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Poet in Angled Relief
Interview with Meredith Drum
by Charles Waters

Brooklyn has always been rather sacred poetic ground at least since the "ample hills" of Whitman's time. Today it offers the same beauty and resonance to contemporary poets and writers, albeit a price tag. Williamsburg doesn't have a Poet Laureate yet, but give Meredith Drum enough time and we might just have one. In the last few years Drum has built a small portfolio of exceptional work. Most recently four of her poems appeared in the spring edition of Ploughshares, one of the most prestigious literary journals in the country. There is more to come in the near future, much more.

Drum's early education in visual arts has refined her understanding of detail and given her a painter's precision with words. Her understanding of the contemporary art and literary scene in New York is profound. But she is not a braggart, in fact quite the opposite. During this interview she was extremely funny, undulating with life and bubbling with excitement. The same can be said of her poetry. We wanted to offer an intimate look at this exciting new voice in poetry, in conjunction with the publication of two new poems [note-see poems]. While there is always more to say, more words than can fill a million reams of paper or a billion gigabytes of power, we hope you enjoy hearing what the writer herself has to say.

Q: Talk about your latest work.

A: Well, it's weird that you're interviewing me about my poems because I've just made a break from poetry. It's like we've had a lover's fight, me and poetry, and decided to take sometime away from each other. This spring I started writing playlets, little plays, when I discovered that dialogue is fun. I was tired of writing poems. I wanted to create stuff that wasn't so cerebral, that had more physicality. And now I've been writing short stories. It's been exciting and new every day.


More bicycle rides up and down her street.
More shouting her name. Sit down on your bicycle seat.
See her supine on the bank, her bicycle chained to a tree.
Let your bicycle balance as you snatch her from the grass.
Place her on the bicycle handles with her long hair flying back.
With your torsos pressed together, she'll sing a bicycle song
Compelling 300 bicycles to follow you through the mall.
Spending stops. Consumers are shocked; they turn and shout,
Stop those bicycles! We can't set them free."
But on your bicycle handles she'll stand
And sing them into complicity. Then all on bicycles
Will follow you to the coast, to a bicycle party
Where earth and sea meet and all bicycles start.

Q: So you're writing everyday?

A: For at least five years I've been writing everyday. That keeps you fluid with words, but more important, it keeps your mind spinning about the dreams, the stuff, the whatever it is we make out of, even when you're not writing.

Q: What about the new stories?

A: I just finished one about a girl who spends all her time in the bathtub. It's called She Is Nourished from a line in Revelations which the character is reading. It's me I suppose. I'm in the tub a lot. Especially after waking up in the afternoon and then getting in the bath. That's living.

Q: What do think about the fear of the sphere of influence on writers? Is it competition? Are there problems with the fear of unconscious absorption?

A: I don't worry about it. It's so much more important to find a writer who is doing something beautiful, surround yourself with that work and look very carefully at it to figure out what they are doing.

Q: But what if your "voice" becomes tainted?

A: It won't. That's impossible. Besides, it's up to the individual to forge through what's been done and make something. It doesn't have to be new. If that hand is skilled, then that work becomes beautiful and will attract readers.

Q: I think in referencing other writers, people like to create a chain of understanding in terms of describing influence. Or is that a way of selling books?

A: That's how people direct themselves as readers. If you like (David Foster) Wallace then you might like A, B, C. I think that's great.

Q: Currently what are you reading?

A: Right now, Jane Bowles and Lydia Davis. Unfortunately I find much of what's out there too obvious. Lydia Davis is the opposite of that. I love her elliptical way of thinking. She's very playful. So is Jane Bowles, who by the way never gets enough attention.

Q: How do you study as a poet/writer?

A: As far as school goes, my high school experience was awesome, but I got lucky. I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts, a really great place. My teachers taught me to be a crafts-person, that craft is just as important as idea. There are lots of good ideas, but how you craft them is what makes it good to taste. My mom has worked at that school since I was a kid, so I was exposed to a great deal of that, of art, all along. Plus my grandfather, my mother and my sister are visual artists. Both of my grandmothers are poets. It's in the blood.

Here in New York my mentor is a poet named Larry Fagan. He is a great writer himself and a fabulous editor. He is harsh on me when I'm generating shit, and I'm so glad. And he's funny.

Q: How has teaching influenced you writing?

A: Right now I'm working with little kids, but only one day a week. In my mid-twenties I spent three years teaching visual arts full time, making puppets, photographs, murals. My students always make beautiful stuff that blows me away, stuff that's better than pretty much anything else. That gives me inspiration. But that period of teaching all the time isolated me from my adult self and now I have a hunger to make up for lost time. Maybe that's why I'm always in the bath.

Q: Do you enjoy reading your works in public?

A: I love to read, and I love good readings. But I don't do it much. I guess I don't make enough opportunities for myself. Just last evening I saw a great reading at the Dumbo Arts Festival by The Yogurt Boys. They do the kind of work that I like to do: really silly and totally fun. I think the most important thing in the world is humor. Because things are hard. I think you have to enjoy yourself and laugh and dance a lot.

Q: I agree but sometimes your work has a serious tone. If art/life is an "infinite jest", does it begin to eat itself after awhile?

On an Airplane

In the airplane bathroom I watched through a window,
While they stood on the wing, the couple.
Through the clouds they fired automatic guns.

In my hands I sensed the appointed guns.
At the hour I unlocked the window.
Into the cabin we strolled, me and the couple.

For the passengers' disorder we brought a couple
Of minutes of solitude with guns.
By grace each gained a window,

With a lovely view through each window.
Since they'd given into loving the couple
At the feel of their guns,

By that window, everyone was coupling with guns.

