I’m ecstatic to share this latest post with everyone because it is unlike any interview I’ve done so far. What sets it apart from the others is that this interview–really this conversation–took place in real time. National Poetry Series winner Erika Meitner was kind enough to set aside some time for me to interview her–no easy feat, since she’s an assistant professor with a full teaching schedule, writer, wife, and mother to a four-year-old.
Erika Meitner is the author of two collections of poetry, Inventory at the All-night Drugstore and Ideal Cities. I learned a lot about the poetry world (it costs a lot to be a poet) and that inspiration for a poem can come from anywhere, even prime time television.
DM: Hi, Erika! I hope you get this.
EM: Yup! Just trying to figure out how to expand the screen…
DM: Awesome. Thanks again for doing this. I really loved the collection and I promise not to keep you too long.
EM: No problem! Is there a way to expand the screen? Mine’s tiny!
DM: Are you on a Mac or PC?
DM: You can drag the bottom right of the screen. Where the diagonal lines are.
EM: A ha! I clicked an arrow and it got bigger!
DM: Woo hoo!
EM: I swear I’m not a Luddite! I’m actually really tech savvy, current case notwithstanding.
DM: I believe you. And anyway, poets don’t have to be tech savvy. Aren’t we supposed to be writing with fountain pens on acid free paper, 24-7?
EM: Totally. And then sending our stuff out via homing pigeon while designing our own websites in our spare time!
DM: In between writing poems and lamenting over rejection letters.
DM: So as I said, I loved Ideal Cities.
EM: Thank you!
DM: How long did it take you to write and complete it?
EM: That book was a strange collection, as it feels like it happened really quickly. I had been working on my second collection for about seven years—from 2001 to about 2008. That collection, called Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (due out in February 2011 from Anhinga Press) was a finalist or semi-finalist at about fifteen contests, and I kept re-writing, re-shuffling, and re-titling it, and then re-sent it out over and over again, until finally, in the fall of 2008, I decided I had to move on.
(I’m getting to Ideal Cities—bear with me.)
Back in July of 2007, I picked up and moved from Washington DC to Blacksburg VA, as I got a job as an assistant professor of English at Virginia Tech. I had my four-month-old son in tow, and I was sick (from a bacterial infection I got in the hospital when I had him), and the whole move was so chaotic that I didn’t ever think I’d have time to write. But there was this sweet spot (I’m a night-owl) from about 11pm to 2 or 3am when I’d wait for him to wake up and want to eat. And I had this virtual group of poet friends who all decided to throw down a challenge—we would write a poem a day for the entire month of August, and post each poem to a closed on-line group.
So I tried my best to keep up with the NaPoWriMo group poets (the concept of a poem a day was taken from Maureen Thorson’s National Poetry Writing Month/NaPoWriMo project), and we did it again a few times a year–the group met virtually (and still meets)–and by the end of that year, I thought I might have a manuscript. So I took off to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for a week, left my husband (he’s a saint) with the baby, and started pulling the poems together to see what I had. The book was done by mid-2008, and there are a few older poems in there, but for the most part, it was about two, two-and-a-half years to finish the manuscript.
Then I sent it to a few friends to read. One—my most constant reader—said she didn’t think it was a book yet, which felt discouraging. But then I sent it to my friends Sandra Beasley, Aimee Nezhukumathatil, and David Stack (a friend from college) for advice and help with ordering, and the manuscript took shape a bit more concretely. They helped me figure out what the poems were doing, exactly.
DM: Wow. So as you were writing Ideal Cities, you had no idea that Makeshift Instructions would be published?
EM: Actually, the situation with Makeshift was more complicated. What happened was that I got tired of sending it out, and it got expensive to have two manuscripts circulating.
I contacted Rick Campbell at Anhinga Press to see if I could send it to him. They had done a fine job with my first book, and I really wanted to give Makeshift a good home, and I also wanted to start sending out Ideal Cities. Rick agreed to take Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls in 2008, before I even started sending Ideal Cities out, but the press was so backlogged that the publication date wasn’t until 2011.
Ideal Cities got picked up really quickly, much to my delight and surprise. I sent it out for about seven months. It was a finalist at two places (like in the top two, but the presses didn’t ultimately publish it) and then I found out that it had won NPS (National Poetry Series).
So my second manuscript is now my third book. Weird.
DM: What made sending them out expensive? Were you entering the manuscripts in contests that had reading fees? How did you decide which ones to enter?
