Sunday, August 19, 2012

Interview: Poet Susan Wheeler of New York City and Princeton University

...Just this transpired. Against a tree I swooned and fell, and

water seeped into my shoe, and a dream began to grow in me.

Or despair, and so I chose the dream. And while I slept,

I was being fed, and clothed, addressed — as though awake

with every faculty, and so it went. Then: blaze, blare of sun

after years uncounted, and synesthesia of it and sound,

the junco’s chirp and then the jay’s torn caw...

Susan Wheeler interview-article by Peter Menkin

Poet Susan Wheeler by Frank Wojciechowsk

Poet Susan Wheeler’s interview is another in an ongoing series with Anglican and Christian poets. Professor Wheeler is Director of Princeton University’s Creative Writing Department (Lewis Center for the Arts) in New Jersey. In our initial telephone conversation in the latter part of July, 2012 she said to me:
I think that my own religious belief and spiritual life informs my writing. Long before I was using overt references I had the experience of going to a small Baptist college in PA and speaking to a class with one of my books [in hand]. The students in the class immediately spoke of my personal relationship with Jesus. I was found out. I had a personal relationship with Jesus, and [it was] sort of thrilling. After that I became overt in my references. Assorted poems is selected works. Ledger is  about faith and stewardship.
I think, too in that same phone call early on, she made this interesting remark on The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan William.  He is an influence on her poetry work:
For her book Ledger, the writing of Rowan Williams was very important. The third to last in Assorted Poems is called the “Debtor in the Convex Mirror.” It is originally, an iconic, contemporary poem written 30 years ago, by John Ashbury. Relativism was dominant,then  and was assumed [as the usual thing]. What I wanted to do was talk about that idea of how there could be something as absolute as God if everything is as Rowan Williams made as a model: That our consciousness does not overlap with another person…There are certain shared experiences…it is in those shared experiences that God exists.
The reader realizes soon in a conversation with the poet that as a Christian and Anglican, that she is a thoughtful woman of letters. Her work is neither shallow, nor thrown about, but well considered and in the modern sense engaging in its taste for language that has an American jazz sound. For Susan Wheeler likes to work with the sound of words. She says in this interview, made with her by phone with this Religion Writer where she was situated on the phone line at her home near Princeton University:
There is a strong drive in me for a counterpoint… I do try to go back and forth and vary a great deal.
Her Church, where she attends, she says in that same initial phone conversation: The one I try to go to most recently: St. Luke’s on the Field in Manhattan. On Hudson, West Village. Professor Wheeler, speaking of her Baptism, says she was, Dunked in 1987.
Please note there are a few adult words in the poetry represented in this article-interview.
In one of the few other interviews with the poet, this in Bomb magazine, (2005) reads as Robert Polito asked: A canny, plangent, demotic and visionary anatomy of “Money and God,” as one of her titles here tags it, Ledger might well be Susan’s finest book of poems. The brio, elegance, and wit of her new work make other much recent writing sound clumsy and tone deaf; and her adventurousness, audacity, even her defiance, make many of her contemporaries appear slight, or trivial. Record Palace also focuses on money—on class and race, too, as well as on jazz, art and the city of Chicago. Cindy, a white, “edgy” art history graduate student from Thousand Oaks, California, starts to hang at a record store—all jazz, all clutter—presided over by the astonishing Acie. Susan apostrophized Acie in a sonnet she placed in Source Codes:

You’ve been pure trouble since I thought you up,
Acie: hairnet, glass eye, a wormy dick
through stretch pants across a girth so thick
even your dog don’t jump. I dared you drop
onto pages without a plot—and make for one.
Your diffidence don’t stack up to jack
shit so far, you mangy crank, your bun-
ions in the split of your flip flop’s sock.
I need your help here . . .

She says further in that same Bomb magazine interview: The God part was always there, just not as overt. It was after my second book, I think, that I did a reading at a religious school in Pennsylvania, Messiah College, and there the students just launched in, talking about Jesus and how several poems either supported or took issue with their own beliefs. It was spooky but great—I felt like my secret was out! I’ve always wished I could write something in which faith was as apparent and as organic as it is, say, in Agee’s Death in the Family, but for one reason or another I didn’t.
I knew I wanted this book to be about money, and then it seemed inevitable that it be about God, too. That so much of the yearning is displaced yearning for God.

