Instructions for Vigilant Girls
Be the sleeping sister who sees no one.
Stay tucked in. Later, hand over
a list of suspects: the handyman,
the bachelor neighbor, the uncle
who was never really your uncle.
When there are conversations,
take notes in your secret diary:
She said she saw him look at things.
Wear the key in your hair. No one
will search there. Speak on behalf
of the soon-to-be-missing, but if they play
in the woods near your home, do not
trail them to an encounter with the man
in the conversion van who gently insists
you hunt for his puppy and means you
no harm through his pleated pockets filled
with stars and balloons, real pieces
of the moon. Resist. Try not to lick anything.
Bring your gum eraser and be invisible
as a grackle to the well-trained watcher
who follows your movements
but never reports them until
you are found veiled in a strip mall basement,
throat unfurling with threats and questions.
North Slope Borough
My heart is an Alaskan fishing village during whaling season,
which is to say that everyone is down by the thawing sea.
The huts on stilts are empty, and my heart is a harpoon,
a home-made velveteen parka, hood lined with wolverine.
My mouth has no zipper, which helps me remember
how to say O. O I miss home. When I close my eyes,
I see the F train's twin headlights blooming into the station.
When I close my eyes, its warm wind sweeps hair from my face,
the way my grandmother did with her hands, to see my eyes.
Home is the place with plastic slipcovers on the couch.
Home is the place with heavy brown shoes misaligned at the door.
When I close my eyes, I look for an entryway into the earth.
I dream of a porcupine, though I can't recall if I've ever seen one.
I dream of my dead friend, who has no voice, but tells me to slow down.
We walk together to the neighborhood bar. It is summer. It is night.
I have no choice. In my dream, my dead friend gives me a fish.
I roll it up like a newspaper. I put a toothpick in it and we walk slowly to Brooklyn.
My words don't mean anything, because right now my son is coughing
in another room. I can hear him through the walls. He sits up
in his crib and waits for me. The world is a hollow white door;
when I close my eyes, it spins like a dime on tile. It spins
like something gentle knocked off a table. One day, my heart
will ascend from the subway tunnel. It will burst into daylight
past the Court Street Station. My heart is a chainsaw, an awl
boring through leather. My heart is old-school graffiti-a tag
that zigs on metal, gets applause when it pulls into the station-
it's that uplifting. Some days the world is too lonely. My heart
wants to play chess with another heart inside my body.
North Country Canzone
Here in the Adirondacks the last saffron and orange leaves
shade everything in a strange golden light. My mother
writes be careful of ticks-to her, any form of nature leaves
open the possibility for disease and alarm-but these leaves
are an innocuous visitation, relics lashed to boughs gone
nearly bare. Two weeks ago I packed the car and left
DC the way an explorer in a booby-trapped cave flees
when he hears a specific crack or rolling pebble. The deer
are docile and unflappable here, flicking up their snowy deer
tails when they bend their necks to eat around fallen leaves.
Snowy is a cliché adjective, I know, but I'm pregnant,
the fuzziness and memory-lapse a side effect of this baby,
along with the loose joints and breathlessness of pregnancy.
