“My most settled belief is that there is a unity, that we’re not inhabiting a chaos, there is a unity of experience. A lot of time it doesn’t look like that, but we’re given glimpses when it does. And part of that is the communication we have with each other. It’s often nonverbal, but poetry has a lot to do with that.”
With his new book, ZERO AT THE BONE: Fifty Entries Against Despair (FSG), Christian Wiman fuses essay, poem, memoir and anthology in a singular work that explores how the act of writing a poem is a gesture of faith. We talk about the varieties of despair and joy, the question of whether the world is chaos or has order, and whether the relationship between art and life is a tension or an actual antipathy (as Henry James would have it). We also get into the urgency of mortality and the rare cancer that almost killed Christian on three separate occasions (including this year), the notion of having a calling and the difference between given and earned callings, who we’re really trying to reach when we write a poem, whether Philip Larkin’s Aubade is a poem of pure despair, how literature has taken the place of sacred texts, and what he’s learned from teaching at Yale Divinity School. We also discuss The Void & how to tune it out, his thoughts on faith and Christ and how the incarnation of God in Jesus sacralizes the physical world, where poetry began for him, whether joy is passed down epigenetically like trauma (allegedly) is, what it’s like having a Ninja Blender for a brain, coming around on poets in translation like Yehuda Amichai, the meaning of existence, and a lot more (I mean, if you can have a lot more after the meaning of existence). Give it a listen! And go read Zero At The Bone!
“Any work of art is in some way an action against despair. . . . The act of writing a poem is a gesture of faith.”
“Someone writing on their own, knowing that no one’s going to read what they’re writing and yet they continue to do it. I think your audience there is God. Try to make it as good as you can. This is why poets persist in the face of absolute despair.”
“I was terrified of death for years, and then once I actually got close to it the first time, it all went away. I wasn’t scared of it anymore.”
About our Guest
Christian Wiman is the author, editor, or translator of more than a dozen books of poetry and prose, including two memoirs, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer and He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art; Every Riven Thing, winner of the Ambassador Book Award; Once in the West, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; and Survival Is a Style — all published by FSG. He teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and at Yale Divinity School. His new book is Zero At The Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair.
Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Christian’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom PodTrak P4 digital recorder & interface. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Zoom PodTrak P4. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photos of Christian & Rosie by me. It’s on my instagram.