Transcript for Christian Wiman on Writing Life and Death - UNCUT


Christian Wiman: So, here's a poem about cancer. I have been living with cancer, myself, for a number of years, but this poem is not about me. It's about a kind of cancer that I don't have, but I wrote it at a time when I was going through treatment. It's called "The Mole", and the title changes meanings during the poem. One thing that might be helpful is that about midway through, several things are mentioned that are...Canes Venatici and the Four North Fracture Zone are a geological formation and a constellation, and they're simply in this list of things that flash through this man's mind as he's going through various treatments and losing his mind. 
Jim Fleming: "The Mole" is an astonishingly clear portrait of a kind of cancer. I was surprised to hear you say it is not about your cancer, though.  
Wiman: Yeah, this is about a person who has skin cancer. You know, it was discovered in a mole, and I have a blood cancer. During the time that I've had treatment,  which has been years now, I've certainly met people with all kinds of different cancers. This was about no person in particular, actually, it was a sort of constellation of various things that were happening to me and impressions I was having when I was going through treatment. But it's not about me. And it is, in a way. I mean, I think we wait for some time in our life when we're going to be happy, when we're going to have joy, as if it descends upon us, but in fact, I think we have to practice these things, and poetry, sometimes for me, is a way of practicing this. This poem is about joy breaking into this guy's life in a very miraculous way, and it being this sort of seed of his whole existence. For me, though, the act of writing it is very much an act of practicing that.   
Fleming: Actually searching for the joy that you hope will eventually come out of your experience, too. 
Wiman: Exactly, yeah. 
Fleming: You've written that all the while you've been writing, even before you knew about the cancer, you've seen your work as marked by a kind of existential anxiety. Did that become even more true once you got the diagnosis of blood cancer? 
Wiman: Well, I think it made me see my work in a different way. I know, for years, I'd say what I saw was a wall at the end of everything, at the end of every experience, an absolute end to everything. You know, death is the extreme of that. But then, every experience we have, in some ways, is marked by its end; there's an elegy contained in every incident. For years, that's all I could see, and I think when I got the diagnosis, paradoxically, you'd think that would throw me into an absolute despair, and it did for a little bit. But, the overall effect was a ventilation of my life, and I began to be able to see through that wall, or to have moments when it seemed like the wall wasn't there. I don't know how else to talk about it except in this sort of metaphorical language, but that was the effect. 
Fleming: Well, you kind of had a parallel experience, it seems to me, with your faith, as well. You say, if I understood you correctly, you've had faith all your life. This is not a question. There was a time, though, when you sort of let it survive on its own. It didn't need you're direct involvement.  
A lot of people getting a diagnosis of cancer, it would send them burrowing into their faith, but instead, it seemed to seemed to me that you found the joy in it again. 
Wiman: I think so. I think...the way I phrase it to myself is that, at some point in the last few years, I ascended to a faith that was latent within me and had long been dormant. And because it had been dormant, I was in despair a lot of the time. You know, it can take some real jolts to get us out of the ruts of our lives. I mean, it's hard to change your coffee consumption;imagine how hard it is to change your faith. Or to know, these huge directions in which we're living, and people mock the idea of an illness causing great change in a person, but it seems to me perfectly natural that you takes these jolts to make us see our lives. It's too bad that it does, and I think some very great souls are probably capable of making changes without it. But it took a huge change for me, and the change did jolt me into -- I don't mean to minimize despair -- but it did jolt me into ways of dealing with despair. 
Fleming: You know, I don't think anybody who hasn't been through it can understand how much of a shock that moment must be, when you have to face up to your own mortality. It's not as though you got a date saying, OK, today you're here and tomorrow you won't be, but the end came closer, became more real to you. Some people would be tempted at that point to look for some kind of romance in death, and I don't get the impression that you've done that. You don't romanticize either your mortality, or your faith.  
Wiman: Well, it doesn't seem romantic. It seems...I mean, I really, really don't want to die. I love my life. I have two daughters and my wife, whom I love very much. I mean, I have a wonderful life, and I see no romance in death. It's very easy to romanticize death when you're young, and I did it, like so many other artists. There's a famous line from Wallace Stevens, "Death is the mother of Beauty", that people quote all the time, meaning that a clear-eyed look at death enables us to have a clear-eyed look at life, it intesifies our perception. It's the old "Carpe Diem" cry. 
Fleming: Is that true? 
Wiman: No, it's not true, it's a load of crap, actually. I mean, Stevens is a great poet, and that's a great poem that that comes from, "Sunday Morning", but it's a poem that could only have been written by someone for whom death was a complete abstraction. And's not an abstraction. You can't say that anymore, death is the mother of beauty; in fact, it's the annihilation of beauty. You have to find some other way of finding a future, and I think we can't live without some kind of...we're always projecting ourselves forward and backward in our lives, and I think we can't live without some kind of a past and future.  
