In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors and cover artists, as well as editors from peer presses and magazines, to tell us what they’re working on, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.
Lesley Wheeler’s poem “Grant Report, New Zealand” appears in Ecotone’s Migration Issue, and her entry in our Poem in a Landscape department appears in Ecotone 19, our tenth-anniversary issue. Radioland, her fourth collection of poems, is newly out from Barrow Street Press.
Editing a book of poetry is probably not on most people’s list of terrors, but I’d rather face public speaking any day, or maybe an egg sac bursting with baby wood spiders. You’ve been web-spinning for years and the results are almost ready for the public, but first you have to make sure the spacing and em dashes are just so. And that’s the easy part: it’s much harder to read your poems freshly again and again during the brief window your overworked editors allot for the process. If you don’t, however, you won’t catch the word whorl on three pages running, or a slightly bungled Dickinson quote, or the dropped italics. Then one day when, overcoming the existential nausea of book promotion, you stand at podium before those raised expectant faces, you’ll turn to page seventeen and the error you finally spot will break your heart.
Well, maybe you wouldn’t burn in shame about an em dash, but certain slips are more dreadful. While combing through Radioland, I worried particularly about my references to New Zealand. I spent several months in Aotearoa in 2011, and since then I’ve been negotiating my right to write about it: living there remapped the world for me, but I feared exoticizing the islands’ green cliffs and wild shorelines, skimming over pretty surfaces like a tourist. I quadruple-checked diacritical marks in Maori words, as well as facts about the 2011 earthquake. Differences between New Zealand and U.S. English also created quandaries. Maori would take a macron over the a in many contexts, for instance, but it doesn’t in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, the reference my press uses to settle spelling ambiguities. One poem triggered copyediting marks with a reference to “the mad jangling / of tui in the punga.” Tui, the name of an extraordinary New Zealand bird, which can be seen and heard in the New Zealand encyclopedia Te Ara, appears in U.S. dictionaries, but punga does not and therefore must be italicized. The contrasting fonts looked distracting, plus I realized how difficult punga would be for an American reader to look up, so I ended up changing the latter to “tree ferns” (fortunately metrically similar). Cultural respect, levels of correctness, confusion for readers, elegance on the page—they’re tricky to balance.
My title, Radioland, conjures an imaginary space, a community of solitary people joined by listening. In some sense, every literary world is imaginary—my New Zealand, though vividly present once, was always also a mental construction. My temporarily flooded, spider-haunted Virginia home, my Philadelphia VA Hospital, and my “staticky / passes of cold April rain” can now be accessed only through poetic fictions. As the Northeastern-suburbs-raised daughter of a Liverpool emigrant, I generally feel dislocated except while reading. All the more important, then, to get the commas right, so strangers can venture out unimpeded into the poems’ pocket universes.
Lesley Wheeler is the author of Radioland, Heterotopia, Heathen, and other books about unreal countries. Her poems and essays appear in magazines including Crazyhorse, Gettysburg Review, and Cimarron Review. Poems from Radioland can be read online in journals including Flyway, storySouth, Unsplendid, and Connotation Press. The Henry S. Fox Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, she lives and works in Lexington, Virginia, and blogs about poetry at lesleywheeler.org.