Another noteworthy man says of poet and Princeton University Professor Susan Wheeler: About her work, John Ashbery writes, “Susan Wheeler’s narrative glamour finds occasions in unlikely places: hardware stores, Herodotus, Hollywood Squares, Flemish paintings, green stamps, and echoes of archaic and cyber speech. What at first seems cacophonous comes in the end to seem invested with a mournful dignity.”
From a published listing about the poet, this information: Wheeler’s awards include the Witter Bynner Prize for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Wheeler has taught at the University of Iowa, NYU, Rutgers, and Columbia University, and is currently on the creative writing faculty at Princeton University. She has lived in the New York area for twenty years.
Additional information about the poet:
Bag ‘o’ Diamonds (University of Georgia Press, 1993)
Smokes (Four Way Books, 1998)
Source Codes (Salt, 2001)
Ledger (Iowa, 2005)
Assorted Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)
Record Palace (Graywolf, 2005)

1       I found Robert Polito’s question in the 2005 interview published in Bomb magazine very good, and so we start with his question from that interview. His is a question that gets right to poetry and in this case the prose of your novel…:
RP: Record Palace re-creates Chicago so beautifully. Also jazz. Music is crucial to all your characters—your displaced art history student Cindy; record store owner Acie; and Acie’s son Bowtie. Is jazz—is music of any kind—also just as important for you?
Music is, and it was especially so for my novel since it was, in large part, about jazz. In my poetry, the sound is very important. I do borrow from other art forms. I’m most aware of it with visual art in, for example, thinking about the surface of a poem, as one might think about the surface of a painting. There is a strong drive in me for a counterpoint… I do try to modulate, to go back and forth and to vary a great deal.
As a poem that is directly involved with music, there is the poem, “Benny the Beaver: My Father’s Tale,”that’s simply a recounting of a record that I had as a child of a story with jazz music in the background. That’s in Assorted Poems.

Benny’s tail would only drum.
All day while fellow beavers drug

The tree limbs to the riverbank
Benny slapped his tail to bang

A beat on hollow logs,
Keen for external analogs

To the hums within his head.

(from “Benny the Beaver: My Father’s Tale”)

2    Of your works of poetry in published books, which of them do you as poet suggest a reader buy and read first? Or borrow from their local library? In this question, please give some sense in that work that will appeal to the Church going Christian, or even the poetry reader who is seeking a look at our modern world in the 21st Century through your special prism of voice. Especially, as this seeker may be trying to make sense of the kind of existential way that has been called Post Christian in today’s America. Will you allow us to excerpt a short example in your explanation of one of two of the poetry works in your suggested title that you respond about?
Probably the best sampler of the work, since it includes all of my books, except the forthcoming book, Meme (in October), is Assorted Poems. The notion of faith or Christian faith, specifically, comes in throughout the books, but most explicitly in the individual collection, Ledger. If someone wanted an essential focus on faith, one might go to Ledger.
First of all I’m Episcopalian, which gives one a lot of room within the relationship to God… It is a living relationship, not a static one, and accommodates doubt.  There is a poem from Smokes (also in Assorted Poems) called “The Dogwood and the The” which I wrote at a time I was living in Virginia and going to a more evangelical Episcopal Church than I was used to, early on in my life as an Episcopalian. I was having a great deal of trouble with what one of my priests called the “particularity of Christ.” The poem draws upon that, not in a direct or overt way, but does struggle with that. What was the Passion, how can I get my head around a God that became incarnate, in Christ.

Poet as child.

