Ideal Cities by Erika Meitner

Ideal Cities by Erika Meitner, whom I interviewed in 2009, was published in 2010 by Harper Perennial as part of the National Poetry Series selected by Paul Guest. The collection is broken down into two sections: Rental Towns and Ideal Cities.  Rental towns appears to be at first glance about the transient nature of apartment or rental living, but on a deeper level its about the transient nature of our lives and how quickly we all want to grow up and become adults.  There zipping through memories and moments reminds us that our childhood moves too quickly and so innocence is gone before we realize it.  “The windows on the soon-to-be luxury/condos across the way say things/to the darkness I can’t hear.  Sometimes/they’re blocked by the train masticating/its way across town.  Now and then//” (from Vinyl-Sided Epiphany, page 5-6)

Each poem is ripe with stunning imagery, like in “January Towns” (page 38-9),  “. . . Sometimes the light/above the clouds winks out a full-size replica/of our lives.  We are crystals of frozen water;//”  Not only is life transient in nature as we move from one moment to the next, but it is also frozen in time for us to review at anytime in our memories.  A bit of us, as we were is frozen, captured.  We seek to capture those moments not only in our minds, but in photos and videos, and in some moments we see ourselves in the past and wonder who those people are.  From “Poem With/out a Face” (page 16-7), “Desire is serendipity,/is pity, is blind,is danger,is not/obligation, is poking the most/alien thing with a stick to see/if it stirs and clings, the way/”  Some memories are clearer than others, which is true even of those moments in our lives that we thought we’d remember forever through a clear, clean lens, only to find the lens is murky and obscured.

In the second section, “Ideal Cities,” Meitner’s poems are not about a utopia in the true sense of the word, like a world without crime, etc., but they are about the communities that reside in each city, with their diversity, quirkiness, and pain.  There are a great deal of images in these poems that pay homage to the sounds of cities, from construction equipment to the silence of social networking.  This section is smaller than the first, but tackles tougher subjects like the Holocaust, though both sections glance at pregnancy and birth.  From “Elegy With Construction Sounds, Water, Fish” (page 75-7), “There is music, and there is music./There is water from a plastic pitcher/hitting slate pavers, silenced by skin./There are valleys with houses tucked/into them and something trilling/”  From birth to death and city to the suburbs, Meitner’s focus is on the journey that life takes, even its most devastating parts.

Meitner’s poetry has a quickness that illustrates the transient nature of the modern world, and her poems beg the question of whether modernity is ideal or whether suburbia is ideal.  Readers will examine each of these poems and discover that the answer to that question lies within themselves.  The poet endorses neither one nor the other, but she does examine the old world versus the new world.  Ideal Cities by Erika Meitner is an enigmatic collection with moments on clarity and stunning imagery that highlights the transient nature of the modern world whether you live in the city or in suburbia.

Also check out the poem from this collection that was under discussion in the 109th Virtual Poetry Circle.

© Photo by Steve Trost, 2009

About the Poet:

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 2001 as a Henry Hoyns Fellow. 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

She is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she teaches in the MFA 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.


This is my 21st book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.


This is my 43rd book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

109th Virtual Poetry Circle

Welcome to the 109th Virtual Poetry Circle!

Remember, this is just for fun and is not meant to be stressful.

Keep in mind what Molly Peacock’s books suggested. Look at a line, a stanza, sentences, and images; describe what you like or don’t like; and offer an opinion. If you missed my review of her book, check it out here.

Also, sign up for the 2011 Fearless Poetry Reading Challenge because its simple; you only need to read 1 book of poetry. Please contribute to the growing list of 2011 Indie Lit Award Poetry Suggestions, visit the stops on the National Poetry Month Blog Tour from April.

Today’s poem is from Erika Meitner‘s (I interviewed her in 2009) Ideal Cities:

O Edinburgh (page 18)

it was night & we were always drunk
    or it was day (gray day) & I'd buy
              boxes of clementines on my way
    from school & keep them outside
my window on the sill so they'd stay
    cool -- O Edinburgh, where we'd
              mash ourselves together on that shelf
    of bed after you lined up shoes
to toss, one by one, at the heater
    on the wall -- open coils that glowed
              orange for 15-minute increments
    like a toaster, & when you'd hit
the button your shoes would thud
    like large fish tails slapping the sides
              of a boat & we rose with the wind's
    current, its November brogue, &
O Edinburgh, it spoke in tongues,
    flapped doors open & shut, howled
              until I couldn't remember exactly
    what happened in the dark except
that we curled ourselves up into
    the smallest specks until I wept
              over a horoscope & someone else's
    tattoo & I never loved you because
I was a wall of a city I had never been to

Let me know your thoughts, ideas, feelings, impressions. Let’s have a great discussion…pick a line, pick an image, pick a sentence.