Even the slowest stroll to the old airplane hangar leaves
me winded. My lungs have less room, claims The Pregnancy
Book, to expand, so my body is protesting the baby
by gasping. Aren't all our bodies protesting? My grandmother
turned ninety-four this week, and her left leg is pregnant
with a clot, blocking the circulation. She said that if the baby
kicks in the fourth month, it will be a boy. Her leg will be gone
by next week, amputated. When all the color is gone,
how will it look here? I sit quietly, but I can't feel the baby
moving yet. Without the sun, the leaves are as brown as the deer;
soon the trees will be completely bare. I write a letter that starts, Dear
husband, and never send it: last night I dreamed of white-tailed deer,
and a trail of blood. I was a failed truck-stop waitress; you left me pregnant
with untranslatable emotion. My grandmother's terms of endearment
for me when she calls are mein shayna maidel or bubbeleh. The deer
here have coyach, the Yiddish word for strength; when they leave
the woods hurriedly, the ground quakes with their heavy deer
bounding, which seems incongruous with their gracefulness. Dear
missing left leg. Dear future child. Your great-grandmother
insisted on the phone that if I looked big at four months, I'd be mother
to a boy. She was high and slurred on hospital oxycontin. The dear
price of outliving everyone, her silent litany of what's gone
too long to mention, only recited when she weeps over candles on
Shabbos with her eyes covered. I have two hearts, and the second one
beats faster. My anxious dreams. Dr. Sears explains REM, hormones, says hear
your dreams-really listen and rewrite them with a happy ending. On
my daily walk here I'm often struck with irrational panic-a fear that I've gone
too far, won't have the coyach to come back. My mother says this pregnancy
gives Baba strength. I traveled to the Adirondacks via Aunt Mary's in Livingston
to see my grandmother before her operation. Aunt Mary drives us in her Lincoln
to Daughter's of Israel while Mandy Patinkin croons Hey, Tsigelekh. Wet leaves
carpet the Jersey roads in rust; tent-like sukkahs adorned with fruit and leaves
and lights grace each Jewish yard of West Orange. They'll be gone
in a week. They have a sukkah at the rehab center, but my grandmother
refuses to take meals there, says the harvest festival is only for men. My grandmother
is stubborn. She insists on eating in the dining room with her other
table-ladies even though we offer to take her out. Her coyach is gone,
she says. The pink and beige room seems filled with every Jewish grandmother
in the tri-state area. Baba immediately sends her diabetic macaroni back; another
grandmother taps me on the shoulder and hands me an album of her dear
grandchildren (three in Canada-I never get to see them). My grandmother
has successfully negotiated for waffles instead of herring. Each grandmother
dutifully wears a long white napkin that slips over the head, like a baby's
bib. The ladies at the table that can still hear ask me about my pregnancy.
We try to get Baba to eat more, so Aunt Mary tells a long story about my mother
and the hot summer waffles on the boardwalk in far Rockaway before we leave
Baba to go for dinner. Here, the oaks and beech cling willfully to their last leaves.
O mother of leaves
and sweetness, my grandmother
is not nearly gone.
She is rising like a deer
from the meadow. She is dancing with a baby
in her arms.
-from Makeshift Instructions for VIGILANT GIRLS
BIO: Erika Meitner was born and raised in Queens and Long Island, New York. She attended Dartmouth College (for an A.B. in Creative Writing in 1996), Hebrew University on a Reynolds Scholarship, and the University of Virginia, where she received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing in 2001 as a Henry Hoyns Fellow, and her M.A. in Religious Studies in 2013 as a Morgenstern Fellow in Jewish Studies.
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 (2002, 2004, 2005, 2008-2013), the Blue Mountain Center (2006), and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (John N. Wall Fellowship, 2003). Her poems have appeared in publications including The Southern Review, Slate, Prairie Schooner, The Kenyon Review, Tin House, The New Republic, Ploughshares, and APR.
Her first book, Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore, won the 2002 Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry, and was published in 2003 by Anhinga Press. Her second book, Ideal Cities, was selected by Paul Guest as a winner of the 2009 National Poetry Series competition, and was published in 2010 by HarperCollins. Her third collection, Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls, was published by Anhinga Press in 2011. Her newest collection of poems, Copia, is due out from BOA Editions in 2014.
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 UC-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.
Meitner is currently an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she teaches in the MFA program, and is also the associate faculty principal of Hawthorn House (one of the residential colleges at Virginia Tech).
An Interview with Erika Meitner by Steve Davenport and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Steve Davenport & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Things don't go well in "Instructions for Vigilant Girls." Would you talk about how you maintain the poem's balancing act between play and danger as it moves from feigned sleep to, perhaps, the long sleep?
Erika Meitner: I wrote "Instructions for Vigilant Girls" during the summer of 2002, when many missing girls were in the news, including Elizabeth Smart, Erica Pratt, Danielle Van Dam, and Samantha Runion. I've always written about adolescent girlhood, and that summer, in particular, I was thinking a lot about how dangerous it can be to move through the world in the body of a girl. I was reading an article on the Elizabeth Smart abduction, and one of the things that struck me was the fact that Elizabeth's 9-year-old sister was in the room pretending to be asleep when Elizabeth was abducted, and watched and heard the entire event from her bed. The contrast of the advice that we're given as kids on how to avoid being taken (some of which is totally weird or absurd), and the fact that none of this advice applied to Elizabeth Smart's situation was one of the tensions driving me to write "Instructions for Vigilant Girls." I do think that feeling-of being on the cusp of play and danger, or rather, pleasure and danger-is something that defines adolescence for me on the whole.
But when the "you" in the poem is found in the end, like Smart, she's alive (and kicking), rather than dead, as in your reading of the poem.
