Spinning life into words that matter
Master wordsmith Peter Meinke – Florida’s Poet Laureate and the 2020 winner of the Florida Humanities’ Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing – has interpreted life around him through poetry, from the natural world to politics. Plus, Meinke’s poem, “Spanish Moss.”
By Ron Cunningham
I learned that Shakespeare really lived
so scholars have decided.
Though quite a few have studied me
they’re not as sure that I did.
– Peter Meinke
emo to scholars: Peter Meinke lives, thank you very much. And there is an impressive body of work to back up the essential heartbeat of his literary existence.
Start with 18 volumes of poems and short stories produced over the span of half a century. Throw in frequent submissions published in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Poetry and Creative Loafing, the Tampa Bay area alternative weekly for which Meinke writes a column (which his wife illustrates) about, well, life, the university and pretty much whatever else pops into his head. The work has earned accolades. In 2015, then-Gov. Rick Scott appointed
Meinke Florida’s Poet Laureate – for which, Meinke has written, he did not receive the traditional “barrel of sherry the way the English poets did.” But it was quite an honor nonetheless.
This year, Florida Humanities selected Meinke as the latest recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award For Writing.
“One of my childish first thoughts was, how happy my mother would have been,” says Meinke about receiving the news. “She was crazily proud of my being a writer.”
Not bad for a late starter who set out early in life to be a poet but would have settled for a career in baseball.
Poetry won out, as it happens, but his was far from a smooth career trajectory.
In 1950, when he graduated from Mountain Lakes High School, in New Jersey, his school yearbook predicted: “Peter Meinke: Wants to be: Writer.
Probably Will be: Censored.”
“That sounded good to me,” he recalls.
Still, 15 years and a decade’s accumulation of rejection slips would grind by before a Meinke poem, “In Gentler Times,” would garner first prize in the Olivet Sonnet Competition, which was judged by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W. D. Snodgrass.
“This was inspiring for two reasons,” Meinke recalls. “I loved Snodgrass’s book April Inventory, and I remember feeling that however I’d be judged from then on, I was a writer.”
In 1966, Meinke moved to St. Petersburg to start a creative writing program at Florida Presbyterian College, later rebranded as Eckerd College. He would remain on faculty for 27 years until his retirement. And now, 70 years beyond high school, the 87-year-old poet reflects:
There’s something so final about receiving the Florida Humanities Lifetime Achievement Award For Writing. I don’t exactly feel finished, but more like having completed a marathon. It’s very satisfying.”
Previous honorees have included such Florida literary luminaries as Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan, Patrick Smith, Randy Wayne White, Michael Gannon, Enid Shomer and Jeff Klinkenberg. “The dignity and reputation of the council and the quality of the writers chosen over the years, give the award a gravitas that surprised me,” he says.
Steve Seibert, executive director of Florida Humanities, says when this year’s selection committee’s discussion turned to Peter, it grasped how influential his work has been.
“This influence isn’t just felt in St. Petersburg – where he’s been a longtime resident and an invaluable teacher to innumerable writers – but across and beyond our state,”
“Bestowing the Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing is another way to once again remind thousands of Floridians about Peter Meinke’s incredible body of work.”
Meaning (call it M3) is the increasingly invisible
odorless, tasteless element in our universe long ago
slipped by someone’s god into our water…..
– Peter Meinke
Like most Americans in these perilous times, Meinke greeted the spring by hunkering down in his home, waiting out the coronavirus with his wife, Jeanne, an artist and frequent collaborator.
“As an older person who happens to be a poet, I am very moved by the number of friends and neighbors who have called to check on how Jeanne and I are doing, asking can they help in any way,” he says. “They think, correctly, that poets and artists aren’t very practical, and haven’t stocked up on anything useful.”
A house in the trees
Ah, but what a house of refuge his is! Although they have traveled the world, the Meinkes always return to their beloved if aging cottage (“The plumbing system just collapsed,” he points out.), situated on two-thirds of an acre in the heart of St. Petersburg close to downtown.
“It’s very lush, with five or six live oak trees and a couple of fruit trees, totally shaded,” he says. “We both love this house and the kids (two sons and two daughters, all grown now) would never let us sell it. And we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
The house provides “a sense of place that is very real. It has roots like a good poem.”
Speaking of which, although Meinke writes frequently about faith, politics and everyday life, he has refrained so far from writing about the virus that has been sweeping the world.
