Jangling Discourse: An Interview with Susan Wheeler
Excerpted from BOMB Magazine, Number 92 / Summer 2005. To read the entire interview, visit BOMB Magazine.
Susan Wheeler: My mother was my father's teacher at Rhode Island School of Design, and I have a younger brother, Dan, who is an architect in Chicago and went to RISD, too, for his own training. I was sick a lot when I was a kid and alone a lot and a little moony as a result, so I started to write pretty early. I flailed back and forth between these Seussian stories about a goose and a bear, "Goosey and Flunk," and poems that were modeled after my Catholic friends' prayers, which fascinated me—my parents were assertively agnostic. For most of my childhood, we lived in Rochester, Minnesota, and then moved out east—to Connecticut for my first year of high school and then outside of Boston for my last three.
I went to public high school in the early '70s, at the height of loopy electives and minimal requirements, and I had a really extraordinary group of English teachers. Some of them would act out Waiting for Godot for us once a year in a corner of a classroom, in newspaper hats. They showed us Andalousian Dog and Last Year at Marienbad and The Seventh Seal and Blood of a Poet—a field trip I remember was to see The Great White Hope with a teacher who distributed Black Panther Literature. Required readings were more pedestrian but not their approach to them, and the chair of the department then was a grouchy fellow named Tom Hooper with whom I had a tutorial my last two years and who gave me a sense that I could write something important, emotionally important. He was the first to recommend Didion and Sontag and to tell me when something I wrote stank.
Robert Polito: Stank? I doubt it! But that leads me to your early publication history—did it take a long time for you to have your first poems published? Or was it relatively quick and easy?
Wheeler: Outside of a couple early on—two in, of all places, Christianity and Literature my first year in college—it took years. It gave me the gift of expecting no takers. I sent my first book out for eight years before Georgia on their third pass took it.
Polito: That's fascinating. The Christianity and Literature part, I mean. And you say those first poems of yours were modeled on Catholic prayers. Ledger is a book about "Money and God," as one of your new long poems titles it. Your early collections, Bag 'o' Diamonds and Smokes were just that—collections, various and divergent. But Ledger is an insistently and stunningly unified book, focused on those twin themes of religion and capital. I'm reminded of "ledger" in the sense of a financial register, but also the sense of a final reckoning. Until we started talking, I would have said that Ledger represents if not exactly a departure, at least a fresh intensification. Do you see the concerns of the book as new, or as concentrating what was implicit from the start? I'm wondering, too, if you knew that you wanted to write about God and money, or if that focus emerged gradually during the writing?
Wheeler: The God part was always there, just not as overt. It was after my second book, I think, that I did a reading at a religious school in Pennsylvania, Messiah College, and there the students just launched in, talking about Jesus and how several poems either supported or took issue with their own beliefs. It was spooky but great—I felt like my secret was out! I've always wished I could write something in which faith was as apparent and as organic as it is, say, in Agee's Death in the Family, but for one reason or another I didn't. I knew I wanted this book to be about money, and then it seemed inevitable that it be about God, too. That so much of the yearning is displaced yearning for God.
Polito: Ledger mounts a fierce consumerist critique, doesn't it? I'm thinking of your beautiful little poem "The Green Stamp Book," where a young girl's plangent "yearning" mutates into the shopper's "Can I have," or the vision expressed in one of your epigraphs from Toynbee: "They did not understand that even an economic world order cannot be built on merely economic foundations."
Wheeler: Well, one tragedy in the consumerist culture, in addition to its physical casualties, is the absolute draining of the spirit, and the conforming channeling of the imagination. The impulses have always been there, and have always been played upon—look at some of Catullus's fixations and indictments—but the scale of it now is devastating.
Polito: Why do you think so few poets have written about money? Your notes mention a few poems—but given the place of money in our life, this absence is pretty astonishing, no?
Wheeler: Oh, I see it as a long line, actually—having to include Shakespeare and Chaucer, Hardy, Brecht, Pound, and on....and there seems to be a groundswell of late. Poets as disparate as Kristin Prevallet and Anne Carson, Jerome Sala and Jeremy Prynne, Keston Sutherland and Elena Rivera have done recent work around it. But I know what you mean. A prevailing twentieth-century sense of the lyric that privileged, say, Keats over Hesiod, convinced poets that poems could be willed to exclude social and political concerns, contexts, webs. But of course it's all of a piece—we're both a social construct and a private soul and body. There's no way of eradicating the traces.
Polito: I'm interested in the reading that went into Ledger—all those histories and economic books you cite in your notes. How did you prepare yourself for these poems?
Wheeler: Oh, most of them were just happenstance, or parts of the original poems' conception. The only poem that involved real research was "The Debtor in the Convex Mirror," and I wrote that over an intense couple of weeks in upstate New York, cleaning the Bard library out of anything on northern painting and on Antwerp and economic history. I'd always made fun of edifying poems until I found myself in the thick of one.
Polito: There is a steady overlapping of financial and religious languages all through Ledger. Many poems and even words carry both of those burdens at once—"Doubled Indemnity," as you might tag it. I'm thinking of poems and sequences like "That Been to me My Lives Light and Saviour," which quotes Chaucer's "The Complaint to His Empty Purse," or "Each's Cot an Altar Then," which mixes Wordsworth's "The Labourer's Noon-Day Hymn" and the Book of Common Prayer, or "Proper Return," "Hand, Mouth, Market," "Good Goods," or "Charity Must Abide Call for Ancient Occupation," among others. I was reminded of George Herbert's notion of a "parody," where he would take a secular verse form or meter and recast it for a religious occasion. But that's just one possible way they play off each other. Your focus is what one poem calls "the grasping soul," and you find a way to immerse us in what another calls "the jangling discourse of our nation." Such loaded, playful phrases, but there's a ferocity to them also. How did this tension between "wit"—or evasion, or multiple meanings—and directness play itself out in the writing of the poems?
