At the beginning of his latest collection of poetry, Survival Is A Style, Christian Wiman lays out the territory that serves as the setting for his verse, a less-than-concrete fabric he deftly fingers throughout: “I need a space for unbelief to breathe.”
This God-spaced hole hangs heavily over Wiman’s oeuvre. In this new collection, his poetry takes us, once more, on a metaphysical trip through the essential ‘aloneness’ of Being and its endless manifestations. Wiman’s art is concerned with holding mirrors up to our (seemingly) godless existence, searching for hidden divinity in everyday reflections.
On this personal journey of unbelief, he occasionally finds peace in his halting steps. Wiman, in the gnashing teeth of a challenging life, is a reverent, lonely, and, sometimes, healed man on this journey. His artistic and personal survival depends, finally, upon the “style” of his art, the imprint of poetic order upon the chaos that is the quotidian.
Survival is a Style, Wiman’s fifth collection of new poetry (after his “Selected,” Hammer is the Prayer, came out a little more than three years ago), is many things in terms of poetry — there is great virtuosity and variance of subject to be found within — but above all it is a struggle, a struggle for faith, for understanding, and for acceptance. I had the great pleasure to interview Christian Wiman about his extraordinary collection.
Let’s start with the title of your new collection, Survival Is A Style. It comes from the first poem in the book, after an initial prologue. Would you talk about its meaning for you in the context of this collection?
Years ago, I wrote an essay called “Ambition and Survival” that posited a link between poetic form and psychological survival. This new book is a nod to that idea, though since that time I have had my ideas severely tested by existential threats that have been much more immediate and challenging. I suppose that in some major way I do credit my survival as a person with my survival as a poet.
The centerpiece poem of this collection is “The Parable of Perfect Silence,” which concerns your family, particularly your father. It’s a haunting piece of work, sad and strange, yet quite beautiful. Was there a specific genesis of the poem?
My father died of a drug overdose a few years ago. He was living in a residential motel in Texas, and I saw him a couple of months before he died. I tried to write some prose about all of this, but it didn’t cohere. Then one morning I woke up with the opening lines of this poem, and the rest came pretty quickly, over the course of a month or so. It was the music of it, the style, that both opened me up and protected me.
You have engaged with a variety of poetic forms. Do you have one form you identify with? One that seems to be most in sync with what you typically want to achieve in your work?
I love blank verse but don’t think I’ve been able to advance that form in any particular way (unlike, say, Wordsworth or Stevens). I’ve never sat down to write in a particular form. Every occasion demands its own utterance. That’s not the case for all poets, I realize, but it seems to be so for me. All of which is to say: no, I have no particular allegiance to any one form.
Would you consider yourself indebted to any particular religious or meditational poet? Metaphysical, perhaps?
George Herbert is one of my favorite poets of all time, and I have learned a great deal from him about how to live and think. I’m not sure I’ve internalized so much about how to write, though. My poetic mind isn’t as naturally receptive to and fluent with abstractions as his was. But then, whose is?
Is there a persistent theme in your work that you would say critics have not caught on to? A preoccupation of yours a reader could go back into your books to discover?
I’ve been lucky to have some very good critics write about my work, so I can hardly complain. But I guess the element of poetry that is most important to me is its sound, which is able to discover and convey meaning in much more essential and complex ways than theme or voice or what have you. I’d love for someone to write about that, but it’s probably the most difficult thing of all to address critically.
Survival Is A Style
By Christian Wiman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
February 4th, 2020
RYAN ASMUSSEN is a writer and educator who works as a Visiting Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and writes for the Chicago Review of Books. He has published criticism in The Review Review and the film journal Kabinet, journalism in Bostonia and other Boston University publications, and fiction in the Harvard Summer Review. His poetry has been published in The Newport Review, The Broad River Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Compass Rose, and Mandala Journal. Having earned a Bachelor of Liberal Science degree (summa cum laude) and Master’s in Teaching (English) degree from Boston University, he is now pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts (creative writing and literature) degree from Harvard Extension School. In his spare time, he volunteers as a proofreader at Johnson's Dictionary Online (https://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com). His Twitter handle is @RyanAsmussen.