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Celebrity Author:
Peter Meinke

Peter Meinke: The Man and the Works
by Patricia Lieb

A hush comes over the audience when Peter Meinke reads from his poetry, a craft he has molded and honed since he was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, NY, in a German-Irish family. His mother, whose maiden name was Kathleen McDonald, came from a family who loved poetry, and passed this on to her son.

In 1993 Meinke took early retirement from Eckerd College, in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he had set up and directed the school's Writing Workshop, working with Florida writers Richard Mathews and Sterling Watson. After 27 years at Eckerd, Meinke now concentrates more on his own writing. Still, this poet has found it worthwhile to keep in touch with young writers and he has served as writer-in-residence three times since his retirement, at the University of Hawaii (1993), Austin Peay State University in Tennessee (1995), and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (1996).

Currently he is the writer for the National Writers' Voice Project in Tampa, a program headquartered in New York; this workshop meets each Wednesday evening during the semester.

During his interview at the Cuzzins restaurant in Clearwater, Meinke recalled the many times he and his family have traveled abroad, taking students for extended stays in Paris, London, Warsaw, and Neuchatel (Switzerland). "Our children became so good at living overseas," he said, "that two of them live abroad--in Florence and Tokyo; it's expensive to visit them!"

These days Meinke is reading at various conferences, writers' workshops and organizations from his most recent books, LIQUID PAPER (1991, in its 3rd printing) and SCARS (1996). For the workshop in Tampa he selected 12 promising poets of various ages out of some 50 who applied. He chose the participants by the quality of the work they sent in with their applications. As part of this program, he gave a reading at the University of Tampa. His students will give a reading at Inkwood Books at the conclusion of the workshops.

Meinke has been a featured writer at the Times Festival of Reading at the Eckerd College campus in St. Petersburg. Many young (and not-so-young) writers ask him to read their poetry and teach them to write better. "I enjoy it," he said, "when I'm not too busy. You can help them, save them time. No one can teach talent, but poetry is a craft as well as an art." Meinke often can point out certain unconscious ticks a writer may have developed (too many adverbs, for example, or repeated sentence structures), and he can suggest other poets who the beginning writer should read.

Meinke recalls how it was when he was studying poetry (he has a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of Minnesota, which he attended while Allen Tate, John Berryman, and James Wright were teaching there). As an undergraduate, he went to Hamilton College in New York (where Ezra Pound went) in the fifties.

"Back then, there were no workshops," he said. "We didn't study contemporary poetry. I started by imitating my favorite writers, John Donne, Keats, Thomas Hardy--I still love them." He didn't read contemporary poets until he got out of the army in 1957.

But poetry has always been important to Meinke. "I suppose anything you like becomes important. I really think the country would be a better place if more people read poetry: it's an art that stretches the imagination, empathy, which I think is in short supply these days."

"I'm not a confessional poet," he said when asked. "The best part of me is my poetry. I'm not interested in anybody knowing about me, except through my poems." He added, "I think most people would like them: they're reasonably accessible but repay close reading--at least I try to write that way." Meinke usually starts a poem from something that has actually happened, but then it takes on a life of its own. He changes it for sound, for drama, for energy. Nevertheless, he thinks that if you read enough poems by anyone, you'll get to know him or her fairly well.

Meinke, who is 63 but looks much younger, says poets (like everybody else) are living to be older nowadays. "Poetry used to be thought of as a young person's calling--a romantic idea--but now a lot of writers are in their sixties, seventies, and older: Stanley Kunitz is still publishing wonderful poems in "The New Yorker" at ninety! They take care of themselves, don't get fat," Meinke said. "Sounds boring, doesn't it! But it's not."

For lunch, during our interview, Meinke munched on an amberjack sandwich and fresh fruit. The fact that poets take better care of themselves has made a difference in their poetry: poems that look at life from the point of view of the elderly, or from a broader and longer perspective. Less glorification of drinking, though Meinke admits to a lingering fondness for martinis. So many writers of the previous generation had alcohol problems: Lowell, Tate, Wright, Delmore Schwartz, Elizabeth Bishop, Hemingway, Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Fitzgerald, Hart Crane--a long and unhappy list.

Meinke can remember his father enjoying the three-martini lunch. "When I was growing up, that was the way to live, and I did that myself for a long time. I thoroughly enjoyed it, like my father." And like his parents, he was also a smoker. "I associated drinking and smoking with writing," he said, "and only gradually cut down."

But quitting cigarettes wasn't difficult for Meinke. They had lived in Warsaw, Poland, in 1978-79, where he was a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at the University of Warsaw. "I smoked awful Albanian--or was it Algerian?--cigarettes because they were cheap, and often stayed up late drinking and smoking with our Polish friends--those were exciting days, when solidarity was just beginning." When he came back to the states he could barely talk through his aggravated throat, and gave up smoking on New Year's Eve 1980.

While involved in many activities and sports during his high school years (he was on the New Jersey All-State basketball team) Meinke thought he had kept secret his love of writing. But when he recently returned for his 45th high school class reunion, written right there in the yearbook under his name was: "Wants to be--Writer; Probably will be--Censored."

I don't know about his ever having been "censored," but Meinke certainly became a writer, having authored 10 volumes of poetry, a book of short stories that won the 1986 Flannery O'Connor Award, and two children's books in verse, as well as a critical monograph on the poet Howard Nemerov. Five of his books have been published in the prestigious Pit Poetry Series, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

He and his wife Jeanne, an accomplished artist whose pen & ink drawings have appeared in "The New Yorker," "Bon Appetite," "Gourmet," and elsewhere, have been married 38 years and have four grown children. The Meinkes have lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, since 1966, in the house that graces the cover of the paperback edition of LIQUID PAPER (painted by their daughter Perrie, the artist who lives in Italy). He has no special plans, he said, except to "write a little more, a little better."

Poems by Peter Meinke

The First Marriage
The Secret Code
Liquid Paper

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