Poet in Angled Relief
Interview with Meredith Drum
by Charles Waters
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
Q: But what if your "voice" becomes
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Charles Waters [[email protected]]