The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Sandra Meek about her new collection An Ecology of Elsewhere, writing landscapes, and the power of syntactic density.
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 join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: I’m curious about the time frame of these poems because they cover such a long period of time—how long did you work on this collection?
Sandra Meek: 4-5 years—I began in 2008, I think, and finished late 2012, 2013.
Brian S: Were you thinking of this as a project from the start or just writing poems and waiting to see if they grew into something? 2008 doesn’t seem like that long ago, and yet…
Sandra Meek: I was just writing, to start. I’ve found I have a similar rhythm, with each book—for awhile I’m just writing poems, then, maybe a third of the way to a book-length manuscript, I realize what’s going on with it as a collection—roughly!
Brian S: Do you think that affects the poems that come after? That sense that you might be writing toward something larger, more cohesive?
Sandra Meek: I think it can, certainly.
Camille D: And I would be curious, as a follow up, about when you decided to use the Latin binomials as part of the system of how you titled the poems. I loved how these poems were both natural histories and histories and something else altogether, and how the titles led me toward seeing into this and also didn’t take away from the journeys the poems would take.
Sandra Meek: Thanks, Camille! That happened pretty early in the process. I wanted to look at each plant, tree, animal, that appears in the poems’ titles in multiple ways, considering multiple contexts—and the many names of a plant—say, the Welwitschia, which I refer to in its Latin as well as in its Nama and others—are part of that, and a trigger for thinking of the culture, politics, etc. as well.
Camille D: I’m so jealous of you for getting to see the Welwitschia. I wasn’t there long enough to make the journey out to see them. Though I did get to the Skeleton Coast and to the sand dunes. It was something to read this book about this incredible place and to experience some of it again with you.
Sandra Meek: I did want to braid together the natural history, the political history—and currency—with autobiographical material as well.
That’s so great you went to Namibia, Camille! When you go back, see the Welwitschia. 🙂 Did you go to the Seal Colony at Cape Cross?
Camille D: Your notes are incredibly expansive. An answer, I presume to writing about a place that so many Americans know so little about. At what point in the composition process did the notes come into being? Did you have a theory about what you wanted the notes to do that you didn’t think the poems could/should do?
Sandra Meek: Yes, this was something very different for me. In Road Scatter, my last book, there were barely any notes. I think it wasn’t just that it’s a part of the world less familiar to Americans, though certainly that’s a part of it. Giving myself the option to have the notes allowed me not to have to “explain” in the poems themselves. I didn’t want the poems to be “lessons” in any way.” Yet, the materials were so rich, I wanted to have that information there, at the end of the book, to resonate with the poems themselves.
Camille D: Can you speak a bit to what writing from outside an American landscape allowed that writing within the American landscape (which you also do) could not?
Sandra Meek: I’m not sure when the notes began, but I remember how freeing it was to realize I could do that, how it allowed me to begin en medias res with the poems, as it were.
Brian S: That makes me wonder how you handle that when you read them publicly. Do you give all this information as preface or do you just let the audience hear the poem and take what they can from the text itself?
Sandra Meek: Well, particularly in writing about southern Africa I’m writing as an outsider, but also as someone who has a long history of deep love for the place. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana from 1989-1991, and many of the places in An Ecology are ones I revisited in 2008-2011.
When I read the poems typically I’ll pick out just a bit from the notes. I don’t want to overwhelm the experience of hearing the poem, but since a poem comes at a reader more quickly in a reading than on the page, generally I think a little bit of context can help. That’s why I really like the format of the book–where the notes can be in the back, and the reader can make the choice whether to pay any attention to them, and if so, at what point in the reading process.
Brian S: I really appreciated that, for the record. I like having that option.
Sandra Meek: Thanks! I’m glad.
Camille D: There’s such a big difference in Namibia between the first time you were there (when it was still under South Africa’s apartheid regime) and 2008-2011, but the legacy of that colonial history is still deeply entrenched in the place. I felt this sense in the way the poems weave natural history with human history so frequently, and I’d love to hear you talk some more about this.
Sandra Meek: Camille—yes!! There’s such huge difference in all of southern Africa. I was in Botswana when Namibia got its independence, and I first visited Namibia in 1991, a year after its independence. The differences are drastic. When I was first there, it was quite a process crossing from South Africa to Namibia, and there was a very long “no man’s land” between the two border posts. It’s not like that now. Also, there was a big push for English only—listening to the radio driving then, in 1991, someone called into a talk show and started talking Afrikaans, and the radio person shouted, “Speak English!” and hung up. It was fascinating how they picked English as the national language despite only a small minority of people then in the country could speak it–because it was the least politically divisive.
Brian S: I keep reading “Acedia” over and over, probably because we’re finally coming out of winter here in Iowa, and I love the way it just runs and keeps running as one long sentence. It becomes breathless at some point. Gives me chills.
Sandra Meek: Thanks, Brian! That poem kind of came out of nowhere—with a fascination for the word. Camille, back to your question—yes, the colonial history is still so present, especially in terms of economics.
