How did Copia take shape? You noted in The Rumpus book club discussion that you don't really write project books. Without the kind of shape and constraint a project can provide, how do you think about composing a book? At what point did you move from writing individual poems, or writing a series, as in the Detroit poems, to writing a book?
It took me two separate residencies to begin to see the connections between poems, and also the holes in the book that needed plugging.
I don't really think about composing a book at all when I'm writing poems. I write what feels most compelling to me at any given moment, and then, once I have a bunch of poems (anywhere from 40–80 pages), I usually try to head to a colony so I can see what I have en masse. Putting books together seems to be a really physical and visual process for me. For Copia, I went to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), tacked all the poems up on an enormous bulletin board, and tried to figure out what tied them all together. It took me two separate residencies to begin to see the connections between poems, and also the holes in the book that needed plugging. Usually once I have all the poems sifted out in a rough order, I put them in a binder and cart it around with me for about a year, to edit the manuscript down and keep working on ordering and editing the poems. I work with my MFA students this way too—there's always a point where we lay all their poems out all over my office. There's something about shifting them around and moving them that way that helps a book's themes and angles become clearer. Copia was especially tricky because the Detroit series, which had been commissioned by VQR, was this self-contained unit and couldn't really be spread throughout the book. Those poems had to be clumped together, and I wasn't used to having this big chunk of poems to navigate with and through and around.
The poems in this book take place in so many places we don't typically associate with poetry—Walmarts, rest stop bathrooms, convenience stores, the post-industrial ruins of Detroit. Was that a conscious decision on your part, to include these seemingly non-poetic things and places in your poems?
Rather than bringing traditionally un-poetic or commercial places into my poems, I just stopped ironing them out of my poems.
Yes! I would say though that rather than specifically bringing traditionally un-poetic or commercial places into my poems, I just stopped ironing them out of my poems. I spend most of my time (when I'm not working) at the Food Lion or Kroger getting stuff for dinner, at the Sheetz station filling up my car, or at Target buying diapers. I feel like life (for most people) usually takes place in doctor's waiting rooms and Jiffy Lube waiting rooms and public restrooms and office parks. I happen to live in a lovely mountain town, but when things happen to me that feel notable or poem-worthy, I'm somehow never located in a pastoral place. I'm usually in my car in a parking lot. I also think that much of what I find legitimately beautiful is pretty industrial or urban, which goes back to my childhood. I grew up in and around New York City in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. My earliest memories of images are of subway graffiti, the marshland off the Cross Island Expressway in Queens, and the fake vinyl window decals with flowerboxes that Ed Koch's administration installed on abandoned buildings overlooking the Cross Bronx Expressway.
I especially loved “Walmart Supercenter,” and in particular I admire the juxtaposition of the friendliness of the Walmart greeters, the promise of all that commerce and shiny consumables, with various horrifying things that have happened at Walmarts around the country. What was the composing process for that poem like? How did you assemble those different pieces?
That piece started as a poem about me going to Walmart. The end. And it was a pretty lame poem. I was casting around for a way to add something else to the poem, when a friend mentioned that Walmart parking lots across the country allow RVs to park overnight for free. I started researching this, and figured out that I could do a Google news search on “Walmart parking lots,” which, as it turns out, are hotbeds of weird and dangerous stuff. Everything in the poem happened in a week-long period in Walmart parking lots across America. So in the end, a bounded Google search made the poem come to life. Also, the discovery that the etymology of the word mercy came from the Latin for merchandise was something that truly floored me—and brought the poem some additional gravitas and closure.
The page on your website for Copia includes a resources section with a soundtrack and a classroom guide that contains discussion questions, writing exercises related to the book, recommended reading, and a list of artistic/visual influences. I think most poets assume that their work ends once they've written the poem, and the conventions of workshop, in which the poet is forbidden to talk while her work is under discussion, underline this injunction against explanation or even commentary on one's own work. But this guide suggests a different view of the responsibility the poet bears for guiding her work and its reception in the world. Can you talk about how and why you included those elements?
I actually adopted the idea to create additional materials for my book from Sarabande Books, which does these amazing classroom guides for their titles. So much of my work has been ekphrastic lately, or influenced by external texts, visual pieces, and music, that it seemed like a real opportunity to share these things with my readers. It's always compelling to me to hear about someone else's artistic influences, and in the case of Copia, I truly feel like they enhance the poems. Seeing some of Alec Soth’s “Niagara” photos, for example, do make the poems I've written from them feel more textured. And as a teacher, I always appreciate being able to bring a writer's influences into the classroom when I can, to inform our readings of their work.
What are you working on now?
At the moment, I'm on a Fulbright in Belfast, Northern Ireland, writing poems and teaching at Queen's University. I've been fascinated by the fact that my students and colleagues all have these beautiful accents, so that when they read their work, the poems sound almost nothing like the way they look on the page. I'm in the process of putting together my fifth book, which has a lot to do with human fragility, gun violence, disaster, and what it means to know and love your neighbors. I'm calling it Fragments from Holymoleyland right now, but that might change. I've also been writing emoji poems this week, and translating emoji poems that my poet-friends have been sending me, which is really fun.
February 16, 2015
ERIKA MEITNER's books include Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore (Anhinga Press, 2003), Ideal Cities (HarperCollins, 2010), winner of the 2009 National Poetry Series Competition, Makeshift Instructions (Anhinga Press, 2011), and Copia (BOA Editions, 2014). She is currently a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar at Queen's University in Belfast and teaches in the MFA program at Virginia Tech.