This spring, Christian Wiman, the editor of the venerable Poetry magazine, published a controversial essay in The American Scholar, where he revealed his diagnosis with incurable blood cancer and how he had found his way back to both faith and writing after a period of darkness. Now, in an interview with Poets & Writers, Wiman shares updates on his condition (much improved, fortunately) and more wisdom about the spiritual side of writing. Highlights:
P&W: How is the essay, which is very personal and intimate, different from confessional poetry, which has a bad reputation in some circles?
CW: Among certain people, yes. With poetry about a very personal experience, for me, it usually gets transformed in some way by the form of the poem, just the demands of the art. I find that the essay is similar, actually—it requires a kind of discipline that removes you from the intensity of the experience, and helps to alleviate the intensity. I think it is possible to be much more personal in prose than in a poem, at least for me. But I was still aiming at making something structured, a formal work, not just my heart bleeding out on the page.
P&W: You’ve also written about prose being less precious than poetry.
CW: I find I can always get prose written, whereas in poetry, there is some element of givenness that you have to depend on. I’ve gone away for a month or two months or six months, and not been able to write. In confessional poetry and prose, what’s bad is when it seems like what you’re getting is just the person’s experience, and it’s important only because it happened to them. What I respond to, and what I aim for, is to try to get something that speaks to experience itself.
P&W: Another interesting part of the essay has to do with your having stopped writing poetry, and then starting again, and the connection of that to your rediscovery of religion.
CW: I stopped writing poetry for a full three years, starting about a year before I became editor of Poetry. I think I had pushed things in one direction as far as I could. For a long time I was writing poems that circumscribed an absence that I couldn’t define, and I think this was the absence I was feeling. I hope the poems I’m writing now, and am trying to write, are more filled with presence. I don’t just mean the presence of God; I mean just simply being present in the world. The earlier poems, particularly in my book Hard Night, are often about not quite experiencing the world, about that absence. And I consider not being able to write as a manifestation of grace; I think grace sometimes can be anguishing.
P&W: Not being able to write was a manifestation of grace?
CW: Yes, because I was having the thing that I thought was most important in my life taken away from me, and so I was forced to cast around. In some way I had to become destitute to realize what mattered.
Read the whole interview here.