An Interview with Erika Meitner

Weston Cutter
July 8, 2011
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This interview’s a bit long, so I don’t want to clutter things up too much at the top with exposition. Here’s what’s critical: Erika Meitner‘s a fantastic poet who has had two great books in the last like 15 months–the National Poetry Prize-winning Ideal Cities and the just-dropped Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls. She’s also–and this is as important as her poetry–an epically kind + generous woman and teacher. Q+A as follows:

What’s a book–any genre–which you’ve learned much from without necessarily liking?

I immediately thought of the Christian notion of Grace (divine)–I understand it intellectually, but because I’m Jewish, I don’t really know it, haven’t lived it, don’t really feel it in my bones, but I’ve learned a tremendous amount about it and from it (which isn’t to say that Jews don’t have an idea of Grace–we do–hesed, in Hebrew–but it’s just different enough that the Christian notion confounds me on a visceral level). My version of poetic grace is William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. As a book, it gives me tremendous permission–to combine wildly different types of texts without transitions, to attempt longer and messier and more ambitious projects, to expand the boundaries of language and tackle representation on a larger scale (of a city, of one’s entire life, of many lives). But it’s not the kind of book I go back to for spiritual or emotional nourishment.

I’m curious about two things regarding your work: 1. How much your academic/research work comes into play in your poetry, and 2. How much awareness you have of your work as books. Your books are phenomenally coherent/cohesive–they seem to function well as whole books, not just as collections grouped around some arbitrary thematic thread you’re overlaying. Curious how these things shake out for you.

I think that in my poetry, I’m a bit of an anthropologist and student of material culture. Since I’ve spent the past few summers reading for and taking my comprehensive exams for my Religious Studies PhD, some of those readings have definitely worked their way (directly and indirectly) into my poems–Mircea Eliade, Edie Turner, Victor Turner, Jeffrey Shandler, Barbara Meyerhoff, Marcel Mauss, and Martin Buber, all show up in some way in Ideal Cities. I specifically do material religion, which is the study of objects and religious practices, and the individuals and communities that engage in these rituals, because I’m obsessed with detritus and how we use it to make meaning, and the ways in which things and spaces also have their own innate power. My poems are packed with inventories of the stuff that engulfs our landscapes. William Carlow Williams had it right in some ways: “Say it, no ideas but in things.”

It’s interesting that you say my books seem really cohesive to you. They don’t, for sure, start out that way for me at all. I’m currently screening for a poetry manuscript contest, and I’ve definitely noticed that the ???project’ book is out in full force, and I don’t really write that way, and never have. I have some obsessions that seem to be constant in my poems, that don’t want to leave me: women’s corporeal experiences, Judaism, the line between pleasure and danger, cities and interstitial spaces. Then I have other more temporal preoccupations that don’t become clear to me–why I’m fixated on them or how they fit together on a larger scale–until I’m about three-fourths of the way into what will probably maybe become a collection. In the new project I’m working on, I had to figure out what Walmart, the city of Detroit, tract house developments, my neighbors, dead malls, the great Pacific garbage patch, guns, and the bible had to do with one another, and my current emotional state. It turns out that right now I’m interested in consumerism and its failures, and borderlands in general–the edges of society, spaces, cities, empathy, and belief. This was a recent discovery though.

I’d be real interested in your thoughts on what Burt wrote about you and JBeer in his Boston Rev article from a bit back. Namely: do you buy his division of self or no self? Are you aware and intentional about your poetic self on the page? Are you attracted to the sort of self-less stuff Burt’s arguing Beer’s doing? (This could, I suppose, head to the hills of Identity, too, but that’s yr call.) Maybe this is too noodly, but I’m massively interested in smart writers responding to what’s been said about their work.

I should say that when I read Burt’s review of Ideal Cities in The Boston Review (Jan/Feb 2011), I sat down at my kitchen table and wept. I had never had a complete stranger write such a generous review of my work, or take such intense care in reading my poems. One of the beautiful things about Burt, as a reviewer, is that he always manages wickedly astute readings of the poets he turns his attentions to, and in every review I’ve ever read of his, he also draws a larger picture of contemporary American poetry to add some new insight to my understanding of the field. I’ve been trying to write Burt a thank you note for months, and every time I sit down to do it, I get totally tongue-tied. So if you’re reading this, Stephen Burt, thank you. It’s rare that reviewers are inspiring, but he is.

This is an interesting question to me–this idea of self in poems–as I was in a thesis defense with Bob (Hicok) last month, and he was saying something to the effect that he never assumes any more that the speaker of a poem is the poet, or that what the speaker is saying is true (and I’m paraphrasing here, so hopefully I haven’t mangled his assertion too much). I guess I’m not quite at that place yet when I read poems; I always assume that a poem starts (or maybe I’d just like to believe this) with a kernel of emotional connection–a spark of self on the part of the poet. It’s still really hard for me to assume, when an “I” is in play in a poem, and it’s not specifically indicated in some glaring way, that the speaker is not some facet (sometimes larger, sometimes smaller) of the poet.

Anyway, I don’t think Burt was saying that poetry is divided into self and no self; in fact, at the very start of the review he eschews his own binary, and reminds us that many poets today (and here he lists Ashbery, Graham, Armantrout, and a few others as examples) specifically complicate the category of ???personal lyric poetry’ through their work. I definitely buy Burt’s classification of my work. In terms of how aware or intentional I am about my ???self’ on the page, I’d say very much ???un.’ I write my life because I believe that poems should have some kind of emotional imperative, and it’s hard for me to not write about what feels pressing to me in a particular moment. The older I get, the more I find that my intellectual fascinations outside my own experiences shape my work, and like all poets, I’m often attracted to work that’s the polar opposite of mine, so yes, I do like self-less poems, as long as they’re not solely intellectual–as long as they have some kind of duende or kernel of emotion in them somewhere.

What’s the first sexy or suckering phrase (of poetry) you read which made you point at the page (or whatever) and deep breathe-in and go, shit, that’s what I want to do?

“Oh your face is there a mirror days…./a heart a face of quiet blood and somehow / you kept saying and saying an unending pain.” O Robert Creeley, how did you get “First Love” so right? When I was 13ish, I bought a copy of Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry (second edition, maybe?) for pocket change at a library sale in Virginia Beach while I was on vacation there with my best friend’s family. That book changed my life, and I especially fell in love with Creeley’s spareness, his refusal to embellish, his rebellion against figurative language, and his willingness to dive into the most dire moments.

You’re in a unique position to talk about rurality vs. urbanity–lived in DC and elsewhere, and now Blacksburg. I’m not asking you to knock Blacksburg or anything–just curious about how you see geography/human density/thickness of natural life affecting yr work, or if at all, or etc.

I’m super-tied to my geography. I live in a tract house in one of those developments that you see from the side of every highway in semi-rural America. Next time you pass my development, wave to my house. I’ve been writing tract house poems and Walmart poems, Waffle House poems and strip mall poems. I’ve become totally obsessed with semi-rural landscapes, and the generic franchise spaces that house us and our (non-generic) narratives. I’ve also been writing about my neighbors (don’t tell them)–our next door neighbor on one side who’s pastor of an uber-conservative mega-church, who constantly tries to talk to me about Israel; our neighbor on the other side, who takes his 7 year-old stepson to the shooting range to test out his semi-automatic weapons stash; the neighbors across the street who sometimes argue with each other in Mandarin in their yard. It’s like Denis Johnson says: “It’s a show about / my neighbor in a loneliness, a light / walking the hour when every bed is a mouth.” Right now I’m grappling with the ethical consequences of writing about my neighbors. It’s hard for me not to write where I live. This is also the first time, since childhood, that I’ve lived in one place for longer than two years at a time. But what I’m trying to say is that every place–no matter where you are–can be fascinating if you just look at it closely enough.

Just because I know you a bit: how much does living with/being married to someone involved professionally with numbers (I don’t remember what dept he works in, but it’s like Econ or business or something, right? Am I just making this up? I’ve got a head cold, if it matters, plus my own spouse does work quite far afield of what I do, hence the interest) matter/influence/whatever yr process? Is it a stupidly false dichotomy, the split between hard sciences and soft ones?

My husband is an economist, and he does math stuff that I don’t really understand, but a lot of what he teaches (which are the giant microeconomics courses at VT) has a lot to do with common sense. I have common sense. I think my poems have common sense. The main downfall to living with an economist is that my math skills have totally atrophied (though admittedly, they weren’t that strong to begin with). But the nice thing is that he lets me do my thing when it comes to poetry. Since I’m deeply private about my work-in-progress, the dichotomy between our subject areas works out well, though I do love to toss out crackpot ideas for papers he should write or experiments he should do. I’m a terrific ideas person.

I couldn’t imagine being married to a writer. I think it would make me crazy. Also, just for the record, I couldn’t do what I do if he wasn’t totally supportive of everything I do, and a more-than-equal parenting partner. I’m grateful for that, and because of it, I get to travel extensively with my books to do readings, and go off to colonies for weeks at a time. That’s not a small thing.

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