A Conversation with Erika Meitner
BY SUSAN NGUYEN
Erika Meitner is the author of six books of poems, including Holy Moly Carry Me (BOA Editions, 2018), which was the winner of the 2018 National Jewish Book Award, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is currently a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her newest book, Useful Junk, was published by BOA Editions in April 2022.
In Erika Meitner’s collection Useful Junk, we are thrown into the orbit of the speaker’s body, where we find selfies and subways and long exposures and an “Invitation to Tender.” In a time when so many of us are in danger of losing our embodied agency, reading this collection filled me with a renewed sense of awe for the body and how much it can carry and risk in an attempt to be held, witnessed, and celebrated. As Meitner writes, “We live in the palace of the body.”
I was a student of Meitner in the early 2010s, and when I was back at Virginia Tech as a visiting writer this past February, I received the first copy of Useful Junk out in the world. I was lucky enough to connect with her again this summer to discuss her stunning new collection.
Susan Nguyen: Erika, there are so many things I love and admire about your book Useful Junk, starting with the title! The phrase “useful junk” instantly raises questions over what constitutes “junk,” who gets to decide its usefulness, and the capitalistic need for things to be useful in the first place for it to exist or continue existing. To me, the seeming contradiction in the phrase reflects some of the contradictions of the human experience, which you write about so well.
What inspired that title and how do you see it relating to the collection as a whole? Were there other titles you considered?
Erika Meitner: So, true story: the title actually came from this sign in a (now closed) antique shop window off State Route 58 in Sullivan, Ohio.
I usually have the titles of my books fixed years before they’re published and at the very start of when I begin working on them. I never considered another title for the book, because I liked the way this one spoke to ideas you mention around capitalism and detritus—but also the ways in which memory becomes “useful junk” in meaning-making, the way the speaker’s aging female body also becomes a form of “useful junk” (since so much of this book is about desire, too), and the fact that “junk” refers to male genitalia (since there are definitely dick pic poems in the book, among other things).
SN: Is there something, an object/memory/etc, that might be considered “useful junk” that you’ve held onto for a long time or can’t let go? (And, if you feel like sharing, why?)
EM: Oh wow—this is a loaded question as I’m just in the middle of packing up my entire house for a move from VA to WI. I’m a bit of a pack rat, and keep tons of stuff, including old journals, my pez dispenser collection, and the tons and tons of photos (on film!) that I’ve taken over the years of friends and others. While I was packing I found my Hi-8 video camera and in it was a tape I had made senior year of college in 1996 of all my friends. I had interviewed them, taped a bunch of us just having lunch, taped friends dancing at a party, and I played the whole thing back in the camera, and it was like having a little of my twenties back unexpectedly years later, which was kind of what I was going for while writing this book, too—it’s heavy on the nostalgia for youth, and the ways in which we always have access to all the love and adoration we’ve felt from people across time—even if those people are gone.
SN: In “Selfie with Airplane Voyeurism & References to Your Body,” you write, “here I am throttling forward, temporarily indenting a space of plastic and foam, where the body has a total lack of concealment or shame. How can a body resist the forces pressing against it?” In “Médium Adam 25,” we get “as I move through / time and space, many things are vanishing / in exchange for a wanting with no end that / takes up residence inside me like a squatter.”
Whether it’s nude selfies, sex, sexting, secret loves, memory, nostalgia: desire is a constant. In reading these poems, I feel like I am throttling forward alongside the speaker as they bring me closer to the center of their desire(s).
What relationship do you see between desire, the body, and the want/urge to document, witness, behold?
