Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Interview by Jane Zwart

"Every Single Thing in You Has to Bow Down"

A conversation with Christian Wiman.

Christian Wiman is the author of four books of poems (most recently, in 2014, Once in the West), a collection of essays, and a book called My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (also published in 2014). In addition, he has translated a selection of poems by Osip Mandelstam. Wiman was the editor of Poetry magazine from 2003 to 2013. He is senior lecturer in religion and literature at Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

Many people will already know that about eight years ago, your life changed radically in a number of ways. You've talked in My Bright Abyss and elsewhere about meeting and marrying your wife; about returning to Christianity; about receiving a diagnosis of a cancer that is unpredictable and incurable; and about beginning to write poems again, after a long silence. One of the things that struck me in reading your books sequentially, then, is that the more recent poetry—on this side of those radical changes—often echoes your early poetry. For example, there's that early, long poem, "The Long Home," where the speaker is your grandmother, ventriloquized through you. She talks about the anguish of having had many miscarriages and then your father's birth. The lines there read:

I've twice delivered silence.
When my one son came crying free of me,
I closed my eyes and praised God. I praised the pain.
Over and over in that humid room
I breathed his name.

Then there's your relatively recent poem, "One Time," which includes the words "Praise to the pain / scalding us toward each other." What do you make of that echo—of that chiasmus, maybe? Or of others like it? What does such repetition say about your work or your return to faith?

That seems to me astute—although I don't really think of myself as having returned to Christianity; rather, I think of myself as having assented to a faith that was latent in me, as finally assenting. But I actually love that connection—I haven't thought of that poem ["The Long Home"] in so long, with those lines from my grandmother. As for that other phrase ["Praise to the pain / scalding us toward each other"], it's addressed to my wife.

At the end of my second book, which is called Hard Night—and which seems to have fallen into quite a dark abyss, rather than a bright abyss—there's a character named Serious. He shows up in a mock, sort of tragicomic long poem, and at the end of this poem he has a confrontation with God. He looks in the mirror and sees his father's face and then confronts God. I wrote the poem long before any of those events you mention had happened to me. Years before. The thing is he also gets sick, so the poem is weirdly prophetic, in a way—disconcertingly so.

But I don't see this break in my life, other than the long silence of not being able to write for a while, and then having poems return.

Do you think, though, that the faith you first ventriloquize, using that phrase "praise the pain," has become something that you've repeated as your own since?

I'd love to think that—in part because my grandmother was a tremendous influence on me, perhaps more in my adulthood than in my childhood. I was very close to her as a child, but I didn't know her. You don't really know your grandparents when you're a kid. But when, in my twenties, things had fallen apart for me and I didn't know what to do, I moved back to a trailer—the trailer where I was born—in her backyard. In Colorado City, Texas. And this trailer was a tiny thing, though my mother and father lived there with three kids at one point. My great-grandmother lived in that trailer, too, after they had moved it to my grandmother's backyard. She lived there for 30 years. Anyway, about the time that she died, I came back from Prague. I had nowhere to go, so I moved into that trailer, and I thought, "Oh my God. What has happened to my life? I'm living in a trailer in Colorado City, Texas." I spent my days trying to write.

Meanwhile, my grandmother lived in a small brick house with my Aunt Sissy, just across the yard. And the way that I found to talk to them was to ask them questions about their lives. Otherwise, most of the time, they would just sit and watch TV. They were really old at this point. So first I would get them to turn the TV off, and then I'd ask questions. They had all these stories I had never heard. Incredible stories.

That became my whole subject for the first book. I didn't plan on it. I was trying to write other kinds of poems, but that took over. So I find it very moving to think of that voice inhabiting the recent poems, as if she were still there. Still here. Because I think about her all the time.

And part of the thing about language is that it does forge connections without our say-so at the same time that it never quite communicates the things we would have it say. You wrestle with this—with language's being provisional in both the sense that it equips us to communicate and that it doesn't take us all the way to voicing meaning—in both your poetry and your prose, it seems to me. You've talked, for example, about apophatic language—which you've described as "negating what it asserts" or "erasing what it says." My question is this: do you think that apophatic language also works the other way around, that it conjures the things it dismisses? Take that poem, "Lord of Having," where you claim that you want

the very nub
of [your] tongue
[to] be scrubbed
out of this hour
if [you] should utter
the dirty word

Of course, by saying that, you're uttering the dirty word "eternity." So: does apophatic language not only erase what it says, but also figure out a way to say what it erases?

