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Amy Gerstler, San Diego's wondrous poet

The voice of your thoughts woke me like a rooster announcing the end of the world

Gerstler’s voice is tempered by a “limber eloquence." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Gerstler’s voice is tempered by a “limber eloquence."

“In everybody’s life there are muses,” says poet Amy Gerstler, “people you’ve met who’ve had profound sway and left lasting marks. Some are abiding people; once you encounter them, they stay in your mind and heart and fuel or inform what you do.”

I had asked Gerstler if she had a muse, guiding spirit, or source of inspiration, and that was her answer. She went on, then, to say, “Many times with particular poems, even they might not sound like it, I’ve written them for particular people. Maybe the poem is about somebody or maybe it is not about them; maybe the poem has to do with trying to make a little toy out of words for them. Or, knowing what they like, I may concoct a small word utopia for them. Or, I may, in a poem, be wishing certain things for that person, be writing an incantation that tries to conjure up or get for the person what he wants.”

Gerstler's father "changed careers and went back to school and started teaching and then became a counselor and vice principal. Most of the time I was growing up he was the principal of various high schools — Santana, Valhalla."

Writing a poem, she added, “isn’t like being possessed, although it probably has elements of that. Writing involves work and problem solving and getting tired and at some rare times, being inspired. It’s like every other job. I respect a good plumber and I respect a good writer.”

I was happy to be talking with Gerstler. Her poems are one of my sources of inspiration. She’s like a great cook who turns the simplest ingredients—say, yellow crookneck squash and a fat white onion and pinches of sugar and cinnamon — into a mouth treat you never dreamed squash could be. But she doesn’t do this by hiding crookneck’s essential crookneckish taste, or its tender translucent seeds. She uses the sugar and cinnamon and finely chopped onion to spoon into your mouth the Ur-crookneck. Gerstler does this with words. She takes “snow” and “tree” and “wind” and sets them on courses at which you’d only guessed She builds with “snow” and “tree” and “wind” a toy for the reading mind that the mind can’t stop touching and turning. When the black print ends and the reading mind has before it only silence and blank white paper, Gerstler’s snow still drifts down, heaps up on her tree’s limbs, and wind lifts a curtain’s hem. I don’t know quite how she does it. I wish I did. I know what she does is poetry.

Gerstler, age six. “I remember learning to read in my nursery school at a Jewish community center. And then learning more words in kindergarten at Hardy Elementary."

I had finished, days before, Gerstler’s newest collection, Crown of Weeds (Penguin, 1997). The book is dedicated to her brother Marcus, who, like Gerstler, was born and raised in San Diego. Gerstler explains, about the dedication and the poem, below, included in Crown of Weeds, that Marcus, “about three years ago, right around the time that I was turning this book in to my editor at Penguin, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was told he had six months or less to live. I wanted him to see this book, but because of this diagnosis and because the book was going to take so long to come out, I was afraid he would never see it. However, happily, not because of the book, but because Marcus is such a wonderful person, he made a miraculous recovery. He seems fine now and has gone back to work and has gone from somebody who was predicted to not last more than a few months to somebody about whom you can’t tell anything ever happened.”

Gerstler, high school senior. “If there was an arty crowd at Crawford, I was too introverted to link up with it."

To My Brother

  • My mind is full of you. In the tranquility
  • of this blizzard, I meditate on: 1. your bravery,
  • which takes the form of a spiky titanium halo
  • made of bike spokes fanned out behind your head
  • like a peacock’s tail, which only some of us can see,
  • 2. the aura that appears to you before seizures,
  • and 3. your calmness and grace in a grave
  • situation. You occupy my thoughts entirely,
  • the way snow in this place where I find myself
  • vacationing silently conquers the landscape
  • it blankets, while tall trees, rough-barked
  • monarchs, shiver their timbers. It’s as if
  • the storm’s voice, hollow rumblings
  • and swallowed washy howls, was deputized
  • one of your many emissaries. Everything
  • natural and unnatural has been drafted
  • as your ambassador. The wind’s subliminal
  • engine roar is now reminiscent of your
  • laconic conversation — talk that’s suddenly
  • become vital to me on a daily basis,
  • since I’ve been threatened with losing you
  • to a brain tumor— a term that last month
  • wouldn’t have been allowed out of my mouth.
  • I’ve always been afraid to pronounce or read
  • names of serious diseases: bad luck
  • to pass my eyes over such words. Now,
  • thirty days post diagnosis, I’ve said
  • “brain tumor” so often it could be my cat’s name.
  • I’ve started carrying a photo of you in my pocket
  • at all times. I show it to people. The consistent reaction:
  • “Oh, he’s so handsome.” I’ve got snapshots
  • of you hiking, skiing, or dropped to one knee
  • in a weedy field, flanked by your adolescent dogs.
  • All I’m able to perceive lately has undergone
  • alchemical transformation. Vague memories of you
  • stumbling around in diapers; my still-packed
  • suitcase; medical reports; or heavy-bellied clouds
  • rush at me, tumbling over each other
  • in their eagerness to testify to your continued
  • existence. They zoom forward, hang before me
  • and waver, a complicated mirage, strange
  • as a Hieronymus Bosch painting of limbo’s
  • undulating landscape — equal parts darkness,
  • outrage, and galvanized fighting spirit.
  • In my new, upended life, days pass,
  • and the events they contain glow with the luster
  • of just-dug-up gold. For no good reason
  • it made me feel better last night when you said,
  • over a crackling telephone connection,
  • it was snowing like crazy where you are, too.

Not only had I read Crown of Weeds, but I had spent the weekend re-reading Gerstler’s earlier two collections — Nerve Storm (Penguin, 1993) and Bitter Angel (North Point Press, 1990), awarded the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry in 1991. My mind was filled with Ger-stler words — “pale as flour milled / a thousand times” (from “Siren”); “Delivering awful news is like having to eat a knife” (“Lucky You”); “Your childhood, a rickety ladder, / can’t bear your weight anymore” (“Consolation”); “he’s smart as an egg timer” (“My Hero”); “The hayloft felt like a giant / nest. Oh, the eggs it could / have contained!” (“On the Road”); “shoulder blades no bigger / than toast points” (“Chain of Events”).

Gerstler’s voice is tempered by a “limber eloquence,” to use her words about another’s voice. I wish you could push a button on the page and hear that voice as I do, arriving in my ear from miles away where Gerstler sits, in her house in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles.

“We have a little house and a tiny bedroom; I have a room I work in and my husband [novelist Benjamin Weissman] has a room he works in. We could live without it if we had to, but that was one of my base requirements for sane living. If you have two writers, they both need a place to work that has a door that shuts.”

She wears blue jeans, black T-shirt, and her brand-new tan hiking boots. She wears gardenia perfume. Gerstler wears three wedding rings on her ring finger. “We found them,” she says, “in a pawnshop. The middle ring is an old gold band incised with a leaf design. The bottom ring is a white gold band and the top ring is silver.” Her dark hair that she describes as “kinky and messy,” a “fuzz bush,” flows around the pale face. “Fuzz bush,” Gerstler says, is how Virginia Woolf describes the hair of a character in The Years.

While we talk, Gerstler sits in her workroom. Out her window she sees eucalyptus and Echo Park’s hilly steep streets. Her elbows are on her old-fashioned metal desk. The desk, she tells me, has a linoleum top and reminds her of the desks school principals sat behind in the 1950s. “Or,” she suggests, “maybe it’s more like the desk in an old private eye office.” She has what she calls her “white tied-to-the-wall telephone” pressed to her ear. Her dog Gina, “part corgi and part terrier, rough coat, reddish blond all over, erect ears,” sleeps near Gerstler’s feet. The two “brother cats, George and Casper,” snooze in sun that falls at the room’s edge.

You know some things about a person after you read her poems. You also know very little. I wanted to know more. I wanted, for instance, to know about Gerstler’s San Diego childhood. Gerstler tells me she was born in 1956 in a hospital that she thinks doesn’t exist anymore. She’s the oldest of three children, with a sister, Tina, two years younger and her brother, Marcus, seven years younger. Her father, Sid Gerstler, she says, stayed in San Diego after he left the Navy. He worked for an aeronautics firm, as an engineer. “But, he wasn’t happy doing that. So he changed careers and went back to school and started teaching and then became a counselor and vice principal. Most of the time I was growing up he was the principal of various high schools — Santana, Valhalla.

“Our parents had lots of books and they read. My mom — Mimi Gerstler — had wanted to be an opera singer and she was in musicals — Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun. They took us to see plays — Shakespeare at the Old Globe, for instance, and when we got older, opera. I remember an amazing production of Mefistofele, and, at the Civic Theatre, Carmen.

“We lived close to what was then San Diego State College and what’s now San Diego State University. We lived on Walsh Way, a small street, in a little pink stucco house. When I was little, the area was still a new housing development, so there weren’t that many houses. As I grew up the street got more houses on it and filled in. There was a back yard, and beyond the back yard a big canyon. Occasionally, a rabbit would come up from the canyon into the yard. Living on the edge of the canyon was mysterious. We climbed down there. We weren’t supposed to. But we sometimes did poke around on the lip of the canyon.

“I remember my mom cooking. She made pancakes that were in different shapes. You made requests for what you’d want for breakfast, and you’d have a pancake shaped like a cat or house or an elephant. She would often make pancakes with chocolate chips in them, which I thought was wonderful, but everyone I’ve mentioned this to in adulthood goes, ‘Ugh.’

“It’s great having siblings, but it’s such a classic thing to think you own your parents and they’re there to fulfill your every whim. Then, when you have a brother or sister, suddenly there’s this interloper. I don’t remember it being hard when my sister was born. What I do remember as being difficult is that from the time Tina was born until a few years before I graduated high school we shared a room. Sleeping three feet apart all those years was hard on both of us until we got older and made friends. We’re good friends, but temperamentally different — almost opposite. I tended to be "quiet and bookish and not social and a nervous, scaredy-cat kid. My sister was this super athlete, an outgoing, energetic fireball.

“I remember learning to read in my nursery school at a Jewish community center. And then learning more words in kindergarten at Hardy Elementary. I was close to a library — the College Heights branch. And my parents had jillions of books, including books that I wanted to be sneaky about reading, like The Psychology of Sex, that had all kinds of weird things in it.”

From the time she learned to read, says Gerstler, she began to “live through and in books. Contact with books and writing was one of the most grounding and comforting things for me, and also the most moving. I don’t know why. I think this is a flaw in my makeup, but books seemed more real and intense to me than ‘real life,’ for some reason.

“I think it made my parents maybe think I was crazy, and it may be an indication that I am kind of crazy, but books always meant a lot to me. Words that rhymed meant a lot to me, and also were very comforting. I liked knowing things by heart so that when I felt weird or bad or couldn’t sleep, I could repeat them. Or when something was going on that I didn’t like, I could repeat words in my head and that made me feel better.”

Many people who become writers feel alone and uncomfortable in the world, I suggest. Gerstler agrees. “I don’t think that’s true of everybody, but it’s true — at least in some ways — of many writers. I think that’s why many of us end up being alcoholics.”

Looking back, Gerstler says, she believes that even as early as first grade at Hardy, she felt odd and different. There was her hair. “Kids would make fun of me and call me a witch because I had this big, long cape of frizzy hair that I could sit on the ends of. My weird frizzy hair was always an issue. I’ve never known what to do with it. It’s like tumbleweed.

“I spent a lot of time when I was a kid feeling strange and feeling like everyone else thought I was strange. I think it’s a big part of my life, some of which might be useful and some of which I wish I could pay a shrink to physically remove.”

