Keith Meatto talks with poet Gina Myers about leaving New York, darkness in poetry, and the difference between growing up and settling down.
Image from Flickr via Gabriela Camerotti
While her poems may suggest otherwise, Gina Myers is not emo, she has never watched Girls, and she saves her best lines for Twitter. Hold it Down, her second poetry collection from Coconut Books, chronicles a decade of her life in Brooklyn, her native Saginaw, and Atlanta, her current home. Stark, sly, and plainspoken, Hold It Down reveals a woman in her 20s and 30s amidst personal, national, and international crises. Beyond its ostensibly personal subject, this collection is also an intellectual dialogue with poets, musicians, and philosophers, both living and deceased. In April, Gina and I chatted via email about Hold it Down and her take on love and solitude, music and memory, social media and social norms, and how—in both poetry and life—to keep it real.
—Keith Meatto for Guernica
Guernica: The book contains five distinct poems titled “Hold it Down,” including the first and last poems. What does this phrase mean to you?
Gina Myers: “Hold it down” has a few meanings. It means to keep it together and not to lose your shit. It’s a reminder to keep things in perspective. It’s an insistence on the present. And it can also mean to really “own” something, like in a bragging sort of way. It’s also a phrase that has become associated with Atlanta and over-sized foam hands.
I titled an earlier version of the manuscript The Way It Is, which I had taken from Tupac Shakur’s “Changes,” which samples Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is.” Then I found out that William Stafford’s recent poetry collection had that title. At first I was like, oh shit, I didn’t know Stafford was a Tupac fan! Then I decided to change it to Hold It Down, which I think is ultimately a better title for the collection and a better fit for what the book became in its final version.
Guernica: In the opening poem you write: “It’s easy to write / a poem about something / other than yourself / but still I turn to this.” Subsequently, most of the poems are intensely personal, which begs the question: is it really easy to write poems that are not about yourself?
Gina Myers: It is easy to write poems about other things! My first book [A Model Year] has a mix of poems about my experiences and poems that are not about me or my experiences—including some [first-person] poems where “I” does not speak for me. Poetry is not memoir—it can be, but it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of poems and poets who are more interested in language, wordplay, images, and even persona, than they are in delivering a personal poem. One could perhaps argue that the poems are personal because they are filtered through a single person’s perspective, but that doesn’t consider collaborations, or found-text, or computer-generated poems. And there are a number of schools within poetry that lean towards the impersonal. Bruce Covey is a poet (who also happens to be my publisher) who constructs poems from things like Ke$ha’s Twitter account and lists of players the Mets have traded over the years. A recent poem of his, “29 Epiphanies,” compiles funny lessons from recognizable classics of literature. David Trinidad, Elaine Equi, and Jerome Sala are other contemporary poets who have poems that are equally playful, such as Trinidad’s Pattie Duke Show summaries and Sala’s variation on a theme by Charles Barkley. Peter Davis’ book Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! is another fun example.
I once had an aunt tell me out of the blue that when I get married I can cover my tattoos with makeup, and I was just like, what the hell?
Guernica: These poems include many snippets of daily news, often dark, violent, and tragic ones. What stories have caught your eye lately? Have you written anything about the Newtown massacre or the Boston Marathon bombing?
Gina Myers: I have not written about either Newtown or Boston. I’ve been trying to keep up with what’s going on in Syria, Iraq, and with drones, and I always follow crime, business, and community news in my hometown paper, the Saginaw News. I’ve also been very interested in the work the photographer Chris Arnade has been doing documenting addicts in Hunts Point in the Bronx. I am a follower of the news—local, national, and international—as best as I can be, but I sometimes go through periods of exhaustion from information overload.
Guernica: Your poetry frequently references music (Nick Drake, Morrissey, Marvin Gaye, The Clash) and beyond poetry you have written many music reviews. What role does music play in your life?
Gina Myers: When I was a teenager, the music scene was my social outlet and really a large part of my identity. I think music provides a common language for people to relate to each other. For example, my brother and I are not close and do not have much in common, but we both love Motown, which we picked up from my dad, so there’s always that that brings us together. For better or worse, I’ve also dated a few musicians. My boyfriend now is a drummer who has a deep knowledge of music, and going to see shows, or looking up songs online, or watching documentaries, or talking about books on music history that we’ve read, is just part of our daily lives. I love to read music history books—I was a history major as an undergrad, and it appeals to that side of me. I’m interested in music as not just a reflection of its era, but also as a catalyst for change.
Guernica: You write: “every poem is a love poem” and “I usually prefer breakup poems to love poems.” What’s the appeal of writing (and reading) poetry about love?
Gina Myers: Love as a topic of poems, or songs for that matter, is something that many people can relate to. I think when reading a poem or listening to a song the reader/listener brings him or herself into the work—the interpretation or experience of the poem or song are shaped by the person’s individual experiences too, which is something the author can’t control. With my line, “every poem is a love poem,” I was trying to communicate that for me the act of writing is an act of love or at least an act of great care due to the attention and dedication it takes, especially when considering what little “pay off” there may be. I think that is maybe one definition of love, or at least trust—doing something with no expectation of a return.
Guernica: Several of the poems explicitly or implicitly cite a long-distance relationship and/or a relationship with long periods of absence. To what extent does solitude and loneliness inspire your creativity? And is this a generational phenomenon, the idea that people can be together without literally being together?
