Friday, December 17, 2010

Erika Meitner

Erika Meitner is the author of Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore (Anhinga Press, 2003), and Ideal Cities (HarperCollins, 2010), which was a 2009 National Poetry series winner. Her third book, Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls, is due out from Anhinga Press in February 2011. Meitner’s poems have appeared most recently in APR, Virginia Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, The New Republic, and on She is currently an assistant professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she teaches in the MFA program.


My mother calls it
that straitjacket.
Do you still put

the baby to sleep

in that straitjacket?

she asks, and I say
Mom, you mean
the miracle blanket?

and she says yes,
the straitjacket
and I have to
admit she’s right,
that it looks
like a straitjacket
for babies, especially
in the “natural” color
which resembles a tortilla
so when he’s wrapped
the baby seems like a
burrito with a head,
and some nights
the straitjacket
helps him sleep, but
some nights
it does not
though we follow
and we shush and
swing the baby
wrapped tight
in his straitjacket,
but he screams and
won’t go down,
which is what we
call sleep now—
going down, as if he’s
drowning in his
straitjacket at 3am
in our bedroom
and we want him
to drown—we’ll do
anything to make him
go down, even pray.
Nicholas of Tolentino,
the patron saint
of babies, is said
to have resurrected
over 100 dead children
including several
who had drowned
together. He always
told those he helped
to say nothing of this.
Holy innocence, my son
in his miracle blanket
is sleeping. O faithful
and glorious martyr,
say nothing of this.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

The poem was composed on August 12, 2007, says the file name on the first draft. And I blame Sandra Beasley for its production. Back at the start of August she emailed a bunch of poets (Deborah Ager, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Kathi Morrison-Taylor, Don Illich, Oliver de la Paz, Nathan McClain, Kelli Russell Agodon, Carly Sachs, and me) to see if we would participate in a NaPoWriMo—it was based on Maureen Thorson’s idea of April as National Poetry Writing Month, but Sandra decided we should try, in August, to all produce a poem a day and email them to each other. The poems could be raw, or more finished, and the group accountability was meant to help us produce new work.

I had just had a new baby in March, moved in July, and started a new tenure-track job in August, and that time was perhaps the most chaotic time of my life, ever. I decided I would join the group, but aim for writing a poem every other day. I was still deep in the world of baby products—especially products that would somehow make my son sleep. Sleep was such a luxury then. The only time I had to write was late, late at night, so that poem was composed at some point in the 12am to 3am slot.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Ha! Revision! I was so busy that semester that I was just trying to get the poems down at night before I (literally) fell asleep on the keyboard. Often I didn’t have time to even re-read the poems until weeks later. “Miracle Blanket” got edited while I was writing it, and the poems that didn’t get finished in one shot that year didn’t survive. That poem later underwent one small edit—I took out the specific name of a sleep book from the poem, as it seemed too bulky. When I first started writing it, I was working with Saint Philomena (another patron saint of babies), but stumbled on Nicholas of Tolentino and the drowning story, and then the poem just clicked and pretty much emerged whole.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

This poem was totally "received." My deliriously tired subconscious somehow knew what it was doing. I’d like to say the angels (whoever they are, whatever they are) were whispering in my ear, but it’s more like the Forrest Gump school of poetry-writing—accidentally stumbling on wild success.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I knew I wanted it to have shorter lines, and sort of spill down the page. Other than that aspect of the poem, I didn’t really think about technique. I do internal rhyme in my sleep—that music is instinctual—so I knew it would have music.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

“Miracle Blanket” was first printed in The Florida Review in Winter 2008—so about six months after it was written. I had been solicited for some poems by Kelle Groom, who was helping to edit that particular issue, so I sent her that poem in a batch, and the journal took it. It was later reprinted in my book, Ideal Cities, which came out this past August from HarperCollins.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

It totally varies. I get solicited a lot more for work these days, so my work probably spends less time sitting than it used to just because folks actively ask me for it. I’ll just send stuff out when it feels done though. Sometimes that’s right away, and sometimes it takes years to finish a poem.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

This poem is 100% true. My mother actually said that verbatim. I tend to practice documentary poetics.

Is this a narrative poem?

Totally. And I’m not ashamed! “Narrative” has been a dirty word in contemporary American poetry for a while now. I get lumped in with new formalists, or Southern poets, or a host of other folks I admire but don’t really generally fit with. I’m usually a free verse poet, and a New York Jew. Actually, though, compared to some of my other work, this is less narrative. I mean, it has narrative elements—dialogue, scene—but it’s really a meditation on sleep, language, and the terror and frustration that accompanies first-time parenthood.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t reading anything at that particular moment. I barely had time to pee that month. But I do know my line in that poem was influenced by Sean Thomas Dougherty’s “The Puerto Rican Girls of French Hill” from American Poetry: The Next Generation (edited by Jim Daniels and Gerald Costanzo). I was putting together my course reader for fall semester those NaPoWriMo weeks, and that poem went into the reader because I love the way it sounded—the way it slides down the page.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I’d be paralyzed if I sat down to write and thought about audience.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

The NaPoWriMo group I mentioned earlier were the first people to see that poem, but we usually didn’t comment on each other’s stuff—though with that poem, Deborah Ager sent me a little encouraging note. That group (but with a rotating membership) still meets online every so often for a month or a few weeks and writes together. And some of those folks looked at the completed manuscript this poem went into. The poet Taije Silverman has also been helping me with individual poems for many years now, too. She’s an amazing reader and editor, in addition to being an exquisite poet.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I have a few other poems that use a short line like this one, but the majority of my poems have a much longer line.

What is American about this poem?

In some ways, “Miracle Blanket” is about consumerism—and what’s more American than that? When we had a baby, I was floored by the amount and range of products out there that companies tried to convince us we needed. The biggest and best baby emporium in the DC-area is called (no joke) Buy Buy Baby. We got three or four Miracle Blankets in the mail from friends, and it was like this magic talisman that everyone was sending to each other—as if this product would somehow tame the fearsome newborn single-handedly. And the name has such chutzpah! It promises divine intervention so your child will sleep. All for $29.99!

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished. Quickly. See “falling asleep on keyboard” above.


  1. I really enjoyed both poem and interview, especially the honesty in both. I tend to write narrative poems, too, and find it's often a 'dirty' word with a lot of poets, esp those who fill their own poems with so many poetic devices and obscure lines that they're unreadable ( to me).

    Thanks for this.

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  7. Poet Erika Meitner, daughter of a German-born mother whose family survived the concentration camps and Israeli father, was born in Queens and raised in New York. She earned a BA at Dartmouth College, an MFA at the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow, and an MA in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, where she was a Morgenstern Fellow in Jewish Studies. She is the author of several collections, including Holy Moly Carry Me (2018), Copia (2014), Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (2011); Ideal Cities (2010), which was chosen for the National Poetry Series by Paul Guest; and Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore (2003), which won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry. Her work has been included in the anthologies Best American Poetry (2011), Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days (2010), and Best African American Essays (2010), The Way We Work: Contemporary Writings from the American Workplace (2008), and Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections (2008).
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