Lesley Wheeler’s books include Poetry’s Possible Worlds (Tinderbox Editions), a hybrid of memoir and criticism; Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present (Cornell University Press); five poetry collections; and the novel Unbecoming. She is the Henry S. Fox Professor of English at W&L, where she also serves as poetry editor of Shenandoah.
I’m sometimes told by people who work outside of universities that being a teacher-writer-editor in an English Department sounds great, and occasionally it is.
In the fall of 2019, I taught an advanced undergraduate course I had not offered for three years: “U.S. Poetry from 1900-1950.” Even in previous versions called “Modern Poetry,” my agenda was to decenter the version of modernism handed down to me; in this project I felt fellowship with feminist scholars I read as a graduate student in the early nineties.
My farewell post for the “Process” column is a brief conversation with Jahan Ramazani, University Professor and Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English at the University of Virginia, and a scholar whose work I admire greatly and follow closely.
Archival research possesses a hushed glamor. To realize that Marianne Moore carried around the very book you’re holding—or that Langston Hughes rolled that exact piece of paper into his typewriter late one night and yanked out a poem with the ink still damp—is like being visited by a character you thought you’d invented. Such knowledge can change how you think about art, and it certainly changes how you read.
Some writing changes worlds, for better and for worse. The second executive order signed by President Trump, for example, speeds up environmental reviews “For High Priority Infrastructure Projects” such as the Dakota Access Pipeline. The effects of this order on the natural universe and on human culture may be profound.
If I were Edna St. Vincent Millay, I might begin this letter by describing some bit of local foliage I’d enclosed, its leaves pressed among scrawled endearments. But by the time broadband has advanced enough to transmit an actual crape myrtle blossom, it would be very faded, I’m afraid. So a photograph from my front yard will have to suffice.
Why would a modernism scholar want to write collaboratively? Aren’t solo ventures hard enough? Below are some rejoinders, meditations, and provocations, the first in dramatic form.
In 2015, the airwaves crackled with debate about the value—or pointlessness—of academic conferences (see, for starters, “The Conference Manifesto” and “A Conference Manifesto for the Rest of Us”). Yet I love the Modernist Studies Association meeting for reliably reenergizing my research and writing. Come November, I’m generally buried under a drift of student essays, plus the holidays are looming, with their burden of extra work and anxiety. It can be hard to see the point in crafting another labor-intensive scholarly essay for a coterie of readers when there are so many administrative deadlines pressing and weepy students knocking, plus a late-capitalist shopping frenzy to orchestrate.