Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Essay
Click here to read an early draft of "Instructions for Vigilant Girls"
Click here to read an early draft of "North Country Canzone"
Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Essay
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 Creative Writing in 2001 as
a Henry Hoyns Fellow, and her M.A. in Religious Studies in 2013 as a Morgenstern Fellow in Jewish Studies.
In 2001-2 she was the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the University
of Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and has received additional fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative
Arts (2002, 2004, 2005, 2008-2013), the Blue Mountain Center (2006), and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (John N.
Wall Fellowship, 2003). Her poems have appeared in publications including The Southern Review, Slate,
Prairie Schooner, The Kenyon Review, Tin House, The New Republic, Ploughshares,
Her first book, Inventory at the
All-Night Drugstore, won the 2002 Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry, and was published in 2003 by Anhinga Press.
Her second book, Ideal Cities, was selected by Paul Guest as a winner of the 2009 National Poetry Series competition,
and was published in 2010 by HarperCollins. Her third collection, Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls,
was published by Anhinga Press in 2011. Her newest collection of poems, Copia, is due out from BOA Editions
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.
In addition to teaching creative writing at UVA, UW-Madison, and UC-Santa Cruz, she has worked as a dating columnist,
an office temp, a Hebrew school instructor, a computer programmer, a lifeguard, a documentary film production assistant,
and a middle school teacher in the New York City public school system.
Meitner is currently an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she teaches in the MFA program,
and is also the associate faculty principal of Hawthorn House (one of the residential colleges at Virginia Tech).
Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Essay
As far as you can throw them: disjecta membra on self-portraits
and the ken of similes by Jake Adam York, first published
at Kenyon Review Online
Maybe, as Charles
Wright says, a poem is always a self-portrait, though what exactly that means for the poem’s shape, or the way it
treats its reader, is less than a simple matter, as I considered in my last two postings. I’m not yet through thinking
about the relationship between ekphrasis and self-portrait poems, but, reading Weston Cutter’s interview with Erika
Meitner here on the KR Blog and listening to OutKast, I’m diverted or diffracted to think about (though now it occurs
to me that what follows can be read (please read it this way) as an extension of some of the comments I made last week
about the figures in Cecily Parks’s self-portrait poems) the relationship between the figure or image in a self-portrait
poem and the writer ostensibly being self-portrayed and, for that matter, what one’s similes say, or do not say,
about one’s self.
not called a “self-portrait,” the gesture that begins “North Slope Borough,” the opening poem in Erika
Meitner’s Ideal Cities, seems self-portraity in its reflexiveness, though the gesture exceeds the ken of simple
My heart is
an Alaskan fishing village during whaling season,
which is to say that everyone is down by the thawing sea.
huts on stilts are empty, and my heart is a harpoon,
a homemade velveteen parka, hood lined with wolverine.
In her interview with Cutter, Meitner says “I’m super
tied to my geography,” which, as Cutter’s question specifies, is Washington DC, central Virginia, east coast
locales. Alaska doesn’t come up. Her Wikipedia entry tells us that she was born in New York and attended college
at Dartmouth–so East Coast mostly, though Wikipedia also says she taught at University of Wisconsin-Madison and UC-Santa
Cruz, so there’s some upper-Midwest and West Coast in the geographical resume, but still no Alaska–all of
which to say the poem’s statement that the speaker’s heart is “an Alaskan fishing village” is a
boldly metaphorical statement and not just a change of scale, as if I, a fifth-generation Alabamian, were to say “my
heart is Birmingham” or even “I am Alabama,” neither of which would be technically true, however metonymically
plausible. The biography and geography-biography suggest that the locale picked up by the title, “North Slope Borough”
is the metonym, but I’m not really thinking about metonyms. It’s the metaphor–the claim that the heart
is an Alaskan fishing village, which expresses and images the speaker’s adoption of a hunting posture, which tells
us that she is on the move–and moving so surely and determinedly the village and the metaphor disappear soon.
