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Faces in the Food Lion Parking Lot: An Interview with Erika Meitner

Erika Meitner is the author of Useful Junkwhich was published by BOA Editions on April 5, 2022, as well as the BOA collections Holy Moly Carry Me (2018) and Copia (2014). In her newest collection, Meitner takes up the question of desire and intimacy, exploring memory, passion, and the various ways the body sees and is seen. Learn more about Erika and her work through this exclusive self-interview!

When did you start writing this book?

This book began in the Food Lion parking lot one night in late 2016 when I was sitting in my car, and noticed how many people around me were also sitting in their cars with their faces lit by the distinctive blue glow of their phones. Useful Junk is a diffuse book that explores connections between memory, language, desire, image and space (virtual, corporeal, natural, and constructed), as well as how machines—and especially our smartphones and their cameras—frame and shape us, and the ways in which our bodies are surveilled, captured, and disseminated by them. I was 41 when I started writing this book, and I was interested in the aging female body, mid-life desire, self-portraiture and self-representation in a time of increasing global and national crisis.

Your work often creates or finds sublime moments in everyday or generic places, like grocery stores, strip mall parking lots, and public restrooms. What is the relationship between the broader themes in this book, and our everyday, daily, and quotidian activities and places?

Many of these poems began on the notepad of my iPhone in local strip mall parking lots, doctors’ waiting rooms, or big box store checkout lines. Some of them were completed at artist communities and residencies, like the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and The Hermitage. Still others were written on airplanes or train stations or in hotel rooms while I was traveling for Holy Moly Carry Me. And all of these different landscapes turn up in the poems in Useful Junk. But many of these poems also take place in virtual spaces, which are sites of meaning-making too. We tend to omit our digital lives from our poems, though so many of us have rich and intimate digital lives; to that end, I was especially interested in recording the ways in which people code-switch visually and linguistically when they engage in social media posting, Tweeting, texting, IMs, DMs, and other forms of addressing “you”—be it a singular or plural you. If you have an internal monologue, who is the ‘you’ you address in your head when you’re speaking to yourself? Is it shifty or consistent? Is it a beloved, a ghost, a speculative future?

Is this book in conversation with other artists or texts?

These poems draw on theory—often indirectly—including writings by Ludwig Wittgenstein on language, Elaine Scarry on beauty, Susan Sontag on photography, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari on desire, Charles W. Moore on space and memory, Rem Koolhaas on place, and Rosalind Krauss on form and formlessness. Many of these poems are directly ekphrastic and imaginative, and respond to visual art by Tala Madani, Yves Klein, Carolee Schneemann, Mel Rosenthal, Zoe Leonard, Ed Ruscha, and other artists whose work I’ve encountered at museum and gallery exhibits. I started working ekphrastically in my 4th book, Copia, and this book continues on in that tradition, but uses painting and sculpture—as opposed to documentary photography—as inspiration, and also looks to art criticism and architectural theory to create a new lyric and imagistic language for the body as it relates to time, place, and desire.

Are there other things outside of this book that were central to the making of these poems?

In the summer of 2017, I began corresponding with a millennial writer named Hillary Adler, who reached out to me electronically via Facebook Messenger to see if I wanted to write letter poems back and forth with her. I was 42—a middle-aged, married Gen-X English professor with two kids. Hillary was 27, recovering from a recent miscarriage, working in the tech industry, and had just separated permanently from her male partner, who was struggling with an opioid addiction. I live in rural southwest Virginia, where Hillary spent her teen and college years, and she lived in New York City, where I was born and raised. Immersed in the constant grind of the city, Hillary missed the mountains, and I was homesick, too—even after twelve years in southern Appalachia, I consider myself a New Yorker, and the 2016 presidential election and subsequent Trump-era conservative backlash not only put my feminist sensibilities on high alert, but also made me feel even more nostalgic for the diversity and hustle of the city.

Our correspondence, which took place via text, Facebook Messenger, Instagram direct messages, and email, turned into an unlikely friendship, and many of the poems in the book are addressed directly to her. We’ve had and continue to have existential crises together—mine mid-life and hers quarter-life. Hillary came out as a lesbian, got two new jobs, moved apartments four times, and got engaged to a woman. Other than publishing a new book, my life has pretty much stayed the same on the surface, but I write to her about perceived differences between my twenties and forties and struggle to articulate how mid-life has been making me hyper-aware of certain ephemeralities—of the shifty and impermanent nature of time, beauty, body, and memory in particularly urgent ways.

In my poem-letters to her, I ask her about all things millennial, and she tells me how to take decent selfies, how Tinder works, explains online etiquette and edibles, Venmo and UberPool. She asks me what it’s like to have a kids and a husband, to be “settled.” I give her advice that sometimes feels maternal: Call your doctor. Take yourself to urgent care. Finish your manuscript. Send her something she likes. The return address goes in the upper left-hand corner. You are fine. You will be fine.

So what does it mean to move through the world as a woman in a body, whether you’re twenty-eight or forty-three? How should one live? What does it mean to have uncertainty or certainty in your life? How do we adapt to changing times? Which is all to say that some of the actual letters I wrote to Hillary became poems in this book.

What changed in between writing your last book and writing this book? Is there something that you’re doing differently in this book? What gave you the feelings of permission or obligation to explore these new themes? Is there something in here that you haven’t said in your previous books?

Holy Moly Carry Me was a personal book, in that it addressed my family history as the child of a refugee and an immigrant, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, the parent of one white son and one Black son, and my struggles with secondary infertility. But all of those personal issues were framed against larger cultural and political events—the Newtown school shootings, the murder of Tamir Rice, and other public tragedies. As personal as it was in places, it felt like an outward-facing book. When I started Useful Junk, it felt like a really intimate project I was writing for myself, as a middle-aged woman trying to remember that I had a body—that the world is not ok, but we are beautiful if we can see our own light and remember our own porousness. I’ve always written about the pleasures and dangers of women’s corporeal experiences, and this is an embodied book—but it’s also metaphysical, philosophical, and epistemological. These poems are secret and risqué, and the language itself in here is an act of intimacy where the lyric ‘you’ becomes lover and reader together.

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