Notes from Our Class with Erika Meitner

Here’s my interpretation of the question and answer session we had with Erika Meitner in class. I say interpretation, because my notes are definitely not exact, and I tried to capture the essence of what she said, instead of full quotes.

Q: How did Copia come to be a book?

A: Some of her poet friends had been working on project books focusing a particular subject, but her poems weren’t intended to fit together. In order to get a book together, she’d look at poems on the wall for connections, get friends to read and connect them, and look for particular obsessions to track what she’d put together. She ended up with a collection of poems about her Jewish Grandma, poems about Detroit, infertility, desire, documentary photos, etc, grouped in certain ways, but with common threads running through all. 

Q: How much do you revise once it’s done?

A: “Forever, too much.” Once it’s published she’ll keep revising. Doing readings helps her the way the poem wants to be read–she’ll make drastic overhauls based on sound. She said that when she was pregnant and couldn’t talk in sustained breaths, she had to re-lineate some poems to have shorter lines. Sometimes the body demand a different line length than the poem does. 

Q: Why is there so much anaphora?

A: A lot of the poems are liturgical, written during her preparation for her doctorate in religious anthropology. The reading must have worked its way in–“the Ghost of my doctoral work is in here.” Repetition allows you to give a different kind of rhyme to the poem, and allows you to tie diffuse things together in unexpected ways. She challenged us to try repetition in the ends of lines in our poem, like Gabrielle Calvocoressi with “and then I heard voices.” 

Q: How is publishing a book different from publishing in a journal?

A: Approval over things in books varies much between presses. In most books her lines wrapped, but in the latest one none did–they stayed true to the line lengths. She’s more lenient with most journal publications, because it’s “my work adapted to their vision,” whereas her book is her vision. She gave a shoutout to BOA press, the publishers of Copia, saying that they’re the best of both worlds because they have a paid staff, so they have room to do more for you, but they’re still open to the author’s ideas about how the book should be. Harper Collins, for instance, was different because they weren’t used to publishing poetry. A lot of presses today are doing weird sizes now in order to facilitate both the sale and production of poetry, as an odd book is more likely to be bought than one that blends in. 

Q: What’s with the repeating titles, like in the Niagara poems?

A: These poems are based a photo project by Alec Soth called “Niagara”, where he went to motels around Niagara Falls and took photos of couples and their stories. Giving different poems the same titles can have weird effects, that can add to or completely change a poem. She talked about how she enjoys borrowing titles from friends’ paintings, or writing off of those titles and works of art. She also uses repeating titles to explore concepts in different ways, like in the Terra Nullius poems which explore the idea of the word, meaning unwanted land that no country will claim. She gives an exercise to pick a word you’re obsessed with, and look up its meaning and etymology in the Oxford English Dictionary

Q: How did you construct the more prose-y poems? Are they playing with margins, or carefully constructed breaks?

A: All of the justified block poems in the book have intentional line breaks, except for the second Niagara poem, which gave the printer trouble and so resulted in her giving up on keeping those line breaks. The original poem had much more white space in the lines. She wanted the block poems to mimic the generic forms of big box stores, and other commercial aspects of American life. One Version of December is the only true prose poem. 

Q: How do you find your beginning and ending poems?

A: The opening poem should hit on more than one theme that will be touched upon in the rest of the book, and it should open the book up for you to enter. The ending poem needs to be less removed, a little more emotional, and have some kind of resonance. The advice she gives is that we should find out what’s important to us, and try to emphasize that in our works, in order to find out how to emphasize that with poem placement in a book. 

Q: Did you fill holes in the book once all the poems were collected?

A: She spent time taking things out and replacing old stuff with new and stronger stuff. Not writing specifically to add something that needed to be there, just replacing weaker stuff with stronger things that tied it together more. 

Q: Are the interviews from Detroit in the last third of the book verbatim?

A: Yes, she tried to get as close as possible to only having the interviewee’s voice on the page. She played us the audio of her interview with Al Brewer, which was indeed verbatim. The line breaks only emphasize his speech patterns. It’s important to her that all poems in others’ voices are verbatim, because when working across racial or economic lines, it’s important to add very little of yourself to other peoples’ stories. After showing us her photos of Detroit, which she used to capture scenes she wanted to describe, she said “basically I steal a lot of stuff,” to which Lytton replied something along the lines of “poetry has a responsibility to the world around us–stealing is bearing witness.” 


2 Replies to “Notes from Our Class with Erika Meitner”

  1. Good job recording that all. I’m glad I get a refresher because a lot of the things Erika said were very interesting and helpful. The note about BOA press is good to know for sure! I found it really interesting that Erika wrote a lot of poems and then figured out how they fit together. It is interesting to think about how the mind works and creates things that are somehow related, and can all be linked together- like the common threads Erika spoke about including her grandmother and such. This notion of creating poems and then seeing how they fit together also gives me some hope because I am such a bad planner and if I ever wrote anything I would have to do it her style, instead of coming up with an overarching theme and trying to create poems that fit it. Erika’s way also feels more organic and funner, generally.

  2. Awesome, Evan! You might even want to email her and get her approval of the recorded conversation, edit it so that it’s in the format of an interview and then send it in to some journals? Just a thought. First hand research like that is always really interesting and valuable.

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