My mouth has no zipper, which helps me remember
how to say O. O I miss home. When I close my eyes,
I see the F train’s twin headlights blooming into the station.
When I close my eyes, its warm wind sweeps hair from my face“
Back in New York.
I admire, I want to say,
the way this poem expresses what Meitner calls her tie to geography by moving, in what we might (hopefully-not-too-bad-flashback-academically)
call the poem’s vehicular space–in that place that’s reserved for the images of metaphors or similes
that transport us to those other places, though the poem’s finally really and always and never stopped being about
the speaker’s “heart,” that, by the end of the poem is “old-school graffiti” and so forth
from what a Wikipedia-biographical approach to the poem would suggest is home, is the original geography for the poet who
may be pressing forward in the speaker. I admire, I want to say, the way this poem moves through a chain of metaphors
or similes, the way it uses a figure until it gets what it needs (can you see the people on the seashore?) and then moves
I am thinking, I want to say, too, as I re-read
this poem, of the VH1 2008 special VH1’s 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs, and specifically their 23rd greatest
hip-hop song, OutKast’s “B.O.B.” The song is from OutKast’s 2000 album Stankonia, and it
was the first single off the album, which also included the now-more-famous “Ms. Jackson.” According to the
VH1 segment, this song, which radically altered OutKast’s position in the hip-hop universe by projecting the musical
explosiveness of the Atlanta crew beyond the scope of the Dirty South, was a serious club hit that started getting radio
play before ultimately being pulled from radio rotation the following year when, after the 9/11 attacks, the phrase signified
by the acronym–“bombs over Baghdad”–became perceived as a pro-war statement or as an offensively-upbeat
celebration of war. This, however, is clearly a misreading, as the song instead thinks–amplified especially in the
chorus, which contains this simile–about the first Gulf War conflict and the way America’s relationship with
Iraq, never really good after that conflict, help figure the need for decisive and definitive action. As the chorus goes:
Don’t pull the thang out unless you plan to bang
Bombs over Baghdad
Don’t even bang unless you plan to hit something
Bombs over Baghdad
It’s a core practice of hip-hop to use a simile then leave it. One
might say “all similes are local.” So, on VH1’s third greatest hip-hop song of all time, Dr. Dre’s
“Nothin’ But a G Thang,” Snoop Dogg raps that he’s “getting funky on the mic like an old bunch
of collard greens”–yet, no one’s looking for him in the produce section or behind the grocery store.
Meitner is–and for that matter OutKast and Snoop Dogg are–always
playing on our desire, once we’ve become invested in or awakened by a figure, to continue to live with it and in
it. Maybe the misreadings of OutKast’s “B.O.B.” are inevitable–especially as the culture changes
around it. Maybe these ways in which the vehicular figure slips out of the pocket say something about the time and place–the
temporal and spatial geography–in which an utterance can occur and in which it can be read. The figure is good as
far as you can throw it, but sometimes it skips on the water on continues even further than we could have made it go.
Meitner, in her poem, knows how to make the skip work, letting
the stone travel after we’ve stopped watching.
Meitner’s poem will not say, does not need to say, because you will say it for the poem, is where the heart is, so
after the heart is the fishing village and the poet comes “home” and declares
Home is the place with plastic slipcovers on the couch.
Home is the
place with heavy brown shoes misaligned at the door.
we have left Alaska, but we have not left it entirely behind, because it can still say something, or help the
poem say something, about the poet’s home geography:
When I close my eyes, I look for an entryway into the earth.
I dream of a porcupine, though I can’t recall
if I’ve ever seen one.
seems more at home in the frontier geography of Alaska, but it provides the poem’s speaker a way of moving from a
part of the poem in which the subways of New York read like convenient similes to a place in which the subway trains,
the tunnels, the graffiti, and sidewalk chess matches of the poet’s home geography become not figures but self-portraits.
The stone skipping, seemingly accidentally, with serious, stealth purpose.