Wheeler: I love "the jangling discourse" and wish I'd invented it; it's Martin Luther King's. To any poem one brings, at least I bring, an emotional state—it's unavoidable no matter how detached the compositional method or operation. Then what preoccupations your methods have make their accommodations to the demands of that state. Since the book was written over several years, that tenor varied, but I think that the prevailing subject brought out the ferocious in me, and that tends to surface in most of the poems. The "Charity" poem you just mentioned was braided from the juxtaposition on a page of the New York Times of an article about the profession of shepherding with a story about a charity that had barred gay individuals and that was being cut off by the feds for discriminatory practices. Much of the poem is sampled phrases from each story, spliced. But what popped up, in the course of composition, were other samples, from the Song of Solomon, from the Book of Common Prayer again, from Berryman. Had I a more blithe attitude toward the joys of shopping, perhaps the informing spirit wouldn't have ended up with a car crash, a cloned and mutant sheep, and a note about the (Good) Shepherd as "crazed." I feared, as a result, a heavy hand, but there was no way of masking the sadness behind many.
Polito: I think of your earlier poems in Bag 'o' Diamonds and Smokes as composed of all these swirling vernaculars: the languages of pop culture, or of various professions, or even of modernist poets like Frost, and of course Pound. You've written so smartly about Bob Dylan's possession of the forms and variety of American speech, and that's how I've come to think of you. A collector perhaps, or a magpie. Your pleasure in our random, fleeting, and lost slang is palpable. How did you come to this absorption in vernaculars?
Wheeler: God knows, as my mother would have said. I'm beginning to get an inkling, as I've been writing a series of poems that use her idiomatic expressions—she grew up in Topeka, and had a strong portion of Pennsylvania Dutch as well, but who knows where she got phrases like "busier than a cranberry bog merchant." Other things, of course: a soft spot for "colorful speech," attempts to "read" idioms in order to fit into a group or out of one, an awe of good talkers, especially those who use highly idiomatic speech, Catullus— (laughter) What does Armand Schwerner say? "Extension of the dramatic monologue into plurilogue."
Polito: Ledger concludes with an amazing long poem, "The Debtor in the Convex Mirror," that takes off from Quentin Massys's painting. There's lots of play here with the old languages of money, or of art history, but there are also a series of what resemble narratives—a shoplifting story, or your account of the presumably invented "rube" Charles. That earlier mix of vernaculars is now matched by a mix of narratives. How did you come to write this poem? Did it feel different from your earlier poems as you were working on it?
Wheeler: In a lot of ways. It's the one I mentioned before, where it was a couple weeks of pretty nonstop reading along with the composition. We had a house upstate without air conditioning and it was a really hot August, so I'd do some other work in the morning and then move onto our bed, which was in the only air-conditioned room and had a large enough surface to keep the piles of books and drafts spread out as I worked for eight or nine hours. Then reading, sleeping, and the next day the same. Whatever the results, there are those times when the immersion is total, and that always feels like a gift from the sky. The painting was clearly narrative, and the relationship of my poem to Ashbery's "Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror" was a narrative, and the historical study of the development of sanctioned debt and interest was a narrative—so I think my impulse was to make these narrative strands into tangible correlatives.
Polito: The book touches on so many senses of "debt," including literary debts. That aspect is aesthetic, but it's also ethical, isn't it? Poems and art as sources for generating fresh art, and debt as a gain, or as a celebration, seems to be part of the ethic of Ledger, part of its cultural critique.
Wheeler: Yes, there's that great story of Isherwood coming across a good poem by a contemporary in a journal and envying it, chagrined, and Auden saying something to the effect of "What do you mean? It's great—more to raid!"
Polito: And you're more open about the sources for your poems than many poets. I'm thinking of your book Source Codes, as well as of this notion of literary borrowings as "code" for other social, economic, and ultimately spiritual transactions.
Wheeler: Yes. And those transactions as code for the literary, at times.
Polito: There's a powerful moment in "The Debtor" when you glance at narcissism, and rewrite Whitman on Lincoln: "O Captain Me, O Consciousness." Reading this book, I'm struck over and over by your sense of poetry as a force for radical transformation and self-transformation. There's no naïveté about the marketplace, or about discovering and chasing a language above or prior to it. This is in many ways a dark book, yet never a reductive one, and rarely a despairing one. Is there more you might wish to say about the situation of religion in your work?
Wheeler: I'm rarely aware of "employing" it, but I also don't try to excise it. In Ledger, and particularly with the "Debtor" poem, there was a conscious engagement with an essay by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, "Between Politics and Metaphysics," which addresses the quite twentieth-century conundrum that if there is an acceptance of relativism, if everyone's perspective is acknowledged as subjective and contextualized, how can we then believe in the absolute of God? He argues that although the experience of an individual is subjective, there is a portion of overlap in which certain things are shared, and it is in that shared but ever problematic demi-sphere that there is both an overlap and a universal. I'm badly misrepresenting it by reducing it to this, and the argument is marvelous; the essay loomed large through the book's writing.
Polito: Do you want to say what you are thinking about writing next?
Wheeler: When I finish the mom poems, "The Maud Project," I only want randomness. But I'm involved in two collaborations: one with Mary Jo Bang, a novel or novelette—we'll see!—in verse, and a budding project with my stepson, the filmmaker and photographer Jonathan Furmanski, on the industrial site just south of the city on the New Jersey Turnpike. That's plenty of predetermination for now, eh?