It wasn’t that the process was rational, and I still don’t think I could articulate my faith in a rational way. That is why I am an Anglican; I can hold various contradictory ideas at the same time and not feel the need to sort them out. But because my faith had always been more nebulously based; in order to say the Nicene Creed, I needed to be able to say it without making the incarnation only symbolic or a “story.” I wanted to meet the liturgy on its own terms.
Again, Assorted Poems has a sampling of my work to date. Ledger was a thematic book of poems looking at the measure of faith, and resources, and stewardship. There is a long history of earlier poets using the trope or metaphor of money in devotional poetry. Herbert wrote a number of poems that used various financial vocabularies to talk directly to his God. I also wanted to explore the idea – the book was written before the crash in 2008 — that all of the culture’s consumption had something to do with the absence of a relationship with God, a yearning for transcendence. The rampant faith that money would provide all that religious belief traditionally had provided, I just saw as corrosive. The collection Ledger revolves around that idea, in part.

3          Allow me to put you on the spot for a moment, and here I don’t ask for a defensive response so much as an introduction to the kind of voice and form in your poetry of unusual ear. This quote is from a comment on of your book, Assorted Poems. Comment by S. Stansel:
Susan Wheeler deserves to be much more widely known. She is in the very top tier of poets writing today and Assorted Poems is an excellent introduction to the breadth of her work. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you only buy one book of poetry this year make it Assorted Poems.  
With it is this less favorable, even critical comment that in its way dismisses your work. Comment by Simon G. Barrett:
In the very first (and title) poem of Wheeler’s first collection, Bag ‘o’ Diamonds (‘o’?), we read
Oh ye who considereth the faith
When I last looked into the King James Bible, ye was plural; the -eth form takes thou, though in this form (you who-) the ending would properly be -est.

- or is this Pythonesque gibberish deliberate?
NB the ‘O’ in Prince’s 1987 Sign ‘O’ the Times album is an attempt to represent the peace (or anti-nuke) symbol (hence the quotation marks) not a new form of punctuation. More important, should we care? Chock full o’Nuts, more like.

(1)  For the Bible student who probably attends a Bible Study, give us the opportunity to better understand what your poetic statement about considering the faith in the King James Bible is about;
(2)  I think this man’s comment (Simon G. Barrett), represents well some of the confusion that faces many readers of your various works. Do you think this is so, and will you comment telling the reader why this may be?
I’ll go back to that first poem in my first book, Bag ‘o’ Diamonds (the poem is also in the sampler book, Assorted Poems), that the fellow is taking issue with. And the title may have very well failed for half my readership — clearly it failed for this fellow! What I have always been interested in is American vernacular speech, and I wanted to signal that right off the bat. I wanted to connote the vernacular signage in diners where the menu item is written “full ‘o’ nuts” or “frank ‘n beans,” for example, where the apostrophes bear no relation to the missing letters.   It was the same interest in the vernacular of “O ye who considereth the faith,” a voice that would try to approximate elevated, Biblical language.

In this instance, in this particular poem, I wanted to dispense with the childhood sort of history in the first poem. A poet’s first book is often very personal: their growing up, their childhood. I wanted to communicate a sense of alienation and a sense of being judged, and a kind of yearning for something else. In the last two lines: O ye who considereth the faith, can ye slam the wong straight. “Slam the wong,” of course, is another nod to a vernacular, and an off-color vernacular, speech, beinga way of saying masturbate.

My first friend had just died of AIDs in the 80s at a time of great judgment against gay culture, where many conservatives were saying they were bringing God’s wrath on themselves. The American vernacular of these lines, you masturbate yourself into being straight, is used bitterly, sadly. It was a piece of what I was wrestling with – how the religious right could skew religious faith so, as this judgment was not part of the religion I had been dunked into. I definitely think readers face confusion in my poems. I do not generally write a clear story in my poems. I am very interested in language working in the moment. I may have a wistful kind of statement and then contradict that with a smartass remark. Poetry has a long history of working in many different ways, but in the last 50-years of mainstream poetry it has not been so. We expect a poem to be a tiny story with short lines. I think about poems as having so much more possibility; sometimes they can be tiny stories with short lines. They can sometimes be essays, they can sometimes be theatre. All of these dimensions of poetry that go back to the ancients are seen as retrograde. We expect poems to give us a “take-away.”

