By Evangeline Riddiford Graham
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Erika Meitner about her book Holy Moly Carry Me (Boa), which is among the final six selections in the category of Poetry for the 2019 NBCC Awards.
Holy Moly Carry Me (BOA Editions, 2018) is Erika Meitner’s fifth book of poetry; the collection, which won a National Jewish Book Award earlier this year, shows the invention and insight of a writer in complete command of her craft. Set largely in Southern Appalachia, where Meitner lives, Holy Moly Carry Me observes an America bristling with poverty, racism, and religious intolerance, and asks: How can I be a neighbor here? How can I be a parent? Meitner’s verse finds the “space between the hole and the holy”: the space in which we still might hold on, remembering that we are “under the care / of each other.”
In a phone call with New School MFA student Evangeline Riddiford Graham, Meitner spoke about blessings, gun violence, and wrangling the disconnect in Holy Moly Carry Me.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham (ERG): Holy Moly Carry Me is such a wonderful title for this book. Many layers of meaning collide in the pairing of these two phrases, conjuring the complexity of the emotional experience waiting inside. Traveling through these poems, a reader might well find herself shifting between the astonishment of “Holy moly!” and the desperation of a child’s overwhelmed plea: “Carry me?” How did the title come to you?
Erika Meitner (EM): I had written two different pieces that ended up in the book called “HolyMolyLand,” both inspired by visual artist Kim Beck’s project of the same name. A lot of the poems in the book ended up being ekphrastic—after work by Patte Loper, another visual artist that I got to know at the same artist colony, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. When it eventually came to titling the book, it felt like the “HolyMolyLand” poems were book-ending the project, but I also wanted a title that invoked the Appalachian setting; also, there’s a lot of religion in the book. The final title I settled on, Holy Moly Carry Me, felt a little bit like an Appalachian hymn. When I think about the “carry me,” I think about all the people who buoyed me up during the time I was writing the book, but obviously it also applies to some of the poems about motherhood, and also the themes of infertility that run through the book. So the exclamation tied to the second part also has multiple meanings, and the way it invoked actual Appalachian ballads and folk songs and hymns to me felt really right for the book.
ERG: I heard the hymn, and I had a tune of my own humming in my head while I was reading: the old John Prine song “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” Holy Moly Carry Me observes a connection between violence and virtue that’s more than a nationalist identity: somehow, guns seem part of a certain picture of America as a kind of “holy land.” How did you navigate writing about a culture that is damaging a community while at the same time seen by many of its members as necessary to their sense of righteousness?
EM: That’s something I would say I’m still trying to figure out. I started writing the book directly after the Newtown shooting in Connecticut—the school shooting. For a lot of people, but especially parents of young children, that felt like a turning point in terms of the country’s relationship to guns. I also work at Virginia Tech: I started here in 2007, and I signed my contract three days after the shooting here. I showed up that Fall to students and colleagues who were deeply traumatized by what was then the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. Now it’s the third worst mass shooting in U.S. history because we’ve had Orlando and Las Vegas since then, where more people were killed and wounded. So even in what, in historical terms, is a relatively short period of time, the status of Virginia Tech as a mass shooting has changed.
Showing up to a place where people were deeply traumatized by gun violence, and then moving into a pretty close-knit neighbourhood where it turned out a lot of people have firearms was very shocking to me. I had grown up in Queens and in Long Island—in New York. New York gun laws are some of the strictest in the country, so I didn't know anyone who had guns growing up. There were one or two people whose dads were cops, but other than that it just wasn’t a thing to have a gun in your house.
The conflation of both these mass shootings and experiencing all these people around me who had firearms in their house very much informed the tenor of the book. But I was also trying to figure out stuff that by time the book was published was what a lot of people in the country were trying to figure out after Trump got elected: How do other people who are not “liberals in urban areas” live? What is this whole part of the country that we don’t understand? These people are not strangers to me—these are people who care for my children, or who bring over casseroles when someone dies, who have helped care for me and everybody else in our community. How can we have such a disconnect around something as basic as keeping a gun in your house? The book grew out of that inquiry.