A Review of Erika Meitner's Ideal Cities by Matthew Guenette,
first published at Barn Owl Review
So here is Ideal Cities, Erika Meitner’s second poetry collection, opening with “North Slope
Borough,” a narrative that gets it—how sharply patterned metaphors can flash and blur so our narrator’s
heart becomes an Alaskan fishing village, her mouth a zipper, her mind’s eye a vision of the F train in Brooklyn
as quickly as one sweeps the hair from one’s face.
Such a thrilling description-turned-meditation—and this book is particularly attentive to that rhetorical
tradition—wants each image, each memory, to shadow, singe, and re-describe another. The poetic legacy here is hybridity:
poem as remembrance, poem as event, poem as bursting. “North Slope Borough” is an apt signal for a collection
that feels intensely awake, restless, and dream-like at once.
What Ideal Cities wrestles with is love and disappointment, identity, what it means to be a mother, daughter,
to be heartened and alive. To remember stumbling home with a lover, confessing, “it doesn’t seem
like an accident / the summer is always gin-soaked,” while the night is “holding its breath / for things
gone / missing” (“Small, Generic Towns at Night”). To wring from a grandmother’s experience
in Bergen-Belsen, “bare-shouldered trees / like the thinnest trip-wires / the name of the unnamed / over and over,
hollow / bones scraping the space / nothing could reach” (“1944”). To experience language squeezed
tight so the reading transforms into the straightjacket it describes, as in the exquisite “Miracle Blanket,”
a poem about a swaddle blanket that verges on prayer.
These poems move (and are moving), committed to an experiment where hardly a single image or idea remains itself
for long. Yet within that experiment Meitner’s poems don’t pine for avant-garde styling. They don’t
explode syntactically in a manner that feels self-conscious. Rather Meitner has offered voices—intelligent, full
of empathy for the fracturing world they address—that make these poems feel innovative and perennial. A novel concept:
poems with as much heart as irony. When the reader finishes the last poem, “May the World to Come Be Neon, Be Water”
(beginning playfully with “because my shoes are too tight”’) they come away re-engaged, not only with
the experience of language, but with the experiences that that language re-describes in its amazement.
The universe in Ideal
Cities feels collective. And though these poems resound with struggle, they ultimately argue for a generous universe.
In “Ideal Cities,” the poem that lends its title to book, we discover:
Ideal cities are where the neighbors
play soul music all night long & don’t care
who they bother because
who doesn’t like the Holy Ghost
or Loose Booty?...
In ideal cities the pharmacist knows your prescriptions
by heart. In ideal cities your neighbor sells pot to the
for a living…
…In the ideal city my neighbors
are a multi-generational
family & one guy
who puts chairs
in the street
to save a spot
for our moving truck.
This poem’s structure, oscillating couplets, manages play and possibility.
The poem makes no apologies for what it believes: clearly these ideal cities exist. They’re here, in the poems,
where Meitner has set the language loose. The way “Ideal Cities” winnows to that strangely singular and
plural image—our moving truck—represents the warm hope that all of us, any minute now, could be heading to
Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Essay
An Interview with Erika Meitner by Steve
Davenport and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Davenport & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Things don't go well in "Instructions for Vigilant Girls." Would
you talk about how you maintain the poem's balancing act between play and danger as it moves from feigned sleep to, perhaps,
the long sleep?
Erika Meitner: I wrote "Instructions for Vigilant Girls"
during the summer of 2002, when many missing girls were in the news, including Elizabeth Smart, Erica Pratt, Danielle Van
Dam, and Samantha Runion. I've always written about adolescent girlhood, and that summer, in particular, I was thinking
a lot about how dangerous it can be to move through the world in the body of a girl. I was reading an article on the Elizabeth
Smart abduction, and one of the things that struck me was the fact that Elizabeth's 9-year-old sister was in the room pretending
to be asleep when Elizabeth was abducted, and watched and heard the entire event from her bed. The contrast of the advice
that we're given as kids on how to avoid being taken (some of which is totally weird or absurd), and the fact that none
of this advice applied to Elizabeth Smart's situation was one of the tensions driving me to write "Instructions for
Vigilant Girls." I do think that feeling-of being on the cusp of play and danger, or rather, pleasure and danger-is
something that defines adolescence for me on the whole.
