Multiple worlds in poetry, fiction, and politics

Traveling to an alternate universe of thinking and writing has been helpful lately given an attempted coup, and racist police response, AND the apocalyptic daily death count and a catastrophically lame vaccine rollout. I don’t manage the leap into literary concentration every day, but that’s actually what my next book is about: what helps us slip into the reading trance, where poetry is concerned, and what that border-crossing does for a reader.

I’m polishing and updating my forthcoming essay collection, to be called Poetry’s Possible Worlds or Taking Poetry Personally depending on what my editor says. It requires reading and rereading widely and wildly to make sure my thinking and research are up-to-date: Carolyn Dinshaw’s exhilarating How Soon Is Now, Nicole Seymour’s Bad Environmentalism, and essays on narrative theory, deep attention, presentism, poetry of witness, and much more. New to me is Brian Attebery’s Stories About Stories, of interest partly because I’m thinking about story in poetry but also because of my investment in speculative fiction. Attebery argues that the cultural importance of literary fantasy as a genre lies in how it “redefine[s] the relationship between contemporary readers and mythic texts.” I’m not wholly satisfied with that as a definition, yet the book is useful and interesting. He describes genre, for instance, as “fuzzy sets”: “the question of what genre a particular text belongs to will never be resolved, nor need it be. The interesting question about any given story is not whether it is fantasy or science fiction or realistic novel, but rather what happens when we read it as one of those things.”

In the larger sense, I write in many genres–poetry, fiction, criticism, reviews, literary nonfiction–but I also think of myself as operating in the borderlands between smaller categories. My poetry has appeared and been reviewed in both “mainstream” and sf venues; it’s been called lyric, political, formalist, fabulist, and more, to which I say, cool. My forthcoming hybrid essay collection (blending criticism, theory, and personal narrative) argues that most poetry is not just fiction but fantasy. It’s fiction because framing it on a page as literary art sets it apart from truth and lies; it’s fantasy because, notwithstanding, it’s obsessed with what’s true. I define fantasy in a way that’s tangential to Attebery’s idea; I think of it as fiction exploring questions of what’s real, what matters.

And then there’s my novel Unbecoming. It’s been described as “an excellent feminist fantasy,” Weird fiction, magic realism, a fairy tale, and academic satire. Since it concerns the transformations involved in menopause I thought it might get dismissed as “women’s fiction,” but that’s not how it’s been received at all. No reviewer has called it “domestic fabulism,” either, which might be just as well, although I like some things about the term. The latter refers to books in which the primary world is realistic but into which weirdness makes persistent incursions–a structure that also describes many or most Stephen King novels, and he’s not called a “domestic fabulist.” As much as I enjoy some stories set in secondary worlds, novels that explore the strangeness of what seems familiar are my sweet spot. They’re more realistic than realism, in my experience, and more interesting. Poetry absolutely occupies similar territory, refreshing the ways we encounter the mundane.

Does Unbecoming redefine anyone’s relationship to myth? It does involve crossings in and out of a place like Faerie (called by an acerbic narrator UnWales), considering those crossings as migration tales as well as metaphors for weird bodily metamorphoses (true story: people fall asleep and wake up middle-aged). UnWales seems like an alternate possible reality, too, for characters who are stuck in a bad script or negotiating discrimination. Yet I wonder if the more important myths in my novel are those about menopause, that it’s an end of all good things instead of a beginning. The main character also has to reconsider lots of stories about herself, among them to what extent she’s actually a good person who helps make the world better. I’d give her a mixed grade on that. If you’ve read the novel, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Back to the allegedly real world where conspiracy theorists in pelts and Viking horns invade the Capitol, convinced they live in a country where the presidential election was stolen, ready to live by and die for their fantasies.

cats : making a ruckus :: poets : blogging

My daughter and her cat have moved in for a couple of weeks. We have two cats of our own who were already unimpressed with each other, so the house is full of hissing AND purring, as each cat circles back around for reassurance that they are still the best cat, the most handsome and loved, and certainly everyone’s boss. I know from living with Poe and Ursula that the feline dominance battle never ends. Ursula wins more often–the toy, the spot in the sun–but there are flags Poe keeps re-staking, such as the sill of a certain downstairs window. Without that particular view of sparrows, the mailman, and an offensively brassy groundhog who needs to be shown a thing or two, would life even be endurable?

As you suspected, I’m working myself up to a metaphor: the vehicles are cats, the tenors are moods, and there’s struggle all round. (I could even say that Ursula stands for inexplicably confident cheer, Poe for the rational pessimism of intelligence, and the visitor Sabina for rage behind which is a yearning for peace and freedom, but I think we’ve all had enough of this.) As the season turns to lengthening daylight which is also the start of a long winter, my equilibrium is shaky. I had a challenging year; I had a lucky year and should never complain about anything. It’s all true.

