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Thursday, June 13, 2024 — Houston, TX

Words on the Street: Rae Armantrout and Christian Wiman share their love of poetry

By Johanna Ohm     3/14/12 7:00pm

Poetry hides in the basement of downtown Alley Theatre. The Nehaus Stage, an underground treasure with limited seating and a stage that is flush with the floor, offers an intimate setting for audience members. On Feb. 27, the theater showcased a night of poetry, featuring Rae Armantrout and Christian Wiman.

Armantrout and Wiman are celebrated American poets, both authors of numerous poetry collections and noted for testing boundaries in the poetical world. Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine and grew up in West Texas.

Armantrout is considered an important figure in language poetry, a genre which confronts the dichotomy between words and their meanings and is often considered to be a more radical form of poetry.

Local Houston readers and writers alike gathered to enjoy a night of poetry reading, book signing and a post-reading live interview with the poets to discuss their work.

Wiman's reading featured poems drawn from his own life experience, with references to his recent battle with cancer, his childhood in West Texas, and his curiosity for subjects of death and spirituality. Discussing his recent collection Every Riven Thing, Wiman said the setting of West Texas is apparent and intentional.

"The landscape [of West Texas] is good for grief, Wiman said. "It is very stark and austere in the emotions it engenders."

In his post-reading interview, Wiman was asked what he thought his poems were about.

"I consider my poems to be antidevotional devotional poems," Wiman said.

Wiman's poems suggest a higher spiritual being and make constant reference to the notion of being saved yet also confront the terrible difficulty in finding faith. Wiman grew up in a Baptist community and remembers church hymns being his initial source of inspiration for writing poems.

Wiman now sees his early exposure to religion as a component of his art form.

"[The notion of being saved] haunts me," Wiman said. "I want to know. I want to have this connection with this 'other.' It's funny, but I never understood the agony of disbelief until I began to believe."

Armantrout's reading stood in stark contrast to Wiman's work both stylistically and in subject matter but dealt with similar themes and utilized common techniques. Both made use of significant wordplay, identifying a conflict between language and meaning in which the intensity of words is brought into question.

"There is a longing in my poems for reaching reality," Armantrout said.

She feels that her frequent use of "word slippage" and less-traditional poem structures presents the frustration humans have with using language.

"If my poems are working, both the drive and the failure to reach reality will be evident," Armantrout said.

Although Wiman said many of his poems deal with this same issue of representing reality with words, Armantrout makes use of very different subject matter. Her most recent collection, Money Shot, presents concepts of how capitalism is ingrained in everyday life.

She says many of her poems are inspired by things she sees on television or in physics textbooks, which she reads for fun.

Armantrout lives and teaches in San Diego and said her environment is also an inspiration for her work.

"There's a sense of emptiness inside the city," Armantrout said. "You can see a wide sky, an emptiness, in the midst of people."

Both Armantrout and Wiman offered advice for students in attendance, saying that the most important task to become a better writer is to leisure read.

"Always make sure you're reading something that's not assigned," Wiman said.

Armantrout relayed her experience as a teacher, describing her excitement whenever she finds a student who is reading supplementary books for her courses or incorporating outside books into assignments.

"When I see a student who asks me about books outside of those I assign, I say 'We have a live one!'" Armantrout said. "Students like that will go do something great because they have the drive to go read and discover poets."

The event was part of the Inprint Margaret Root Brown Reading Series, which consists of monthly readings by contemporary authors at venues located throughout Houston. Previous readings in the series have featured the likes of Margaret Atwood and Jeffrey Eugenides.

This month's reading will take place on March 26 at the Wortham Center and features Tea Obreht, author of The Tiger's Wife, and Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story.

Tickets are $5 for the public and free for students. For more information on Inprint House and for details on upcoming readings, book club meetings and literary events, check out Inprint's website at www.inprinthouston.org.

Armantrout is the author of Versed, Money Shot, Next Life and Up to Speed, among many other collections. Wiman's collections include The Long Home, Every Riven Thing and Hard Night.

Johanna Ohm is a Duncan College junior and Thresher copy editor. Words on the street is a column exploring literary events in Houston.

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