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Erika Meitner
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So this is my last blog for the week. I meant to blog last night, but I ended up out late--we went to see a documentary film that my friend Katy Powell worked on with the photographer and filmmaker Richard Knox Robinson, called "Rothstein's First Assignment: A Story About Documentary Truth." The film was an experimental documentary about Federal Security Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein, who was sent to Southwest Virginia in the 1930s to photograph people--ostensibly to capture mountain families and their way of life before they were displaced to establish Shenandoah National Park--as part of Roy Stryker's team of photographers (which included Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn, among others) who were employed to publicize the conditions of the rural poor in the United States. The film used oral histories, photos, letters, books, and self-reflexive tactics to not only question the nature of documentary, but also establish a link between Rothstein's work and the eugenics movement, as many of the families that were evicted from their houses and moved off their property were institutionalized at places like the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded, in Lynchburg, where many of them were also forcibly sterilized. (For more on the eugenics movement in Virginia: a radio story from WVTF, a web exhibit from UVA's Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, and Paul Lombardo's book Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Bell.) I couldn't help but think of connections to my own family history--my grandparents on my father's side fleeing to Israel, and my maternal grandparents displaced, ghettoized, and then sent to death camps where Hitler put his theories of eugenics into practice. When we were driving home to Virginia from New York after Thanksgiving, we stopped for gas at the Sunoco off of Exit 7, on I-78 in New Jersey. It's not a particularly nice Sunoco, but it had a decent attached convenience store, and it was less crowded than the giant Pilot Flying J station across the street which was geared towards truckers. My son had to pee, so I started unbuckling him from his car seat, and as I was doing this, I saw three guys in hunting camouflage across the pumps from us, who were going in the door of the convenience store. What caught my eye was the fact that one of the guys was holding another, carrying him like a bride over a threshold. The man being carried had turned his head towards us, and he was laughing. It wasn't until I got inside the store with my son that I saw that the man being carried had no legs. He was sitting at the counter on a stool, and his buddy who had been carrying him was perusing the beef jerky selection, and when that man turned towards me, I could see that half his face was scarred and pitted. When we finally figured out that the bathroom was outside, my son and I passed their pickup, its bed... Continue reading
Posted Dec 4, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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I should be writing a recommendation letter now for one of my many students who have asked me to complete this task for them so that they can get a job, get an MFA (most of the requests are for these), or get into some other form of graduate school. Recommendation letters--the writing and distribution of them--have gotten way more complicated in the past three or four years. It used to be that I wrote one letter, students would open a file at career services, and I'd send one copy of the letter there. Then career services would send out said letter for them (and me). Now, some of my students use Interfolio (a letter service), but others follow grad school guidelines for online applications, so I'm writing paper recommendation letters and mailing them, and then trolling my e-junkmail box for robo-links so I can upload my letter to a jillion more schools, each of which has a totally different e-system to navigate, many of which crash while I'm trying to upload my letter. Multiply this by ~20 students a year (and sometimes more). Which is to say that I'm a little bitter about this current complicated system, as it taxes my organizational skills, and sucks up way too much of my time. Complaining about this is, I realize, ironic, as I work for an MFA program that requires electronic rec letters. I just wish someone would centralize the process again somehow. This is an excellent place to offer a brief diversion with some links to recent articles about MFA programs making the rounds: there's Joyelle McSweeney's recent "Lay off the Motherf$%ing MFA Students;" there's Chad Harbach's "MFA vs. NYC" article from n+1 excerpted on Slate.com recently; and The Chronicle's "A Fray Over Frey’s Play to Prey on M.F.A.’s" (which is about this article on James Frey's fiction factory from New York magazine). The one thing all of these articles have in common is that no one will ever make money off their poems. But back to task-based wheel-spinning: I spent a good chunk of my day in my doctor's office, waiting for him to look at my foot due to my aforementioned accident with my son's Big Boy Bed. My primary care physician is lovely, but also deeply deeply Christian. The waiting room has multiple copies of the bible (illustrated and non), and each exam room also has a copy of a blue bible on the little table that holds all the doctor's instruments--his swabs and tubes and syringes. Usually the TV in the waiting room is tuned to Paula Deen making corn fritters, but sometimes it's turned to the 700 Club or other shows where people with health issues talk about how Jesus saved them. The waiting room is also filled with oil paintings, all done by my doctor, all of which look like photos unless you look at them at an angle to catch the brushstrokes: a girl lacing up a toe shoe, a toddler with roses,... Continue reading
