A Conversation with Amy Gerstler
By Lori Davis
Amy Gerstler is a writer of poetry, nonfiction and journalism. Her book Dearest Creature (Penguin 2009) was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year, and was short listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry. Her previous twelve books include Ghost Girl, Medicine, Crown of Weeds, which won a California Book Award, Nerve Storm, and Bitter Angel, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. She was the 2010 guest editor of the yearly anthology Best American Poetry. In 2011, she was on the panel of judges for the National Book Award in poetry. Her work has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including The New Yorker, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, several volumes of Best American Poetry and The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry. She is a core faculty member at the Bennington Writing Seminars, Bennington College, Vermont and teaches in the MPW program at USC.
When you meet people for the first time, what do you tell them you do for a living? Any stories about trying to explain "being a poet"?
The first part of this question makes me realize I totally customize what I say I do for a living depending on whom I’m talking to and the situation I’m in. And that doesn’t bother me. The only story that comes to mind about trying to explain “being a poet” is that when I had been out of college a few years, my father, who was a sweet, sober, quiet guy, and was principal of a high school, asked me with a troubled look on his face if he and my mother had done something “to make you like this.” Based on context and a few questions about what he meant, it became clear he wanted to know if he and my mother were at fault for causing me to want to be a poet, a life choice he found dispiriting and bewildering. He was convinced that I was never going to be financially secure if I continued to obstinately cling to the idea I could be a writer (He was in some senses right: teaching has been largely how I earn my living.). I assured him that he and my mother bore no fault or responsibility for the fact that I’d turned out to have such a dubious yet persistent ambition. He looked VERY relieved.
What did you study in college? Do you have any teachers or mentors that were particular helpful or influential?
My undergrad degree is in psychology. In college and afterward I worked with preschool and elementary school age autistic kids, which I loved, and my goal was to become a speech pathologist. Much later I attended a low residency MFA program and got a degree in creative writing, in nonfiction. As an undergrad I took two poetry classes from a wonderful poet named Bert Meyers who died shortly after I graduated. His example, work and mentorship had a big effect on me. Dennis Cooper, the poet/novelist was also a huge influence. He changed my life. I had the good fortune to meet him at the beginning of undergraduate school. The poet David Lehman has also been an incredible mentor.
At what point in your life did you begin to think of yourself as a poet?
From about 3rd to 5th grade I went through a phase of going around saying I was going to be a poet when I grew up. People fled from me when I proclaimed this, or they laughed. So I quit doing that after a while. “A writer” is how I tend to think of myself lately on optimistic days. “Someone who loves poetry” or “a poetry nerd” is also a way I self identify.
Are there any poets you've read that seem to be kindred spirits?
I always feel presumptuous claiming other writers as kindred spirits. Or I feel that by doing so I am indulging in a form of wishful thinking. There are writers whose work has meant a lot to me, who stir and amaze me, and who I feel an affinity with…and that’s of course a long and somewhat shifting list. James Tate, Wislawa Szymborska, Lucia Perillo, Sylvia Plath, Charles Simic, Elizabeth Bishop, Tom Clark, Eileen Myles, Elaine Equi and Alice Notley are among poets whose work has been dear to me for years. Lately I am reading with delight Terrance Hayes, Bob Hicok, Dean Young, Matthea Harvey, Henri Cole, Albert Goldbarth, Tracy K. Smith….and others who I am hoping to learn from.
Do you have any other creative outlets or hobbies?
Cooking, dogs, yoga, natural history museums, and psychopathology are big interests.
I am trying to learn to garden.
Do you collect anything?
Not really. My house is stuffed with books, and I haunt used bookstores looking for strange old volumes, antique reference books, anthologies of letters, outdated cookbooks, etc. I am fond of oddball old dolls and a few people have given me some fine examples but they are not numerous or organized enough to constitute a collection.
You write successfully in a few genres. Do you find they bleed over into each other at times?
