Here is the third and final part of Sara Gelston's interview with Erika Meitner.
9L: I really like what Denise Duhamel has to say about your second book, Ideal Cities, which comes out this month. She calls your poems “road maps, blueprints, dollhouses, dioramas...” which seems so right, considering your knack for crafting these well-constructed, contained scenes. So the question: how has your experience constructing Ideal Cities differed from that of your first book, Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore? What advice do you have when it comes to building a book?
EM: I’m glad you like my scenes! Ideal Cities was a strange book for me. I don’t remember actively writing a lot of it, as the largest chunk of it was written between 11pm and 3am while I was waiting for my son (who was an infant at the time) to wake up for his nighttime feeding. Compared to my other manuscripts, this one came together relatively quickly—in about three years. Because of that, it almost feels like it fell from the sky.
Ideal Cities is actually the third complete manuscript I’ve written, but it’s coming out as my second book. The manuscript I wrote in between Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore and Ideal Cities is called Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (and it will be out from Anhinga Press in February 2011), and while it will technically be my third book, in my head Makeshift is still my second book, and it took me nearly seven years to finish. I started it right after I finished my MFA in 2001, and worked on it until early 2007, writing, rewriting, and reordering the collection, because it was a finalist or semi-finalist at 11 presses over the five years that I sent it out. Ideal Cities was taken almost immediately for publication, right about when I was starting to lose hope about ever getting another book published. I think that’s one of the hardest things about this business, this process of publishing a book-length collection of poetry—that, really, even after some success, we end up back in the contest grind, sending out these manuscripts again. I feel unbelievably lucky—like New York State Lotto lucky—that I won the National Poetry Series for Ideal Cities, and that Anhinga agreed to put out Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls.
But enough with po-biz, and back to process: I’m not one of those poets who starts out with a project in mind when I start working on a manuscript. I tend to write about what feels most emotionally and intellectually vivid and pressing to me. Once I have a substantial selection of poems, I’ll go through them and try to figure out how they fit together. I knew that this book would be about motherhood to some degree. How could it not be? It also contains quite a few poems about my beloved grandmother, who passed away while I was writing the book. But I was surprised by how much it was also about geography. I had done a rough cut assembly of the book, and then I sent it off to my poet-friend Sandra Beasley, and she told me the collection was about how place shapes relationships, and how relationships shape place, and that made so much sense to me though I wasn’t able to see that without her help. I had started writing the book in Southeast DC—my husband and I were living there through my pregnancy and my son’s birth—and parts of Southeast are kind of rough (drug violence, gang violence, poverty, etc.). That particular landscape colored much of this book, as did the exurban rural landscape of Southwest Virginia, which was where we moved midway through my work on those poems, to take jobs teaching at Virginia Tech. We went, quite suddenly, from junkies and robberies and endlessly fascinating street scenes to Walmart and tract housing and cows. I think that dramatic shifting of place really led directly to the “road maps, blueprints, dollhouses, dioramas” aspects of the collection: these are all contained or controlled ways of dealing with place—ways to find, plot out, wrangle, or reproduce aspects of home and memory and landscape. In that way, Denise (Duhamel) was very right about Ideal Cities.
I also wrote the majority of Ideal Cities by participating in a loose virtual writing group that I still belong to. We meet two or three times a year online, pick a condensed amount of time (anywhere from a week to a month), write a poem a day, and post it to a closed site so we can read each other’s work (we’ve used a password-protected blog, a secure wiki, and now we use a google group to do this). The initial idea of this kind of writing came from the poet Maureen Thorson, who started NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) back in 2003. The idea was to write a poem a day during the month of April, which also happens to be National Poetry Month. We’ve adapted it to our needs by shifting it around—usually to winter and summer breaks, since most of us teach. Also, sometimes we give each other writing prompts to jumpstart our writing. The nice thing about it is that we don’t comment on each other’s work at all, but we’re accountable to each other. It’s like the best kind of positive peer pressure. And we get to see one another’s work in process, which is unusual for poets who are no longer students.
But to some extent, all of my books involved input from friends, and I think most of us poets are like this. We write them alone, but the assemblage is a group process. My friend Taije Silverman is still one of my best readers—I can send her a stack of poems, and she’ll edit the hell out of them on a line-level and ask all the hard questions about their purpose and intentions. My friends Sandra Beasley, Aimee Nezukumathatil, and Oliver de la Paz all looked at this manuscript for me, as did my friend from college, David Stack, and both Oliver and David recommended ditching the linear (time-wise) narrative of the book so that different themes would pop more due to unexpected poem juxtapositions. Since I teach in the MFA program at Virginia Tech, I’m constantly helping my graduate students build their books. There are some great articles out there on this process of assemblage; I particularly love Katrina Vandenberg’s “Putting Your Poetry in Order: The Mix-Tape Strategy” from Poets & Writers. Natasha Saje’s article “Dynamic Design: The Structure of Books of Poems" (from a 2005 issue of The Iowa Review) is also really helpful. And a classic must-read for anyone trying to assemble a first book is Beth Ann Fennelly’s article from The Writers’ Chronicle called “The Winnowing of Wildness: On First Book Contests and Style;” I also recommend Alberto Rios’s web resource page, “Turning a Manuscript into a First Book,” which lists nearly every possible organizing strategy in existence for a book of poems.
Many thanks to Sara Gelston and Erika Meitner for such a wonderful interview. Remember, Erika Meitner's "Terra Nullis" can be found in the current issue of Ninth Letter (vol. 7, no. 1). Erika's new book, Ideal Cities is available August 17.
Have a great weekend!