Interview with Poet Lesley Wheeler, Author of Heathen and Heterotopia

[EDITOR’s NOTE: This is a reprint of an article originally posted at the Reaching Review August 25, 2010]

Photograph of poet Lesley Wheeler
Lesley Wheeler

Lesley Wheeler is the author of Heterotopia, winner of the 2010 Barrow Street Poetry Prize. Her first volume of poetry, Heathen, came out the previous year. With Moira Richards and Rosemary Starace she is co-editor of Letters to the World: Poems from Members of the WOM-PO Listserv. She took the time to answer a few questions about her work as a poet and professor, her experience of the contemporary poetry scene — both in person and online — and her own development as a writer.

When did you first start writing poetry?
I’ve been writing since I could hold a crayon—one of my first memories is defacing a picture book, trying to add new words—but I started to narrow in on poetry during high school. Two authors inspired me then: Keats (in the curriculum) and Ginsberg (very much beyond it). I remember how their sensuousness and their urgency pulled at me. Being a teenager is pretty awful, or it was for me, and they helped me write my way through it. My English teacher, Sister Ignatius, commanded me to enter poems in a contest sponsored by a local college, and I won first place. That encouraged me. I’m glad I didn’t know it would be decades until I won another poetry prize.

At what point did you decide that it would be a good idea to make a career out of it?
In my senior year of college, I was writing an honors thesis on Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich and one assignment was to teach a portion of it to other thesis students. I had been very shy, afraid of public speaking, but I had them read Sexton’s “Rapunzel” and then asked a few questions. After a minute or two their faces kindled, then they leaned forward in their chairs and started talking intensely, and that was it—I knew I wanted to create conversations about poetry for the rest of my life. Most of a professor’s job is not so great, endless committees and grading and email and forms, but that core of literary conversation is utterly wonderful.

“I can’t quite bring myself to call writing and publishing poetry a career. It’s a money-losing operation overall.”

My career, then, is professing; I can’t quite bring myself to call writing and publishing poetry a career. It’s a money-losing operation overall: I buy tons of books and journals, give unpaid readings, and spend effort writing poetry that often just languishes in storage (scholarly publishing is a meritocracy; the poetry world is much more random and often inhospitable to risk). I knew that I would always write poetry, though, even as a teenager—it’s almost a physical need. In graduate school, when I often felt too busy to write poetry, I developed a chronic nightmare about being stalked by wild animals. I would write for myself, just to stay alive and away from the dream-grizzlies, even if no one in the world ever read the stuff.

Book cover image for Heathen by Lesley Wheeler
Heathen by Lesley Wheeler

I didn’t start working hard on delivering it to audiences until 2003. At that point, I had tenure, my younger child was turning three, and I just decided that it was time to be as serious about poetry publishing as I had been about scholarly publishing. Confronting the tastes of editors was good for my work, actually. It’s stronger now.

Tell me more about learning English from nuns.
Sister Ignatius was my only holy English teacher and she was tough and funny, though already frail by the time I met her. She used to roll her eyes at my all-girl class and tell us how much she preferred teaching at a boys’ high school years ago, but I personally seemed to amuse her—that was gratifying. I remember very little about what she had to say about literature but she recommended Catholic authors to me on the side and insisted that incognito should be pronounced inCOGnito. The lay teacher who taught me Keats, Mr. Moore, was very good, and one of the few people who actually challenged me to write better, rather than just scribbling A++ at the top of the page.

How would you describe today’s poetry scene? Does it fall into particular classes or schools?
It’s diverse and lively and full of surprises. The web is turning English-language poetry into a transnational enterprise—it’s easier than before for us to write to each other, read each other’s work—and that’s all to the good, although that makes it even harder to pretend one has a scholarly bird’s eye view of it all. I try to keep up but I’m always coming across interesting poems and books and performers whom I’d never known about before. I do think academic and/or elite-press poetry publishing is particularly visible and has the most cachet, and it is hard to break in without powerful mentors, but not impossible—and you can always just shrug your shoulders at that world and find community elsewhere. I really admire all those poets and programmers who focus on the local and make the art accessible to everyone.

“I make notes on my submissions lists about what kinds of poems journals seem to like, and my shorthand categories include ultratalk/narrative, surreal/jumpy, free verse epiphanies, formal/lyric, sound-saturated, political, experimental (which to me means broken syntax).”

Aesthetically, I see lots of microtrends, and this is only in the print world (I love performance poetry but am not good at it myself). I make notes on my submissions lists about what kinds of poems journals seem to like, and my shorthand categories include ultratalk/narrative, surreal/jumpy, free verse epiphanies, formal/lyric, sound-saturated, political, experimental (which to me means broken syntax). Call me snarky/reductive, but there are definitely some common subgenres out there and it’s hard to get beyond them. Most editors favor two or three of those categories, I think, with little side-obsessions affecting the mix, but although I like to read and write across the spectrum, the poems of mine that editors like best seem to involve conventionally punctuated sentences, slightly surreal imagery/situations, and dense sound play without regular meter or full rhyme. I’m not sure if that kind of poem is in fashion, or if that’s just what I’m best at. I wish I could get away with breaking the sentence more or being talky, but no one seems to like that from me.

Tell me more about that turning point in your own work in 2003. What changed?
I attended a class at the Kenyon Writers Workshop taught by the brilliant poet Janet McAdams, and learned a couple of basic things: that I needed to lighten up the closure in my poems and allow risk and chance to open them up in weird new ways; that persistence and simultaneous submissions (when allowed) can get you far; how to organize those submissions and write a good cover letter. I was already an English professor with a scholar’s knowledge about poetry, and I was willing to work hard, but I didn’t have the practical pieces that some people get from good MFA programs. I’ve picked up a great deal of helpful information since, sometimes just from reading and listening in a more pointed way and sometimes from other mentors and conferences—but that 2003 event was an especially rewarding experience, a kick in the pants.

