Rachel Wiley is a writer, and she's comfortable saying so

Andy Downing
Rachel Wiley

Poet Rachel Wiley hasn’t picked up her pen much since the coronavirus slowed the world to a crawl, which she traced to a long-developed habit of writing while on the go, penning first drafts of verses on airplanes or in rushed, 20-minute blocks between errands.

“I think it’s because [when I’m constantly moving] I’m not thinking, oh, there’s laundry that needs to be done, or the cat box needs to be cleaned, or I have these things I have to do for my day job,” said Wiley, who will appear during theOhioana Book Festival, which will take place virtually Friday through Sunday, Aug. 28-30. “If I’m traveling, none of that is in my head. All I have to do is be at the airport at this time and get on the plane. And then at the hotel I have time to not think about anything. I think that’s why I was more productive on the go.”

It’s not the only change for the poet, who, between Netflix binges and marathon Animal Crossing sessions, has been working on the manuscript for her third poetry collection,Revenge Body, potentially landing sometime in 2021. In the past, Wiley said her poems were often shaped by onstage performances, owing to a longtime connection with the slam poetry scene, which she gravitated toward early on since it paired naturally with her theater background. But Wiley said that she hasn’t been performing at slams as of late, so more recent poems have taken other forms, with the writer focusing on slightly different dimensions of the work, such as the shape the words and lines take when placed on the page.

“There’s also not an implanted time limit where your poems can only be a certain length,” Wiley said, which wasn’t always the case onstage, where pieces had to fall within more limited bounds. 

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The adjustment has been both freeing and fear-inducing, with Wiley describing her first attempts at working solely on the page as overwhelming. “It was like, ‘I don’t know if I should have this much freedom,’” she said, and laughed.

Other aspects of Wiley’s process have remained intact, with her poems continuing to serve as a means of intensive self-exploration, which has been the case since she first took a pen to paper as a way to organize her thoughts. (“I live with anxiety and ADHD, so my brain can be kind of loud at times,” Wiley said.) Indeed, Wiley’s creative evolution could be viewed as a consistent shedding of skin, with each verse, poem and collection bringing readers closer to the core of her being.

“There’s this [idea] that poets essentially write about the same three things over and over again, which is not entirely untrue, but you take on more information as you go, and you uncover more about yourself,” said Wiley, who first hit on the potential of her poetic voice when she wrote “Gorgon,” which she termed her first piece “about living in a fat body.” “So you’re going to write about things you’ve already visited, but with this new information. You’re shedding these outer layers, and I still don’t know how deep it goes, to be honest.”

This inward push has remained intact even during COVID-19 and the subsequent civil rights uprising. “Sometimes I struggle writing about the outside world because I don’t want to tell a story that isn’t mine,” Wiley said. “It’s something that is creeping in, because it’s obviously affecting me, but it’s primarily [revealing itself] in smaller ways. Primarily I’ve been digging inward because that’s where I am in my therapy journey and in resolving some past trauma. Also, I’m spending most of my time alone now in a studio apartment with a cat, so I guess you get really introspective.”

While subsequent poems have displayed increased vulnerability, they’re countered by a surge in self-confidence that might have been unthinkable to Wiley during those early years when she attended open mics but was too fearful to step onstage, which preceded a lengthy time when she struggled with the idea of even calling herself a writer.

“When I started writing poetry I didn’t consider myself a poet. … It was like, ‘I’m not a writer. I write but I’m not a writer,’” Wiley said. “Even allowing myself to be called a writer was a big step, because in slam I just chalked it up to, ‘Well, my poems are probably OK, but it’s really the performance that sells them,’ because performance was where I was comfortable.”

Wiley said she finally embraced the label after being booked at a 2014 literary festival in Newark, New Jersey, following the publication of her debut collection, Fat Girl Finishing School.

“At this festival there are poet laureates and Nobel Prize winners, and I’m on panels with them, and I’m like, ‘I don’t think I’m supposed to be here,’” Wiley said. “But by the end of the festival it was like, ‘No, I’m supposed to be here. I’m contributing. I’m a writer. Oh, shit — I’m awriter.' And that was sort of the permission I didn’t know I was waiting for.”