My fifth poetry collection The State She’s In, seems to be doing well. But, and this won’t shock anyone who knows that 2020 has been a bad year for publishing, I just learned that my first novel, Unbecoming, isn’t selling much despite good reviews. I am heartsore. I’ve seen my spouse go through this; in 2011 he published a novel in stories with a university press that immediately went under and eventually learned that the marketing person, last woman standing on the sinking ship, never sent out the review copies or publicity she’d promised. He wrote a couple of great novel mss after that and just couldn’t sell them, because the publishers’ marketing people looked at those numbers and said “bad risk.” This happens in poetry, too–the best way to jump to a press with a big presence is to sell the hell out of your small-indie collection–but the effect is stronger in novel-publishing, probably because poetry has so little money in it anyway. I had felt excited about the new novel I’m drafting but pivoted immediately to fear that no matter how good it is, it might get stuck in limbo. What I care about here isn’t advances or royalties–I have a day job–but to keep writing books, publish them when they’re good and ready, and find appreciative readers.

I’m sad but not paralyzed. On the practical side, I’m making to-do lists for post-publication prize entries and other ways 2021 can be an occasion for a second push. On the emotional side, I’m reminding myself how many literary gifts I’ve received in 2020: generous reviews, reading opportunities, and a LOT of nice notes from friends and strangers praising one book or the other. I am truly, wildly grateful, even when so much about the publishing landscape is dispiriting or just plain pisses me off. I’m also trying to pay back the love. Here are a few things I do beyond buying indie books (ideally from independent bookstores), and I hope you’ll try them too:

  • celebrate books I like on social media (especially books from indie presses).
  • rate books on Goodreads and Amazon. I know people don’t like those linked sites for many good reasons, yet it’s a big kindness to authors to post a few stars there. The number of reviews matters much more than the content; I don’t know what the magic numbers are, but more reviews makes it more likely the books will pop up as search suggestions.
  • ask your local/ university libraries to order titles. I’m behind on this myself but will work on it in the new year.
  • teach new work when you have the opportunity, especially when the book can be on the required or suggested list for your class. Many indie authors are willing to Zoom in cheaply or for free–I’m one of them–and that’s a great way to raise the energy of a flagging class.
  • suggest a book for your book club or library event series, also with the potential excitement of a virtual author visit.

You can also look for a year-in-reading post from me soon, featuring a few poetry titles that deserve more love. And please sign up for one of my readings early in the new year! I promise to make them fun as well as quite different from each other. For the Poetrio event, poster below, the wonderful bookstore Malaprops is stocking The State She’s In. Another bit of light from the moody universe! Happy holidays, stay safe, be patient with whatever your feuding cats are, and I’ll see you next week.

Poetrio Series at Malaprop Books with Kathy Goodkin and Eric Tran, 3 pm ET, January 3rd, https://www.facebook.com/events/708758299776747

Café Muse with Don Colburn, January 4th, 7 pm ET, sign up here (https://sites.google.com/view/cafe-muse-events/home)

Future schmuture

No NEH grant again, a magazine acceptance, a solicitation of poems from a magazine I’d never cracked (!), several poem rejections, some drafting and revising, lots of Shenandoah work, a vague but persistent headache, short days and blustery cold–hello from a mixed-blessing November in Sabbatical Land. I hereby mark the sixth-month birthday of my novel Unbecoming, and remind you that you can message me if you want a signed bookplate for that OR The State She’s In. (Here, by the way, is a new and very lovely review of the latter by Luisa Igloria in RHINO.) I can’t say I’m in much of a mood for hustle, though; it feels like crawling-under-a-rock season. I’m not doing a ton of writing, nor am I experiencing that burst of energy I’d hoped for after the election, but maybe that’s because there’s no “after”? It’s more like an intensification of suspense, a “now” that just keeps spreading its tentacles.

As a mood of hibernation comes on, I’m also cleaning closets and readying us for an actual trip, first through a flurry of lists and shopping and now by hunkering down. We have to pick up my son from Haverford College on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and a lot of my family lives around there, so I brainstormed this whole elaborate trip protocol. After testing and a period of isolation, we pack the car within an inch of its life and visit my bored-out-of-her-mind mother; then we meet up with our kids at a rented house in the Poconos for a few days; then we meet my sister and maybe some of her kids for a socially-distanced hike in the woods; finally, we return home and hide for the rest of this third wave, however long it lasts. The theory is that I’ll drive Cameron back to Haverford at the end of January for his spring term, but I have a feeling college openings will be delayed. I believe Biden WILL be inaugurated and will run the pandemic response sanely; vaccines are clearly coming; but winter may well be a long blank chapter. If we’re lucky.