Fleming: I suppose one of the good things, then, is that having cancer has made writing about death not only something you desire, but something you must do. 
Wiman: Yeah, I'm hesitant to attribute any good thing to cancer, because there's nothing good about it, actually. But yes, it is true that I have developed in a way that I may not have, otherwise. People ask me all the time about this poet that I've just translated, Osip Mandelstam.He was tormented to death by Stalin and died when he was forty-seven, and he sort of drove Stalin insane. People ask me if he was made the poet he was by what happened to him, and my answer is, the events probably accelerated his development, and maybe skewed it in a certain direction, but it did not make him the poet he was. He was already a very great poet, and a poet of incredible existential intensity. He would have been that poet no matter what, and what happened to him inflects the way that we read him, but it didn't make him. 
Fleming: Although it does introduce you to some thoughts that you probably would not have had without it.  
Wiman: Probably. You know, these things are going to happen to everyone, eventually. It just happened to me earlier than I would have liked. 
Fleming: There's a starkness, though. There's a poem I wonder if you would read for us, it's called, " It is good to sit, even in a rotting body". It's on page 88 of "Every Riven Thing". If you could tell me a little bit about it, that would be great. 
Wiman: I wrote several poems after I got diagnosed. I had not written poems for about three years. It had been a long silence, and a very miserable silence, and I was desperate within that silence. After I got the diagnosis, I was jolted enough to begin writing again. Not immediately, but relatively soon after...a few months after that. I wrote several poems that seemed to me expressions of...very gratifying expressions of faith. Not a traditional kind of faith, but a faith that I could understand and hold onto. And then, as time went on, I wrote poems that seemed to refute that; they seemed to directly refute the gains that I had made, to expunge all idea of God from the poems, all idea of a heaven from the poems, and to actually ridicule the notion, sometimes. I was very confused by this for a while, and very disturbed by it, because you can't really control the poems that you're writing. 
But then I began to think of it...I began to read some Dietrich Bonhoferstun, and he said once, "The God we serve calls us to live in a world without God. Before God and with God, we stand without God." It was a paradoxical statement, but a helpful statement to me, at the time. I began to think, maybe the same impulse that led me sing of God at one time might lead me to sing of Godlessness at another, and that sometimes God might actually call us to unbelief, or what looks like unbelief, in order that faith might take new forms in our lives, and in life in general, and this is one of those poems that I wrote at a time that very much confused me.  
Fleming: I love that phrase, "In the sunlight, uncompomised by God, or lack of God." It's a purer form of sunlight, isn't it? 
Wiman: Yeah, it's some way of getting at a moment without wanting there to be a beyond. Experiencing our lives without needing something beyond that moment that we're in. 
Fleming: We shouldn't make it sound as though all of the poems in "Every Riven Thing" are all about cancer, or all about God, for that matter. They range all over, from playfullness, from rememberance to love, to mourning, to praising God, to railing against death. Do those experiences that have come to you from your diagnosis, have they come to make life seem more of a whole, or part of a whole, somehow? 
Wiman: Sometimes, but sometimes I'm just like everyone else. I think you slip back...I mean, one of the great shocks of a shocking thing is how easily you slip back into your old life. I think, at times, I do slip back into the same person that I was. We don't change utterly, ever. I think there's dissapointment in that, also kind of a relief in that. But there is no doubt that the intensity of the events that have happened to particular in the last year. I've had a bone marrow transplant and come close to dying twice in the last year...they've had a profound effect upon me and the way that I see my life. But I do still very much have to practice joy, practice happiness. I mean, you have's like exercise. I don't think these things just come to you.  
Fleming: I was thinking, while reading your poetry, about what it is about poetry that seems so important to us when it comes time to think about life and death. I mean, when my mother died, I read poetry. Dennis O'Driscol, in fact. And when my father died, I read Billy Collins, which seemed more like him. But there seems to me that we all seem to turn to this precision of language for some kind of comfort or explanation, when faced with these big moments in our lives.  
Wiman: Yeah, I think there's two reasons for that. One is that poetry...I mean, the most obvious is that poetry can simply articulate emotions and sensations that we're having and which we cannot grasp for ourselves, particularly in moments of extremity. Poetry can articulate them for us and sort of give us a way of holding it up outside of ourselves, and looking at it and coming to understand it. But another thing that it can do, and which it does with its music and forms, is it can cause these slippages in consciousness where you can seem to see through the reality of things, or what seems to you the reality of things in ordinary moments, and you can perceive shadows and transparencies and angularities that you never would have perceived before. That all happens in the same way that listening to music does those things. That's another way of making those things happen.  
