By Paul J. Ferlazzo
Sandra Meek’s fourth collection of poetry elegizes her mother as she lay dying of cancer and emphysema. Images isolate, elevate, and transform the demise: the
“dark rosette in the lung’s / pewter lace.” Meek, Dana Professor of English, Rhetoric and Writing at Berry College
and poetry editor for this magazine, also confronts her own
suffering: “all that’s ghosting in my hands.” Twice Georgia
Author of the Year and a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, she answered
email questions about the work and her craft sent by poetry
scholar Paul J. Ferlazzo. What follows are edited excerpts.
Question: Much of Road Scatter is about your mother’s
illness and death. How did you turn such pain into poetry?
Answer: My mother was diagnosed in August 2006 with
stage 3 lung cancer, and she died on Sept. 1, 2007, at age
72. For the last six months or so of her life, she was in a
nursing home and increasingly confused and terrified. She
didn’t want to be alone, but she didn’t want to talk and,
ultimately, couldn’t. How I lived those silent days without
disappearing from my mother’s presence, or my own, was
to write. Frankly, it was miserable, and the temptation was
to imagine myself completely out of that room. But I knew
I would regret losing even that dark time with her. Writing
kept me in the room; writing about her kept her there for
me as well. I wasn’t writing poems so much as fragments
— descriptions of my mother in bed; the hiss of her oxygen; her occasional verbal wanderings — that ultimately
Q: You dedicate Road Scatter to your mother. Did she
read any of your poetry?
A: Yes, my mother read my work and always had the
same nondiscriminating positive reaction, from the time I
was a kid until the last year of her life. She was a big reader
— loved literary novels — but didn’t really read poetry, except for mine. Particularly in my teenage and young-adult
years, I’d roll my eyes some at her unconditional and, it
seemed to me then, too easily won praise. Now, of course,
I know how lucky I was.
Q: When you write, who do you imagine as your audience?
A: Audience is not something I focus on. Aesthetic work in general and
poetry in particular, I think, don’t work in the same rhetorical way as an
essay may. Writing a poem is more a matter of responding with sensitivity
and integrity to the emerging identity of the work; the completed poem,
then, creates or suggests its own best reader. While each poem does this
differently, in general my own ideal reader would appreciate being moved
by a poem, intellectually as well as emotionally, and be open to the associative as well as narrative possibilities of language.
Q: Do you write directly from the heart or moderate personal and intimate experiences through poetic technique? In other words, how do
you negotiate between Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” and T. S. Eliot’s “objective correlative”?
A: On one level, Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” evokes the emotional and
Eliot’s “objective correlative” the intellectual. I hope I write from the
heart, brain, and body.
Q: There are antiwar poets, love poets, poets who explore consciousness, social mores, individual freedom, etc. Do you align yourself with
a community of poets?
A: I do identify with the poetry of place, poetry that is environmental in the wider sense, encompassing nature as well as culture. My interest in ecopoetry,
and travel poetry, began when I
was a Peace Corps volunteer in
Botswana from 1989 to 1991,
and my first book of poems,
Nomadic Foundations, largely came
out of that experience.
Biogeography, my third book, is also very
much about place, as is the collection I’m finishing now, An
Ecology of Elsewhere. Many of
these new poems begin from a
particular natural “artifact” — a
paper wasp nest, a Namibian
quiver tree — and spiral out in
what I hope are generative ways,
interconnecting physical and living landscape, individual and
collective experience. In writing
this collection, I revisited places
from my first time in Southern
Africa (now a vastly different
world), including the village I’d
lived in. My interest in place also
led to my editing an anthology,
Deep Travel: Contemporary American Poets Abroad.
Q: Those resistant to contemporary poetry focus on its tendency to be obscure, difficult to
understand. How do you respond to such criticism?
A: Contemporary poetry is in-
credibly diverse, ranging from
spoken word to traditional son-
nets, from the most accessible
narrative to the most disjunctive. I think many readers who believe they
don’t like contemporary poetry just have not yet found the poets who will
really speak to them. Some contemporary poetry does present a complex
surface, and some readers do get uncomfortable when the element of narra-
tive seems absent, or radically altered, when it seems the poem doesn’t want
to be approached in that familiar, linear way. For other readers there seems
to be a kind of fear in reading poetry, perhaps going back to days of high
school anxiety, a feeling that it’s not okay if they simply read and enjoy a
poem, but that they should also be able to explicate it — as if an exam ques-
tion lies around the corner. I would offer two great ways to sample contem-
porary poetry: sign up at the Academy of American Poets ( www.poets.org)
for the Poem-A-Day delivered via email, and visit Poetry Daily ( poems.com),
which every day features a different, recently published poem.
Paul J. Ferlazzo (former Society president) publishes regularly on
American poetry. His books include Poetry and the American Presidency
(Peter Lang, 2012), Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson (G. K. Hall, 1984),
and Emily Dickinson (Twayne, 1976). He has placed dozens of articles in
scholarly journals such as the Walt Whitman Review. Professor Emeritus
of American literature at Northern Arizona University, his Phi Kappa Phi
chapter, Ferlazzo earned English degrees from St. Francis College (B.A.) and
University of Oklahoma (M.A. and Ph.D.). Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When the Body Turns Fully Coral
By Sandra Meek
96 pp. Persea Books