I’ve you missed the other Virtual Poetry Circles. It’s never too late to join the discussion.

Mailbox Monday #137

Mailbox Mondays (click the icon to check out the new blog) has gone on tour since Marcia at A Girl and Her Books, formerly The Printed Page passed the torch.  This month our host is Life in the Thumb.  Kristi of The Story Siren continues to sponsor her In My Mailbox meme.  Both of these memes allow bloggers to share what books they receive in the mail or through other means over the past week.

Just be warned that these posts can increase your TBR piles and wish lists.

Here’s what I received this week:

From Borders, which is the only local book store in my town and had the best employees who had great recommendations every time I went in; it also was the only store with a good three-to-four shelves of poetry near me and outside the immediate D.C. city:

1.  The Postcard Killers by James Patterson and Liza Marklund, which I bought for my mom’s birthday (good thing she doesn’t read the blog).

2.  Twilight: The Graphic Novel Volume 1 by Stephenie Meyer and adapted by Young Kim

3.  Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan, which I bought to complete the Ireland Reading Challenge and because I just missed out on the TLC Book Tour.

4.  Ideal Cities by Erika Meitner; yes, this is just one of the books I snagged from the poetry section.

5.  The Broken Word by Adam Foulds

6.  Here, Bullet by Brian Turner

7.  Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea by Nikki Giovanni, which I picked up because I loved her selection of poems in (Hip Hop Speaks to Children (my review)

8.  Ballistics by Billy Collins

9. Falling Up by Shel Silverstein

10. Don't Bump the Glump! by Shel Silverstein

11. Runny Babbit by Shel Silverstein

12. Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

13. Peter Rabbit's Tale by Beatrix Potter

14. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss; our version says its made with recycled paper.

15. Dr. Seuss's Circus McGurkus 1,2,3! (plush)

From Anna for Wiggles:

16. Winnie the Pooh and Piglet's Book of Opposites

17. Winnie the Pooh All Year Long

18. Adventures of Rusty & Ginger Fox by Tim Ostermeyer

And books that came in the mail for review:

19. The Tree It Was by Sandra Fuhringer

What did you receive this week?

Interview With Poet Erika Meitner

Gateway Drug by: Erika Meitner

When I asked him over beers one night

what the meaning of life was

my friend Jon replied, We all think we’re ugly,

but we’re not. And for once

I agreed with him—how seductive, the idea

that arbitrary cruelty might evaporate

if everyone felt beautiful

in their own skins. I went to talk

to the local eleventh grade class

about writing poetry, was reminded

how everyone is asymmetrical then,

heads huge and ungainly, limbs restless and taut;

the kid in the back row hiding behind a curtain of hair

carving swear words into his arm with the staple remover,

the girl in the second row sizing me up

with her jeweler’s eye. In high school

they showed us films once a year

to boost our self-esteem, keep us

off drugs—lavish multi-screened productions

with titles like The Prize, soundtracks singing,

My future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.

We are what we think we are, and one thing

inevitably leads to another—drugs to sex, sex

to cigarettes. A head leaning on a shoulder

and suddenly you’re naked, I’m naked,

air conditioner washing over us like ocean,

moon shining off the brick wall in the back

of a Tribeca art gallery, the detritus

of the party around us, trance music spinning

on a turntable, making out high like high-schoolers

in front of someone else’s locker. Remember

being the kid who had to get your lunch or math book, ask

the lip-locked couple in front of your locker to move?

Did you say, Excuse me, tap them gently?

I never had that courage, shared

a neighbor’s book, bought hot lunch. But tonight

we are as cool as our daydreams were then,

magazine pages and mirrors, straight-edge skaters,

drama queens, hair gods and punk princesses

smoking in the back row, the health teacher’s nightmare,

impossibly drugged, and when I touch

your clay lips with my iron fingers,

trace your beveled collarbone

with my fluted mouth, the tune I play

pushes hallway lockers open with gale force.

