Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Mariam Zafar, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Christian Wiman about his book Once in the West (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Poetry, for the 2014 NBCC awards.
Mariam Zafar: There are poems in this book, such as "We Lived" and "The Preacher Addresses The Seminarians" that have been particularly well-received and numerously quoted. And there are many powerfully stunning verses throughout. Are there poems in the collection that you particularly identify with?
Christian Wiman:All of them, really, but that’s a bland answer. Certainly “Love’s Last” had real urgency and necessity for me, as I wrote it just before I was wiped out by the tidal wave of chemo that precedes a bone marrow transplant. It was literally hours before my mind went dead; the next day I couldn’t even read it. In the years since I have sometimes found myself muttering the poem to myself like a talisman.
MZ: The lines, "my prayer/ is that a mind/ blurred/ by anxiety/ or despair/ might find/ here/ a trace/ of peace" from the very first poem, "Prayer," set up a collective mindset and an awareness of an audience, but there also many poems of a deeply personal and intimate nature. How conscious are you of your audience while writing?
CW: Not at all. I just follow the sounds where they lead, often to completed poems that I do not myself fully understand. That said, I do try to make the poems as clear as I can, but even that is for the sake of the poem, the sound, and not for someone reading it. It’s an old and maybe outdated notion, perhaps, that there is some almost Platonic version of a work waiting for you to hear it into being. But I seem to be stuck with it.
MZ: Form seems to play a varied and deliberate role in this collection. It evolves from a concise, almost-restrained form of short couplets in the first few poems to a chaotic unraveling in the last section of the book. What is your thinking on the relationship between form and content in your poems?
CW: It is a cliché by this point to say that form is always an expression of content, but it’s still true. I am most drawn to poets who are at once extremely restless and extremely pressured in formal terms. How does John Berryman— speaking of pressured restlessness — end that Dream Song: “I always come in prostrate: Yeats and Frost.”
MZ: In an interview with Christianity Today, you said, "I feel no connection between prayer and poetry, except for the poems that I have written as prayers." There are lines throughout could be considered as prayers or even pleas, such as "Dear Lord forgive the love I have/ for you and your fervent servants." Other poems have a quiet, meditative spirit, such as "Varieties of Quiet," which is one that particularly struck me. On that note, would you consider poetry as a form of prayer or vice versa, or do they continue to be two disconnected mediums in your life and work?
CW: Quite separate. I manage about ten poems a year, which wouldn’t amount to much of a prayer life if it’s all I had—though sometimes, to be honest, it is all I have.
MZ: In another interview with the Katonah Poetry Series, you said, "to get closer to God, you often have to train your mind to forget God...I would be happy to write a book that never even mentioned God." In Once In The West, God plays a dynamic and recurring role; there's the "back of God/ with his everair assurances/ and iron/ injuctions," "the long intolerable called God, an "incompetent God," and "the laughdamning/ God," to mention a few references. How did God become, and evolve as a character in this collection?
CW: The theologian Eugene Peterson told me recently that in the past few years he’d found himself simply dropping the word “God” from his speech. This is a man who for sixty years has been trying to bring people into some living relationship with the reality behind that word. I understood immediately. I must have said the words you quote after writing this most recent book, which is obsessed with the possibility of sacred experience. I do think there is probably another, higher form of devotional poetry to be written in which the word “God” would never appear.
MZ: There is a remarkable beauty in the tumultuousness of this work, and the many dichotomies present throughout. The beginning and ending, in particular, have starkly different energies. Was the process of writing this collection surprising in any way?
CW: It’s always a surprise to write a new poem (right now it’s eighteen months since my last one), but you’re right to pick up on the specific shock of this one book. It took me a long time to see that the first section and the last section were essentially two long and (I hope) cohesive poems. I suppose the book begins in meditation and ends in derangement. One would hope for a reversed course, but this is the brain I have.
MZ: Your mastery of cadences and wordplay is commendable, and your pairing of words is particularly surprising and natural; "Godcoddled, "laughteryawn," and "gluefutured," are some of my favorites. I would love some insight on how you cultivate and manage your writing vocabulary! Is it a result of serious discipline or creative spontaneity?
CW: Sheer bloody genius.
(OK, I stole that answer from Seamus Heaney.)
At some point seven years ago my language just began to break open. The voice I had developed wasn’t adequate to the psychic extremities I was experiencing, I suppose; there was nothing conscious or planned about it. Translating Osip Mandelstam probably aided the process, though it began earlier than that.
MZ: Finally, what are your thoughts on the role of religion in contemporary poetry? In the writing workshop, we are continuously encouraged to write about what is "uncomfortable." As a writer that tends to shy away from writing about religion, particularly in the midst of the current climate, what advice do you have for young, emerging writers on navigating through this dilemma?
CW: I wouldn’t worry too much about subject matter at this point, to tell you the truth. Become a slave to the language—mastery is for phonies—and what matters most to you will find its way into your words. If you end up with a subject that others aren’t treating, isn’t that a good thing?
Christian Wiman is the author of seven books, including a memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (FSG, 2013); Every Riven Thing (FSG, 2010), winner of the Ambassador Book Award in poetry; and Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam. From 2003 to 2013, he was the editor of Poetry magazine. He currently teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. He lives in Connecticut.
Mariam Zafar is currently pursuing her MFA in Poetry at The New School. A desert dweller at heart, she currently writes between Miami and New York City. When she's not working on her collection of poems, you will find her scavenging the best cup of chai in town.