Last Thursday, I skipped my coffee break, skipped my lunch, and left my desk midafternoon to go hear Christian Wiman speak and read at an event at the University of Minnesota sponsored by MacLaurinCSF, a Christian study center. Wiman, in case you don't know, is a "highly acclaimed" poet, former editor of Poetry Magazine, author of multiple books, including My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, a book of prose about his "return to God" while fighting cancer. Currently, he teaches at Yale Divinity School.
Wiman was warm and generous in his reading and comments to the handful of us seated in the lecture room. It is always noteworthy when a public figure is warm and generous to a smaller than expected audience. The poems he read were the kind that made you want to push a pause button after each so you could let it sink in for awhile. My favorite poem he read was “My Stop is Grand,” in which he reflected on his times riding the Chicago El – which I rode so many times over four years of my life – to work. The El shot through “a hell of ratty alleys” and after emerging:
You can read the whole poem here at the Poetry Foundation.
I wanted to tell about that poem because I wanted to share with you that image of the peacocking sparks, turning a mundane dreary ride to work experienced by separate individuals into a corporate epiphany. I loved that.
I also want to tell you two other things he said in passing, one related to reading and the other to writing, and when I say related to writing, I also mean related to living. Those of you who've read this blog long enough have figured out that I think what's good for writing is good for living and visa versa.
About reading: Wiman said that he used to read for what he could get out of a book, but the older he gets the more he finds himself reading for relationship. Reading is a way to find out what other people in his life are thinking and what they like, and it provides opportunity to talk about things with other people. (Note: none of this reportage is direct quote but only my paraphrase.) Reading as relational - I want to remember that.
About writing (aka living): Wiman said that most of his poems are the result of an event percolating inside him for about 10 years before he starts to write. I take that as a reminder to be patient with all things, to take the long view, to let things take their time to accrue meaning, particularly those things that have that shimmer around them that says "pay attention."