Camille D: And I’m interested in the second person address in the Mophane poem. The you-ness of the poem is strangely welcoming about something I can only see from your descriptions.
Ah, our comments/questions just overlapped. I just want to say that I really appreciate how you have the LANDSCAPE of the place revealed both through the flora and fauna but also the political, economic, and cultural histories of the place and the people (like Hitler) who touched and were touched by it.
Sandra Meek: Thanks, Camille—yes, it’s all interconnected, and I wanted to embody that in the poems.
Camille D: Can you talk a bit about your ideas of order in this book? What made you decide on the number and division of sections?
Sandra Meek: That was mostly intuitive and evolved in the process of writing the collection. At some point, I started putting the poems up against each other and feeling how they would resonate. I did also feel like there needed to be sections in the book in a way to allow some “air” in, as the syntax can get somewhat dense in the poems. ”White Thorn” seemed to be right to me as an opening—almost like an invocation of the must. Although I hate the term muse!
Brian S: Speaking of the syntax—you kind of have a thing for the long recursive sentence. Clause piled on top of clause, which adds to that density.
Sandra Meek: Muse, not must!
Camille D: The muse IS a must!
Brian S: But not musty!
Sandra Meek: I do, Brian. I love playing with syntax, the way a sentence can turn and coil, and the rhythms that can be created, along with meaning—if those can even be separated. No, don’t think they can, actually!
About the muse—I think I recoil with that term because of its history—the woman as muse, the man as creator. But if muse just means something out there in the world that draws one’s attention, that engages, yes, the muse is a must!
Brian S: I have a similar reaction to muse for those reasons. It’s such a loaded term because of that, but it’s part of the shorthand we use when talking about poetry I guess.
Sandra Meek: Yep!
Camille D: I also think that these landscapes you are so often describing are also so incredibly vast. I mean, the Welwitschia is a huge plant. The Skeleton Coast, Bryce Canyon. It seems to make sense that the poems that speak to these places and things are also rangey and large. Did you think that consciously?
Brian S: The form of the poems in terms of that dense syntax certainly helped convey the vastness of these landscapes to me.
Sandra Meek: I think that the complexity of the syntax does evoke, for me at least, a sense of how large, powerful, intense, the landscapes are for the speaker, and the poet. I hope it carries that for the reader—
Camille D: How are we nearly out of time already?! This has been fun talking to you. What excites you most about this book?
Brian S: Do you have any conscious influences on your work? (I always feel weird asking this question for some reason.)
Sandra Meek: I think I’m particularly drawn to the long poem and denser syntax because I am so interested in how things interconnect—private and public histories, landscape and self.
Camille D: I really appreciated that aspect of the book, Sandra.
Brian S: We did Thorpe Moeckel’s Arcadia Road a few months back in the book club—talk about long poems with dense syntax and landscape. Who are you reading these days, Sandra? Anything new we should be on the lookout for?
Sandra Meek: Time really does fly!! Okay, this sounds incredibly reductive, but what excites me most about the book is really getting to spend time in these places, with these plants, with these people. It’s a precarious world.
Camille D: I picked Thorpe’s book, too. Maybe I’m revealing something about what I like in a book!
Sandra Meek: Conscious influences are hard to talk about. There are so many poets I love and I am reading all the time.
Brian S: And Tess Taylor’s Work & Days, too! You’re into landscapes lately, Camille.
Camille D: Landscapes are our lives.
Sandra Meek: I love Terrance Hayes. I just read Patrick Rosal’s new book and loved it.
Camille D: I just taught some of Patrick’s poems in the class just before this chat!
Sandra Meek: That’s so great! Such a great writer.
Camille D: I love the cover art for this book. Sometimes we have a club member who asks about book design. I’d love to hear what you have to say about this book’s design. How did you manage to get such a great photo?! Also, did you climb the dunes? That’s one of the hardest (but most fun) things I’ve ever done.
Sandra Meek: Thanks, Camille! Persea asked me if I had any thoughts about a cover photo, and I said I’d love to get a photo of southern Africa from space; there are a couple astronauts who are great photographers and who do these incredible abstract-expressionist-looking landscape shots. That didn’t work out. A Persea intern was looking for photo ideas from southern Africa to run by me, and they sent me one of Dead Vlei—and I said, I know those trees! I sent them my photos of those same trees in Dead Vlei, then, and we ended up going with one of my own photographs.
Brian S: Are you working on something new yet?
Sandra Meek: Brian, yes—I’m about halfway or more through a new collection, entitled Still—the poems are all still lifes, in my mind, but ones that couldn’t actually exist on a single plane—most of the poems juxtapose elements from very different places, landscapes, together.
Brian S: Oh, that sounds terrific. Can’t wait to read those poems.
Sandra Meek: Thanks so much, Brian! A few of them are out there 🙂 Good night, and happy spring to you all!
Brian S: Oh! That’s the hour! It did fly by. Thanks for joining us tonight Sandra, and for sharing this terrific book with us!
Camille D: Yes! Thanks for joining us and, more importantly, for writing this really wonderful book.
Sandra Meek: Thank you both so much for having me—it’s been so great to talk with you!