O’Hara-wise: A Q & A with Susan Wheeler
Author Photograph by Mel Edelman
Susan Wheeler ’77 is the author of five collections of poetry and has won numerous honors and awards for her work including fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. She has received a Witter Bynner Prize for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Boston Review Poetry Award, and the Robert D. Richardson Award for Non-Fiction from the Denver Quarterly. She currently is an associate professor and director of the creative writing program at Princeton University.
When her poetry fell into my hands, I was not sure what to expect—the Bennington writer has proven to be incredibly diverse and difficult to pin down. What I found as I turned the pages of her Assorted Poems and Meme, her latest collection that is a National Book Award Finalist, were versatile works that explored humanity—the experience of it as well as what it leaves behind. Her subjects range from artwork of the Northern Renaissance to modern-day consumerism, to reinventions of the traditional elegy in both form and language.
My Q & A with Wheeler, posted below, explores the influences of a Bennington education, literary criticism, and insight this prestigious poet has to give to aspiring writers.
Literary Bennington: During your time at Bennington, was there a specific professor that greatly influenced your writing? Were there any courses you took that you feel played an important role in your development as a writer?
Susan Wheeler: There was no graduate program, and there were three poets teaching undergraduates then: Ben Belitt, Alvin Feinman, and Stephen Sandy. Absolutely varied in temperament, style, teaching, they were each (and maybe most in aggregate) very strong forces on my development. I was closest to Ben, who – as my advisor my first year – worked with me for months on a single poem about an organist at a funeral whose music gets away from him. It was a crash course in syntax, in seeing how the smallest elements skew a work – the pebble in the shoe, etc. A couple of co-taught classes – one by Alan Cheuse and the philosopher Steven Harris on modernism, and one by Georges Guy, Eduardo Gonzalez and the Russian professor at the time, on structuralism – were also key.
LB: Did you have any other influences that contributed to your becoming a poet?
SW: I’m of the mind: what isn’t an influence? Ad jingles, children’s literature, the pacing of films, your parents’ stock stories – Kamau Brathwaite’s idea of the natal landscape influencing form and rhythm – they all go into the mix. I was mesmerized by the phrases and rhymes my childhood friends brought home from Catholic services and schools, and sick a lot so I read a lot. In Kamau’s terms, later the sprawl of vernacular architecture across the city blocks of Chicago I recognize as an influence on density in my lines, and of course working in the visual arts for a number of years. I tend to think of poems’ surfaces as being scumbled or varnished, for example.
LB: Your poetry explores so many things, from art of the Northern Renaissance to modern-day consumerism. What draws you to these subjects? Did your studies at Bennington push you in any of these directions?
SW: Sidney Tillim, an artist, poet, and writer on art, taught art history when I was at Bennington, and I took a semester of it with him – which was one of the motivators to go on and do graduate study in art history at the University of Chicago. So the art stuff is part of that preoccupation. Beyond that, we live in communities, and I’ve always been interested in those communities, in social and cultural dynamics, which are so much ruled – in concert or in resistance – by the economics, the market forces, of capitalism. Individual tragedies are often part of larger, collective tragedies, and I find that incredibly moving and bitter.
LB: Your use of form is also incredibly diverse. Meme alone contains prose poems, one-line stanzas, couplets, quatrains, numbered lists, and even take the style of a Q & A. How do you approach form in your work?
SW: O’Hara-wise: i.e., you want your pants tight enough for everyone to want to go to bed with you. Form is entirely opportunistic for me – it develops in each case along with successive drafts of a poem. I did, early on, do a lot of self-assigned poems to gain some skill with various forms, but I’m not a poet who can write anything at all necessary, in the Stevensian sense, by setting myself the task, say, of writing a sonnet. Some poets can – with me, it always ends up feeling like an exercise.
LB: In a review on your collection Smokes by Stephen Burt in the Boston Review, he refers to you as an “elliptical poet” who draws on Dickinson, Berryman, Ashbery, and Auden. Do you agree with this analysis? Are there any poets (including or excluding the four mentioned) that you draw on in your work?
SW: As for the poets, he was right-on with Berryman and Auden – they, and Pound, were my formative influences, inescapably and for better or for worse. I love Dickinson, but my spirit is more caught up by Whitman: the long gaze, I guess, filled in getting there with detail. Bishop’s getting to the spiritual through the material really resonated for me. As for the elliptical poet part, I think that Burt, writing as a critic (he’s an excellent poet), was trying to find a way to talk about a slew of as-yet-unclassified poets, and I don’t think any of us whom he lassoed felt any sense that we had much in common or that “elliptical” in any way hit its mark. Critical exegeses truly are their own sand-castles, if they are at all compelling, and my work was just a figure in Stephen Burt’s construction of “elliptical.” I have had the experience of reading writing about my work that so closely describes what I think the work does – or what I try to do with the poems – that I get that uncanny sense of being truly read. But alas, I didn’t have that sense with Burt’s landmark review.
LB: What advice would you give to aspiring poets today? Are there any books or writers you feel are essential for any poet to read?
SW: Every sensibility is different, but poets should read and model what they read if only to train themselves in directions that don’t come naturally to them. Joseph Brodsky once told me to find a Latin poet to graft my ambition to – to parallel, in whatever way I understood it – and I do think the sense of feeling a deep connection to an ancestral poet, even if it’s a 20th century poet, gives a poet a kind of grounding, a kind of residence to venture from. Mostly I’d advise poets to hone a trade in which they can make the most money for the least amount of time, like diamond cutting, or have the most leisure to read on the job, like night watch person.