September 22, 2023
Peter Meinke - A life in poetry

Photo: Mark Wemple

Peter Meinke, poet laureat of Florida, lives in St. Petersburg.

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Peter Meinke - A life in poetry

( Poet laureate of Florida, St. Petersburg; age 82 )

Art Levy | 8/27/2015

Poetry is the kind of writing that you read again and again, so it behooves the writer to withhold a little something. A good poet buries little surprises in there for the attentive reader.

I’m worried about Florida and global warming. We have friends in Miami. They love the city. They love the Cuban section. They love the food. They love the beaches. But the water’s coming up through the streets sometimes, so that’s scary.

Florida’s poet laureate is an unpaid position. I wanted to get a barrel of sherry the way the English poets did, but that’s apparently not going to happen.

It would be a disaster to overemphasize STEM. I’m not against STEM, but we need to teach the arts, too, maybe now more than ever. People who are brought up on STEM, they need something to slow them down a little, both in their reading and in their lives.

I’m not sure what made me want to write. I came from a blue-collar family. We lived in Flatbush and, like everybody else, I wanted to play second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

When poetry works, it makes you better than you are. It makes us more sympathetic, empathetic people.

I have many good friends who are very sturdy Republicans, and we don’t have any problems. Occasionally, we’ll get into a mild argument, but that’s OK because people come from different spots.

One of the things I advise my students is to be ready and take advantage of accidents that seem to be pushing you somewhere. You’ve got to take a chance now and then.

Early in my career, I sold real estate and I was showing a lot, not even a house, to a guy and I’m making small talk. He said he was a teacher over at Mountain Lakes High School, where I went to high school, and I said, somewhat truthfully, ‘You know, I thought about being a teacher, but didn’t know how to go about it.’ He said, ‘Oh, what would you have taught?’ I told him that I suppose I would have taught English or literature, and he said that was funny because the English teacher at Mountain Lakes just got drafted. It was like I got hit by lightning. I didn’t know I was waiting for that. I just left him standing there. I went right to the high school. The principal knew me. I went home, and my wife, Jeanne, asked, ‘How was your day?’ And I said, ‘Well, guess what? I took a job for $4,400 a year teaching at the high school.’ I had been making at least four times that. That’s how I started teaching, and I loved it.

When I got to St. Petersburg in 1966, Florida Presbyterian College, which later became Eckerd College, was a really radical, wonderful school, idealistic, no grades, everybody had to study for a time in Europe. It was an exciting place. They wanted to create an undergraduate creative writing program and wanted a poet who had published respectably but wouldn’t be expensive to do it. That turned out to be me.

My mother had anthologies with poetry. I think she belonged to the Book of the Month Club. I don’t remember her reading poetry, exactly, but I found it early on and just liked it. I kept it a secret. I was a secret poet in Brooklyn. I felt from remarks that people had made that writing poetry seemed to be a sissy thing to do. The talk in Brooklyn was to be tough. We played stickball in the streets. We had little gangs. It was just not a place for poetry, but I liked poetry, anyway.

It says in my high school yearbook: ‘Peter Meinke wants to be writer … probably will be … censored.’

Whenever anything important happens — love, triumph, death — people turn to poetry because they realize that regular language doesn’t cut it.

I believe in rewriting. This was not always easy in the 1960s and 1970s when it was ‘first thought best thought.’ That was the beat generation. The idea was writing was something that should come out spontaneously. I agree. It should come out spontaneously and be from the deepest part of your heart, but the writing will be a lot better if you rewrite it.

Everyone has loves and fears and excitements and disasters and triumphs, but what makes the poet different is the way he writes about them.

I’m interested in the Tampa Bay Rays, particularly since the Brooklyn Dodgers no longer exist.

I began to publish seriously in the mid-1960s, so by then I was in my 30s. John Keats was dead already by then, so I was by no means an early bloomer.

If you’re spending your time on social media, you’re not spending your time reading good literature. You’re not communing with nature. Instead, if you’re under a tree, you’re on a cell phone, saying, ‘Nice tree I got here.’ It’s not a good direction.

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