Interview with Michelle Meier, by Jeff Handy

Published: Vol. I, Issue IV
Date of Interview: October 24th, 2014

Can you describe your typical creative process? Do you feel like your poems are most often the result of your channeling a muse, or do you begin a poem through sheer will?

I would say both. My creative process is an amalgam of practice and unknowing. I believe in repetition, progression and improvisation. I believe in sitting down to write the same way one sits down to play piano scales. With that said, I am often compelled to write a poem because I have heard, read and seen a few things all within the span of a single day that I feel, though disparate, could be reconciled via a poem. Writing the poem is the exploration. The result, or “meaning,” if any, is an accident, coincidence or confluence. If it goes badly, I like what Szymborska said: “I have a trash can in my room.”

Where do you write? Do you favor a particular ambiance while you're writing?

I write at a desk near a window.

The poets workspace.

When and why did you begin taking writing seriously?

I have always taken other people’s writing seriously. In considering how I am inclined to answer this question, it is easier to describe myself as a reader first. Before I recognized myself as a writer, I turned any text I love—a short story, a novel, a poem—over and over in my hands the way a seamstress might who is trying to understand how an expert garment is constructed. I was and am constantly asking: how has this been accomplished? I’ve been reading the Collected Works of Philip Larkin for over fifteen years, which is to say I wander over to it sometimes, check on a word or poem or two, replace it on the shelf and shuffle off. I recall the first author I took very seriously as a teenager was Huxley. After that, it was Salinger, Wharton, Cheever, O'Connor, Hesse, Yates, Dineson, Duras, Baxter, D'Ambrosio, Davis, Doerr, Kalfus and others. I held writers and writing in such high esteem that I was frozen for many years. It was exhausting and cold. I’m pleased to report I’ve thawed out some. Taking my own writing seriously came later (age 30). I wanted to write short stories, but I couldn’t finish one. Setting, characters, and dialogue came readily, but that mysterious thing called plot often evaded me. My imagery became more and more associative and reductive. I found myself creating something resembling poems. Now that I’ve written a fair amount of poems, some successful, some not, I feel that I might have the ability to complete a short story, though I think stories require a very different mental “muscle.”

“Unnamed Trees” reminded me of a quote by Boris Pasternak, made more famous by its inclusion in the movie Into the Wild: “For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name ….” What is it about the act of naming that is so symbolically significant? What do you see your poem saying to this end? 

That’s a beautiful quote. I wasn’t consciously considering the symbolic act of naming when I wrote “Unnamed Trees.” The poem arrived nearly whole as I was walking passed the cemetery across the street from my home. Your question makes me think of Borges and the slim collection “Everything and Nothing.” His essay “The Wall and the Books,” describes an emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who ordered the building of the great wall and also decreed that all books prior to him be burned. He renamed himself The First, “…so as in some way to be Huang Ti, the legendary emperor who invented writing and the compass. (Huang Ti) gave things their true name; in parallel fashion, Shih Huang Ti boasted, in inscriptions that endure, that all things in his reign would have the name which was proper to them.”  Perhaps I include this to complicate the matter: what of the symbolic act of naming in the hands of someone delusional or dangerous?

My own poem begins by stating what the speaker can’t name. But then she proceeds to name, with precision, what is seen (“black-gray grapes, black-gray hydrangeas, black-gray beehives”) which are made-up names for the shapes of shadows on a mausoleum wall. Without tangible form, the shadows will disappear as predictably as light does. The bees themselves are referred to as projections. I would like that word to remain open to interpretation, whether it be images upon a screen, a mental image viewed as reality, or an unconscious transfer of emotion. I took these definitions from the dictionary. I think the poem is contending with the capriciousness and, perhaps, responsibility of naming. 

I think being a poet means being wildly enchanted nearly all of the time—during, in spite of, or as a result of perceived dissonance—and to call each thing by its right name. Or stated differently: to locate the most accurate and atmospheric arrangement of words that can be conjured and afforded in that moment. At best, I hope my poem incarnates the vividness of the attempt and moreover, the elusiveness of the result.

How did education play a role in your development as a writer?

I studied art history, literature and photography, the latter subject in an MFA program at the School of Visual Arts. My education as a writer has been largely solitary. But a few sparkling teachers and friends have made all the difference. Years ago, while assisting the artist Robert Blake with projects around his home, I began to share my work. Reading to him and, in turn, his receptivity and interest felt hugely encouraging and helpful. Now, from time to time, I meet with the poet Miranda Field and we write in a coffee shop near 157th street or elsewhere. Her mentorship and friendship have been invaluable. I’ve also loved taking a few of Geoffrey Nutter’s workshops in Inwood and Brooklyn.

I currently work in education and gain a lot from being near or with children most of the day. I am interested in their simultaneously bewildered and perceptive take on things. I would like to write poems that are simultaneously bewildered and perceptive. Being in education plays a role in my development as a writer as I am, consciously and unconsciously, inspired at work. A colleague and I recently found a scrap of paper in school written in a child’s pencil scrawl that read: “Dear Farmer Brown, I am tierd of carrying pepole. I would like apillow on my back.” I found it so lovable and excellent and then promptly forgot about it. But a few days and nights later, during an episode of sleeplessness, I was struck with the realization that it was written from the perspective of his horse.

What are you working on now?

I just completed my first manuscript. It’s titled “Famous Geranium” (Nauset Press, 2015). I am working on accepting what I have made. I am also working on new poems.

Whose work interests you right now? What poets or presses are putting out work that you find exciting?

I read bits and pieces of a lot of different kinds of work—poetry, non-fiction, store signage, the newspaper—anything. Right now I am looking at “Shadow Wars” from 1988 by D. Nurske and “Soul in Space” by Noelle Kocot. I’ve been slowly reading Bill Bryson’s book “At Home: A Short History of Private Life” for awhile and love the concept. He writes about every room of the house, each serving as a kind of rabbit hole into facts about architectural, social and design history. Perhaps not unrelated is that I was recently captivated by a store sign for a mirror and glass business in Long Island named “The Shower Door.” Then the traffic light turned green and I had to keep driving. I went to the AWP for the first time this year, in Seattle, and attended a few readings by Wave Books. I think that’s a very exciting press in every regard, from their roster of poets to their book covers. 

What, in your opinion, is the state of contemporary American poetry right now? Where is it headed?

I feel a little flummoxed by this question, like I’m a nervous kid who showed up late to the poetry pool party. Right now there’s a lot of activity in my view: balloons are tied to a chaise-lounge, little mouths are circled in red with fruit punch, and someone’s pretending to fall backwards off the diving board. Soon the lightning will arrive and we’ll all be forced out of the water and inside.