EM: When you start to send out a second book manuscript, there are a few presses you can query that don’t charge reading fees, but for the most part it’s twenty-five to thirty dollars for each place you sent the book to (in fees), then the copying costs for Xeroxing sixty pages of manuscript (and in some cases you need to send two copies), and then about seven dollars for mailing costs. It starts to add up. I was sending to probably twenty to twenty-five contests a year, and if I had had two manuscripts out at once, the costs would have gotten untenable. And I’m employed! I can’t imagine how students manage the contest thing.
In terms of deciding which contests to enter, I had gotten some encouraging rejections from certain presses with the second manuscript (Makeshift) so I sent Ideal Cities to those. I also sent to presses whose books I read and enjoy, or places that had guest judges whose work I liked.
DM: Is it strange to have you third manuscript published before your second?
EM: I do wonder what readers will think about Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls, as it’s very much a follow-up book to my first—Inventory at the All-night Drugstore—whereas Ideal Cities is quite different from both of those books.
DM: To me, Ideal Cities was about push and pull; I saw motifs of transience vs. permanence, departure vs. return. It doesn’t have a “plot,” so to speak, but I felt that setting and where the speaker was in each poem created mood and tone. Was that what you were going for, or am I totally off the mark?
EM: No! I think that’s right. When I sent the manuscript to Sandra Beasley, she had said that she thought the first part was about how place shapes relationships, and the second part was about how relationships shape place. I wrote a lot of the book as a sort of love letter to DC, where we lived from 2006 to 2007, through my whole pregnancy and the birth of our son. I’m from New York—I grew up in an urban environment—and when we were in DC, I would walk for hours around our neighborhood with my son in the stroller, and when you’re a pedestrian like that, you have to interact with everyone and everything. And then we moved to this crazy ex-urban place (Blacksburg) where I was always in my car or by myself in a big box store. The transition was sort of shattering, and I think the book was born, in some ways, out of that dislocation.
But in terms of ordering, too, it’s interesting—in my first pass at ordering, the book was really linear. I had all the “sexy” poems up front; my pregnancy (in the book) proceeded in a linear fashion, I slowly became a mother, etc., etc. And then my friend Dave Stack took the manuscript and mashed everything up. He suggested that it was more interesting if it didn’t have a linear order, and he was totally right. His suggestions drew out the subtler thematic connections between the poems. When I first rearranged it though, it drove me crazy that there were poems in the first section where I had a baby, and poems in the second section about giving birth or still being pregnant. Now I can see what Dave was getting at.
It’s always really interesting to me that sometimes my friends/trusted editorial readers are better at articulating what my work is doing than I am. I think I have to be in that place of dumb unknowing to write the poem. I remember so clearly I had written this poem—and I had no idea what it was about, but I liked the way it sounded. And I read it at a reading in NYC and Matthew Zapruder was in the audience; afterwards he came up to me to tell me how much he liked my love poem, and that’s when I realized that it was, in fact, a love poem. I call this the Forrest Gump School of Poetry.
DM: Sometimes, all it takes is the confidence to sell a poem. I’ve had that happen in workshops, where I read something that I’m iffy about and others are like, “You’ve said about loss what I’ve never been able to,” and then silently, in my head I’m like, “Uh, okay, but this poem was really, literally about baking cookies.”
EM: For me, I think of it more as my subconscious being smarter than I am. It’s able to make these connections–to put them in poems–and if I had tried to make them consciously, they would have been clunky and effortful. One of my first really successful poems (called “Rubber”) was one of these. It’s about a speaker who’s dealing with the after-effects of a broken condom and a flat tire on the same day. And both of those incidents really happened to me on the same day, so I thought I’d write a poem about it for workshop. And when I brought it in, Rita Dove (this was at UVA) pointed out what a great metaphor one was for the other, and I honestly hadn’t even realized it. It was totally accidental, but my subconscious must have known that these connections were working on some level. So I spend a lot of time free writing, trying to get back to that more random place where things happen by accident.
Were your cookies really sad? Was there a grandmother involved?
DM: There’s always a grandmother involved when it comes to cookies!
EM: So clearly, your poem was about loss. 🙂
OMG. That smiley face just turned itself around. I swear it winked at me too. What kind of technology is this? Google is creepy.
DM: That’s true. It was about loss, by the time I was done with it. I had begun it about the cookies and the process of rolling them out, but then it spiraled into this elegy. It’s funny how those things happen.