SD & AMK: "Instructions" reads like, well, a list of instructions. I'm not sure what the term is, but the "directive" poem (a poem that tells the reader what to do) has a healthy history in contemporary poetry. Why do you think that is?
EM:I definitely think in the last ten years, the imperative has gotten more popular in poems as the first-person "I" confessional (or even any first-person speaker) has fallen out of style. It was important to me that the poems in Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls highlight both the pleasures and implicit dangers of adolescent girlhood. To that end, I think adolescent girls are our bellwethers, our firecrackers, our harbingers-our most endangered and dangerous resource-and perhaps the most instructed and lectured members of our society. They're always being told what to wear, how to act, what to eat, how to be in and move through the world. In that way, I felt that having a few different sets of ‘instructional' poems brought some lived experience into the manuscript via diction and syntax. But with an ‘instructional' poem you're also simultaneously instructing (or commanding?) the reader, so that relationship-between the poem/poet and the reader becomes more active and demanding.
SD & AMK: "North Slope Borough" moves interestingly through definitional claims about the speaker's heart (= village, harpoon, parka, hood, chainsaw, awl, graffiti) and home (= place with slip-covered couch, place with shoes at the door, both fairly mundane) that give way to a dream journey that includes a dead friend, an infant son, and the loneliness of one body seeking union. Is "North Slope Borough" one of the "road maps" Denise Duhamel references in her blurb for the book? If so, what is the journey seeking and at what cost?
EM: I don't know if "North Slope Borough" is a road map, but it's definitely a journey poem. One of the things that had so fascinated me about being pregnant was the idea that at one time, I had two hearts inside my body. I used that idea as a jumping off point. But the other big inspiration for the poem was a course I took in graduate school on "Shamanism and Healing" with Edie Turner, who's a pretty famous anthropologist. She's lived with, among other people, the Inupiat in the North Slope Borough of Alaska, and has used a participant-observer model to discover the different ways in which people heal themselves and others. When I studied with her, one of the things she required us to do was go on a Shamanic journey. She turned off all the lights and had us lie on the floor of the classroom while she drummed, and we were meant to find a way in to the spirit world below to retrieve our ‘spirit animals.' When I describe it, it all sounds much trippier and weirder than it was, but when I did my journey, the only way I could figure out to get myself below ground was via the subway (which is perhaps a vestige of my Queens upbringing), and it turned out (to my surprise) the spirit animal I found and retrieved was a porcupine. Anyway, when I wrote that poem, I was reading Edie's book, The Hands Feel It, about her time with the Inupiat, and thinking about that journey and also this recurring dream I had been having about my friend Chris (who's dead) and my grandmother (who had also died), and all of these things found their way into the poem.
Anyway, to answer your question more directly, I think the poem is looking for home (which for me, usually means New York), and company. But the poem mostly wants a heart that's capable of seeking out light-a heart that works with others, rather than acts upon them.
SD & AMK: There are a lot of... "classical" moves in "North Slope Borough": its use of anaphora/repetition, the "O," the long lines organized into a single stanza, the alternation between long sentences and short, declarative ones. How conscious are you of these various moves? How concerned are you that a reader might find the use of the "O" a bit overly dramatic, that a reader might find all this repetition material for the eye-roll? I don't ask this question because I feel this way. Quite the opposite! But I feel like I often hear this sort of criticism of "big" poems, of poems that feel like poems... a criticism I have never understood...
EM: Sometimes I feel as if I belong to the "Forrest Gump School of Poetry" as much of what I do in my work is unconscious-which isn't to say it's not intentional. I can't imagine that poem as other than it is, and I think subconsciously I knew exactly what I was doing with the language. But there's no way I could have written that poem if I had been at all conscious of my syntax. "North Slope Borough" is a really emotional poem for me-it's a poem about my dead returning to me (my beloved grandmother, and my best friend who committed suicide), my feverish infant son, homesickness, loneliness, and the heart, which always keeps beating and moving forward, pulling us with it, whether we want it to or not. If I can't use a little apostrophe in a poem like that, when can I use it?
SD & AMK: You seem to move effortlessly from the short lines of "Instructions for Vigilant Girls" to the long lines in "North Slope Borough" and "North County Canzone." In fact, "North County Canzone," which references letter-writing more than once, seems nearly to abandon line breaks on the second page, becoming a letter itself, then ends in a short-lined, poetic coda. How do you manage to work with such different sorts of lines so masterfully? At what point in the writing of "North County Canzone" did you decide to end with that shift into a prayer-like coda and why? Was the lengthening of the lines as you moved through the poem toward that coda intentional?