I am interested in literature that contains features or strategies of multiple genres, from ancient Japanese women’s novels and diaries that have poems set into them, to the mutable and capacious category of “lyric essays,” to hypertext etc. Absolutely, genre concepts are often leaky in my view and a lot of great writing comes out of genre interpentration, not just between literary genres but also between literature and other art genres, and between literature and allegedly non-literary text forms such as medical reports, financial statements, legal documents, etc.
What are you currently working on?
Currently I am working on 3 projects: a book of poems, a book of idiosyncratic essays and something which may come to nothing, but which I hope will be a hybrid fragmented novella of sorts.
Okay, MFA....the pros and cons...?
Cons: Expensive! Plus: a dwindling job market upon graduation. Degree programs are not for everyone.
Pros: Ideally, you get to be in an environment peopled by those who are as besotted by literature as you are, devoting maximum attention to the same. You get to find your tribe. For some of us, this cannot be over-rated. Ideally, you get your fellow literature specialists’ feedback on your work, and offer them yours. You get tips about cool books they discover. You can collaborate with them, start magazines with them, give your insights on what they’re writing, see how they negotiate the writing life, share the blood sweat and tears, make a few friend/ colleagues for life, etc.
Considerations: Writers practice differently, and have very different kinds of minds. Some thrive in an MFA environment…and for some it’s anathema at worst and at best a drain on their time, energy, and bank accounts. Also, not all programs are the same; they’re like different cultures, so there’s the challenge, if you’re the kind of writer who thinks you might benefit from an MFA program, of finding a good match.
Have you ever attended a writer's colony?
No. Not because I’m against them, but because my job life (I have 3 part time posts at the moment and have for a while) isn’t structured in a way that would allow that kind of absence without a lot of uncomfortable gymnastics.
Do you enjoy giving readings?
While grateful to be asked to read when and wherever, readings make me quite nervous. Sometimes good things come from them: helpful feedback, book sales or meeting interesting writers or literary persons. Mostly I dread doing readings, despite their potential usefulness. It always feels a little bit like judgment day when you have to give a reading.
Do you have some poems that you feel are better suited for the page and some that are more effective read out loud?
Yes, that’s my view. If you’re doing fancy things on the page visually, of course people at a reading can’t see that unless you’re also projecting the text in some way. When I go to hear readings, there are pieces I feel I “get” better when they are read aloud and others that elude me when declaimed but when I’m alone with the printed version on my lap I can have deep communion with it. Reading style, persona, and charisma can be such (sometimes false) enhancements or distractions. A writer’s reading (delivery) speed versus listeners’ varying absorption speeds are such huge determining factors. And mood in the room. Every crowd at every event is such an individual, unpredictable animal.
You are known for having a distinct voice, ranging widely from ruminative to humorous. How would you describe your voice?
Hard to answer this, and probably the only thing I can offer is a list of features I aspire for my writing voice to contain. I write a fair amount of persona poems, which I hope have a degree of vocal individuality. So I don’t always want the same things from poems in terms of voice. I like the idea that some poems can harbor a mix of voices within the one poem. In others I am probably going for more unity of voice, but still might want them to shift around vocally or progress in the ways the voice is employed as the poem unfolds. So having said that, I guess I want the voice in most, if not all the poems I write, to have some version(s) of ferocity, urgency, humor, doubt, intensity, ruefulness, playfulness, invention, spiritual yearning, acuity, searchingness or seekingness, questioning, uncertainty, extreme attentiveness, self examination, compassion. I also sometimes am attracted to the idea of a poem containing layered dictions, for instance from different eras and /or fields, because I think that’s the way the mind works: full of snatches of song, sensory perceptions, and really mundaneawarenesses, like that you have something stuck between your teeth, erotic thoughts, information, memory straining itself, griefs, ecstatic bursts, all going on at the same time. Yeech! God! That all sounds really general. Good question to meditate on for a few months.