By Anita Malhotra
Florida-based poet and short story writer Peter Meinke is the author of 14 books of poetry, including seven in the Pitt Poetry Series (University of Pittsburgh Press). He has also published two short story collections, two children’s books, and a guide to poetry writing and reading. His short story collection The Piano Tuner won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 1986, and he has also received numerous awards for his poems, including three from the Poetry Society of America.
Meinke directed the Writing Workshop at St. Petersburg’s Eckerd College for 27 years, and served as writer-in-residence at more than a dozen other colleges and universities. In 2009, he was appointed the first ever Poet Laureate of St. Petersburg.
Anita Malhotra interviewed Meinke on December 23, 2011, at his St. Petersburg home, where he lives with his wife, Jeanne Clark, a New Yorker magazine artist who has illustrated many of his books.
AM: How did you get interested in poetry?
Meinke: I got interested when I was very young, after I found some poetry books and anthologies that my mother had. I think one was the Oscar Williams’ Treasury. For some reason I just took to it and liked it. This was in Brooklyn, and we were a blue-collar family on the rise. My father was a stock boy who gradually became a prosperous salesman. All of my friends wanted to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, so I thought it wisest to keep my attraction to poetry a secret, and didn’t tell anyone I was writing it until high school. I showed some poems to a couple of teachers, and they made me stand up and read them, so I took some teasing. I didn’t publish or print anything, but my high school yearbook says, “Peter Meinke – Wants to be: writer. Probably will be: censored.” And it came true, much to my surprise.
After high school I went to Hamilton College. This was in the early ’50s, and there were no writing workshops back then. I was writing some very old-fashioned poetry and published some in the Hamilton literary magazines. When I graduated, I was drafted. The Korean War had just ended, but we all were drafted anyway. Fortunately, I was sent to Germany, and was stationed close to a couple of friends who were also interested in writing. We went to Paris together, and wandered around following the trails of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Pound and others. Throughout my two army years, I kept on writing, and thought more seriously of myself as a poet, but sent nothing out.
AM: How did your career as a teacher and poet develop?
Meinke: When I came home to New Jersey I went to work first for my father, a successful sheet metal salesman in New Jersey. I didn’t like that particularly, so Jeanne’s dad, who was a real estate salesman, asked me to work for him, and it was very easy to get a license and sell houses. One day I was showing a client a house and making small talk. I asked him what he did for a living and he said he was a teacher at Mountain Lakes High School. I said, “Oh, I was interested in teaching once,” which was sort of true. “What would you teach?” he asked, and I said, “English.” “That’s really funny,” he said. “The English teacher got drafted yesterday.” It was like I was hit by lightning. I left him on the spot, went there, applied for the job, and got it. It was not hard in those days – all the men were being drafted. And that’s how I started.
I taught English for two years and liked the teaching, but had no time to write. So in 1960, Jeanne and I took our two children and drove to Ann Arbor, with a small scholarship and no money. I got an M.A. in English literature at the University of Michigan and then was hired by Hamline University, which put me through my Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. During these years I wrote steadily, and began publishing in the little magazines. In 1966, I was offered a job at a new school, Florida Presbyterian, which in 1972 became Eckerd College. I settled down into college teaching and writing poetry, and after a lengthy apprenticeship began publishing in magazines like The New Republic, Poetry and The Georgia Review.
In the mid-‘70s I entered a big poetry contest sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Press. I finished second to Gary Soto, and they wrote back and said they really liked my manuscript – please try again the next year. Before I could try them again, Paul Zimmer called me up and said, “We want to publish your book anyway.” It was called The Night Train & the Golden Bird – and they’re still my publisher today.
In between the seven Pitt books, I’ve published other things – fiction, chapbooks. children’s books, a book about writing – which we like to do because often Jeanne can illustrate them. So basically I’ve led a very quiet life. Once I got the first book with Pitt, I’ve stayed with the same publisher, lived in the same house, and keep doing the same thing every day.
The Heart’s Location
all my plans for suicide are ridiculous
I can never remember the heart’s location
too cheap to smash the car
too queasy to slash a wrist
once jumped off a bridge
almost scared myself to death
then spent two foggy weeks
waiting for new glasses
of course I really want to live
continuing my lifelong search
for the world’s greatest unknown cheap restaurant
and a poem full of ordinary words
about simple things
in the inconsolable rhythms of the heart
– from The Night Train & the Golden Bird, University of Pittsburgh Press 1976
AM: You found your niche very early in life.
