Robert Polito: I think of your earlier poems in Bag o’ Diamonds and Smokes as composed of all these swirling vernaculars: the languages of pop culture, or of various professions, or even of modernist poets like Frost, and of course Pound. You’ve written so smartly about Bob Dylan’s possession of the forms and variety of American speech, and that’s how I’ve come to think of you. A collector perhaps, or a magpie. Your pleasure in our random, fleeting, and lost slang is palpable. How did you come to this absorption in vernaculars?
Susan Wheeler: God knows, as my mother would have said. I’m beginning to get an inkling, as I’ve been writing a series of poems that use her idiomatic expressions — she grew up in Topeka, and had a strong portion of Pennsylvania Dutch as well, but who knows where she got phrases like “busier than a cranberry bog merchant.” Other things, of course: a soft spot for “colorful speech,” attempts to “read” idioms in order to fit into a group or out of one, an awe of good talkers, especially those who use highly idiomatic speech, Catullus — (laughter) What does Armand Schwerner say? “Extension of the dramatic monologue into plurilogue.”
One of the arguments advanced by Language poets is that the text has replaced the lyric poem along with the idea of voice or what has been called speech. Many have traced this shift to the moment when Robert Grenier declared “I HATE SPEECH” in an essay entitled “On Speech” that appeared in the first issue of the magazine This (Winter, 1971), which he started with Barrett Watten. Fifteen years later, in 1986, Ron Silliman — in his “Introduction: Language, Realism Poetry” to In The American Tree (1986), the anthology he edited — stated that Grenier’s announcement was both “a breach — and a new moment in poetry.”
Essentially, Grenier’s statement divides the practice of poetry into two distinct groups — those who believe in the text, found material, the possibilities of collage and the polyvalent, and those who believe in the lyric “I,” sustained narrative and the poet’s recognizable voice or “speech.” If we use Kenneth Goldsmith’s refining of Grenier’s statement, you could say that the practice of poetry can currently be divided into the “uncreative” and the “creative.”
Whatever terms are used to describe the dialectic, Susan Wheeler belongs to neither group. In fact, her use of “idiomatic expressions” and what Polito calls “swirling vernaculars” and “lost slang” advances a third possibility, which is that one can be “a collector … or a magpie” who, among other things, calls up the voices that one has heard at different points in one’s life. This view of poetry runs counter to the postmodernist belief in the death of the author. For in addition to intimations of the cessation of interiority and memories, the death of the author implies the birth of the text and of the Internet as the storehouse of memory. Within this understanding of poetry, there is only surface and collage. In Wheeler’s poetry, however, which she began publishing in 1998, her understanding of hearing (of listening to) and being sensitive to “the forms and variety of American speech” defines an area of poetry that the dichotomy of text and speech ignores.
I would go further and state that, in her “absorption in vernaculars,” Wheeler shares something with other woman poets, including Mary Jo Bang, Matthea Harvey, Harryette Mullen, Laura Mullen and Cathy Hong Park. These poets recognize that what William Carlos Williams called American speech is actually made up of a multitude of slangs and vernaculars, which are encoded transactions and commentaries existing on the margins of both commonplace speech (as used in the mass media) and text (as used in the academy). By deploying, recovering and inventing different slangs and vernaculars, Wheeler and the others I cited recognize that America is made up of a mass of different languages and that none of them are central. There is no demotic but there are many languages, each with its own slang.
(In an interview that appeared in the online magazine Paris Review Daily, August 23, 2011, Cathy Hong Park comments on her forthcoming book: “there are sound poems in there as well, where I let myself wallow in kitschy Western vernacular.”)
* * *
The New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell gives us a succinct and useful definition of “meme”: “A meme is an idea that behaves like a virus — that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects.” Wheeler’s Meme is divided into three sections: “The Maud Poems”; “The Devil–or–The Introjects”; “The Split.” In her interview with Polito, Wheeler cites her mother’s idiomatic expressions as a source for the first section: “When I finish the mom poems, ‘The Maud Project,’ I only want randomness.” “The Devil–or–The Introjects” is the shortest section, made up of eight untitled prose pieces ranging from one to five sentences in length. “Introjection” is when one replicates the behavior and attributes of others; it involves identification and internalization. In this section there is a recurring “she,” although it is not clear whether “she” is an external figure, an internal force or a combination of both. As the title of the third section, “The Split,” suggests, it is about the end of a relationship.
