At The Epicenter of American POETRY
Ankur Saha talks to Christian Wiman (2007)
Christian Wiman is the present editor of POETRY magazine (since 2003). His first book, The Long Home, was awarded the 1998 Nicholas Roerich Prize. Several books followed - Ambition and Survival (2007), Hard Night (Copper Canyon Press, 2005) etc. Wiman, often seen as a protege of Richard Wilbur, is a regular contributor of poems and essays in American anthologies and magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The Threepenny Review, The New Criterion and many more. A recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including a Pushcart Prize, Wiman lives in Chicago. The present interview was conducted over email in 2007. The Bengali version of this interview was published in Kabisammelan, the most widely circulated Indian poetry monthly.
Ankur: When was your first encounter with POETRY Magazine? When did you see the first issue? What was the impact on you?
Wiman: I learned about Poetry magazine just as soon as I began learning about contemporary poetry, for the magazine has really been at the center of poetry in this country for the past hundred years. I saw my first issue in college, though I don’t remember it with any clarity. I believe I began publishing prose in the magazine before I published any poems, but I may be misremembering this. I wrote a long essay on Ambition and Survival, how those two terms play out in the life of an individual poet, and eventually it was published in Poetry. That led to many more assignments and essays. I had much more contact with Poetry as a prose writer, oddly enough, though they did publish a handful of my poems. (My first two books are largely made up of long poems, and Poetry rarely publishes long poems, so that may be part of the reason. Or maybe the editor at the time hated my poems!)
Ankur: How did your varied life experiences (you have worked in oilfields, visited many countries) impact your poetry?
Wiman: I have rarely had a one-to-one relationship between the experience that I have and the poetry that I write. That is to say, I rarely have an experience and then find myself writing a poem about it. The process is a good deal more delayed, difficult, and complicated for me. That said, I do certainly feel that my background has a good deal to do with the kind of poetry I want to write. I would like that poetry to reach some of the intensities of experience — emotional, religious, psychological -- that I experienced in my childhood, and I would also like for my poetry to be accessible to people who are not specialists in poetry. Those are background realities, though, and I’m certainly not conscious of them when I’m actually writing a poem.
Ankur: When you were in school, what kind of jobs or career were you thinking about? How do you get trained as an editor? Did you do anything to prepare for being the editor of a leading poetry magazine?
Wiman: I went to school planning on being a lawyer. I have no idea why, except that I was very poor in college and was often embarrassed and frustrated by that. I knew that lawyers made a lot of money, so I figured . . . But then I got waylaid by poetry and doomed myself to many more years of poverty.
I’ve had no training as an editor other than writing critical prose, which I think is the best training one could possibly have. And no, I did nothing to prepare, though I certainly had very definite ideas of how I wanted to change the magazine and what I thought it could be.
Ankur: About Walt Whitman you wrote, "even those of us who have never read him are influenced by him." How?
Wiman: Whitman’s thoughts have so penetrated the general thought of American culture that there’s simply no way of avoiding his influence. When we talk about individualism or democracy, and particularly when we talk about the way those two things relate to each other, we’re responding to Walt Whitman, even if we’re not conscious of it. I wasn’t talking specifically about poets in that comment; Whitman has entered the broader culture here in ways that other poets have not.
Ankur: Magazines that deal with poetry seems to do well for a while and then die for no apparent reason. What is the secret of the longevity of the POETRY magazine in your opinion?
Wiman: In truth, luck has played a great part in the survival of Poetry. There have been times when the magazine was so broke that the next issue was literally on the chopping block, but always some angel has stepped in at the last minute. To be sure, the hard work and dedication of the editors has had a great deal to do with this, not only in terms of fundraising but also ensuring that the magazine remained important enough to American readers that no one would want to see its disappearance. It has also helped that Poetry has always been unaffiliated with any institution or school of poetry. It has remained independent, aggressive, very open to new voices, and catholic. Somehow that combination has paid off.
Ankur: How did you get selected for the editor's job at Poetry? Were you already working there?
Wiman: I was not working here when I was named editor. I was teaching at Northwestern University, though I’d just taken the job a few months earlier. Joseph Parisi, the former editor, approached me about the job after the magazine received a very large bequest from a philanthropist named Ruth Lilly. I had known Joe for some years because of all the prose I’d written for the magazine.
Ankur: What was your early experience at POETRY like?
Wiman: Because of the bequest and all of the publicity attendant upon that, the first year here was chaotic. Manuscripts hadn’t been read for eight months, a foundation was being established with the money, and there were staff changes. It was extraordinarily difficult to keep hold on all of that while trying to transform the magazine. Really, it took a year to settle in, though we introduced many features new to the magazine within the first six months that I was here.
