Poet Lesley Wheeler, author of Heterotopia (Barrow Street, 2010), shares her experiences on writing, teaching, the VIDA count, and Wom-po.
When I reviewed Lesley Wheeler’s Scholarship Girl(Finishing Line Press, 2007) for Prairie Schooner in 2009, what struck me about the collection was its resonance with my own experience of being the child of immigrants. What could this collection of poems about Liverpool via Virginia possibly have to do with a Cuban-American who grew up in Miami? I was mesmerized by Wheeler’s tactile memory of a time and place she had not experienced firsthand. The poems from this early collection attempt to recreate the life of her mother in 1950’s Liverpool, but their central metaphor is the author’s own quest for self-definition. They haunt me still.
Wheeler revisits Liverpool in a new collection, Heterotopia (Barrow Street Press, 2010), winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize. Despite the scant three years between these, Wheeler has expanded her repertoire of tricks. The collection features the fourteen-sonnet crown “The Calderstones” at its center, and ranges in tone and style from straightforward narrative poems like “The Dead Man, 1958” to stylistically striking poems like “Split, 1940,” establishing Wheeler as a poet not just of sound and sense, but as a master of form. At the center of this collection is Michel Foucault’s concept. For Foucault, heterotopia is “a real or imagined space of escape, transformation, or revelation.”
Wheeler’s work continues to fascinate me, not just as a poet, but as an academic. The fruitfulness of her imagination is evident in her prolific output. Between Scholarship Girl and Heterotopia, there were Letters to the World (Red Hen Press, 2008), the groundbreaking anthology of poems from the Wom-po listserv, which she co-edited with Moira Richards and Rosemary Starace, and which I am so happy to be part of; Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920's to the Present (Cornell University Press, 2008), a collection of essays exploring the concept of voice in American poetry; and Heathen (C&R Press, 2009), another collection of poems. She is currently on a Fulbright in New Zealand but will return to Virginia in July, where she teaches at Washington and Lee University. Obviously, here is a poet/writer/scholar/critic/editor/teacher/wife/mother/woman/human who’s tapped into something we all wish we could grasp. In her own words:
Q: Some of the poems in Heterotopia first appeared in the chapbook Scholarship Girl. Could you comment on the journey from one to the other? How did the project evolve?
A: I’ve wanted to write about my mother’s childhood in postwar Liverpool since I was twenty—I knew I had inherited some powerful stories—but although I had a couple of small pieces that seemed to work, I just couldn’t figure out how to approach the material successfully. The manuscript that became my first full-length collection, Heathen (C & R, 2009), was stuck at a perpetual contest-finalist stage, and I was feeling despair about that, so at the advice of friends I threw myself into a new project, a much more tightly-focused plan to develop these tales and experiences into a sequence of poems. During 2007 I realized that I had a chapbook-length group that I felt good about and that chapbook publication might be a good inroad to publishing generally. I started sending it to a few contests, it was accepted fairly quickly by Finishing Line Press, and Scholarship Girl was out by the end of the year. In the same year that packet of poems earned me a grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts. Those events increased my confidence in the central idea, so I kept writing and reading and thinking until that core sequence was fleshed out into a book-length creature. The additional work gave me time and space to approach the topic from different angles, too—more philosophically in some poems, more personally sometimes, too. It became a book not just about one family but, I hope, about memory, heritage, and place in larger ways. Heterotopia found a home rapidly. I respect Barrow Street greatly so theirs was one of the first contests I tried.
Although I had been writing and reading seriously since high school, I had limited magazine publishing success until a pivotal Kenyon Writers Workshop in 2003 with the brilliant Janet McAdams. Then, for a few years, I got stuck again on the transition from lyric to book. It still amazes me how, starting in 2007, everything began to click. I had done the work but there’s always some luck involved, too, unless you have some high-powered connection who nudges you onto the fast track.
Q: David Wojahn, who judged the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize Heterotopia won, found it "refreshing to encounter a writer who works with such considerable facility in several different modes--deeply felt personal lyrics, challenging sonnet sequences, and documentary-historical poems of intelligence and depth." In this collection, you have traditional narrative poems side by side with more formally experimental poems like "Split, 1940," in which you use space and lineation to add meaning. How do you feel about writing different styles of poetry? Do you consciously seek new forms of expression?
A: Yes, I love experimenting with a new form or rhythm or mode. I don’t always pull it off, but I’d like to keep testing myself. The title poem of “Heterotopia” felt idiosyncratic at the time, more of a thought experiment than anything anyone would want to publish. That it works for some readers was a revelation to me: I’m allowed to be this person in poetry, too? I’ve been producing more long poems and lyric sequences lately and I am really enjoying their demands, as well as appreciating space for fuller exploration of a cluster of ideas. Thinking through verse is different than thinking through prose—less linear, more about associations than answers, more physical and emotional.
