Interview: Erika Meitner

Erika MeitnerErika Meitner was born and raised in Queens and Long Island, New York.  She attended Dartmouth College (for an AB in Creative Writing in 1996), Hebrew University on a Reynolds Scholarship, and the University of Virginia, where she received her MFA in Creative Writing in 2001 as a Henry Hoyns Fellow, and her MA in Religious Studies in 2013 as a Morgenstern Fellow in Jewish Studies.

Her first book, Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore, won the 2002 Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry, and was published in 2003 by Anhinga Press.  Her second book, Ideal Cities, was selected by Paul Guest as a winner of the 2009 National Poetry Series competition, and was published in 2010 by HarperCollins. Her third collection, Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls, was published by Anhinga Press in 2011. Her newest collection of poems, Copia, is due out from BOA Editions in 2014. (Bio adapted from Erika’s website).

TCJWW: The poems in Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls tell stories using brilliant lyrical moments such as this excerpt from “Someone Calls”:  “take this light (night-swim)/ take this sound (wing-span).” How would you describe your blend of narrative and lyric?

Meitner: In Vigilant Girls, I was really interested in sound and the potential it has to drive poems. What happens when you approach a complex narrative via sound? This collection was really my first attempt at moving out of more narrative modes and into more imaginative sound-driven lyric narrative where a poem wasn’t necessarily bound to a pre-determined story. “Someone calls” is about a girl who’s suicidal—who is sitting on the roof of a house wondering if she should jump. I wanted to make the language in it as fluid and beautiful as possible—to approach the scenario with the wonder of language, rather than the despair implicit in the narrative.

TCJWW: Several of these poems are about alien abductions. How did this topic find you?

Meitner: At some point I was browsing the bargain books table at a bookstore in Santa Cruz, CA, back when I lived there, and I stumbled on The Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters: A Definitive, Illustrated A-Z Guide to All Things Alien, edited by Ronald D. Story—and it was on clearance for $3, which meant I had to buy it. I brought it home and started reading the alien encounter and abduction narratives in the book, and what was striking to me was how totally believable and detailed the stories were—except that they were about aliens. There were clear parallels to me between these stories and my grandmother’s recounting of her experiences in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, as well as with rape testimony and other captivity narratives. What makes any narrative believable? Usually it’s the details—but some narratives are so difficult or horrific or outlandish that people simply don’t want to believe them. I started writing this book the summer a bunch of girls were abducted in high profile cases: Elizabeth Smart, Danielle van Dam, Samantha Runnion, and Erica Pratt, among others. The pleasures and dangers of adolescent girlhood is a big theme of the collection, and the alien abduction narratives also seemed like a perfect metaphor for the process of adolescence, where your body is sort of taken over by forces beyond your control.

TCJWW: I love the poem “Treatise on Dwelling.” Can you tell us about this poem’s origin? How did this poem come into the world?

Meitner: I’m so glad you like that poem! When I was living in California from 2003 to 2004, the San Francisco MOMA had a big Diane Arbus retrospective. The central image of the poem—of a couple on a park bench—came from one of Arbus’s photos of urban couples from the mid-1960’s. I’ve been writing off of images from documentary photographers for over 10 years now, and Arbus’s photos are especially striking. When I wrote “Treatise on Dwelling” I had been moving around a lot—every year for seven years—and I was really starting to question ideas about home. My partner at the time (we’re now married, but we weren’t then) was still in Virginia, and we were doing the long-distance relationship thing. And I was also spending a lot of time in laundromats, which (in my opinion) are both supremely poetic, and terrific people-watching places. That feeling of putting your whole head into a front-loading dryer to retrieve a sock—it’s both terrifying and comforting simultaneously.

TCJWW: Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls has poems in familiar forms like elegies and odes, as well as “found” forms such as campaign speeches and even an airline declaration form. What is your process of writing in form?

Meitner: I wrote much of Vigilant Girls while I was moving around a lot for teaching gigs and graduate school. I moved every year from 2001 through 2007, between Virginia and Wisconsin and Virginia and California and Virginia and D.C. and Virginia again. Part of my process of inhabiting different landscapes and trying to find a home in them involved familiarizing myself with different regional speech patterns, different rhythms of places, even different names for flora and fauna. In Santa Cruz, I always accidentally ended up listening to mariachi music on the radio, and the beats found their way into my poems. The political nature of D.C. meant that it had its own formal bureaucratic speech patterns which coexisted with the vernacular of the city—with my neighbors blasting Go-Go and old-school funk. By trying on different languages—the language of forms, of politics, of praise, of mourning—I was attempting, I think, to find my footing and establish a home in language through all the moving around.

TCJWW: Are there formal poems in your forthcoming collection? Please tell us about your next book!

Meitner: Copia, which is due out from BOA Editions on September 9th of this year, is about different kinds of desire—for love, for sex, for objects, for the past, for a child, for a home and homeland, for work, and for a less violent world. The book is structured in three sections. Section one addresses desire—often illicit physical desire for a ‘you,’ or desire for objects. Poems in section one include a mini-series titled “Terra Nullius,” which means “no man’s land” or territory that nobody owns or has sovereignty over (and in this case the territory is often the speaker’s body). Section one poems also include ekphrastic poems written from Alec Soth’s Niagara series of photos, Brian Ulrich’s Dark Stores series, and Annie Leibovitz’s famous photo of naked John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Section two deals with domesticity and violence, place and dislocation—desire for a home and homeland. There’s a word in Judaism—“galut”—that means exile; more specifically, it refers to the historical exile and dispersion of the Jews after the destruction of the First Temple in the 6th Century BCE (when Jews were uprooted from their homeland and subject to alien rule). What I was trying to get at, in section two, is not only the harshness of the mountain landscape here in rural Southwest Virginia that I’ve called home for the past seven years, but also what it means to be of people in exile, and be in a place that feels wholly alien and violent, Christian, and detached from the Jewish areas in New York where I was raised. Section three has to do with infertility—the desire for a child—and includes a set of documentary poems about Detroit, which function as a metaphor (all those abandoned buildings) for my body, for a hopeful sort of re-birth from the ashes. While there aren’t any poems in received forms in the new book, I do have a fair number of concrete poems—so physical form is important in Copia.

TCJWW: At a panel at AWP, you talked about some of the most beautiful moments of our lives taking place in strip mall parking lots. Why do such extraordinary things beat beneath these banal landscapes?

Meitner: I wonder if why is the right question, rather than why not? When we spend most of our lives in un-beautiful, banal places, it’s inevitable that meaningful events will happen in generic spaces, in quotidian landscapes, in our cars or standing in line or on public transportation. I live in a semi-rural town where most of us drive everywhere. That means that the places in which we interact with our friends and neighbors—and where we witness the interactions of others—are most often commercial spaces: the checkout line at Walmart, Kroger’s produce department, in the pediatrician’s waiting room, rather than on a promenade overlooking the East River, or in a bucolic field. Because I’m interested in human geography—in the frisson of expected and unexpected human interactions and emotions—I have to look toward everyday spaces to find my subjects.


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