When I first moved to Los Angeles a little over 2 years ago, I kept hearing this idea that people in LA don’t read. I heard it from people on the East Coast who thought the only thing people here read are television pilots. It turns out that people read a lot here, and there are loads of book clubs and book signings at independent bookstores that seem to do strong business. And there are reading events almost every night of the week. Series with suggestive names like “Hot Dish” and “Tongue and Groove” and “Dirty Laundry Lit” that make me think some bookworms like a little sizzle with their fiction. Enter into the fray The Rattling Wall, a literary journal started in 2011 that’s helped breathe new life into the local lit scene. The authors range from the unknown to the highly regarded, and are ordered in a way that drives the reader forward, the way a mix tape flows from one song to the next with its own organic logic. Each issue–there are now four–features a selected artist that interprets each short story or poem or travel essay, and the drawings add cohesiveness to the collection. The founder and editor of the journal is Michelle Meyering, a whirlwind of energy and a fixture in LA’s literary scene. She’s also director of programs and events at PEN Center USA, and has organized well over 200 readings across town. A native of Redlands, CA, the 32-year-old was named a 2013 “Face to Watch” by the Los Angeles Times, and she currently teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program in Los Angeles. We met earlier this year when I produced a radio interview with Michelle about a Beverly Hills fundraising event she organized for PEN called “Forbidden Fruit,” which featured an array of celebrities reading banned literature. I sat down with Michelle at Unurban Coffee House in Santa Monica, to learn more about her and her work.
The Rumpus: I want to ask you about your grandparents because I know The Rattling Wall was named after your grandfather’s middle name, Rattle, and your grandmother’s maiden name, Wall. You also write about your grandparents in your poetry. Can you describe your relationship with your grandparents, and how they have inspired you?
Michelle Meyering: My parents divorced when I was very young, and I went to live with my mom and my grandfather, primarily. So we lived in a house on one side of town, and my dad, who is very much involved with my life and a wonderful parent, lived on the other side of town. I spent my formative years there, so all my youngest memories are spent in my grandfather’s house.
I’m someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about legacy. I come from a really small town, Redlands. I was born there, grew up there, went to college there, and then when I was 24, I thought, “I should probably leave Redlands.” (laughs) But I think my writing and The Rattling Wall keeps me thinking about legacy. I think about the legacy of a small town and legacy of family. The Rattling Wall is not explicitly about my grandparents as much as it is marked by this thought of legacy
Rumpus: When you talk about legacy, do you feel like The Rattling Wall has to do with your grandparents, in the sense that it’s a tribute to them, or a continuation of anything they’ve passed on to you?
Meyering: I started writing poetry to figure out who I was inside of a small town, and to figure out who I was inside of my family, and inside of myself. Poetry gave me this way into knowing who I was in my family and knowing who I was in my town. Taking their names and feeling comfortable with that allowed The Rattling Wall and the forward movement of my work to help me find my place and who I was in a line of people who have all done really interesting things. My grandfather was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and a highly decorated pilot in the military. My grandmother was a runway model. I have an incredibly influential mother who is sort of a renaissance woman. She’s very beautiful, she’s a painter, she’s a singer, she’s an incredible cook. My family is full of very big personalities and people who have been extremely accomplished. In some way, I thought, Well, The Rattling Wall is mine.
Rumpus: In a way you’re ensuring your own legacy by putting your own genetic fingerprint on the journal.
Meyering: Absolutely. When we started the journal, we didn’t have a full staff, so I was involved with every element of production, up until we handed the journal off to Narrow Books for art direction. I do all the publicity online and set up the events, so it felt right to me to have that be the name. I felt so wholly involved with everything.
Rumpus: Did The Rattling Wall come out of your work at PEN or was it independent from PEN? I know PEN likes to celebrate unknown authors, so it fits with PEN’s mission. Did PEN say, “Hey, we’d like you to start a literary journal?” or did you go to them?
Meyering: It was the second way. When I got out of graduate school, I had this thought that the journal was a project I wanted to do. I approached PEN and said, “This is an outside project that I’d like to do,” but I hadn’t worked the kinks out yet, as far as the mission and how I’d acquire authors and promote the book. I went to PEN and the executive director said, “No, you can go back to the drawing board and figure the details out.” (laughs)
I went back and got the project proposal to a place where I could go to PEN and say, “These are the projects that PEN is interested in supporting right now, and this is why I think the literary journal could potentially be one of them.” PEN had figured out that a bulk of its membership was aging, and they wanted to reach out to younger audiences. The proposal actually got to a point where The Rattling Wall was going to offer something to PEN, too. PEN was going to be able to use The Rattling Wall to get into spaces they hadn’t been before.
