Kimberly Meyer’s essays have appeared in Ecotone, Oxford American, Georgia Review, Agni, Southern Review, Fourth Genre, and Brain, Child, and her audio-documentary work has aired on This American Life. She teaches at the Honors College at the University of Houston and is at work on a book in which she retraces the medieval pilgrimage route of a Dominican friar who traveled from Germany to the Holy Land and Mount Sinai in 1483. Her essay “Demeter and Persephone in the Heartland” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
During my then teenage daughter’s darkest days, I wrote a series of poems told from the perspective of both Demeter and Persephone, trying to understand her position and trying to articulate my own. Time passed. She recovered. We traveled to Lawrence, Kansas together where she had been born. And the landscape we passed over kept reminding me of the landscape of Demeter in mourning, even though I was with my daughter and she was, all in all, happy. As was I. When I began to try to write the essay about our journey and about our past, I read every version of the Demeter-Persephone myth that I could find, and discovered in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter aspects of the story that I’d not noticed before. In turn, this pushed me to explore further the idea of suffering–both my daughter’s and my own, as well as the fact of human suffering more generally. In other words, I turned to the myth to give structure and meaning to my own experience, but then re-reading the myth allowed me to ask new questions and to discover new terrain within this experience.
The hardest part was trying to write an essay about a deeply personal experience without being sentimental. “Deepest feeling always shows itself in silence,” says Marianne Moore; “not in silence, but restraint.”
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I have learned to take walks.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
I know this is not exactly the answer you are looking for, but I love the Fiction Podcasts on the New Yorker website, where a contemporary writer reads and discusses a short story (previously published in the New Yorker) with the magazine’s fiction editor. My favorite discovery so far: Cynthia Ozick reading Stephen Millhauser’s “In the Reign of Harad IV.”
Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?
I believe in obsession, too. All of my writing starts in obsession. Which leads me to travel inward and outward–into books and articles and poems and art, out into the world. I suppose writing, then, is an attempt, once the obsession has been fulfilled or satisfied, to retrace the course of the obsession and to try to arrive at some discovery in that process of retracing, and to do so in order that a reader can travel with you and make this discovery as well.
In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for the The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
When I became a religious skeptic–probably incipient around the age of six, but full blown by college when I read Nietzsche–I found in literature the emotion and meaning that the biblical readings I heard during mass lacked. I began then to locate the sacred in secular literature. That’s where I find meaning and sustenance. Even if I don’t believe in God, I still somehow believe with the ancient Greeks that the poet is a vital link between the Muses and other human beings, between the transcendent and the earthly. I believe with them that poetry (and all literature) is the thing that saves us from being mere bodies.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
As an English major at the University of Kansas, I took every class I could with Professor Robin Schulze, a Marianne Moore scholar with whom I read all the Modernists as well as Frost and Lowell and Plath and Bishop. She taught me how to read a poem. And by reading I mean interpretation. And by interpretation I mean a kind of sacred exegesis. It would be a decade later before I would start to try to write poems and essays myself, but I could never have written anything without knowing how to read in this way.