In case you’re trying to do some writing yourself and like prompts, I give two in this five-minute reading:

It’s one of many launched this week by the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, thanks to Stan Galloway, Nicole Yurcaba, and their students. However, Bridgewater College, like many others, is laying off people, including Nicole, so the conference has an uncertain future (aren’t you tired of that phrase?). If you’re in the mood to write more spell-poems on the off-chance it will make you or the world a bit better, I just dug up this post, “Uncanny paneling,” for a friend. The second half of it consists of writing prompts from six people, including me, and having been reminded of them, I plan to try them myself.

Hocus, pocus, try to focus…

Blue/ jazzed

The other day we got up early and drove to western Augusta County because the hikes there are much quieter than along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where foliage is peaking and so are the visitors. On autumn mornings here, especially if the day is going to be sunny, mist hugs the ground, gathering most densely over water and other warm places, wreathing the mountains. As the car wound along the empty highway, past farms and Trump signs and gun shops and churches, we alternately dipped into foggy hollows and rose up into sunshine where dew spangled the trees and the last wisps of steam curled up from roofs and embankments. The drive was an obvious metaphor for this October. I have moments of shiny hope but I keep crashing into feeling bad in the most sweeping ways, fearing the election and many more months of isolation, losing faith in everything I’ve written, unable to concentrate on the work I should be doing now. I’m pretty sure everyone feels the same–unless you’re stuck entirely in the lowlands. Here’s hoping the view gets clearer soon.

I can’t write poems but I need to work on prose anyway, particularly honing Poetry’s Possible Worlds, a book of hybrid essays due sometime in 2021. It blends criticism and memoir in a discussion of literary transportation–meaning immersive reading or getting lost in a book–in relation to short twenty-first century poems. I was going like gangbusters last week, but I’m dragging myself through the work very slowly this week. That’s okay, I keep telling myself. The two weeks before the US presidential election were always going to suck. Even when the world isn’t in dangerous meltdown, writing is full of hills and valleys.

I traded messages with a friend last week about the discouragement we often feel about finding readerships. It’s damn hard work and doesn’t get you very far; luck and connections probably matter more. Yet it’s helpful to have camaraderie in frustration. I always read Dave Bonta’s weekly Blog Digest, and this week that struggle was a major theme, especially in Kristy Bowen’s amazing post about self-publishing. It’s awful but cheerful, as Elizabeth Bishop said, or at least cheering to remember that this is just the way writing goes. You’d better be doing the work for it’s own sake or as a gift to others, not expecting anything in return, not even attention–yet the gifts will come back to you sometimes in surprising ways.

Gifts of late: a wonderful, thoughtful review of Unbecoming in Strange Horizons and a poem called “Dragon Questionnaire” in the same magazine; participating in a warm and intimate reading series organized by Johns Hopkins professor Lucy Bucknell; word of forthcoming reviews of The State She’s In; and a local author talk on Unbecoming scheduled and promoted by W&L’s amazing library staff. The latter is Tuesday October 27th, 7 pm EST, and open to the public–just register here: https://go.wlu.edu/unbecoming. I’ll talk about the book’s origin, read a couple of spooky excerpts, take questions, and give a couple of writing prompts.

Late breaking, too: I just got tapped to read from Unbecoming at the World Fantasy Convention, virtual this year. I’ll be part of the Weird Fiction Cluster on Friday October 30th from 10:30-12:30 pm ET, 8:30 Mountain Time (it should have been in Utah this year). The timing: oy. I’m no night owl, but I’ll manage somehow. The opportunity: hallelujah! The readings will be recorded for registered participants to view for weeks afterwards, which makes potential audience reach pretty good. See? I should be pleased to have attained this little hill.

In local politics, there’s good news, too. No word yet on whether W&L is changing its name, but The Washington Post just called our next-door neighbor, Virginia Military Institute, to the carpet for failing to deal with its deeply racist campus climate, and the governor is launching an investigative probe. In a small town like this one you inevitably have friends who work there, and I’m more optimistic for them and the cadets than I’ve felt for a long while. All the little justice struggles do add up, even if it takes forever, with lots of ups and downs along the way.

Hope, in spite of and because of

I felt really blue about dropping my youngest off for his second year of college, so I self-medicated by putting my head down and writing for long hours each day. The west coast on fire, more anti-Black violence, high infection rates–it’s not easy to pay attention and help in little ways without becoming self-destructively obsessed. Receiving the new issue of Kestrel, though–which contains an unexpected review of The State She’s In–is a big boost today. The review is a three-pager in a print journal so I can’t give you the whole thing, but Brittany Winland writes: “There is a particular resonance reading Wheeler’s collection in our present moment–with Confederate statues being toppled and Black Lives Matter protests energizing the country…The State She’s In throbs with danger: in everyday encounters like the Kroger check-out line, a racist ad in the newspaper, even deep inside the body susceptible to illness and pain…Wheeler’s willingness to examine and question herself with the same searing vision she aims at her uneasily-adopted state infuses the collection with an integrity that makes every damning observation that much more potent.” I especially loved that Winland heard my struggle to keep an eye on a better future: “Wheeler’s wonderfully prickly, unfailingly honest collection [is] also, ultimately, a hopeful one…These poems suggest that a state of hope–in spite of and because of all our grief, anger, and shame–is a deliberate and necessary place to live.” (Winland writes graceful, punchy sentences herself, doesn’t she?) I feel really lucky to have received such a generous reading.

