A much-decorated poet and academic, Lesley Wheeler’s accolades include a Fulbright scholarship, an NEH grant, the Barrow Street Poetry Prize, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor List, and publication in many prestigious journals, including Poetry and Slate. She teaches English at Washington and Lee University and is an active member of the WOM-PO Listserv, an email discussion group for women poets that’s been around since before blogging and social media overtook online community platforms like Listservs. Her third book of poetry, Radioland, came out in October 2015. In spite of her rise to fame in recent years, Lesley remains a warm and generous correspondent. She took the time to answer some questions about her latest book, the po-biz, and the difference between writing and publishing.
You’ve gotten a lot of recognition for your work in the past few years. How have these changes in your career affected your writing?
It’s funny how happiness works—successes don’t warm you for long but difficulties worry you constantly. The life change came with my first two books, Heathen in 2009 and Heterotopia in 2010. Suddenly I felt able to call myself a poet. After the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, people seemed to take my work more seriously. The judge, David Wojahn, is highly respected by other writers, and that made a difference. “Fulbright” is a magic word—as well as representing an amazing opportunity—but I won that for scholarly, not poetic, research. My scholarly credentials remain fancier than my poetic ones and the two networks have surprisingly little overlap. In fact, having a foot in both worlds invites suspicion from both sides.
The public shift, more importantly, enabled an inner one. I realized what makes me happy in a lasting way is not the magazine acceptances but the work itself. Writing focuses and sustains me; publishing is kind of stressful. While I still worry too much, I’m sure, about how others perceive my work, I’m better at reminding myself after a po-biz failure that what I really need to do is not tweet more but write and revise with maximum intelligence and heart. Of course, a “just focus on the poems” mentality is easier to attain after some success. Before my first book was accepted by C&R Press, I was pretty desperate for that recognition.
I’ve always interested in the mechanisms of reception and transmission … When I listen to Lou Reed sing “my life was changed by rock and roll,” or read Emily Dickinson, I’m communing with the dead.
Was there a catalyst that prompted this new collection, or did the poems accumulate over time?
I realized early on, by 2010, that I was writing a group of poems about reception and transmission. I’ve always been interested in those mechanisms but my obsession deepened over the last decade. For my scholarly research—on voice and community in American poetry—I did a lot of thinking about the nature of communication. That scholarship fed into eternal questions about the kind of communication poetry represents, why I feel so compelled to read and write it. My science fiction novella in verse, the main part of The Receptionist and Other Tales (Aqueduct, 2012), also springs from an interest in weird signals, although it’s otherwise quite different from Radioland.
So there was a plan, but also accident. I happened to be raising teenagers. My parents happened to divorce and my father died. There were earthquakes and tidal waves and hurricanes. Spending several months in New Zealand was transformative in ways I wouldn’t have predicted.
In the poem “Earshot,” your father says “Hey you out there in radioland, are you listening?” Radioland seems to be your internal landscape-one that is informed by the outside world but also turns it on its head sometimes. When and how did it come to have this kind of meaning for you?
When I was a lonely teenager in suburban New Jersey, I used to sit in the dark tuning in New York radio and the region’s college stations. Those voices mattered to my sanity. Radio, record albums, and books gave me a sense of community I didn’t always find in ordinary life. I remember DJs jokingly addressing “all you people out there in radioland” and thinking, that’s me, that’s where I live. I feel the same shiver of impossible intimacy when Whitman reaches out to future readers in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” To read or listen or write is to step into another world in which those virtual connections feel vividly real. So, yes, it’s an internal or imagined landscape, the place you go when absorbed in a work of art, but it’s also sometimes the afterlife. When I listen to Lou Reed sing “my life was changed by rock and roll,” or read Emily Dickinson, I’m communing with the dead.
Heterotopia drew material from the stories of you extended family in Liverpool. Radioland’s poems address family in a more intimate way-primarily through your relationship with your father and his death, but also in your relationship with your children. How do these topics relate to the overarching theme of Radioland?
Communication between parents and children can be hard from either position—you feel like you’re shouting to your teenagers over thundering hormones, for example, and wonder what fragments of your message actually get through. Technology intervenes in ways that shape how we hear each other. I also had a series of dreams after my father’s death that could have been some version of me talking to myself or broadcasts from the spirit world—who knows? I would like to believe that Radioland is real, that we can make contact with each other despite uncanny distances, but my hope is laced with doubt. Poetic language suits me so well because it’s good for embedding multiple inconsistent beliefs.
