Erika Meitner
August 2008

 

Erika MeitnerErika Meitner was born in 1975 in Queens, New York.  She attended Dartmouth College (for a B.A. in Creative Writing in 1996), Hebrew University on a Reynolds Fellowship, and the University of Virginia, where she received her M.F.A. in 2001 as a Henry Hoyns Fellow.  In 2001-2 she was the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and has received additional fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Blue Mountain Center, and the Sewanee Writers' Conference.

Her poems have appeared in publications including The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, The Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, APR, and on Slate.com.  Her first book, Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore, won the 2002 Anhinga Prize for Poetry, and was published in 2003 by Anhinga Press.  It was also a finalist for the 2004 Paterson Poetry Prize.

Meitner is a first-generation American:  her father is from Haifa, Israel; her mother was born in Stuttgart, Germany, which is where her maternal grandparents settled after surviving Auschwitz, Ravensbruck, and Mauthausen concentration camps. 

In addition to teaching creative writing at UVA, UW-Madison, and the University of California-Santa Cruz, she has worked as a dating columnist, an office temp, a Hebrew school instructor, a computer programmer, a lifeguard, a documentary film production assistant, and a middle school teacher in the New York City public school system.  She is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she teaches in the graduate creative writing program, and is also simultaneously completing her doctorate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, where she was the Morgenstern Fellow in Jewish Studies.



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We buried my beloved 95-year-old grandmother on Mother’s Day of this year.  When I say we buried her, I am not being poetic.  In the Jewish tradition, each person who accompanies the casket to the cemetery picks up the shovel, turns it upside down to show their reluctance in burying their loved one, and uses the back of the shovel to toss dirt on the coffin.  The earth I shoveled into the hole was a deep red-brown and tangled with rocks.  Each shovelful that hit the wooden box made a hollow thud that I still don’t have exactly the right language to describe. 

For me, poetry is, on one hand the struggle to tell the truth and get it right—“Pray for the grace of accuracy,” writes Robert Lowell, in “Epilogue,” the final poem in his last book.   In his review of Lowell’s Collected Poems in The Washington Post, Sunil Iyengar calls Lowell “a documentary poet, since everything he writes has the aura of authenticity, an insistence on a public dimension.”  Perhaps because my first grown-up job in college was working for a documentary film production company, I spend inordinate amounts of time agonizing over how to nail down an image, emotion, or story so that it becomes authentic, and feels “real”—so that whoever picks up the poem might inhabit it in their bones.

Judaism too is obsessed with the question of authenticity:   who is a real Jew, an authentic Jew?  My grandmother had all the markings of Jewish authenticity—she was born in Poland, spoke Yiddish fluently and kept her thick Yiddish accent despite more than 50 years in the US; she survived Auschwitz, the most brutal of Hitler’s death camps, and had the numbers on her arm to prove it; she made her gefilte fish from scratch, out of carp that had been swimming in the bathtub; she was buried in her good sheitel (wig).  But where does that leave me now that she’s gone?  In his book Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier reflects on the Galitzianer accents of the old country—the accent my grandmother had— “I cannot imagine Jewish life without the music of these accents,” he writes.  “But soon they will be gone. Soon we will be entirely on our own. Then we will see.”  Poetry, for me, is a way to conjure my neighborhoods, my experiences, my family, so that I am not alone—so that my son can hear the cadence of my grandmother’s voice on the page and the way her w’s sounded like v’s.  This is the personal.

This other part of Lowell, though—the insistence on the “public dimension” is something that I take very seriously, though I turn to Mark Doty for the way he gives voice to the voiceless.  In his book My Alexandria in particular, he lets the homeless and the dying into his poems to speak, and when we hear their voices, they’re beautifully rendered in jewel tones; they’re lifted up and honored. I always think of myself as a poet of human geography.  My friend Thorpe Moeckel writes beautiful nature poems.  He can name hundreds of different kinds of flowers.  I can tell you about how the glassphalt glitters at night on the nicer streets of Manhattan, and the fastest way to get from Jay Street to West 4th during off-peak subway hours, though as a New York exile in Appalachia, I have to be contented with writing my way back there.  New York exists for me now mostly in my imagination, so I’ve been working on poems about my adopted geography:  interstates, mountains, strip-malls, 7-11’s.

But back to the question of authenticity—oftentimes in poetry, I run into the tension between what’s happened, and the best way to evoke what’s happened.  Jack Gilbert addresses this in his poem “Poetry Is A Kind Of Lying”: “Degas said he didn’t paint/ what he saw, but what/ would enable them to see/ the thing he had.”  As poets, we collapse time, tweak events, take on personas.  Unlike memoirists, we have no formal contract with the reader when it comes to truth.  As we were attempting to do admissions for our new class of incoming MFA students, my colleague at Virginia Tech, Fred D’Aguiar, kept insisting he was looking for writing that felt urgent.  And that, I believe, is important for me as a poet—that my work will strive for some kind of emotional imperative.  The poems that I love to read feel dire and edgy and hopped up on something crucial.  They also have a necessary syntactical energy, and an inner music.

For me, poetry is also, on a most fundamental level, the struggle to speak at all.  For years when I was a child, my grandmother told me that the numbers on her arm were her phone number, tattooed there so she wouldn’t forget it.  It wasn’t until I was eight or nine, and found books in the Queens Public Library—The Diary of Anne Frank, a biography of Simon Wiesenthal, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit—that I started to get an inkling of what she and my grandfather had been through.  There was a deep silence around our family history and all the stories that my grandmother refused to tell us; when she was 85, people started to come around asking for them.  First the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies sent a woman with a video camera to collect her experiences; next came the Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation.  How did you survive? They wanted to know, and my grandmother would answer, showers and soup.  She worked in a munitions factory, would trek there each night from Auschwitz for the graveyard shift where she would work alongside civilians.  The guards gave her group of prisoners a shower every day, and a little extra soup with some potato in it.  Which brings me back to the shovel, the dirt—showers and soup.  I write about the mundane, the everyday, the detritus:  crushed sprite bottles, highway overpasses, the chatter on the crosstown bus.  The stories are all around us waiting to be sung.

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