Yes, that’s an interesting feature of GChat. It automatically animates your emoticons.
EM: Your heart just turned pink! Will wonders never cease? Soon GChat will write our poems for us!
DM: There’s that great line in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” where she writes, “I lost two cities; lovely ones…” It’s clear that you’ve lived in a lot of different places—how did location positively or negatively affect your writing?
But before you answer that:
At Adelphi we use this online system called Moodle; it’s very similar to Blackboard. My friend and fellow poet Kimmy Grey titled a poem “Why I Writ(h)e” and apparently, (h) is Moodle code for a heart, so her title got “Moodled,” which is also strange. Added a new level to her poem.
EM: I moved every year after graduating college in 1996, up until we finally moved to Blacksburg in 2007. I’ve lived in Hanover, NH; Jerusalem; Brooklyn; Charlottesville, VA; Santa Cruz, CA; Madison, WI; and Washington DC. If I didn’t move cities, I moved apartments, and I spent a few years bouncing between Charlottesville and other cities, as I kept leaving and going back to a PhD program in Religion that I’m still enrolled in. The first time I got really super homesick was when I moved to Charlottesville to do my MFA at UVA. I had never lived in the South or a small town like that, and I was so utterly wracked about leaving New York that I found myself watching Law & Order episodes just for the opening street scenes. It was bad.
So one day I was telling my mother this, and she said, “Well, why don’t you just write your way back home?” I remember this nugget of wisdom as something that came from my mother, which is strange, as she’s a financial planner. But it was really excellent advice. I write my way back to beloved places all the time.
I think partially because I’m a more narrative-/outwardly-focused poet, landscape—the human and physical geography of a place, its built environment and its detritus and its characters—are really important to me.
I want a Moodled poem!
DM: I saw a show at the Williamsburg Waterfront (formerly East River State Park) and seeing these huge condos with only a few lights in only a few occupied apartments made me think of the first line of “Vinyl Sided Epiphanies”: “The windows on the soon-to-be luxury / condos across the way say things / to the darkness I can’t hear.”
And, to make you a little jealous, my boyfriend works in lower Manhattan, near City Hall, and has seen episodes of L&O being filmed. Sad now that they’ve ended regular L&O; I can’t watch Law & Order: LA; it looks funny.
EM: I wrote that poem in Charlottesville! The crazy grad student rental house I was living in with my then-boyfriend (now husband) had this beautiful forest behind it, and beyond that, the train tracks. And then developers came and cut down the forest and put up these condos and the strange thing about it was that our neighborhood was quite sketchy, and considered “the wrong side of the tracks” (the pizza delivery guys actually told us this pretty regularly when they refused to deliver there). The strange thing about that place (Is this in the poem? It probably is…) is that the conductor on the Amtrak line would call out all the stops and if we slept with the windows open, the station/city names would work their way into my dreams.
P.S.: Law & Order is totally too sanitized. I agree with you on that wholeheartedly.
I kind of miss Lenny too.
DM: That’s pretty insane about the station names, but believable. I live about two miles from an LIRR station and can hear the train whistles from my suburban apartment. On a side note, my sister says that British Law & Order will change your life…though I’m skeptical.
EM: Have you ever written a Law & Order poem? I feel like that’s a way overdue project of mine…
How can we get British Law & Order? Do we have to move? Can I Netflix it during the next Snowpocalypse?
DM: That sounds like a great idea for a collection because there have been so many versions with so many memorable characters. It could be a whole collection narrated by different characters, like Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife.
It’s worth a shot to Netflix it, but I’m sure you can find it bootleg online.
EM: What else can I tell you about, aside from my embarrassing Law & Order addiction?
P.S.: Which LIRR station do you live near?
DM: I eyeballed the table of contents recently and noticed an interesting pattern: there’s “In Dispraise of Heat” and “In Praise of Heat”; “January Towns” and “Christmas Towns”; and “North Slope Borough” and “North Country Canzone.” Are we supposed to read them, especially the last two pairs, as companion pieces?
P.S.: I live near the Bethpage station. My aunt used to live in Flushing, where the Auburndale LIRR station was literally in her backyard and her china used to shake when the train passed. You could actually FEEL the difference between the local and express.