Meinke: I feel lucky. I’ve always loved writing poetry, and started writing very young. Somehow I was hooked on the sounds of poems. And I think I developed my own voice because I didn’t have any teachers or any friends who were poets until I was already formed. So I just got taught by the poets I read and memorized. At first I sounded like Edgar Allen Poe and then maybe John Donne in college, and then gradually developed a kind of voice that readers have told me is a recognizable Meinke poem.
AM: What do you think characterizes a Meinke poem?
Meinke: They vary widely, but there’s always some humor lurking nearby. It’s basically a dark view of the world, but a reasonably cheerful take on it. Politics is in there, and anti-war poems, though I try not to sound like I’m preaching. There are lots of poems about family, because we’ve had our four children growing up around us. I’m not a flashy poet, and more of a neighborhood poet than a state or Southern poet.
AM: How do you get your inspiration for poems?
Meinke: Usually a phrase comes into my head – it just pops in. That’s the inspiration part. And I usually carry around a notebook. If I see an anhinga perched on a log that looks like an alligator, I’ll stop and write that down. If I hear a vivid conversation, I’ll make a note of it. I try to wait for phrases that come to me. I don’t sit down and think I’m going to write a sonnet, for example, or a poem about nature.
I enjoy playing with words, and that’s when I’m happiest. I just sit there in the morning and it’s quiet, and I’m mistakenly thinking, “I can do this just right.” That’s one of the attractions of poetry writing – thinking you can make a really perfect poem. There may not be such a thing, but you have that feeling when you’re doing this – going over every line and punctuation mark and spacing. I tell my students that if you don’t like rewriting and fiddling around with your poems, it’s probably the wrong business for you. You’ll burn out too soon, and your poems won’t get to where they should.
Advice for Our Son
The trick is, to live your days
as if each one may be your last
(for they go fast, and young men lose their lives
in strange and unimaginable ways)
but at the same time, plan long range
(for they go slow: if you survive
the shattered windshield and the bursting shell
you will arrive
at our approximation here below
of heaven or hell).
To be specific, between the peony and the rose
plant squash and spinach, turnips and tomatoes;
beauty is nectar
and nectar, in a desert, saves—
but the stomach craves stronger sustenance
than the honied vine.
Therefore, marry a pretty girl
after seeing her mother;
speak truth to one man,
work with another;
and always serve bread with your wine.
always serve wine.
– from Liquid Paper: New & Selected Poems, University of Pittsburgh Press 1991
AM: How do you know when one of your poems is finished?
Meinke: Yeats had a useful saying – “I know it’s finished when something goes click in my head.” When I’m rewriting, there’s a time when I reach a point where the poem not only says what I want it to say, but looks on the page the way I’d want it to look. Then I get that click in my head, if I’m lucky, and go on to start another one. There’s another saying that a poem’s never finished, but only abandoned. There’s some truth in that, too. I’ve even made small changes in poems that have been published in good magazines like The Atlantic, realizing I didn’t need that adverb in there, or whatever. And then more small changes even from a book to a new edition of the book.
I do a lot of rewriting, and rewrite almost entirely for sound. So if I have a couple of “O” sounds in there, and it’s near the end and it’s a dark poem, I try to find some more, and I change words or drop them or move them around. I tell my students, “Follow the music, not the thought.” The thought will stay. Because I looked at my poems so carefully, mainly for the sound, I gradually got irritated by punctuation, so for the last ten years I’ve stopped using commas, periods, double-quote marks and semicolons. It’s very odd. In the beginning editors said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Well, I like the way it looks, and this is a poem that people might recognize as mine.”
We wear our neighborhood tavern
like a pair of old pants:
scratch ourselves wiggle around
stretch & feel good
I think I’ll go out now
and put my tavern on
– from Lassing Park, Yellow Jacket Press 2011
AM: What do you get out of the experience of reading your poems to an audience?
