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Fantastic Poetry: W&L's Wheeler Uses Terza Rime to Spin a Sci-Fi Story

From vampires and zombies to direwolves and mockingjays, fantastical creatures have invaded film, TV and literary classics – not to mention the New York Times bestseller list. Lesley Wheeler, the Henry S. Fox Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, brings that fantastic to the world of poetry in her new book, “The Receptionist and Other Tales.” She drops her reluctant heroine into a collegiate setting infused with gothic intrigue, where receptionists, deans and other university denizens are more than they seem.

“I would say, more than any other book that I’ve ever written, that this one was written entirely to please myself. I’ve always loved fantasy and science fiction. I’ve been reading them since I was a little kid,” said Wheeler.

Wheeler, who headed the W&L English Department while writing the book, was also interested in setting her story on a college campus. “There’s a long tradition of academic novels. There are a lot of really great ones,” said Wheeler. “It’s a little incestuous but also fun. Combining the academic novel with a kind of fantasy story appealed to me.”

A novella written in verse, her book falls into a category of literature known as speculative fiction, an umbrella term for genre fiction encompassing fantasy, science fiction and horror. The publisher, Aqueduct Press, is a feminist science-fiction press.

In “The Receptionist and Other Tales,” Wheeler sets a mysterious but playful tone, releasing her characters into a setting both familiar and fantastic. Computers are called “oracles,” townies are “random villagers” and English professors are dragons, hermits and bards. The receptionist, Edna, battles a manipulative, powerful dean.

To propel the title story, Wheeler used a verse form known as “terza rima.” “That’s a form that was used by Dante, so it’s got a history of working for narrative. I think because of the way the rhyme scheme works, it has a really propulsive energy,” said Wheeler. “It’s ABA, BCB, CDC, so the next rhyme is always sending you on to the next stanza.”

Although Wheeler’s characters are completely fictional, the poem’s details about academia are informed by her experiences. “Anyone who knows me well is going to see resonances, and that’s true with any fiction writer. You’re patching together bits and pieces that you’ve seen and heard,” said Wheeler.

For the book’s other tales, Wheeler selected nine short poems with elements of fantasy or science fiction from her catalog of work. One standout is “Zombie Thanksgiving,” a poem she wrote about a dysfunctional family’s holiday gathering.

“At the time, ‘The Walking Dead’ (TV show) had just started, and I was watching that. As a Christmas present, I got the graphic novels and so I started reading those,” said Wheeler. “I was steeped in all things zombie.” The poem also echoes T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land.” “ all about the dead coming back to life, and there are these Dracula references. I just started thinking of it as a zombie poem.”

Fantasy and science fiction don’t garner the same respect as literary fiction in academic circles, noted Wheeler, but that perception may change as speculative elements seep into the modern canon. “All these metaphors and situations from speculative fiction have really filtered into contemporary poetry,” said Wheeler, “but it just doesn’t go under that name. I’m obviously leaping out fully in that direction.”

The book earned kudos from science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, one of Wheeler’s literary idols. For the cover, Le Guin blurbed, “Where can an evil Dean meet his doom more fitly than in terza rima? Lesley Wheeler’s brief novel of misbehaviour in academia, subtle and funny, rashly inventive and perfectly realistic, uses all the forgotten powers of metaphor and poetry to make the mundane luminous.”

Gwyneth Jones, the Welsh science fiction and fantasy novelist, wrote, “In the bonus package of shorter poems, ‘Zombie Thanksgiving’ (T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ retold) is stunning, an absolute tour de force.”

Artist and writer Rosemary Starace painted the portraits on the book’s cover. Called “Studies of Angela,” Starace completed them after the death of her mother. “Those studies come from a deep place in her,” said Wheeler. “They fit the poem so beautifully.”

Wheeler hopes to draw a variety of readers, including those who are attracted to good storytelling but might hesitate to read poetry. “I’d really like to appeal to those readers,” said Wheeler. “I’m hoping that it’s a fairly accessible book and a good read.”

Wheeler’s last book of poetry, “Heterotopia,” won the 2010 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the Library of Virginia’s 2011 Literary Award for Poetry.

— by Amy Balfour ’87, 91L

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