A liposuction for the mind? I ask.

“That would be great. Especially if I could be selective.”

For a Jewish child, growing up in San Diego in the 1960s wasn’t particularly easy. “In very minor ways, yes,” says Gerstler, “it was difficult. I think that it’s nothing compared to anybody’s real difficulties about growing up Jewish anywhere else. My dad is first-generation American and his parents came over from Austria. They and their forebears experienced real difficulties. My minor stuff is very, very small. So having made that disclaimer, the thing that was hard for me was being different.

“In first, second, and third grades in a class of 30 or 35 kids, maybe 4 or 5 of us were Jewish. I disliked being set apart and having our teacher say, ‘Okay, we’re going to make Christmas decorations because it’s Christmastime.’ So everybody else gets to make some great-looking Christmas tree with beautiful ornaments all over it, but they didn’t know what to do with the Jewish kids. So they stuff you in a corner with a piece of Styrofoam and plastic candleholders like you put on a birthday cake. ‘Okay, stick these candleholders in this chunk of Styrofoam and that will be a menorah.’

“I did something that I’m ashamed of now, which is that after about second grade I stopped saying that I was Jewish, and given that my last name is a little ambiguous, nobody questioned me. I went ahead and made the Santas with cotton beards.”

Gerstler recalls that in second grade the class was asked to memorize Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” She fell in love with this poem.

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Gerstler and I take turns reciting “Snowy Evening” to one another, and then I ask if she recalls what, as a child, she liked about the poem.

“It was the exoticism of the snow, I’m sure. I loved the mood of the poem, loved that there was this guy alone with his horse. Also the idea of a horse. Just sitting there. I guess, too, it was the rhyme — gentle and lulling. The idea of being an adult, that, too, appealed to me, being so independent that you could take a horse and go somewhere yourself, and stand around watching snow until you felt good and ready to go off on your way. It seemed like that was representative of ‘real’ life, not the life where adults told you, ‘Now, Amy, you have to eat,’ ‘Now you have to get dressed,’ ‘Now you have to take a bath.’ You could sit with your horse and watch snow and be meditative.”

I mention that Gerstler’s poems are filled with snow, “...the long, drawn-out / sweetness of a frozen / field crunching underfoot” (“Rest Cure”). “It snowed all day, flakes big / and pretty as an albino drag queen’s / false eyelashes” (“On the Road”).

She laughs. “I didn’t see snow until I was in my 20s. And my contact with it has still been minimal. I did put snow in poems constantly, even before I’d seen it. It seemed like the most exotic thing in the world and half-fictional.”

Gerstler remembers, too, about her initial exposures to poetry, that “early on, in school, they showed us what haiku were [a haiku is a Japanese lyric verse form having three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables, traditionally invoking an aspect of nature or the seasons]. I liked haiku. When you’re a kid you can make haiku and you can count five-seven-five. It’s not like trying to write a sonnet. Also, you could work on them in your head because they’re short. So, I would do that.

“When I was in third grade I wrote this two-line poem, ‘Hiccups, hiccups, up they perk. /I would like to know where they lurk.’ I got praise for this and it got put in the school magazine. That made me think, ‘This was fun to do and I like the feeling it gave me when I did it, and other people seemed to like it.’ Because I liked writing, and the one thing that meant the most in the world to me was the way certain pieces of writing made me feel when I read them, and thought about them and remembered them, I wanted to do that for other people. I wanted to put more of that into the world.”

Gerstler wrote down “little things” off and on. “I’ve always had trouble sleeping. When I was younger, I’d get up if I couldn’t sleep and go in the bathroom and turn on the light and lie on the floor and write. Or I’d make up poems while I roller-skated

“I still have poems I wrote in third grade. I wrote poems that rhymed pretty consistently, so I had to work on them to make the rhymes work. I haven’t thrown the notebooks out yet. I think there will be a bonfire at some point.

“Sometimes I’d say I wanted to be a writer and people would say, ‘Oh, hmm.’ I didn’t know any writers, and my parents had the view that writing was a hobby. So for a long time I thought, ‘I’ll do it when I can’t sleep.’

“When I was in junior high—Horace Mann—and high school—Crawford—I spent a lot of time reading books that were written for girls about how to get boys to like you. Unfortunately, they mostly said things like, ‘Make the boys think the/re smarter than you.’ And, ‘Just ask them questions, don’t talk about yourself or your interests; if they’re interested in football, ask questions about football.’

“I actually, not with very great success, tried this stuff. So the last thing I would have said was, ‘I’m reading Jane Eyre, what are you reading?’ Reading was this semi-shameful activity that you couldn’t help yourself from doing and caring about and that was central to your existence, but you better pretend it wasn’t.”

Gerstler’s frizzy hair continued to worry her. “I got it all cut off in junior high as this big gesture. I did it because I was such a loner and pariah, and didn’t have many friends. I was starting to realize that one of the things that I had to make an effort to try and figure out — which seemed impossible to me when I was in junior high — was how to be cool. This was the era of Cher and Twiggy and being skinny and straight hair and white lipstick, which my mother wouldn’t let me wear. So in my effort to conform and make friends and be more sociable, I cut off my hair.”

Being Jewish remained problematic. “When I was in junior and high school, there was a big movement of what they called then ‘Jesus freaks.’ I guess it was like an earlier version of this ‘born again’ movement. Many social activities at school and outside school revolved around these Christian groups and clubs. Many of the most popular kids and the president of the school and this and that and the other thing were usually members of this.

“It was bad because a few kids from this group would actually like me, but because they liked me they’d try to convert me. They were convinced that here was someone they thought was okay who was going to go to hell if they didn’t intervene. So there were constant harangues: ‘I’m worried about you, don’t you know that Jesus is your this and your that....’ It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but it was irritating. You don’t want to insult people, and also I was still in the throes of this strong desire to be popular and liked above practically all else. But I thought, ‘I’m not going with this. I can’t.’ ”

I ask, Who was the first poet with whom you remember falling abjectly in love?

“I was promiscuous. I fell in love with almost everything I read. I loved Robert Frost. Then in high school a teacher gave me an anthology and I liked this poem called ‘Patterns’ that was in this anthology. ‘Patterns’ was a real standard. Plus it was abject and was an antiwar poem. Because the narrator’s in love with a guy who gets killed, right? Then she’s left alone, feeling melancholy and crazed and dejected.”

I confess that Amy Lowell’s “Patterns” had been one of my favorites as a girl. I reach up into my bookshelf and begin to read to Gerstler.

Patterns

I walk down the garden-paths,

And all the daffodils

Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.

I walk down the patterned garden-paths In my stiff, brocaded gown.

With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,

I too am a rare Pattern. As I wander down

The garden-paths.

My dress is richly figured,

And the train

Makes a pink and silver stain

On the gravel, and the thrift

Of the borders.

Just a plate of current fashion,

Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.

Not a softness anywhere about me,

Only whalebone and brocade.

And I sink on a seat in the shade

Of a lime-tree. For my passion

Wars against the stiff brocade.

The daffodils and squills

Flutter in the breeze As they please.

And I weep;

For the lime-tree is in blossom

And one small flower has dropped upon my bosom.

Gerstler and I stop, off and on, and we ooh and ah over this and that line. Gerstler says, “It’s got this whole layer in it about the confinement of being feminine. It’s very sexy. But it’s not overt. It’s couched in terms of the nature that’s around her, and the stiff brocaded corset.”

I go on reading for a few more lines, and Gerstler and I continue to stop and admire various lines.

And the plashing of waterdrops

In the marble fountain

Comes down the garden-paths.

The dripping never stops.

Underneath my stiffened gown

Is the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,

A basin in the midst of hedges grown

So thick, she cannot see her lover hiding,

But she guesses he is near.

And the sliding of the water

Seems the stroking of a dear Hand upon her.

What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!

I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground.

All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.

“Wow,” Gerstler says, “that’s a lot more overt than I remember. That’s wild. God, it doesn’t get any more sexy and better than that.”

I finish reading the poem, which goes on for another 50 or so lines. Gerstler sighs. I sigh. Gerstler says, “This is so nice to hear this again. I don’t think I’ve seen this poem for 20 years.”

Gerstler entered Crawford in 1971. “All the circles of hell at once,” she says, about high school. “I was shunned and didn’t have much of a sense of like clothes or things that girls were supposed to take an interest in.”

Clothes, Gerstler says, were a big problem for her. “I’ve never had a very good sense of clothing. I always wished I could hire somebody to dress me. For a while when I was in junior high and high school, I had a glamorous friend who did pick out clothes for me. Because my way of solving the problem in the beginning of high school was to wear overalls everyday. I had that weird idea, where I wanted to make myself look better and be appealing as a female. However, part of me also resented that I had to put time and energy into that when I wanted to put all my time and energy into other things. I thought, ‘I’m going to wear overalls everyday and then I won’t have to think about it.’ ”

Many women of Gerstler’s generation, while still in high school, were mad for Sylvia Plath. Was she?

“I think I read Sylvia Plath late in high school, or I think it might have been at the beginning of college when I went crazy for her. When I started buying books. I led a sheltered life and didn’t see much writing by people who were still alive until I was in college. There was one bookstore in San Diego which I don’t think is there anymore that was a combination, if I remember correctly, bookstore and avant-garde movie house. It was called, I seem to remember, the Unicorn. That I have dim, odd memories of going to and liking. I think it was in La Jolla.”

Was there an arty, bohemian crowd at Crawford?

“If there was an arty crowd at Crawford, I was too introverted to link up with it. In my last two years I took drama, so I was in plays. There were guys in that class who later came out as gay and there were some arty types at the school, but I think I was even scared of them.

“One real interesting, neat guy and several of his friends used to take tons of LSD and come to school wearing jeans and bathrobes, and make movies. They would take a movie camera around to every class and shoot the inside of their bathrobe and the inside of their friends’ mouths and what was going on in class — anything. And they’d be on acid and be gentle, odd, weird arty types. But I was like, ‘Oh, what do I make of this?’ ”

Did you go to the prom?

“No. And, I actually was seeing a guy at the very end of high school, so I probably could have gone. See, that’s the drippy girl I was. I didn’t go to a prom. I had mixed feelings about it. I had never danced with anybody before. I had no idea how to do it. I felt so awkward about the idea of having to dance for a whole evening in front of other people, when I had no idea at all how to do it. And also parade around in one of those amazing dresses. It seemed it would be like such a weird drug that I would never be able to wake up from it if I did it.

“I rarely meet people who didn’t go to the prom, and mostly when it comes up people are appalled that I didn’t. I guess I’m a little appalled that I didn’t. But at the time it didn’t even seem like a choice. I thought, ‘I will be a thousand times more self-conscious during that five hours than I am all the time, which will make my head explode.’ ”

Gerstler graduated from Crawford in 1974. That next fall she packed her clothes and books and her portable typewriter and went to Pitzer College, one of the six Claremont Colleges in Claremont, California. “When I got into college I fell under the influence of people who thought that you could actually do this — writing — with your life. College was the first time that I started thinking seriously about trying to be a writer as the main part of my life.

“I fell in with Dennis Cooper, who then was a poet and since has become a fiction writer. He took me under his wing. I was fortunate I crossed paths with him because he was this influence in a different direction. He had the exact opposite view of my parents’ ‘it’s only a hobby’ view. He was obsessed with poetry and would Xerox a poem he liked and put the Xeroxes up all over the school. He called it ‘The Weekly Poem.’ ”

Gerstler mentions that at Pitzer she had a teacher, a poet named Bert Meyers, who encouraged her. She was amazed, she says, to begin to find people like herself. “It happened slowly, but it was great and it was a big shock to my system. Because by the time I’d gotten to the end of high school. I’d gotten the idea that there were people who were bohemian-ish or arty or interested in books, or books and movies, or books and ballet. And that they could form their own subculture. But it was still blurry to me.