But when the "you" in the poem is found in the end, like Smart, she's alive (and kicking), rather than
dead, as in your reading of the poem.
& AMK: "Instructions" reads like, well, a list of instructions. I'm not sure what the term is, but
the "directive" poem (a poem that tells the reader what to do) has a healthy history in contemporary poetry. Why
do you think that is?
think in the last ten years, the imperative has gotten more popular in poems as the first-person "I" confessional
(or even any first-person speaker) has fallen out of style. It was important to me that the poems in Makeshift Instructions
for Vigilant Girls highlight both the pleasures and implicit dangers of adolescent girlhood. To that end, I think
adolescent girls are our bellwethers, our firecrackers, our harbingers-our most endangered and dangerous resource-and perhaps
the most instructed and lectured members of our society. They're always being told what to wear, how to act, what to eat,
how to be in and move through the world. In that way, I felt that having a few different sets of ‘instructional' poems
brought some lived experience into the manuscript via diction and syntax. But with an ‘instructional' poem you're
also simultaneously instructing (or commanding?) the reader, so that relationship-between the poem/poet and the reader becomes
more active and demanding.
SD & AMK:
"North Slope Borough" moves interestingly through definitional claims about the speaker's heart (= village, harpoon,
parka, hood, chainsaw, awl, graffiti) and home (= place with slip-covered couch, place with shoes at the door, both fairly
mundane) that give way to a dream journey that includes a dead friend, an infant son, and the loneliness of one body seeking
union. Is "North Slope Borough" one of the "road maps" Denise Duhamel references in her blurb for the
book? If so, what is the journey seeking and at what cost?
EM: I don't know if "North Slope Borough" is a road map, but it's definitely a journey
poem. One of the things that had so fascinated me about being pregnant was the idea that at one time, I had two hearts
inside my body. I used that idea as a jumping off point. But the other big inspiration for the poem was a course I took
in graduate school on "Shamanism and Healing" with Edie Turner, who's a pretty famous anthropologist. She's lived
with, among other people, the Inupiat in the North Slope Borough of Alaska, and has used a participant-observer model to
discover the different ways in which people heal themselves and others. When I studied with her, one of the things she required
us to do was go on a Shamanic journey. She turned off all the lights and had us lie on the floor of the classroom while
she drummed, and we were meant to find a way in to the spirit world below to retrieve our ‘spirit animals.' When
I describe it, it all sounds much trippier and weirder than it was, but when I did my journey, the only way I could figure
out to get myself below ground was via the subway (which is perhaps a vestige of my Queens upbringing), and it turned out
(to my surprise) the spirit animal I found and retrieved was a porcupine. Anyway, when I wrote that poem, I was reading
Edie's book, The Hands Feel It, about her time with the Inupiat, and thinking about that journey and also this
recurring dream I had been having about my friend Chris (who's dead) and my grandmother (who had also died), and all of these
things found their way into the poem.
to answer your question more directly, I think the poem is looking for home (which for me, usually means New York), and
company. But the poem mostly wants a heart that's capable of seeking out light-a heart that works with others, rather than
acts upon them.
SD & AMK:
There are a lot of... "classical" moves in "North Slope Borough": its use of anaphora/repetition, the
"O," the long lines organized into a single stanza, the alternation between long sentences and short, declarative
ones. How conscious are you of these various moves? How concerned are you that a reader might find the use of the "O"
a bit overly dramatic, that a reader might find all this repetition material for the eye-roll? I don't ask this question
because I feel this way. Quite the opposite! But I feel like I often hear this sort of criticism of "big" poems,
of poems that feel like poems... a criticism I have never understood...