EM: Hmmm. That’s a good question. I knew the book was going to somehow deal with place, and so the “town” titles (and the “city” titles) were really intentional. But it was more like I sort of wrote the poems (sometimes) in proximity to each other. The heat poems, though totally different (“In Dispraise of Heat” is about the terror of mothering, death, and accidents, while “In Praise of Heat” is about sex and travel) were written around the same time as each other. The “town” poems were titled for symmetry’s sake. And the North Country poems were a happy accident. “North Country Canzone” was written in 2006, when I was at Blue Mountain Center, an artist colony in the Adirondacks. I was there in the fall and it kept snowing and snowing. “North Slope Borough” was written much later (2008-ish?) when I was reading a book by Edie Turner called The Hands Feel It (The full title is The Hands Feel It: Healing and Spirit Presence Among a Northern Alaskan People), where she went to live with the Inupiat people in the North Slope Borough of Alaska. I was reading the book for one of my comprehensive exams for my PhD, and that location title seemed so right for the poem—so New York-esque! Other places have boroughs!
DM: New York used to have wards, like New Orleans, which seems so strange to me.
EM: I hope you’ve written, by the way, about your aunt and the local/express dishes.
DM: I haven’t yet, but maybe I will.
EM: Every time I’m home I use my cell phone camera to take pictures out the window on the LIRR—my parents still live on the Port Washington line—and I’ve been using the blurry pictures as starting points for poems.
We’re the only line that doesn’t go through the Jamaica Station so I was spared the LIRR mess this weekend when I was in.
DM: That’s a really cool thing to do. I’m writing from Park Slope in Brooklyn right now, so I have the best (and worst) of both urban and suburban New York.
I guess I only have one more pre-thought out question for you. I read many of these poems, maybe the whole collection in some ways, as an ode or love letter to your son. Did motherhood change the way you wrote?
EM: Yes! It made me way more efficient!! (Necessity is the mother of invention?) My drafts are often more finished earlier in the process because they have to be.
DM: Because your son may need to tell you he hates you for not giving him M&M’s?
EM: Totally. Right before the interview started I got called up twice to his room because his feet hurt (?).
DM: Which new poets excite you? Any recommendations for reading?
My mom told me that when I told her I hate her when I was two, she cried and was sad for days; by the time my sister came around, she was like, “Yeah, and?”
EM: So many great new poets!!! So many terrific new first books! Anna Journey, Karyna McGlynn, Allison Titus, Carrie Fountain’s Burn Lake…I just finished a terrific new manuscript due out in the spring from Persea by Cynthia Marie Hoffman.
Anything you’ve read lately that you’d recommend?
DM: I loved Beth Bachmann’s Temper, Jericho Brown’s Please.
I can’t wait to read one of my professor’s (Jacqueline Jones LaMon’s) forthcoming collections. It’s called Last Seen; it’s about missing minority children, and partially, I think, how their disappearances never seem to garner as much coverage as the disappearances of white children.
EM: Yes! Those are both great! I also loved Melissa Stein’s Rough Honey. If you like Temper, you’ll like Burn Lake, I think. I’m also really excited for Vievee Francis’s new book (she just won the Cave Canem prize).
DM: Very neat. Oh, I also loved Jason Shinder’s Stupid Hope.
EM: Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls has to do with abducted girls, so I’ll totally have to find Last Seen!
DM: And Marie Howe’s What the Living Do, which I should have read a long, long time ago.
I know that Jaci just saw the cover art, so it should be out in early 2011.
EM: How cool!
I adore What the Living Do! It’s heart wrenching, as a collection.
DM: I just saw Marie read and speak at Poets House with Nick Flynn and Kevin Young; they discussed the new anthology of poems about death that Kevin edited (The Art of Losing, Bloomsbury). Hearing her read from What the Living Do was a thrill.
Well, I’m not going to keep you from your son and his feet any longer. Thanks for this great opportunity; any brilliant, parting words?
EM: Kevin’s new elegy antho is fabulous!
Anything at all can go in a poem. That, and read everything you can get your hands on, which should be a lot, since you live in NYC!
DM: Even Law & Order characters can go into poems? 🙂
EM Oh, definitely Law & Order characters. And creepy floating emoticons!
DM: I promise I will.
EM: I dare you to write a good poem with emoticons.
DM: Oooh, a challenge. I’ll definitely try it and will send you the fruits of my labor.
Please visit Erika Meitner’s website to let her know what a fine poet she is; if you ask nicely, I bet she’ll tell you who her favorite Law & Order character is.