By Juan Haines
When Caits (pronounced cats) Meissner ventured inside San Quentin last summer to meet with inmates taking a creative writing class, she talked about a new kind of writing, at least for me, called “hybrid literature”. I didn’t realize that Rosemary Jenkins previously had written in the same style. When I worked my way through Jenkins’ Leticia in Her Wedding Dress and Other Poems (2005) it surprised me with its illustrations and bilingual advantage.
Meissner similarly uses unorthodox techniques in Let It Die Hungry. There are writing prompts throughout the novel with open spaces on some of the pages for the readers to write on. Close attention to its format shows an unusual style of the text being flush right on the right-hand page. She intended to administer an exercise for the brain.
Meissner said much of her writing has been influenced by the work she does in New York’s women’s maximum-security prison, Bedford.
After reading several of her poems, the class chimed in with comments.
Outside (a right-side) poem is about a woman, Sammie, who was released from prison after being incarcerated two and a half years. She won her appeal.
Meissner points out that their inside relationship had affected their outside relationship. Even talking to Sammie on the phone once she became a part of the “civilian” world, like her, shifted their relationship in peculiar ways.
59th Street on the One Train takes listeners on a crowded, sweaty, smelly subway ride. In that New York environment, what are the chances that two gay women would meet? This story is about empowerment and owning your identity.
At the end of the reading, the applause, all finger snaps, prompted Meissner to say, “Oh, finger snaps! How beat.”
“Are you willing to go sad?” Meissner asked the room of about two dozen men.
She read The Abyss.
Meissner said that she and her husband were out for a morning walk. They discovered the body of Omotayo floating down the Hudson River. She’d committed suicide, they’d later learn. Meissner said the poem was written to her.
To lighten the mood, Meissner said, “Women always want to hear poems involving sex or love.”
Locating Magic, another flush-right poem, sets the mood with low lights and music. However, it gets into real feelings that include the loneliness and depression that comes with looking for love and falling short of being satisfied.
Flipping through Let it Die Hungry, like any poetry anthology, I look at the titles. The one that drew me in, greencards, made sense for its obvious political implications, that are relevant today—how the nation’s immigration policies are working out for people who cross borders.
The five-part poem, or story, or better said, prose takes readers on a personal journey about how and why the book earned the title, Let it Die Hungry. And, truth be told, I found this piece just like I said—the title drew me in
Meissner is more than just a storyteller and poet. Her artful and descriptive pages say something powerful about the legitimacy of literature from new perspectives. There’s even a kind of graphic novel feel in some parts. The conversations are genuine—giving readers a sense that Let it Die Hungry comes from a place of authority, like Meissner knows, through her experience, that she understands living and dying while at the same time wanting more out of life.