In other good news, I’m getting ready for a virtual bookstore reading from my novel Unbecoming “at” A Novel Idea in Philadelphia this Weds, September 16th, at 6:30 pm. You can register for free here. I’ll read for no more than 15 minutes, answer questions, and of course you can order the book from this great indie bookstore to be mailed, or, if you’re local, picked up. (There’s a totally optional button for small donations, too, if you have the mood and the means–it’s not easy to be running a small business right now and word is that the sales bookstores enjoy from these events are much lower than from the live versions.) I’d love to have a few friends in virtual attendance. I had timed it so I could give my kids a visit around Cameron’s birthday, but I’m glad it can still happen in a different way.

Thanks as well to Thrush for including a poem of mine in their September issue: “Tone Problem.” I wrote it in April and submitted it in June, which is faster than I usually work, but it’s small and charm-like, with references to spring moons that I suspect were triggered by a post from Jeannine Hall Gailey, who is always attentive to those cycles. It felt especially hard then NOT to write about this world-changing pandemic, but I didn’t feel sure that my own experiences would be all that interesting to anybody, especially a couple of years from now, so I kept trying to approach it from an angle. In this case, I focused on how deeply surreal it felt to watch the natural world coming to life, gorgeously indifferent to human crisis.

Finally, that panel I moderated for the Outer Dark Symposium last month has just been released as a podcast. Called “Weird Metamorphosis or Life Change: Where the Body Becomes the Setting,” it ranged over genres–Weird, sf, body horror–and how gender, sexuality, disability, race, and many other factors affect what transformation means. Change isn’t all tentacles and violation. Sometimes it’s what we need.

Maps, teaching schedules, and other demented pre-writing adventures

Questions I have researched recently for a writing project:

  • Suture kits and how to stitch up wounds
  • Microquakes, subsidence, and local geology
  • The effects of psychedelic mushrooms and hazards of their long-term use (lots of this via my work computer, yikes)
  • Fungal behavior generally
  • The properties of copper, where it comes from, and the various ways it’s stolen
  • The stages of death from congestive heart failure, and how it’s treated at each stage
  • Home hair dyes, including instructions and the names of colors
  • Local bus schedules
  • What Bengali terms of address to family members a man who grew up in India might use
  • What weird situations a home health nurse might encounter; what the ordinary procedures are and what equipment is needed for them; who staffs the clinic that’s the nurse’s home base
  • Phases of the moon in the summer of 2021

I have a hard time getting students to incorporate research into their creative writing, even the quick Wikipedia kind, but I can’t write much in any genre without internet access–and having friends to interview about mundane details is also a big help. In poetry, specificity is everything. Studying scientific processes helps me understand the world and myself; the textures of unusual words make the language pop. In fiction, people need to have jobs other than mine, and they need to walk around and be doing ordinary things when plot twists surprise them.

My process so far for the novel underway involves writing many pages in a mad rush then hitting pause to reflect on what the characters might think or do next, as well as what I’m missing about the properties of this fictional world and its residents’ patterns of behavior. I had worked out a lot before starting, but when I hit the 20,000 word mark I realized my plans were pretty vague after the opening. I’m at around 45,000 words now, not rereading too much but plunging forward, trying to hack out the basic shape of the story before I go back and make necessary alterations, because my sense of how it all needs to unfold keeps changing. I also know I’m falling into bad habits sometimes: for instance, I’m prone to summarizing action in a first draft and have to go back and dramatize it, as well as making the sentences much cleaner and the detail richer (which means my 45K words probably represent well over half the novel, plot-wise). It’s a lot like the discovery process you experience in the first draft of a poem–you need to see where it’s going before you can revise it, fit all the parts together smoothly. If you know everything about your destination from the outset, the results might not possess that essential element of surprise.

Another thing my writer-spouse thinks is unusual in my process: I do a ton of work that won’t go into the book. For Unbecoming, set at a small college, I mapped out the entire curriculum and every professor’s teaching load just to figure out when two key characters could meet for coffee (surely overkill, but that’s how my brain works, especially post-chairing). In my current project, space is really important, so I’m developing an increasingly detailed hand-drawn map of my fictional county. It’s not Yoknapatawpha by a long shot, and I’m not intending that Tolkienish move of including a map if this ever becomes a real book. I just need to know where stuff happens and how long it takes to drive there. It’s too much exposition to explain it all in prose, but I need to know it makes sense.

