Q & A with Christian Wiman, Editor of Poetry Magazine
Since its creation in 1912, Poetry Magazine has held a uniquely influential role in the conversation and culture of poetry in the English-speaking world—having published or discovered some of the 20th century's greatest poets. Since 2003, the magazine has seen a bit of a reinvention with a $200-million donation by Ruth Lilly and a new editorship under poet Christian Wiman.
In the first of an ongoing interview series, we asked Wiman—whose next book, Every Riven Thing, will be published by FSG—about his editorship and the magazine. Read below for Wiman's thoughtful responses on Poetry, "new" poets, National Poetry Month, and his upcoming book. // Adam Eaglin
Despite a perception that Americans’ interest in poetry has steadily declined, Poetry’s circulation has grown during your tenure as editor. What do you attribute that to?I think there are multiple reasons for this. For the first time ever, Poetry has had enough money to aggressively promote its excellent poets and prose writers, and new readers have responded. We’ve also changed things quite a bit—spiced up the prose section, redesigned the magazine, introduced many new features and poets—and this has brought back some of the old audience that had fallen away.
Both of these increases, though, ought to make us (and I include myself, as it’s an assumption I’ve shared) question whether Americans’ interest in poetry has in fact steadily declined. Maybe there’s plenty of interest out there, latent or not, and we’re just not always finding the right ways of reaching people.
What do you see as Poetry's role in the conversation and culture of American poetry?This changes depending on the circumstances. When I first took over, I thought the reviewing culture needed a jolt, so I simply rounded up the smartest young critical writers I could find and gave them a free rein. Too free, some people thought, and for a number of months fiery letters came screaming into the office like missiles. It still seems to me a necessary thing to have done, and of course we still run some sharply critical pieces at times (I’m baffled by some people’s belief that there should never be negative reviews of poetry), but that particular energy has mostly been directed into other things at this point.
An ongoing project has been to make the line between the poetry world and the world more permeable. The most successful effort in that regard has involved bringing in writers and thinkers from outside the poetry world to review new books (see Marilynne Robinson on Harold Bloom’s anthology of American religious poetry), or comment on their experience of poetry (Christopher Hitchens, Fernando Perez, Richard Rorty, Lynda Barry, et al), or engage in exchanges (see Iain McGilchrist in conversation with Ange Mlinko this fall).
Recently it has seemed to me that one thing poetry certainly needs is an easing of the aesthetic battle lines and a way of talking across the trenches. I don’t think the best poets think in terms of these battle lines—that is, the best poets are reading George Oppen and Richard Wilbur, Lorine Niedecker and Patrick Kavanagh, and not only seeing them in the same light (as damned good poets, I mean), but learning something from all of them. But the academic institutionalization of poetry has narrowed people’s views: if you go to Iowa to get a degree, you don’t read the poets that people are reading at, say, Johns Hopkins, and vice versa. I’d like Poetry to be a counter to this tendency to swim in aesthetic schools, so to speak. I don’t mean that we can possibly “represent” everything that’s out there. But, given our large and very diverse audience, we’re in the unique position of showing the various factions what’s going on in other outposts, as well as encouraging dialogue between them.
Many poets disagree over the merits of designating a “Poetry Month.” Do you have an opinion?As a poet, I find the idea of a poetry month pretty silly. Poets, for better or worse, live by, for, and through poetry. It’s serious, and it’s lifelong. There are national months for chocolate and chickens, neither of which (one hopes!) inspires such devotion.
As an editor, though, I kind of like it. We benefit from all of the promotional work that some of the other organizations do so well (the Academy of American Poets, notably), and that’s usually our largest print run of the year. More attention comes to our poets, and that’s my job.
What can I say? To be a poet and an editor (maybe to be a poet and most anything) is to be split like this all the time. In the end, NPM is for readers of poetry, and its effects are measurably salutary. It takes a serious sense of self-importance to get exercised over the “abomination” of it all.
At Poetry, do you feel an obligation to publish young (or “younger”) poets? Who are some younger poets that have impressed you in recent years?
We absolutely feel this obligation. It’s part of the history of the magazine. T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, John Ashbery—all of these people were well under thirty when they first appeared in Poetry (a couple of them were undergraduates!), and that early discovery remains our chief mission.
Of course, you can’t really judge any editor’s success at discovery until decades have passed, but some of the poets under thirty whose work we’re very proud to have published in recent years include Nate Klug, Allen Edwin Butt (an undergraduate), Katherine Larson, Eric Ekstrand, Ilya Kaminsky, Nicky Beer. These are just the ones who pop into my mind right now; there are many others.
Still, I prefer the word “new” to “young,” as sometimes people haven’t sent their work out, or it’s taken years for someone to catch their particular inflections, or they’ve come into their voices late. I’d point to Atsuro Riley as an example, who must be close to fifty but just published his weird and fantastic and utterly original first book, Romey’s Order, most of which appeared in our pages. I suspect it’s bound to win some sort of first book award, which is a pity, since it ought to win the Pulitzer.
Can you tell us more about your editorial process?This has changed over the years. Right now we’ve settled on a process that involves a first reading of almost everything by the poet and critic Christina Pugh, who is brilliant, thorough, and fast. She sends everything that she feels warrants serious consideration on to Don Share and me, with notes to guide our readings. Then Don and I confer on what to reject, what to take, how to respond, etc. It’s a labor-intensive process, but again, we’re trying hard to find the things that might slip through the cracks.
As for the prose, we commission almost everything, though we do invite and seriously consider submissions and proposals.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your upcoming book from FSG?The hardest question for last! A poet talking about his own work is like a surgeon cutting open his own chest to illustrate how to do an incision—effective, perhaps, but not very efficient or forward-thinking. Let me just say that the book is called Every Riven Thing (speaking of incisions!), it took me seven years to write it, and my chief hope is that it will move readers—all kinds of readers—and stay with them.