Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Nancy Reddy reads “Walmart Supercenter” by Erika Meitner.
Nancy, there’s so much to love here. I myself love the moist dimes being traded for honey mustard because I’m all too familiar with pulling soggy dollar bills out of my pocket to pay for a coffee. Also, coming from the bible belt I really dig “God is merciful and gracious, but not just.” What are some of your favorite parts of this absolutely brutal and beautiful poem?
Nancy: I love the (for lack of a better word) thing-iness of the poem, the way it’s full of the stuff of ordinary life – the honey mustard and moist dimes you mention, the flip flops and lounge pants, the plastic shopping bags. This poem takes in the world, and not just the parts that are obviously beautiful or “poetic.” And it places that stuff alongside these really sharp, moving explorations of mercy, forgiveness, justice, as in the line that jumps from the seven abandoned kittens to the cashier speaking about small mercies. It’s rooted in incredibly close attention the material world, but it’s also capacious in its scope.
Chris: How about the qualities that make this poem essential? What are the elements that elevate this poem above others?
Nancy: I’m obsessed with how this poem moves. It starts in this utterly ordinary place – a trip to Walmart for juice, Pampers, tube socks, and it arcs up into a meditation on mercy and justice. It alternates between the speaker’s maneuvering of the shopping cart and a multitude or quirky and horrible things that have happened at Walmarts all around the country. These are the kind of stories that seem to just constantly arrive unbidden – every time I log in to Facebook or flip through the radio dial or catch the local news, there’s some fresh horror, usually something unimaginable that’s happened to a child. As a poet and as the mother of two young boys, I don’t know what to do with that. But this is a poem that doesn’t look away. It doesn’t try to impose any kind of neat moral, but it grapples, and it holds these really lovely, tender moments – a friendly old man on a scooter waving, the girl buying honey mustard sauce – against the other awful things. To me, this is a poem that demonstrates just how much poetry can hold. I think we need more of that.
Chris: Is that something you experiment with in your own poetry—testing how much a poem can hold?
Nancy: Absolutely. (I think our obsessions in reading often track really closely with our interests in writing, right?) So right now I’m working on a second collection of poems that’s about – in part – pregnancy and motherhood, and alongside those central themes, I’m also thinking about quantum physics and primates and evolution and human ancestors and theories of scientific mothering, among other things. Copia (the book this poem’s from) has been really essential as I write my way through connections and digressions and juxtapositions. Meitner’s work is just so capacious (to be a little punny), and it’s helped me to think about the poem in terms of capacity and breadth.
Chris: You discussed the movement earlier and it really is totally bonkers—it feels like a one player game of weird Walmart one-upmanship. In terms of the justice/mercy where do you think the narrator lands one the issue? Is Walmart and what it represents forever a place of struggle? Or, is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
Nancy: One of the things that I really like about this poem (and about the other poems in this book, which take place in convenience stores and rest stop bathrooms and Detroit) is that it doesn’t judge the place. It doesn’t have an ironic distance from Walmart – like, oh isn’t it hilarious that I’m here, buying my domestic goods? – and it also doesn’t look down on Walmart or its shoppers, which would have been really easy to do. For me, the role of Walmart in this poem is just that it’s actually such a central place for so much of America. Part of my family lives in a pretty rural part of central Pennsylvania, and for my stepsister, growing up, Walmart was just where you’d go with your friends to hang out. If you stayed there long enough, you’d see the whole town go by. And in this poem, the same thing’s true at a much bigger scale – if you scan the news for Walmart long enough, all the horrors in the world will happen there. But there’s also some beauty and some kindness, too.
Nancy Reddy is the author of Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), a 2014 winner of the National Poetry Series. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Horsethief, The Iowa Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. The recipient of a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, she teaches writing at Stockton University in southern New Jersey.
Chris Petruccelli is eating offal and drinking Tecate in Northeast Tennessee. He is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press) and his poetry appears or is forthcoming in journals such as Appalachian Heritage, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: the Journal, and elsewhere.