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Kathryn Waring

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Kathryn Waring is a senior English (creative writing) major at SUNY Geneseo from eastern Long Island. She was recently invited to read at Sigma Tau Delta’s annual conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and plans to pursue an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction. Although Kathryn counts numerous fictional characters among her friends (her mother frequently told Kathryn books were her best friends growing up), her literary kindred spirit would be either Truman Capote or Leslie Jamison–if she could, she’d place them both in a room for an enlightening discussion on the roles of research and authorial position in CNF.

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Lucia LoTempio & Kathryn Waring

An Interview with Erika Meitner

Erika Meitner is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the MFA program at the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow, and also earned an M.A. in Religion as a Morgenstern Fellow in Jewish Studies. Her first collection of poems, Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore, won the 2002 Anhinga-Robert Dana Prize for Poetry from Anhinga Press. Her second collection, Ideal Cities, was a winner of the 2009 National Poetry Series Award and was published by HarperCollins in 2010. She is currently an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she teaches in the MFA program.

Lucia LoTempio: You had me with the epigraph with Copia. Where did you find that definition and example sentence? I was literally giving you snaps after I read it.

Erika Meitner: Lucia, the definition was mostly from the Oxford English Dictionary, but the epigraph includes additional definitions from other dictionaries too—so it’s a sort of amalgamation of everything I could find on the word that seemed pertinent to the book. Believe it or not, that example sen- tence was in the OED, and as soon as I saw it I had to nab it for the epigraph.

Kathryn Waring: I read on your website that you decided to title the collection Copia after seeing a photography project by Brian Ulrich. There’s definitely a striking similarity in images here (I’m thinking specifically of your first poem, “Litany of Our Radical Engagement with the Material World,” though obviously these images threads throughout). How did you discover Ulrich’s photography, and have you ever spoken to him about your collection?

EM: Katie, I’m glad the imagistic connections to Ulrich’s project are clear! I’m not sure what exactly led me to Ulrich’s work (other than possibly Google). I know I became interested in this idea of ‘Ghost Box’ stores and ‘Dead Malls’ first, and found Ulrich’s photos online later. I read and listened to many interview with him, in addition to looking at his photos. And then I got to see his work in museum format at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2011—which was a few years after I had started writing from his poems online. But I’ve never spoken to him about my book.

LL: The copia of commercialism and material goods are at the forefront of your book, yet there is also a focus on absence and empty space, like with the speaker’s body in “By Other Means.” Similarly, your exploration of Jewish history and the Yiddish language within the collection offer a contrasting discussion of memory. How did you begin to approach these ideas/topics within the collection?

EM: I’m not a project book kind of person—meaning when I set out to write, I just write poems; I don’t usually think about a collection as a whole. It happened that my obsession with Detroit (and its abandoned buildings) coincided with my struggle to have a second child, and those empty buildings (in retrospect) became a really fitting metaphor for my body. At the same time, my grandmother had died, taking her language (Yiddish) with her. Which is to say that life happened, and art became a way to work out the deeper meanings and resonances of things that were happening to me, rather than the other way around.

LL: I know geographic location is important in your other collections, but in very different ways (I’m thinking of Ideal Cities, in particular). Can you talk about the importance of this specific place, and locality in general within Copia?

EM: While poems about Detroit are a big part of this book, when I started the poems in Copia, I was actually thinking a lot about what it meant to be from or of a place. I’m first-generation American. My mother was literally a refugee—a stateless person—as she was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, which is where my grandparents settled after they were liberated from Auschwitz. My father’s family escaped the Nazis in what was then Czechoslovakia by moving to Israel when it was still British Mandate Palestine. I grew up in very Jewish parts of New York, in Queens and Long Island, and my family and friends are mostly still in the tri-state area. But I’ve been living in rural Southwest Virginia since 2007, and trying to figure out how to bridge that dislocation became a central tenet of Copia. So a lot of the poems take place in and around the town I live in now, but some of the poems also go back to the Bronx of the 1950’s and 60’s (which is where my mother spent her later childhood), the Queens of my childhood, and Detroit. While Detroit is an actual place in these poems, it’s also a bigger part of the story of American desire and consumption. And I think that Detroit is a city that’s changed so much in a relatively short period of time, that even the people we spoke with when we were there acknowledged a feeling of dislocation inherent in the dissolution and renewal happening in various neighborhoods around the city.

KW: What was your process like when deciding on the organization of the collection, both throughout the book as a whole and within the separate threads of each section?

