The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Erika Meitner about her new book, Copia, writing about Detroit without writing ruin porn, long lines and form, and now-empty shopping malls.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Sarah: I was wondering if you wanted to talk about how you think about audience when you write. I love the tone of the book.
Erika Meitner: Ah, audience. Is it weird to say that I actually don’t think about audience when I write? I feel like I wouldn’t have been able to write most of the poems in the book if I thought anyone would actually read them.
Brian S: I feel like that’s what we’re supposed to say, regardless of whether or not it’s true.
Erika Meitner: Which is, I realize, a weird thing to say.
Sarah: Nope. I don’t really either. I guess I mean more how you think maybe you’ve arrived at tone and felt compelled toward the “you,” etc.
Erika Meitner: This wasn’t true for the Detroit poems, because I felt responsible to the people I spoke with, who got copies of those poems.
Camille D.: Though, Erika, since some of these poems were commissioned, did that change your sense of not being watched?
Erika Meitner: Yes!
Ellen: Can you tell us about the history of how the book came together? Some of the poems were commissioned?
Erika Meitner: So I feel like the poems in the book are a bit varied, which means that different poems took on really different tones and feels. And I promise, Sarah, I’ll get back to your question. Let me answer Ellen’s first, which will also partly answer yours I think.
Sarah: No worries.
Erika Meitner: So I don’t really do ‘project books.’ When I work on books, I’m just working on poems about whatever feels most compelling to me in a given time. After I finished Ideal Cities (which was my 2nd book but 3rd manuscript), much of which was motherhood poems, I started writing off of the work of documentary photographers. I was really interested in photos by Alec Soth (especially his Niagara series), but also urban photographers, street photographers, etc. I live kind of in the middle of nowhere, so I’d look at all these photos—amazing work—on the Internet, listen to interviews with the photographers, read stuff they had written about their work, and write these poems. I also got really interested in Brian Ulrich’s photos of dead malls and dark stores and ‘ghost box’ stores, and James Griffioen’s blog Sweet Juniper, which had these beautiful pics of Detroit in disintegration.
Camille D.: As a way of dealing with living kind of in the middle of nowhere?
Erika Meitner: I think it was definitely an easy way to access other worlds…
Anyway, I’d write poems off these images, but I had no idea why I was compelled toward them. Around the same time, I had been talking to Ted Genoways at Virginia Quarterly Rreview about doing something for their InVerse project. These were these multimedia documentary poetry projects where the journal sent you to report on an issue (as a poet) with a radio journalist and photographer. Ted ended up commissioning me to go to Detroit and report on the entire city (!) even though I had never been there.
Sarah: I saw the AWP panel on that, in DC, was it?
Erika Meitner: Yes! That was a great panel! I’m so glad you were there, Sarah!
Sarah: It was amazingggg.
Erika Meitner: Anyway, to make a long story short, I ended up going to Detroit, and the poems about Detroit were from that reporting trip. When I was in Detroit we went to the DIA. And there’s a huge Diego Rivera mural there in the atrium. One big piece of the mural is these two earth mothers connected to a baby in a womb. During the entire time I was writing the poems in Copia, my husband and I had been trying to have another kid to no avail. We did lots of hard fertility stuff—doctors, meds, travel, etc. It was only when I encountered the mural that I realized that I was looking at all these abandoned buildings as metaphors for my own body. So the first part of the book are these restless desire poems addressed to a ‘you.’ (Sarah, I think these are the poems maybe you’re talking about?)
Anyway, I had no idea what to do with restless desire poems, Detroit poems, Walmart poems, etc. until I realized they all had to do with desire in some way. Desire and consumption.
My training (in addition to poetry) is in religious studies, so many of the poems feel like prayers to me, or incorporate ideas from texts that I had to read while I was studying for my PhD comp exams in religion. Which, I think, gives some of the poems more of a liturgical tone perhaps?Does that sort of answer how the book came about? ish?
