Update 12/25/21: Lesley Wheeler’s forthcoming essay collection is Poetry’s Possible Worlds. @LesleyMWheeler
by Lesley Wheeler
Gift or delusion, I don’t have it. I see
the burnt petals of the dogwood tree,
sacred; breathe the spicy rot of last
year’s oak leaves after rain, sacred; taste
the dirty wild onion, heavenly. Not
one, but many. Not up there but
down with us, the broken sidewalks, the bugs.
The gods don’t give dictation. Ring-necked doves
devise their own flight plans. The lightning hurls
itself. Nobody tells the wind to cry.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen
and watch. Reception’s a religion when
everything whispers. Your hand to mine.
Starlings to branch. Signal and noise, ensnarled.
from Radioland (Barrow Street Press, 2015) Originally published in Unsplendid, 2013.
Lesley Wheeler’s books include Radioland and Heterotopia, winner of the Barrow Street Poetry Prize, and the chapbook Propagation. Her poems and essays appear in Cold Mountain Review, Ecotone, Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere, and her next collection will be published by Tinderbox Editions early in 2020. Wheeler teaches at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
Lesley says of her style, “My teenage obsession was with David Bowie. I’d like to keep pivoting, as he did, but I’m probably not so chameleonesque. I do know I’m a sound-driven writer who likes to play with imperfect rhyme and other aural textures.”
Lesley and Bekah connected via The 2018 Poet Bloggers Revival Tour. We wanted to know more about Lesley and her writing, so here is our interview with her.
Q~Tell us a little about the poem we’ve included. Did it come easily to you or was it hard to write? Is it representative of your work?
A~“Belief” is a slant-rhymed, metrically rough sonnet, and that’s a go-to form for me, something I can write when nothing else is coming. Normally I labor over poems for months or years, but that one basically arrived in its present form—one of those gifts you occasionally receive if you write a lot. It’s also representative of my work because, maybe paradoxically, I’m a skeptic who is deeply attracted to spiritual questions.
Q~What are your poetry highs/lows of the last year?
A~I actually spent most of the year sending work out and getting a nice share of magazine acceptances but feeling low about the arc of my poetry writing career overall. I was shopping around a poetry ms I’ve alternately been calling She Will Not Scare and Turning Fifty in the Confederacy, and while I know it’s my best work yet, it wasn’t obvious to me where it would land. (The overlap between those potential titles probably gives you a pretty good sense of its scope!). Just this month, I received the kindest fan letter from Molly Sutton Kiefer at Tinderbox Editions. I’m thrilled to pieces she wants to publish my book, whatever it ends up being called. I’ve reviewed a couple of their titles, and they’re beautiful inside and out. So, 2018 is ending on a high for me.
Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?
A~I’m fairly new to editorial work, having just become poetry editor of Shenandoah this fall. It’s a revelation, working this end of Submittable, and I recommend the experience. One reassuring thought from a newbie: plenty of impersonally rejected work may have actually been read carefully and appreciatively, even if the editor doesn’t have time to send personalized notes; also, sending towards the beginning of a submission period can be worthwhile, because editors may be less tired and more game (who knew?). A perhaps less reassuring observation: while some of the work I reject is just not professional—I’ve been startled by the level of overt sexism in a small but memorable proportion of the poems I receive—most of it is pretty good. The poet just needs to rethink an unsatisfying ending, say, or cut the weaker lines (from my point of view, although somebody else might think the pieces are perfect!). My advice would be: wait a while, bring in your tough-minded friends for feedback, and revise with utter ruthlessness before you hit send. Poetry keeps. Of course, I don’t always take my own advice, either. Handling a hot new draft is just so exciting, you want to share it.
Q~There are lots of publications out there. What is a literary gem you feel deserves more attention? Why will we love them?
A~I’m fond a lot of little magazines (Sweet and Flock have been good to me this year), but I’ll focus on a print magazine, Cherry Tree. It’s full of strong, risky work (where else can you send a broken rondeau named “Perimenopause”?) and I love their “Literary Shade” feature. Plus they’re really kind to their authors. We need that love and support so much.
Q~Your partner is also a writer. What’s that like?
A~Mostly, it’s good! Chris is a scholar of comics who has started working in visual modes, so he and I started collaborating this year. Our first poetry comic was just accepted by Split Lip Magazine, and that’s giving me delusions of hipsterism. It’s called “Made for Each Other,” which sounds romantic, but it’s about ambivalent, aging, gender-ambiguous robots, so it addresses marriage from a pretty strange slant. He’s also my first reader and a very helpful one. One tougher aspect of two writers making a life together: it was hard for two desperate writers to negotiate time when the kids were little. And now that our youngest is about to fly the coop, I’m worried that he and I will have to work hard NOT to work hard all the time, just out of sadness and confusion. We were so time-starved for so long.
Q~Are you involved in your local poetry scene? What’s it like?
A~I live in a really, really small town (maybe 7000), and all my students are undergraduates, so while I organize a lot of events, from marquee writers to student Haiku Death Matches, it’s hard work to draw in audiences. I helped run a local monthly reading series for a few years, but it was exhausting. I live in a beautiful place, and I have talented students and colleagues, but I do wish I had more local poetry company. The web mitigates that—so thank you for being one of those long-distance connections!
Q~What’s a Haiku Death Match? Sounds like fun.
A~A Haiku Death Match is a competitive poetry event; I first saw one while attending the National Poetry Slam in Albuquerque in 2005. Poets play in rounds, and from each pair, the person who wins the best two out of three moves up in the brackets until there’s a single champion. As in slam, the judges are amateurs, so you’re not aiming to please anyone who has serious expertise in a venerable art form—you’re just trying to delight ordinary listeners. I stage these periodically when I’m teaching contemporary poetry to English majors. Spoken word is an important scene in U.S. verse, and I want my students to experience it live, but we don’t have a venue anywhere near here. My solution is to make my students do it, and haiku are not too intimidating for people who don’t consider themselves poets. The results are always high-energy and hilarious. I make the prize more miniscule every time—this year just 1 point of extra credit—but that just seems to egg them on.
Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?
A~I blog about poetry and sometimes post new publications here. You can buy my collections directly from the publisher or from that problematic but incredibly handy online book-superstore—or contact me directly if you crave a signed copy (sometimes I draw pictures). You can also connect with me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.