Poet Susan Wheeler as little girl. This, too, from Poet’s private collection. Photo titled, “Child Two,” by G.L. Skeen.

A lot of that has to be with how we’re taught to read poems. What is the symbolism, what is the message of the poem? Language as a medium, like paint or music, has an enormous range and potential that is not explored by a one line take-away. But language has an advantage on paint or music in that it is intrinsically representational. If we hear the word cat, we have a relationship with it. We cannot think of cat abstractly. I am interested in evoking emotions, feelings, and am occasionally interested in a story — however, I want to do that not through a single occasion for a poem but through the possibilities that open up while writing the poem.

4          In your work as a teacher with students who are poets at Princeton University, where you are Director of the Creative Writing Program, talk to us some about your formal work in the classroom. By this I mean, tell us how you approach the student poet, and what areas of the craft as it appeals to students in recent semesters do you want to hear about? Are there any specific questions or comments made in either the classroom or in your work as Director of Creative Writing you’d like to relay to us in some form?
In terms of how do I approach a student poet, we are strictly an undergraduate program at Princeton. Many of our students are reading and writing poetry for the first time. Some students come in having read only Shel Silverstein, and they want to write rhyming and funny poems. The students are anywhere from 18 to 22. I teach at all levels of undergraduate.
So my main goal is for them to get a sense of the variety of things they can do with a poem. So I give them a lot of different kinds of exercises. I have them read a number of different kinds of poetry from traditional to experimental. So they get an idea of the range of possibilities. As they develop, I try to look at their poems and encourage them to look at the poem at hand on an individual basis. And try to see what the student poem is trying to do, and improve on it on its own terms. So it is a very individual pedagogy in that respect.
What I generally start beginners in, and I don’t give them long to do it, 24 hours…they are to write a limerick. That is a good exercise to start with. There are certain parameters to a limerick that involve sound, tone, sense. They are off color. They are short. There is a particular meter, a cadence to every line. The students bring in their limericks to discuss with the group on the first day, and many have never been in a group critique. It is a good exercise to begin a discussion of poems, since the parameters are so clear and probably won’t be so straightforward throughout the rest of the semester. Even though we may be writing strict forms with other exercises, we probably won’t be able to agree what makes a poem in the future that works or doesn’t work. It gives students a firm ground before we step off the grid.
By Weldon Kees, midcentury poet:
There was a French writer named Sartre
Who got off to a pretty good start?
But as year followed year
It got painfully clear
He was longer on wind than on artery.

5          I know we’re coming to the end of our interview. Thank you so much for your time and willingness to tell readers of your work as teacher and poet. But we’ve not touched specifically on your life of Church attendance, and matters of faith as they’ve influenced your vision and voice as poet. This broad question leaves more than one door open to you, and in its non-directive way provides an opportunity for you to explore with us some of the influence and inspiration of faith in your own life, mostly as it relates to your writing.
I was raised by two Unitarians who adamantly did not believe in God, and frequently made fun of religious people, but I was fascinated by my friends who were Catholic. My first poems when I was six or seven were prayers. I wanted to imitate my Catholic friends’ prayers.

Book of Poetry by Susan Wheeler; recent collection.

It took many, many years before I became observant in any formal way. I was living in Greenwich Village in the 80s, and I went to a memorial service at an Episcopal church in the heart of the West Village for someone who died of AIDs. And that did it. This was for me. I then got dunked, but it was a provisional baptism because my mother insisted that the Unitarian Minister who had christened me would not have mentioned God. That’s my own history with it. My own kind of seeking has been there in the poems, in one way or another.
Most definitely, certain poems in their writing do feel as though they come through rather than from me, even though I was cautioned by a priest early on that feelings are not faith! It may just be a feeling that I’m having a good day. But yes, I have had the sense, like other poets, that a poem is being talked through us. It is a rare occasion. I definitely think that there is so much open possibility in a poem that there is a lot of room for things that aren’t, can’t be, directly and rationally expressed.