Ellen: Yes, really interesting. that helps bring it all together
Erika Meitner: I think I only just started to write about infertility in this book. I didn’t have a language for it, and a lot of it was a long hard silence. Poems like “The Language of Happiness” kind of get at that.
Brian S: Have you seen Douglas Kearney’s latest book, Patter?
Erika Meitner: I heard the NPR interview on Patter, but haven’t read it yet. It sounds intriguing!
We ended up adopting our second son in January of 2013—but not before we had a failed adoption in between. I’m still writing through a lot of that now. Lots of hard silence.
Sarah: My youngest sister is adopted. It was a long difficult process.
Erika Meitner: Yeah. I went through the tenure and adoption process at the same time. I used to joke that both were equally arduous, except that the tenure committee didn’t come to my house to make sure we had fire extinguishers on every floor.
Camille D.: Patter is amazing.
Erika Meitner: Clearly I have to read Patter ASAP now!
Camille D.: Yes, I think you have much in common with Kearney in the sensibility about progeny and consumption.
Ellen: I am also curious about the three sections of the book…
Erika Meitner: I was anti-section after I made the rookie mistake of over-sectioning my first book with FIVE SECTIONS. But Copia really felt like it needed sections to me. I think one other theme in the book is the idea of galut—the Hebrew word for exile.
Camille D.: What’s wrong, in your mind, with a 5-section book?
Erika Meitner: It’s not that anything is wrong, per se, with a five-section book. I think it spoke to my early inability to see more subtle connections between poems.
Ellen: Do the different sections have unique themes or is the section break more of a pause?
Erika Meitner: Ellen, that’s a great question!
Camille D.: I’m reading A LOT of books right now, and thinking about sections. Some have none, which seems like not enough sometimes, and some have so many it’s like you’re reading an anthology. I see what you are saying about the need for subtle connections.
Erika Meitner: To me the first section is about physical desire and lust and the ‘you’ (or life) we can’t have. The second section has to do much more with sense of place—and the place I live in now, in Appalachia. This is tied to a lot of anxiety for me about being a Jew, being the child of refugees, and being in exile from my family and my ‘people.’ (So the second section is almost desire for a homeland.) The third section is the Detroit/infertility poems. The ruins of our consumption. Or something like that. Body as building.
It was helpful to have a few other poets read the manuscript to point out some of the connections to me. I think sometimes we’re the worst at seeing the links between our own poems. I had a really hard time figuring out how to include the Detroit poems, which felt very much to me like they had to be in there. Thus: sections.
Ellen: I look forward to re-reading with all this in mind
Camille D.: And the title? When/how did that make itself apparent?
Erika Meitner: That’s a great question too! I was researching synonyms for ‘plenty’ in the OED and other sources. I stumbled on the epigraph to the book, which talked about this idea of women having an abundance of words. And I was thinking about America as a place of abundance, but also desire for moremoremore.
Ellen: I loved the epigraph!
Brian S: When I googled Mark Ulrich, I noticed it’s the name of one of his projects as well, so maybe there was some subconscious signaling toward that word.
Sarah: Me too!
Erika Meitner: Yes! I also came to it via Brian Ulrich’s photos! His whole series of abandoned retail spaces is called Copia. It also includes a series of Thrift Shop photos. I saw the actual exhibit in Cleveland about two years ago, finally, but I found it on the Internet, and once I had the epigraph and the poems about some of Ulrich’s Ghost Box stores, it seemed like that was what I should call it.
Brian S: Those spaces always fascinate me, because it’s like you can see the life cycle of a neighborhood in them.
Erika Meitner: Yes! There’s a blog called labelscar, and it chronicles dead malls. It’s all people commenting on photos of empty spaces and talking about how they lost their virginity in the Orange Julius, or worked in the Claire’s. I’m totally behind the idea that unique narratives can take place in generic spaces. And looking at people inscribing a virtual space about a dead mall with their memories of said mall is pretty amazing. There aren’t many poems out there about chain stores and fast food joints.