EM: This is such a good question. So Useful Junk started, in part, as correspondence poems between me and a millennial writer named Hillary Adler. And when I first started writing to Hillary in 2016, many of our notes to each other were about technology-related things that felt alien to me, like Uber, or sexting, or selfies—and she would explain stuff like peach and eggplant emojis to me, or talk me through how to take a decent selfie. Simultaneously, social media and smartphones were becoming more and more a part of our lives generally from 2016-2020, when I wrote this book—so the documenting and witnessing was already happening for everyone in one way or another—but I didn’t see a whole lot of acknowledgment of this in poems generally. It often felt like poets were eradicating the fact that many of us live much of our lives online (doom-scrolling, getting in fights with conservative relatives on Facebook, posting carefully crafted tweets, etc.) from our poems because it wasn’t “poetic” to include our digital footprints in verse. For me, as a middle-aged woman, selfies were revelatory. They allowed me to see myself differently, to manipulate image and self until the two fused—and it was the images themselves that made me remember I had a body and could desire and be desired. Rachel Syme writes beautifully about this in her article “Selfie: the revolutionary potential of your own face, in seven chapters”—and I teach this article in my Arts & Social Transformation Course when we delve into the history of photography. I will also say that my summer job for a few years when I was in college was working for a documentary film production company, and I used to make my own short documentary films, too, so I’ve been documenting images for a long time in various ways.
SN: Okay wow, I am obsessed with this article. One line that stood out to me from the article was: “When we can take endless shots from endless angles, we start to discover dimensions of ourselves we never even knew were there. That girl in the park taking selfie after selfie after selfie? She’s investigating her own silhouette. She’s figuring out which parts of her face she loves; she’s doing confidence fact-finding.”
You mentioned selfies are revelatory and helped you remember you had a body. Was there anything new you learned or discovered about your body or desire itself?
EM: I think just that sometimes changing the angle from which we see ourselves is enough to help us fall in love with ourselves again. And as women—and especially for me as a woman raised in the 70s and 80s and 90s before body positivity was a thing—this feels important. How do we love ourselves and our bodies when they don’t fit societal norms—when they’re always changing? I think a lot about Liz Lerman; I heard her lecture on her Critical Response Process workshop method, and she talks about “neutral questions”—questions that don’t have an opinion couched in them. Here are my notes from her workshop:
This idea that looking at something else—or in this case someone else’s creative work—with generosity allows us to be generous with our own work is something that to me extends to selfies also. Like if we can see ourselves from different angles or from outside ourselves with more generosity, then that can be a little revelatory.
SN: I love the speaker’s insistence on “my body my body my body” throughout this whole collection. The body as “burdened and miraculous” and “the untamed thing, the weed or rendering.” It was interesting to track the body and light throughout your poems. We move from “my body a barrier / against light” to “when I open my mouth, my legs, my cunt, can you see the light— / the everlasting & brilliant light that shoots out?” There is also a connection between light and photography via the mentions of selfies, film exposure, filters, and “Don’t we all have auras / halos / glares that obscure the thing beneath, our / outlines and shapes / Don’t we all have imperceptible apertures where the light gets in.”
Can you tell us more about these connections? And how the body can be a source of light?
EM: When I started writing this book, part of my inspiration was ekphrastic, from Tala Madani’s film “Sex Ed by God” from the 2017 Whitney Biennial (you can watch it here). The image I had on the front of my binder of drafts was “Abstract Pussy,” also by Tala Madani (here):
In these pieces, the main characters—who are drawn as these sort of adolescent girl-women—literally have light shooting out of their vaginas. Around the same time as I found Madani’s work, I found one of the book’s epigraph quotes by James Baldwin, from his catalog copy for an exhibition by the painter Beauford Delaney at the Gallery Lambert in 1964 (full text available here): “The light contained in every thing, in every surface, in every face…” Delaney and Baldwin had a 38-years-long intergenerational artistic friendship where they alternately mentored each other, and Delaney’s paintings—especially in the later years—were all about light and color. For me in this book, renderings of the body—whether on film, or canvas, or in pixels—were inextricably tied to the body itself and our own perceptions of our bodies.
SN: Throughout Useful Junk, the speaker encounters many other bodies—other people, neighbors, ex-lovers, the “yellow bodies” of taxies, “the small body of a poem.” The speaker doesn’t move through the world unmarked. They incur scars, accrue loss, “the inevitability of a scarred life” and yet choose to “go on, go on / again, again, / return, return.”
Why? What drives them to “embrace the hard and sweet dumbness / of the physical world—its / mute wreckage, the things that / vanish and vanish”?
