2012 National Book Award Finalist,
University of Iowa Press
Interview by Katie Peterson
Katie Peterson: You are the author of five books of poems and one novel. How did you feel when you learned you had been nominated for a National Book Award for Meme?
Susan Wheeler: There’s very little that is factually autobiographical in the book, except for the naming of my brother and father, Dan and Ray, but the emotional gist is quite real for me, having lost my mother and my marriage in the course of writing the book. So the book feels both hobbled and raw, in the way one feels hobbled and raw in loss, and its being singled out was the last thing I ever expected. I was shocked―it was first thing in the morning that I heard from the National Book Foundation―and I assumed I was still dreaming, although (laughter) my dreams would tend toward pulping instead.
KP: The word you chose for your book’s title is credited to Richard Dawkins who used it in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to describe a replicating entity of cultural information. Could you talk a little bit about the title’s significance to the book?
SW: It’s a word that originated with genetic replication, and has gained currency since Dawkins as a unit of cultural effluvia that spreads widely very quickly: internet memes have become the first association, but of course ideas, phrases, and images became “memes” long before our internet lives: “Where’s the beef?” and “Let’s ask Mikey” are two phrasal memes old-timers would recognize. For a long time, I thought I was writing two books―one that used the mid-century vernacular speech of my mother, and one that riffed on a panoply of “break-ups.” But a question from the poet Claudia Rankine one day made me realize that the sense of incomplete bonding was generational―and that a meme, in all its senses, made these things inextricable.
KP: The spirited speech patterns of the memorable mother figure (“Hold your horses”) in the first section of Meme remind me how dense language actually is―and how full of metaphors it is as well. Your ear for idiom is incredible. Which voices, speech patterns, and dictions do you find the most memorable and useful for your work? How does a voice “change” when it gets into a poem?
SW: That’s what I love. My ear is where my heart is, in the patterns of American speech; it’s one of the reasons I love the walking town of New York, where one moment you’re hearing acronyms over bass beats and the next the peculiar “o”s of Minnesota rubber-neckers. Of course, as any screenwriter knows, the isolation of the idiom on the page (or performance) changes what otherwise might be verisimilitude, so that a sense of accuracy on the part of the reader comes via great manipulation and invention. Even though many of the clichés and stock phrases in the first section came from my mother’s speech, many did not and were borrowed from other sources; the dominant voice also needed its moony foil, the lyric intrusions.
KP: Your novel, Record Palace, was published in 2005. How do you see the connection between poetry and prose in your own work?
SW: They are very different animals, but the novel, too, is centered on voice, on characters revealed through their speech.
KP: As a poet you gravitate toward formal patterning that the reader can see and hear. In Meme you create a number of forms for the book, and you re-invent existing forms, like the limerick. What do you think form is for?
SW: Thank you; I’d love to think I re-invented, but I think―I hope―they are card-carrying limericks! Form to me is wholly opportunistic―it evolves as the poem or the page evolves, and is as much about white space as it is meter, as much about tonal modulation as it is stanzaic structure. Often, what is useful about pattern and repetition is that it increases tension and authority when the language is taking real liberties, getting loopy.
KP: Meme is also full of leave-takings. Does poetry have a special relationship with loss?
SW: I must say I have always resisted this notion. Lyric poetry clearly does, given its history, but lyric poetry is only a small fraction of what―historically and presently―constitutes poetry. In an age preoccupied with whitewashing losses and failures through advertising, PACs, and the self-grooming of social media, though, it is not surprising that representations of loss are compelling and welcome.
Thank you, Katie.
Katie Peterson is the author of a book of poems, This One Tree (New Issues / Western Michigan University Press, 2006), and two forthcoming collections, The Accounts (University of Chicago, 2013) and Permission (New Issues / Western Michigan University Press, 2014). The recipient of fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, she is Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts University.