RS: What does that cultivation look like? It seems like your cultivation of faith in some ways tracks with your cultivation of art as a poet. Can you talk about that dynamic?
CW: They are different in that poetry for me is very much a discipline of preparedness and waiting. I can never will myself to write. I can will myself to try to be prepared, but I don’t even know quite what that is. Maybe it’s paying attention. But learning to be active and present into life in a way that constitutes happiness, that you can do. You can actually stop yourself, pay attention and remind yourself what you have to be thankful for, the wonderful things you have around you. That’s something I think some of us have a difficult time doing. I know I certainly have a difficult time doing it. I have to remind myself that it is something you have to practice; that joy is something you have to actually practice.
RS: What does the practice of joy look like?
CW: It would be different for whatever one does in one’s life. For me it would be an eradication of the self as much as possible, paying more attention to the people around me, being more present with family in ways that I wouldn’t have been at other times in my life. I think the answer is mostly to be constantly outward.
RS: That’s interesting because in your book one of the common themes is getting away from the self. You quote from Bonhoeffer saying that “there are more important things than self-knowledge” and then you go on to say that an “artist who believes this is an artist of faith even if that faith contains no god.” Why is faith important to art, even if it’s empty of content?
CW: I think art enables faith even without an object. It looks like the object of art is the thing you’re having faith in, the experience of art is the rapturous, aesthetic experience, because you look at a Caravaggio or listen to a Bach concerto, but actually that’s just the means whereby you pass to something greater. You could take a secular artist like A.R. Ammons who gives me that same experience, where you feel that you’re getting an absolute attention to something that you would be hard pressed to say what that attention is exactly. The work of art becomes a means by which that attention is both released and directed. I would argue that it is directed towards God, but it doesn’t bother me if someone were to say no, no, no even getting at the word “god” is reductive. Maybe it is.
RS: That reminds me of something the director Andrei Tarkovsky said in his book on film, Sculpting in Time. He says something to the effect of “an artist without faith is like a painter born blind.” That seems like an unusual perspective in the art world today whether it’s a filmmaker or poet saying it. What have been the reaction to that for you?
CW: I would wager that most poets would be receptive to that statement from Tarkovsky and would say that they agree with that. The difficulty comes if you introduce religion. As long as you use the word “faith” most artists are fine with it. If you use the word “religion,” especially Christianity, then you get yourself into problems.