As a Jew living in a deeply Evangelical place, even the phrase “holy land” is very, very fraught and conjures a lot of different things. The ways mortality combined with the process of parenthood felt very present to me in the book, and guns exacerbated that combination. Part of the book is about raising one black son and one white son in twenty-first century America, and so a lot of what colors my poems in the book was police killings of unarmed black men. Knowing that my black son will move through the world in his body, and fundamentally because of that be unsafe, combined with the constant lock-down drills that both kids have at school, really influenced the content of the book
One of the tricky things about the difference between Judaism and Christianity is that in Judaism we don’t have an afterlife. There’s no heaven or “holy land” where we go when we die, we’re just dead. That’s a pretty fundamental difference between me and my neighbors, who feel that when someone passes they’re going home, they’re going to a holy land. That very deep awareness of mortality, and this fear and hypervigilance around my kids and the difference between them, was a way that this concept of a kind of holy land—if “holy land” is heaven—played into the writing of the book.
ERG: I’d like to talk about “Vicissitudes,” a poem I particularly love for your son calling himself “Sister Vampire.” In “Vicissitudes,” you talk about “the work of perfecting the world”—the work Rabbi Tarfon says is not our responsibility and which we also cannot desist from. That got me thinking about Hannah Arendt’s challenge of “amor mundi”: to love the world, as it is. It seemed to me that your poems do a kind of eternal, impossible “work” in watching the world critically, paying close attention and still committing to blessing it. I’d love to hear more about your understanding of the “work of the world,” and poetry’s place in it.
EM: I always think of the concept of blessing as a mode of attention. To me, when you write a poem—no matter what kind of poem, even if you’re writing an invective—by giving attention to the subject, you’re inevitably looking at something very intently, even if it’s to curse it. “Blessing” implies in its language that you’re praising something. But to me, a blessing is really just a moment of attention. The poet Ilya Kaminsky put this great quote on Twitter recently from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace: that attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing is prayer. This idea that absolutely unmixed attention is prayer is really interesting.
I also think that the complicated piece about being an insider-outsider in a place is figuring out how to write about it, but also making sure you implicate yourself in it. I’ve always tried to be—and I don't know if I’ve always succeeded—really careful about saying “I’m other, but I'm also part of this.” I think where it can go awry is with too much judgement; also with too much praise. In my last book, Copia, I have a poem about Walmart, and it combines both beautiful and horrible things that happen in Walmart parking lots across America with me going to Walmart. I have a lot of big box stores and plastic strip malls in my poems because that’s my landscape here. When I published that book, a lot of people would send me links to the horrifying website People of Walmart, which is about picking out and shaming people who are Walmart shoppers for not fitting our expectations of what people are supposed to look like when they go out in public. That’s absolutely not what I'm trying to do. Being in a place but not necessarily of it, but also being a little bit of it because you’ve been there awhile, is a really complicated balance. My hope for Holy Moly Carry Me is that it shows the weird way that you can feel like an alien in a place where you kind of belong, but also don’t, for various reasons that are cultural and implicit to who you are, to who your family is. Being a Jewish, multi-racial family in Southern Appalachia in twenty-first century America—how do you bridge that difference without saying, “This is terrible”? Because it’s not terrible all the time. But also saying, “I have to be critical.” It’s complicated to wrangle with that disconnect. Poems allow me to do that work, because they’re complicated.
ERG: Your description of the wind chimes of the Food Lion is one of the images of Holy Moly Carry Me that acknowledges that disconnect, and rests on it awhile:
Not quite a song, but two objects
strung closely together knocked into
The moment is one of many in the collection in which rage, sorrow, fear, and frustration chime against other feelings: love, care, hope. The potency of that “not quite a song” sound reminded me the book’s epigraph, a passage from Homer’s Odyssey that mentions the “moly” plant, a magical antidote. The Odyssey is a poem set in the shadow of a war; Holy Moly Carry Me is a collection shadowed by war America’s war against its citizens. Yet the chiming of these poems felt, in their critical and emotional complexity, like an antidote to war, a “moly.”
EM: The Odyssey to me is also a book about someone trying to return home and meeting all these different obstacles. For me, a real struggle in the book is like, is this home? Is this place I’m in home?
ERG: On the subject of home, another line I really loved was in “Peregrinus”:
Put on a beautiful dress
and I will make a portrait of you, I said
to the town.
Holy Moly Carry Me portrays Appalachia with great tenderness as well as criticism. What’s has been your community’s response to the portrait?
EM: I’ve done a couple of readings in the local libraries, but I haven’t gotten much local response to the book. Mostly the people who have read it and talked to me about it have been part of our university community. Like a lot of small college towns, there’s a town-gown divide: a divide between the folks around the university versus the people who live out in the county and the people who don’t work for the university. I know some of my neighbors ordered the book, but we haven’t talked about it. And poetry isn’t like novels, where book groups will read it. I’ve had other Appalachian folks who do read poetry reach out to me about it, and it’s been positive, but I don’t know what my neighbors think about it.
