5 QUESTIONS with erika meitner

by Robby Auld | April 2018

Meitner Headshot 2016 B&W.jpg

Why write poetry?

This is a great question--and one that feels easy to me, as my work has always been 'of the world' and engaged with political issues--whether it's writing about female sexuality and desire, or motherhood, or  race, or gun violence, or urban issues, or adolescent girlhood, or Jewish identity, or family history (I am first-gen American and the granddaughter of holocaust survivors). I think poetry--all kinds of poetry--is critical in helping all of us understand the world around us in more nuanced and interesting ways.

Your fifth full-length collection, Holy Moly Carry Me, is scheduled for release this September. What is the book about?

Holy Moly Carry Me explores human resilience and grit in the face of disaster, loss, and uncertainty. My poems plumb the heart of southern Appalachia—its highways and strip malls and gun culture, its fragility and danger. The poems also wrestle with what it means to be Jewish in the Christian bible belt, and deal with the anxiety of raising one white son and one black son amidst racial tensions and school lockdown drills. Understanding what “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) truly means in an increasingly splintered society, in the Internet era, was a driving principle of writing this book.

Who, or what, inspires you?

I'm often inspired by visual art, so when I'm in cities I spend a lot of time at art museums. Right now I'm very much digging Zoe Leonard, Robert Irwin, David Wojnarowicz, and Carolee Schneemann, and I'm always inspired by documentary photography. I'm working on a documentary project right now in Miami with photographer Anna Maria Barry-Jester on sea-level rise and architecture, so I've been reading a lot of architectural theory and criticism, and thinking a lot about form and permanence, body and mortality. I like to collaborate across mediums, and doing longer-term documentary projects on urban areas and social issues alongside documentary photographers is one way I do this.

I am also inspired by current events and my own personal experiences. This is especially apparent in my newest book, Holy Moly Carry Me. Becoming a multiracial family has deeply altered my perspective of America, and also my daily embodied interactions when I’m out with my youngest son, who’s African American. A few years into writing the poems for this book, I was in my car in the Food Lion parking lot with both my sons in the back seat. It was November of 2014, so my older son was seven, and my youngest was almost two years old, and we were listening to NPR, and I had left the car on for a minute because they were reporting on Ferguson, and about the fact that a St. Louis County grand jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. I didn’t think my oldest son was listening to the radio, but he was, and he asked me what they were talking about, so I explained the news story to him, and he said, “We can never let my brother go to Missouri—he won’t be safe there.” And I just sat in the car and wept, because I didn’t have the heart to tell him that there is nowhere in America where you’re safe when you inhabit a brown-skinned body. I think those moments—gun massacres, catastrophes, racially motivated violence—that happened over and over across America while I was writing this book made me especially tuned in to overt and latent danger, and made me want to convey threat, but also resilience in my poems.

From the University of Virginia, you received both an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) and an MA in Religion and Culture (Jewish Studies). How does this work overlap for you?

My work in religious studies was in the anthropology of religion, which means I spent a lot of time talking to people I didn't know about their Jewish rituals and practices, and also did a lot of work on the idea of sacred spaces. This work ties directly to the documentary projects that I do in that it trained me to talk to strangers and turn what I learned from them into some kind of narrative, which is very much the same type of work I do when I go on the road with photographers (except with line breaks). My work is still very much based on the idea of trying to figure out places and people. How do people live? What makes them tick? I've been living in rural Southwest Virginia for the past 11 years, and I'm still trying to figure this place out, too--its culture and mores and people.

What is the most beautiful thing you saw today?

This is a weird question for me, as I don't think I generally look for beauty when I'm out and about. I'm usually looking for something striking, or weird, or obtuse. My ideas of what constitutes 'beautiful'--especially when it comes to landscape--have been immutably torqued by growing up in New York City (Queens) in the 1970's and 80's, when the landscape was whatever the opposite of traditionally beautiful was. The city was recovering from the 1975 bankruptcy and went straight into the crack and homeless epidemics of the 80's, so the stuff I found beautiful as a kid was often urban landscape (subway graffiti, out of season Christmas lights, glittering sidewalks from mica in the concrete) or human geography (42nd street drag queens in feather boas, station buskers playing makeshift drums). Today the most striking thing I've seen so far (and granted, it's 10:46am on a Saturday in Appalachia) was the dad in front of me at drop-off for a weekend engineering thing my oldest son is doing--it's 33 degrees out and he was wearing a red short-sleeved shirt with an angry bull on the back and it says "DOES NOT PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS."