Q & A with Poet Erika Meitner

By Lauren Piskothy

Erika Meitner is a successful poet who currently teaches at Virginia Tech. She has four published books of poems: Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore, published in 2002, and winner of the 2002 Robert Dana- Anhinga Prize for Poetry. Her second book, Ideal Cities, was a winner of the 2009 National Poetry Series and then published in 2010 by Harper Collins. Erika’s third book is titled, Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls, and published by Anhinga Press in 2011. Her fourth book of poems, Copia, was published in 2014 by BOA Editions, and her newest collection, Holy Moly Carry Me, will come out in September of 2018. Erika spoke at Flagler College last month and read a few poems from her previous books. She gave students some insight into how she came to write her poems and her experiences as a writer. I wanted to know more about her poems and her process. She graciously agreed to a Q&A where she delves deeper into life as a poet below:

First, as I mentioned before I really like the idea of “un-poetic” writing, so I was wondering what exactly would you say is un-poetic writing? Further, where did this idea come from?

I wouldn’t say I’m talking so much about ‘un-poetic’ writing so much as the perception among writers and readers that there’s such a thing as un-poetic subject material. I think there are things we often leave out of the poems we’re writing, because we don’t feel they’re worthy of attention or of being in a poem. Sometimes it’s brand names or pop culture or consumer goods. Sometimes it’s technology or mediated experiences (like surfing the web, or posting on social media). Sometimes it’s just an un-scenic place even when we’ve had an experience there (like a gas station bathroom, or the 7-Eleven). Growing up in New York City in the 70’s and 80’s, when the city was much grittier than it is now, definitely skewed my aesthetics towards the broken, the quotidian, and the small moments of cracked or imperfect beauty (and my students sometimes refer to this aesthetic as ‘grit-po’). I also studied and worked in documentary film before I became a poet, which also influenced my aesthetics and the urge to document the things around me as they are, rather than trying to present a glorified or elevated version of them.

I really love your poem, “Wal-Mart Supercenter”, I know you mentioned at the reading that the stories you included came from a google search, but was there anything that happened to you that inspired that poem? How did it come about?

Thanks! I’m so glad you like the poem! I started writing a bunch of Walmart poems because I was spending time there buying diapers and formula and food in bulk, which is what happens when you have kids and live in a relatively rural place. My son would fall asleep in the backseat of the car on the way to Walmart, or other stores, so often the only time I had to write were those half-hour nap snippets when he was in his car seat snoozing and I was in the Walmart parking lot sitting in the driver’s seat pecking out a poem on my phone. Thus my Walmart poems. Also, when I lived in cities where people were pedestrians, I often wrote about the human geography of the city and weird encounters I had randomly. When you don’t live in a city and drive everywhere, the places where those interactions happen are in stores, which are the only communal spaces around here other than public libraries.

You write about the way your sons are seen differently because of the different color of their skin, in your poem about having to buy water guns at Target the day the cop who killed Philando Castile was acquitted. I was really moved by it and I loved the way you were able to conflate those two events. Do you think the concept of race has influenced what you write? 

I think it’s impossible for me not to write about race right now–and even if I wasn’t raising one white son and one black son I would most likely be writing about race in some way as an American (and Jewish) woman living in Southern Appalachia in the second decade of the 21st century. I don’t really write about the ‘concept’ of race though; my work deals with very real experiences I’ve had in my community and outside of it with my family as we move through space in our bodies. I also work on larger scale photo-text documentary poetry projects that try to approach social issues in urban environments (Detroit, Cleveland, and now Miami) where race (and more specifically, systemic racism) is certainly a large part of the stories of these places, in conjunction with politics and economics.

I think subject matter evolves as new generations grow up. That said, how do you think young poets and writers in general, can use their experiences as millennials to write different and new poetry?

I think millennial’s are a generation that’s grown up with a very specific relationship to technology and social media, and have lived chunks of their lives in a virtual public connected to others in ways that my generation (Gen X) didn’t. I would love to see more poems that address the ways we all live bits of our lives online; I feel like people are still ironing out SnapChat and Instagram and other forms of social media from their poems. I would also love to see more writers who use Web 2.0 technologies and platforms creatively as storytelling mechanisms–who use the very nature of the mediums themselves to come up with new and innovative ways to make poems and stories, and go beyond memes and photos with text superimposed over them.

Lastly, while I have yet to try and become published, I know that it’s hard and that there is a lot of rejection as well as competition. What advice do you have for aspiring poets and writers who are struggling to find their voice/place? How can they stand out? 

I think the flip side to being a media-saturated generation is that often media-driven images, emojis, or other electronic content can replace our personal memories and iconographies–the quirky images and memories and experiences that vary from individual to individual. I think it’s important for aspiring writers to be tenacious, but also to remember to take time away from their phones, screens, televisions, laptops, etc. to experience the unmediated world too, and record it using language that reflects their unique experiences and interactions and observations. How do your friends actually sound when they speak out loud (rather than when they text)? What sounds do you hear when it’s late at night and you’re still up but everyone else is asleep? How would you describe the way the air feels on an early July morning in St. Augustine?