I was especially struck by some of the autobiographical poems in the Classic Rock section of your book, which look back at your adolescence and early adulthood. “Art Film” tells a story of date rape, something which many women experience but few have been willing to talk about until recently. At the end of the poem you write “The story’s over, it’s pretty much over, lucky / and stupid. Don’t know why it took so long / to visualize the poem.” How long did you work on the poem before you were ready to put it out into the world?
In a way, I worked on it for twenty-six years. But the words themselves coalesced suddenly in the spring of 2012. I revised and sent out the poem within a few months. Once I had a notion of how to write about the experience, I felt urgently about getting the poem to a readership. My students were asking for lists of poems about rape and I realized I had few to give them, and none about that terribly common experience of being assaulted after an alcohol-fueled college party. My own rape had always felt too complicated to put in a single poem, until I understood that’s exactly the kind of story I ought to tell. I still wonder if that poem approaches the incident in too cerebral a way—I want it to be useful. But then, I guess, I’m a cerebral kind of person, and I process everything intellectually, so at least it’s honest.
My life was saved by rock and roll and poetry and feminism.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? If so, how does feminism inform your writing?
Yes! My life was saved by rock and roll and poetry and feminism. Seriously, I’m an educated white middle-class person from the U.S.—privileged—yet I so needed male approval, I put myself in harm’s way constantly. Employers and colleagues and students have disrespected me, underestimated me, underpaid me. And the flip side is feminist women and men supporting me warmly, helping me find my way in the professions of scholar, poet, and teacher. How feminism informs my poems might be more complex, but the story about “Art Film” above is one answer—I ponder what issues need voicing and what audiences might need to hear from me. Right now I find myself writing about the physical and mental changes of middle age and they’re definitely gender-inflected. Like a lot of people in this time and place, I’ve worried way too much about being thin and attractive, but middle-aged bodies really kick back against that program. Trying to separate health from vanity to spend my energy as constructively as possible in last few decades of my life—that’s hard but interesting, and it feels like feminist work.
How does your poetry writing inform your teaching?
Being a writer in any genre makes you a better writing teacher. You’re still in the throes of drafting, submitting, being rejected, submitting again, revising revising revising. The problems of putting sentences and lines together are vivid to you, and you know how rare and wonderful it is for someone to tell you hard truths about your work, but you also understand the need for encouragement and tact.
I’m also much more invested in reading and teaching contemporary work than I was at the beginning of my career, and that’s because I’ve seen how hard a business poetry publishing is. If we don’t buy good new books and teach them in our classes, then publishers can’t put as much out there. Poetry needs whatever resources each of us can spare.
If you had to pick one poem to represent this book, which one would you choose?
My editors chose “Bequest” for their website—it had been buried deep in the book until a late revision brought it forward, but I’m happy about its prominence. The sonnet crown “Damages, 2011” encapsulates a lot of my concerns, and I like how “The Burren” resolves anger at my father. I considered both “My Dead Father Remembers My Birthday” and “Dead Poet in the Passenger Seat” for the first slot in the book. “Adolescence is a Disorder of the Mouth” is fun at readings. But obviously I can’t answer this question! All the poems feel urgent—I ended up cutting everything that didn’t.
Keep stuffing messages into bottles and throwing them into the sea. You owe that work to poetry.
What words of advice do you have for young poets?
Read voraciously and be honest with yourself about what you like and value, whether or not it seems to fit the prevailing aesthetic. Risk failure, because everyone has to produce many mediocre poems before they get to the good ones, and the most important subjects are thorny and embarrassing and peculiar. When you have a draft that seems worth revision, respect your readers by being interesting in every turn of phrase: a great poem is a riveting read from start to finish. Poems have a long shelf life so it’s good to let them ferment for a while, but do send them to magazines you admire (which requires circling back to reading voraciously). Men seem to submit work more persistently than women, so sisters, remember: keep stuffing messages into bottles and throwing them into the sea. You owe that work to poetry.
Local Bostonians can hear Lesley and other poets read on Friday, November 20, 2015 at the Westin Copley. Full details:
Dig and Be Dug in Return:
A Participant Poetry Reading at the Modernist Studies Association Meeting in Boston
Friday November 20, 5:30 pm.
Staffordshire room at the Westin Copley
10 Huntington Ave, Boston, MA.
Open to the public.