I am drafting poems occasionally, particularly when I get stuck on the novel for a few days. I’ll be driving my son back to college in a week, so there’s lots of planning to do, as well as the usual pile-up of recommendation requests and “do this now!” emails. No other publishing news these days–August is always slow–but I have a virtual reading from Unbecoming scheduled for September 16th “at” A Novel Idea bookstore in Philadelphia (sign up for the Zoom here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/an-evening-with-lesley-wheeler-author-of-unbecoming-online-tickets-117838653585). I also received a super-nice note about The State She’s In from Denise Duhamel, a distinguished poet whom I don’t know personally but whose work I’ve long admired–I’ve taught her books a few times and even ran an independent study on her complete works maybe a decade ago (!). I am so grateful when someone reads a book of mine and sends me a note or gives me a shout-out–it reminds me to reciprocate, which is one of the pleasures of #thesealeychallenge. (One more week to go!)

I’ll sign out with a George Carlin bit I’ve been thinking about a lot. Tensions around the novel coronavirus feel high, even among people with whom I mostly agree. Obviously the anti-mask campaigners are dumb and toxic. Within the rainbow of behaviors sane people exercise, though, there’s a pretty wide range of opinions: whether it’s okay to drive to a lake house for a few days, or order take-out, or take part in a small, socially-distanced event with some friends. Whether it’s better parenting to send your kids to school, too, or keep them at home, and what policies schools and universities should have in the first place. I have opinions, like everyone else, and they’re conditioned by my experiences and temperament, like everyone else’s. Because I’m prone to depression and anxiety, for instance, I have a bigger fear than others would of the psychic costs of isolation to children and teens. I often feel judged for being too slack on one hand or too uptight on the other–which is my problem, I know, I’m too keen a reader of what other people are thinking–and I keep sliding into being judgmental myself. My strategy, besides taking lots of deep breaths, is to remember Carlin’s point about how myopic it can be to draw bright lines between right and wrong. The very high costs of this virus in the U.S. are largely the government’s fault–systemic–not the fault of the dog-walker who gets too close to me on the trail. It’s important not to make a terrible situation worse, but none of us is sure of the exact right answers to pandemic math. We need to be kind to each other, not least because we can’t always see the factors that lead people to make the choices they do. I’m working on resisting the reflex division of the world into idiots and maniacs.

(Funny that I remembered that bit as “assholes” and “morons”–my inner NJ driver resurfaces, I guess.) And since I went down another research rabbit-hole looking for Carlin bits, here’s something that’s earlier and spikier. I read this as Carlin seeming to play to the middle at first–mocking all kinds of extremism–and then showing his hand. There IS a limit to tolerance of different approaches to the world.

The other side of fear

This Friday, I’m moderating the first panel at the Outer Dark Symposium 2020 (virtually): “Weird Metamorphosis or Life Change.” Moderating panels doesn’t especially scare me. It’s basically leading a class discussion, except with very smart people who love to talk. I’m always nervous about Zoom, though; I’m no technological wizard, plus catching all the undercurrents in a virtual conversation is hard. To make things eerier, I have to tune in from my extremely haunted office, because I’d be competing for bandwidth at home. I usually clear out of Payne Hall when darkness falls.

I’m also thinking about fear because it’s an inescapable part of transformation stories in Weird fiction and film. Some of the panelists are especially interested in body horror, which involves violence or violation to the body, as in “The Button Bin” by Mike Allen or “Anatomy Lessens” by Edward Austin Hall. Some, in our pre-panel discussion, expressed fascination with what puts people emotionally onto that uncomfortable-to-terrified continuum. They explore it in awesome ways, thinking about race, gender, sexuality, disability, and their intersections.

I’m involved in this panel because my new novel involves the deeply weird transition of menopause. As I wrote and revised Unbecoming, though, the feeling I focused on was not fear but desire. The uncanny power growing in the main character, Cyn, lies in wishing for change, both through small rescues and major redirections. Desire is key to making characters interesting and complicated, so it’s probably central to all fiction. I had a list taped to my wall as I composed, listing what each major character thought they wanted plus what they REALLY wanted (which is often the opposite of what they thought they wanted), and sometimes what they really, really, really wanted in their secret hearts. The push-and-pull among those impulses can make a character–really a bunch of words–come to life in your imagination. Like magic.

My conscious subjects in the last few years have been ambition (a species of desire) and anger, but as I prep for this panel, I realize how fear is bound up with both emotions. My main character, Cyn, wants to rewind the clock on her rapidly changing life, so that her kids stop growing away, her marriage returns to a happier state, and her body and mind behave in the reliable old ways. She’s also afraid of being stuck in the past, as she simultaneously, paradoxically fears metamorphosis. Her powers excite her and scare her. Fee, the stranger in town, also excites her and scares her. Change tends to come violently, breaking apart the old balance, and it’s sane to dread that pain.