“Dennis and several other people I ran into in college had already been doing this for years and had it down pat, and had built their identities around making art. That was an amazing and interesting thing for me to see. Also, eccentricity was tolerated more easily at college. But the best thing was that you weren’t a jerk for being studious, which was a problem that I had for most of my life. Suddenly, something that made me seem like the biggest geek and outcast and things that I made an effort to cover up about myself actually turned into things that other people were interested in or found compelling or worthy of conversation. It was a complete switch.”

I ask Gerstler if she recalls the first time one of her poems was published in something other than a school publication. She does. “The first poem was published while I was in college. It was in a magazine, whose name I can’t remember, that was published in San Diego. The magazine had a newspaperish format. I’m sure it’s sitting in this closet I have all my poetry crammed into. Seeing something in print was disorienting and otherworldly and amazing.”

Was Gerstler frightened when she realized that writing was what she wanted to do with her life?

“It frightens me more now than it did then. Then I knew that I was passionate about it and happy that I could try and make a life doing it. What scared me was, ‘Am I going to be able to live long enough to improve as much as I want to?’ Because it seemed like writing I admired was so wonderful and it would be so hard to get anywhere near being able to catch onto that intensity even if I lived 200 more years.”

Gerstler graduated from college in 1978 with a B.A. in psychology. “I was going to go to graduate school in Boston and become a speech pathologist. Then I decided to take a year off and work on writing. I thought if I go to grad school I wouldn’t have time to work on my writing and try and improve it. So I moved to L.A. and took odd jobs and wrote.

“That mutated into being my life. I hung around with Dennis Cooper, who started a magazine called Little Caesar, and I worked in doctors’ offices. I baby-sat a schizophrenic and I worked in the library at a literary arts center in Venice. I started doing journalism, mostly art reviewing. I read a lot and tried to work on my writing. I published a few chapbooks. That’s what I’ve done since college.

“I started teaching when I was in my late 20s, early 30s. I do that a fair amount now. Most of the way I support myself now is by teaching and journalism. I teach at an art school, the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena. September through December I’m going to teach ten weeks at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.”

When did you first start to identify yourself to yourself as a writer?

“I think there was a long time before I had the temerity to say that. That felt as if it would be tantamount to saying, ‘I’m Faulkner.’ You expect people to either laugh or tell you to shut up. Maybe when I started getting published, I began to make that identity.”

Do you remember when you were first reviewed?

“Several chapbooks were reviewed in the Village Voice, among them one of mine. The Voice reviewer did a paragraph on each book. The guy who wrote about mine wrote, about my poems, ‘Too quirky to be major.’ For a while I thought I was going to have that printed on a T-shirt. But it was humbling.”

But the “too quirky to be major” review and the lack of recognition during those years didn’t particularly bother Gerstler. “I didn’t get that discouraged because I was getting to do what I wanted. I was having time to write and working odd jobs and getting to see friends and read and discover new things. I guess I didn’t have many expectations. So it wasn’t that discouraging because everybody I knew was young like myself and it wasn’t like I thought anything was going to happen so I got dashed when it didn’t. Sometimes I’d get discouraged or frustrated that writing wasn’t going well or I wasn’t figuring out how to do things or I wasn’t working as hard as I wanted to or I wondered what I was doing with my life. But that almost seems to me to be harder now that I’m older.”

I ask how Gerstler met her husband.

“I guess we met because he was a writer and an artist, and we moved in concentric circles. I think the first time I saw him, I saw him read some very interesting and unusual stuff at an open reading.”

When you met and fell in love with your husband, did that meeting and the experience of new love produce a lot of poems?

“I tend to write out of confusion and adversity. So I don’t think it so much did because my relations with him had more to do with unbelievable, unexpected joy. I think the period of time right now I’ve actually tended to write stuff that’s related to him because there have been problems, not between us, but other problems. I wrote a poem fairly recently to him because his mother died several years ago and he had a terrible time with it. I wrote a poem about that and about his dealing with his grief and how hard it was.”

Because it is a question one always hears asked of writers, I ask Gerstler about her writing day.

“I try to write everyday. I’m not always successful and I certainly don’t write anything that I consider ‘useful’ every day. I try to at least read stuff over and mark it up. I think that’s one mark of somebody who’s a writer, is they literally feel ill if they don’t get to write. It depends, though, on what I have to do, if I have to teach. If I can write, I work on various things. I work on more than one thing at once. I work from notes and books. I like to go to the library and get books on odd subjects and pull stuff from them. I have slips of paper all over the place that have words or phrases written on them. I work on a computer, a semi-junky IBM clone. If either one of us ever makes a blob of money my plan is to get a better computer and go on the Internet, which I’m dying to do.”

Do you have an agent?

“No, I’m trying to finish this novel, alleged novel, that I’ve been wrestling. I’m actually at a point where I don’t know if it’s going to see the light or not, but my plan is to try and use this novel to get an agent. Although I’m feeling dubious about it now, so I don’t know. But unless you’re somebody who does a lot of business, more business than I do, you don’t need an agent for poetry because there’s not enough money involved. If you do something else, or if you’re John Ashbery, or somebody who’s a famous poet, then you do need one. But somebody like me? What agent wants to split $1500 dollars with you?”

Do you have writer’s block?

“I get scared or I get downhearted. I don’t get scared of the subject matter. I get scared with that same thing that we were talking about earlier, about calling yourself a writer. I get scared that I’m not up to it or the work isn’t good enough or I’m not worthy or it’s not worthy or I’m wasting my time and should get a job working with autistic kids where I can be more useful. I want to be useful. Reading other people’s work has been invaluable and helped me and means a lot to me. So that while I recognize that literature and art and poetry are useful, I also see that the ways in which they’re useful are sometimes not so overt.

“This sounds dorky and Pollyannaish, but I think it’s important for everybody to have a sense of his own value and the value of his work. I think that writers do, but sometimes in my own little personal struggle, I get nervous about that. You have to push through it, but it’s something I worry about. It preys on my mind. If they invented a drug I could take where it never came up, vis-à-vis my work, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t take it. At least when things got bad.”

It’s difficult, too, Gerstler says, when you grow up reading good writing. “It’s hard to approach anything that you’re in awe of. At least for me. And so sometimes, there’s a battle of putting aside the feelings of not being worthy, and doing it because you love it and it’s a thing that you need, to do.

“I think it’s easier to have a sense of the value of other people’s writing than it is of your own. Because you don’t come to your own work as an eager or grateful reader. So you think, ‘I’ll know I’m a good writer when my work makes me feel the way reading Virginia Woolf makes me feel.’ No matter how good a writer you have become—and I’m not saying I’ve become a good writer — you don’t have that orientation towards your own writing.

“I try every so often to force myself to write a cheerful poem or one that’s uplifting or not about feeling insane or longing for something I don’t have or about loss, which tend to be big subjects of mine. Sometimes they turn out to be cheerful and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I can’t wrench them around.

“Humor is important to me. It’s like a saving grace in life. Especially nowadays it’s an ambition of mine that the poems be funny. One, because I think a lot of them are dark. I think it helps balance it out. Two, I think poems can be funny, and that isn’t at war with them being powerful or deep. Also, because poetry has such a bad rap now, and is so unpopular and ghettoized, people think it’s this dry, dusty, stiff, too serious, boring, archaic thing.

“Or, people think of poetry as some terrible confession that they don’t want to hear. Not necessarily because it’s full of dark, scary things or maybe even not because it’s self-indulgent and boring. I don’t think that’s true with good poetry even if it is ‘in the confessional mode,’ but I think that’s another stereotype it has. You can imagine a reader saying to himself about such a poem, ‘Save it for your shrink, I don’t as a reader want to hear it. I don’t want to hear every dumb thing that’s going on in your brain.’ So that humor is one way of proving that poetry is also lively and viable.”

How does it feel to be read by people you know?

“I only have any sense that they’ve even read it or have any feeling about it if they talk to me about it. Which actually doesn’t happen that much. So most of the time it’s a bit of a void. Unless you do readings and people come up to you and engage you in conversation or people write to you, you don’t get that much reaction.

“Very occasionally I get letters. In the most recent book, Crown of Weeds, I tried to write a fake letter from someone to a writer they liked.”

A Fan Letter

Dear Literary Hero,

Now that you’ve gently

split open my envelope,

you see naked before you

on this plain drugstore stationery

watermarked with my tears,

the shaky handwriting of one

who has been given a second chance

and desires to use it wisely.

Allow me to tell you a little

about myself. Before I was wiped

clean as the gilt-edged mirror

in my favorite gas station

lavatory — in other words,

prior to being remade

into a reflective, immaculate being

by ingesting physician-approved

chemicals, potent as the emollients

in lemon-scented furniture polish —

I felt compelled to sleep

with a grim local widower’s

limp twin sons. Then I digressed

to the widower. Still unsatisfied,

I found myself eyeing

his shaggy Scottish deerhounds,

at which point I thought it best

to leave town quietly, by midnight bus,

and take up residence where

I wouldn’t continue to shame

my prominent family, dashing

their political ambitions.

Brimming with remorse,

I legally changed my name

and that same night tried

to end my life in bungalow 444

of a cheap roadside motel

called The Log Cabin,

by consuming fool’s parsley,

a fungus containing

several toxic compounds.

I didn’t even get high.

Dread left a taste in my mouth

like old-fashioned cough syrup

flavored with horehound.

One of my cheeks

went perpetually red.

The other remained deathly pale.

I began to hang around

with old beer drinkers, to want

to lie down all the time.

I noticed a bubbling sensation

around my navel, which emitted

a squeaky hiss, as though

I were a punctured tire

leaking air. It became apparent

my poor tongue, which looked

like a dried orange peel,

was suddenly eight or nine inches

too long, an infirmity

which interfered with wound-licking

and wallpaper-tasting.

Yours truly was in a bad way!

I craved meals of charcoal

and discarded tea bags, but consoled

myself with the contents

of coffee shop ashtrays. Doors

became my nemesis — I had to

unhinge them or become unhinged

myself. Then, in the hospital,

one of the meanest ward nurses

had your recent book sticking out

of her huge, shabby purse.

I filched it, just to get

under her skin. Was I surprised,

upon opening your tome and perusing

the first paragraph, to realize

my dark days were almost over.

These pages contained my salvation.

I read and recovered. Your sentences

gave me the kick in the teeth I

sorely needed. The voice of your thoughts

woke me like a rooster announcing

the end of the world, or maybe

a raven who’d grown teeth and learned

to warble bawdy songs. Your seething words

cured me — reading each was like swallowing

leaf after leaf of a blessed, healing salad

made from ambrosia and ragweed.

I think we should meet. Every night

I stare at the photo of you

on your book’s back flap, sitting

in a brocade overstuffed armchair,

smoking your pipe that resembles

a boar’s tusk. I close my eyes

and perceive myself curled up

so cozily in your lap, and after that

I see the bright mayhem

of millions of fireworks,

lighting up the dark sky

of our like minds.

Gerstler says, about “A Fan Letter,” “It’s insane and scary. It’s not at all about the person who’s being written to, it’s about the psychosis of the letter writer. That’s why I use the line, ‘Allow me to tell you a little about myself.’

