Wednesday, August 04, 2010

5 or so questions with Erika Meitner, part 2

Welcome to the new and improved look of the 9L blog! Feel free to take a look around. But before doing that, I highly recommend reading part 2 of Sara Gelston's interview with Erika Meitner.

9L: You’ve been on a road trip for much of this interview. How does the changing landscape affect your writing process? Can you write a Walmart, rust belt poem in New Hampshire? What books or music do you bring along for the ride?

EM: Writing on the road is really difficult for me. Usually all I get out of the process of exploring different places and landscapes are some really cryptic notes I scribble down, and quickie snapshots from my camera phone of particular images that strike me. I was recently chatting with the poet John Casteen about how we use the technology we have at hand to help us write poems. He’s been using the voice recorder on his phone to write poems while he drives. I’ve been using my camera phone to save images—a particular red barn, the way the light hits a building from the window of the B train, etc.

I’ve been on the road, too, these last few weeks as we’ve been chatting online, with my husband and my three-year-old son, which means that any time I’m not in the car (and even when I am in the car) I’m handing out snacks, arranging amusements, asking him if he has to go to the potty, wielding hand sanitizer, and generally being pulled in nine directions at once. Traveling with a toddler is a lot like being a personal assistant to a very cranky celebrity.

Here’s what I’ve scrawled down in the last day in my very tiny red notebook:
“Why you need Jesus? You have a past. You need a friend.” (This was the white board message outside a church somewhere in rural Virginia that we passed, on our way out the 460 West towards OH.)

“Shadyfest Bar – army/navy sign – next to brown and white field stubble” (This was a bar that we pass every time we drive to see my in-laws in Oberlin, OH—the bar is literally in the middle of a field, and has this chalk sign out front that says “army/navy.” I would love to have one beer in that bar. I would also be terrified to have one beer in that bar.)

“LeBron?” (This was the sign outside a pizza parlor somewhere else in rural Northeast Ohio. I’m finding the whole ‘will LeBron stay in Cleveland?’ question really poignant right now for some reason. I think there’s a poem in there. Right after I saw this sign, an Amish family drove past us in a buggy. The mother was in the middle of putting on a grey cape, and the way she swung it around her shoulders as the buggy swished past us made her look like a utilitarian superhero.)

Today we went to see my husband’s 96-year-old grandmother in Cleveland Heights. We stopped at the art museum for a half-hour so I could look at Andrew Borowiec’s pictures of the Cleveland Flats—these beautiful blown out black and white photos of industrial spaces and machinery, and backyards. I wanted to sit down and absorb them a little, maybe take a few notes, but my son kept pulling me to look at the Claes Oldenberg sculpture of a giant tube of toothpaste in the next room. I do remember a few of the photos clearly—one of a chain-link fence punctuated with white hanging baskets of flowers, another of mismatched chairs arranged on a roof-deck sandwiched between two freeways. My father-in-law was telling me all about what some of the buildings in the photos used to be like in Cleveland’s brighter days—like Terminal Tower, which used to be the grand train station in the city. Then we went to the Science Museum to see an Imax film about the deep sea, because my son is currently obsessed with both jellyfish and stingrays. On the way back to my in-laws’ house, while my son drooled on my shoulder in the backseat, my father-in-law took us past some of the giant shuttered steel mills in Lorain, which seemed to go on for miles—rusted out piping and smokestacks and bridges. When we got back to the house, my mother-in-law and I went to Walmart to find me a bathing suit, since I left mine at home and we’re headed to the beach tomorrow. We navigated around two women on rascal scooters parked at the racks and I bought literally the only suit that was left that wasn’t a Fourth of July themed bikini or a 2x sized swimsuit with a skirt. If there is a poem in this day, I won’t be able to get at it until we get home. I’ll collect the images, the mini-narratives, the experiences, but I won’t be able to make them into anything while we’re in motion.

When we’re on the road, we listen to a lot of NPR in the car. When we lose radio reception, which happens often, we’ve been listening to a lot of Gogol Bordello, some Kings of Leon and Drive-By Truckers (because my son loves both bands). When things get desperate (which happens often if you keep a three-year-old in a car for more than five hours), we’re forced to listen to my son’s favorite songs to placate him: Yellow Submarine by the Beatles, Rocketship Run by Laurie Berkner, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard by Paul Simon. Sometimes even this doesn’t work, and we’ve run out of good snacks, so we just listen to my son yowl at us. And then we join in.

9L: Let’s say one day you actually stop in for that beer at the Shadyfest Bar. You saddle up next to some grizzly character and he asks you ‘what you do.’ What’s your answer?

EM: This past week I was on a tour of the Ford Rouge factory—specifically of the part of the plant where they assemble F150 trucks. I was taking notes, because I have a terrible time remembering nomenclature, and I’m working on a poetry project about Detroit. Every last one of the factory tour guides stopped me to ask why I was taking notes. I told the first one I was a writer. He looked sort of suspicious about that. The second guide, a woman, asked me the same question, and when I told her I was a poet, I got a slightly warmer reception. Writers are dangerous somehow, but poets are harmless, apparently, when it comes to proprietary auto plant factory settings. I used the poet answer on the third guide, also a woman, and she told me she was a poet too—and used to work in an auto plant. We had a great conversation about poetry on a catwalk somewhere above the Door Build Line, with all these half-finished truck-doors hanging on big orange clamshell lifts around us. She said she had never thought of writing an auto plant poem. I told her she should definitely write auto plant poems.

What I tell people I am varies from situation to situation. I’m the mother of a toddler. I’m an assistant professor in the English department at Virginia Tech. I’m still a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. I’ve worked as a lifeguard, a public school teacher in Brooklyn, a production assistant for a documentary film company, a Hebrew school teacher, a systems consultant, and a computer programmer. In terms of Mr. Grizzly at the Shadyfest Bar, I’d probably tell him I’m a teacher, as that’s my job—that’s what most people want to know when they say, ‘What do you do?’

I find that if I tell people I’m a poet in non-writerly contexts, they assume that poetry is my hobby or an aspiration—sort of like when you have a waiter who says he’s really an actor. And even though I’ve had stuff published, it’s not like I could remotely make a living from my poetry if I didn’t teach. And I do feel really called to teach—it’s not something that I do because I have to. Teaching is something I absolutely love to do.

Check out Erika Meitner's "Terra Nullius," in the current issue of Ninth Letter (vol. 7, no. 1).

The final part of the interview will be posted on Friday.

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