Nadine Sabra Meyer's The Anatomy Theater (Harper Perennial, 2006) was selected by John Koethe as a winner of the 2005 National Poetry Series Open Competition. John's most recent collection of poetry Sally's Hair (HarperCollins, 2006) is forthcoming in paperback this March. Last week they discussed an array of topics, from questions of the soul to stereotypes of aesthetics, from sources of inspiration to logistics of book arrangement. Here is their discussion:
JK: As I said, by a sort of odd coincidence just after I selected The Anatomy Theater for the National Poetry Series I was visiting Bologna where I saw the anatomical theater at the University there with its sculptures of flayed men. It was a rather powerful experience and it made me wonder whether your book was inspired, at least in part, by seeing an actual anatomical theater, or by the kinds of illustrations you refer to, or if the inspiration was pretty much imaginary.
NM: I had not seen an actual anatomy theater, but I would love to. That must have been fascinating. These poems were inspired by the anatomical drawings. I have seen drawings of that theater in Bologna. I wonder what it looks like now, if it still looks like those drawings, or if it’s changed.
So yes, the poems were inspired by the anatomical drawings from the Renaissance that I came across in my studies. I was reading Renaissance verse and I was doing some studies on issues of gender and sexuality: the way that Renaissance people viewed the body and felt about the body, and the differences, as they understood them, between masculinity and femininity. I stumbled upon these anatomical drawings and was fascinated by them because they are so strange. You have probably seen some of them: the pictures of people who are tearing open their own bodies to show you internal organs. These drawing were produced before the whole idea of objectivity. If you look at anatomy texts today there is a real attempt to show what the body looks like objectively. Whatever that means. But back then these drawings were entirely full of emotion: whether warning the viewer about death or strangely associating sexuality with the violence of opening the body and exposing it. There is a strange sense of people sort of exposing themselves in sexual ways in some of these anatomical pictures. There is even a connection to pornography in some of these drawings, drawings which appeared in scientific texts. They are sort of posing and exhibiting themselves that much. Those drawings inspired these poems because I thought they were so strange, disturbing, and interesting. They allowed me to think about, on so many different levels, the culture that would produce something like this, to think about the ways in which our culture today may have inherited some of those ideas.
JK: Those drawings are fascinating. I have seen some of them. You should certainly try to go to Bologna sometime to see the theater. It’s beautifully preserved. It’s just stunning. One of the central ideas in that anatomical sequence in the first section, you wrestle with the kind of opposition of the body and the soul—as it’s sometimes perceived—particularly in form of the pre-Renaissance notion that somehow dissecting the body poses a threat to the soul. And it seemed to me that you wanted to portray the spiritual, or intellectual, or whatever one wants to call it, as really a part, or an aspect, of the bodily or the anatomical. I’m thinking of your lines that I liked very much, “distills from the stench of flesh pure thought.” I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about how this mind-body theme figures in your work.
NM: Sure. I am fascinated by the idea of the soul because I don’t know what it is. I grew up in a family that was atheistic, so I don’t have a spiritual core or learning, but I think I have that sort of yearning. I have the sense that we exist in our bodies and that’s all we have here. I don’t know what else there is, if anything. I think that any spirituality that I find is located in the body, in the mind, in the brain. It’s associated with scientific thought. Is the soul made by electrical impulses in the brain? These are the kind of things I wonder about. I think that’s an interesting question. Without even trying, in a sense, those poems are exploring the ways in which the body is deeply disturbing to me—if at death we decompose, and if that’s all we are, that’s pretty disturbing. There is also a desire to find something spiritual, something beautiful in the body. I think that in these anatomical drawings you see that: both the rotting flesh and the body made beautiful as a work of art.
JK: One of the things that I find wonderful about poetry is the freedom it allows to entertain various ideas and thoughts, like the soul, without actually believing in them in some doctrinal or religious sense. And that seems to be one thing that you are doing.
NM: Yes, it allows you to explore what that idea means.
JK: I completely agree. Your poetry itself seems to me to embody, or enact, a kind of reconciliation of the bodily and the spiritual, because, you know, on the one hand because its subject matter it is extremely immediate and visceral, almost gut-wrenching, yet the cadences, the vocabulary, and language that you use and these beautiful sentences that you fashion makes it also a kind of meditative poetry of ideas. It seems to be concrete and abstract at the same time. Most poets write either concretely or abstractly, but few of them combine them in the same way. I wonder is that something you are aiming at, or aware of? How do you think you go about achieving that?