“Once I wrote poems for a choreographer who wanted text for a piece; his name was Jeff. I had four chunks of poetry called, ‘Text for Jeff.’ I read the text in a reading and this guy came leaping from the audience and said, ‘Oh, you wrote those poems for me, and I feel so connected to you.’ His name was Jeff. I’d never seen him before and they had nothing to do with him and he was going on about how we were soul mates and he could tell the moment he saw me.

“Everybody is looking for contact and understanding and kindred souls. I’m not trying to make fun of this. But partly I wrote that poem because I had been trying to write a writer a fan letter, and I realized I sounded like a demented, foaming-at-the-mouth, dangerous fool. I thought that the person would read about a line of this and throw it away. I decided, ‘I’ll turn this letter into a poem and forget it.’

“A lot of the symptomatology in the poem is either weird feelings that I’ve had, exacerbated or exaggerated. Others come from books that I like to pull details from and twist. This poem has things from a book that homeopathic doctors use for diagnosis. The book lists symptoms by parts of the body—head, eyes, ears, mouth. Usually I use the symptoms that have to do with the mind. For some reason things like that are inspiring.

“This is a poem that can take lots of twists and turns and things can gradually be revealed. I always like that idea that has gone in and out of vogue in fiction of the unreliable narrator. Where you begin, and you think, ‘Oh, okay, well somebody’s telling a story, so they must be a regular Joe whom I can go with?’ Then gradually you find out who’s got your ear here. I worry, though, and try to keep an eye on a device like that, because I also think it’s important to fill in enough and not to make readers work so hard that they get frustrated and don’t want to continue. Because you have to give pleasure. Even things that are frightening or sad, those are pleasures too.”

When you were working on this poem and you got to the end of it, did you know what was going to happen?

“No. It begins with this vague, almost sexual reference. I wanted only to hint at it. I did want to go into the story of the narrator’s recent life. Like, ‘Hi, I loved your book. But enough about you...,’ then move into the narrator’s mutating craziness. At the end, because I decided to let it go and be crazy and scary, I thought, ‘Well, I didn’t think of this ahead of time, but the scary thing would be in some way to include at the end, either some request that they actually meet or at least let the speaker express a longing to meet the person, or, to say in some oblique way, after the narrator’s exhausted herself talking about herself, that she thinks she’s in love with the person to whom she’s writing.’

“That’s a scary idea. The stalker idea. That somebody thinks they’re in love with you and they don’t even know you. The idea of having somebody in love with you is usually so flattering. Even if you’re not in love with them. I think everybody badly wants to be loved. But the idea of having somebody whom you don’t know and who’s never seen you in real life or heard your voice declare they’re in love with you, obviously that’s pure dementia and could have scary consequences.”

I said that until I reached the end of the poem, I had assumed that a man was the narrator. When I read

sitting

in a brocade overstuffed armchair, smoking your pipe...

only then did I realize the narrator was female.

“I wanted to leave it ambiguous. I wanted to leave that open. The only clue is that the person who’s being addressed is smoking a pipe.”

Among many of Gerstler’s poems of which I’m fond is “The Nature of Suffering” in Bitter Angel

The Nature of Suffering

We know so little about what matters,

what lasts, what constitutes virtue,

what defiles logic by being steeped

in feeling. It’s impossible to keep

oneself clean. Every thought

is lecherous and dispensable.

I know I’m not worth the gunpowder

it’d take to blow me to limbo.

You’ve said so, so often.

Still, I can’t leave.

One couldn’t trudge far through

this bone-chilling melancholy,

I don’t care how impressive

or fur-lined your credentials.

Seclusion produces peculiar symptoms.

A slumbering priestess suffers convulsions.

She’s you, trying to shake off

the world’s grip, even in her sleep.

What am I to make of her glacial smile?

Outward evidence of voluptuous suffering?

The kiss that’s been so long in coming,

rumbling up from her erotic depths?

I found her in a pitiable condition,

much disfigured, but she had already

chosen her road. Every step one takes

is a kind of violation. If I’m

permitted to continue, I must give up

everything. I must be bled white.

I say to Gerstler that it seems to me that people who don’t write often imagine that a poet goes to her desk and says to herself, “ ‘Ah-ha! Today I shall write about the nature of suffering.’ I think we could say that with ‘The Nature of Suffering’ it’s certainly unlikely that you toddled into your workroom in your nightie, and said, ‘Aha, this morning I will write about the nature of suffering.’ ” More often, I suggest, a poet comes upon a phrase of a word that interests her and the poem builds from those words.

“That’s one reason writing is difficult and scary but also fun. Even though it’s little black marks on paper. Because it’s language, it has a living element. So there are unpredictable parts, and parts that only come through the writing and through working with the material, which is meaning and sound and rhythm and wordplay.

“I think I had that line, ‘a slumbering priestess suffers convulsions,’ or maybe I had ‘a slumbering priestess’ and I had the word ‘convulsions’ on another piece of paper. ‘Voluptuous suffering’ I thought was a pretty phrase. So I had a couple of phrases. Then I was walking somewhere and thought of the title. So, it’s little bits and pieces. I tend to be a collagist and collect bits and pieces and try and work them into one thing, and see what they’re about, and let other things attach to them that are related and then pull things out and try and go through it a lot of times and shape it.

“Writers whom I know talk about writing your way into something. I think it’s like many things in life that have a life of their own, like problem solving. When you’re thinking about a problem, there isn’t always one way to solve it. Sometimes you have a brainstorm in the middle of the night and make a connection about a different way to look at something to solve a problem.

“Another way to explain this is to talk about conversation. Perhaps you say to yourself, ‘Okay, now, I have to have this important talk with my boss and we have to talk about how I need a raise.’ Or, maybe you say to yourself, ‘I have to call up my girlfriend and break up with her because of this or that’ Even when you have an agenda for a conversation and try and push it in a certain direction, because a conversation involves another person and because it’s in real time and has to do with humans and has a life of its own, this conversation almost always takes unexpected turns. It doesn’t usually turn out the way you thought it would. The same thing is true of art and art making. That’s one reason why, when it’s good, people are attracted to, say, a poem, because it embodies oddness and inspiration and imagination and unpredictability.

“It’s not an easy thing to talk about. It’s elusive. I think the intimacy of the poem is in part gained through letting the mind appear to do what the mind does. You’re addressing somebody not exactly on the level of speech, but more often as if the voice of the mind is speaking, a voice that’s partway between speech and thinking.”

Did you work on this poem a long time?

“It’s been a while —1989—so I don’t remember. But I try with everything not to get excited and think, ‘Oh, this is nifty!’ It’s difficult to do, but it’s also fun to keep working over time on things because there’s always stuff that you keep sifting through and that escapes you. Even weird things, like you repeated a word you don’t want to repeat and you don’t even notice this the first five times you go through the poem.”

I ask Gerstler what she would say if she were going to teach “The Nature of Suffering.”

“I’d say something about how there’s a lot in this poem about not wanting to err or sin and trying to figure out how to move through the world without doing that, even though it seems like a lot of the human condition is to be this clumsy, mortal being that can’t help but do that to oneself and to other beings.

“What do you do if you’re crashing around through the world and you don’t want to do harm or break things or cause suffering? But it’s inevitable. The last few lines are about erasure and about the narrator contemplating erasure as a way of not doing harm because the narrator evaporates in a way. Also ‘bled white,’ it’s about wanting to be pure.”

“Autobiography,” in Nerve Storm, was another poem I’d wanted to ask Gerstler about.

Autobiography

Moments before I was born,

my mother lost all her hair.

I remember everything: the shrill

exclamations of the women

attending her; and how, after my

bumpy ride lasting hours and hours

I simply slithered from her,

slick with blood, my hair

copious enough to compensate

for her sudden molting, my

character already bespattered.

Never, since that day, have I felt

any fear. God almighty, author

of all our disorders, who might

have made me a worm, thrust me

instead into a bedroom warmed

by a roaring fire, with windows

providing views of a private garden

in a remote corner of this overly

fertile country. Immediately,

the midwife sponged me off

and clapped a tiny cap on my head

so I wouldn’t catch my death.

A good deal of snow fell

that winter. My distinguishing

features include a trusting gaze,

the fact that one of my legs is

a full inch shorter than its

mate, and a small birthmark

on my right shoulder resembling

a dried cherry. Of course

I was lonely. I was filled

top to toe with pagan imagination.

Assailed by stings and dregs,

it will surprise no one familiar

with the child-rearing practices

of the time if I reveal my half-

clothed spirit was repeatedly broken:

harnessed and saddled, a most

obedient pack animal, till something

in me swooned and had to be carried

home on an improvised litter.

Picture yourself a person who thought

more than lived, who heard

the tempter’s voice daily

and mistook it for birdsong.

I believed messages imprinted

on the undersides of the leaves

of certain trees were intended

especially for me. As an adult,

I wage a constant campaign

(so far unsuccessful) to achieve

tender-mindedness. And now,

reader dear, we find ourselves

here, so far from land,

almost nose to nose.

You have seen and touched

my abrasions and mistakes,

the wounds that nearly killed me.

What you know about me now

irrevocably binds us. So step

out of the shadows. Teach me

to keep still. Don’t bother

to knock before entering

Under no circumstances,

unseen companion,

will you be permitted

to keep concealing yourself

from me. This is the hour

not soon to be forgotten.

I’m beside myself with anticipation.

My teeth are chattering

so hard I don’t comprehend much

that takes place beyond the pale

circumference of my face.

“It’s a narrator that’s caught between self-effacement and talking about herself a lot. There’s something in it that has to do with tension between self-interest and humility. There’s something about how people grow up and what they endure. Where the narrator talks about having the spirit repeatedly broken is an important part. That is part of growing up and becoming civilized, having your spirit broken like a horse. But this ‘being broken’ is something that some people go along with in certain ways and some part of them goes underground and resists that ‘breaking,’ “

Do you remember the occasion that started this poem?

“I was reading biography and autobiography. The idea of a tell-all seems paradoxical to me because people tell and reveal a lot. The autobiographer seems to be letting his hair down and revealing everything. But, actually, in the end, he can’t reveal that much even if he wanted to do so. Everybody is trapped in his body and head and the end image has to do with that. Even though this is supposed to have been this big autobiographical confession, the narrator says that she doesn’t comprehend much that’s outside the circumference of her skull.”

I ask about,

I believed messages imprinted

on the undersides of the leaves

of certain trees were intended

especially for me.

“That’s, in a way, about childhood. It’s the perception children have, a natural form of animism; little kids sometimes think that everything in the world is alive and can talk, even if it doesn’t have a regular voice. At least I think that little kids sometimes think that. Depending upon how sort of openly and overtly you continue to believe that as an adult, you may be a functioning adult or you may be in the nuthouse.”

The ending, I say, seems to long to rise into heaven. “This is the hour / not soon to be forgotten” sounds like incantation.

“That’s diction that I like religious sounding, a spiritual, mystical diction. I have this funny relationship with religion and spirituality where I think it’s this beautiful, pathetic, noble groping of humans. It means a lot to me even though I don’t know that I’m a believer. But this human urge and will to believe and to construct beautiful systems of thought or belief that they can retreat into and comfort themselves with and that they use to order their lives: that means a lot to me too. Language associated with that is rich to me and something for which I have an affection, or, affinity.”

I have been wanting to ask this, and I do, “Do your parents read your poems?”

“I give them my books and they’re very sweet about saying that they’re proud of me and giving books to their friends. They don’t talk to me about my work. I think that my mother looks at it. I’m pretty sure my father doesn’t read it. I think he reads the titles and maybe looks at a thing or two. Usually my mother’s comment is, ‘Well, some of it I understand and some of it I don’t.’ Which is a perfectly legitimate comment.”