Meinke: Poetry, at least in America, is probably our least popular form of writing. You don’t sell a lot of books, and you’re by yourself so much that it’s very helpful to get some human reaction. Usually it’s supportive, and you do learn which poems the audience likes best, and which seem to leave them behind. I think you shouldn’t do too many readings. Philip Levine, our Poet Laureate, even claims that readings are bad for you. Writers shoot for easy laughs, sentimental or show-offy riffs, and it can ruin their poetry. But I don’t think that applies to most poets – we’re not that much in demand. I try to write not thinking particularly of an audience. I’m just trying to get it so it sounds good to me. So I think readings can be helpful if you don’t take them too seriously, and the big applause doesn’t make you think that you’re really a wonderful, wonderful poet.
AM: Tell me about your short stories.
Meinke: For a long time a lot of conversations and ideas were piling up in my head and in my notebooks. Finally, when I couldn’t fit them into poems, I started writing them in stories, and I’ve had a lot of luck with them. The first collection – The Piano Tuner – got the 1986 Flannery O’Connor Award and is still in print. The next one is called Unheard Music, and that just came out a few years ago. Now I seem to be writing fewer stories because I’ve been writing an essay series called “Poet’s Notebook” for Creative Loafing, Tampa Bay’s alternative newspaper. In these essays, my idea was to smuggle poetry into newspaper readership. Every entry starts and ends with a poem, and they’re taken usually from contemporary poets. I try to show that poetry is germane to what’s happening in the world, so I’ve written more about politics than I ever thought I would.
AM: What does being the Poet Laureate of St. Petersburg involve?
Meinke: Well, they expect me to partake in various events on the public level. For example, when the city had the twin anniversaries of the two St. Petersburg – Russia’s 400th and our 100th – I wrote a poem about the two St. Petersburgs, comparing them. It was a tad controversial, because I wrote, “Let’s celebrate with vodka and mimosas,” and there were people who didn’t like a public poem referring favorably to drinking. Then, this past year I wrote a long poem called “Lassing Park,” which is where we go for a walk in the morning. They wanted me to celebrate all the parks in St. Petersburg, but I couldn’t do that sort of thing, so I just wrote a poem about our neighborhood park that we know and love. It’s a kind of hymn to Lassing Park, the way Wordsworth wrote about Grasmere Lake and the daffodils he saw on his walk.
Meinke: And I’ve done other services that people ask me to do. I’ve given a workshop for the homeless downtown. Very sad – heartbreaking, actually. I read some of their poems, and gave them back with comments. The poems often weren’t really poems, but still distressing – terrible stories. I think it helped them to write it out and say out loud what happened to them, and why. Some of them had surprising outpourings of great patriotism, despite being here, down and out, getting beaten, robbed, raped, all kinds of disasters. And they write these poems about how they love America. It makes me go on the attack in a different way – to do better with the homeless.
. . . O Lassing mine O Lassing yours O Lassing ours forever!
Its cedars hawthorne sweet bays pine sustain our civic health
by opening their budding arms to birds of every feather
white brown black and mixed: our integrated wealth
strolls along the margin of the bay We breathe
the park’s green miracle With flooding hearts
we rise with the tide and the golden trumpet tree
honey-throated as a thousand larks Wounds start
to heal as joggers soldiers workers young and old
pass on every side: Hey Hey! Good mornin’! Where you been?
The world’s wide and good or could be: good as the gold
that’s dusted on our park by sun and wind
Through hurricanes of man and gods through kind and wicked weather
O Lassing mine O Lassing yours O Lassing ours forever
May St. Petersburg’s waterfront parks for all time shield our town . . .
In the evening herons rest
in oak trees bending toward the west
and the moon and stars on their hallowed arc
keep their nightly watch over Lassing Park
– last stanza of “Lassing Park” from Lassing Park and other Poems, Yellow Jacket Press 2011
AM: What role can poetry have in people’s lives?
Meinke: I think if poetry were presented better in the early schools, people could find out that they like it. So many students go to college poetry readings who haven’t gone before, and the great majority say, “I really like this.” But our culture pushes against it because we’re more and more geared to speed. Everything is fast, and poetry is slow. They have Twitter poems now. You can have a few wonderful Twitter poems, but it’s rare. In a Twitter poem you really can’t say much. It’s no accident that in English we need at least a sonnet to say something moving or comprehensible.