EM: Because I was working from series of photographs in many of these poems, some of them share titles (like “Niagara”). I was also really interested in what happens when you approach the same concept via wildly different content (as in “Terra Nullius” where I was trying to explore the idea of ‘no man’s land’). To organize the collection (and to order most of my books), I need wall space. I usually try to go to an artist’s colony (most recently, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts) where they have studios for writers that have giant bulletin boards on the walls. I’ll post all the poems I’m try to organize, and shift them around until I can see the connections between them (which can be both subtle and more overt). I also ask poet-friends to read the manuscript, as often they see connections in my work that aren’t obvious to me. In Copia, the first section is all about desire—often physical desire for a ‘you,’ or desire for objects. Section two deals with domesticity and violence, place and dislocation—desire for a home and homeland. There’s a word in Judaism—“galut”—that means exile; more specifically, it refers to the historical exile and dispersion of the Jews after the destruction of the First Temple in the 6th Century BCE (when Jews were uprooted from their homeland and subject to alien rule). What I was trying to get at, in section two, is not only the harshness/violence of the mountain landscape in rural Southwest Virginia (where I’ve lived for the past seven years), but also what it means to be people in exile, and be in a place that feels wholly alien and Christian, and detached from the Jewish areas in New York where I was raised. Section three has to do with infertility—desire for a child—and includes my documentary poems about Detroit, which function as a metaphor (all those abandoned buildings) for my body, for a hopeful sort of re-birth from the ashes. So desire ties the book together, but the subject material was disparate enough that the book needed sections.

LL: Aesthetically, this book is beautiful. I love when collections have off-beat shapes—and with Copia, this fat square is so necessary considering your fabulous long lines. I felt like it was almost selfish with space, while at other times luxurious in its usage of it, which is awesome considering the subject matter. Did you work closely with BOA with design?

EM: Thank you! It’s interesting—I did choose the cover art for the book (and the amazing book designer, Sandy Knight, made the art on the cover work in really creative ways), but I had no idea what size the book would be until it showed up in a box on my doorstep. I was so happy with the larger format of Copia. I knew when I was looking at the page proofs that none of my lines wrapped—which was something that had happened with all of my previous books—there were always two or three poems where the lines wrapped past the end of the page. But I didn’t know how good-looking the book would be until it arrived, or how big it was!

KW: Another thing I loved: the playlist. I’ve never seen a poet construct a Spotify playlist to parallel their collection before. Is this the music you just happened to be listening to while writing the collection, or songs you think pair well with specific poems within Copia? What gave you the idea to share this music with readers via Spotify?

EM: I actually got the idea from the blog “largehearted boy,” which has a section called “book notes” where authors create playlists for their books. Some of the music is stuff that I was listening to when I wrote the poems, or inspired the poems in some way. Other songs evoked the flavor (time/place) of some of the poems in various sections. I felt like the playlist was one other sensory way to help readers find their way into Copia.

KW: I’ve been thinking a lot about the crossover between poetry and creative nonfiction lately, and if the two genres should always be so black-and-white in their categorizations. In the reading guide you posted on your website, you list quite a few nonfiction books as background reading for Copia— personally, I was super-excited to see Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy on that list. You spent a lot of time in Detorit conducting research and interviewing local residents in order to write the poems in section III, correct? Have you ever thought about writing a CNF essay using some of that research? Or are there topics/ideas/images within the Detroit section that you think naturally come across better in poetry versus an essay?

EM: I actually did write a nonfiction essay to go with the Detroit pieces that doesn’t appear in my book, but you can find it online with the Detroit poems, at Virginia Quarterly Review. In this instance, I do think the poems allow me to use some of the language of people and place in different ways than the more factual essay does. But it was important for me that my process for the project was transparent and contextualized in some way, thus the essay.

KW: I know Copia is still hot off the presses, but is there anything we can expect to see from you in the near future? Any ongoing projects you’re cur- rently working on?

EM: I’m currently at work on a collection that’s tentatively titled Fragments from Holeymoleyland (and the title comes partially from my visual artist friend Kim Beck’s piece “Holeymoley Land”). I also borrowed much inspiration and a title and cover art from her for Ideal Cities. Anyway, my new collection has to do with various kinds of violence—and especially gun violence. I’m headed to Belfast, Northern Ireland, in December with my family for six months on a Fulbright Fellowship, where I’ll be teaching at Queen’s University Belfast, and also doing some research and interviews on the conflict in Northern Ireland as part of the project.

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Lucia LoTempio & Kathryn Waring

Documenting Desire: A Review of Erika Meitner’s Copia

41jTafyf1oL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)Erika Meitner’s latest collection of poems, Copia, is tied together with the common theme of desire. Although the collection is divided into three sections—which focus on our materialistic desires, the need for home, and an exploration of Detroit (which serves as an extended metaphor for infertility)—Meitner’s collection is surprisingly cohesive. Because Meitner relies on recurring images to explore both personal and cultural identity, reading her collection feels like reading a particularly enthralling story: there is a careful attention to narrative arc, character, and setting within the pages of Copia.

