“The Future is Throttling Towards Us and It’s Loud and Reckless” – An Interview with Erika Meitner

Erika Meitner’s Holy Moly Carry Me, her poetry collection published just last week by BOA Editions, has been described by Ada Limón as “stunning, exact, and haunting…with a complex empathy for the violent, messed-up world.” sam sax says, “In this necessary unprecedented book Meitner has assembled the materials of our apocalyptic present & past and invites us in to revel & quake with her.”  Carmen Giménez Smith calls it “an urgent document of our complex ties with the past, and the dangers of letting histories, private and public, repeat themselves.”

Our Senior Editorial Consultant Maria Pinto recently spoke with Meitner about her book, as well as strip malls, Frank O’Hara, and America’s ideological bifurcation.

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MP: Holy Moly Carry Me took me road tripping across America, just before the apocalypse, now and yesterday, towards another fraught family holiday. Why does so much of the moment you captured, that the poems continue to capture long after we put down the book, take place on the road and in the parking lots of strip malls?

EM: Part of this has to do with the weird logistics of my writing life. Since I’m an academic, I write most of my poems during breaks between semesters. Much of Holy Moly Carry Me was written with an online writing group I’m a part of, where we convene for two or four weeks at a time and write a poem a day, then post our poems in a Google group for accountability. We often do this over winter break and in the summer months when I’m usually road-tripping to see family, so many of the poems were written while I was in the car, on my iPhone notepad. But also, I live in a semi-rural college town where most of our landscape (aside from mountains and farmland) is made up of strip malls and big box stores—like most of America. And I was tired of ironing out these landscapes from my poems because they seem “unpoetic” (whatever that means).

MP: All of these scenes and themes recall the idiosyncratic ways we, as citizens of this America, are called to remember and forget: a frustrating and omnipresent blankness, stuttering to a stop and getting picked back up again in the next installment (at one point, the first poem in the collection gets picked up halfway through the book), erasures that you can still see, tattoos and tattoos, reality show templates that get reused, messy forensics and the burden of proof, a cop waving us past today’s tragedy with light batons, towards the next. What is the poet’s role in preserving our collective memory?

EM: One of the poems I love teaching is Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” which—in addition to being an elegy for Billie Holiday—is a general recounting of O’Hara’s errands through Manhattan over the course of one day. He goes to the bank! He buys a hostess gift! He gets a shoeshine! It’s pretty quotidian stuff, but nearly all the places he stops at are gone now, so the poem creates a sort of ghost map of Manhattan’s streetscapes and storefronts in 1964. The poem ends with him passing a newsstand and seeing that Lady Day has died—and the poem closes like this:

“and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”

That ability to create a lyric moment and bring readers backwards and forwards in time at once, and then stop it—that’s what I love about poems. Poets preserve the collective memory of emotions, and emotions are messy—they repeat and repeat on us, get erased and recast by narrative and image, and they’re imprinted on us indelibly and shiftily.

MP: I’d liken reading “Dollar General” to looking into a crib and finding, swaddled up in cozy infant pastels, a gleaming assault rifle. The poem contains deep empathy for all the players in a situation that seems to inspire cognitive dissonance: living in a time of regular school shootings while visiting your son’s teacher’s Etsy page to find she will customize a firearm for you to help pay for the gun show while remembering how little teachers are paid while remembering what it means for some people to be proud hunters and proud Appalachians, while remembering that this is what is asked of us when we’re told to love our neighbors. How do stories in which we are truthful about ourselves get told in this age of “truthiness” and confirmation bias run rampant?

EM: That injunction from Leviticus—“love your neighbor as yourself”—was one of the driving ideas behind Holy Moly Carry Me. What does it really mean to do this? As a country we seem to have hit yet another moment of peak ideological bifurcation, and I live in one of those places where they keep air-dropping journalists in to try to figure out why people think or act or vote in the ways that they do. I’ve lived in Southern Appalachia for 12 years, but I’m still a New Yorker at heart, a Jew in a predominately Christian area, and a raging liberal, which makes me simultaneously of this place and alien to it. I think one of the problems of our age (which is such an insane blanket statement to make, but I’m going to do it anyway) is that no one wants to present themselves as complicit or implicated in anything that goes against ‘publicly acceptable’ narratives for their peer groups—whatever these groups are. This is exacerbated by social media, where we iron ourselves into pretty or hip public images for consumption via witty status updates or photogenic icons or compelling film-like ‘stories’ to garner likes and approval. I do this too, on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, but I also write poems where the narratives (as in “Dollar General”) are braided together. In places outside of urban centers in America, we are maybe in less ideological agreement with our neighbors, but we are also inextricably bound to them in the ways proximity dictates when you depend on one another for care and favors—especially as a working mom with kids—thus these poems of entanglement.