Posted Dec 2, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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I am currently sitting on my couch with a bag of frozen peas on my foot, as I think I broke my toe on my son's new bed. We finally got a 'big boy bed' for him at Ikea, and I slammed my foot into it tonight while navigating around at bedtime. We had to get him a bigger bed for one main reason--he ran out of room for all of his stuffed animals. The kid sleeps with a menagerie that would give the Bronx Zoo a run for its money. There's doggie, little doggie, little little doggie, 4 bunnies, at least 3 ducks, approximately 4 monkeys, a lemur, a dinosaur, some unidentifiable species he's named 'cute little thing,' a whale, a dolphin, a stingray, an elephant, a 'kiberian' tiger, a snow leopard, a giraffe, a bird, and 2 buffalos. Incidentally, my son also got his first 'real' menorah from my Aunt tonight, for the first night of Hanukkah. It's a Noah's Ark themed menorah, and it looks like this, and he loves it (especially the dangling dolphins--see photo at right). My husband pointed out how weird it is that the one biblical story that's been appropriated for young children is actually a really disturbing tale of divine wrath--God saying, "Hey, this world project didn't work out. I'll save this one couple and some animals, and we'll start over--let's drown everyone and everything else!" Like every other Southern town, we have a Noah's Ark Preschool. That seems foreboding. Will only those kids be saved if there's another deluge? It's not clear. I just taught one of my last classes of the semester this afternoon. It's that time of the semester where everyone feels like they've gotten hit by a truck, and I was (and still am) also battling laryngitis, so I sound like Joan Rivers if she had smoked a carton of Marlboros and then tried to teach my class, which is an intermediate poetry writing workshop. Today we had a 'laying on of hands' workshop. Students bring their most broken poem in, divide up into small groups, and give each other suggestions on ways they might revise or resurrect their formerly hopeless poem. (Incidentally, that picture to the left is not my class at all, but a photo of a Pentecostal church in Kentucky taken by a Farm Securities Administration photographer in 1946, lest you get the wrong impression of what we do in my workshop.) If I wanted to be really neat and obvious, I'd develop some kind of Noah's Ark theory of poem revision in this paragraph--something about saving what's worth saving in a poem and drowning the rest. I could develop an entire biblical theory of poem revision based on different stories in the Hebrew Bible: the Adam & Eve revision, which takes an extraneous line from a functional poem and uses it as a starter line for a new poem; the Akedah or Binding of Isaac revision, in which an author is totally prepared to... Continue reading
Posted Dec 1, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Being Jewish in small-town Appalachia around Hanukkah time is an exercise in resourcefulness. We have no synagogue here--only a lay-led Jewish Community Center. The president of the center is very fastidious about keeping the mass emailings to official events and business, but about two nights ago, she sent out a note that it was ok to use the list to discuss where to find Hanukkah candles locally. The emails started, hot and heavy: the Target had blue and white candles, the Target was out of them, someone spotted them in the Kroger bargain bin by the registers marked down to 50 cents along with leftover matzah, someone else found two kinds (!) at the Walmart at the end-cap of Aisle 13 near women's shirts. Then more emails followed, about where to find chocolate Hanukkah gelt (see picture). All the Big Box stores are one town over in (ironically) Christiansburg. My husband pointed out tonight that we actually have seven boxes of Hanukkah candles in our house. I've apparently become an incidental hoarder of consumable Judaica products. What if the Saxes need a box though? Last year, they were forced to use Advent candles from the Party Central store (a shanda!). And there was the one unfortunate year where the only place I found candles was at the Walmart Christmas Shop, in the back of the store where the garden center normally is. I was so excited to find the candles, tucked between boxes of those light-up outlines of deer people put on their lawns that pretend to eat grass, that I bought a few boxes, along with Hanukkah "garland," and I didn't even care that the cashier wished me a Merry Christmas when he rang me up. Now, if you know your Lenny Bruce, you know that garland, like Drakes Cakes or Instant Potatoes, is a distinctly Goyishe item. I don't even care, though--I live in Appalachia. I will buy anything with a Jewish symbol emblazoned on it that I find at the Walmart. My mother-in-law is really into decorative holiday items: Santa dishes, festive serving platters, hand towels with snowflakes on them. One year, for Christmas, she got me a giant Hanukkah platter with doves and stars on it, and now, in Appalachia, I am glad for my giant seasonal decorative Goyishe-Jewish platter, which will be pressed into service during tomorrow's latke-making marathon, when even the cats will start to smell like deep fried hash browns. So this is a post about resourcefulness and community, syncretism and adaptation. I was thinking about this in the context of poetry today--especially the syncretism. Are there ways that other practices or cultures wend their way into contemporary American poetry, and are adopted, torqued a little, and ultimately embraced into the fold? I think of Terrance Hayes' pecha kucha poems from Lighthead, where he takes a Japanese business presentation format and turns it into a poetic form. I think of Maureen Thorson's practice (and what is a writing practice, if not a ritual?)... Continue reading