EM: I wrote "North Country Canzone" during a weirdly liminal and intense time in my life. I was essentially cloistered at Blue Mountain Center (an artists' colony deep in the Adirondacks) for a month, I was pregnant with my first son, my beloved grandmother was gravely ill, and I was far away from everyone and everything. I became really fascinated with the Canzone form via the poems of both Sean Thomas Dougherty ("Canzone Sprayed with Graffiti" and "Canzone to the Time of a Falling Leaf") and Paisley Rekdal (http://webdelsol.com/Quarterly_West/archives/iss56/rekcanz.html). I was conscious of the poem getting heavier and more packed with stuff, the lines getting longer as I went. Part of that is the contrast between the spareness of the residency (where I was removed from all of the daily-ness of normal life, and immersed in nature and writing) and the messiness and complications of my grandmother's life-of aging and illness and her history and my extended family. Part of it was also that I thought of the poem as pregnant, in a way, growing larger as time passed with each line. I was thinking about Plath a lot when I was writing that poem-the way she managed to infuse nature with such feeling. I ended up stealing a phrase from "Winter Trees" for the ending, which provided a turn and allowed me to be spare ("O mother of leaves and sweetness"). I kept thinking about how much my world would shrink (thus those tiny lines) if my grandmother were gone-if, after surviving Auschwitz, she didn't live to see the birth of her first grandchild. I needed that ending prayer to bless her and resurrect her in case she didn't live to see my son (though she ultimately did).
SD & AMK: Would you talk about your use of form? How free is your verse? And how has your approach to form changed from book to book?
EM: I think of myself almost exclusively as a free-verse poet, though I'm very conscious of the idea that every poem has a body, and those bodies need to work with or against the content of a poem in an interesting way. I'm also very attuned to the ‘music' of a poem-when I write I use a lot of internal rhyme, and I think most of my poems have specific rhythms. I don't often call on traditional modes of prosody-of received forms or specific meter-but my work has structure and music. I definitely think that as I've gotten older as a poet, I've become more adept with lyricism and language. When I read my first book, the heart is there, but parts of it now sometimes sound clunky to me where narrative asserts itself over language.
SD & AMK: Tell us a little bit about your next book and the series of Detroit poems, This is not a Requiem, you were commissioned to write for VQR.
EM: In the Ted Genoways era of VQR, the journal implemented a wonderful series of multimedia documentary poetry projects by Kwame Dawes, Natasha Tretheway, and Susan Somers-Willett, under the InVerse moniker. When I first saw these projects, I thought they were the best thing ever, and I wanted to do one. I started writing off of documentary photographs years ago. I began with the work of Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Davidson, Danny Lyon, and Diane Arbus, back in the early 2000's, but in 2009 I started to get really into documentary photos of both liminal and abandoned spaces. I was writing from work by Joshua Lutz, Alec Soth, and eventually, pictures of empty retail spaces by Brian Ulrich, and photos of Detroit's abandoned (and sometimes repurposed) buildings by James Griffioen. I knew Ted, because I used to work as a poetry reader for VQR, and I was still commuting to Charlottesville sometimes to work on a graduate degree in Religious Studies, so I went to see Ted and asked him if he had plans for more InVerse projects. It turned out he had one on Detroit in the hopper, so he asked me if I wanted to head there in the summer of 2010 with a radio journalist and one of the VQR interns to write a series of documentary poems on the city, based on the Andrew L. Moore's "Dissembling Detroit" photos (which were later replaced with Ryan Spencer Reed's haunting photos.
The project, in its entirety, is up here at VQR, and includes poems written directly from interviews I did with Detroit residents (teachers, auto workers, urban explorers, academics, students, filmmakers, union reps, etc.): http://www.vqronline.org/articles/2011/spring/meitner-detroit/
These poems became the centerpiece for my next book (due out from BOA Editions in 2014), called Copia, which has to do with consumption and desire in various forms. How do our acts of consumption-of consuming love, products, or even news or advice-affect change in places beyond our reach or field of vision? The buildings of Detroit felt like metaphors for many things to me, including my body, the American Dream, and our collective responsibility toward each other-all things that seemed to be, at the time I wrote the poems, crumbling or failing in different ways.