NM: I don’t think it’s conscious. Hearing you talk just now about the way you experience my poetry, it is in some ways the way I think of the body—as both concrete and also as spiritual, or as larger than the self. I definitely have the desire to look at the body and our human life and make of it something more beautiful, some sort of art, something aesthetically pleasing that has larger meaning than just the self. I think that I must have been trying, on some level, without realizing it, to reproduce in the form of the poems that sense of both the visceral and the transcendent.
JK: It strikes me that your unit of composition is the sentence rather than the word, or the line, or the phrase, which is what it is for some poets. Does that seem true to you, or am I just imagining things?
NM: I think it is true particularly in the anatomical poems in the book as well as the painting poems, in the third section. I was purposefully working with the sentence and exploring what I can do with that, using these long sentences, in which I was trying to keep changing the idea, sort of turning and turning, to make surprising, interesting things happen with the language. And to let the language lead me, to let the language help me make discoveries. So yes, I was definitely working with the sentence and forcing myself to complete ideas, to think of the logical conclusion of a metaphor that started this way.
JK: That was one of the things that drew me to the book. I’m a sucker for sentences and I especially liked yours. As one goes through the book, one of the striking things is the way those anatomical poems in the first section, which are third person and largely historical, mythological, segue into these equally visceral poems in the second section, which are first person poems. I was just curious as to which group of poems came first? Did you write them deliberately to relate to each other in that way? Or is that just an artifact of how you decided to arrange the poems in the book?
NM: I wrote the first-person poems first. The one called “The Paper House”, in which a first person speaker talks about her experience with surgery, came first. When I finished it, I wanted to keep writing about similar issues—issues having to do with health, disease, death, and the body versus the soul. Those issues were coming up, but I wanted to write in a different manner entirely. I felt that if I wrote a whole book in that one style that it would be too self-indulgent. I had a purposeful desire to write about the same themes, but in an entirely different way. And, as I said before, I had come across those anatomical prints in my studies and was fascinated by them—probably because I was working out these ideas about the self—so I thought: let’s explore these drawings and see what happens. I felt that these issues coming up in my poems were larger than me and that they were interesting issues. They could be put into a more historical, larger sense. I wanted to approach these same preoccupations from an entirely different angle, and that’s when I began to write the anatomical poems.
JK: I see. So the anatomical drawings allowed you to continue exploring some of the same issues and themes without repeating the style in a more impersonal way.
NM: I found it really liberating actually. I made all kinds of discoveries that wouldn’t have happened if I continued writing in that same way.
JK: On that note, a lot of your poems, obviously in the third section but also throughout the book, have some kind of symbiotic relationships to paintings and other works of art. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how the visual arts impinge on your work? Is that something you set out to do, or just when the impulse strikes you?
NM: It’s not something I set out to do. I’m just very moved by painting and sculpture. I think they work very well at helping me find a place to start with my writing. I look at these images and I read them like I might close-read a poem. They immediately move me in some way, and then I question why I feel as I do. Whether I am disturbed, irritated, or moved by its beauty, what specifically about the image makes me feel and think the things that I do? Then I explore that in my own writing; I find images to be very fruitful in helping me access how I think and feel.
JK: I felt there was a rather striking example of this way of merging the personal, or extending the personal into the aesthetic. There in the fourth section of the book where you have this quite strong poem about your father’s experience in the wake of the holocaust and that’s then followed by a sequence based on Chagall’s paintings of Vitebsk. Of course, those were done well before the holocaust. Again, were those two poems connected in your mind as you wrote them or was that a connection you noticed later?
NM: That was a connection I noticed later. The poem about my father I wrote earlier, also, around the same time that I wrote “The Paper House” and in that same style. I found, in organizing the book, that the poem about my father's experience during the war would work better there with the Chagall poem. Rather than having a section of poems that are all first-person, I realized there was a connection between this poem about my father returning to France—he had left France during WWII—he’s Jewish—and hadn’t been back for forty years and finally went back. I found a connection between his experience and Chagall’s paintings in which he often paints his hometown with a figure sort of hovering in the sky. It makes me think of a spirit sort of hovering over his hometown. So the idea of the exiled Jew seemed to connect those poems for me.
JK: That was a very nice way to arrange them. You’re right, putting all the first person poems together would probably have been no where near as effective as breaking them up in that way. I seem to have come across something somewhere about how you put the book together in a workshop with Sherod Santos, where you worked at arranging books, am I right?
NM: Yes, that’s true. We had a workshop at the University of Missouri that was an advanced workshop where we all had manuscripts of poems. We discussed organizational and structural strategies. I turned in my manuscript to that workshop and everyone gave me a different opinion on how it should be structured, which poems should be dropped, and so on. I revised the order of the manuscript after that workshop, and that is the book now.