“Objects around us are not strangers/They are the ruins/in which we drown,” the speaker of the first poem in Meitner’s collection (“Litany of Our Radical Engagement with the Material World”) proclaims. Thus begins Meitner’s examination of our desire for the material. When Meitner visited Geneseo in October, she discussed her decision to write about the most un-poetic subject she could think of: Wal-Mart. The resulting poem, “Wal-Mart Supercenter,” showcases Meitner’s ability to take the banal—the trips to Wal-Mart people take everyday—and turn it into the poetic: the memorable. In this poem, Meitner grounds vignettes of parents trying to sell their children and women being carjacked with commentary on consumerism: “Which is to say that the world/we expect to see looks hewn from wood, is maybe two lanes wide,/has readily identifiable produce, and the one we’ve got has jackknifed itself/on the side of the interstate and keeps skidding.”

In a world where things are so present, so unyielding, it is complicated and devastating to lose the intangible, Meitner suggests. Throughout the collection, Meitner’s collective speakers seem to desire two things above all else: familial connection and a place to call home. When Meitner’s grandmother died, her family’s access to Yiddish did as well. In her exploration of her Jewish heritage in “Yiddishland,” she states in the opening lines, “The people who sang to their children in Yiddish and worked in Yiddish/and made love in Yiddish are nearly all gone. Phantasmic. Heym.” Here, Meitner’s connection to her family, and thus her familial history, is the disappearing intangible: as her speaker says in “Yizker Bukh,” “Memory is/flotsam (yes) just/below the surface/an eternal city/a heap of rubble…” Within her speakers’ struggle to maintain connections to their families and cultural heritage, another struggle arises: finding a place to call home. In this regard, geographic borders are a recurring theme within Meitner’s collection. “Everywhere is home for someone,” the speaker states in “Apologetics.” “We are placeless. We are placeful/but unrooted. We are boomburbs and copia. We are excavated/and hoisted. We are rubble. We are,” the speaker in “The Architecture of Memory” continues. From suburban Long Island to Niagara Falls to the rubble of Detroit, Meitner skillfully combines physical location with vivid, unexpected images and sounds to explore location and what it means to call a place home.

The title of Meitner’s collection, Copia, means ‘abundance,’ ‘fullness.’ But in the third part of the collection, we travel alongside Meitner to a place that is the opposite of ‘copia’—a place that is empty, in need of being re-filled and rebuilt: Detroit. Meitner’s decision to use Detroit as a metaphor for infertility and the desire to rebuild comes across loud and clear: “Inside me is a playground, is a factory,” the speaker of “Borderama” proclaims. “Inside me is a cipher of decay./[…]Inside me is America’s greatest manufacturing experience.” “Inside me is someone saying we will/rebuild this city,” the speaker seems to conclude. Meitner describes Detroit as a modern-day ghost town: in “And After the Ark,” the speaker describes a section of the city where artists have transformed the rubble of a largely-abandoned neighborhood into an open-air museum: “what was left behind was astounding:/dead trees wearing upside-down shopping carts on their hands/conference call phones, black and ringless, resting on a park bench.” Perhaps because of the poem’s setting in a neighborhood that creates art from the detritus so prevalent in Detroit, there is also a physicality, a sense of responsibility and call to action that arises within the poem (and the collection, as a whole): “And You Shall Say God Did It,” the speaker of “And After the Ark” continues, “but really it was racism/poverty/economics/inequality/violence.” How did we allow this happen, the speaker seems to be asking readers. How could we have prevented this?

The third section of Copia also presents a fascinating commentary on the blurred borders that exist between poetry and creative nonfiction: Meitner wrote the section of documentary poetry after traveling to Detroit with photojournalists Jesse Dukes and Kate Ringo to give voice to the people, the buildings, the graffiti through poetry. In “All That Blue Fire,” Meitner reconstructs, verbatim, an interview with a Detroit automobile factory worker: “they lay the motor down,/they put the heads on,/the spark plugs in.” In other poems from the section, her speakers become part of Detroit itself, as in “The Book of Dissolution,” in which the speaker is “a house waiting to fall in on/itself or burn.” On the whole, these poems feel honest, even hopeful about the future of Detroit. By traveling to Detroit to experience the city herself, Meitner, in some ways, transforms from a poet into a new journalist: responsible for reporting the facts, she delves into the personal—gives life to the city by documenting the lives of the people she meets and providing them with a space to tell their own stories. The investigative approach of Copia’s third section offers new possibilities for both Detroit as a city and poetry as a genre.

Meitner’s poems rarely provide concrete answers, but her sharp, evocative language invites readers into an important conversation on the hollowness of the American dream—the common desires that go unfulfilled everyday. Grounded in the objects that surround us, in the desire to have strong connections with family and heritage, in Detroit, Copia hooks readers into an important debate on the role of desire in everyday life, but also encourages us to enjoy the ride with its unexpected imagery and masterful use of sound and cadence. Meitner is skillful; she does not blame, but calls to action, “[b]ecause though this world is changing,/we will remain the same: abundant and/impossible to fill.”

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