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Victor Baker’s milestone guitar

“I forget what day of the week it is sometimes”
Gerstler’s voice is tempered by a “limber eloquence." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Gerstler’s voice is tempered by a “limber eloquence."

“In everybody’s life there are muses,” says poet Amy Gerstler, “people you’ve met who’ve had profound sway and left lasting marks. Some are abiding people; once you encounter them, they stay in your mind and heart and fuel or inform what you do.”

I had asked Gerstler if she had a muse, guiding spirit, or source of inspiration, and that was her answer. She went on, then, to say, “Many times with particular poems, even they might not sound like it, I’ve written them for particular people. Maybe the poem is about somebody or maybe it is not about them; maybe the poem has to do with trying to make a little toy out of words for them. Or, knowing what they like, I may concoct a small word utopia for them. Or, I may, in a poem, be wishing certain things for that person, be writing an incantation that tries to conjure up or get for the person what he wants.”

Gerstler's father "changed careers and went back to school and started teaching and then became a counselor and vice principal. Most of the time I was growing up he was the principal of various high schools — Santana, Valhalla."

Writing a poem, she added, “isn’t like being possessed, although it probably has elements of that. Writing involves work and problem solving and getting tired and at some rare times, being inspired. It’s like every other job. I respect a good plumber and I respect a good writer.”

I was happy to be talking with Gerstler. Her poems are one of my sources of inspiration. She’s like a great cook who turns the simplest ingredients—say, yellow crookneck squash and a fat white onion and pinches of sugar and cinnamon — into a mouth treat you never dreamed squash could be. But she doesn’t do this by hiding crookneck’s essential crookneckish taste, or its tender translucent seeds. She uses the sugar and cinnamon and finely chopped onion to spoon into your mouth the Ur-crookneck. Gerstler does this with words. She takes “snow” and “tree” and “wind” and sets them on courses at which you’d only guessed She builds with “snow” and “tree” and “wind” a toy for the reading mind that the mind can’t stop touching and turning. When the black print ends and the reading mind has before it only silence and blank white paper, Gerstler’s snow still drifts down, heaps up on her tree’s limbs, and wind lifts a curtain’s hem. I don’t know quite how she does it. I wish I did. I know what she does is poetry.

Gerstler, age six. “I remember learning to read in my nursery school at a Jewish community center. And then learning more words in kindergarten at Hardy Elementary."

I had finished, days before, Gerstler’s newest collection, Crown of Weeds (Penguin, 1997). The book is dedicated to her brother Marcus, who, like Gerstler, was born and raised in San Diego. Gerstler explains, about the dedication and the poem, below, included in Crown of Weeds, that Marcus, “about three years ago, right around the time that I was turning this book in to my editor at Penguin, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was told he had six months or less to live. I wanted him to see this book, but because of this diagnosis and because the book was going to take so long to come out, I was afraid he would never see it. However, happily, not because of the book, but because Marcus is such a wonderful person, he made a miraculous recovery. He seems fine now and has gone back to work and has gone from somebody who was predicted to not last more than a few months to somebody about whom you can’t tell anything ever happened.”

Gerstler, high school senior. “If there was an arty crowd at Crawford, I was too introverted to link up with it."

To My Brother

  • My mind is full of you. In the tranquility
  • of this blizzard, I meditate on: 1. your bravery,
  • which takes the form of a spiky titanium halo
  • made of bike spokes fanned out behind your head
  • like a peacock’s tail, which only some of us can see,
  • 2. the aura that appears to you before seizures,
  • and 3. your calmness and grace in a grave
  • situation. You occupy my thoughts entirely,
  • the way snow in this place where I find myself
  • vacationing silently conquers the landscape
  • it blankets, while tall trees, rough-barked
  • monarchs, shiver their timbers. It’s as if
  • the storm’s voice, hollow rumblings
  • and swallowed washy howls, was deputized
  • one of your many emissaries. Everything
  • natural and unnatural has been drafted
  • as your ambassador. The wind’s subliminal
  • engine roar is now reminiscent of your
  • laconic conversation — talk that’s suddenly
  • become vital to me on a daily basis,
  • since I’ve been threatened with losing you
  • to a brain tumor— a term that last month
  • wouldn’t have been allowed out of my mouth.
  • I’ve always been afraid to pronounce or read
  • names of serious diseases: bad luck
  • to pass my eyes over such words. Now,
  • thirty days post diagnosis, I’ve said
  • “brain tumor” so often it could be my cat’s name.
  • I’ve started carrying a photo of you in my pocket
  • at all times. I show it to people. The consistent reaction:
  • “Oh, he’s so handsome.” I’ve got snapshots
  • of you hiking, skiing, or dropped to one knee
  • in a weedy field, flanked by your adolescent dogs.
  • All I’m able to perceive lately has undergone
  • alchemical transformation. Vague memories of you
  • stumbling around in diapers; my still-packed
  • suitcase; medical reports; or heavy-bellied clouds
  • rush at me, tumbling over each other
  • in their eagerness to testify to your continued
  • existence. They zoom forward, hang before me
  • and waver, a complicated mirage, strange
  • as a Hieronymus Bosch painting of limbo’s
  • undulating landscape — equal parts darkness,
  • outrage, and galvanized fighting spirit.
  • In my new, upended life, days pass,
  • and the events they contain glow with the luster
  • of just-dug-up gold. For no good reason
  • it made me feel better last night when you said,
  • over a crackling telephone connection,
  • it was snowing like crazy where you are, too.

Not only had I read Crown of Weeds, but I had spent the weekend re-reading Gerstler’s earlier two collections — Nerve Storm (Penguin, 1993) and Bitter Angel (North Point Press, 1990), awarded the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry in 1991. My mind was filled with Ger-stler words — “pale as flour milled / a thousand times” (from “Siren”); “Delivering awful news is like having to eat a knife” (“Lucky You”); “Your childhood, a rickety ladder, / can’t bear your weight anymore” (“Consolation”); “he’s smart as an egg timer” (“My Hero”); “The hayloft felt like a giant / nest. Oh, the eggs it could / have contained!” (“On the Road”); “shoulder blades no bigger / than toast points” (“Chain of Events”).

Gerstler’s voice is tempered by a “limber eloquence,” to use her words about another’s voice. I wish you could push a button on the page and hear that voice as I do, arriving in my ear from miles away where Gerstler sits, in her house in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles.

“We have a little house and a tiny bedroom; I have a room I work in and my husband [novelist Benjamin Weissman] has a room he works in. We could live without it if we had to, but that was one of my base requirements for sane living. If you have two writers, they both need a place to work that has a door that shuts.”

She wears blue jeans, black T-shirt, and her brand-new tan hiking boots. She wears gardenia perfume. Gerstler wears three wedding rings on her ring finger. “We found them,” she says, “in a pawnshop. The middle ring is an old gold band incised with a leaf design. The bottom ring is a white gold band and the top ring is silver.” Her dark hair that she describes as “kinky and messy,” a “fuzz bush,” flows around the pale face. “Fuzz bush,” Gerstler says, is how Virginia Woolf describes the hair of a character in The Years.

While we talk, Gerstler sits in her workroom. Out her window she sees eucalyptus and Echo Park’s hilly steep streets. Her elbows are on her old-fashioned metal desk. The desk, she tells me, has a linoleum top and reminds her of the desks school principals sat behind in the 1950s. “Or,” she suggests, “maybe it’s more like the desk in an old private eye office.” She has what she calls her “white tied-to-the-wall telephone” pressed to her ear. Her dog Gina, “part corgi and part terrier, rough coat, reddish blond all over, erect ears,” sleeps near Gerstler’s feet. The two “brother cats, George and Casper,” snooze in sun that falls at the room’s edge.

You know some things about a person after you read her poems. You also know very little. I wanted to know more. I wanted, for instance, to know about Gerstler’s San Diego childhood. Gerstler tells me she was born in 1956 in a hospital that she thinks doesn’t exist anymore. She’s the oldest of three children, with a sister, Tina, two years younger and her brother, Marcus, seven years younger. Her father, Sid Gerstler, she says, stayed in San Diego after he left the Navy. He worked for an aeronautics firm, as an engineer. “But, he wasn’t happy doing that. So he changed careers and went back to school and started teaching and then became a counselor and vice principal. Most of the time I was growing up he was the principal of various high schools — Santana, Valhalla.

“Our parents had lots of books and they read. My mom — Mimi Gerstler — had wanted to be an opera singer and she was in musicals — Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun. They took us to see plays — Shakespeare at the Old Globe, for instance, and when we got older, opera. I remember an amazing production of Mefistofele, and, at the Civic Theatre, Carmen.

“We lived close to what was then San Diego State College and what’s now San Diego State University. We lived on Walsh Way, a small street, in a little pink stucco house. When I was little, the area was still a new housing development, so there weren’t that many houses. As I grew up the street got more houses on it and filled in. There was a back yard, and beyond the back yard a big canyon. Occasionally, a rabbit would come up from the canyon into the yard. Living on the edge of the canyon was mysterious. We climbed down there. We weren’t supposed to. But we sometimes did poke around on the lip of the canyon.

“I remember my mom cooking. She made pancakes that were in different shapes. You made requests for what you’d want for breakfast, and you’d have a pancake shaped like a cat or house or an elephant. She would often make pancakes with chocolate chips in them, which I thought was wonderful, but everyone I’ve mentioned this to in adulthood goes, ‘Ugh.’

“It’s great having siblings, but it’s such a classic thing to think you own your parents and they’re there to fulfill your every whim. Then, when you have a brother or sister, suddenly there’s this interloper. I don’t remember it being hard when my sister was born. What I do remember as being difficult is that from the time Tina was born until a few years before I graduated high school we shared a room. Sleeping three feet apart all those years was hard on both of us until we got older and made friends. We’re good friends, but temperamentally different — almost opposite. I tended to be "quiet and bookish and not social and a nervous, scaredy-cat kid. My sister was this super athlete, an outgoing, energetic fireball.

“I remember learning to read in my nursery school at a Jewish community center. And then learning more words in kindergarten at Hardy Elementary. I was close to a library — the College Heights branch. And my parents had jillions of books, including books that I wanted to be sneaky about reading, like The Psychology of Sex, that had all kinds of weird things in it.”

From the time she learned to read, says Gerstler, she began to “live through and in books. Contact with books and writing was one of the most grounding and comforting things for me, and also the most moving. I don’t know why. I think this is a flaw in my makeup, but books seemed more real and intense to me than ‘real life,’ for some reason.

“I think it made my parents maybe think I was crazy, and it may be an indication that I am kind of crazy, but books always meant a lot to me. Words that rhymed meant a lot to me, and also were very comforting. I liked knowing things by heart so that when I felt weird or bad or couldn’t sleep, I could repeat them. Or when something was going on that I didn’t like, I could repeat words in my head and that made me feel better.”

Many people who become writers feel alone and uncomfortable in the world, I suggest. Gerstler agrees. “I don’t think that’s true of everybody, but it’s true — at least in some ways — of many writers. I think that’s why many of us end up being alcoholics.”

Looking back, Gerstler says, she believes that even as early as first grade at Hardy, she felt odd and different. There was her hair. “Kids would make fun of me and call me a witch because I had this big, long cape of frizzy hair that I could sit on the ends of. My weird frizzy hair was always an issue. I’ve never known what to do with it. It’s like tumbleweed.

“I spent a lot of time when I was a kid feeling strange and feeling like everyone else thought I was strange. I think it’s a big part of my life, some of which might be useful and some of which I wish I could pay a shrink to physically remove.”

