When Peter Meinke got a phone call Tuesday bringing the news that he had won the Florida Humanities Lifetime Literary Award for Writing, he thought he was talking to a plumber.
The water heater at the house Meinke and his wife, Jeanne, have lived in for 50 years had gone kaput, and he was hotly pursuing someone to repair it.
Steve Siebert, the organization’s executive director “sounded upbeat when I picked up the phone,” Meinke said, "and for a minute I thought, oh, good, the plumber can come today.”
Siebert’s good news wasn’t quite as practical, but it was a capstone honor for the man who is currently serving as Florida’s poet laureate. The Lifetime Literary Award for Writing is an honor he shares with such past recipients as historians Raymond Arsenault and Gary Mormino, novelists Randy Wayne White and Carl Hiaasen, poets David Kirby and Enid Shomer and journalist Jeff Klinkenberg.
“I made a martini,” Meinke said.
At 87, Meinke is an emeritus professor at Eckerd College, which brought him onto the faculty in 1966 (when it was Florida Presbyterian College) to found its creative writing program, whose alumni include Dennis Lehane and James W. Hall. Meinke has published 15 books of poetry, several fiction collections (one of which, The Piano Tuner, won the Flannery O’Connor Award) and two children’s books, as well as a book on writing, The Shape of Poetry. His nonfiction has appeared in Sports Illustrated, and for years he has written a column, Poet’s Notebook, for Creative Loafing. The column, like many of his books, is illustrated with drawings by his wife of 62 years: “As Jeanne said, we collaborate from separate rooms.”
Meinke has been a writer in residence, visiting scholar and holder of fellowships all around the world. He retired early from Eckerd College, in 1993. “They offered this very generous plan, to try to make way for younger faculty,” he said. “I was 60. A month or so later, we were talking about how we had to adjust to living on 40 percent of my salary. Should we stop going to movies? Buy cheaper gin? Then a man called from the University of Hawaii and asked if I’d like to be a writer in residence. I had no idea about things like that.”
That led to a couple of decades of travel all over the world. “Almost every writer I know likes to travel,” Meinke said. "I think even Emily Dickinson would have traveled if her father had let her. Dealing with language while you travel makes you look at English more carefully.”
But the Meinkes always returned to the house in St. Petersburg’s cozy Driftwood neighborhood that they bought in 1970. Sitting on a second-floor terrace with a view of giant live oaks and a sea of pink azaleas, sunlit Big Bayou winking through the trees nearby, he said, “It’s a sweet trap. I love other places, I love New York. But we’d have to be able to dig this house up and move it.”
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Meinke was born in New York, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. “Bernie (Sanders) and I were born in the same hospital.”
He wanted to be a writer for as long as he can remember. "As soon as I could write, I did. I did a neighborhood newspaper when I was a little kid. I wrote out about five copies by hand and gave them to my aunts, the neighbors.”
He dreamed of being an athlete or a sportswriter: “I figured if I couldn’t play second base for the Dodgers, I could write about them.”
But even as a kid he was drawn to poetry, writing poems that copied writers like Edgar Allan Poe. “It seemed secret and subversive.
“I always wrote but I didn’t think I could be a writer to make money," he said. “We had four kids.” He got a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and came to St. Petersburg soon after. “We were complaining about how old the town was. They still had the green benches then."
“I was hired as the first creative writing professor, even though I’d never taken a workshop in my life,” he said. Thanks to leading the creative writing program, he came to know writers all over Florida, many of whom he taught and mentored.
His literary presence — he’s an engaging and entertaining reader of his poetry — and his frequent use of Florida as a setting and subject for his poetry led to his appointment as St. Petersburg’s first poet laureate in 2009. In 2015, he became the fourth person named Florida’s poet laureate.
He’s enjoyed the gig, he said.
“It’s a very nice thing. People are more interested in poetry than you think.”
Now, “I think of myself as the phantom poet laureate, thanks basically to the incompetence of the Florida Legislature. It’s supposed to be a four-year term, and people were nominated for it. But apparently the Secretary of State quit, and DeSantis had to appoint a new one, and that delayed the vote. I talked to a nice woman in the office in Tallahassee, and she told me, ‘You’re still the poet laureate. We’ll announce a new one in April.' ”
The phantom laureate is still writing, carrying a tiny, battered green notebook in his back pocket for jotting down ideas. He writes more slowly than he used to, he said, “about four poems a year.” But he has almost enough for a new book.
“I’ve always been interested in formal poetry” such as sonnets and rondeaux, Meinke said. "I tell students that writing formal poetry makes you smarter. When you write free verse, it’s all about your ideas. But when you write a sonnet, you get ideas you wouldn’t normally have.
“When you need something that rhymes with ‘germ,’ it opens you up.”
By Peter Meinke
Below these live oak branches lie
a poet’s ashes pale and dry
He loved the feel of books in hand
but saw his words
as driven sand
Still he dreams as you pass by
although you may be far from home
that if you pause to read this poem
the leaves might nod
(from Lucky Bones, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014)