A conversation with Aiken Taylor award recipient Christian Wiman

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By Robert Addison Walker

Contributing Writer

Poet Christian Wiman will be coming to the Mountain February 17-18 to receive the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry from the Sewanee Review. Wiman is the thirtieth recipient of the award, following such notable poets as Wendell Berry, Billy Collins, Louise Glück, and many others. Along with a verse translation and two books of prose, Wiman has published six collections of poetry. Richard Wilbur writes that Wiman’s poetry has the “singular power to bring about mergings of consciousness with the surround.” His poems have always made use of music and meter, exploring faith and doubt alike with beautiful precision. Wiman also served as editor of Poetry magazine for ten years and now teaches at Yale Divinity School. Adam Kirsch will deliver a lecture on Mr. Wiman’s work on February 17 at 4:30 p.m. at the McGriff Alumni House. The following day at 4:30 p.m., Mr. Wiman will give a reading at Convocation Hall. As an extremely brief introduction to a brilliant poet and a fascinating mind, we thought we would ask him a few questions.

INTERVIEWER: Is there another form of art, other than literature, that arrests your imagination, that you could have seen yourself engaging with if you had not been a poet?

WIMAN: Music, definitely. I would have loved to have been either a composer or a performer, though I don’t have a scrap of talent for either.

INTERVIEWER: I’m a bit of a film obsessive, and I was wondering which movies you admired, if any.

WIMAN: I’ve been very moved by the films of Terrence Malick, for obvious reasons, I guess: the religious sensibility, the Texas settings. Recently I got a note from a friend who is working for Malick, who told me that he (Malick) was reading my work. I couldn’t have been happier!

INTERVIEWER: In your twenties you traveled extensively. Is there any place that you felt utterly at home (if that’s even the reason you travel)? Any place that you would like to get back to?

WIMAN: No. I loved San Francisco more than any other place I’ve lived, but when I went back there recently, I felt like a ghost in that place. Hamden [Connecticut] where I now live seems to me about as good (and bad) as anywhere.

INTERVIEWER: It seems from reading your essay collection Ambition and Survival that much of your young adulthood was spent in pilgrimage towards something (poetry, religion, capital-T Truth). What might you say to someone on the brink of something similar?

WIMAN: Do it. Whatever occurs to you, I mean. Whatever seems to be compelling you. There’s plenty of time to settle down and be sober later.

INTERVIEWER: I was wondering how you composed your poems. Is it entirely set down with pen and paper, do you employ a typewriter, and do you ever use a computer?

WIMAN: It varies. Lately I’ve been writing on the computer, but I’ll write on paper if that’s what I have at hand. In the past it was pen and paper only, but I seem to have adapted to the apocalypse.

INTERVIEWER: What was the first urge for you to write? Why did you begin at all, and how has that urge evolved over your writing career?

WIMAN: I don’t really remember. I was writing when I was very small, apparently, though we had no books in our house (that I can remember) and I certainly had no conception of there being such a thing as a poet. It was college when I really took off, thanks to the encouragement of some good teachers. Then I got obsessed, then regretted and resisted the obsession, then gave in to it. It’s a familiar story. What I really love is reading. Dorothy Day, who became famous for founding the Catholic Worker Movement, said she wanted to be remembered only as a great reader of Dostoevsky. I love that.

INTERVIEWER: Faulkner (in)famously stated that the “‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” Do you think that a writer must be “ruthless” to create great art?

WIMAN: I think that’s an idiotic comment by Faulkner, the voice of pure despair. One human life is worth more than all the art in the world.

Photo courtesy of review.sewanee.edu

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