MP: I’m a Florida girl so I appreciate the night-swimming languor of “De Soto Park” and can feel it on my skin in a visceral way. The poem also accomplishes something rare: it manages to touch on the inheritance of trauma among a diaspora (“tattooed Yiddish grandparents”) but also the sense that part of that dispersal means joying in and finding kinship in a new place because, look! We Survived. “North Miami is so hot anytime including December/ but no one minded.” Watch as we get drunk on “strangers who are not strangers” and “shiver exquisitely in each other’s dark arms.” That this poem did not bog down in the Floridian swamp or the terror of the camps is a marvel. Where do you find that lightness, as a poet?

EM: Oh my god I love that you got the weird tribal-ness and exhilaration in this poem! I write a lot about adolescence—that holy time of thrumming and danger, sexual energy and bodies in motion and bad choices. Looking back on that time, there’s still a wonder to me in the kinesis of it. My grandmother, who appears in that poem, was a survivor of Auschwitz, and she had a very dark sense of humor. She was a nurse-midwife in a hospital in the Sosnowiec Ghetto, so she was on one of the last ghetto transports to the camps, where she eventually worked night-shift as slave labor in a munitions factory, and at one point they had her doing electrical work. When I asked her once about how she knew anything about making grenades, she just stopped and looked at me, and deadpan said, “That’s why the Germans won the war.” I think most of the lightness or humor in my work is embedded in pretty heavy subject material, and it functions more as a release valve for tension—but it’s a lightness all the same.

MP: You end the book with a poem about a protest and it breaks the heart even as it affirms how we are already taking care of each other. We stand in the street, which is our home now that the old homes won’t do (none-too-private, lit from within with blinds open, the façade burned down). Is the next poem about the revolution? Or do we, have we, fucked it up?

EM: As a member of Gen X, I see so many ways in which we rode the system early on, instead of trying to dismantle it—but hindsight is always 20/20. The good poems already aid and abet the revolution, and always have, by documenting injustice or breaking people’s hearts or speaking truth to power or calling us all to action. I’ve learned so much from so many of the younger poets who have come up after my generation, many of whom came through the slam and performance scenes, about community and radicalism and intersectionality and daring and the possibilities of language. I think the next poem is always about the revolution, and I’m hopeful about poetry because of the millennials and Gen Z and whatever comes after Z. (Is there a name for the generation after Z?)

MP: I’m going to be peppering my speech with #depressedblessed for the next little while. What do you have to say for yourself?

EM: I mean, aren’t we all, just a little bit, some of the time?

MP: The line “Every attempt/ to recognize a specific story in this scene has failed” has haunted me ever since I first read it a couple of nights ago and now I must see the painting to which it refers in person.

Landscape with Shipwreck – Frederick van Valckenborcg, 1606

 

EM: I was invited to read at this literary festival in Rotterdam called Geen Daden Maar Worden, where that year’s theme was something like “unknown and overlooked writers”—the theme was in Dutch, so I only understood some of it. I had an extra day to sightsee in the city, so I went with Matthew Dickman, who was also reading at the festival, to see this Bosch and Bruegel exhibit at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, and ended up writing a poem about pilgrims and wandering and all these paintings outside the exhibit that struck me in the way that art can when you’re dropped very suddenly into foreign surroundings. The painting that ends my poem “Peregrinus” is “Landscape with Shipwreck” by Frederik van Valckenborch, and it’s a dark murky mess of a painting that basically conveys a feeling of despair. It’s an odd painting because it’s very clearly representational rather than abstract, but feels lyric because of its impenetrable presentation of disaster. I love the idea that even the notecard beside the painting indicated that no one has been able to suss out the specifics of a story in this image.

MP: Who comes to your dinner party of great people, alive or dead?

EM: This is the hardest question! I hate having to pick through troves of people, and then there’s the hard work of resurrection. Could we just rent a giant space, like maybe the Anchorage under the Brooklyn Bridge, and invite any poets and painters and sculptors and photographers and architects and maybe chefs who were free that night, along with a good sommelier and a fantastic mixologist of some kind?

Also, thank you for such thoughtful and freewheeling questions! I loved answering these!

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ERIKA MEITNER is the author of Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore (Anhinga Press, 2003); Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (Anhinga Press, 2011); Ideal Cities (HarperCollins, 2010), which was a 2009 National Poetry series winner; and Copia (BOA Editions, 2014). Her fifth book of poems, Holy Moly Carry Me, is now out from BOA Editions. Meitner’s poems have been anthologized widely, and have appeared in publications including Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and Tin House. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Blue Mountain Center, and she was the 2015 US-UK Fulbright Distinguished Scholar in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast. She is
currently an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she directs the MFA and undergraduate programs in Creative Writing.

MARIA PINTO‘s work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, FriGGWord Riot, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from The Writers’ Room of Boston and The Mastheads, and is an instructor at the literary nonprofit GrubStreet. Do not hesitate to send her pictures of the mushrooms growing in your yard.

 

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