You have to change your mode when you read poetry. You can’t skim it for the plot, and you can’t zip through it to find the sexy parts, because it’s all mixed up – the sound and the sense. You have to go into a mode that most people aren’t used to – slow and relaxed. I think that’s a good mode to be in. I think finding a poet you like, and taking a book of his or hers along on your vacation would be a great idea. If we had more poetry that was less “difficult” but still good – à la Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson – I’m sure people would love it. And there are many poets like that. You just have to find the one that’s right for you.
AM: If you were on a desert island and could only have three poets or books of poetry, who or what would they be?
Meinke: Of the twentieth century poets, the one that helped me the most was Howard Nemerov. I studied his poetry and eventually got to know him. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winner, and a terrific poet. He was funny and serious at the same time, and very smart. He could also be very flexible about form. And there are lots of others. I’d probably like to bring somebody like Richard Wilbur, Maxine Kumin, or Edward Field – three of my favorite poets. As for books, I’d go for the Collected Poems of Yeats, Frost, and Dickinson, if I had to choose. In actual practice, I read a great variety of poets – a real smorsgasbord.
AM: What are you working on now?
Meinke: The Shape of Poetry is just finished, published by the University of Tampa Press. It’s been revised, enlarged, with 17 drawings of writers by Jeanne added, but basically it has the same ideas – discussions of traditional forms, advice to beginning writers, and a general meditation about reading and writing poems. Since I first wrote that book, 15 years have passed, so in the new introduction I write about the poet laureates who have served since then, and about 9/11 and the effect that had on poetry. I’m also writing poems that I hope will make another Pitt Poetry Series collection. My last one, The Contracted World, was five years ago, so that’s my usual snailish pace. Besides that, the University of Tampa Press is going to collect my “Poet’s Notebook” articles because by now I’ve written over 100 of those. So all that keeps me as busy as I can handle.
AM: Can you teach someone how to write a poem?
Meinke: In some ways, poets are born – a talent for poetry has to be there in the beginning. And there has to be a passion for language, a desire to say something in an interesting way. But just as an artist often has an apprenticeship with a “master artist” or a young architect works with an older one, it can be very helpful for a poet to work with someone who’s a professional, and can prevent the younger poet from reinventing the wheel. Exactly how necessary it is, I’m not sure. I never had a teacher myself, never took a workshop, and it took me a long time to find my own style and voice. I wasn’t in a rush, though of course I didn’t know I was going to live so long – I’ll be 80 this year. By the time I really knew how to write, Keats would have been dead. But I do think that you can teach the craft of poetry, as separate from the passion or inspiration part. You can teach what meter is, what are the available forms. In The Shape of Poetry I compare the poet to a composer. You have to know when to use the trumpets and when the drums, which means you have to learn what rhythms would best express your particular kind of music. You should be skilful as a carpenter and passionate as a priest.
AM: How do you view the role of the poet in society?
Meinke: In The Shape of Poetry I write that you have to remember that even the poets who live in garrets are citizens, and I urge them to use their voices and partake in the actual goings-on of our country. When 9/11 hit us, everybody in America wrote poetry. From poets laureate to grade-school kids, they all wrote poems. Even in America, where poetry isn’t important to most people, everyone recognizes that at crucial times prose just doesn’t cut it. When we fall in love, when we get married, or have a baby, when somebody dies, prose doesn’t do it. We need poetry at these times. One of my ideas is that if people could work poetry into their daily lives, their daily lives would be better – more pleasurable, more thoughtful. As a country we’d have more imagination, and with more imagination there would be more empathy toward each other and toward the other countries in the world. We wouldn’t be so eager to bomb Iran, or anyone else.
I believe that poetry has that often boring quality – it’s good for you. If poetry helps us get through critical times – and it does – I feel that in a certain way, all times are critical. So why wait?
The man is walking with his red dog
How blue the sky is! I am studying
Italian so I can talk to you my teapot
la mia bella nipotina
Would you like an iced tea? The bus
is very crowded We shall visit Parma
in the summer and I shall say
We eat in the kitchen not in the dining room
O that my tongue were younger
and I could sing A granddaughter
is a wren in an old man’s tree
but instead I shall hold your perfect hand
mispronouncing Will you write many letters?
Here is the spoon The doctor cannot swim
For more information about Peter Meinke and his work, please visit his website www.petermeinke.com