6          In this the last question of our conversation today, this Religion Writer has probably forgotten a question or comment that is on your mind or that you’ve now thought of that you’d like to talk to readers about. Please take some time now, even to mention your current work or an upcoming work. Or where someone may come see you give a reading. The venue need not be accessible to the local or immediate reader to where this interview is posted.
In October my next book, Meme, is being published by the University of Iowa Press. Also the UK edition of what is essentially my “selected poems,” Assorted Poems, is being published by Salt Publishing. My web page is . If readers want to write Susan Wheeler: .

I will be reading from both books throughout the next year in the U.K. as well as in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Boston; the first reading this fall will be at Labyrinth Books in Princeton, NJ on September 27 with poets James Richardson and Tracy K. Smith.  All the readings can be found on my web page or by subscribing to my Facebook page. (In the past I’ve read at Harvard, the Hammer Museum at UCLA, The Poetry Project in New York, the 92nd Street Y, for some examples).  At most readings, I read between 15 and 30 minutes, depending on whether I am reading alone or with others, and question-and-answer periods and book-signings follow.

What I Thought It Would Be Like

after James Wright’s “Living by the Red River”

Blood flows in me, but what does it have to do
with the rain that is falling?
Believing a wiggy army, English teachers
or preachers or adults who (for the smarmiest reasons)
leaned in to listen over holy knitting then,
blood flows in me, but what kind of relation
makes the table when the child falls on the
lawnmower, on this oh deceptive summer day?
Does it have to do with the elephant’s duress
caught red-handed in the butter on his way to the
dryer?  Hardly a day passes when you don’t say now,
“You too,” before the errands come.

Rain that is falling is less than blood, is less
than a storm on the surface of the water, is less
than the level of hot sauce in this jar, is less
than a cataclysmic sentencing, is less than the
view of trees over the accountant’s brow, is less than
the semblance of fortune this rhetoric ringing,
ringing you, predating, preying on, ringing,
pummeling, ringing on you, rain that is falling, blood that
flows in me, but what does it have.

Susan Wheeler, from Bag ‘o’ Diamonds

Farmers, Falling Down

In the distance there are several trees
randomly blowing (or being blown)
and a faculty of oranges still unconvinced (fallen).

Several friends that stood to be counted
have the brisk fallopian air needed now.
One trembles so to think of it you hold her.
One falls like loofah on the stair.

When you went out first you thought love gripped
and shook and that was how
it mattered.  One trembles so to think of it you hold her.
Sympathies the unruly sky parts now into flocks.

Susan Wheeler, from Bag ‘o’ Diamonds

The Snail and the Turtle

It began to rain, and near the lodge
all of the adult campers ran for cover.
Some played Scrabble.
Some made daiquiris from refrigerator mix.
Some underwent sincere transformations.

What did the snail say
when he rode on the back of the turtle?

The other campers were at the petting zoo.
One of the goats had begun to butt them roundly.
Their rumps were getting sore.
Their hair was getting soaked.
A fracas ensued.

The weeeeeeeee of the answer
catapulted the congregation.

Try the host on the left,
what is required milks the sheep.
Long needles are scraping the screens
where the woodsmoke careens.

The adults found the beasts in line for the makeshift crêche,
and found the rector bowed in prayer.
Here, he said, stirring, we will see
2000, broken and dumb as ever.
Then the moron tiptoed past the medicine cabinet
and let the sleeping pills lie.

