Transcript for Writing Life and Death


Jim Fleming:  Lest we start to get overly romantic about death returning at last to Christian Wiman.  Wiman's a poet, essayist and editor of Poetry magazine.  For the past few years he's also been battling a rare form of blood cancer.  In his most recent book of poems, Every Riven Thing, Wiman brings his immense talent to questions of love, God and death.   
Christian Wiman:  Here's a poem about cancer, I have been living with cancer myself for a number of years so this poem is not about me.  It's about the kind of cancer I don't have.  But I wrote it at a time when I was going through treatment.  It's called The Mole.  
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.    
Wiman:  Yeah, this is about a person with skin cancer.  I was discovering a mole and I have a blood cancer.  This was about no person in particular, actually.  It was a constellation of various things that were happening to me and impressions I was having when I was going through treatment.   It's not about me.   And it is, in a way, I mean we wait for some time in our life when we're going to be happy or 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 is sometimes a way for me of practicing this.  This poem is a poem about joy breaking into this guy's life in a very miraculous way and it being sort of the seed of his whole existence.  For me though, the act of writing it is very much an act of practicing that. 
Fleming:  You've written, 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.  For years what I saw is a kind of 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 way is marked by its end and there's an elegy contained in every instant and for years that's all I could see and I think when I got the diagnosis paradoxically you would think that would kind of throw me into an absolute despair and in fact 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 have a kind of parallel experience it seems to me with your faith as well.  You say you've had faith all your life.  There was a time though when you sort of let it survive on its own.  A lot of people getting a diagnosis of cancer would send them burrowing  into their faith but instead you kind of found the joy in it again.   
Wiman:  I think so.  People mock the idea of an illness causing great change in a person but it seems to me perfectly natural that it 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 the despair but it did jolt me into ways of dealing with despair.   
Fleming:  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.  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 your mortality or your faith. 
Wiman:  Well it doesn't seem romantic.  It seems I really, really don't want to die.  I love my life, I have two daughters.  I have my wife who I love very much.  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 so many other artists.   There's a famous line from Wallace Steven's death as a mother of beauty that people quote all the time meaning that you know, a cleared eyed look at death enables us to have a clear eyed look at life.  It intensifies our perception.   It's the carpe diem cry. 
Fleming:  Is that true? 
Wiman:  No, it's not true.  No it's not true, it's a load of crap actually. 
Fleming:  (Laughs) 
Wiman:  Actually Stevens was a great poet and that's a great poem that poem comes from.  Sunday morning is one of my favorite poems, but it's a poem that could only have been written by someone for whom death was a complete abstraction.  And once it's not an abstraction you can't say that anymore.  You can't say death is the mother of beauty.  In fact it's the annihilation of beauty and I think we can't live without some kind of a past and future and faith enables me to find one. 
Fleming:  I was thinking while reading what it is about poetry that seems so important to us when it comes time to think about life and death.  I mean I remember when my mother died I read poetry.  DennisO’Driscoll in fact and when my father died I read Billy Collins which seemed more like him.  It seems to me that we all seem to turn to this precision of language for some kind of comfort or explanation. 
Wiman:  Yeah, I think, you know there's two reasons for that.  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.  And poetry can articulate them for us and sort of give us a way of holding us up outside of ourselves and looking at it and coming to understand it...but another thing that it can do which it does with its music in its forms 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 that you never would have perceived before.  And so there's some sort of magical element in poems sometimes which is why we seek them out that enables us to both recognize that knot, that tight knot of mortality and then to slip free of it for a moment.   
Fleming:  Wonder if you'd read, And I Said to My Soul, Be Loud.  What a nice title that is.   
Wiman:  Yeah, so this poem...the title is taken off a line from T S Elliot and I said to my soul be still...and it was written out of kind of frustration that I think we probably all feel sometimes where we're just down in the dumps and can't drag ourselves out of it.  Day after day goes by with a kind of feeling of useless torpor in ourselves that we project out into the world and this poem came out of that.  
Fleming:  Christian Wiman is a poet, essayist and editor of Poetry Magazine.  To hear our extended interview with many more readings from Every Riven Thing, visit us online at

Comments for this interview

writing life and death (Carol Voigts, 05/23/2012 - 8:03pm)

My husband and I both had each had 2 bouts with cancer. On my last cancer--uterine) about 3 yr. ago, I wrote my way through the ordeal. Then last year my husband got pancreatic cancer. It went so fast--6 weeks and he was gone. During this short time, I wrote my way through it again and through this last year of grief. But I was so devastated, all I could get out were the 17 syllables of a haiku. As I would sit waiting in the hospital, waiting for the doctor, waiting for the treatment, waiting for the injections---I could only think that far. I wrote some of them on my phone, on shopping lists, on cards stuck in waiting room magazines. I would send them out to friends each night after I gave Jack his last nightly med and sat at the computer. After he was gone, I still couldn't get much more out than the daily haiku but by this time, they were a mental release for me as I cooked a meal, cried, walked. I recorded the words on the phone sometimes. My fingers counted syllables. One year ago today, and I finally could write a lengthy poem. The poems written this last year have become fewer and fewer as my grief was written out.