A liposuction for the mind? I ask.

“That would be great. Especially if I could be selective.”

For a Jewish child, growing up in San Diego in the 1960s wasn’t particularly easy. “In very minor ways, yes,” says Gerstler, “it was difficult. I think that it’s nothing compared to anybody’s real difficulties about growing up Jewish anywhere else. My dad is first-generation American and his parents came over from Austria. They and their forebears experienced real difficulties. My minor stuff is very, very small. So having made that disclaimer, the thing that was hard for me was being different.

“In first, second, and third grades in a class of 30 or 35 kids, maybe 4 or 5 of us were Jewish. I disliked being set apart and having our teacher say, ‘Okay, we’re going to make Christmas decorations because it’s Christmastime.’ So everybody else gets to make some great-looking Christmas tree with beautiful ornaments all over it, but they didn’t know what to do with the Jewish kids. So they stuff you in a corner with a piece of Styrofoam and plastic candleholders like you put on a birthday cake. ‘Okay, stick these candleholders in this chunk of Styrofoam and that will be a menorah.’

“I did something that I’m ashamed of now, which is that after about second grade I stopped saying that I was Jewish, and given that my last name is a little ambiguous, nobody questioned me. I went ahead and made the Santas with cotton beards.”

Gerstler recalls that in second grade the class was asked to memorize Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” She fell in love with this poem.

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Gerstler and I take turns reciting “Snowy Evening” to one another, and then I ask if she recalls what, as a child, she liked about the poem.

“It was the exoticism of the snow, I’m sure. I loved the mood of the poem, loved that there was this guy alone with his horse. Also the idea of a horse. Just sitting there. I guess, too, it was the rhyme — gentle and lulling. The idea of being an adult, that, too, appealed to me, being so independent that you could take a horse and go somewhere yourself, and stand around watching snow until you felt good and ready to go off on your way. It seemed like that was representative of ‘real’ life, not the life where adults told you, ‘Now, Amy, you have to eat,’ ‘Now you have to get dressed,’ ‘Now you have to take a bath.’ You could sit with your horse and watch snow and be meditative.”

I mention that Gerstler’s poems are filled with snow, “...the long, drawn-out / sweetness of a frozen / field crunching underfoot” (“Rest Cure”). “It snowed all day, flakes big / and pretty as an albino drag queen’s / false eyelashes” (“On the Road”).

She laughs. “I didn’t see snow until I was in my 20s. And my contact with it has still been minimal. I did put snow in poems constantly, even before I’d seen it. It seemed like the most exotic thing in the world and half-fictional.”

Gerstler remembers, too, about her initial exposures to poetry, that “early on, in school, they showed us what haiku were [a haiku is a Japanese lyric verse form having three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables, traditionally invoking an aspect of nature or the seasons]. I liked haiku. When you’re a kid you can make haiku and you can count five-seven-five. It’s not like trying to write a sonnet. Also, you could work on them in your head because they’re short. So, I would do that.

“When I was in third grade I wrote this two-line poem, ‘Hiccups, hiccups, up they perk. /I would like to know where they lurk.’ I got praise for this and it got put in the school magazine. That made me think, ‘This was fun to do and I like the feeling it gave me when I did it, and other people seemed to like it.’ Because I liked writing, and the one thing that meant the most in the world to me was the way certain pieces of writing made me feel when I read them, and thought about them and remembered them, I wanted to do that for other people. I wanted to put more of that into the world.”

Gerstler wrote down “little things” off and on. “I’ve always had trouble sleeping. When I was younger, I’d get up if I couldn’t sleep and go in the bathroom and turn on the light and lie on the floor and write. Or I’d make up poems while I roller-skated

“I still have poems I wrote in third grade. I wrote poems that rhymed pretty consistently, so I had to work on them to make the rhymes work. I haven’t thrown the notebooks out yet. I think there will be a bonfire at some point.

“Sometimes I’d say I wanted to be a writer and people would say, ‘Oh, hmm.’ I didn’t know any writers, and my parents had the view that writing was a hobby. So for a long time I thought, ‘I’ll do it when I can’t sleep.’

“When I was in junior high—Horace Mann—and high school—Crawford—I spent a lot of time reading books that were written for girls about how to get boys to like you. Unfortunately, they mostly said things like, ‘Make the boys think the/re smarter than you.’ And, ‘Just ask them questions, don’t talk about yourself or your interests; if they’re interested in football, ask questions about football.’

“I actually, not with very great success, tried this stuff. So the last thing I would have said was, ‘I’m reading Jane Eyre, what are you reading?’ Reading was this semi-shameful activity that you couldn’t help yourself from doing and caring about and that was central to your existence, but you better pretend it wasn’t.”

Gerstler’s frizzy hair continued to worry her. “I got it all cut off in junior high as this big gesture. I did it because I was such a loner and pariah, and didn’t have many friends. I was starting to realize that one of the things that I had to make an effort to try and figure out — which seemed impossible to me when I was in junior high — was how to be cool. This was the era of Cher and Twiggy and being skinny and straight hair and white lipstick, which my mother wouldn’t let me wear. So in my effort to conform and make friends and be more sociable, I cut off my hair.”

Being Jewish remained problematic. “When I was in junior and high school, there was a big movement of what they called then ‘Jesus freaks.’ I guess it was like an earlier version of this ‘born again’ movement. Many social activities at school and outside school revolved around these Christian groups and clubs. Many of the most popular kids and the president of the school and this and that and the other thing were usually members of this.

“It was bad because a few kids from this group would actually like me, but because they liked me they’d try to convert me. They were convinced that here was someone they thought was okay who was going to go to hell if they didn’t intervene. So there were constant harangues: ‘I’m worried about you, don’t you know that Jesus is your this and your that....’ It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but it was irritating. You don’t want to insult people, and also I was still in the throes of this strong desire to be popular and liked above practically all else. But I thought, ‘I’m not going with this. I can’t.’ ”

I ask, Who was the first poet with whom you remember falling abjectly in love?

“I was promiscuous. I fell in love with almost everything I read. I loved Robert Frost. Then in high school a teacher gave me an anthology and I liked this poem called ‘Patterns’ that was in this anthology. ‘Patterns’ was a real standard. Plus it was abject and was an antiwar poem. Because the narrator’s in love with a guy who gets killed, right? Then she’s left alone, feeling melancholy and crazed and dejected.”

I confess that Amy Lowell’s “Patterns” had been one of my favorites as a girl. I reach up into my bookshelf and begin to read to Gerstler.

Patterns

I walk down the garden-paths,

And all the daffodils

Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.

I walk down the patterned garden-paths In my stiff, brocaded gown.

With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,

I too am a rare Pattern. As I wander down

The garden-paths.

My dress is richly figured,

And the train

Makes a pink and silver stain

On the gravel, and the thrift

Of the borders.

Just a plate of current fashion,

Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.

Not a softness anywhere about me,

Only whalebone and brocade.

And I sink on a seat in the shade

Of a lime-tree. For my passion

Wars against the stiff brocade.

The daffodils and squills

Flutter in the breeze As they please.

And I weep;

For the lime-tree is in blossom

And one small flower has dropped upon my bosom.

Gerstler and I stop, off and on, and we ooh and ah over this and that line. Gerstler says, “It’s got this whole layer in it about the confinement of being feminine. It’s very sexy. But it’s not overt. It’s couched in terms of the nature that’s around her, and the stiff brocaded corset.”

I go on reading for a few more lines, and Gerstler and I continue to stop and admire various lines.

And the plashing of waterdrops

In the marble fountain

Comes down the garden-paths.

The dripping never stops.

Underneath my stiffened gown

Is the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,

A basin in the midst of hedges grown

So thick, she cannot see her lover hiding,

But she guesses he is near.

And the sliding of the water

Seems the stroking of a dear Hand upon her.

What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!

I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground.

All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.

“Wow,” Gerstler says, “that’s a lot more overt than I remember. That’s wild. God, it doesn’t get any more sexy and better than that.”

I finish reading the poem, which goes on for another 50 or so lines. Gerstler sighs. I sigh. Gerstler says, “This is so nice to hear this again. I don’t think I’ve seen this poem for 20 years.”

Gerstler entered Crawford in 1971. “All the circles of hell at once,” she says, about high school. “I was shunned and didn’t have much of a sense of like clothes or things that girls were supposed to take an interest in.”

Clothes, Gerstler says, were a big problem for her. “I’ve never had a very good sense of clothing. I always wished I could hire somebody to dress me. For a while when I was in junior high and high school, I had a glamorous friend who did pick out clothes for me. Because my way of solving the problem in the beginning of high school was to wear overalls everyday. I had that weird idea, where I wanted to make myself look better and be appealing as a female. However, part of me also resented that I had to put time and energy into that when I wanted to put all my time and energy into other things. I thought, ‘I’m going to wear overalls everyday and then I won’t have to think about it.’ ”

Many women of Gerstler’s generation, while still in high school, were mad for Sylvia Plath. Was she?

“I think I read Sylvia Plath late in high school, or I think it might have been at the beginning of college when I went crazy for her. When I started buying books. I led a sheltered life and didn’t see much writing by people who were still alive until I was in college. There was one bookstore in San Diego which I don’t think is there anymore that was a combination, if I remember correctly, bookstore and avant-garde movie house. It was called, I seem to remember, the Unicorn. That I have dim, odd memories of going to and liking. I think it was in La Jolla.”

Was there an arty, bohemian crowd at Crawford?

“If there was an arty crowd at Crawford, I was too introverted to link up with it. In my last two years I took drama, so I was in plays. There were guys in that class who later came out as gay and there were some arty types at the school, but I think I was even scared of them.

“One real interesting, neat guy and several of his friends used to take tons of LSD and come to school wearing jeans and bathrobes, and make movies. They would take a movie camera around to every class and shoot the inside of their bathrobe and the inside of their friends’ mouths and what was going on in class — anything. And they’d be on acid and be gentle, odd, weird arty types. But I was like, ‘Oh, what do I make of this?’ ”

Did you go to the prom?

“No. And, I actually was seeing a guy at the very end of high school, so I probably could have gone. See, that’s the drippy girl I was. I didn’t go to a prom. I had mixed feelings about it. I had never danced with anybody before. I had no idea how to do it. I felt so awkward about the idea of having to dance for a whole evening in front of other people, when I had no idea at all how to do it. And also parade around in one of those amazing dresses. It seemed it would be like such a weird drug that I would never be able to wake up from it if I did it.

“I rarely meet people who didn’t go to the prom, and mostly when it comes up people are appalled that I didn’t. I guess I’m a little appalled that I didn’t. But at the time it didn’t even seem like a choice. I thought, ‘I will be a thousand times more self-conscious during that five hours than I am all the time, which will make my head explode.’ ”

Gerstler graduated from Crawford in 1974. That next fall she packed her clothes and books and her portable typewriter and went to Pitzer College, one of the six Claremont Colleges in Claremont, California. “When I got into college I fell under the influence of people who thought that you could actually do this — writing — with your life. College was the first time that I started thinking seriously about trying to be a writer as the main part of my life.

“I fell in with Dennis Cooper, who then was a poet and since has become a fiction writer. He took me under his wing. I was fortunate I crossed paths with him because he was this influence in a different direction. He had the exact opposite view of my parents’ ‘it’s only a hobby’ view. He was obsessed with poetry and would Xerox a poem he liked and put the Xeroxes up all over the school. He called it ‘The Weekly Poem.’ ”

Gerstler mentions that at Pitzer she had a teacher, a poet named Bert Meyers, who encouraged her. She was amazed, she says, to begin to find people like herself. “It happened slowly, but it was great and it was a big shock to my system. Because by the time I’d gotten to the end of high school. I’d gotten the idea that there were people who were bohemian-ish or arty or interested in books, or books and movies, or books and ballet. And that they could form their own subculture. But it was still blurry to me.

