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Feature Mon Dec 20 2010

Q&A with Christian Wiman

Some questions for Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine and author of the poetry book, Every Riven Thing (among others!).

GB: The definition of "riven" is "to wrench open," "tear apart or to pieces," or "to split with force." Obviously, the book's title, Every Riven Thing, could describe your diagnosis of an incurable cancer tearing apart your life, but after reading the poems, I also feel that the diagnosis might have split open your relationship with God or put a crack in some of the beliefs you previously held about God and religion. Is there any truth to this?

CW: It's hard for me to remember which poems were written when. There are poems in this book that are fifteen years old, and others that were written right before the book came out.

I think you're right, though, to notice the radical mix of tones in the "religious" poems. Some, like the title poem, are clearly devotional; others are fraught with doubt and a sense of my own inadequacy; a couple are openly antagonistic to the whole notion of religion and belief.

I needed them all. Need them all. "God's truth is life," writes Patrick Kavanagh, "even the grotesque shapes of its foulest fires."

GB: An idea/image that spoke to me in this book is the burning of sermons (in "Voice of One Head" and "Hermitage"). I know what I took from that image, and I'm sure other readers find their own meanings in it. What does that particular image/description mean for you?

CW: I don't really believe we can ever speak clearly and truly of god, much less speak his (his! -- even the pronoun is problematic) name. In both of those poems you mention (two of my personal favorites), language and existence have been pushed as far as they can be pushed -- by the subjects of the poems, I mean; I'm not claiming this as an accomplishment of the poems -- and the silence that ensues is a mixture of mortal defeat and mysterious grace.

Plus, and perhaps more to the point, I just like the sound of "burn" and "sermon" together!


GB: Now, less about topic and more about process...
I'm the kind of writer who spits out lines randomly and eventually tries to put them together into a poem. Your work is very well-crafted, very musical, with an emphasis on sound and rhyme. Do you find it difficult to create poems like these? What is your process like?

CW: I don't know if it's difficult. I mean, I don't really have anything else to compare it to. I never chose to write the way I do. I hear this music in my head, these rhythms wanting to be words, and I can't get any relief until I get the lines and the rhymes and the rhythms right. Sometimes a poem comes quite easily -- the title poem was written in a couple of hours one morning. Sometimes it will take years.


GB: I love "So Much a Poet He Despises Poetry"; it reminds me of being completely burned out on poetry after I finished my poetry MFA program, but yet continuing to immerse myself in it - even being the managing editor of a poetry journal! Do you find being a poet difficult at times? Not just the difficulty in getting published, but do you feel you're driven to write and/or be involved in poetry, even if perhaps you don't particularly want to be at any given moment?

CW: Yes, definitely. I get sick of poetry, especially contemporary poetry, and sometimes think I want nothing at all to do with it. And I get tired of the psychic pressures of writing poetry, the mental derangement it can not simply cause but seem to require. But that poem, I should admit, is actually making fun of someone (me!) who gets so sick and tired of poetry, who feels exhausted by the existential exposure of it ("his soul's dainties"), who has become so jaded that there's NOTHING to which he doesn't respond with a slight sneer.

To hell with that. I wrote the poem as a purgative, because I don't want to be that person. And because it was actually fun to write.

 
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