Rather, he has spent much of his time reading The Mirror and the Light, the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. And he highly recommends it. “The trilogy may carry you all the way through this pandemic.”
He also has been reflecting on the lessons from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, a historical novel about the bubonic plague published in 1772.
“There were some similarities,” he says. “It came over to London from Holland as coronavirus came from China. It was played down by authorities as it swept through one neighborhood after another, and its most awful effects hit the poor, as the rich ran to their country houses, taking their doctors with them.
“Those are some thoughts I’m having,” he continues. “I haven’t written anything about coronavirus really. That will come later, if I’m lucky.”
The apple I see and the apple
I think I see and the apple
I say I see
are at least three
– Peter Meinke
To be sure, these are strange times in which to be a poet. In an era when leaders and celebrities communicate to the world in 280-character tweets, is there still a place for the poet, long form or short form?
“Some writers think that Americans no longer can read long books,” he muses. “And because of the tweeting there are poets who sometimes think Americans can’t read long poems.
“I do think that one of the problems with poetry is that even though they are shorter than novels you can’t speed-read poems. You’ve got to linger over poems, and people aren’t used to doing that. You have to take a poem bit by bit.”
On the other hand “poetry is the kind of reading that, if you like it, you will always read it more than once. You’ll read it over, and then you read something else into it.
“People always say to poets, ‘Why didn’t you say what you mean?’ Well, you sort of mean a lot of things. I like the idea that poems have more than one level. It makes it more interesting when you read it again.”
And that’s certainly true. Consider Meinke’s poem “Elephant Tusks,” “which we grind down into dice and key, earring and toothpick to capture the spirit of the elephant….” At first blush it reads as a condemnation of our crass consumer-obsessed culture. On further consideration one may read in it an almost spiritual reflection on the sheer weight of everyday living: “the huge stomping of elephant shakes the floor until the roof collapses.”
The trick is to live your days
as if each one may be your last…
…but at the same time, plan long range.
“Advice To My Son”
– Peter Meinke
“They know the poem,” says Meinke, who has four adult children. “They’re good kids doing very well, now in their late 50s,” he says of his sons. “One is the CEO of a chemistry conglomerate and the other works for USAID.”
That poem, one of his most popular, “was just common sense. I didn’t start out to write any advice. It took me quite a while, with a lot of rewriting. I often let my poems sit for a while and the next week they always change.”
And that’s the thing about being a working poet that readers may not grasp. “If you want to be a poet you have to like rewriting,” he says. “I don’t think ‘this is finished.’ I think I have to work on it again today.”
Looking toward his 88th year, Meinke acknowledges that he has “definitely slowed down…I certainly write less.” Still he has been finishing up another volume of poems.
“I believe that poets are citizens. They don’t have to write about everyday events, but over the course of life you ought to see what’s going on. You want people to be able to think big thoughts by reading a little poem.”
Because poetry, like life, ought to be constantly evolving and changing and shifting in previously unimaginable ways.
Storm-shaken your plane circles on hold over
Tampa Bay We know but don’t say ‘the lightning
center of America’ Bolts whack the runway
like a judge’s gavel drinks rock on the table
Modern we’re too shy to pray so we talk about . . .
Spanish moss how it gets wet and heavy
in the rain pruning our oak trees When
we get home holding you safe between us branches
will twist knee-deep around the house the moss
clumped like seaweed on our have you changed
have you grown are you frightened do you love us
When you were young you liked to be scared
by the moss coiling under the moon along
the snaky live oak limbs how your eyes widened
when the wind roiled the Bay by our house
and we would explain lightning the negative charge
from a cloud leaping to the positive charge
of its shadow at how many million feet per second
the flash beating the rumble because light races
faster than are you happy is she with you are
you healthy did you miss we are six years
older practicing for death the ultimate diet
no more cheesecake no more chocolate no more fat
alcohol reserved for stress and celebration
and since this is both I believe I’ll have another
Spanish moss doesn’t really kill trees the balled
moss is worse the hanging kind just blocks the sun
you can spray it with liquid copper but
that stuff can where is that plane is the pilot
sober when we outgrow this trembling will you remember?
—Peter Meinke (from SCARS, U. of Pittsburgh Press 1996)
Ron Cunningham was a reporter at the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, higher education reporter at The Gainesville Sun, and Tallahassee bureau chief for The New York Times Florida Newspapers, before serving as editorial page editor at The Gainesville Sun until 2013. He is a University of Florida graduate and former editor-in-chief of the Independent Florida Alligator.
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