In actual life, this is a year of fearing not only disease but that a racist, sexist, ableist, transphobic, polluting, murderous, systematically unjust America will fail to change. I thought about that last night as I watched my own emotions unfold around Biden’s VP pick. I thought it would be Kamala Harris, so first I thought, oh, okay, that works. Harris is to the right of me, but a center-left, Democratic establishment leadership would be a BIG step up from what we’ve got. I’ll be voting for them.

My next reaction, though, was to skip right over the gratification I expected to feel about having a Black woman, a child of immigrants, on the ticket. Instead I went straight to fear. The misogyny of the last election cycle–from lefty friends, moderates, right wingers, the whole spectrum–destroyed me, not least because I was battling harassment at work simultaneously. The season of misogynoir ahead might break me again. I’m also worrying about the math. Will young people and progressives skip voting because a Biden-Harris ticket depresses them? Will all the moderates who don’t know they’re misogynists start using sexist lines like “she just rubs me the wrong way” or “I don’t see her as presidential”?

If you’re thinking, “um, Lesley, if you’re having a fear problem, maybe take a break from the Weird”: I do better with engaging fear and seeking answers on the other side. The narrative I’ve had the hardest time with lately is Mrs. America on Netflix. I can see it’s good–strong acting, important material–but watching that Schlafly character try to monster her way out of a toxic miasma of oppression: THAT is horror. I grew up in that cloud, starving myself to hold off adolescence; directed to smile and avoid upsetting my always-angry father; criticized by family and strangers for not being femme enough; even told by my mother during my first pregnancy that women who work shouldn’t have children. I prefer fictional werewolves any day of the week.

Anyway, here’s to climbing out of what’s bad, toward the better. I had a wonderful time talking to Anya Martin and Ed Hall on the Outer Dark podcast last week, for all of the thunderstorms banging around in the background. We discuss the novel in the first half of the podcast, my new poetry collection in the second half, and the episode concludes with an absolutely amazing seven-minute review by Gordon B. White. The Outer Dark conference should be fun; I’m giving a reading there, too. I close my #TinyBookFair today, in which I gave away 17 signed copies of my books in exchange for donations to Project Horizon, a local organization dedicated to reducing domestic and sexual violence–the total is $385, exceeding my goal. Also today, I have a poem of politic desperation and, I hope, resistance up on Verse Daily (it was originally in 32 Poems and I have to credit editor George David Clark for helping me make the poem stronger–bless the editors!). I’m still looking at that mountain, its gloomy hunch but also its glow.

#TheSealeyChallenge & #TinyBookFair

Some of my August to-be-read collections for #TheSealeyChallenge

I love so much about #TheSealeyChallenge, a project created by poet Nicole Sealey asking people to read a book of poetry a day for the thirty-one days of August. I’ve read some guilty-sounding social media posts, though, by people saying they just can’t read poetry that fast, and I get it. The event has been running annually for a while now and I’ve only been able to post with the hashtag sporadically; I usually spend August desperately trying to finish up summer writing projects as I simultaneously gear up for the academic whirlwind of September, which has ALSO involved, for the past twenty years, filling out back-to-school forms and shopping and packing with my kids. Crazytown. This year, though, I’m heading into the best-timed sabbatical in the history of the universe. I can spare an hour a day for other people’s poetry.

Yet I have to add that one of the great things about poetry is how it slows us down, drawing readers into hard thinking, compressed language, and close observation of the world and ourselves. It’s paradoxical to try to read a lot of poetry FAST. I often do a first reading of a poetry volume in a single hour, trying to understand its scope and aims, but unless the poems are unusually brief and straightforward, that means I’m not taking in every poem deeply. I just read ARCs of a forthcoming book I plan to review, for instance, and I’m going to have to reread it much more slowly soon, taking notes, developing a deeper grasp of and appreciation for the work. Teaching a book, likewise, requires layered engagements with lots of pauses. And sometimes you just WANT to go back and reread something non-instrumentally, for the pleasure of it. #TheSealeyChallenge is a bit like NaPoWriMo, when people try to draft a poem a day for the month of April. The product isn’t the point–it’s the process of making daily space for art that counts.

I appreciate, though, how this challenge inspired me to buy a bunch of books, dig through piles of books I’ve never managed to read, and investigate library holdings. And I like, after months of flogging my own books, turning to poetic citizenship by promoting other writers. Finally, it’s fun to follow the hashtag and use it to find other writers and readers with similar tastes. All that said, it’s only the 5th, so who knows how I’ll do? I’m also deep into drafting my 2nd novel now and suddenly, after long July doldrums, I feel busy. My employer requires COVID-19 tests and I’m scheduled for next week, I have the Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird coming up, and I’m helping my son plan for a return to college. (Allegedly. You have to wonder if ANY of these back-to-school-with-masks plans will bear fruit. But he’d rather take classes that will almost certainly go online while sharing the Environmental House on campus with a handful of friends, and I would have felt the same. He’s eating well at home and we like his company, but he’s lonely.)

