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Interview by Aaron Rench

What Poetry Demands

A conversation with Christian Wiman.

Christian Wiman is a poet and essayist and the author of three books, most recently Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Copper Canyon Press). His poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's, and The New York Times Book Review. He is married and lives in Chicago, where he is the editor of Poetry magazine, a position The New York Sun describes as "the equivalent of a bishopric in the American poetry world."

Wiman has taught at Stanford, Northwestern, Lynchburg College in Virginia, and the Prague School of Economics. The concluding essay of Ambition and Survival is forthcoming in 2008's Best American Spiritual Writing.

The Poetry Foundation, the publisher of Poetry magazine, made news in 2003 when philanthropist Ruth Lilly gave $200 million to what is now one of the largest literary organizations in the world.

This interview was conducted by email while Wiman was on a visit to Texas, his native state.

Many people have asked about the impact of Ruth Lilly's $200 million gift to the Poetry Foundation. I'm sure that answers to that question are part of your mental FAQ, but I'm curious about this question from the other direction. What do you think is the economic impact of the art of poetry? I know this may sound like a crude question—poetry does not need to be justified by the bottom line, and its impact isn't quantifiable—but what part does it play in the marketplace?

I don't think poetry has any economic impact in this country. There are the occasional big sellers like Billy Collins or Maya Angelou, but this accounts for a tiny percentage of the poetry produced in this country, and even these instances don't amount to much in the massive capitalist machine that is modern America.

Some people have argued that this marginality is actually a strength, that it allows poets to "be free." I'm conflicted. On the one hand, I'm appalled by the rampant greed and sharp disparities of our economic system and value the aspect of poetry that is ...

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