Posted by Leanora Karnath, GD reader for 3.1
A couple weeks ago, the Gandy Dancer staff gathered in our college’s ballroom to hear Erika Meitner read some of her poetry. As someone who prefers prose over poetry, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself entranced by Meitner’s work.
Erika Meitner, originally from Queens and Long Island, New York, received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from University of Virginia in 2001. Currently, she teaches in the MFA Program as an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech. She has written four poetry collections. At the reading, she chose to share works from the collection Ideal Cities along with her newest one titled Copia.
Meitner’s poems are very much influenced by her journalism background and interest in autobiographical writing. Her poems are accessible and challenge the view that the genre is overly abstract or difficult to understand. As a member of GSTV, our campus’s television station, I never thought that the factual news I report could be fuel for creative writing, but this changed when I saw how much journalism is a part of Meitner’s writing.
She has written a series of poems based on James Griffioen’s photography and her observations of Detroit. Additionally, she examines her son’s baby blanket in “Miracle Blanket” and Walmart in “Walmart Supercenter” to tackle the complicated issue of American consumerism. I admire her ability to write about simple objects and places in a moving way that sparks further thought and reflection.
Poetry can often be intimidating for people, myself included; some re-read a line, attempting to grasp an understanding that just seems out of reach. They may toss aside a poem because of unfamiliar language that creates more confusion than enjoyment. I can’t lie; I’ve done this before. When reading certain poems, several questions flood my thoughts, many of which I have trouble answering. Why is that comma there? Where is the punctuation? Why did the author choose a line break between these stanzas? Sometimes reading poetry is simply frustrating because it is so open-ended, but that’s also the beauty of it.
Because I heard Meinter’s poems instead of seeing them on a page, I was able to simply enjoy the words and follow them easily without overthinking the structure. While reading, she spoke with intensity, genuinely connecting to audience members. She used inflection to stress certain words and pauses to allow the audience to ponder a line. The proposition of understanding poetry was a lot less daunting through her spoken words.
My favorite poem that she shared was “Walmart Supercenter.” She explained that her interest to creating a poem from the most unpoetic place in America ignited her desire to write the piece. The poem consists of several Walmart occurrences from around the country—one includes a part about a woman selling Bengal Tiger cubs, another tells of grandparents abandoning a disabled child in the parking lot. The colorful items in the supermarket are juxtaposed with violent and disturbing scenes in the parking lot. Meitner spoke about how she intertwined her research about occurrences in various Walmart’s with her own experiences; this mix of personal material and research is very characteristic of her poetic style.
Meitner is a great example of poetry’s ability to make simple subjects meaningful by examining them with a careful eye and precise language. I will never look at Walmart in the same way again. It was an honor to hear Meitner speak. After I left the reading, I thought about my interest in journalism and reporting and said to myself, maybe I’ll try my hand at writing a poem.