Posted Nov 30, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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My grandmother, my Oma, my father's mother, Greta Platschek Meitner (zikhronah livrakha)--died Monday morning at 12:45am. She was 92 years old, and she was my last surviving grandparent. I've written many poems about my maternal grandmother--my Baba--who survived Auschwitz, and was warm, funny, and unbelievably strong-willed. At 94, after having her leg amputated, she was still in physical therapy every day trying to re-learn to walk. Baba's first language was Yiddish, and she was an old-school baleboosteh--a chicken-soup-making machine, who lived in Florida in the winters, a bungalow colony in the Catskills in the summers, and was great at dispensing gifts, guilt, advice, and snacks in equal measures. My Oma was a different species of Jewish grandmother--the increasingly rare Jewish Yekke--and she fit the stereotype almost exactly. Oma was so punctual that we used to have to tell her we were picking her up five minutes later than we actually were, or she'd be waiting in the lobby of her apartment building for us looking testily at her watch. She was also quite formal, a little humorless, occasionally arrogant, and generally aloof. She spoke German rather than Yiddish, was as Jewishly unobservant as possible, and, when we visited her, often made us elaborate German dishes that involved some form of pork, like Rouladen (pickle, onion, egg, and bacon wrapped in beef). I'll get back to the bacon in a minute. Oma was born in 1918 in what's now the Czech Republic. She emigrated in late 1939 to Haifa, when it was still Palestine, to escape the Nazis. Margot Singer has a wonderful book called The Pale of the Settlement that recreates that time and place--Mt. Carmel in the 1940's--and the experience of these European transplants in the new land of Israel. It's shockingly close to my grandmother's story, as the Singers were good family friends of my grandparents, and lived next door to them in Haifa. My most vivid memories of Oma are from my childhood. She worked at Tilbury Fabrics in Manhattan for 20 years (1960-1980), and I can still remember taking the subway to work with her--the exact tint of the light near the tracks in the 71st Street Station in Forest Hills, and the way she'd flip and unfold large bolts of cloth. When I was seven or eight, she taught me to make her pflaumenkuchen--her plum cake. I can still see her thumbs splitting each black Italian plum down the middle, digging out the almond-like pit, and setting it in the rectangular cake pan. Like Baba, Oma was tough--she took care of my grandfather through years of Parkinson's disease, and then survived two hip fractures herself. But Oma was prickly, and sometimes she was hard to love. Both of my grandmothers settled in the same condominium complex in Hallandale, Florida by accident. It was a large development of ten or twelve buildings, but Oma and Baba managed to buy condos in the same building; Baba was on the 3rd floor, and Oma was on the 5th.... Continue reading
Posted Nov 29, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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I got back yesterday from a week in New York with my immediate and extended family for Thanksgiving, and I've almost recovered. All conversation is always being conducted at a yell in my family--think George Costanza's parents: The main casualty of this was my voice (and a little bit of my sanity). I'm mainly thankful that I'm not still stuck on the Cross Bronx Expressway or the GW Bridge writing this blog post. It's a 10 full hours of driving from Exit 33 on the Long Island Expressway, where I grew up and my parents still live, to Exit 118 on I-81 South in Virginia, where I moved in 2007 so that I could take a job teaching poetry in the MFA program at Virginia Tech. The car, this trip, was loaded down with flagels (I import them over state lines--the flagel is the flat one on the bottom in the picture), approximately two tons of thanksgiving leftovers, and Hankukkah presents for my three year-old son from every relative we have. Hanukkah starts super-early this year (thanks lunar Jewish calendar!)--on Wednesday--which means I'm less-than-prepared for eight nights of gifting, and a grueling three-hour knuckle-grating latke-making marathon. I figured I'd take this opportunity to spend some time this week ruminating on poetry and religion (in addition to any tangents on the major beige Jewish food groups). Things I'm hoping to tackle this week that will somehow tie into this theme include: Zeek's Jewish Poetry Manifesto that went up a few weeks ago: "No more kiddush wine poems, no more challah, no more herring! Enough with the Jewish grandmothers blessing shabbes candles, and no more poetic trips to Auschwitz, please..." And Zackary Sholem Berger's response over at The Forward, the hard work of dying that my last living grandparent--my Oma--is currently doing in hospice care on Long Island, my interfaith family, miracles, big box shopping for the holidays in Appalachia my son's new Noah's Ark menorah, and the three Iraq war vets I saw in hunting gear at the Sunoco off of Exit 7, on I-78 in New Jersey. I've been trying to teach my son basic Hebrew prayers for Shabbat--over the candles, wine, and challah. This past Friday the two of us made it through half the challah blessing together before he got too embarrassed about the twelve other family members who were watching us. I'd say a Hebrew word, and wait for him to repeat it. Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, hamotzi lechem min hararetz. (Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.) Judaism has a fixed liturgy--standardized blessings for every ritual and experience. Because I pray and bless in Hebrew, because I choose not to translate what I'm saying in my head while I'm saying it, the blessing becomes a rote and mimetic part of the ritual--a liturgical chant, a comfort mantra, a familiar song. A few weeks ago, my niece and nephew were baptized into the Episcopal church.... Continue reading
Posted Nov 28, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Nov 27, 2010