By Emily Sierra Poertner
On Tuesday night Dr. Lesley Wheeler gave a poetry reading in Fintel Library. She was introduced by Roanoke College’s Paul Hanstedt. Dr. Wheeler teaches in the English department at Washington and Lee in Lexington, where Dr. Hanstedt lives. He talked about how he’d heard many things about her before they met. She’d been described as being “the smartest, most well-spoken person in the room.” Upon meeting her, she exceeded any expectations he’d had.
Heterotopia, meaning “other places”, was the first book of poetry she read from. This book was about her mother’s childhood. Her mom grew up in Liverpool, England, and later immigrated to America. While doing research for the book, she traveled to England and stayed with distant relatives. She quickly noticed one of the struggles with writing about family is balancing respect for the person while still accurately representing them. Another problem she had was trying to get the stories and the language right. She said in one conversation with her mom she realized she would never get it all right, and understanding that made it easier to start writing.
She then read a few poems from The Receptionist and Other Tales, her most recently published book. This book required quite a bit of backstory. Dr. Wheeler had been one of the first female teachers in the English department at Washington and Lee shortly after they opened their doors to women students. Many of the older male faculty weren’t happy with this choice for many reasons, one being “they could no longer swim naked in the pool.” She sarcastically described The Receptionist as taking place “in a small town, nothing like Lexington, and at a school, nothing like Washington and Lee.” Writing this book helped her get through the experiences she had in her first few years there.
She read zombie poems from two of her collections, The Receptionist and Other Tales, and Heathen. Dr. Wheeler described zombies as a way for people to deal with their own mortality, but the poems weren’t depressing.
“I try to accurately represent the world without bringing more sadness into it,” Dr. Wheeler said.
Finally, she read a few poems from Radioland, a manuscript which will be published later this year. This book focuses on her late father, who had asked when Heterotopia came out, “When are you going to write a book about me?” She had struggled writing this book because her relationship with her father hadn’t always been the best. There were a lot of poems she described as “ghost stories” in this collection.
At the end of the reading she answered questions for the audience. Many of the senior creative writing majors were eager to pick her brain about research and her process. Her books were for sale in the back, and a small reception was held afterwards.