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Q&A with poet and author Susan Wheeler

BY DI STAFF | JANUARY 26, 2012 7:20 AM

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The DI sat down with poet, author, and teacher Susan Wheeler to talk with her about her new novel Record Palace and her writing career. She currently teaches at Princeton University and previously taught at the University of Iowa. Wheeler will read from her work today at 8 p.m. in the Frank Conroy Reading Room of the Dey House.

Daily Iowan: What will you present during your reading on the 29th?

Wheeler: I'll be reading a poem based upon a painting in the Louvre, "The Money Changer," by Quentin Massys, who painted it in 15th-century Antwerp. It's a poem about debt, stewardship, social justice, faith -- many things that have come to a head these past few years. It also draws from one of the best-known poems of our time, "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," by John Ashbery. I will show slides from Massys' paintings, as well as Van Eyck's and others.

DI: How would you describe your style of poetry?

Wheeler: I try as much as possible to vary the style, poem to poem, but there are things that always draw me in: American vernacular English, including slang and shoptalk; a regular rhythmic arrangement (and, often rhyme); and jump-cuts, or sudden turns. In the past several years I've been writing love poetry for what is really the first time.

DI: How does writing a novel differ from writing poetry for you?

Wheeler: It is a whole different enterprise — different relationship to language, cadence, narrative, structure. I'm much more apt to focus on the trees rather than the forest, so I found that sustaining the same project over a period of years was a tremendous challenge for me. It did give me more patience with a long poem, however.

DI: What is your writing process like?

Wheeler: I'm a poet who works best with a chunk of time -— I really need to feed that part of me and give it room to range before poems percolate and begin to emerge. So I work when I have chunks of a week or more, generally, the rest of the time, I'm making notes and reading/seeing what I can. Music and painting are both very important to me.

DI: When did you start writing?

Wheeler: As soon as I could. I wrote stories and plays alongside singsong poems from the get-go.

DI: What inspires your writing?

Wheeler: I'd have to say, more than anything, the tremendous spirit of invention in the way the English language is adapted by American speakers. From Daniel Webster's dictionary on through the present, we've all taken a lot of license and pleasure in it!

DI: What has been the proudest moment in your writing career?

Wheeler: It is one that gets repeated: There is absolutely nothing more satisfying than seeing a former student publish a first book or first group of poems — in seeing a student become a colleague.

DI: What advice do you give to young writers?

Wheeler: Read. Read. Write what interests you, not what you think should interest you. Listen. Read.

— by Julia Jessen


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