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.

Vassar’s Creative Writing Program – Pros and Cons

Below is a comment I posted on the “Don’t Let Vassar Silence Writers” Facebook page in 2010, a group that was trying to prevent deep cuts to the Vassar Creative Writing program. I’ve also included (with permission) the comments of some of my fellow alums, all of whom were active with me in the student-run literary magazine Helicon. Students a year or two ahead of me founded the magazine. I served as Helicon’s Managing Editor during my senior year (1994-1995).

I had aspirations to become a published poet and “woman of letters” when I enrolled at Vassar. I was very confident — perhaps even arrogant — about my writing abilities. Vassar’s English department completely destroyed that confidence. This was in the early 90s, when the entire extent of the Creative Writing program consisted of Composition, Narrative Writing, Verse Writing, and Senior Composition. I took them all except for Senior Comp. That year, the only slot given to a poet went to a young man I’d never met.

The education I got at Vassar was very good, and the English literature program is rigorous and outstanding. On reflection, I’m not sure that I would change my decision to study at Vassar. But it definitely stifled my ability to write creatively. As a writer, I’m still recovering from that experience almost 15 years later.

Sarah Fnord Avery: My experience in the classroom at Vassar was overwhelmingly positive…until the Senior Creative Writing Seminar. The professor teaching it that semester was clueless about poetry, actively hostile toward genre fiction, and occasionally offensive to women in his choice of assigned model texts. All three of the poets in the seminar that year were consistently frustrated. I learned far more from my classmates than from the prof.

Strangely, the thing that happened at Vassar that came closest to silencing me as a writer was that my professors encouraged me to go to grad school. They thought they were helping me establish a writing life, but the academic job market and the process of preparing for it had changed so much between the 70s, when they got their degrees and positions, and the 90s, they had no idea what they were urging me into.Vassar I would definitely choose over again, but not grad school. Rutgers was a mitigated disaster, but a disaster nonetheless.
January 11, 2010 at 08:08pm

Sara Susanna Moore: I took only one writing course at Vassar, a required course for my degree– I think it was Composition. It was taught by Heinz Insu Fenkl, on whom I had a terrible crush. So of course I took his critiques of my work very personally and was terrified to talk to him. Plus, I was the only senior in a class of first-years, so we mostly sat in silence, as everyone was terrified to talk. It was possibly the worst class I had at Vassar, not entirely Prof. Fenkl’s fault, though it might have been his first teaching position. At the end of the semester, right before graduation, I screwed up my courage and went to his office hours, and put one question to him: “What kind of job would a PhD in English give me in the current job market?” He answered: “*Maybe* a position at a community college.” And then proceeded to layer on more things that were intended to discourage me from pursuing that degree, at all, ever.

So I never went down that road, though later I applied to Bennington’s “low impact residency” poetry MFA program (“rhyming by mail” as one friend put it) and didn’t get in. Another friend applied to the Bennington MFA in memoir, got in, and was disappointed. So, altogether I’m glad I pursued poetry on my own terms and instead went to grad school for something that looks like it will be pretty marketable. (Check back in with my later in the summer about that.)Back to Vassar: I took two classes in poetry, namely modern and romantic poets. I took them at the same time, the first semester of my senior year. I think we were doing Blake and Pound at the same time when the US invaded Haiti, using the 10th Mtn. Division (whose home is the army base near where I grew up) as the lead force. The combination of those poets and that event nearly gave me a nervous breakdown. I’m not kidding. But that’s not the fault of the professors.The Vassar English Department did me one solid on the poetry front: Eamon Grennan agreed to see me on a semi-regular basis and discuss my poetry with me. So I kind of had a non-credited tutoring arrangement with him, which I enjoyed. But I really got my poetry nurtured and improved by Helicon (tipping my hat to Sarah and Adriane). That was an amazing collective.
January 12, 2010 at 12:24am

Karen Schmeelk-Cone: As one of the scientist members of Helicon, it was great to be able to write and get encouragement since even getting into English classes was difficult. I wanted to take a creative writing course, but ended up in Expository Writing, I think in my Junior year. Interestingly taught by Dr. Joyce (I think) – he used a computer program which was somewhat like the web – you could link parts of your writing back to other parts or to things others had written. And the class used a program that seems a lot like FB – students commented back and forth during the class – so you could have 2-3 discussions at a time. And he was quite liberal with his version of expository writing. I remember coming up with a college catalog version of the requirements and courses in a fictional Homicide major. It was lots of fun to write.

But it really seemed like an impossible task to first get into English classes, then to achieve anything greater than a B if you weren’t an English major. Really one of my few frustrations at Vassar. But then, I was there for biopsychology and not writing.
January 12, 2010 at 10:18am

Yin Work in the Summer

Farmers let fields lay fallow. Bears hibernate. Human beings sleep. And artists take a break from creating. I decided to take July and August off from workshops, from submissions, from all the “work” of writing — especially anything to do with shameless self-promotion. I call this doing the yin work.

