An Interview with Betsy Wheeler
By Dan Haney
Stadler Center Intern, Spring '13
Dan Haney: Was there a particular moment or revelation that motivated you to pursue a career as a poet and editor or have you always carried with you the notion that you were 'meant' to be a writer?
Betsy Wheeler: At one point in my undergraduate career (up until my junior year, actually) I definitely thought that I was going to become a medical doctor, so the whole "career as a poet" thing was not always part of the plan. As a kid I was a voracious reader, and I began to seriously read and write poetry in my third year as an undergrad, but I wasn't ever really thinking that I was "meant" to be a writer; rather I found that I just wanted desperately to write poems-and was willing to work really hard to become better at it. I think that the moment I became aware of what poetry could do-or what poets could do with language-I knew I wasn't going to be able to stop trying to make poems. Writing poems became the leading way that I was able to move about, understand, and relate to the world. I was hooked. Sunk. I couldn't live without poetry anymore, and I wanted to contribute some of my own to the mess.
DH: How did you decide on the title of your most recent work, Loud Dreaming in a Quiet Room? As the title suggests, did any of the poems' captivating images, such as personified Charlie Horses and graveyard hide-and-go-seek, originate from recollected dreams?
BW: Given the title of my book, the assumption that lots of people make-that much of the imagery in this book comes from dreams-is a totally fair one. But that's actually not the case-I don't remember much of my dreams, and what I do remember is far less interesting (I think) than what my imagination makes up when I'm sitting in a chair awake. I think that the repeated mentioning of dreaming, waking, and sleeping in this book is due to the fact that many of the poems were written late at night, or very early in the morning (my two favorite times to write). I've always felt that the "dreaming" that the title refers to is more of a belief in possibility, rather than a state of R.E.M. sleep.
DH: One of the most compelling aspects of Loud Dreaming, is the speaker's fantastical associative leaps. These initially appear random, yet as the collection progresses, echoes of the colors green and red and images of the sea and of music resurface to haunt the reader. How did you accomplish such graceful associative leaps, and how important do you feel these are to your aesthetic as a poet?
BW: I really don't know. Does that seem like a cop-out? I don't mean it to. I think this is a really astute and generous observation and I appreciate your close reading of the collection as a whole, and how it allows you to see these connections. I think that our minds have certain (and unique) fascinations and obsessions, and that if/when we write enough, those connections can occur often enough to be combined into something significant-whether that is a "mission" or simply a "voice" depends on the poet and the collection. I think for me it manifests in voice and tone. But, really-it's not conscious. I feel like I can't take credit for it!
DH: Loud Dreaming in a Quiet Room's subtle, yet biting, humor left me pleasantly surprised. Witty lines are interspersed with beautiful lyric moments, to create tension and a sense of unpredictability. What are your thoughts on the role and importance of humor in poetry? Do you feel that some poems can take themselves too seriously?
BW: Thank you. I love this question. I'm not about to make sweeping declarations on the role and importance of humor in all poetry... but I know that in my poems the humor is something that makes me feel at home, and helps me to feel that I am connecting with you as a reader. Sometimes it just warms up the conversation a little bit before we get down to business. I'm not always happy with how jokey some of the lines in my poems are (though it depends on my mood, other times it just feels good to crack up an audience) because I know I often move from one moment of humor right into something serious or brooding, and that can be a hard turn for the reader to make with you. I think sometimes I risk losing someone from my sidecar-they may not make it around that sharp corner with me to see the beast grinning through the foam. In those cases, I fear my humor can be a distraction from the true topic at hand.
To answer your second question, I feel that we humans can take ourselves way too seriously a lot of the time. On the other hand I truly feel that poetry is really serious business-it has the potential to take on enormous responsibility and emotional weight, and it has the capability of creating meaningful shared experience. I think that's the most important thing in the world between human beings. Serious business.
DH: What is the most useful advice or exercise that you would pass along to young, aspiring writers?
BW: Read as much as you can. Read even what you "don't like" and then read even more of what you love. Share what you love with others. Then write, and keep writing and rewriting and drafting and redrafting until you love your own too.
DH: Once again, thank you again for granting me your time and wisdom with this interview. I, along with the rest of the Bucknell community, will be thrilled to welcome you back to Bucknell!
Betsy Wheeler will present the Eleventh Annual Drew Darrow Memorial Reading at 7 p.m., Tuesday, March 19 in Bucknell Hall, an event co-sponsored by The Writing Center.This and all Stadler Center Writers Series Events are free and open to the public.