EM: Sometimes I feel as if I belong to the "Forrest Gump School of Poetry" as much of
what I do in my work is unconscious-which isn't to say it's not intentional. I can't imagine that poem as other than it
is, and I think subconsciously I knew exactly what I was doing with the language. But there's no way I could have written
that poem if I had been at all conscious of my syntax. "North Slope Borough" is a really emotional poem for me-it's
a poem about my dead returning to me (my beloved grandmother, and my best friend who committed suicide), my feverish infant
son, homesickness, loneliness, and the heart, which always keeps beating and moving forward, pulling us with it, whether
we want it to or not. If I can't use a little apostrophe in a poem like that, when can I use it?
SD & AMK: You seem to move effortlessly from the short
lines of "Instructions for Vigilant Girls" to the long lines in "North Slope Borough" and "North
County Canzone." In fact, "North County Canzone," which references letter-writing more than once, seems nearly
to abandon line breaks on the second page, becoming a letter itself, then ends in a short-lined, poetic coda. How do you
manage to work with such different sorts of lines so masterfully? At what point in the writing of "North County Canzone" did you decide to end with that shift
into a prayer-like coda and why? Was the lengthening of the lines as you moved through the poem toward that coda intentional?
EM: I wrote "North Country Canzone" during a weirdly liminal and intense time in my life. I was
essentially cloistered at Blue Mountain Center (an artists' colony deep in the Adirondacks) for a month, I was pregnant
with my first son, my beloved grandmother was gravely ill, and I was far away from everyone and everything. I became really
fascinated with the Canzone form via the poems of both Sean Thomas Dougherty ("Canzone Sprayed with Graffiti"
and "Canzone to the Time of a Falling Leaf") and Paisley Rekdal (http://webdelsol.com/Quarterly_West/archives/iss56/rekcanz.html).
I was conscious of the poem getting heavier and more packed with stuff, the lines getting longer as I went. Part of that
is the contrast between the spareness of the residency (where I was removed from all of the daily-ness of normal life, and
immersed in nature and writing) and the messiness and complications of my grandmother's life-of aging and illness and her
history and my extended family. Part of it was also that I thought of the poem as pregnant, in a way, growing larger as
time passed with each line. I was thinking about Plath a lot when I was writing that poem-the way she managed to infuse
nature with such feeling. I ended up stealing a phrase from "Winter Trees" for the ending, which provided a turn
and allowed me to be spare ("O mother of leaves and sweetness"). I kept thinking about how much my world would
shrink (thus those tiny lines) if my grandmother were gone-if, after surviving Auschwitz, she didn't live to see the birth
of her first grandchild. I needed that ending prayer to bless her and resurrect her in case she didn't live to see my son
(though she ultimately did).
SD & AMK:
Would you talk about your use of form? How free is your verse? And how has your approach to form changed from book to book?
EM: I think of myself almost exclusively
as a free-verse poet, though I'm very conscious of the idea that every poem has a body, and those bodies need to work with
or against the content of a poem in an interesting way. I'm also very attuned to the ‘music' of a poem-when I write
I use a lot of internal rhyme, and I think most of my poems have specific rhythms. I don't often call on traditional modes
of prosody-of received forms or specific meter-but my work has structure and music. I definitely think that as I've gotten
older as a poet, I've become more adept with lyricism and language. When I read my first book, the heart is there, but
parts of it now sometimes sound clunky to me where narrative asserts itself over language.
SD & AMK: Tell us a little bit about your next book and the series of Detroit poems, This
is not a Requiem, you were commissioned to write for VQR.
EM: In the Ted Genoways era of VQR, the journal implemented a wonderful series of multimedia
documentary poetry projects by Kwame Dawes, Natasha Tretheway, and Susan Somers-Willett, under the InVerse moniker. When
I first saw these projects, I thought they were the best thing ever, and I wanted to do one. I started writing off of documentary
photographs years ago. I began with the work of Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Davidson, Danny Lyon, and Diane Arbus, back in the
early 2000's, but in 2009 I started to get really into documentary photos of both liminal and abandoned spaces. I was writing
from work by Joshua Lutz, Alec Soth, and eventually, pictures of empty retail spaces by Brian Ulrich, and photos of Detroit's
abandoned (and sometimes repurposed) buildings by James Griffioen. I knew Ted, because I used to work as a poetry reader
for VQR, and I was still commuting to Charlottesville sometimes to work on a graduate degree in Religious Studies,
so I went to see Ted and asked him if he had plans for more InVerse projects. It turned out he had one on Detroit in the
hopper, so he asked me if I wanted to head there in the summer of 2010 with a radio journalist and one of the VQR
interns to write a series of documentary poems on the city, based on the Andrew L. Moore's "Dissembling Detroit"
photos (which were later replaced with Ryan Spencer Reed's haunting photos.
The project, in its entirety, is up here at VQR, and includes poems written directly from interviews I
did with Detroit residents (teachers, auto workers, urban explorers, academics, students, filmmakers, union reps, etc.):
These poems became the centerpiece for my next book (due out from BOA Editions in 2014), called Copia,
which has to do with consumption and desire in various forms. How do our acts of consumption-of consuming love, products,
or even news or advice-affect change in places beyond our reach or field of vision? The buildings of Detroit felt like
metaphors for many things to me, including my body, the American Dream, and our collective responsibility toward each other-all
things that seemed to be, at the time I wrote the poems, crumbling or failing in different ways.
Click here to read an interview with Erika Meitner at Ninth Letter
Click here to read an interview with Erika Meitner at Kenyon Review
Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Essay
One of the Components is How Long You Are in the Air:
On Poetry and Trampoline by Erika Meitner, first published at Los Angels Review of Books
My husband and I are sitting in the doctor’s waiting
room, waiting for inevitable bad news. We are sharing the Olympic Preview edition of Sports Illustrated from July
23rd because we’ve already read all the copies of People, Time, and Country Living.
Over the last month, we have read every magazine in the waiting room twice over, except for this one, which is new, so
we turn the pages together, and I try to figure out who is favored for Trampoline, a sport I agreed to write an essay
on, though I know little to nothing about it.
the past five years, we’ve lived in a mountainous part of Southwest Virginia — in the New River Valley, which
is part of the Great Appalachian Valley. We are 30 miles from the West Virginia border. In our neighborhood, as in much
of rural and suburban America, trampolines are a regular backyard fixture. They lie somewhere on the scale between ATVs
and cars up on blocks, about on par with an aboveground pool. They are dangerous, the opposite of classy, and extremely
fun. You can pick up a 15-foot round trampoline with a netted safety enclosure for $278 at the local Walmart in Christiansburg.
“You know the biggest story of the Olympics, right?”
“No,” I tell him. I have no
idea what the biggest story of the Olympics is. The enormous waiting room is empty but for us. The doctor has let us come
during his lunch hour, so we can have more time with him. While we wait, a team of four hospital inspectors walk in with
clipboards, looking like some kind of Olympic committee.
the competition between Blake and Bolt in the 100 and 200. Blake just works his ass off and Bolt claims he’s so good
that he doesn’t need to.” Steve points to the pull quote in Sports Illustrated. “Nobody is going
to run past me. I don’t worry,” says Usain Bolt, currently the fastest man on earth.
I am a champion worrier, but I was never a cutthroat opponent. As a poet, I am well-versed in failure. As a poet,
I’ve found ways to compete sideways, take the less traveled paths. I write narrative poems. I write poems about
sex and women’s bodies and babies. I write poems about Walmart. Apparently Trampoline gymnasts feel similarly. He
Wenna, the 2008 gold medal winner in Women’s Trampoline, started as an Artistic Gymnast, but later switched to trampoline.