Rumpus: Is there something about LA that seeps into the ethos of The Rattling Wall?
Meyering: I think that The Rattling Wall, with its broad taste, isn’t necessarily a journal about LA, but a journal that’s influenced by LA’s “anything goes” mentality. We’ve gone across genres and published all kinds of material. We take chances on some really weird pieces, and they’ve paid off for us and that feels like LA to me. I want people to pick it up in other cities and see some part of their own place in it, not Los Angeles.
Rumpus: The idea of Los Angeles seems to come up so much in events here. There’s the recent reading you organized called “LA Story.” At the LA Times Festival of Books there were so many panels devoted to writing about Los Angeles. It seems like writers here are very invested in the city that they live in.
Meyering: I think we’re also at a stage now where everyone is being asked to talk about why LA is not New York. I have never sat down to create an issue of The Rattling Wall and thought, I’m really going to stick it to New York with this one. It’s never been on my mind. I want to create the best possible issue of The Rattling Wall. If we continue to all work hard and do wonderful work in Los Angeles, I have no doubt that this city will continue having a full reputation of its own that exists with New York.
Rumpus: Let me ask you about being a poet and a writer, and also being an organizer and a maker of things happening. Do you find it difficult to have that balance, where you have your time to be introverted and think and put those thoughts on paper, but then also rally people to go to literary events? Or do you think they go hand-in-hand?
I think there’s a hangover after getting your MFA. I went to get my MFA to figure out who I was as a writer, and then after I got my MFA, I still had to figure out who I was as a writer, which took a couple more years.
Then I had a number of personal tragedies that happened in 2011 that deeply changed the person I was and the writer that I was. Since 2012, I’ve been writing a lot more and looking at my event coordination as an opportunity to be exposed to a ton of different writers and their work, and moving into a new phase of being really excited about what I’m writing.
Rumpus: Can we talk about what happened in 2011 that affected your writing?
Meyering: The second issue of The Rattling Wall was dedicated to Elizabeth, who was my best friend since sophomore year of high school. Nineteen days after we released the first issue of The Rattling Wall, Elizabeth died in New York City from complications from her Type 1 diabetes. She was my best friend for 17 years. We lived together in Los Angeles, she was at the opening for the first issue of The Rattling Wall, and she was absolutely my sister and greatest love. The experience rearranged the entire way I saw myself in the world, myself as a writer, Los Angeles, all of it. Then, in December of that same year, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I recognize the release of the first issue of The Rattling Wall as the best night of my professional career. Three hundred people showed up at The Hammer and I was so excited, but I had no indication that in just over three weeks Elizabeth would be gone. It’s been an incredibly brutal 2 years following that, and she loved this project. I tried to keep my sights on continuing. I was deepest in grief when we started production on the second issue of The Rattling Wall, and I allowed myself to fully dive into the project. The book carried me into the space where my grief felt more manageable.
We released the second issue the same week my mother had her double mastectomy. It was just one thing after another that year. Great joy, deep sadness. Like, the deepest sadness of my life, and I started to think, Is this adulthood? and I asked my boss, “Adam, is this what it’s like? Is this the rest of adult life?” He said, “There will always be these great joys and deep sadnesses and that will continue on indefinitely. Your goal is to figure out how you make the most graceful transition between them.” And that seemed to me advice that seemed true to Elizabeth, too. She had a very easy way of moving through those. I thought “Okay, I’m going to embrace that.”
Rumpus: In the first issue of The Rattling Wall, in the poem “Self-Portrait,” you’re looking for your grandmother, and you see her in the face of your neighbor. You write, “What does it mean—To go on seeking reflexively?” I really like that line. Is there something that you’re seeking reflexively?
Meyering: When I lived in Washington D.C., I lived by the National Observatory and I would walk around the National Observatory to get to the bus stop in the morning. And I would see these deer. There’s a thick morning ice on the ground, and the deer would hard-nose the morning ice. They’d poke the morning ice endlessly to look for sustenance. And I thought about that a long time: What does it mean, in that case, to seek without knowing that you’ll find something?
Robert Frost talks about poems being “momentary stays against confusion,” like these little bright “pops” of clarity. I have always been fascinated by that and I think I imagine myself as the deer, nosing at the ice. At the end of some poems, you break the ice and nothing is there, and at the end of other poems, a moment happens where you understand something, or at least you think you understand something.
I think also about grief when I think about those deer, and how we will continue to go on seeking people endlessly in the world, and sometimes we find things and sometimes we don’t. When we do find something it happens in a way that surprises us. In that case, the “pop” at the end is that I recognize my long-dead grandmother’s mouth on another woman’s face, and it was one bright moment of “you’re around.” I think after someone has died, we’re all poking to find some bit of them somewhere, and sometimes we find it.