The Columns

Lesley Wheeler Communicates with “Radioland,” Her New Collection of Poems

— by on November 16th, 2015

Lesley Wheeler, the Henry S. Fox Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, has published her fourth full-length collection of poetry, “Radioland” (Barrow Street Press).

The title of her volume comes from “an imaginary place broadcasters referenced to gesture towards their far-flung listeners,” explained Wheeler. “I’ve been interested in how and why we communicate over huge gaps in time, space and understanding. These poems concern many of the ways people get urgent points across, including radio but also letters, cellphones, websites, newspapers, literary works and ghostly messages.”

The poems are also autobiographical, covering Wheeler’s 2011 sabbatical in New Zealand with her husband and two kids, during which her parents’ marriage unexpectedly fell apart back in the U.S.; her father’s remarriage, illness and death; a catastrophic house flood; raising teenagers; and other episodes of personal and historical violence. “Some of the trickiest communications in this book occur between my father and me,” she said. “He was born in Brooklyn in 1925, so the dated sound of the word ‘radioland’ also conjures the generation gap between us, as well as the similar difficulties I have decoding my own teenagers.”

One reviewer noted, “Lesley Wheeler’s ‘Radioland’ is a spellbinding examination of communication breakdown in all its guises. With seismic heft, Wheeler mines the metaphoric capabilities of tectonic shifts and fault lines, slurred pop lyrics, and the lexicon of new technologies. With a flair for received forms and an exacting ear, Wheeler has her finger on the pulse of all that stands in the way of straightforward transmissions, not only of the other but of the self.”

For Wheeler, this latest volume is “a big book for me. It’s the best work I’ve done, and I feel really proud of it. I’m eager to get it out in the world, but also trepidatious, the way you feel when you’ve put a lot of yourself into a project. My second book of poems was about my mother’s childhood in Liverpool, England, and my father was mad about that. He always said, ‘Why don’t you write a book about me?’ And here I have. He wouldn’t like it at all. But it feels like I’m delivering on material I’ve needed to write through for a long time.”

Despite the disconnect between people in Wheeler’s poems, her ultimate goal is to offer assurance. “I want people to be hopeful, to know that even though it’s ridiculously difficult to get through to other people, you can sometimes. The effort is worth it, and there’s beauty and love in the trying.”

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