that if he offed himself I would have to step in front of a train.
That’s the perfect ending -- he plunges back into all the existential tension that has been so awful for him and that he’s just for a moment escaped. It’s brilliant and completely unexpected. It’s hard to end a book. That’s the problem with so many novels. You get to the end and think, ugh, that’s disappointing. Metropole ends perfectly. Housekeeping is another with a perfect ending, I think. But I don’t read as much fiction as I used to. I did read a couple of Elizabeth Bowen novels recently. Do you like her?
I love her.
Her sentences are just so good. I find very few things -- well, it was like you were writing on the blog, I find very few things that grab me. You read and read and gradually begin to think you don’t even like literature.
That’s an easy conclusion to reach sometimes.
Then you get woken up. Fanny Howe’s new memoir (The Winter Sun) woke me up like that. Just very alert, totally new perceptions. It was a pleasure.
Was there one idea that your new essay collection was born out of, one idea you wanted to explore?
Basically I’m just trying to figure out what it is I believe, or, maybe more accurately, trying to feel what it is I believe. There’s that great Ezra Pound quote (at least I think it was Pound, he might have been stealing it from Ford Madox Ford or someone): “How can I know what I think until I see what I’ve said?” Exactly.
In the process are you able to get closer to figuring it out?
When I’m writing, yeah, I have very strong belief. Then I look up and I have none.
Well, as long as you keep writing…
As long as I keep writing, yes. But you know, I also want to write something that helps people. When I published the concluding essay of Ambition and Survival in the American Scholar, I was just inundated with letters. I still get them occasionally a year and a half later. And they’re not letters saying, “Oh, this piece is so good. Yippee for you.” They’re writing to tell me how the essay did something for them, or how they used it in some capacity, or some minister somewhere has used it in a sermon. I’d never had that experience, and it made me realize that in the past all I’ve been looking for from readers is approval and gratification of my ego. I still crave that like everyone else, but I also have different aims now. I have no illusions about adding to sophisticated theological thinking. But I think there are a ton of people out there who are what you might call unbelieving believers, people whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them. I would like to say something helpful to those people.