“Dennis and several other people I ran into in college had already been doing this for years and had it down pat, and had built their identities around making art. That was an amazing and interesting thing for me to see. Also, eccentricity was tolerated more easily at college. But the best thing was that you weren’t a jerk for being studious, which was a problem that I had for most of my life. Suddenly, something that made me seem like the biggest geek and outcast and things that I made an effort to cover up about myself actually turned into things that other people were interested in or found compelling or worthy of conversation. It was a complete switch.”

I ask Gerstler if she recalls the first time one of her poems was published in something other than a school publication. She does. “The first poem was published while I was in college. It was in a magazine, whose name I can’t remember, that was published in San Diego. The magazine had a newspaperish format. I’m sure it’s sitting in this closet I have all my poetry crammed into. Seeing something in print was disorienting and otherworldly and amazing.”

Was Gerstler frightened when she realized that writing was what she wanted to do with her life?

“It frightens me more now than it did then. Then I knew that I was passionate about it and happy that I could try and make a life doing it. What scared me was, ‘Am I going to be able to live long enough to improve as much as I want to?’ Because it seemed like writing I admired was so wonderful and it would be so hard to get anywhere near being able to catch onto that intensity even if I lived 200 more years.”

Gerstler graduated from college in 1978 with a B.A. in psychology. “I was going to go to graduate school in Boston and become a speech pathologist. Then I decided to take a year off and work on writing. I thought if I go to grad school I wouldn’t have time to work on my writing and try and improve it. So I moved to L.A. and took odd jobs and wrote.

“That mutated into being my life. I hung around with Dennis Cooper, who started a magazine called Little Caesar, and I worked in doctors’ offices. I baby-sat a schizophrenic and I worked in the library at a literary arts center in Venice. I started doing journalism, mostly art reviewing. I read a lot and tried to work on my writing. I published a few chapbooks. That’s what I’ve done since college.

“I started teaching when I was in my late 20s, early 30s. I do that a fair amount now. Most of the way I support myself now is by teaching and journalism. I teach at an art school, the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena. September through December I’m going to teach ten weeks at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.”

When did you first start to identify yourself to yourself as a writer?

“I think there was a long time before I had the temerity to say that. That felt as if it would be tantamount to saying, ‘I’m Faulkner.’ You expect people to either laugh or tell you to shut up. Maybe when I started getting published, I began to make that identity.”

Do you remember when you were first reviewed?

“Several chapbooks were reviewed in the Village Voice, among them one of mine. The Voice reviewer did a paragraph on each book. The guy who wrote about mine wrote, about my poems, ‘Too quirky to be major.’ For a while I thought I was going to have that printed on a T-shirt. But it was humbling.”

But the “too quirky to be major” review and the lack of recognition during those years didn’t particularly bother Gerstler. “I didn’t get that discouraged because I was getting to do what I wanted. I was having time to write and working odd jobs and getting to see friends and read and discover new things. I guess I didn’t have many expectations. So it wasn’t that discouraging because everybody I knew was young like myself and it wasn’t like I thought anything was going to happen so I got dashed when it didn’t. Sometimes I’d get discouraged or frustrated that writing wasn’t going well or I wasn’t figuring out how to do things or I wasn’t working as hard as I wanted to or I wondered what I was doing with my life. But that almost seems to me to be harder now that I’m older.”

I ask how Gerstler met her husband.

“I guess we met because he was a writer and an artist, and we moved in concentric circles. I think the first time I saw him, I saw him read some very interesting and unusual stuff at an open reading.”

When you met and fell in love with your husband, did that meeting and the experience of new love produce a lot of poems?

“I tend to write out of confusion and adversity. So I don’t think it so much did because my relations with him had more to do with unbelievable, unexpected joy. I think the period of time right now I’ve actually tended to write stuff that’s related to him because there have been problems, not between us, but other problems. I wrote a poem fairly recently to him because his mother died several years ago and he had a terrible time with it. I wrote a poem about that and about his dealing with his grief and how hard it was.”

Because it is a question one always hears asked of writers, I ask Gerstler about her writing day.

“I try to write everyday. I’m not always successful and I certainly don’t write anything that I consider ‘useful’ every day. I try to at least read stuff over and mark it up. I think that’s one mark of somebody who’s a writer, is they literally feel ill if they don’t get to write. It depends, though, on what I have to do, if I have to teach. If I can write, I work on various things. I work on more than one thing at once. I work from notes and books. I like to go to the library and get books on odd subjects and pull stuff from them. I have slips of paper all over the place that have words or phrases written on them. I work on a computer, a semi-junky IBM clone. If either one of us ever makes a blob of money my plan is to get a better computer and go on the Internet, which I’m dying to do.”

Do you have an agent?

“No, I’m trying to finish this novel, alleged novel, that I’ve been wrestling. I’m actually at a point where I don’t know if it’s going to see the light or not, but my plan is to try and use this novel to get an agent. Although I’m feeling dubious about it now, so I don’t know. But unless you’re somebody who does a lot of business, more business than I do, you don’t need an agent for poetry because there’s not enough money involved. If you do something else, or if you’re John Ashbery, or somebody who’s a famous poet, then you do need one. But somebody like me? What agent wants to split $1500 dollars with you?”

Do you have writer’s block?

“I get scared or I get downhearted. I don’t get scared of the subject matter. I get scared with that same thing that we were talking about earlier, about calling yourself a writer. I get scared that I’m not up to it or the work isn’t good enough or I’m not worthy or it’s not worthy or I’m wasting my time and should get a job working with autistic kids where I can be more useful. I want to be useful. Reading other people’s work has been invaluable and helped me and means a lot to me. So that while I recognize that literature and art and poetry are useful, I also see that the ways in which they’re useful are sometimes not so overt.

“This sounds dorky and Pollyannaish, but I think it’s important for everybody to have a sense of his own value and the value of his work. I think that writers do, but sometimes in my own little personal struggle, I get nervous about that. You have to push through it, but it’s something I worry about. It preys on my mind. If they invented a drug I could take where it never came up, vis-à-vis my work, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t take it. At least when things got bad.”

It’s difficult, too, Gerstler says, when you grow up reading good writing. “It’s hard to approach anything that you’re in awe of. At least for me. And so sometimes, there’s a battle of putting aside the feelings of not being worthy, and doing it because you love it and it’s a thing that you need, to do.

“I think it’s easier to have a sense of the value of other people’s writing than it is of your own. Because you don’t come to your own work as an eager or grateful reader. So you think, ‘I’ll know I’m a good writer when my work makes me feel the way reading Virginia Woolf makes me feel.’ No matter how good a writer you have become—and I’m not saying I’ve become a good writer — you don’t have that orientation towards your own writing.

“I try every so often to force myself to write a cheerful poem or one that’s uplifting or not about feeling insane or longing for something I don’t have or about loss, which tend to be big subjects of mine. Sometimes they turn out to be cheerful and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I can’t wrench them around.

“Humor is important to me. It’s like a saving grace in life. Especially nowadays it’s an ambition of mine that the poems be funny. One, because I think a lot of them are dark. I think it helps balance it out. Two, I think poems can be funny, and that isn’t at war with them being powerful or deep. Also, because poetry has such a bad rap now, and is so unpopular and ghettoized, people think it’s this dry, dusty, stiff, too serious, boring, archaic thing.

“Or, people think of poetry as some terrible confession that they don’t want to hear. Not necessarily because it’s full of dark, scary things or maybe even not because it’s self-indulgent and boring. I don’t think that’s true with good poetry even if it is ‘in the confessional mode,’ but I think that’s another stereotype it has. You can imagine a reader saying to himself about such a poem, ‘Save it for your shrink, I don’t as a reader want to hear it. I don’t want to hear every dumb thing that’s going on in your brain.’ So that humor is one way of proving that poetry is also lively and viable.”

How does it feel to be read by people you know?

“I only have any sense that they’ve even read it or have any feeling about it if they talk to me about it. Which actually doesn’t happen that much. So most of the time it’s a bit of a void. Unless you do readings and people come up to you and engage you in conversation or people write to you, you don’t get that much reaction.

“Very occasionally I get letters. In the most recent book, Crown of Weeds, I tried to write a fake letter from someone to a writer they liked.”

A Fan Letter

Dear Literary Hero,

Now that you’ve gently

split open my envelope,

you see naked before you

on this plain drugstore stationery

watermarked with my tears,

the shaky handwriting of one

who has been given a second chance

and desires to use it wisely.

Allow me to tell you a little

about myself. Before I was wiped

clean as the gilt-edged mirror

in my favorite gas station

lavatory — in other words,

prior to being remade

into a reflective, immaculate being

by ingesting physician-approved

chemicals, potent as the emollients

in lemon-scented furniture polish —

I felt compelled to sleep

with a grim local widower’s

limp twin sons. Then I digressed

to the widower. Still unsatisfied,

I found myself eyeing

his shaggy Scottish deerhounds,

at which point I thought it best

to leave town quietly, by midnight bus,

and take up residence where

I wouldn’t continue to shame

my prominent family, dashing

their political ambitions.

Brimming with remorse,

I legally changed my name

and that same night tried

to end my life in bungalow 444

of a cheap roadside motel

called The Log Cabin,

by consuming fool’s parsley,

a fungus containing

several toxic compounds.

I didn’t even get high.

Dread left a taste in my mouth

like old-fashioned cough syrup

flavored with horehound.

One of my cheeks

went perpetually red.

The other remained deathly pale.

I began to hang around

with old beer drinkers, to want

to lie down all the time.

I noticed a bubbling sensation

around my navel, which emitted

a squeaky hiss, as though

I were a punctured tire

leaking air. It became apparent

my poor tongue, which looked

like a dried orange peel,

was suddenly eight or nine inches

too long, an infirmity

which interfered with wound-licking

and wallpaper-tasting.

Yours truly was in a bad way!

I craved meals of charcoal

and discarded tea bags, but consoled

myself with the contents

of coffee shop ashtrays. Doors

became my nemesis — I had to

unhinge them or become unhinged

myself. Then, in the hospital,

one of the meanest ward nurses

had your recent book sticking out

of her huge, shabby purse.

I filched it, just to get

under her skin. Was I surprised,

upon opening your tome and perusing

the first paragraph, to realize

my dark days were almost over.

These pages contained my salvation.

I read and recovered. Your sentences

gave me the kick in the teeth I

sorely needed. The voice of your thoughts

woke me like a rooster announcing

the end of the world, or maybe

a raven who’d grown teeth and learned

to warble bawdy songs. Your seething words

cured me — reading each was like swallowing

leaf after leaf of a blessed, healing salad

made from ambrosia and ragweed.

I think we should meet. Every night

I stare at the photo of you

on your book’s back flap, sitting

in a brocade overstuffed armchair,

smoking your pipe that resembles

a boar’s tusk. I close my eyes

and perceive myself curled up

so cozily in your lap, and after that

I see the bright mayhem

of millions of fireworks,

lighting up the dark sky

of our like minds.

Gerstler says, about “A Fan Letter,” “It’s insane and scary. It’s not at all about the person who’s being written to, it’s about the psychosis of the letter writer. That’s why I use the line, ‘Allow me to tell you a little about myself.’