JK: I think it’s arranged very effectively. I’m sort of myself from the pre-workshop era and never actually studied writing, so I don’t know what that’s like. I wonder if you could talk about now how you started writing poetry, when that was, and whether the impulse arose on its own or through reading poetry, through courses you took, or workshops you wandered into—how did you get where you are?
NM: So many writers say they started writing when they were ten-years-old, but that’s not the case for me. I started writing in college, really. I was a creative writing major at John Hopkins University. I was writing fiction and poetry and I stumbled into that major. I didn’t start with it. I just loved the courses. We tended to read contemporary American writers, and I wanted to learn to write as they did. I think it was the reading of poetry that made me want to write, and the attempt to express myself in a form that fit the way that I think. Writing poetry allows you to think about things in a different way than you do in other types of writing. If you compare it to essay writing, for example, you have to be so organized, structured, and logical. When writing poetry, it allows you to make these great leaps in thinking, to connect different time periods, different types of ideas, to constantly change what you are writing about as you move down the page. That works well with the way that I think.
JK: Who were the people who were at Hopkins then?
NM: Wyatt Prunty was the main poet there. Stephen Dixon, a fiction writer. Jean McGarry, a fiction writer. They were the ones I studied with. I wrote as much fiction back then as poetry, probably more. After I graduated I taught elementary and middle school and only wrote casually, once-in-a-while, for about eight years. Then I returned to school at George Mason University where I studied with Carolyn Forché, Eric Pankey, and Jennifer Atkinson. It wasn't really until after college that I started focusing on poetry.
JK: So there was an interval of eight years when you weren’t writing at all—that’s interesting.
NM: Yes, not much.
JK: Your poetry is…when you mentioned that you’ve written fiction, I think I said earlier that one thing I like about it so much is the emphasis on the sentence, which is something you hear from fiction writers more than you hear from poets. That’s interesting. I wonder whether apart from your teachers are there particular poets—either modern, contemporary, or older—who have been important to you and influence your work? And what form has this influence taken?
NM: Sure. In college, I was reading poets like Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds. I was taken by their incredibly powerful and direct language, their use of metaphor and emotionally charged language. That is what drew me to poetry. Though, I’ve been influenced by many different types of poets. I went through a period of time when I was writing formal poetry. I was reading a lot of Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Anthony Hecht, and Richard Wilbur. I was trying to write in that elegant formal poetry, which I don’t do a lot of now, but I think that working hard at that for a while helped me to hear the music in free verse. Another influence has been Renaissance poetry; the metaphysical poets, strangely, have influenced my writing. I look closely at the sentence structure—for example, what John Donne uses: incredibly complex, long sentences that change and change. They are an influence, in both form and content, that interest in metaphysics and whether or not there is something larger than what we have in this world. As far as contemporary poets, I’ve been reading lately Allen Shapiro, Mark Doty, and I actually love your book, “The Constructor" I think it’s amazing.
JK: That’s nice to hear. It’s not a very reader friendly book, but it’s nice that you like it.
NM: It’s reader friendly to me. Actually, my husband and I have been reading together and are just in awe of it.
JK: Thank you. I can see the metaphysical impulse in your work and its connection to Donne. It’s also somewhat meditative. You didn’t mention poets like Eliot or Stevens that one associates with contemplation in a way, so those poets weren’t central to you?
NM: Not particularly, no. Not for these poems, I don’t think.
JK: Well, that’s very interesting. It’s hard to talk about contemporary American poetry because there’s this widespread feeling that it’s quite balkanized. There are all kinds of factions, outlooks, movements, and manifestos and often very little interaction between them. I’d be interested to hear how you see the current American poetry world and if there are some parts of it that you feel a particular affinity with or for that matter some that you feel rather alienated from.
NM: I’m not that interested in the factions and the arguing over aesthetics because I’m interested in multiple aesthetics. I’m interested in learning to write in really different ways. In The Anatomy Theater I try to write the four sections in very different forms and very different voices. In the new poems that I’m writing now I’m writing this sort of long sequence of poems in which each section is written with a different aesthetic in mind. I really try to learn from all the poetry I read. I think that some of the terms that get thrown around are not that useful, for example, confessional poetry. It is often used pejoratively and I think is too often associated with women poets. The term itself suggests confessing one's sins, as if for a woman to speak out is natuarly a confessing of her sins.
JK: Though, the poets it was applied to originally were mostly male.
NM: Right like Robert Lowell. That’s true. But I feel that in conversation with other poets you do hear it being used pejoratively with women a lot. Do you sense that?
