Ahead of the release of What Nothing, her debut poetry collection, Anna Meister spoke with editorial intern Kathleen Gullion. Their conversation centered on the “toolbox” Meister builds to resist and heal. As one item in the toolbox of survival, poetry does the work of acknowledgment and remembrance, and in this way, serves as an instrument of hope for Meister.
Kathleen Gullion: The title of your collection, What Nothing, comes from a line in “Toward Something Hard”: “I know what nothing means.” How do that line and that phrase in particular represent the collection as a whole?
Anna Meister: I think, in some ways, it means I don’t know anything. In this poem, it’s also the speaker’s (okay, the speaker is always some former self, some version of me) realization or recognition, at least after the fact, of the lack of care or substance or accountability in her relationship at the time. Throughout the collection, there’s a lot of reflecting (everything is a memory) and reckoning with feelings of absence and emptiness.
It took years of working on this book to decide on the title What Nothing. I struggle with titles and had various placeholders that just weren’t doing enough to lift and connect the poems. Just a couple of weeks before I sent the manuscript to Sundress, a friend and I went through all the poems searching for words/phrases that felt alive without context. Once I landed on What Nothing, something new clicked open.
KG: Reflecting on the refrain of “if” that appears throughout the poems, what role does the conditional play in this collection?
AM: There’s a lot of doubt and questioning in these poems, with acknowledgment to how connected and domino-like the accumulation of lived experiences can feel. Sometimes I don’t know what to trust. I know, as someone who lives with mental illness, I cannot always trust my mind. My depressed brain straight up lies to me. Too, trauma can scramble, fragment, block. So there’s a conjuring, an imagining of outcomes had life’s events been arranged differently, an attempt to poke holes in what is known. Turning it all over, uncertain.
KG: Can you speak to the themes of memory and forgetting?
AM: Memory is, more often than not, where a poem begins for me. That’s very much what moves me to write, this desire to make sense of what happened, recording what I remember, and just as importantly, what I don’t. Which isn’t the same as forgetting.
KG: Can you speak to the narrator’s persistent tenderness, the pursuit of “reason[s] to stay alive in the world”?
AM: I mean, it’s hard out here. I need to surround myself with all the reasons, to remind myself of them again and again on a daily basis. I need them all in my toolbox, these reasons, no matter how big or small. It’s necessary armor for the brutal world we’re all currently experiencing.
KG: What does being seen mean to the narrator?
AM: Isn’t that what everyone wants, to be acknowledged wholly, to not have to sever or hide parts of oneself in order to be accepted? It’s such an intense desire of mine and it also feels so vulnerable. It makes me think of the meme that’s like, “the rewards of being loved vs. the mortifying ordeal of being known.”
KG: What is the significance of the “bridge” image that appears multiple times throughout the collection?
AM: It’s several things. The bridge is a literal bridge, the site of a physical trauma several of the poems address. The summer of my 18th year, I fell and shattered my lower lumbar vertebrae. The bridge is dangerous because of what happened that night, and also because I live with major depression/intense suicidal ideation; the imagery alludes to that impulse, that type of dangerous thought to which I often return. And yet, I also love what a bridge can represent? A journeying, movement forward/elsewhere, being guided and carried.
KG: “IT HURTS NOT / TO BE BELIEVED” breaks form, inviting white space and a looser use of language—how do these formal choices reflect the meaning of the poem?
AM: The long poem lets everything in. It’s a collage of many different fragments—I wanted it to feel urgent and messy, to mimic a cascade of memories and associations spanning years. It lives smack dab in the middle of the collection, flanked by pieces that look more traditionally organized on the page or are speaking to a singular experience or individual. I like that juxtaposition. I like long poems for the space they dare to take up, for their insistence on taking their time to work through ideas, and for the chance to contradict oneself.
KG: How does putting language to traumatic experiences help or hinder the healing process?
AM: For me, it’s overwhelmingly helpful in my healing, or else I couldn’t do it. Writing is by no means a stand-in for therapy, but there have been times when the work I’m doing in therapy prompts a poem, or even when I’ve written a poem and brought it into therapy like, “This came out and I don’t know what the fuck it means, can we talk about it?” Sometimes you need distance from an experience in order to write about it (I’m thinking about poems I wrote about my rape years before I understood to call it that), and sometimes it’s through the writing that you gain necessary perspective. There are things I haven’t known or realized I knew until writing them down.
KG: How does the body play a role in these poems?
AM: I’m thinking about The Body Keeps the Score, a book about the impact of (all types of) trauma on the body and how we can heal from what we’re carrying. I wish everyone would read it. I’m working on being more present in my body, more integrated, listening better to what it needs and is telling me. So the body (my body) is in the poems because it needs to be, because it’s so connected to and affected by everything that’s happening. Too, I think there’s a way in which a poem’s specificity can also be the key to its universality. Not every reader will have had the same experiences as the speaker, but hopefully the level of detail makes it possible for them to connect to a time where they felt similarly. And so the body can, in that way, transform and be anyone’s.
KG: Even in the final poem, a gorgeously queer ode, there is an insistent reminder that “the tough stuff” will come. Can you talk about “the tough stuff” and how you see it playing out? How does that insistence inform the collection as a whole?
AM: There’s so much tough stuff right now, you know? We’re nine months into a global pandemic, in a time of such major social/economic/racial inequity. I’m staring out my window at the frozen world as my cyclical depression once again begins to ramp up. It all feels pretty bleak and it’s challenging (however, crucial) to imagine the future being different or better. The choice to end my collection with this love poem is a hopeful one. Hope is difficult, but it feels correct here, since I’ve survived and will do my best to keep doing that. Love is not a cure-all; I’m not looking for anyone to fix my brain. Addressing her beloved in this final poem, the speaker is realistic that what has been hard will continue to be so (or will rear its head again), that some struggles are lifelong. Being loved in entirety, because of rather than despite, is certainly a balm and a source of strength in moving forward.
Anna Meister is the author of two chapbooks, most recently As If (Glass Poetry Press, 2018). Meister studied poetry/memory/maps at Hampshire College and earned an MFA in poetry from New York University, where she served as Goldwater Writing Fellow. Her poems have appeared in BOAAT, Redivider, Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in Des Moines, IA with her wife and son.