So poetry has that dual ability to actually speak the words that we need, and then to give us the sounds that cause us to almost be able to slip free of language at times, and experience things beyond language. 
Fleming: And sometimes, of course, death is just something on the edges of a poem. It's not, per se, the thing the poem is about at all, maybe it hovers there. One of our producers said about your poem, "Five Houses Down", she said it helped her understand more the experience of being a boy than any novel she's ever read. 
Wiman: That's interesting.  
Fleming: Well, it's not a poem about death, it's a poem about a unique man and boy relationship. 
Wiman: Right, and this one actually is rooted in my life. Some things poets make up, this one has some made-up things in it, but it's actually very real. I don't know how much of this you want me to read, because it's got some words that you won't be able to reproduce on the radio.  
Fleming: Maybe you could...could you just start it for us, because, yes, there are some things that we are unable to do on the radio.  
Wiman: So this one comes out of... 
Wiman: OK, alright. So this poem, "Five Houses Down", was written about a man who fact, I don't remember if it was five houses down, but that's the way the poem announced itself to me... 
Fleming: It is now. 
Wiman: That's right, it is now. And I used to work for him in various ways up through the years, adn this poem emerged out of those experiences. There's nothing you need to know, other than I grew up in a very small town in west Texes; Snyder, Texas. And the poem uses the word [?]"sapor", which is someone who goes out and defuses bombs.  
Fleming: That's an interesting kind of reality that may be a long time ago, but it's still here now, isn't it? 
Wiman: Yeah. And I was struck reading it, thinking about what you said about death's shadow. Even experiences that don't seem to be about it, this one has slipknot, whatnot, knot from which no man escapes, which is obviously some sort of reference to death, a knot from which no man escapes, and this man had the ability to "presto" it back to plain old rope. And so, there's some sort of magical element in poems, sometimes, which is no doubt why we seek them out, that enables us to both recognize that tight knot of mortality, and then to slip free of it for a moment. 
Fleming: Does that happen to you often? Do you find yourself visiting a poem you've written, and discovering it's said more than you knew? 
Wiman: You know, I never look back, to tell you the truth. It happens at a moment like this, when someone is asking me questions about it and I'm reading it, but I've never looked back at what I've written, prose or poetry.  
Fleming: You've written that you stopped writing for a few years -- we talked about this -- and then you fell in love. And then you were diagnosed with cancer, and then you started writing again. Was that a necessary progression? 
Wiman: Oh, you know, things look necessary in hindsight, we all need to see some sort of coherence to our lives. I think something dramatic had to jolt me out of that silence, and also to jolt me out of despair. It wasn't actually the cancer that turned me, or released me to begin thinking about ideas of faith, it was falling in love. The cancer made me need to give a more concrete form to what I was feeling, and so we started going to church. But we were certainly praying together and acknowledging these impulses within both of us before that. 
Fleming: Well, it's easier to search for joy if you think that love brought you back, rather than death. 
Wiman: Right. There's a wonderful quote from the French thinker/philosopher/writer, Simone Vey, that it's neccessary to have a supernatural experience of joy before you can understand a supernatural experience of suffering. That was true for me. The joy came first for me. I don't know if it's true for everyone, but it's an interesting thought.  
Fleming: I wonder if you'd read one or maybe two more poems..."And I Said To My Soul, Be Loud". What a nice title that is. 
Wiman: This poem...the title is taking off from a line of T.S. Elliot, "And I said to my soul, be still: to hope would be to hope for the wrong thing." It's from "Four Quartets", and I'm forgetting the section of it. It was written out of a kind of frustration that I think we all feel sometimes, where we're just down in the dumps, and we can't drag ourselves out of it, and day after day goes by with the kind of feeling of useless torpor in ourselves that we project out in the world, and this poem came out of that. "And I Said To My Soul, Be Loud." 
You can tell how my childhood was spent, you know, salting slugs and making ants fight in jars.  
Fleming: Takes me back to the sidewalks in central Illinois, to be honest. Is there one you would like to read, from this collection? 
Wiman: There's one for my wife, for Dee that I like, this one's for her. Here's a little poem called, "For D", and D is my wife. 
Fleming: Thanks.  
Wiman: I sometimes think of love as this energy that always wants to be more than the dimensions in which it's enclosed between two people. Not just romantic love, but all kinds of love. That's very much, for me, a poem that showed me this one time, because it's that moment after I say, "May I hold your hand?", there's that vision that becomes available of those mayflies banqueting on oblivion, having their one instant. But it wouldn't have been available without that other person there.

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