Wheeler's 'Meme' up for National Book Award

Susan Wheeler’s Meme, the latest offering from the University of Iowa Press's Kuhl House Poets series, has been selected as a finalist for this year's National Book Award.

Wheeler, who formerly taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, said of the selection, “As Ma would have said, 'Well, I'm flabbergasted.' (As she would have been!) I'm also tremendously honored for the company and the consideration.”

The awards will be presented Nov. 14 at a ceremony in New York City.

A meme is a unit of thought replicated by imitation. Occupy Wall Street is a meme, as are Internet ideas and images that go viral.

But what could be more potent memes than those passed down by parents to their children? Wheeler reconstructs her mother’s voice—down to its cynicism and its mid-20th-century midwestern vernacular—in “The Maud Poems.” That voice takes a more aggressive, vituperative turn in “The Devil—or —The Introjects.” In the book’s third long sequence, a generational inheritance feeds cultural transmission in “The Split.” A set of variations on losses and break-ups—wildly, darkly funny throughout and, in places, devastatingly sad—“The Split” brings Wheeler’s lauded inventiveness, wit, and insight to the profound loss of love.

"This is a well-deserved honor for Susan. The National Book Award stands as the pinnacle of recognition for individual literary works, the nominees represent the best of the best in a given year,” says Jim McCoy, UI Press director. “Wheeler's talent and hard work shines on every page. This is such a personal work it can't help but touch anyone who reads it. She's an absolute delight to work with. Congratulations also to Mark Levine, who edits our Kuhl House Poets series. It is his vision that makes this possible. The Press is so honored to be publishing Meme.”

Poet Mary Jo Bang, author of The Bride of E, says, "In Meme, the traditional elegy dissolves into excited bursts of imitated idiomatic speech interwoven with writing from a different register—the coolly removed, self-insightful lyric. That the elaborately constructed edifice that is personality can be reconstructed with such fascinating economy and delightful indirection is amazing. These poems are pure poetic genius."

And poet Rae Armantrout, author of Money Shot, says, "Meme is a haunted work. We are ushered in by the disembodied voice of a mother figure, scolding and teasing in the time-stamped slang of past decades. The anachronism is both funny and terribly sad. 'Don't come in here all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,' the voice says. And it turns out that's fair warning. This cracked Virgil leads us into a consciously Dantean underworld ('Had you entered the thicket in darkness / . . . Had you been mid-life, not in haze but in crisis?'). Wheeler has created a total (and to me terrifying) linguistic environment in which hell is the introjected voices of other people, the hungry ghosts of our recent past."

Wheeler is the author of the poetry collections Bag ‘o’ Diamonds, which received the Norma Farber First Book Award of the Poetry Society of America and was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Award;Smokes, which won the Four Way Books Award in 1998; and Source Codes;Ledger, winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize; and Assorted Poems. Her novel,Record Palace, was published in 2005. On the creative writing faculties at Princeton University and The New School's graduate program, she lives in Rocky Hill, N.J.

Like the historic stone building, home of the UI Press, from which this series draws its name, the Kuhl House Poets combine the best of dedicated craft and contemporary vision. This provocative series reawakens readers to a fresh consideration of the possibilities of language and feeling by publishing work that is formally and verbally inventive, adventurous work that takes its own path outside established routes of either traditions or experimental poetry.

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Wheeler's 'Meme' up for National Book Award