Uneaten lunches and uncovered books fly,

everything slams, and blinded

we all get a good, fluorescent look at each other.

Here’s the latest 32 Poems magazine interview, which posted on the Poetry Blog of 32 Poems on May 5. Let’s get your appetite hungry for more. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Erika Meitner:

1. Not only are you a contributor to 32 Poems, but you are also a professor at Virginia Tech and you are completing a doctorate in Religious Studies. What “hat” do you find most difficult to wear and why?

Right now the hardest of these–between teaching in a relatively new job, trying to write poems during the semester, reading all the applications to our MFA program, advising students, and mothering a toddler–is finding the time in the day to work on my doctoral research. Happily, that’s what they make summers for. It’s also hard to peel off my professor-identity, in the sense that when I meet with my religion professors, I have to inhabit my role as a student again. It’s humbling and good for me though–it reminds me, on a fairly regular basis, of how my own graduate students feel.

2. Your biography mentions that your grandparents survived concentration camps in Auschwitz, Ravensbruck, and Mauthausen. Have those stories and experiences influenced your poetry or writing? Please Explain.

I think the way that my grandparents’ experiences have influenced my work the most is that there’s always been this deep well of silence around my family history. My grandmother didn’t start talking about the war and her experiences in it until well into her 80’s, when different foundations started coming around with video cameras to record survivors’ stories. Until then–until I was in college–I had never heard about her war experiences.

When I was little, she used to tell me that the numbers on her arm were her phone number, written there so she wouldn’t forget it. Part of me writing about her in my first book was, I suspect, part of my concerted effort to combat that silence. But she also had a real streak of black humor, and I definitely think that shows up a lot in my work as well.

When I write about uncomfortable or difficult situations in my poems, I tend to temper them a bit with small moments of situational humor, to give the audience that permission to laugh. She passed away, though, on Mother’s Day of last year, so I’ve been writing elegies to her that take various forms. One of them, “Godspeed,” just came out in the most recent issue of Washington Square.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

I’m obsessed with Easter candy–particularly slightly stale marshmallow peeps. I think of peeps as sort-of guardian angels–the bunnies just look so benevolent, kind, and wise. I keep them everywhere. I have boxes of them that students have given me as gifts taped to my office wall; I have a yellow stuffed-animal bunny peep in the cupholder of my Civic who functions as a co-pilot of sorts. I realize this is weird. I also often gift people with peeps.

4. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).

When I teach poetry workshops, I love to use Steve Kowit’s book In the Palm of Your Hand. I find outside mini-research projects much more inspiring though, in terms of my own work. I’m currently really into Robert Smithson’s work, especially
his essays. Also, Joshua Lutz’s “Meadowlands” photos, and a book by Iain Borden called Skateboarding, Space and the City.

In terms of my own writing process, I currently belong to two virtual writing groups. One is constant, and it’s a password-protected blog where a few other poets and I post exercises and the poems that we write from them. This tends to get more active when the semester gets less busy, as most of us teach. I have another virtual group that’s a closed Google group. We pick 2-week or month-long chunks about twice a year to meet online, and when we meet, we write intensely–usually a poem-a-day. It came out of the NaPoWriMo idea, but we usually tend to meet in the summer for a month, and over winter break for a few weeks, as again, most of us teach and April (which is actually officially Poetry Month) tends to be too hectic in the academic calendar for anyone to get much writing done. We don’t comment on each other’s work, but I think we all like the group accountability of these virtual communities, and the fact that they help mitigate the loneliness of plugging away on your own a bit.

About the Poet:

Erika Meitner attended Dartmouth College, 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.

She’s received additional fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts (2002, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009), the Blue Mountain Center (2006), and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (John N. Wall Fellowship, 2003).

Her latest book is Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore.

Want to find out what Erika’s writing space looks like? Find out what she’s working on now, her obsessions, and much more. Check out the rest of my interview with Erika here. Please feel free to comment on the 32 Poems blog and Savvy Verse & Wit.

***Giveaway Reminders***

Giveaway for Eleanor Bluestein’s Tea & Other Ayama Na Tales short story collection, here; Deadline is May 6, 2009, 11:59 PM EST.

1 copy of Rubber Side Down Edited by Jose Gouveia, here; Deadline is May 15 at 11:59 PM EST