Gina Myers: Solitude and loneliness have always played a role in my writing—though I can feel loneliness at anytime, whether I’m actually alone or not. (I don’t mean for that to sound emo!) I’d say that though it comes up with some frequency in my writing, it is not a frequent mood I feel in real life. My boyfriend and I have been together for just over three years, and though we were living in the same city when we met and we live together now, he travels for work and is usually gone eight weeks at a time. I actually find this arrangement beneficial for me and for my writing because it allows me a lot of alone time, which is something writers need, and which, at least in my past experiences, can be something that some people don’t understand or value. But the loneliness I write of isn’t just romantic loneliness, but also the loneliness one can feel when he or she is away from his or her family, especially when something such as an illness or death is occurring, or the loneliness one can feel when his or her friends live far away, which becomes increasingly common as we get older—and that perhaps is more of a generational thing as society has become more mobile since the 1970s, and people are more likely to move for work and change jobs more often in their lifetimes.
Guernica: A major thread of Hold It Down seems to be the tension between home and rootless-ness. How many places have you lived and where do you consider home?
Gina Myers: I’ve lived in five different cities (Saginaw, MI; Mt. Pleasant, MI; Cambridge, England; Brooklyn, NY; and Atlanta, GA), but it feels like I’ve lived in a lot more for some reason! I’ve tended to move a lot within some of those cities—for example, I was in Brooklyn for about five years, but I think I lived eight different places and also spent a month crashing with various friends, but I think that is a fairly usual NYC experience.
Saginaw [Michigan] is my home; it’s where I was born and lived until I was twenty, and it is also somewhere I chose to move back to in my late 20s, and my parents still live there. But it is also a deeply troubled place and one that causes much ambivalence within me. I do feel strongly shaped by my experiences there, and when I was back living there, I wanted to try to do good work for the city, whatever that means. But it’s a frustrating place to be and also a place that I believe will cease to be a city during my lifetime, either through its continued population loss or through dissolution, which is actually being discussed as a course of action by city council members right now.
Guernica: On a related note, Hold It Down seems to have an ambivalent attitude toward New York, often serving as a corrective to the self-proclaimed specialness of New York (and Brooklyn in particular) as compared to other cities. What do you see as the city’s strengths and weaknesses as a place to live, particularly for artists?
Gina Myers: I’m happy I moved to New York when I did, but it certainly is not an easy city to live in, and though I do enjoy visiting the city still, I don’t think I would ever move back there again, though I could be wrong about this, of course. I think as a young person, specifically someone in their twenties, New York has a lot to offer when it comes to culture, nightlife, and general life experiences, such as opportunities for personal growth as well as picking up street wisdom. There’s also the strange way that it seems like anything can happen there—like, there’s a greater potential for possibility of experience. For example, you might be walking down the street and bump into someone you know and the next thing you know is you’re invited to some private movie launch party in a Soho loft.
For someone who is pursuing the arts, New York can be a great city to be in obviously because of all of the museums, galleries, theatres and other performance venues, music, bookstores and libraries, and resources in general. However, I think sometimes taking advantage of all the city has to offer can be hard to realize if you’re, say, going to grad school while working two jobs, as I was my first two years there. Or, if later, you’re working a low-paying job, living in a miserable apartment, and don’t have the money, time, or energy to take advantage of these things, living in New York starts to lose its value. And that’s ultimately why I decided to leave. Even though I loved the city, I wasn’t enjoying living there anymore and thought if I stayed that I wouldn’t survive another year. I’m not trying to sound melodramatic—I really believed it at the time.
Guernica: Another thread seems to be the tension between wanting to remain youthful and live a life free of responsibility and the pressure to settle down. “I should settle down, start a family / do all those things that people once / expected from me. Basically give up.” Do you see this as a generational malaise? Or is it just something common to writers and artists?
Gina Myers: From very early on in my life, I knew that I didn’t want to have kids and that I had no interest in getting married. When I was living in Brooklyn, I felt that I rarely if ever ran into the assumption that those would be things that I wanted, but when I wrote “False Spring,” I was back living in Saginaw, and there are a lot of Midwestern assumptions that life can only be fulfilling by following this traditional life map. (I once had an aunt tell me out of the blue that when I get married I can cover my tattoos with makeup, and I was just like, what the hell?)
I don’t know that it is either a generational malaise or necessarily common to writers and artists, as I certainly know many artists and writers who want and have families and are very happy. I’ve thought a lot about that line since writing it because I worry at readings that it might offend some people, and that’s certainly not my intention. I just mean to say, there are many ways of living, and this particular narrative doesn’t appeal to me.
Guernica: I notice a major difference between your poetic persona and your online persona. In the former, you come across as serious, contemplative, and often struggling with solitude. In the latter, you seem cheerful, breezy, and gregarious. Does poetry demand a certain level of darkness and seriousness? Do social media demand a certain level of levity and confidence?
Gina Myers: Poetry doesn’t demand a certain level of darkness or seriousness, but it is where I personally have chosen to explore that part of myself. I think the divide is simply just between the public and private self. The things I explore in my poetry are not likely the things I talk about online just because I don’t take social media very seriously. I actually want to quit Facebook, but I have to use it for work. I do like Twitter, however. I like the constraint of 140-characters or less, and I feel like it’s perfectly suited for the quick and/or witty observation. My Twitter account is definitely not always used in that way, but I do have a line in a poem that says “I save all my best lines for Twitter.”
Guernica: After nearly 100 pages of darkness, the collection ends on an uplifting note, albeit a qualified one “Not every day / Can be a good day / but this is one / of them, one of the best days.”
Gina Myers: I hope it’s really not 100 pages of darkness! But I think again it is an example of keeping it real, so to speak.
Gina Myers is the author of A Model Year and Hold It Down (Coconut Books) and numerous chapbooks, including False Spring (Spooky Girlfriend Press). She lives in Atlanta, GA.
Keith Meatto is a writer, editor, and teacher in New York. His fiction publications include Artifice, Harpur Palate, and Opium. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Forward, The Millions, and elsewhere.