Yes … but. The thing about poetry is that it can become an idolatry. It was for me for a number of years. I could only find meaning in poetry. I didn't really believe that there was any meaning anywhere else.

When I was interviewing for my current job—at Yale's Institute of Sacred Music—I was haunted and inspired by something a student said to me. I was talking about poetry, and he was a poet too, but he suddenly said that he had been talking with his bishop—he was an Episcopalian—who had told him that eventually every single thing in you has to bow down. I remember stopping and thinking, "Well, that's probably meant for me too."

I think if you're an artist, the intensity of your artistic experience can be so much greater than the intensity of your religious experience, and when that's the case, it can be very easy to claim that all of your artistic experience is religious experience. That is an abyss.

Eventually everything in you has to bow down. So although you can't say God, and although all the language we have to reach for God is inadequate, one can derive great pleasure and gratification from standing in that place of inadequacy, that moment where, though you don't really believe in eternity, you get to cast yourself into it. Nevertheless, that capacity has to bow down too. In fact, that's the very thing that needs to bow down, but it's a difficult thing for artists. I think it's broken the backs of a lot of artists.

Let me stick to eternity for a moment. You talk in one interview about not wanting "to fill up the afterlife with content" but say, in another, that what you tend toward is "conjuring up eccentric heavens." So what is this tension or misgiving? Is it partly not wanting to dismiss all that should be relished in the present? Is it not wanting to lose sight, in thinking on eternity, of the complicated, beautiful, immanent world?

Well, I've certainly witnessed people who sacrifice this life on the altar of the next one, but for myself it's not that. It's just that I find heaven so impossible to imagine that I take no comfort from it. I don't. It just doesn't enter me.

I've been reading a Czech theologian, Tomáš Halík. In one of his books, Patience with God, he takes that parable of the mustard seed, where Jesus says, "If you have faith like a mustard seed, you can move mountains." We always read that parable as saying that if you have a mustard seed of faith, just a tiny bit, it can grow into a large faith, something more substantial, something able to move mountains. Halík, though, argues against that interpretation. He says, no—what the parable means is that faith is only really living when it's crushed, when it becomes this tiny, tiny thing and therefore hard and volatile and vital and powerful. And he makes this point as someone who feels a great solidarity with the kind of atheism that he witnesses all around him, especially in Eastern Europe, where he couldn't even disclose the fact that he was a priest. He had to be a priest in secret. He says what is happening in the private lives of many people—their faith existing only under siege—is happening culturally too. And he says maybe that's not a bad thing. Maybe what we are seeing, Halík suggests, is faith being crushed to the size of a mustard seed, where it's a more powerful, stranger force. It's a very moving idea, I think, and a brilliant reading of that passage.

What you say about Halík wanting to get down to the smallest grain of what's true intrigues me, given My Bright Abyss—because one of the things that's remarkable about that book is how much self-correction it leaves in, how it lets the reader watch your beliefs being distilled. Don't get me wrong: the prose is beautiful. But there are so many moments when you assert something and explore the idea only to turn away from it, saying something along the lines of "But I was wrong" or "But that was then." Can you talk about why you decided to hold onto that element of self-correction instead of publishing a more polished version of the beliefs that you finally arrived upon?

I wrote that book over a period of seven years. It's very short, too. Sometimes I look at it and think, "Seven years for that?" I started it when I was down in Texas—in Marfa, Texas. I had gone there to try to write poems, but nothing was happening. So at some point I just said, "The hell with this. I'll work on prose." I've always been able to work on prose.

I started writing these little thoughts, and a certain spiritual energy took over. They began to accumulate. I didn't force them into essays. I couldn't—my mind wasn't working that way—so I just let them be fragments. I didn't even try to assimilate them for a while: I let them be on pieces of paper all over the place. I had no thought that I was writing anything, really, which freed me up to give myself over to the form of this book, which is a collection of all these little fragments.

In fact, My Bright Abyss begins with a fragment I was unable to finish:

My God, my bright abyss,
into which all my longing will not go,
once more I come to the edge of all I know,
and believing nothing, believe in this:

For years I couldn't finish that poem. "Believe in what? Colon." I could write the fragments though, which in the end added up to a book that on the last page repeated that very same quatrain, with one difference: this time there is a period. I thought no one would notice, but everyone did. It's gratifying, really.

Anyway, I wrote that book over seven years, but it was finished very much under the pressure of mortal illness. I was in the hospital for months at a time, and I actually assembled the manuscript in a hospital room in downtown Chicago. I put those fragments all over the room, then began putting them together, figuring out what went where. It was a way of staying sane.