In terms of expectations, I guess I’d say that I never anticipated how difficult the job would be. We come out monthly, so the pace is relentless, but also, Poetry really is at the epicenter of American poetry, even more so now that the foundation has so much money and influence. I’m a poet and accustomed to a lot of silence and solitude. This job doesn’t allow for much of either of those. It’s worth it, though, at least for a while, just to see the kind of impact it can have on a young poet’s life and confidence to get featured in Poetry. And that really is the main reward, the chance to discover and promote the work of poets no one yet knows about.
Ankur: How is a poem selected for POETRY? Can you please walk us through the process after a manuscript comes in? Are there written guidelines for selection or is it more of a personal preference?
Wiman: After a week’s worth of manuscripts are logged in at the office, they go out to our Reader, Christina Pugh. Christina reads every poem and provides her opinion of each manuscript. Delivered back to the office, the manuscripts are then narrowed down to the best 10 or 15 from each week’s batch. A group of editors then reads these selected manuscripts and discusses which, if any, poems should be published from them. Though each reader has different tastes, the group usually comes to an agreement about which poems were best from the selected manuscripts.
Ankur: How many were from outside North America?
Wiman: While we don’t keep track of the number of submissions from outside North America, POETRY regularly publishes poets from England. Poetry also regularly publishes translations of poets from all over Europe and South America. In October 2007, we will present a feature on Indian poets. We do not get significant amounts of poems in English from third-world countries.
Ankur: What was your reaction, when you first heard about the big endowment from Ms Ruth Lilly? How did you feel about the whole situation? Were you at the magazine that time?
Wiman: My first reaction —I was at the dinner where it was announced — was simply surprise. I wasn’t at the magazine at the time, though I had a close relationship to it and to the editors.
Ankur: Does money help or hurt poetry? I would guess POETRY had to several changes or modifications to their running program in order to absorb the extra funds. Did you ?
Wiman: Poetry is invisible in this country. Some people argue that that is a source of poetry’s strength, in that the art isn’t corrupted by all of the pressures that capitalism puts on everything else. I don’t really agree. I feel that poetry is strongest when it’s a part of the lives of the culture. The aim of the Poetry Foundation is to greatly expand the audience for poetry, to make it much more a part of American culture. The money makes this a viable possibility, though it will be several years before we can know the full effects of our programs.
But that’s the big picture. If we’re just talking about the magazine, the money is nothing but a boon. We pay our contributors 500% more than we used to. This is a wonderful thing — to be able to actually pay decent money for an art that usually makes nothing at all. We are also able to extend the magazine’s reach enormously. Our circulation has tripled in the past four years, and we’re now making efforts to expand our readership overseas.
Ankur: We would like to know about the major goals of POETRY. How do you define success? Do you want a large readership or a serious readership ?
Wiman: We want a large, serious readership. I see no contradiction there. Of course, when one is talking "large" with a literary magazine, the numbers are still small. Our circulation is 30,000, whereas the numbers of visitors to the foundation website (poetryfoundation.org) is in the millions every month.
Our primary goal remains discovery. We look to find and aggressively promote the work of the best young poets writing today. We also aim to create a climate of intense, honest reviewing and criticism.
Ankur: Many poets are considered "discoveries" of the Poetry magazine. Do you agree? Are there poets whom you consider as your discovery? Who are they and why?
Wiman: Yes, certainly, Poetry has published the early work of most of the major American poets of the twentieth century, often for the first time. It’s an astonishing — and, for a current editor, daunting — record of discovery. During the past few years, we have been the primary publisher for a poet named Atsuro Riley, whose work will, I think, eventually be read by many thousands of people and for many years. But it takes time, of course, and persistence. Other young (ish) poets whose work we’ve featured include Averill Curdy, Joel Brouwer, Ange Mlinko, and many, many others.
Ankur: What are you writing these days? Is POETRY helping or hurting your poetry?
Wiman: I spent much of the past year finishing a book of essays that's coming out in just a couple of weeks. I've also found my way back into poetry after a silence of about three years. There's no doubt that being editor of POETRY has taken a heavy toll on my own work, partly because the job requires a lot of time, and partly because of the saturation factor: I'm swimming in contemporary poetry all the time, which is probably not the best environment for anyone trying to do his own work. But I've actually always been a strong believer in the value of long silences for poets, self-imposed or otherwise, and I think (hope!) that I'm doing what I should be doing at this point in my life.
Ankur Saha is a Bengali poet from the 1970s generation. He is the author of several books of Bengali poetry and poetics. Ankur is a prolific translator and an untiring contributor of biographical essays on international poetry to the Bengali language world. He lives in California, USA with his family.