In an interview, she said there were a lot of wonderful gymnasts in China, so it was very hard to become outstanding;
I’m going to try Tramp, she said. One of my writing teachers, years ago, told me that it’s not his
most talented students who go on to become career poets, but the most tenacious of them — the ones who just never
I am tenacious. We have been trying to have a
second child for the past three years. After cycles of medical treatments, and one disrupted adoption placement, we decided
to try a last hail-Mary round of doctor’s appointments this month, where they found, years into our struggles, that
my body has an injury from my son’s birth that they may or may not be able to correct. Some days, my body is an enemy,
a source of shame; other days, I feel sorry for it, trying its best, not catching a break. “My self-betraying body
needs to grieve,” writes Marilyn Hacker. There will be more travel and tests. There will be more waiting in doctors’
offices, in social workers’ offices. I have grown graceful at waiting.
It is Wednesday and I’m still trying to write this essay on poetry and Trampoline. I’m looking up
terminology, reading about history. The trampoline was invented in the 1930s in a garage in Iowa by George Nissen, a University
of Iowa gymnast, diver and inventor, who had, at one time, been a part of a traveling acrobatics act called the Three
Leonardos. Nissen’s Spanish nickname while he was on tour with the act was "Campeón de Trampolin”
— Champion of the Diving Board — and thus, the Trampoline was born and trademarked to the Nissen Trampoline
There are three types of Gymnastics events
at the Olympics: Artistic Gymnastics (the most popular and familiar of the disciplines), Rhythm Gymnastics, and Trampoline,
which was introduced at the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney. A trampoline routine includes 10 skills made up of different
combinations of somersaults and twists, performed at heights as great as 30 feet. Some sports commentators compare it to
the equivalent of ten leaps off a three-story building. The routines last about 60 seconds each, and gymnasts must land
and hold still for three full seconds at the end of their performance. The maneuvers have names like Fliffus and Triffus.
Like Barani and Rudolph and Adolph and Crash Dive. Final scores are determined by combining difficulty, execution, and
time of flight. According to Sports Illustrated’s Olympic Preview issue, in men’s Trampoline, Dong
Dong of China is favored for the gold; for women’s, He Wenna of China is the frontrunner.
But it’s Wednesday, and Trampoline isn’t being broadcast until Friday and Saturday. Before I get anything
substantial down on the page, I’m sucked in to watching the women’s quarter finals in Fencing — specifically,
Individual Sabre. The arena is dark and two women — Mariel Zagunis of the USA and Zhu Min of China — stride
in wearing jackets, plastrons, and knickers, holding their sabres with their masks tucked under their arms. The announcers
say all or nothing; they say pressure on her shoulders; they say she fought to come back. It’s
not clear which woman they are talking about. In high school, when I didn’t make the tennis team, I took up fencing
— since no students had fenced before, it was an open team without tryouts. I am not naturally athletic. I also
lack a serious competitive streak, which was a problem, as fencing is all about the competition, the crouching, the attack.
A commentator reads a quote from Zagunis: “No matter what my opponent does, I have a game plan. I must execute it.”
Before today, Mariel Zagunis was the only Olympic women’s
Sabre champion, as the sport was first included in the 2004 Summer Olympics, and she won gold medals in both 2004 and
2008. She did not, as it turns out, medal this year. She did win the match against Min though, which I watched in its
entirety instead of writing about Trampoline. They riposted, they retreated, they parried. Sometimes the two women screamed
while they lunged toward each other — guttural yeows of pent up aggression.
When the announcers interviewed Zagunis after winning her quarter finals match against Min, she said, “I’m
going for a new championship. I never live in the past. I’m concentrating on the current.” In order to write
a poem, I must mine the past, but also excavate the present, which becomes the future as I untangle it. As I do this, I
exist only in the moment of writing the poem. I concentrate on the movement forward and forget I’m concentrating
at all. But I have not been writing very many poems lately. My body is stuck in a strange limbo along with my family’s
future, and I don’t have the language to describe it. When I do use the language I have, the poem’s bodies
don’t shape themselves on the page in ways that feel right.