Some of the ordinary conscious process of putting a book together got elided. My main thought was: "How do I get this done before I'm unconscious?" There was such a time limit. I'm actually working on another book now, a prose book, because My Bright Abyss left out a lot of things that I just didn't think I'd have time to say.

Another of the things My Bright Abyss left out—perhaps intentionally—was your wife's experience. You did, though, go through this process, at least a fair part of it, in the company of your wife, and then in the company of your wife and daughters. Yet your wife rarely comes into the narrative. Was that a decision you made out of exigency, or was that a decision that you made because you didn't want to presume upon her part of your shared story?

Very much the latter. I've not written about my wife much at all. Or about my mother. My mother is almost nowhere in my writing, even though my mother has been so much more immediately involved in my life than my father. Perhaps for that reason, she's protected.

As a whole, though, My Bright Abyss is very cunning in what it reveals. People think it reveals so much, but it is full of formal devices; it aims at an overall form very much like a poem. In fact, while I was putting it together, that's what saved me: seeing the book as a work of art, as a thing that I was making. So it can be an unpleasant shock to have readers ask intimate questions of me. I don't blame them—the book does reveal things—but I was just so lost in the writing, as always.

Your talking about My Bright Abyss as a work of art leads me pretty neatly to my next question. How do you negotiate being, just being, and being an artist? After all, you've said that being an artist means, at least to an extent, exploiting life as you live it. That idea comes up, most pointedly, in your book Ambition and Survival. The essay "The Limit," for instance, insists that "To be a writer is to betray the facts. It's one of the more ruthless things about being a writer, finally, in that to cast an experience into words is in some way to lose the reality of the experience itself, to sacrifice the fact of it to whatever imaginative pattern one's wound requires." And you've just talked about My Bright Abyss as following a pattern that a wound required. Do you, then, still believe—that "to be a writer is to betray the facts"—ten years on?

I was crucified on that cross, partly of my own making, for a number of years.

There's this poem by Robert Bringhurst that I included in My Bright Abyss, and I often begin readings with it, too. It's called "These Poems, She Said," and it begins with a woman reprimanding the guy whose voice controls the poem. She tells him, the speaker, "These poems have no love in them," and basically the poet answers by turning to her and saying "You're beautiful"—to which she says, "To hell with that." To hell with it exactly because the poems have no love in them; they have no heart. Yet the guy she's talking to is making these beautiful, formal things, these beautiful works of art. It's a real paradox.

W. B. Yeats makes a similar case. He says if only that beauty Maude Gonne had fallen in love with him, if only she'd reciprocated his passion, then "I might have thrown poor words away / And been content to live." Those heartbreaking lines: "I might have thrown poor words away / And been content to live": you can see the absolute tension he sets up between life and art. A lot of artists have felt that.

I felt it for years and years—that to give myself wholly over to art was to sacrifice life. I could even feel it happening, but I couldn't do anything about it.

At some point, God freed me from that. I am sure this is true. That is the release I got: it was like I was on this hook, "this high unimaginable hook" like the one A. R. Ammons describes in a poem that begins "He held radical light / as music in his skull." A beautiful poem. Somehow, that hook—I got taken off it. I didn't feel that tension between life and art anymore. I find writing no easier. It's still an agony for me, but I don't feel that existential dilemma and agony between life and art anymore. There seems more fluency to me now.

I'd like to end by asking what you're working on now. You mentioned the other book—a prose book—but what, as a poet, do you hope to move to next?

Well, I'm not writing poems, to my great sorrow. It's been quite a while. There's nothing I can do about that. I'm powerless over it. I understand it no better than I did when I was eighteen. In fact, I understood it better then than I do now, because the waters were shallower. I don't know where the poems come from. I don't know how to manage them. I don't know how to bring them on.

So I'm writing prose. I've just finished an essay about snakes and faith, actually—a very particular kind of faith—for The American Scholar ["Kill the Creature," Spring 2015].

When I wrote this essay I hadn't read Tomáš Halík yet—I wish I had; I could have used him. But I was reading an Italian theologian, Gianni Vattimo—a Roman Catholic who talks about trying to have faith in the absence of any metaphysical belief. He believes in the love of Christ, and that's it. That figured its way into this essay. Because more and more, I find that I have a very high Christology and a very low metaphysics. I find myself more and more incapable of saying metaphysical things with any assurance and yet more and more incapable of speaking about religion at all without Christ. Which can be a problem if you're talking to people who aren't Christians. The essay is very much about that. And snakes. Lots of snakes.

Jane Zwart teaches literature and writing at Calvin College.

Most ReadMost Shared