By Rohan Vaidya
UC San Diego made a strong case for its position on America’s academic-literary scene on March 1st with a double reading by alum and fiction writer Aimee Bender and Poetry Magazine editor/poet Christian Wiman. The reading, hosted by the literature department’s New Writing Series in the Visual Arts Facility, juxtaposed the aesthetics of Bender’s poignant magical realism with Wiman’s tight, theistic lyrical verse.
Author Christian Wiman has spent the past seven years in Chicago editing Poetry, one of the nation’s oldest and most distinguished American poetry magazines. Wiman grew up in West Texas in an evangelical Christian household and recalls being deprived of poetry while growing up, but acknowledges the Bible as a source of high-quality poetry. He traveled widely, though he says he found it nearly impossible to write about his travels until years later. He also stopped writing for a time until he was diagnosed several years ago with a very rare and fatal disease that left him believing he only had months to live. He has since miraculously survived and gone on to publish his three books of poetry: Hard Night, The Long Home, and Every Riven Thing, along with a book of prose, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. “I think poetry works one by one. Every time I try to think of something to say about [poetry] in a general way, it sounds [biased] to me,” Winman says. “It’s a place to enlarge one’s notion of reality, to articulate one’s inner life.”
“Obviously He is not mentioned in every poem, some of the poems are about city life, or all kinds of different things. But is God’s presence in the poem? Does every poem have that as its concern in a way? Yes,” he says. His poetry comes across as tightly wrapped and meticulously rhythmic, and the references to God, indirectly or directly, do not mark them as easy to unravel; often Christian invokes God and the poem is complicated in some new and surprising way. “Think of the man who sits alone/Trying to will himself into the stillness where/God goes belonging. To every riven thing He’s made” (“Every Riven Thing”). Rae Armantrout, head of the Literature department’s writing division, invited Wiman to UCSD and introduced him as responsible for Poetry’s inclusion of experimental and innovative writers after years of the magazine being regarded as out of touch with contemporary work.
Favorite daughter Aimee Bender returned to UCSD to read work published in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, entitled “Tiger Mending.” A creative writing instructor at USC, she graduated from UC Irvine’s Master of Fine Arts creative writing program and has since gone on to win numerous awards and nominations for her work, including two Pushcart prizes. An author of five novels, the latest being The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, published in 2010, she continues to enthrall admirers with surreal stories full of delicate magic, exaggerated but never out of touch with characters or their struggles. “Tiger Mending” told the tale of two sisters, a prodigal quiet seamstress and her straightforward outspoken sister who moved to Malaysia so the seamstress sister could hold a job mending tiger stripes.
“It’s really fun teaching creative writing. It feels like a great privilege in a lot of ways because people are trusting you with work in progress,” Bender said, but contrasted it with the actual process of sitting down at a desk and writing sentences that she enjoyed. Writing classes, to her, represent the social aspect of writing, of discussing books and authors with like-minded students. Bender also sees the connection and inspiration between her work and the magical realism of Marquez, Schulz, Kafka and the like. “For the magical stories, there are more ancestors for that kind of writing than there are in America,” she said.
Photo Courtesy of The Field Museum Library