“Once I wrote poems for a choreographer who wanted text for a piece; his name was Jeff. I had four chunks of poetry called, ‘Text for Jeff.’ I read the text in a reading and this guy came leaping from the audience and said, ‘Oh, you wrote those poems for me, and I feel so connected to you.’ His name was Jeff. I’d never seen him before and they had nothing to do with him and he was going on about how we were soul mates and he could tell the moment he saw me.

“Everybody is looking for contact and understanding and kindred souls. I’m not trying to make fun of this. But partly I wrote that poem because I had been trying to write a writer a fan letter, and I realized I sounded like a demented, foaming-at-the-mouth, dangerous fool. I thought that the person would read about a line of this and throw it away. I decided, ‘I’ll turn this letter into a poem and forget it.’

“A lot of the symptomatology in the poem is either weird feelings that I’ve had, exacerbated or exaggerated. Others come from books that I like to pull details from and twist. This poem has things from a book that homeopathic doctors use for diagnosis. The book lists symptoms by parts of the body—head, eyes, ears, mouth. Usually I use the symptoms that have to do with the mind. For some reason things like that are inspiring.

“This is a poem that can take lots of twists and turns and things can gradually be revealed. I always like that idea that has gone in and out of vogue in fiction of the unreliable narrator. Where you begin, and you think, ‘Oh, okay, well somebody’s telling a story, so they must be a regular Joe whom I can go with?’ Then gradually you find out who’s got your ear here. I worry, though, and try to keep an eye on a device like that, because I also think it’s important to fill in enough and not to make readers work so hard that they get frustrated and don’t want to continue. Because you have to give pleasure. Even things that are frightening or sad, those are pleasures too.”

When you were working on this poem and you got to the end of it, did you know what was going to happen?

“No. It begins with this vague, almost sexual reference. I wanted only to hint at it. I did want to go into the story of the narrator’s recent life. Like, ‘Hi, I loved your book. But enough about you...,’ then move into the narrator’s mutating craziness. At the end, because I decided to let it go and be crazy and scary, I thought, ‘Well, I didn’t think of this ahead of time, but the scary thing would be in some way to include at the end, either some request that they actually meet or at least let the speaker express a longing to meet the person, or, to say in some oblique way, after the narrator’s exhausted herself talking about herself, that she thinks she’s in love with the person to whom she’s writing.’

“That’s a scary idea. The stalker idea. That somebody thinks they’re in love with you and they don’t even know you. The idea of having somebody in love with you is usually so flattering. Even if you’re not in love with them. I think everybody badly wants to be loved. But the idea of having somebody whom you don’t know and who’s never seen you in real life or heard your voice declare they’re in love with you, obviously that’s pure dementia and could have scary consequences.”

I said that until I reached the end of the poem, I had assumed that a man was the narrator. When I read

sitting

in a brocade overstuffed armchair, smoking your pipe...

only then did I realize the narrator was female.

“I wanted to leave it ambiguous. I wanted to leave that open. The only clue is that the person who’s being addressed is smoking a pipe.”

Among many of Gerstler’s poems of which I’m fond is “The Nature of Suffering” in Bitter Angel

The Nature of Suffering

We know so little about what matters,

what lasts, what constitutes virtue,

what defiles logic by being steeped

in feeling. It’s impossible to keep

oneself clean. Every thought

is lecherous and dispensable.

I know I’m not worth the gunpowder

it’d take to blow me to limbo.

You’ve said so, so often.

Still, I can’t leave.

One couldn’t trudge far through

this bone-chilling melancholy,

I don’t care how impressive

or fur-lined your credentials.

Seclusion produces peculiar symptoms.

A slumbering priestess suffers convulsions.

She’s you, trying to shake off

the world’s grip, even in her sleep.

What am I to make of her glacial smile?

Outward evidence of voluptuous suffering?

The kiss that’s been so long in coming,

rumbling up from her erotic depths?

I found her in a pitiable condition,

much disfigured, but she had already

chosen her road. Every step one takes

is a kind of violation. If I’m

permitted to continue, I must give up

everything. I must be bled white.

I say to Gerstler that it seems to me that people who don’t write often imagine that a poet goes to her desk and says to herself, “ ‘Ah-ha! Today I shall write about the nature of suffering.’ I think we could say that with ‘The Nature of Suffering’ it’s certainly unlikely that you toddled into your workroom in your nightie, and said, ‘Aha, this morning I will write about the nature of suffering.’ ” More often, I suggest, a poet comes upon a phrase of a word that interests her and the poem builds from those words.

“That’s one reason writing is difficult and scary but also fun. Even though it’s little black marks on paper. Because it’s language, it has a living element. So there are unpredictable parts, and parts that only come through the writing and through working with the material, which is meaning and sound and rhythm and wordplay.

“I think I had that line, ‘a slumbering priestess suffers convulsions,’ or maybe I had ‘a slumbering priestess’ and I had the word ‘convulsions’ on another piece of paper. ‘Voluptuous suffering’ I thought was a pretty phrase. So I had a couple of phrases. Then I was walking somewhere and thought of the title. So, it’s little bits and pieces. I tend to be a collagist and collect bits and pieces and try and work them into one thing, and see what they’re about, and let other things attach to them that are related and then pull things out and try and go through it a lot of times and shape it.

“Writers whom I know talk about writing your way into something. I think it’s like many things in life that have a life of their own, like problem solving. When you’re thinking about a problem, there isn’t always one way to solve it. Sometimes you have a brainstorm in the middle of the night and make a connection about a different way to look at something to solve a problem.

“Another way to explain this is to talk about conversation. Perhaps you say to yourself, ‘Okay, now, I have to have this important talk with my boss and we have to talk about how I need a raise.’ Or, maybe you say to yourself, ‘I have to call up my girlfriend and break up with her because of this or that’ Even when you have an agenda for a conversation and try and push it in a certain direction, because a conversation involves another person and because it’s in real time and has to do with humans and has a life of its own, this conversation almost always takes unexpected turns. It doesn’t usually turn out the way you thought it would. The same thing is true of art and art making. That’s one reason why, when it’s good, people are attracted to, say, a poem, because it embodies oddness and inspiration and imagination and unpredictability.

“It’s not an easy thing to talk about. It’s elusive. I think the intimacy of the poem is in part gained through letting the mind appear to do what the mind does. You’re addressing somebody not exactly on the level of speech, but more often as if the voice of the mind is speaking, a voice that’s partway between speech and thinking.”

Did you work on this poem a long time?

“It’s been a while —1989—so I don’t remember. But I try with everything not to get excited and think, ‘Oh, this is nifty!’ It’s difficult to do, but it’s also fun to keep working over time on things because there’s always stuff that you keep sifting through and that escapes you. Even weird things, like you repeated a word you don’t want to repeat and you don’t even notice this the first five times you go through the poem.”

I ask Gerstler what she would say if she were going to teach “The Nature of Suffering.”

“I’d say something about how there’s a lot in this poem about not wanting to err or sin and trying to figure out how to move through the world without doing that, even though it seems like a lot of the human condition is to be this clumsy, mortal being that can’t help but do that to oneself and to other beings.

“What do you do if you’re crashing around through the world and you don’t want to do harm or break things or cause suffering? But it’s inevitable. The last few lines are about erasure and about the narrator contemplating erasure as a way of not doing harm because the narrator evaporates in a way. Also ‘bled white,’ it’s about wanting to be pure.”

“Autobiography,” in Nerve Storm, was another poem I’d wanted to ask Gerstler about.

Autobiography

Moments before I was born,

my mother lost all her hair.

I remember everything: the shrill

exclamations of the women

attending her; and how, after my

bumpy ride lasting hours and hours

I simply slithered from her,

slick with blood, my hair

copious enough to compensate

for her sudden molting, my

character already bespattered.

Never, since that day, have I felt

any fear. God almighty, author

of all our disorders, who might

have made me a worm, thrust me

instead into a bedroom warmed

by a roaring fire, with windows

providing views of a private garden

in a remote corner of this overly

fertile country. Immediately,

the midwife sponged me off

and clapped a tiny cap on my head

so I wouldn’t catch my death.

A good deal of snow fell

that winter. My distinguishing

features include a trusting gaze,

the fact that one of my legs is

a full inch shorter than its

mate, and a small birthmark

on my right shoulder resembling

a dried cherry. Of course

I was lonely. I was filled

top to toe with pagan imagination.

Assailed by stings and dregs,

it will surprise no one familiar

with the child-rearing practices

of the time if I reveal my half-

clothed spirit was repeatedly broken:

harnessed and saddled, a most

obedient pack animal, till something

in me swooned and had to be carried

home on an improvised litter.

Picture yourself a person who thought

more than lived, who heard

the tempter’s voice daily

and mistook it for birdsong.

I believed messages imprinted

on the undersides of the leaves

of certain trees were intended

especially for me. As an adult,

I wage a constant campaign

(so far unsuccessful) to achieve

tender-mindedness. And now,

reader dear, we find ourselves

here, so far from land,

almost nose to nose.

You have seen and touched

my abrasions and mistakes,

the wounds that nearly killed me.

What you know about me now

irrevocably binds us. So step

out of the shadows. Teach me

to keep still. Don’t bother

to knock before entering

Under no circumstances,

unseen companion,

will you be permitted

to keep concealing yourself

from me. This is the hour

not soon to be forgotten.

I’m beside myself with anticipation.

My teeth are chattering

so hard I don’t comprehend much

that takes place beyond the pale

circumference of my face.

“It’s a narrator that’s caught between self-effacement and talking about herself a lot. There’s something in it that has to do with tension between self-interest and humility. There’s something about how people grow up and what they endure. Where the narrator talks about having the spirit repeatedly broken is an important part. That is part of growing up and becoming civilized, having your spirit broken like a horse. But this ‘being broken’ is something that some people go along with in certain ways and some part of them goes underground and resists that ‘breaking,’ “

Do you remember the occasion that started this poem?

“I was reading biography and autobiography. The idea of a tell-all seems paradoxical to me because people tell and reveal a lot. The autobiographer seems to be letting his hair down and revealing everything. But, actually, in the end, he can’t reveal that much even if he wanted to do so. Everybody is trapped in his body and head and the end image has to do with that. Even though this is supposed to have been this big autobiographical confession, the narrator says that she doesn’t comprehend much that’s outside the circumference of her skull.”

I ask about,

I believed messages imprinted

on the undersides of the leaves

of certain trees were intended

especially for me.

“That’s, in a way, about childhood. It’s the perception children have, a natural form of animism; little kids sometimes think that everything in the world is alive and can talk, even if it doesn’t have a regular voice. At least I think that little kids sometimes think that. Depending upon how sort of openly and overtly you continue to believe that as an adult, you may be a functioning adult or you may be in the nuthouse.”

The ending, I say, seems to long to rise into heaven. “This is the hour / not soon to be forgotten” sounds like incantation.

“That’s diction that I like religious sounding, a spiritual, mystical diction. I have this funny relationship with religion and spirituality where I think it’s this beautiful, pathetic, noble groping of humans. It means a lot to me even though I don’t know that I’m a believer. But this human urge and will to believe and to construct beautiful systems of thought or belief that they can retreat into and comfort themselves with and that they use to order their lives: that means a lot to me too. Language associated with that is rich to me and something for which I have an affection, or, affinity.”

I have been wanting to ask this, and I do, “Do your parents read your poems?”

“I give them my books and they’re very sweet about saying that they’re proud of me and giving books to their friends. They don’t talk to me about my work. I think that my mother looks at it. I’m pretty sure my father doesn’t read it. I think he reads the titles and maybe looks at a thing or two. Usually my mother’s comment is, ‘Well, some of it I understand and some of it I don’t.’ Which is a perfectly legitimate comment.”

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