“The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account. / That of the male is
perfect, and that of the female is perfect,” wrote Walt Whitman. I would like to believe both of these things simultaneously
— that all of our bodies are perfect as they are, that the accounting of them is meant to be difficult. One of my
colleagues, Tom Gardner, often reads poems as maps of the poet’s thought process — clues to the way their
minds move. And how closely in these Olympics I am scrutinizing the bodies of strangers and the way they move across our
TV screen, rather than analyzing the bodies of poems for clues to the minds that shaped them. I am as interested in traces
of movement as I am in the athletes themselves — the splash that follows a diver’s feet, the flashing of a
fencer’s mask, the mat of the trampoline still shuddering after a gymnast’s routine.
On Friday, I finally get to watch men’s Trampoline — the qualifying round — and I am struck
by how impossibly fast this sport moves, and how noisy it is. Every time a gymnast rebounds, the trampoline’s metal
springs creak and stretch, and most surprisingly, you can actually hear many of the gymnasts exhale with a slight whistle
when they reach the zenith of each bounce. On Saturday, I hear the women bound and rebound, propel themselves upwards,
whistle-exhale. The announcer talks about the gymnasts, what each one loves about this sport — the height, the feeling
of flight, hearing the wind in her ears. “I love this body / made to weather the storm.../ I love it clear
down to the soft / quick motor of each breath,” writes Yusef Komunyakaa.
Poems are made of words that live in bodies — bodies shaped by line breaks, and fixed forever in space,
on the page. Picture a gymnast in relation to the trampoline, the invisible line between the two driven equally by unseen
forces of gravity and the gymnast’s own strength. When a poem is read aloud, it is a moment of flight. Its words are
released into the air, into the spaces between breaths. Many poets, like Charles Olson and the Beats, see the line as
an actual unit of breath. The white space left in the wake of the words is the breath materialized. When I was pregnant
with my son, I had to re-lineate all my poems to shorten the lines, so I could speak them without becoming breathless.
I think of the air underneath Canadian Jason Burnett, who spins
toward the arena ceiling with his eyes closed. The announcer says outrageously difficult and beautiful twisting
position. When it’s Karen Coburn’s turn the next day, the same announcer says, the goal is to show that
long body open every single time. The gymnasts, when they execute their routines, look like actual lines shooting
through space. Lines are measure of sound, measures of meaning. When they are at their best, each line could be its own
poem. If a line tries to carry too much, it can collapse under its own weight.
In Men’s Trampoline, as predicted, Dong Dong of China takes the gold. In a surprise ending for the women
though, favored Chinese gymnast Ha Wenna falls on the rebound out of her last skill, and Canadian Rosannagh MacLennan
wins a gold medal. The commentators say a lovely line. Nice execution. They say, let’s watch how she opens
her body. Dear body. “Each line should be a station of the cross,” writes my old teacher, Charles Wright,
which implies suffering. A line-break is, at its most basic, a hesitation between the spoken and unspoken. I am hesitating
to speak any of this.
With trampoline, a gymnast’s
job is to fight gravity, to use the power of her own body to propel herself upwards, to fly for 60 seconds, then finally
stick a landing while the force of her own energy tries to knock her off her feet. So how to write when life has not been
like the trampoline? When there has been, for a period of time, no flight, no fixed program, just a long stretch of held
breath? The commentators say they train for this — they know how to fall.
In my one trampoline memory, my son, not quite five, and I climb on the trampoline together at a birthday party.
We walk across the mat without falling, heading for the sweet spot in the middle, where, if you start to bounce, you catch
air easily. In the center, flying is effortless. When I land on the trampoline, my son flies up, and when I jack myself
higher, he braces himself for my landing. We are both laughing hard, harder. We are opening our bodies to the air.
Poems - First-Drafts - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Essay