“When an editor will take the time to challenge you on a weak phrase or line break, that strikes me as incredibly generous. And a few put out books and journals that are consistently full of powerful poems, so I’m grateful to them as a reader, too.”

Can you speak a little more about confronting the tastes of editors?
Mostly what I feel about editors is gratitude that they exist—they work hard for little or no material reward. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a few great ones, especially on my books from C&R Press and Barrow Street, but also occasionally at journals. When an editor will take the time to challenge you on a weak phrase or line break, that strikes me as incredibly generous. And a few put out books and journals that are consistently full of powerful poems, so I’m grateful to them as a reader, too.

Most magazines with solid reputations, though, do seem conservative to me; there’s an awful lot of competent verse out there, poetry that’s by no means bad but just a bit too familiar or not fully thought-through or felt-through. I’m sure I produce some of it, despite my desire to do better. I’d rather read a messy, slightly embarrassing poem that takes an interesting risk than a competent, making-the-right-moves sort of poem, but the latter is easier to publish than the former.

I write whatever I want to, but when I revise, I do consider potential audiences, and editors are gatekeepers to audiences. I imagine a tough reader who doesn’t know or care about me encountering the poem, then identify what might attract or repel that reader. Mostly that process improves the work, but occasionally I worry that I’m smoothing away a good weirdness.

“The poets I write about, the aspects of their work I attend to, and even how I write endnotes — it all tries to redress how scholarship by women can be overlooked by male critics.”

Book cover image of Heterotopia by Lesley Wheeler
Heterotopia by Lesley Wheeler

Do you consider yourself a feminist? How has gender politics influenced (or not influenced) your work?
Absolutely and fiercely, I am a feminist. I know feminism has shaped my life—my relationships, my professional ambitions, my teaching. I know it has shaped my scholarship—the poets I write about, the aspects of their work I attend to, and even how I write endnotes, trying to redress how scholarship by women is sometimes overlooked by male critics. I know it must shape my poetry too, but that’s harder for me to pin down, probably because poetry’s sources are not under conscious control. I don’t set out to write a poem about rape (“Metamorphoses”) or a girl’s fear of growing into a woman’s body (“Spring-Sick”) because the material is feminist; it’s more like I’m feminist because those subjects move me. I did think about privilege a great deal as I drafted and revised Heterotopia, and I hope I got the balance right. My mother came from working-class Liverpool, and she’s of Irish descent—the Irish suffered horribly in that city. Writing about that is tricky enough, as a well-educated child of the New Jersey suburbs. Also, though, it felt wrong to write historically about Liverpool without addressing its role in the slave trade and the infamous race riots in Toxteth. I struggled to do so without seeming to exploit the material or lecture pompously about it; I needed to pose a critique without allowing myself to stand safely outside the fray. “Vronhill Street in Liverpool 8” in particular almost killed me. It was incredibly difficult to find a tone that worked. Perhaps these considerations of race and class wouldn’t seem feminist to some people, but to me they are.

There’s a definite difference in tone between your first and second volumes. Can you tell me a bit about the journey between the two collections?
Heathen
feels personal, lyric, and spiritual to me; I wrote it as an uncertain thirty-something negotiating new identities (parent, teacher) and illness I didn’t fully understand. Each poem was hard-won, crafted independently from the others, and these pieces fought their way up one by one through magazine slush-piles, usually after many, many rejections. The book itself was therefore hard to shape effectively and it made the rounds for five or six years, a persistent finalist that took a long time to win an editor’s heart. I think of it as a ship full of tough customers who jostle each other around and I’m proud of them for surviving.

A few of the poems in Heterotopia are older, but mostly they came together as I was turning forty and feeling more confident professionally and personally. This time I was not just writing poems but deliberately writing a book centered around a set of interconnected stories and ideas. The collection has a great deal of narrative in it and plenty of feeling, but it feels primarily idea-oriented to me. It won the Barrow Street prize after circulating for only a few months and I felt such pleasure in that rapid acceptance. It seemed to validate not just the work but a part of myself that I tended to downplay outside the classroom, as if I finally had permission to identify as an intellectual person in any context, without apologies. You’d think I would have conquered that inhibition against seeming too smart by the time I was a full professor, but somehow I really hadn’t.

What’s next for you?
I’m looking at a very, very rough draft of a new book with the working title Signal to Noise. There’s a long narrative poem in there, speculative fiction in terza rima, that is incredibly weird and unmarketable, but I needed to write it and still like it, so perhaps there’s hope. The rest is more lyric. All of the poems concern listening or communication, influenced by my scholarly research on voice: where messages come from and through what media; what interferes with their reception; how we interpret their significance; and why we listen in the first place. I’m enjoying the science behind the poems—reading about everything from how radio works to neurochemistry to the weird effects of infrasonic waves. While the ideas are in place, though, the individual poems haven’t all found their final or near-final form. I need to fiddle with it and think about it for a while still as, again, I test them with journal editors.

I’ll also be in New Zealand with my family for the first half of 2011; I’ve won a Fulbright to conduct research on twenty-first-century poetry and community. I need to turn myself into a sensitive receiver and read, listen, and think like crazy, both for the sake of the scholarly project I’ve proposed and to let the next big poetic subject, whatever it might be, slowly germinate. Or, at least, this is the story I’m telling myself about what I’m up to, and I hope to make some version of it come true.

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