ERG: It’s a shame they’re not reading it as a novel in book clubs, because one of the great achievements of Holy Moly Carry Me is how it stands as a collection. It’s not exactly a linear narrative, but read together, the poems have a lyric essay effect—paralleling seemingly disparate subjects, gesturing towards the larger landscape they’re part of without veering into generalizations. How did you go about fitting the poems together?
EM: One of my downfalls as a poet is that I’m terrible at putting my own books together! The first time I think I tried to put it together as a book I was in residence at MacDowell Colony. I kept thinking the book would be outdated as soon as I published it. Then as I was putting it together in the studio, I realized I was in earshot of a shooting range. Two days after I got there, the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting happened. Then I realized maybe the book, unfortunately, wouldn’t be outdated.
I kept trying to put it together and kept failing, and it kept growing bigger and bigger until it was over a hundred pages. Finally, I sent it to my friend Keetje Kuipers, who’s also a poet on my press. She took a day, ripped apart the entire book, cut over forty pages of it, and organized the entire thing for me.
I’m great at putting together other people’s collections—it’s part of my job here at Virginia Tech, where I help my students put together their theses—but doing it for my own work is almost impossible. I know I’m not the only poet that has that problem. It’s like you’re too close to the material and can’t see the more subtle threads that hang things together.
ERG: It intrigued me that you mentioned a concern that the poems would only have passing relevance, because one of the things that’s so exciting about Holy Moly Carry Me is that the book is set so definitely in its own present. Most of the poems are written in present tense, and they feel like live reportage, like witnessing rather than reflections. You don’t read like an armchair poet! You’ve worked on explicitly documentary poetry projects before, like “This is not a Requiem for a Detroit” (2011), and your coverage of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016. Could you tell me about your approach to poetry as a documentary form?
EM: My instinct for poetry of documentary comes out of two places. One is my attachment to writing from the visual. I’ve been writing from the work of documentary photographers for a long time; then in 2009 I got to go on the road and really start working with photographers. While my books tend to have the more personal writing, I have these other projects that are almost solely documentary. To some extent I think of these as separate things, but actually, they’re not. While I was writing Holy Moly Carry Me I was sent on commission by Virginia Quarterly Review with a documentary photographer who had just been in South Sudan and Afghanistan to cover that event [the R.N.C.] in verse. None of those poems—other than one called “Too Strong,” which I wrote even before I got to the convention—made it into the book. But my time at the convention deeply influenced some of the other poems I wrote.
The project I’m working on now with another photographer has to do with sea level rise and architecture in Miami. The way that the photographer sees things can be very different than the way that I see things, but when we do field work together and we’re interviewing people together, the interplay between the two of us really helps drive my work.
My work is influenced by Muriel Rukeyser and The Book of the Dead, and also by C. D. Wright’s One Big Self, and some other projects that share this idea that documentary poetry can be a force for social change by highlighting issues in ways that allow multiple voices to come through. A lot of the straight documentary work I do is polyvocal, or based on transcriptions from interviewing people. I learned how to do that kind of field work when I started my PhD in religion—I never finished, so I have the world’s longest Masters in Religious Studies. My focus was in anthropology of religion and material culture, so for almost nine years I was interviewing people about their religious practices and objects and spaces. I studied under amazing people at UVA, who trained me to be able to connect with people in a way that was part anthropology, part journalism, part something else. Going out and taking stock of people in the world is my poetic process, but it feels like it’s something else too.
I always have one foot in documentary projects while I’m writing more personal poems. It’s part of the idea that I’ve always had, that art and social justice are part of the same project. Moving through the world in a female body, when you write personal poems, the personal becomes political. To some extent, there’s no divide there. If you’re writing about personal female desire—always, but particularly right now—that is a political act.
Erika Meitner is the author of five books of poems, including Ideal Cities (Harper Perennial, 2010), which was a 2009 National Poetry Series winner, Copia (BOA Editions, 2014), and Holy Moly Carry Me (BOA Editions, 2018). Her poems have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Tin House, The New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review, Oxford American, Best American Poetry, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She is currently an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she directs the MFA and undergraduate programs in Creative Writing.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham is a writer and artist from Aotearoa New Zealand. She is the author of a poetry chapbook, Ginesthoi (hard press, 2017); her recent exhibitions include the text-based solo shows La belle dame avec les mains vertes (Rm Gallery, 2018) and Look Out, Fred! (Enjoy Gallery, 2017). She is currently pursuing a Creative Writing MFA with a poetry concentration at The New School.