EM: As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, the idea that our bodies can survive unspeakable trauma and go on is something that’s kind of ingrained in me in a visceral way. That line “go on, go on / again, again, / return, return” is a transcription of audio from James Coleman’s a/v piece “Box (ahhareturnabout), 1977” made up of images and commentary from the 1927 boxing match between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight title, nicknamed “the long count fight.” And isn’t living kind of like a long count fight where our bodies keep the score? Judaism is a religion of doing; the sages say na’aseh v’nishma: first you do, then you’ll understand. In other words, show up for the bodily rituals and the beliefs might follow, but it’s more important to do the actions. Keep moving. Put one foot in front of another.
SN: We often see the speaker in transit: a parking lot, a still or moving car, a hotel, a plane. There are also many references to Appalachia and the South. The speaker says “I don’t feel at home anywhere except some subway platforms / and when I’m in motion passing through corridors or terminals.”
What impact does place have on your writing? How do place and transience influence each other for you?
EM: Place has always been a huge part of my writing, and all of my books are usually rooted in the cities and towns where I live, or those I’ve been investigating in my longer term photo-text documentary projects. My first book, Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore, is very much a New York City book, because I wrote most of it while I was living in Brooklyn and teaching public middle school there too. And Holy Moly Carry Me—my fifth book, and the book I wrote before Useful Junk—is about rural Southwest Virginia, which is where I’ve lived since 2007. Useful Junk feels like a much more inward-facing book to me though—a book that’s more about interior emotional landscapes. I was on the road a lot while I was writing it, on a book tour for Holy Moly Carry Me, which is why there are so many hotels and airports and transient places. I was also doing fieldwork in Miami, so there are some Miami poems. But I’ve always—through my last four books (but especially in Copia)—been obsessed with what French anthropologist Marc Augé calls “non-lieux”: generic, interstitial overlooked spaces like parking lots and airport waiting areas (see his book Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity for more on this). I’ve also been interested in geographer Yi-Fu Tuan’s notion of “topophilia”—the bond between people and place, where we manifest our ties to our geography in aesthetic, tactile, and emotional ways. I’m also (like you!) the child of refugees, so I think there’s a bit of latent flight built into the center of my being, which provides some tension between the rootedness of some of my work, and my preference for transience generally as a mode of existence.
SN: Useful Junk is your sixth (!) poetry collection. Were there any new themes or surprises that emerged in the writing process? How do you see this book being in conversation with your past books, if at all?
EM: I’ve been writing about women’s bodies, sex, desire, and political topics since I started publishing poems in 2000. I think the main difference to me with this book is that I wrote it entirely for myself. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever publish it, and I didn’t think much about audience when I wrote it—it doesn’t feel like an outward-facing book to me, and I hope that intimacy ultimately moves readers somehow anyway. But writing about women’s bodies and desire is always political—even and especially right now, with the Supreme Court legislating both of these things. So I guess this book is political too. Just maybe in a bit of a different way than the others.
SN: What new project(s) are you currently working on?
EM: Right now I’m packing my whole life into boxes to move from Virginia to Wisconsin for my new job on the faculty at UW-Madison, but since I finished Useful Junk back in January 2020, I’ve been working on my seventh collection, tentatively titled Assembled Audience. This book is named after an installation by artist Taryn Simon that I encountered at Mass MoCA—a pitch-dark room filled with a constantly changing, dense soundscape of recorded clapping—a virtual, invisible crowd. “Clapping has historically functioned as [a] mode for public demonstration, proof of worship or praise, and as a means by which individuals seek reassurance and empowerment,” said the exhibition text, and it struck me that these attributes could also describe poetry in a time of crisis. Assembled Audience so far combines two types of work: documentary poems based on fieldwork in Miami that bring a lyric lens to the environmental, economic, and social issues inextricably bound to global warming, sea level rise, and the increasingly extreme climate events we’re all experiencing; and braided narrative poems that explore spiritual and political questions about survival and comfort, abundance and scarcity, justice and grace.