My OTHER project, starting today, is joining an intermittent fundraiser engineered by the brilliant Franny Choi. Called #TinyBookFair, it involves targeting a charitable cause and inviting people to make donations for a free signed copy of one’s own books. Heaving all the notices onto social media and constructing an email blast took a couple of hours this morning, and the physical mailings will take effort, too, but honestly, it’s fun. I feel really good about the orders trickling in, and life hasn’t contained a ton of feel-good moments lately. My #TinyBookFair (instigated by Choi and run in collaboration with the folks at Brew & Forge) raises money for Project Horizon, a Virginia organization dedicated to reducing domestic and sexual violence (my canceled March book party was meant to raise funds for them). I’m offering up to 15 signed copies of my new books to anyone who donates at least $20: participants can choose either The State She’s In (poetry) or Unbecoming (novel). If you’d like one (or more!), please 1) donate at http://www.projecthorizon.org/, and 2) message me your mailing address; a screenshot or receipt showing your donation; and a note about which book you want (my emails are wheelerlm@wlu.edu or lesleymwheeler@gmail.com, but I also use FB Messenger regularly). Then I’ll mail you a signed copy. My goal is to raise $300 by August 12th to fund Project Horizon’s amazing work. Alternatively, you could order one for a friend you miss–I’m happy to take requests. We have a ton of good causes to send our dollars to, of course, and a lot of us have fewer dollars to start with, so it’s like #TheSealeyChallenge–a small good thing, but not for everyone.

Below are a few pictures from nearby Lake Douthat, because I also plan to spend this month doing a few final summery things–some outdoor, not-crowded stuff–because being home at my keyboard all the time gets me down. I hope there are a few blue-and-green vistas planned for your August, too.

Like water wants to shine

I slid off the rocks pictured above at Willoughby Spit, Virginia, last weekend, cutting my toes and raising a mother of a bruise on the opposite shin. A couple of days before that, I fell off a bike, although that time I managed to throw myself clear onto some relatively cushy grass. The day before that, I got bashed down by Virginia Beach waves a couple of times; the wind was high and getting from the billows to the shore was a challenge.

I’ve always been a klutz, but my muscle tension is higher now, which makes my balance lousy. Paradoxically, I don’t think my fear of falling helps. I watch my 19-year-old leap up and down steep trails, the kind spined with sharp rocks and tree roots; his footing is relaxed and sure because he trusts his body to do what he wants it to. Was I ever that agile?

I still want to move with speed and attain the great view, but if I push even a bit too hard, I end up benching myself. I’ve been thinking about ambition in writing, too–not, this week, ambition for quality of the writing, but craving a little bit more recognition, pushing myself to apply for more opportunities, even knowing that middle aged women hardly ever pull the brass ring. Leaving town for a few days, even though we didn’t go far, allowed me to stop thinking about Unbecoming and The State She’s Inhallelujah! When I got back from the beach last Sunday, though I dropped into a homebound funk, made worse by a sore throat. I immediately thought I was dying from COVID-19, felt sorry for the kids and husband I would leave behind, and did some soul-searching about what work I had left to do in the world (yes, I go apocalyptic quickly and vividly). Then I realized I had stopped taking an allergy medication at the beach, started it again, and felt fine within two days.

That cheered me up, but what cheered me more was a long phone call with Jeannine Hall Gailey ranging over all these subjects–health, career aspirations, politics, literary culture. It helped SO MUCH, and not just because she’s a gifted pep-talker, which she is, or because she gave me good concrete advice, which she did. As she wrote on her own blog earlier today, conversations like that can remind you that we’re not alone in aspiring and feeling frustrated. There’s a difficult balance to walk: for sanity’s sake, you can’t get carried away by po-biz longing, but I also don’t want any of us to underrate ourselves. Others are perfectly ready to ignore or underestimate us–we don’t need to get a jump on them!

Shout-out to Jeannine, too, for blogging about my recent books here. She’s a great literary citizen who reviews indie authors she admires on places like Amazon and Goodreads, something I’m trying to do more of, too. This week I’ll be striving to keep up my restored energy and improve my footing: a little publicity work, more drafting of projects I’ll be excited about next year or the year after, even if it seems like struggling through rough surf now and falling down a lot. I’m closing with a couple of poems about “flimsy plastic dreams” or being “focal/ marginal,” depending on whether you like estuary metaphors or punctuation play (actually, they both come from travel adventures, too!). “Danger Beyond This Point” just appeared in the new Chautauqua “Boundaries” issue and “Venus/ Dodo” in Michigan Quarterly Review (along with a golden shovel poem–a frigging hard form to get purchase on). All were first drafted 2-3 years ago then much reworked, submitted a bunch of times. I still like them. I guess it’s a reminder that even though the climb is hard, occasionally you get the shot.

