Lisa Olstein: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?
Erika Meitner: My preoccupation with selfies, and the ways in which they can change our self-image for the better definitely became apparent to me in these poems as I was writing them. I was also purposefully hell-bent on including parts of my digital life in this book. I’m constantly thinking about what poets iron out of their poems—what’s not included—and there just aren’t a lot of poems that include our digital lives and footprints, so I wanted to be sure Facebook status updates and sexting and doom scrolling and other things that don’t often appear in verse were in this book.
LO: Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?
EM: Back in 2020 a Tweet went viral about the fact that not everyone has an internal monologue, and this blew my mind. I have a long-running and peripatetic conversation with the poet Laura-Eve Engel—who’s also a former religious studies student of mine back when I was a TA at UVA and working on my PhD in Religion—about the relationship between our inner-monologues and the ‘you’ in our poems. I think that in this book, the intimate ‘you’ in most of these poems is the ‘you’ of my internal monologue—diffuse, intimate, constantly shifting. In some cases the ‘you’ in the book is a compilation of exes (both dead and alive)—and in a few cases it’s a really specific dead friend/lover I address by name. That shiftiness of the ‘you’ in here is reflected in one of the epigraphs I used for the book, from Walt Whitman: “Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem.” Some of the poems are also epistolary, and were actual poem-letters I wrote to my millennial friend Hillary Adler, and I address her in them. We had a correspondence that ran through the writing of this book, where I asked her questions about millennial things and technology and relived my misspent youth in NYC through her a bit, and she would ask me for more spiritual life advice.
LO: What felt riskiest to you about this work?
EM: I think its risqué-ness felt riskiest. But also I wrote this book entirely for me. I didn’t think about an audience at all when I was working on it. I didn’t care how the poems landed or if anyone else read them. I was writing solely to please myself and enter into a particular kind of personal nostalgic reverie, which isn’t normally how I operate. I’m usually more aware of audience—at least in the revision process—and poems as public documents.
LO: What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?
EM: I have kids so I don’t normally write in quiet places—especially since they play three instruments between them including the tuba. But so many of these poems have actual songs running through them—whether it’s Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days” in the aisles of Kroger, or bar patrons singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in unison, or Prince’s “Purple Rain” playing on a family car trip, or artists at a residency dancing to Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” in an old barn. My oldest son always forgets to close the sound system when he leaves a room or the house entirely—it’s like he’s a character in a movie that has their own soundtrack. I thought about that a lot when I was writing these poems. And I use a lot of internal rhyme in my work to give some of my rangier poems a music that ties disparate subjects together aurally. There’s also a lot of dialogue—people speaking in here, that comes off the page and into the room with these poems.
LO: As a medium somewhere between time-based and static, poetry engages temporality in a fascinating range of ways. How does time operate inside this work and across the experience it creates?
EM: This is such a good question for this book. There’s a section in one of my poems in the book (“The Seeming Impenetrability of the Space Between”) that’s about the speaker remembering a physical encounter in her youth: “it seems possible to skip / forwards and back in time at once // because none of the fundamental laws / of physics that govern the Universe / state that time has to go in one direction.”
So much of the book is about the idea that we have access, always, to all the love and intimacy we’ve ever felt across our entire lives. This book plumbs the idea that we’re made of every intimate moment we’ve ever had—that all the love and intimacy we’ve ever felt is still tangible—and that desire is a shout against the dying earth. Also the idea that we live in the past, present, and future all at once feels really important to me in these poems.
LO: How did the book’s structure unveil itself to you? What emerged to shape its architecture?
EM: This book began in the Food Lion parking lot one night when I was sitting in my car, and noticed how many people around me were also sitting in their cars with their faces lit by the distinctive blue glow of their phones. If this book had a shape, it would maybe be a strip mall. I am terrible at shaping my own poems into books—I’m not a ‘project book’ poet—and so I sent a massive pile of poems to my friend Keetje Kuipers (who’s an amazing editor) and she helped me structure it into Useful Junk. This is a diffuse book that explores connections between memory, language, desire, image and space (virtual, corporeal, natural, and constructed), as well as how machines—and especially our smartphones and their cameras—frame and shape us, and the ways in which our bodies are surveilled, captured, and disseminated by them. I was 41 when I started writing this book, and 45 when I finished, and I was interested in the aging female body, mid-life desire, self-portraiture and self-representation—weirdly inward-facing things in a time of increasing global and national crisis. I think what structured the book the most was repeating images and lines that cross over from one poem to the next, so while the subject material and styles of the poems are quite diverse, the book itself is actually really tight somehow.
LO: What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm?
EM: When I think about what I listened to most while I was creating the world of this book, it was power ballads and feminist anthems about love gone wrong: “Oh My God” by Ida Maria, K. Flay’s “Blood in the Cut,”“Fuck and Run” by Liz Phair, and “Your Love” by Outfield. Also stuff my millennial friends sent me: Mannequin Pussy, Waxahatchee, and Mitski—empowered and sometimes sad and sometimes angry girl songs.
I also read a ton of theory—especially art and architectural theory when I was working on Useful Junk, in an attempt to find a new lyric language for the combination of nostalgia and desire. The notes for the book were so copious that BOA’s publisher recommended I just print a truncated version in the book and put the rest online, so they’re up here. Old issues of Semiotext(e), Walter Benjamin, Marjorie Perloff, Susan Sontag, Martin Buber, and a ton of visual art from years of museum jaunts in all mediums were my inspirations and companions through writing these poems. Three books that were especially dear to me were Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York, and Formless: A User’s Guide by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss. Also if this book had corporate sponsorship, it should probably be from Blue Diamond Nut Thins.
LO: How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?
EM: I’ve been casting around a lot in my newer poems, which seem to be more outward-facing, more political, more concerned with ecological collapse and climate change and fascism and pandemics and war. I’ve been writing some lyric essays, too. But over the last few months I’ve been mostly consumed with moving from Virginia to Wisconsin for a new job. My work was rooted in Southern Appalachia in so many ways, and sense of place is really important to my process, so I’m curious to see how this new landscape and geography manifests in my work.