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.

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.

A smoke of fox escapes

Originally appearing in December, 2016 in Queen of Cups, my poem “House Call” is a crossroads between the novel and the poetry collection I’ll be publishing in 2020. It’s based on a dream–now I realize, one of a series of dreams–of numinous other-than-human figures visiting with some kind of message or advice. After drafting the poem in 2015, I gave a version of this dream to the protagonist of Unbecoming, although it means something different to her than it did to me. Below is the version of the poem that will appear in my book, or very close. Check out the original site, too: it contains a tarot reading that fits the crisis I was then, and a good writing prompt!

House Call

The black fox kept eluding me,
quick among the party shoes,
chrysanthemum scent of twilight
blowing through lamplit rooms.
Its fur was tipped with flame,
brushed by crimson characters.
Out the door, down the steps
to mist-damp grass. Gone, gone
under sharp-leaved rhododendrons.

What did you bring me, kitsune?
Twigs and dead matter Come sleep
Where are you now? Under your nails
your skin flashing through veins

Will I be fortunate? This dream
is your luck this restlessness
You feared warm rain had ceased falling—

that the onion moon had rolled
beyond night’s uneven floor.

Try to read spirit and this
ensues: writing shivers, a trick,
a tease. Creatures shifting shape
can’t pause at the mirror to preen.
Someone wears nine tails;
something prepares to change
by burning all the words.
A smoke of fox escapes.

This uncanny crossing is on my mind because I’m about to read part of the novel aloud to a real live audience for the first time (although it has had plenty of readers so far, and I’m reading big chunks aloud to myself as I edit). Our old college friend Scott Nicolay–now a prize-winning author as well as editor, translator, podcaster, and cave archaeologist–is a co-organizer of the Outer Dark Symposium on The Greater Weird, this year on March 22-23 in Georgia. I’ll only be reading for 10 minutes, but I can get a short, weird novel scene in there, plus a poem or two. And I’ll have poems in the souvenir program, which sounds like a beauty. It occurs to me that as well as learning how to excerpt fiction for different kinds of audiences, I’m going to have to practice toggling between genres during various public soundings. Here goes!

Part Two of the month of March–the sequel to a wonderful visit by Aimee Nezhukumatathil and a really nasty cold–involves a lot of travel, so I’m going to have to keep hitting the ginger tea and taking care of myself. Thursday I’m hitting a poetry panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book and seeing a couple of old friends; I’m sad I can’t stay and hear Kyle Dargan, but I have to hit the road south Friday. I’ll be immersed in weirdness all weekend, but my reading is:

10:50 am, Silver Scream FX Lab, 4215 Thurman Rd, Conley, Georgia

I come back to teach Monday-Wednesday (and do some Skype interviewing Tuesday), and then I’m off to Portland, Oregon. Come say hello to me at the Terrain.org table, #9029, in AWP’s bookfair on Thursday, March 28th from 12-1. I’ll be signing my recent chapbook Propagation ($5 and VERY light for your luggage), but I’d be delighted just to chat and give you one of my beautiful new Shenandoah business cards. Shenandoah doesn’t have a table this year–we will next year–but we are hosting a reading at 1:30 Thursday at the Jasmine Pearl Teahouse. Chris and I will be home again Saturday night, earlier than originally planned, but that’s probably good. Not only is the first week of April the last week of winter term, and therefore an academic crunch time, but these are the weeks my eighteen-year-old son hears back from the six colleges he applied to (two acceptances so far!), and he’s holding down the fort at home alone for the first time, while Chris and I conference together.

Lit mags I’m reading–with thanks to BPJ for publishing my poem “Dear Anne Spencer”!

Send us all good vibes, please, and if you spot me at one of these places, please say hello. I’ll report back in this space sometime around the kick-off of National Poetry Month. In the meantime, may March winds blow you some good!