Lesley Wheeler on The Social Distance Reading Series
Lesley Wheeler’s new poetry collection is The State She’s In; Unbecoming, her first novel, is due this summer. Her poems and essays appear in such journals as The Common, Crab Orchard Review, Ecotone, and Massachusetts Review, and she is Poetry Editor of Shenandoah. She lives in Lexington, Virginia.
In the wake of book event cancellations due to COVID-19, this pop-up series is designed to offer poets a platform for launching new collections of poems. Stay tuned for a new reading each Wednesday and Sunday.
Lesley Wheeler’s poems call us to power and challenge us to own our dazzle even as they explore gradations of despair, as a woman navigates the Trump years, marching in a cold city “pinked/by hats with pointy ears,” ever alert to her “inhospitable secret vagina” and whether it will “be grabbed or/ judged not fit for grabbing.” Wheeler’s formal virtuosity wheels and sparks as she explores the impact of whiteness and sexism on the literal state—its history, its land, its educational institution—she occupies. “I need to learn/how to endure my own bitterness,” she writes, as the contaminated water sings.” In a wallop of a poem, “New Year’s Colonoscopy,” she conjures: “for I/boiled the bones and drank the steam,/sipped pink potions hours on end, emptied/myself of last year’s toxic shit, and am clean.” Wheeler’s research, her feral witchery, her poems themselves, are an answer, if not the antidote, to the state we’re in.
–Diane Seuss, author of Four-Legged Girl and Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl
These poems showcase Lesley Wheeler’s acerbic wit and vast intelligence– all laced over with a compassionate spirit for what divides us and what makes us whole. This gorgeous collection interrogates a landscape where a singular fruit makes “seeds jingle. Custard’s plush in the mouth,” while still hoping to arrive at a place where we’d prefer, “…the sparrow be true than cells struggling to contain unlikely radiance, and failing.” This is a collection of uncommon frankness, a poet of uncommon grace.
—Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of Oceanic and World of Wonder
How do you begin a new piece of writing? What conditions help your writing process?
The biggest obstacle is fractured attention. I write most and best when I dial down my screen time. I need to listen to the voices of others and the voices in my head.
What was an early experience that taught you language has power?
I first read Sylvia Plath as an undergraduate and, while this seems like a weird thing to fixate on, I was astonished by her vocabulary. The way words ground together in her poems transferred feeling in a way I found electrifying.
What poets or writers do you continually go back to?
I teach 19th, 20th, and 21st century poetry regularly, and I’m always surprised by how a different writer pops for me each term. But Emily Dickinson, W.B. Yeats, H.D., Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, Terrance Hayes, and Tracy K. Smith are precious company.
What is your favorite childhood or adolescent book?
Anything by Madeleine L’Engle. She included her own poems in her books sometimes; I used to memorize them and recite them to myself when I was down.
What are your thoughts/experiences on social distancing?
I’m an introvert whose most consoling connections to others are often through writing, plus my spouse and son are holed up with me, so social distance isn’t the hardest part of this spring. My real struggle is managing sadness and worry. That said, I spent a ton of time arranging spring readings and it’s been disappointing to watch them fall away, so THANK YOU for this project!
Where can we find you? Link to your blog or website:
My website is here: https://lesleywheeler.org/. The State She’s In is available directly from my publisher, Tinderbox Editions (https://www.
The Social Distance Reading Series
Brought to you by The Vermont School and Green Mountains Review
We’re thrilled to host The Social Distance Reading Series, a collaboration between Green Mountains Review and The Vermont School poets. In the wake of book event cancellations due to COVID-19, this pop-up series is designed to offer poets a platform for launching new collections of poems. At this point, we are focusing on collections by poets whose book events have been cancelled between January through May 2020.
Stay tuned for a new reading each Wednesday and Sunday.
–Didi Jackson, Major Jackson, Kerrin McCadden, and Elizabeth Powell, series curators.
–Kylie Gellatly, editorial assistant, interviewer.