JK: I think that’s probably right. It does have some pejorative sense. I’ve always found it completely meaningless.
NM: That’s what I’m trying to say. What does it mean? When is writing about the self confessional? When is it not? Is it really more honest to write in that style than to write in a more masked style or what might be considered artificial? Is that really less honest?
JK: That is a problem. The notion of truth or honesty in poetry is very problematic. It itself can be a kind of mask too. I remember I was once being interviewed by someone and I was complaining—when I was starting to write you were supposed to develop a voice and I always thought that was a strange notion which I didn’t like—and I was complaining about it and the interviewer said, “Oh, well that’s not true anymore. Now you’re not supposed to have a voice, these days you’re supposed to have a poetics.” Then I realized how out of it I was. So you don’t feel drawn to develop a poetics?
NM: It’s hard to say. Some people say you’re supposed to have a project. Other people say you shouldn’t have a project, you should just write from the heart. Who knows what you’re supposed to do.
JK: Actually that leads in a way to something I wanted to ask you. Some poets write poems then see what they add up to at some point. Others have a project or, at least, a somewhat definite idea of where they’d like their work to go. I wonder if you could talk about the poems you are writing now, since the book, and what you hope to write in the future?
NM: As I mentioned earlier, I’m writing this longish poem in multiple sections. It’s trying to use many different forms—a different form in each section. It’s exploring some of the ideas that we’ve been talking about: How does the self enter the poem? Some of the sections are first person lyric narrative. Other poems are more meditative. Some of them are more intellectual. So you move in and out of direct contact with any kind of self. I like the juxtaposition of those different kinds of poems because it makes them resonant against each other. It allows personal narrative to have a lot more depth—at least that’s what I hope. And it allows people to get a foothold in the more intellectual poems. That’s what I’m working on right now.
JK: Is that a book length poem? Or just a long poem but not that long?
NM: You know, I don’t know. To start to answer your other question, I start writing then see where it leads me. I know it’s a longish poem. My guess is that it will probably be a section of a book. Maybe a fourth or a third of a book. But who knows? It might extend longer. It just depends on what happens as I write. I tend to just write and I notice what’s interesting—or what I think is interesting—and then I try to capitalize on that. In The Anatomy Theater I certainly felt it was heading toward having a cohesive theme in different forms, and once I recognized that, after having written about half the poems, I continued on that track.
JK: Now that the book is out what are your thoughts about it? It’s of course exciting to get your first book published and this is such a powerful one. Is it something that is now behind you, or that you draw satisfaction from, or worry about? What are your thoughts on it?
NM: Probably all of the above. This is my first book and it is really exciting. I love having it. I think that HarperCollins did a beautiful job with the cover.
JK: Yes, they do very nice books.
NM: Yes, they do, so it was really satisfying to see my work not just in manuscript form but bound with a nice cover. And I get excited when I see it in a bookstore. But I also sometimes have the sense that it only exists in a pile of books in my study that nobody else dares read. I have both senses. I think that’s typical for a poet to feel a sense of now it’s out there but is anybody reading it. I feel satisfied and a little anxious about it.
JK: Well I’ve seen a couple of reviews of it. You’re probably aware of them. There’s one by John Freeman.
NM: Yes, there have been a few.
JK: The trouble with poetry books is that they come out and then they often disappear. It’s nice that yours is attracting some notice. I’m curious of course as to how it was for you and your husband to learn that you had both been selected for the NPS. Actually, his manuscript was my other choice.
NM: Really! He’ll be so excited to hear that.
JK: I flipped a coin there. But how was that? It must have been quite a surprise not to mention a shock.
NM: Yes, it really was. We both had finished manuscripts at about the same time, and we were sending them out to all these different contests. We knew we were finalists for the NPS because you have to send additional copies if you’re a finalist. I was thinking that that’s the contest I really want to win and I’m sure that I won’t win it. He got the phone call first actually. He called me up and said, “I won the NPS.” “Oh, you did? Congratulations!” “And you did too.” I was just amazed by that. It was kind of unbelievable.
JK: Well it was a great pleasure discovering your manuscript and selecting it. I’m glad that worked out as it did.
NM: Thank you.
Nadine Sabra Meyer's poems have won the New Letters Poetry Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and have appeared in many journals, including Chelsea, Quarterly West, Pleiades, Notre Dame Review and North American Review. She lives with her husband, the poet Steve Gehrke, and their daughter.
John Koethe is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and the first Poet Laureate of Milwaukee. His previous collection, North Point North: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His collection Falling Water won the Kingsley Tufts Award. In 2005, John Koethe was a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin.