Erika Meitner Discusses Peeps, Virginia and Yi-Fu Tuan: An Interview by Serena Agusto-Cox

May 5, 2009

Erika Meitner, poet

Erika Meitner attended Dartmouth College, Hebrew University on a Reynolds Fellowship, and the University of Virginia, where she received her M.F.A. in 2001 as a Henry Hoyns Fellow.

She’s received additional fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts (2002, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009), the Blue Mountain Center (2006), and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (John N. Wall Fellowship, 2003).

1. You’re a contributor to 32 Poems, a professor at Virginia Tech and you’re completing a doctorate in Religious Studies. What “hat” do you find most difficult to wear and why?

Right now the hardest of these–between teaching in a relatively new job, trying to write poems during the semester, reading all the applications to our MFA program, advising students, and mothering a toddler–is finding the time in the day to work on my doctoral research. Happily, that’s what they made summers. It’s also hard to peel off my professor-identity, in the sense that when I meet with my religion professors, I have to inhabit my role as a student again. It’s humbling and good for me though–it reminds me, on a fairly regular basis, of how my own graduate students feel.

2. Your biography mentions that your grandparents survived concentration camps in Auschwitz, Ravensbruck, and Mauthausen. Have those stories and experiences influenced your poetry or writing?

I think the way that my grandparents’ experiences have influenced my work the most is that there’s always been this deep well of silence around my family history. My grandmother didn’t start talking about the war and her experiences in it until well into her 80’s, when different foundations started coming around with video cameras to record survivors’ stories. Until then–until I was in college–I had never heard about her war experiences.

When I was little, she used to tell me that the numbers on her arm were her phone number, written there so she wouldn’t forget it. Part of me writing about her in my first book was, I suspect, part of my concerted effort to combat that silence. But she also had a real streak of black humor, and I definitely think that shows up a lot in my work as well.

When I write about uncomfortable or difficult situations in my poems, I tend to temper them a bit with small moments of situational humor, to give the audience that permission to laugh. She passed away, though, on Mother’s Day of last year, so I’ve been writing elegies to her that take various forms. One of them, “Godspeed,” just came out in the most recent issue of Washington Square.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

I’m obsessed with Easter candy–particularly slightly stale marshmallow peeps. I think of peeps as sort-of guardian angels–the bunnies just look so benevolent, kind, and wise. I keep them everywhere. I have boxes of them that students have given me as gifts taped to my office wall; I have a yellow stuffed-animal bunny peep in the cupholder of my Civic who functions as a co-pilot of sorts. I realize this is weird. I also often gift people with peeps.

4. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most.

When I teach poetry workshops, I love to use Steve Kowit’s book In the Palm of Your Hand. I find outside mini-research projects much more inspiring though, in terms of my own work. I’m currently really into Robert Smithson’s work–especially his essays. Also, Joshua Lutz’s “Meadowlands” photos, and a book by Iain Borden called Skateboarding, Space and the City.

In terms of my own writing process, I currently belong to two virtual writing groups. One is constant, and it’s a password-protected blog where a few other poets and I post exercises and the poems that we write from them. This tends to get more active when the semester gets less busy, as most of us teach. I have another virtual group that’s a closed Google group. We pick 2-week or month-long chunks about twice a year to meet online, and when we meet, we write intensely–usually a poem-a-day. It came out of the NaPoWriMo idea, but we usually tend to meet in the summer for a month, and over winter break for a few weeks, as again, most of us teach and April (which is actually officially Poetry Month) tends to be too hectic in the academic calendar for anyone to get much writing done. We don’t comment on each other’s work, but I think we all like the group accountability of these virtual communities, and the fact that they help mitigate the loneliness of plugging away on your own a bit.

5. Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

This is an interesting question. I’ll write what I think is a fairly accessible poem, it will come out in a journal, and my mother will still take a copy of the journal next door to our neighbor, who’s a former English teacher, so she can tell my mom what my poem “means.” People, on the whole, tend to be scared of poetry–like it’s this code they have to crack, and they don’t have the key. I think that my work does tend to be accessible in that I often (especially in my earlier work) wrote more narrative poems. I wrote those though because the material I was working with, I felt, demanded narrative in some way. I feel like my contribution to dispelling this myth is through my teaching. The more contemporary poets that I expose my students to, the more accessible, in general, poetry becomes, as they start to understand that poets have really different projects, and need to be approached in slightly different ways. I mean, you can’t read a Matthea Harvey poem the same way you would read a Mark Doty poem. I’m teaching a contemporary poetry lit class this semester, and we just finished studying Robert Creeley, who was pretty viciously opposed to large and complicated words in his poems, and even eschewed figurative language. He was hell-bent on writing in the vernacular, but his poems are still really complex and tightly wound. Which is to say that I think that if more elementary and middle and high school students were exposed to a wide range of contemporary American poetry in the classroom, there would be less fear of the genre in general among mainstream readers. And there are great programs (like Teachers & Writers Collaborative or the Community-Word Project, both in New York) that are trying to bring poets into the schools to redress this.
Erika Meitner's Book
6. When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

I don’t generally listen to music when I work, unless I’m at a colony, because I can’t write with headphones on for some reason, and at home I write really late at night (midnight-3 a.m.). And actually, in the past few years, I’ve taken to listening to NPR when I write at colonies. I like the challenge of trying to block out the announcer while I write. When I’m editing at a colony, I like to listen to old school hip-hop–Tribe Called Quest, Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, Beastie Boys–something about the beat helps me cut extraneous crap out of my poems, which tend to be more expansive in early draft forms. But at home, I like the silence and peripatetic night-noises: car doors slamming, wind shaking the window frames, leaves skittering down the street.

Top 5 poem-editing playlist:
1. Blackalicious – Alphabet Aerobics
2. Tribe Called Quest – Steve Biko
3. Beastie Boys – Brass Monkey
4. Missy Elliott – Bring the Pain
5. Brand Nubian – Slow Down

7. In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?

I’ve been focusing on writing since college, so a fair number of my friends have always been writers in some way, shape or form. As I’ve moved through grad school, colonies, and fellowships, my circle of writer-friends has certainly grown. I’d say the thing that’s the hardest, being an academic, is that we’re like the domestic foreign service–we go where the work is. This means that keeping in touch with my friends–especially the writers–has been harder as we’re a fundamentally transient population (especially those of us who teach). Things like Facebook and AWP and listservs definitely make it easier to feel connected though. I even have a virtual writing group now that meets online about twice a year.

8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

My newly two-year-old son Oz just weighed in at his last checkup at 34 pounds (93rd percentile). Keeping up with him is like training for a decathlon–there’s the shoe-sock wrestling match, the morning dead-lift from his crib, the “get back here” supermarket sprint, the let’s-clean-up-the-lego crawl, the getting him in and out of the highchair squats, etc. It’s really a full-body workout.

9. Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?

I think food actually serves as a great distraction. I love to bake and would rather face down a banana bread recipe than an empty page. If anything, it’s easier for me to write away from home (and the distractions of the cupboard and fridge); I tend to do most of my writing in local coffee shops, so in that way, I guess coffee keeps me inspired.

10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

I have an office in our house–since we live in a fairly rural area, space is pretty easy to come by. Unfortunately, my office is usually a disaster area–the floor is covered with papers and other assorted items, which means getting to my desk requires navigating a horrendous obstacle course. I ended up clearing out the closet in the office, and putting a desk in there with a manual typewriter, since there’s no outlet in there. But then the closet got full too. This means that I end up doing most of my writing on the dining room table, once everyone is asleep.

11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

I’ve just finished a third collection of poems called Ideal Cities. I borrowed the title from my visual artist friend Kim Beck, who has an amazing project with the same name ( The collection was inspired by the work of Robert Smithson and other Land Artists of the late 1960’s, who often created work based on landscapes of urban peripheries and structures in various states of progressive disintegration. Many of the poems deal with the human geography of urban border-lands—people on the margins of society. Who do we leave behind or look past? What do we discard, as purposeful markers or accidental refuse? How can these people, places, and objects be woven into larger ideas about nature, sense of place, home, exile, and both personal and collective memory? Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan terms this bond between people and place “topophilia”—we manifest our ties to our geography in aesthetic, tactile, and emotional ways. In 2007 I moved from Washington, DC to Blacksburg, Virginia—a distinctly ex-urban landscape, where I’ve been exploring interstitial, overlooked, and marginalized spaces: malls, office buildings, suburban developments, superstores, construction sites, and interstates. I am also working with the idea of women’s bodies as geographical locations and sites of inscription via sex, childbirth, and other highly physical acts.

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