I fear getting too comfortable, too, because the most interesting work is risky and surprising, isn’t it? I worry about smoothing things out too much, overdoing the closure before I’ve played out the possibilities. I enjoy writing sonnets, and that’s often the first form that comes back when I’ve had a few weeks of not being able to generate work, but often wonder if those narrow rooms are bad for me.
Q: You are both a poet and an accomplished academic. What is the relationship between your academic writing and your poetry like for you, especially given that Heterotopia is based on Michel Foucault's concept? Do you have any advice for young poets contemplating a simultaneous academic career?
A: Both poetry-writing and the teacher-scholar career are all-consuming so they’re hard to do simultaneously; I sometimes feel like I’m short-changing both, never mind my children, spouse, friends, family, and larger obligations to myself and the world. Honestly, though, most poets I know are overextended and stressed out, no matter how they pay the rent. I also know that I’m bad at compartmentalizing so I might as well try for synergy. Certainly I get ideas for poems from my research and vice versa. I alternate between both forms of writing and one makes me smarter about the other. It’s a great and rare privilege to be able to talk and write about poetry as part of your job. I love teaching. Still, I’m glad there are poet-accountants and poet-house-cleaners and poet-painters—poetry would be more insular and less exciting if writers didn’t negotiate various worlds.
Advice: do an advanced degree in literary study or creative writing only if you passionately want to and think the effort is worthwhile in itself, whether it ever leads to a job or not. Most people who complete such degrees don’t ever secure academic employment, much less tenure, and even if you do the costs are huge: you earn less than peers who have made similar educational investments, you have very little control over where you end up living (meaning tough family/ relationship choices), you work around the clock, and there’s much less flexibility than there seems to be from the outside. If you don’t feel driven enough to accept those risks and costs, that’s good—better to know what makes you happy and take your own path. If you do have the requisite level of reckless irrational obsession, I’d say go for it, take every opportunity you can without racking up major debt, get to know your professors and classmates even if you struggle against shyness, and make the most of every expensive minute. Many people who deserve that luxury won’t get it.
Q: The recent statistics from the VIDA organization have many writers rethinking the role of gender in the industry. Could you comment, as a critic, editor, writer, and woman on how you place your work in this discussion?
A: I have always thought that prejudice controlled resources and opportunities more than most would admit, so VIDA’s statistics don’t surprise me. I’m grateful to those women for publicizing the issues. To me, feminism means an obligation to notice and redress gender inequities however you can. Well, human decency requires that, too! Parallel institutions of support are crucial—presses, journals, mentoring programs—as well as changing institutional cultures from within. I try to be a feminist scholar, poet, and teacher, though sometimes you just get so tired of fighting these old battles and you just want to hunker down with your anapests.
I keep saying I’m lucky and privileged and I mean it; I know I’ve been denied opportunities, lost money, because of my sex, but I know others who have fared much worse, and intersecting prejudices involving gender, sexuality, race, class, disability, and other factors can be huge obstacles for some writers. Look at incredibly gifted Harlem Renaissance poet Helene Johnson. Her experience made her work urgent and vivid—a disproportionate amount of the most powerful twentieth-century poetry in English was written by women, by people of color, by gay and lesbian writers, by those who didn’t see their lives and concerns reflected in mainstream culture. However, she also stopped publishing and largely stopped writing. To continue would have required more drive and resilience than most people have or need. Everybody has to work to change these conditions so poetry publishing is as close to merit-based as possible, although it’s just as important to be open-minded about what constitutes “merit.” I don’t want to keep losing decades of work by Helene Johnsons.
Q: You are also one of the editors of Letters to the World. What does Wom-po mean to you, and how would you describe it to someone who has never heard of it?
A: Wom-po (The Discussion of Women’s Poetry List) is one of those parallel institutions that tries to make an advantage out of exclusion by providing a professional network for women poets. I’ve put myself in the business of describing it by drafting an article about it (now under consideration), because I think literary scholars need to assess its influence. I say it’s an “old girls’ network” by design, a democratic and open virtual community founded in 1997, now enrolling about 800 people from across the world, and it’s important to clarify for people that it’s a space for discussing poetry and not workshopping it.
Wom-po isn’t perfect. It aspires to be a transnational community but the North American focus can sometimes seem relentless; I’ve seen lots of prejudices emerge in conversations there; members don’t all benefit equally from participation. It includes a great diversity of voices, but it’s still affected by real-world poetry hierarchies. I’m not sure that it has had a substantial influence on the kind of poetry its participants produce—that’s something I’m still looking for examples of. I am confident, however, that Wom-po is affecting careers through providing information and connections. Gender is important there but so is virtuality. I suspect women writers are often less mobile than their male counterparts, less able to make a splash in metropolitan centers or at elite residencies. This relatively new mode of affiliation can be seriously empowering, especially when electronic acquaintance is deepened through backchannels and in-person meetings. It’s how I “met” you, right?
Right! My thanks to Lesley for taking the time to answer these questions. Though we have never “met,” I feel a deep admiration for her work and an equally deep sense of consorority born not just of our common years in the thought community of Wom-po, but of her poetry, which speaks to me in so many ways.