“The streambed tilts a muddy ear // and I pour words into its drain, the cup- / shape someone’s heel dug filling up / as if with rain.”
The State She’s In (Tinderbox Editions, 2020)
What five songs would you want to have played at the launch of your book?
For mood, “Ugly Man” by Rickie Lee Jones and “It’s No Game” by David Bowie. I reference “Oh Shenandoah” in the book, a very old song that has been recorded a million times, but let’s go with the Tom Waits version. “Lord Randall” is another traditional one quoted in “Rescue Ballad,” a poem about the Orlando shooting; here it is sung by Jean Ritchie. I gesture to several other songs, including “Dixie” in “Turning Fifty in the Confederacy,” but…no, thanks. I’ll end instead with the call of the mockingbird, if that’s allowed. (I really love the Cornell Ornithology Lab—what a resource!)
If you were reading from your book at its launch, which poem would you open with and why?
I had hoped to figure out an ideal reading order by trial and error this spring, but of course my book tour has necessarily been cancelled. Maybe this summer? But maybe it would be the first poem in the book, previously published by the wonderful magazine Ecotone:
Because I call you, wind strips trees
of brittle limbs they did not need.
The streambed tilts a muddy ear
and I pour words into its drain, the cup-
shape someone’s heel dug filling up
as if with rain. Because I call us
together, the mountain blushes. A curtain
parts, loosens into rags of steam. Sun
and clouds pattern fields with roving
spotlights. Because I call you, power
thrums the ground. Now is the hour,
gilded, grand. I call this dazzle ours.
Could you say a bit about your research process when you were writing this book? How do you know when you’ve done enough research? In what ways does research make a poem better?
Because the book includes so much history, I did a lot of research, using archival materials at my university and digitized records of the local historical society. For example, a poem called “John Robinson’s List, 1826” is based on this. I read books about traditional ballads; Native American, colonial, and prehistoric habitation of my part of Virginia; and fauna and flora. I built “L” partly out of the Wikipedia page for 1967. I also used old books to give myself walking tours. I found most of that work deeply interesting, worthwhile in its own right because it turned me into a better-informed citizen, and there was plenty of it I didn’t end up incorporating directly. Yet as I tell my students, research is also aesthetically useful, furnishing poems with interesting detail and unexpected vocabulary. As far as doing enough of this background labor: even a great researcher never gets right to the bottom of the subject. You learn enough to get the words to flow, and then you go back and double-check everything, and then you double-check everything again and again before you eventually call it a day.
Your book seems to answer Joy Katz’s call for “more, and better, poems about whiteness,” her call for “intricate poems, stark poems, messy poems, musical poems, poems of scorching flatness that confront, frame, and mess with whiteness.” Do you have advice for other writers who might want to write about whiteness?
That’s what I was trying to do, but I feel totally unqualified to make pronouncements on the subject. Writing about U.S. history without thinking through racial genocide and oppression seems wrong, but in writing about whiteness, I’m often not sure where to stand. I screwed up a lot, writing poems that were appropriative, virtue-signaling, or in some cases seeking to defend white women in problematic ways—women who were racist but also deprived of the full rights and respect all human beings deserve. Mostly I couldn’t pull off that balancing act. There were poems that went through twenty versions that I had to scrap in the end. I hope I stripped the failed material away, but I know that in my older books in every genre, I now find ignorances that make me cringe, although I meant to write inclusively and compassionately at the time. I aspire to keep evolving enough, though, that I will always be ahead of my old self.
Lesley Wheeler’s new books are The State She’s In, her fifth poetry collection, and Unbecoming, her first novel. Her essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, is forthcoming in 2021. Her poems and essays appear in The Common, Crab Orchard Review, Ecotone, Massachusetts Review, and other journals, and she is Poetry Editor of Shenandoah. She lives in Lexington, Virginia.