Countdown…and teaching ideas for Poetry’s Possible Worlds

I’m getting very close now to the launch of Poetry’s Possible Worlds and therefore working hard on Poetry’s Possible Publicity. The task is a supermassive black hole tugging at my effort and energy, most of which will vanish without a trace–but I still believe in putting it out there. As Claudia Emerson framed it to me a million years ago (she was a visiting prof here long, long before her Pulitzer), promoting a book is part of the respect and caretaking an author owes to the writing itself. I labored over the book mightily for ten years; I can spend some more hours giving it its best chance.

Good things: the local launch party Tuesday will be called “Poetry’s Possible Powers,” set in the Reeves Gallery (full of Louise Herreshoff paintings) and featuring a small interdisciplinary panel of writers speaking briefly about poems important to them. I’m psyched about my party idea. Celebrating poetry itself feels better than saying “look at me.” Reticence is NOT good for writing careers, but I’ll turn it into a virtue whenever I can! Here‘s the university press release, but in short it’s 5/17 at 4:45, in case you’re local. Wherever you are, you can watch for a piece called “Brave Words” on next week–my publicist Heather Brown pitched that! Someone also sent me an advance peek at a breathtakingly wonderful review that will appear next month. In the meantime I’m setting up events for summer and fall and would very much welcome venue ideas and news of other soon-to-launch books that might resonate with mine for a bookstore event. Poetry’s Possible Worlds describes reading poetry during a time of crisis, so it’s memoir, criticism, and an exploration of the effects of reading on our minds and bodies. It’s also a speculative book (about poetry’s genre kinship with fantasy), a grief book (beginning with my father’s death and ending with my mother’s final illness), and a story of real and figurative travel (my Fulbright to New Zealand, among other journeys). At one point this constellation of topics bewildered me–how do I pitch this monster of a book? Mostly, now, it feels like an opportunity for connection.

One last angle: this book VERY much comes out of my teaching. I’m always looking for accessibly written but well-researched essays about literature, especially good scholarship that takes unusual forms and highlights personal stakes. It’s useful to learn the methods of argumentation and documentation that underlie a traditional English essay–my former students say they use them in work and life all the time–but students get bored of writing to that formula and I get bored of reading the results. Get students to choose topics and works they feel actual emotions about, though–to explore how those feelings link to specific features of a poem and what kinds of research might help them understand the mechanics further–and voila! Things get genuinely interesting.

With teaching in mind, here are some discussion questions and writing prompts that flow out of the book. Many would work for book clubs as well as classes, so just reach out if you’d like me to visit yours.

  1. Poetry’s Possible Worlds blends memoir with poetry criticism. What’s challenging about the combination? What’s appealing?
  2. Each chapter begins with a poem reprinted in full—in other words, Wheeler presents it before discussing it. What’s the effect of that structure on you as a reader?
  3. The author explores the process of “literary transportation” or getting lost in a book. What helps you experience literary transportation, if you do? Do you visualize anything when you read? Do you experience any changes in your body?
  4. Wheeler says she chose “strong poems that became charged with private meanings.” Which of these poems move or interest you?
  5. Read the Introduction then go find a book that was important to someone in your family. Are there marginal notations or “interleavings”? What do they suggest about the family member’s life? You could do the same with some old library books.
  6. Try the experiment described at the beginning of the “Participation” chapter.
  7. Read the Coda and reflect on your own “flow” experiences.
  8. Try creating what’s called a “reverse outline” of one of these chapters—”reverse” in the sense that it’s produced after the piece is written. What does your outline reveal about the chapter’s structure?
  9. Choose a literary work that means something to you personally. Write about it, interweaving literary analysis with a story from your own life.

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