Despite the autobiographical current running through these poems, they are remarkably and, to my mind, powerfully free of anecdotes, overt narratives, and stories—all the things that are central to confessional poetry as they sequester it. Wheeler’s poems don’t culminate in revelations or epiphanies. Rather, I get the sense that the “Maud Poems” are carefully considered aural montages of a particularly powerful and recognizable voice, of distinctive phrases and orders of syllables that implanted themselves in Wheeler. In order to write these poems, the poet seems to have taken dictation a la Jack Spicer.
She’s a Pill
Oh, dangling long sleeves in the Mercurochrome.
Parking her punch on her knees.
I’m not a joiner.
In the night, a visitation, small as a thumb,
enters the sealed house and ascends.
Mother wouldn’t have stood for that long. Drippy-dropping around
on heels. Leaving the blue cheese out.
The deeper source of “The Maud Poems” is matriarchal speech as a form of instruction, which was used by a distinct, rather isolated social group (“Pennsylvania Dutch”) at a certain moment in history to perpetuate longstanding ideas about correct behavior. While that specific group may have diminished, others have replaced it. There are as many as two hundred languages spoken in New York City alone. Each has its own idioms. While the division of poetry into text and speech was useful in the 1970s, it seems out of touch with the current state of affairs. Wheeler’s citation of Armand Schwerner — “Extension of the dramatic monologue into plurilogue” — feels more attuned to the different idioms and encodings one encounters. I would also advance that Wheeler and the other poets I cited recognize that idioms and slangs are evidence of the various processes of entropy and change each language undergoes at any one moment in time — that what interests them is the further changes that can be made to language; such developments are in fact central to their poetry practice.
Wheeler’s “Maud” evokes intimate family moments without ever devolving into anecdotes centrally occupied by a highly sensitive “I.” She doesn’t focus on dramatic moments, but on the everyday rituals when, as George Perec might say, nothing happens. The poet is acutely sensitive to the odd colorfulness of whomever is speaking, the sense of rightness that informs everything she says. More importantly, Wheeler neither defines herself as a victim nor privileges her feelings over others. There is a precision of observation that becomes weird, if thought about: “No, cocktail onions are just picked small.” By slowing down this speaker’s answer until it becomes words on a page, Wheeler underscores the imperious assumptions the speaker has made about the relationship between her leisure and the unseen labor. In these observations, the reader senses the poet’s growing consciousness of the network of capital that binds and separates us.
* * *
All the poems in “The Split” are untitled. There are lists, compressed haiku — like fragments, limericks and bits from made-up vaudeville songs. On opposite pages, we read these two verses:
I picked up a gal in bar.
She said she’s ignore my cigar.
But when I was done
Relieving my gun
She said I was not up to par.
He stumbled outside to his car
He couldn’t have gotten too far
For when I replied
Your trigger’s what died
He lit his exploding cigar.
It’s as if there are two choruses in a Greek play informing the audience as to what exactly is going on. Lowbrow humor and rhyme are used to shape feelings of rage, rejection, disappointment and impotence. This isn’t an “anecdote,” as Wheeler writes elsewhere, but “an event” in the form of facing ditties.
While one of the recurring themes in “The Split” is the end of a relationship, the scope of the subject extends in widening directions, from dead pets to God. One list poem begins every line with “Bye”:
Bye, kid in first grade on your paddle cart
Bye, Lorrain, Outward Bound in the snow
Bye, Motorcycle David
Near the middle of the poem:
Bye Dad, bye Mom.
Bye, Duncan’s dancing bear shining, shining.
Bye, great dogs I have known. Cats. Raccoon I hit.
And at the end:
Bye to the husband who was the best wife.
Bye to those I fear dead.
I know you all in his absence tonight.
I know you all in his absence tonight.
From limerick to elegy and prayer, and from prose to nursery rhyme, Wheeler uses different forms and ways of juxtaposing words, phrases and stanzas. Humor and sadness, celebration and dirges are inseparable. Her poems are infectious. I haven’t been able to shake myself free of them, but I am not trying to.
Susan Wheeler’s Meme is available at the University of Iowa Press website and other online booksellers.