A: No, there's meat in a jest. In the "Girl with Curious Hair" Wallace does really beautiful things that are new and that play with your brain and that do something really unique, these things he made. That makes for lasting work.

Q: Is it tough for women writers to succeed these days?

A: Maybe. Nothing new. A lot of women get distracted by having children. I think I'm not going to have them. But I'll always work with kids to satiate the desire to be a mother. But I get to leave them at the school. Another thing is that I not particularly career driven. That could be a thing that stops a lot of people, not just women. They get caught up in making money.

Q.I think especially in New York City, if you start your creative work later in life you lose valuable time to create because you are trying to make the rent.

A: It's hard for me because I work slow. I'm a sloth. That's why I'm a bartender, but the fact that I'm a bartender at thirty is hard on my psyche. Like I'm a slacker or a loser.

C. I know I worked in the service business for years and it's hard to maintain a reputable self-image.

Q: Editing is a very important part of your work process. Is it a plausible scenario to imagine you writing the first draft of a poem in the park and then that draft sitting at your desk for weeks being edited?

A: Even a paragraph takes me awhile, weeks, even.

Q: What about The Mattress?

A: Well, that one was different. I think I probably wrote it in a matter of hours. That was wonderful. That one wasn't even me; I can't take credit for it.

Q: Well do you have a responsibility for your out-of-bodiness?

A: Maybe. When I wrote The Mattress I was reading some of those crazy Eastern European writers, especially Tomaz Salamun. One night I had just been totally dissed in my writing class. I was mad. I went home and read Salamun over and over again. The next morning I woke up and wrote The Mattress like blamo. So I guess that's some heavy influence. I've tried since then to quiet down from that brand of eastern European surrealism. But I'm still amazed by all those writers. I love that they interpreted Walt Whitman as a surrealist. And then expanding on him. Taking Whitman's hyperbole and adding their own. They took his sensuality and turned it into this very strange sensuality from another planet. So I'm still answering you're question about fear of influence. But anyway it's kinda a nice poem and it was a gift to me from elsewhere.

Q: But isn't that what the craft is for, so you can put yourself in that place, then get a Eureka moment?

A: It is.

Q: Tell me about the poem "On an Airplane" that's in this issue of freewilliamsburg.com. It's like a Twilight Zone episode.

A: First off, it's in the form of a tritina [note. In a tritina, which has three stanzas of three lines each, three line endings are repeated in a one-two-three, two-three-one, three-one-two order, with a concluding line that employs each end word in one-two-three order.] And I added a rule. Each line begins with a preposition. The beautiful thing about imposing strict rules is that your unconscious pulls up some wack stuff.

Q: The power of limits.

A: Yup. But I knew I wanted to write about guns and the weird erotic element of penetration with guns and airplanes, that kind of thing. And I think that everyone is sort of in love with hijackers. We are a generation that grew up with all those hijackings in the seventies and eighties.

Q: These people are like new folk heroes. But this train of thought is quite avant-garde. For many people it's a leap to talk about hijackers as celebrities.

A: Yes, but artists and writers are always trying to out-exotic each other. We try to write more about the carnival, more about the three-headed lady, because we were exposed to so much weird TV and other media as kids and even now. I'm trying to quiet down from that. Whether I want it to or not, my head is always going to spit out weird stuff. But if I can't control the content, I'll be dammed, I'm going to control something. I can get strict on language and have it be really clear and simple. Simple is a nice place. Again, fear of influence, huh?

Q: Yup. And the neighborhood (Williamsburg), does it influence you?

A: Sure, in a good way. There is an amazing amount of creative work going on here. The hard part is that things will change for those in this neighborhood that are really working on their craft in any field. I think everyone is afraid of being priced out. Good and fun work comes from having enough time to play and make lots of mistakes. And to be sloppy and not to have to work fucking 40 hours a week. FUCK RENT RISE!

Q: You're extremely knowledgeable about contemporary writing, yet you seem rather reluctant to submit your work for publication. Can you explain?

A: Maybe I'm not that knowledgeable, because I'm not sure where to send it. I must be cocooning. I'm not worried about sending stuff out, but I want to feel confident when I do. But also, I'm lazy. I'm a Pisces. I'm wishy-washy. I'm a Southern girl. I'm a depressive type. I'm a little bit agoraphobic. But I'm trying to get out there. Insurance magazine here in Williamsburg may publish one of my new things. That's a step. I've had a weird time of it. The first contest I entered at Breadloaf four years ago, I won. I had never submitted poems to anything before that. And that led to working one-on-one with the contest judge, Paul Muldoon. And that led to him honoring me by publishing four of my pieces in the issue of Ploughshares that he guest-edited. I think it scared me a little.

Last year I mistakenly left a copy of the poem called "Song"(above) at a photocopy place on Bedford. The two men that run the store found it. I went back in a couple of days later to do some more copying and the guys said, "Hey we found your poem." I was mortified, but then they said, "It's really great." Every time I go in there they want more of my stuff. And they have a lot to say about it. They've become friends. When I brought my boyfriend in to meet them, they looked at him sternly and said, "Do you like her poems? We like her poems." That sort of unsolicited praise is really what it's all about.

But of course I would like to make some money with writing. And I would like to be involved in a community of writers. Collaboration is a big part of my life, like working with my brother on plays or with musicians, like you Charles. And to have those things I need to have bigger goals and be a little more aggressive with sending my work out. But still, the delight of just doing it for yourself and for your friends is so great. That delight is sometimes responsible for our best creations. When we get too competitive we lose the good stuff.

Charles Waters [
[email protected]]
10/16/00 NYC

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[email protected] | November 2000 | Volume 8