Brian S: I’d imagine the mall my last job before grad school is in there somewhere. A Mexican restaurant in a mall. It was so bad.
Erika Meitner: I’m sure it’s in there, Brian! One summer I worked in an office in an abandoned mall in Kansas that only had a Sears and a Nearly Famous Pizza. That place was on there!
Brian S: You know, the night I left for grad school, I had a ceremonial burning of my uniform. The smoke was black and toxic.
Erika Meitner: You should totally write about that if you haven’t! The idea of a labelscar is interesting—it’s the part beneath a sign that hasn’t been weathered by the elements. When they take down the sign, there’s the labelscar.
Ellen: I tried to write a poem last week about my first job as a shampoo girl at a hair cuttery. Talk about nasty.
Erika Meitner: I’ve never read a shampoo girl poem!
Camille D.: Can we discuss form?
Erika Meitner: Totally!
Sarah: Do you want to talk about form at all? Long lines, short lines, prose poems, white space, couplets.
Camille D.: Sarah, I’ve always liked how you think:)
Sarah: You too!
Erika Meitner: Some of the poems in the book are justified prose blocks meant to mimic the generic form of big box stores or buildings. Those forms are meant to seem like containers. “Yizker Bukh” took on a very concrete shape in this book too.
There are a lot of poems in couplets, but really the forms are all over the place. I think that has to do with the range of subject material, and the fact that the book was written over a stretch of like four years. I really let the content of each poem determine its form. I tend to be a poetic maximalist, so I was glad the physical size of the book accommodated my long lines without wrapping.
Camille D.: HA! I said that in the review, but I just sort of guessed it. (The container, box store thing). Thanks, Erika. I can go to bed feeling self assured of my good reading skills.
Brian S: Did BOA work with you on that? Or did it just kind of happen?
Sarah: I was going to ask about that—was it really exciting to figure out the print size?
Ellen: And is Niagara a waterfall? Just noticing that now…
Erika Meitner: The big book size just happened. I had no idea what size the book would be until it arrived on my doorstep. But I knew that none of the lines wrapped in the proofs, which was the first time that had happened to me with a book.
Ellen: I’m just noticing this now that you said it!
Camille D.: I loved how “Yiddishland” had those long long long lines. Like those people deserved to just be able to go on and on and on.
Erika Meitner: And they did go on and on and on. In the best possible ways! My extended family is not quiet. When I had my college roommate home for Thanksgiving one year, she told our other roommate that my family was always yelling at each other. But that was just normal conversation.
Brian S: Maybe that’s why we become writers—to be heard over the din of our extended families.
Erika Meitner: I just read a book with my MFA workshop that’s written almost entirely in ALL CAPS—Lucas De Lima’s WET LAND—and I thought that surely if I were to portray my family accurately, it would have to be in all-caps.
Sarah: Do you have a favorite poem in the book?
Erika Meitner: I actually love the Walmart Supercenter poem I ended up writing for Brian the best. (Don’t tell the other poems though.)
Erika Meitner: (And I’m not just saying that because I’m on The Rumpus right now.)
Brian S: I like to think that I chose the best poem from what was offered. 🙂
Erika Meitner: The thing was, I wanted to send you stuff really badly, but I had nothing in the hopper. So I busted out this wrecked draft of a Walmart poem, sat down at a coffee shop for 6 hours, and didn’t leave until the poem was finished. It took me like a year to write about 40 bad drafts of it, and 6 hours to finish it. So that’s why I feel like I wrote it ‘for you’ even though it wasn’t commissioned or anything…
Brian S: That’s having faith that there’s something worth saving in the poem. It’s easy to give up on them.
Camille D.: But that circles back to your saying your don’t write for audience when you’ve given several examples of commissions.