Susan Wheeler, from Bag ‘o’ Diamonds

Charity Must Abide Call for Ancient Occupation

by Susan Wheeler
Red barn, still house, shimmering heat.
Brown barn, air in rain, green smell.
I climbed the hill to volunteer my hands:
O works that we may walk in.
The rodent's toe in the pinecone cell,
the brackish bag with its damp wax gel,
beside the fence links, glinting.
One was spending one hundred thirteen degrees
supporting the basic initiative,
in his trailer, terminally wounded in Congress,
waiting for sunset so he could sound alarms about its ability
to spend hours putting temporary fences,
implementing, nondiscriminatory,
not only his sheep when it comes to gays but,
when it comes to all their dogs in holes they had dug
to religious faiths, under trailers,
to groups providing government-funded, blistering heat.
And one, Solomon, solemn one, puled,
She, initiate in the knowledge of Him, 
co-creator in His works, 
I determined to take her to live with me, 
for if we want riches in life, what be greater bounty 
than the knowledge that triggers all things? 
I waited on that corner until the yelling began,
the sharp horn, the crumpling steel ——
until the songbirds swooped in like carrion,
into the funnel of charitable provisions,
sounding the alarm in a surfeit of ours,
initiates, faith based in moneylenders' lairs.
I credited their flight. Wrung charity.
But the wing flapping went on in the heat.
In the hour before sunrise the wet & swift wings ceased.
Should there be, I thought, a mandible for each?
A Dolly for each Sofia? Faith entering the breach?
Still air, expectant, dark. The legalese.
From one I will expect, before earth us takes,
Staff, and thermos, crazed. Deafening heat.

From Ledger by Susan Wheeler. Copyright © 2005 by Susan Wheeler.

That Been to Me My Lives Light and Saviour

by Susan Wheeler
Purse be full again, or else must I die. This is the wish
the trees in hell’s seventh circle lacked, bark ripped by monstrous dogs,
bleeding from each wound. We see them languid there,
the lightened purse a demon drug. Less, less.
At the canal, the dog loops trees in a figure eight —
a cacophony of insects under sun. A man against a tree nods off.
Let there be no sandwich for the empty purse.
Let there be no raiment for someone skint.
Let blood run out, let the currency remove.
Let that which troubles trouble not.
My father in the driveway. Legs splayed behind him. Pail beside him.
Sorting handfuls of gravel by shade and size. One way to calm
a pecker, compensate for stash. Dad! I lied.
The man shifts by the tree and now grace is upon him.
The slant of sun picks up the coins dropped by travelers and — lo! —
grace enables him to see. The demon dog fresh off an eight barks, too,
standing, struck by the man, by the coins, barks at their glare;
the man reaches in scrim at the glint in the light and thinks Another
malt. The flesh is willing, the spirit spent,
                                                   the cloud passes over —
relief is not what you think, not the light. Regard the barking
dog now tugging at the dead man’s leg becoming bark.
You be my life, you be my heart’s guide,
you be the provision providing more,
you be the blood — stanch the sore! —
you be failing
                          proportion (mete) . . .
Steward of gravel squints up at the girl who is me.
What? defensively. Out of the east woods, a foaming raccoon spills.
Palmolive executive? Palmolive customer? Palm’s stony olives
                              on the embankment of limestone or soapstone or
shale. Leg of the man clamped in the dog’s mouth. Mouth
of the man open and unmoved. Voice of the man:
Three dolls sat within a wood, and stared, and wet when it rained
into their kewpie mouths. They were mine to remonstrate to the
trees at large, the catalpas and the fir, the sugar maples in the
glade turning gold. To each is given, one doll began, so I had
to turn her off. Consider how it was for me — 
Flash of the arrow and the foam falls down. Three balletists
ignoring pliés bound onto the long lawn and its canalward
slope. I am underwater and they haze in the light,
but do not sound. In the arrow’s blink they start.
Decimal as piercing of the line —
Table as imposition of the grid —
Sum as heuristic apoplex —
Columns in honeysuckle cents — or not.
Just this transpired. Against a tree I swooned and fell, and
water seeped into my shoe, and a dream began to grow in me.
Or despair, and so I chose the dream. And while I slept,
I was being fed, and clothed, addressed — as though awake
with every faculty, and so it went. Then: blaze, blare of sun
after years uncounted, and synesthesia of it and sound,
the junco’s chirp and then the jay’s torn caw, arc
of trucks on the distant interstate, your what the fuck
and then her call. Beside me, pinned to a green leaf,
in plastic and neat hand, a full account. I had indeed still
lived, and been woke for more. So, weeping then, I rose.

From Ledger by Susan Wheeler. Copyright © 2005 by Susan Wheeler.

This work appeared originally Church of England Newspaper, London. Contact the author Peter Menkin: .

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