For this edition of 5 or so questions, 9L staffer Sara Gelston spoke with poet Erika Meitner about the process of writing poetry and about her poem "Terra Nullius," which appears in vol. 7, no. 1. Without further ado, here is part 1 of Sara's interview with Erika Meitner.
9L: In your poem "Terra Nullius," you address both the body and the landscape as things "looted" and "busted.” Of course, this echoes the poem's title, which quite literally means "no man's land” or an area with a questionable, disputed border. I find this a fascinating way to frame a poem about a relationship and wonder how this connection came to you?
Erika Meitner: I think this poem came out of a few different strands of thought that all collided at the same time. I had been reading Terrance Hayes’ book Wind in a Box, which I love for many reasons, but the aspect of it that stayed with me over my last read of it was this idea that he has multiple poems called “Wind in a Box.” When I first started writing poetry one of my teachers (maybe Greg Orr?) had told us that when you repeat a word, it seems like a mistake, but if you use it three or four times, it becomes intentional—incantatory repetition. Over the last three years or so of writing poems, I find that I want to hash out phrases, ideas, images in multiple poems. I’ll re-use whole lines in two different poems just to see how they can be recontextualized without being reconfigured. It’s not quite the structured or intentional repetition in something like a crown of sonnets, but something messier. I was, in my writing process, giving myself permission to be redundant, and to follow ideas and lines that I was enamored of—to beat them to death and recycle them.
In the case of terra nullius (as a phrase), I was working on a longer poem that had an image in it of a woman I had seen in a liquor store in Ohio. She had a fuzzy tattoo in this area of her leg that was a non-area—it wasn’t her ankle and it wasn’t her calf—it was in this no man’s land of her leg. But “no man’s land” is clunky. So I started looking up alternate phrases, and found terra nullius—this idea of a no man’s land between countries that are at war in some way. I ended up calling that poem “Terra Nullius,” but then decided that I wasn’t done with the idea. I wanted to chew it over more in another poem.
When I wrote this poem, I had been thinking about a personal memory from a long time ago. I was living in Jerusalem the year after I had graduated college. I was 21 and on a graduate scholarship to Hebrew University, and I had fallen in lust with another graduate student. We weren’t really in a relationship—it was one of those strange flings where we spent the night together and the thing that stayed with me most was the image that made its way into the poem—of us sitting on the screened-in porch of his rental. It was hot—August maybe—and we were in our underwear, smoking, and neither of us wanted to commit to sleep even. This was in Jerusalem, and he lived on a street named after a dead rabbi in a part of town that was totally unfamiliar to me, made of golden stone and shouting children and heavy red and white Egged buses running up and down the road.
And I was thinking about how our bodies belonged to each other that night, but also didn’t—how, for a brief moment, while we were pressed together, we were terra nullius—something liminal. This poem is about broken-ness, but also about liminal space and time. I first stumbled on that word, liminal, when I started my doctorate in Religious Studies. After three years of coursework, I must have read the same two pieces written in the late 60’s by anthropologist Victor Turner on the idea 8 or 9 times (“Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage,” and “Liminality and Communitas”). Turner defines the liminal as a middle, transitional stage of a rite of passage. Liminal individuals are “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony” (from “Liminality and Communitas”).
The couple in this poem are not in Jerusalem—they’re in the rust belt somewhere near the highway. And isn’t the rustbelt—the entire Midwest, for that matter—in some way a liminal space? While I was writing this, I was also looking at Alec Soth’s series of photos called “Niagara,” which documents seedy motels and bars and honeymoon suites in Niagara Falls, as well as all these couples who have just gotten married there. And the people in his photographs—some of them are so young, but have lived so hard. I’ve also been working, for a long time, under the influence of The Song of Songs (I’m particularly fond of the translation done by Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch). In the biblical text, a woman’s body is literally a city—especially in verse 8:10: “I am a wall and my breasts are towers. But for my lover I am a city of peace.” This idea of body as place, and the way our geography is reflected in our bodies somehow—that feels really right to me.
9L: Let’s talk about messy repetition vs. beating lines to death. A healthy dose of obsession seems integral to the process of writing poetry, but it also makes it difficult to know when to put an idea to bed. How do you know when it’s time to let go? Are poets even designed with the ability to “let go” or are we destined to dwell?
EM: In the first year of my MFA program at UVA—I think it was in the spring of 2000—I was in a workshop with Charles Wright, and I went to him for our requisite semester conference, and I started telling him how concerned I was about the fact that I couldn’t stop writing poems about sex and bad relationships. And I’m very badly paraphrasing here, but he told me to keep writing if the subject still felt compelling to me; he claimed that by the time I went through all the poems when they were finished, I’d probably end up with about 4 or 5 worth keeping, that would survive the test of time.
And in some ways, Charles was right. When I’m on to a broader idea that manifests in particular ways, through specific obsessions, I usually get about 4 or 5 good poems out of it. But those broader ideas are what I can’t seem to stop chewing on, or pulling apart, or hashing and rehashing. I don’t know that I’ll ever stop being intrigued by what it means to move through the world in a corporeal way as a woman—the pleasures and dangers associated with that bodily experience. In my first book, I explored this by writing about sex. In my book Ideal Cities, that’s due out in August, I approached these ideas via the experience of pregnancy and childbirth—how women’s bodies are inscribed and marked, but in a different way. Right now I’m really obsessed with geography and consumerism, and the confluence of those two topics. It’s manifested in my current obsessions—writing poems about Walmart, and the rust belt. I think I won’t be done with geography or consumerism any time soon, but I do think that there are only so many good poems I can find at the Walmart. I’ve been hanging out there and writing. The best thing that I’ve discovered is that on Saturdays there’s a panel truck from one of the local tattoo parlors that parks in the Walmart lot and does some good business. Aren’t tattoos about dwelling too? Or do we write things down so we’re free to forget them? Like our shopping lists? Like our poems?
There are definitely topics that trail after me like tin cans dragging behind a wedding car in a movie, or toilet paper stuck to the bottom of a shoe. In every manuscript I work on, there’s always one or two adolescent girl/sex/coming-of-age poems that deal with that hyperkinetic time when we were all jacked up on hormones. Every time I think I’m done with adolescence it comes back in some manifestation. Based on my extensive journal collections that date back to the mid-80’s, my propensity for keeping things like scraps of diner receipts and single earrings, I would say that I fall squarely into the “dwelling” camp, but hopefully I don’t veer too far into the “beating a dead horse” category of poets.
Vol. 7, no. 1, featuring "Terra Nullius," is available in our webstore.
Stop by the blog tomorrow for part 2!