Why You Should Be Reading About Menopause

You know how obsessions grow on you and into you, like fungal hyphae bursting through carpenter ants’ heads and disseminating spore? I’m currently fixated on fungi, but a few years ago I developed a more explicable obsession with perimenopause and its sequel. Like puberty, this process has major effects on mind and body. I know post-menopausal people who say it wasn’t a big event, but it was huge for me, and I had a hard time finding information about it, much less encouragement. My novel, Unbecoming, imagines the so-called change of life as a positive time: the main character develops weird powers. I wrote the book I needed to read, and meanwhile developed the magic power of novel-writing. It was mainly as I neared a final draft that I started finding other literature about menopause, beyond crappy self-help books. I list some below and would love to hear of others.

I wish I’d known earlier what Darcey Steinke reports, that many women experience something like auras before hot flashes, occasionally accompanied by a sense of doom. I used to wake with a jolt in the middle of the night, have no idea why, then feel the heat rumble up. Instead of soaking through my clothes, I got to throw off the covers preemptively. During the day, this early-warning system gives me time to yell at anyone trying to cuddle, “GET AWAY FROM ME RIGHT NOW!”

What Beth Kanter says in her McSweeney’s bingo card about hoarding super-plus tampons: again, I wish I’d known. I attended an AWP Conference without a sufficient supply and ended up bleeding through everything, everywhere, way more gruesomely than the archetypal middle-schooler surprised in white pants. (Fortunately, muscle atrophy and metabolic slowdown, by which I mean weight gain, result in an all-black wardrobe). I bled for 7 weeks, went to the doctor, discovered I was seriously anemic, and was rushed in for an emergency ablation–basically having my uterine lining fire-blasted. Afterwards, my enthusiastic gynecologist gave me before-and-after pictures of my uterus and encouraged me to put them on Facebook.

Most scary for me was the mental health upheaval. Midlife crisis is a cliche, as is empty-nest syndrome; hormones aside, a lot of 50ish people have trouble adjusting their ambitions and mustering optimism about the next phase. For a few, according to the medical literature I eventually found, these recalibrations coincide with brain-chemistry apocalypse. I’ve always been prone to depression and anxiety, but in spring 2019–when I was 51–therapies that had kept me sane for years stopped working. I was as messed-up as I’ve ever been, not suicidal but not wanting to live, increasingly sure this shift was permanent. I tend to maintain an appearance of control, so most people I confided in didn’t seem to believe me (or maybe didn’t know how to talk about it, which is common with illness and grief). I finally hit a new equilibrium in winter 2020–very lucky, considering what was ahead. I’m okay now, except for the standard 2020 stew of sadness and frustration.

Of course, mental health crisis doesn’t happen to most menopausal people, but women should know in advance that changes are coming, and as Mary Ruefle says, hot flashes are the least of it. In the essay I link to below, Ruefle also writes, “This was not depression, this was menopause,” somehow making it droll that she wanted to kill herself with a steam-iron. While I admire Ruefle’s writing enormously, I don’t find that joke helpful. When Sarah Manguso writes about rage, likewise, I’m skeptical of it as a symptom, except of women’s rational midlife appraisals of the world.

Here’s my pitch: menopause is relevant to everyone, whether or not it’s on your list of past or future rings of fire. More poets, journalists, novelists, and scientists need to write about it, storming past the editors who think it’s icky. We read about lots of crises we may not personally experience, right? Learning about others helps us be kind and wise. Further, like adolescent coming of age stories, menopause is full of dark passages but it’s also wild, weird, and often really funny (as Moira Egan makes clear). Menopause has been social kryptonite, but it should be literary gold.

Poems and a bingo card (thesis: ALL poems are hot flashes):

Prose nonfiction (literary, scholarly, journalistic):

Fiction (not just about midlife generally, but about menopause–there must be others)

  • Catherine Lundoff, Silver Moon
  • Doris Lessing, The Summer Before the Dark 
  • Samantha Bryant, Menopausal Superheroes (3 book series!)

Bonus: my rondeau from The State She’s In, written more or less synchronously with Unbecoming and originally published in Cherry Tree. Extra bonus: I can’t find those pictures of my uterus to include in this post, so count yourself lucky.



Perimenopause
  
Unstoppered. Uncorked. The spilt mess
of the body’s plan puddles in the john,
useless now. Recurrence gone wrong.
Broken verses and a bloody chorus.
 
Who could have predicted red excess,
unspeakable clots of denouement?
My mouths are unjammed, endless mess
of me congealing at the bottom of the john.
 
Ready now to lose the losing: night sweats,
palpitations, insomnia, floods of gore, done.
Dried up, a long fluent speech in crimson.
Dissolved and flushed. Yet the song carries
on, uncorkable pour of me, shameless.