It was good timing.

This July, I resumed a full-time work schedule. And even though a 40-hour work week can feel like a luxury in this day and age — especially when you work in the tech sector — it’s been a struggle for me to re-acclimate this time. It’s hard to say how much of the struggle has to do with my current state of health (overall, pretty good) and age (if I were a man, I’d be old enough to study the Kabbalah), or if it’s always been this difficult and I just didn’t realize it. I’ve been learning to be kinder to myself, to lower my expectations to be more in line with what most human beings might reasonably be able to accomplish.

Lowering one’s standards can be more difficult than you’d think

Lowering one’s standards can be more difficult than you’d think. All children grow up thinking that what happens in their families is just the way things are. Their parents teach them by example how to be in the world. I’ll be forever grateful to my mother for the courage it took her to leave an abusive marriage with two kids in tow, and then to raise them without a dime of child support. But it does mean that I grew up thinking that stretching myself to the very limits of my own abilities — and often beyond them — is just par for the course.

This expectation enabled me to survive a difficult childhood, excel in school, win a scholarship to a fancy liberal-arts college, and eventually stumble into a field lucrative enough for me to move to a home in the metro Boston area that has birds and trees outside. But — as my nurse boyfriend tells me on the regular — the maladaptive coping techniques that worked for me then don’t necessarily work for me today. Expecting myself to hold down a full-time job AND become a Successful Writer TM AND keep from ruining my health again might just possibly be unrealistic. Which makes me feel a little better that I haven’t been able to keep all three of those balls in the air for the past couple of decades.

The return to full-time work chafes especially hard because M and I are in the process of executing Project Okelle Career Change. This plan might sound familiar to anyone who lived through the irrational exuberance of the 1990s. If increasing shareholder value in Okelle, Inc. were my only motivation though, I’d stay in my cushy corporate office job until (hopefully) I retire or (more likely) they kick me out the door during the next big re-org. But while I enjoy living in a pleasant place, eating food other people cook for me, having health insurance, and keeping my creditors happy, money cannot be the only reason I work.

Parts of me are terrified at the idea of upsetting the status quo — and given the rollercoaster of last winter and the slow road to recovery that followed, I can understand their concern. Parts of me are less than thrilled about all the things that buying a home symbolize: loss of youth, loss of hip-ness, initiation into the Top Seekrit Club for Middle-Aged People Who Know about Stuff Like Fixed-Rate Mortgages. And hiding deep behind all of those tiny Okelles is the anguished artist who’s been wanting so badly to pursue her dreams, but is also terrified of achieving  them.

No matter how I succeed, it won’t be as good as my fantasies of success.

My inner artist is terrified of what might happen if I do, in fact, throw all caution and pragmatism to the wind, follow the bliss instead of the money, make sacrifices, go without, eat rice and beans, claw myself to the top of the caterpillar pile, and end up with an expensive piece of paper, another three decades of student loan payments, middling success as a professional writer (for a given definition of success), and an unfulfilling job that pays less than the one I had before. No matter what I do, I doubt I’m going to achieve the aura of fantasy-fulfillment that has been surrounding the idea of being a professional writer for me since age 10. Existential angst is a fact of existence. Nothing will change that, not even the Nobel Prize. Especially not the Nobel Prize, according to Doris Lessing.

Whenever the possibility of my fulfilling this dream occurs to me, I find myself tearing up. The energy behind those tears is deep and complex. I’m not sure I’ll ever unpack it. I’m also not sure that I need to before I start walking toward the thing I fear. Fear is an old companion, one who rises to swamp my boat when I run from it, and who bouys me when I steer into it. As a way of working with this particular snarl of fears, hope, grief, and resentment I’ve begun reading Pema Chödron’s book The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. She talks a lot about being a warrior in this book, which is comforting since I’ve always wanted to be a warrior but never wanted to bother with military service or, you know, actual fighting. The warrior she describes, though, reminds me of the internal jihad Muslim teachers talk about: the warrior who is courageous enough to run toward the dangerous, frightening places within, and who chooses to allow pain and fear make her flexible rather than more rigid. This passage in particular spoke to me:

The irony is that what we most want to avoid in our lives is crucial to awakening bodhichitta. These juicy emotional spots are where a warrior gains wisdom and compassion. Of course, we’ll want to get out of those spots far more often than we’ll want to stay. That’s why self-compassion and courage are vital. Staying with pain without loving-kindness is just warfare.

“How to stay with your own pain in loving-kindness” was not on the core curriculum of the public schools when I was growing up, but then again neither was “how to start your own business,” or “how to pay off a massive amount of debt,” or “how to be a queer woman in a straight man’s world.” I’ve been able to bungle my way through the rest of those lessons. School was pretty easy by comparison, really. You memorize the Pythagorean theorem, regurgitate it for the test, and get on with your life. The constant practice of being a grown-up, however, can be much more difficult. As can reminding yourself that yin work is a necessity, not a luxury. Any artist will tell you so.