Chris Wheeling Writes Poetry About the Underworld

[On Sunday, August 26th, I’ll participate in a poetry festival at the Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale, “Spoken Aggregate,” from 1 to 4 pm. Three of us–Chris Wheeling, Janet Hamill, and myself–will present works inspired by the Underworld. Here, Chris tells us what he’s busy writing.]

When I was notified that I was one of the poets chosen for Spoken Aggregate 2012, I decided that I wanted to craft something special for the event. I think all of us in the Underworld segment wanted to do something new specific for this reading, and we have delivered.

In my quest for the future, I looked to the past. It was 2007, and I was attending the annual cave marathon, although I did not schedule myself as a featured reader. I signed up on the open reading list, despite not having any work with me that day to read. I made up two poems on the spot, one of which is the following.



The pillars
The foundations of the world
Impure earthly waters snake through

Not Hell in a conventional sense
Hell is a place where you can think
Hell is a place where you can think
Hell is a place where you can hear yourself think


Fast forward to 2012. I decided this small on-the-spot piece would be the seed of a mightier project. Thus, I went about reading and taking notes. I drew inspiration from T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books, Umberto Eco, Tolkien, my own fellow local poets, and so many more. I filled page after page with fragments. The nine lines above blossomed into over 10 pages of first draft. However, many of my learned allusions and references had to be scrapped due to making the whole mess fit together, as well as fitting within my time allotment for the reading. Pointlessly indulgent lines, although sounding good, had to be cut out. Some of my favorite phrases, deleted from the draft. Ah well. That’s the world of revision. I will most likely tinker with it later on, well after Spoken Aggregate closes shop for this year.

I originally titled the work “A Residency in Sheol,” however, I will most likely be changing the name to something else. At this moment, it’s “Voices in Exile,” but that might change before the 26th too. I decided to follow in the footsteps of The Waste Land, and make the poem in multiple sections that aren’t immediately apparent as to their connection. Fellow Underworld group member Janet brought up Arnold Böcklin’s “Isle of the Dead” paintings and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, both of which provided further material for my Underworld poem. With Orpheus came the idea that it should involve love. With The Tempest and Prospero’s Books, a cloistered intellectual. Cave paintings, mines… a lot of ideas went into this. Maybe too many ideas.

The draft I’m currently staring at doesn’t quite resemble the grand artistic vision I had at the outset. Most of the fragments haven’t left the notebook. Half of the first draft has already been sliced away. But that doesn’t really matter, does it? The poem needs to be itself. I’m here to lend it a hand and bring it from the darkness of my mind to the daylight, only to shove it back in the cave on the 26th. Whatever it becomes is what it is. I am enjoying the challenge of writing a longer poem; I hope you enjoy what will be read at Spoken Aggregate this year.

–Chris Wheeling

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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges available on-line.

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