Stegner Fellow Claire Meuschke sat at a dining table in a kitchen, with her book “Upend” — its pages lined with Post-it Notes — in both her hands. Her dog howled a few times in the background. She read with a pace that felt like a conversation: “‘Unknown: Indian’ covers my great-grandmother on my grandfather’s birth certificate …”
Those lines mark the start of “Neutral Ground,” the last of 10 poems that Meuschke introduced at the Poetry-In-Conversation event last Thursday. “Neutral Ground” is one of several poems in her debut poetry collection with the name of a Sherwin-Williams paint color as its title.
“My father was a paint contractor, so I grew up seeing the paint swatches all the time and just reading the names for colors,” she explains. “I was doing all this archival research to look up my ancestors, but they were always not given a name or just kind of absent in a lot of the records, so including these arbitrary color names … felt cathartic to me, and sort of funny. It was like an inside joke with myself.”
At the core of “Upend” is Meuschke’s research on her family history — in particular, the story of her Alaska Native-Chinese grandfather, who was incarcerated on Angel Island. When asked about the origin of the book, she recalled the experience of retrieving her ancestral records at the National Archives at San Francisco.
“[My brother and I] were curious about our grandmother, who we were told was an Alaskan Native, but we didn’t know anything about her; we didn’t know her name,” Meuschke said. “My grandfather was orphaned, I think, by the time he was five … The archivist just gave us this huge file of our grandfather’s immigration trial.”
Though “Upend” is rich with details of Meuschke’s family history, she explains that the book is not “born from one moment or being about one thing.” For instance, “China Mary,” the first poem she read at the event, was written for the immigrant women in history who accumulated wealth in America but were “looked at skeptically” for it. “Atrocious Horizon” and “An Iridescent Stone I Don’t Recall The Name Of” are based on her time in rural Mexico, where she was the only woman in the whole district, and the trauma she experienced partaking in male-dominated recreational fields.
The diversity of themes in “Upend” is reflected in the organization of the book. In the place where the table of contents should be, there is instead a list of illustrations. Scattered throughout the book are pages dedicated to photographs, paint swatches and archival documents.
“It just seemed like a book that was resisting having that sort of [linear] orientation,” Meuschke said. “I think I decided not to have a table of contents to encourage readers to read the book in a nonlinear way.”
Reflecting on her work after the completion of her book, Meuschke said that she feels as though she is still writing “Upend”: “Every poem I write, I think, ‘Oh, wow, this could have gone in the book.’ … I think these themes [of history and archivism] drive my work, and I can’t really shake them.”
Meuschke also noted that Stanford’s Stegner Fellowship has changed her writing.
“I’m focusing more on stand-alone poems,” she said, “and just bringing one poem and having a whole week to crack that one poem.”
At the end of the event, she hands the stories of “Upend” to the readers: “Hopefully others can read this and then think more about their own lineages and ways to approach finding that information when they want to, or even just coping with it.”
This article has been corrected to reflect the correct name of the poem, “Neutral Ground.” The Daily regrets this error.