Erika Meitner: Camille, that’s true. But I think with ‘commissions’ both real and imagined, I was never given guidelines—just told (with the Detroit project) to write poems. With Detroit stuff, I was really cognizant of who gets to speak for whom.
Ellen: I’m curious about untitled [and the moon] on page 38… Not sure I have a specific question, just curious about origins, shape…
Sarah: I’m curious about the moon as a recurring image through the book, too.
Erika Meitner: “untitled [and the moon]” was written during the winter of snowpocalypse! Did you guys have this where you live? It was a few winters back. I was interested in trying to duplicate the sound of wind gusts with white space—gusts of words. We live on a ridge, and the wind actually howls here, and it often tore the siding off our house—our old house (around the corner from our new house) actually would creak like a ship in the wind. So I was really interested in figuring out how to work those bursts aurally into a poem. The moon is really bright here because we have no streetlights. Also Judaism runs on the lunar calendar, and the moon seemed like such a symbol of fertility while I was writing Copia.
Brian S: Who are you reading these days?
Erika Meitner: Brian, I’m reading so many books right now!
Camille D.: “With Detroit stuff, I was really cognizant of who gets to speak for whom.” I’d love to hear more about this. Detroit is such a tricky place for outsiders to write about. Just finished teaching Crystal Williams’s brilliant Detroit as Barn in which she, a native Detroiter, addresses this question quite sagely.
Erika Meitner: I do first books with my MFA workshop, so we just finished Kendra DeColo’s Thieves in the Afterlife this week.
Sarah: A Saturnalia title!
Erika Meitner: Also, C.K. Williams is coming here next week, so I’ve just re-read TAR. I’m currently in the middle of Alex Lemon’s The Wish Book (so good!) and Instant Winner by Carrie Fountain (also so good!).
Camille, the Detroit project was so tricky. As an outsider, I was often regarded with suspicion, and I felt really uncomfortable presuming I could speak for someone of another age/race/income-level. What made the project so much easier was that a) I had taught public school in NYC, so I started by interviewing school teachers, and I immediately bonded with them over that experience (and the schools and what was and is happening in them was a harbinger of things that later spiraled downward). And b) so many of the people (especially auto workers) we spoke with were originally Southerners—specifically from Virginia—that they were super-great about letting us interview them.
Camille D.: I have C.K. Williams’s Writers Writing Dying right here on the pile of books next to me. It’s got no sections, if you remember that part of the thread. Haven’t read it yet to know if this is the best decision, but writing dying seems an un-sectioned pursuit, so I’ll trust his instinct.
Erika Meitner: I was very conscious though of the idea that I didn’t want to make ‘ruin porn.’ I wanted to figure out a way to talk about the disintegrating spaces that was more personal.
Ellen: I’m curious if you’ll be teaching at any workshops open to the public?
Erika Meitner: I think your next book should be called “Unsectioned Dying.”
I’m teaching a workshop in Charlottesville at WriterHouse in a few weeks! (On poetry taboos!)
Ellen: Will have to check that out!
Camille D.: That might actually be the perfect title for my next book.
Erika Meitner: We should all write a poem about labelscars too.
labelscar as metaphor.
I feel like I should take us out on a song…
Camille D.: That can be the title of YOUR next book.
Erika Meitner: Ha!
Camille D.: What song would you choose?
Erika Meitner: I was just singing Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat” song to my youngest tonight. I love his version with the Muppets from the 70s!
Camille D.: There’s an awful lot to unpack in that…
Brian S: So that’s your walkup music for your next reading.
Erika Meitner: With Muppets.
Brian S: Mine is “Milkshake,” for the record.
Erika Meitner: I’m not going on without the Muppets.
Camille D.: Gotta have the Muppets.
Erika Meitner: Brian, I’m going to need to find a Xmas milkshake to send you.
Camille D.: Thanks, so much, Erika, for talking with us tonight! And thanks, Sara and Ellen for your questions. And thanks, twins, for not throwing up on your dad during this hour.