Exploring Poetry's Possible Worlds
As Robert E. Lee Research Scholar Annie Persons learned this summer at Washington and Lee University, you don’t have to leave campus for an academically meaningful adventure. In fact, sometimes even a simple trip to the library can turn into a character-building experience.
‘I’d text a friend, ‘I’m heading into the stacks!’ ” said Persons, a junior, from Atlanta, who ventured into the darkest recesses of Leyburn Library on fact-finding missions for Lesley Wheeler, W&L’s Henry S. Fox Professor of English. Wheeler is writing a book that explores the relationship between contemporary poetry and speculative fiction, an umbrella term for a literary genre encompassing fantasy, horror and science fiction.
Wheeler’s book “Heterotopia” won the 2010 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the Library of Virginia’s Literary Award for Poetry. Her 2012 novella in verse, “The Receptionist and Other Tales,” falls into the speculative-fiction camp and has won strong reviews. With her book-in-progress, tentatively called “Poetry’s Possible Worlds,” Wheeler hopes to attract readers who may be interested in modern poetry but are unsure where to start.
“They’re very intimidated by the world of 21st-century poetry because there’s so much out there, and it’s hard to find your way into it,” she explained. “I just wanted to write a book that could be readable by anybody who is interested in poetry.”
To do this, Wheeler will open each chapter with a poem. These works, from a cross-section of international poets, will introduce different literary concepts. As she noted in her blog (http://lesleywheeler.org), “Permissions will be tricky, but it’s really important to me that readers have their own encounter before I start messing around with it. My premises are that it’s pleasurable to get lost in a poem’s pocket universe, that we should take poetry personally, and that we have a right to our own responses.”
The book will also consider the idea of “immersive reading,” the cognitive process of being fully engaged, or entrained, with the text. Speculative fiction encourages an immersive experience because readers become absorbed in the parameters and details of an unknown world. Poetry, Wheeler argues, can provide a similarly immersive experience.
“Even though the world-building you do when you read a lyric poem is much more fragmentary – it’s much shorter duration, it has fewer characters and objects in it than the imaginative world of novel reading – you’re still engaging in that process,” said Wheeler. “And to some extent, the success of a poem is its ability to engage you that way.” The rhythms and metrical patterns of verse may also encourage immersion.
Wheeler is mixing memoir, criticism and theoretical speculations. “The chapters interweave critical and theoretical writing with personal writing, so there’s a fair amount of narrative and storytelling in these chapters too, because narrative and storytelling are absorptive, and I want to write an immersive book,” explained Wheeler.
One chapter opens with the poem “Garden Gate,” by New Zealand poet Bill Manhire. “It’s a poem about standing at the threshold of the garden gate, and it has this vague sense of being on the edge of fairy lore, but that’s a very loaded space,” said Wheeler. “We all have associations of in between the house and world, right?” The chapter itself will discuss thresholds in literature while also exploring thresholds in Wheeler’s life.
The project included immersive — if not always poetic — research missions for Persons, the summer scholar. “I discovered that there’s this traditional English song called ‘The Garden Gate,’ and I needed to be able to cite that Manhire might be making an allusion to it,” said Wheeler. She also wanted to know if the song, performed by folk singer June Tabor, was English or Welsh. “Finding out the origins of a traditional song is actually kind of difficult.”
These questions sent Persons on a hunt through the stacks. “I ended up looking into the genealogy book of names that’s on the middle of the main floor, that I think people lounge on,” she recalled. “If it had been my own writing, maybe I would just say, ‘Oh, well, I’m not going to mention June Tabor, then.’ It made my own research better because I wasn’t asking it for myself.”
In addition to numerous treks through the library, Persons prepared a 30-or-so-page annotated bibliography. She also honed her research skills by gathering and reviewing articles on JSTOR and the MLA online journal archive. “It’s really satisfying when you find the answer,” said Persons, “and it’s just kind of fun because it’s like detective work.”
— by Amy Balfour, ’89, ’93L
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs