Amy Gerstler: poetry has a really bad rap in contemporary America
Penguin, 2004; 61 pages; $16
FROM THE DUST JACKET: Sly and sophisticated, direct, playful, and profound, Amy Gerstler’s new collection highlights her distinctive poetic style. In 37 poems, using a variety of dramatic voices and visual techniques, she finds meaning in unexpected places, from a tour of a doll hospital to an ad for a CD of Beethoven symphonies to an earthy exploration of toast. Entertaining and eru-A my Gentler dite, complex yet accessible, these poems will enhance Gerstler’s reputation as an important contemporary poet.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Kirkus Reviews: Thirty-seven poems limning the acclaimed poet’s abiding interests: love and mourning, science and pseudo sciences, stances and magic.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Amy Gerstler is a writer of nonfiction, poetry, and journalism whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including the Paris Review, New Yorker, and Best American Poetry. In 1990 her book Bitter Angel won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: I called the poet Amy Gerstler and asked her to read to me. I wanted to hear one of the poems from her new book. Ghost Girl. “Falsetto” begins with the lines, “A guy with a heavenly singing voice like Al Green’s / can make you believe he’s being melted alive, liquefied / by pure yearning. The result is a kind of bee-less sung / honey.” Gerstler’s own articulation, as she reads to me, comes out calm and relaxed. She sounds refreshingly unaffected, no vaunting, no rapping, no pretentious hesitations, no Bob Dylanesque artificial twisting of the voice. Her poem arrives from her as easy as a breeze or softly running water, humming like some natural verbal formation, if there is such a thing.
I’ve just read and re-read Ghost Girl, and I’ve been marveling at how the poems seem like they arose right beside me, right out of the life that I’ve been looking at all along, whether or not I saw the poetic potential that Gerstler’s poems found nesting there. “Ode to Toast,” “An Offer Received in This Morning’s Mail,” and “Hymn to the Neck” are three of the poems in her new book.
I want to know how Amy Gerstler does what she does. When the poems aren’t coming, I ask her, how do you find them? How do you recharge your batteries?
“Well, that’s the million-dollar question. 1 think everybody has his own or her own methods, and I think you’re asking because you’re a writer and it’s always a problem, or intermittently a problem. I knew this writer once who said that he thought most writers go through two phases. They go through productive output phases, and they go through intake phases, where they’re not writing, but they’re gathering information or something. So sometimes you find yourself on intake mode, and I think the things that I try to remember, although they’re hard to remember, are to not get mad or upset or freaked out, or to think that it’s over forever, to remain calm, and to think, ‘Oh, good, now I get to fill myself up with things that I find interesting and curious.’ So, for me, 1 think that means reading a lot, and reading a lot of different things, and going to the movies, and going to the library and checking out a lot of weird books, and making lists of things that I’m interested in, and carrying a little tiny pad of paper around everywhere, so that if things strike me that people say or I see on a billboard or hear on the radio, then I’m able to write them down.”
Yes, I tell her. I think that her poems seem like they’re always taking notes, like they’re arranging notes from many disparate places. But I want to know: when it comes time for her to orchestrate an actual poem, how does she do it?
“My schedule for the various jobs I have is sometimes a little bit erratic, so I don’t get to sit down at the same time every day. I have to sit down to write when there is time. I think the act of writing poems is similar every time, but never exactly the same. I think it depends what I’m working on. Different things that you work on sort of have a life of their own. So certain things are note-based, and some things are not, and some things kind of jump off from one line, or maybe a title, and sometimes a title maybe doesn’t arrive until the end; some things require research; and sometimes you get into an emotional state, and sometimes it’s more like you’re doing a puzzle or something.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a lot of different things that you can do. I mean, if you can do that as a writer, because your taste is broad or something, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think that’s great.”
I want to know what kind of poetry influences Gerstler’s own work.'
“I like all kinds of poetry: stuff that’s very technical, and stuff that’s emotional, and stuff that seems really beautiful, and other stuff that seems fragmented and discordant. And I like when a writer will do a lot of those things in one piece. And I like a lot of the different definitions of poetry. You know, like Emily Dickinson talking about if it makes her feel like the top of her head is coming off, or William Carlos Williams saying, ‘If it ain’t a pleasure, then it’s not a poem.’ And then there’s the difference between my taste as a reader and what I’m trying to do as a writer. I do want my work to engage people and be both affecting and maybe entertaining in some way. But I think I might have a larger taste as a reader than is demonstrated in my work. I mean, I like formal poetry, but I don’t write very formal work. There are a lot of people whose work I read who I think are great and wonderful, but I wouldn’t necessarily want or even be able to do the things they do in their work. And then there are other people whose work I read and I fed very closely akin to. I always feel, when I’m talking about writers who influence me, that I should say I wish they would influence me. I don’t know if they actually do. But I really like lots of writers, James Tate, Tom Clark, the poet Ai, Anne Carson, Sylvia Plath, Frank O’Hara.”
I have this sense, from reading Gerstler’s poems and from talking to her, that she holds some interesting notions about what it means to write poetry, and about what it is to be a poet.
“I’m always thinking about .that and not thinking about that, what it means to be a writer and what it means to be a poet, at different moments in my life, because I think it changes, just like what I think it means to be human, or what it means to try to be a good person. I’m always wrestling with that. I think being a writer means to have this practice where you try to write well, and you try to connect through language in different ways with the parts of what it means to be human, and to set them down and express them in ways that are helpful to you and maybe helpful to other people, whether it’s meaningful or beautiful. I really like the old idea of poems, particularly, having a weird kind of use-value, like they used to have in ancient times, as spells or incantations. Writing poems now, I think we have a much less literal interpretation of use-value.
“It’s not like people in the tribe come to you, and you recite something that rhymes over them, and they get better, or they can have a baby where they couldn’t before, or their neighbor stops bothering them, or something.”
Or I feel depressed, so I read this poem, and it makes me feel better. (I’m latching my own words onto Gerstler’s.)
“Exactly. That’s an effect that literature definitely has on me, that I learn things from it, and/or it expands my thinking, and/or somehow expands my emotional capacity, and/or there’s a cathartic effect, a mind-to-mind link, like a Vulcan mind-meld or something. It can happen between a reader and a writer, and it can be of use, and it can keep you going, or it can express something that one needs to express, or help us make a connection, or help us understand something. I hate to use the word epiphany — it’s so overused, and I think most people think it’s kind of sentimental now — but that does happen to me as a reader.
“I do think, unfortunately, that poetry has a really bad rap in contemporary America in a lot of circles, and people think it’s going to be really cornball or they’re not going to be able to understand it or both. But I think it’s important to develop a sense of your audience, and to avoid things like blatant sentimentality, and to work through questions about accessibility if that’s an issue for you. Some people work on these things partly by showing their work to other people — having sounding boards who they trust.”
How do you find that, I wondered. Especially when you’re new to a city and aren’t part of a writing program.
“That’s really hard. It’s always a challenge to find those kinds of colleagues and people of like mind literarily. You have to make a special effort, particularly when you’re in a new place, and/or you’re not in a position where that is automatically given to you, like if you don’t work in a university, in the writing department. So I think you just have to put yourself and your work out there and frequent and haunt the places where people like that tend to hang out. Go to a lot of readings, participate in readings, join writing groups, go to writing centers, and then, maybe...”
You find one or two.
“Yes. And then maybe they each know one or two.”
And who are those one or two readers for Gerstler?
“You know, it’s a problem in my life, too. I don’t really have that many readers who I can show work to. It would be useful, I think, if I did. But I am married to a fiction writer, so I can sometimes show work to him.”
Gerstler’s husband is the fiction writer Benjamin Weissman. He usually writes short stories, although he’s working on a novel now. He has a brand new book of short stories that’s doing very well. It’s called Headless.
What’s that like? I want to know. What’s a day in the life for two married writers?
“Well, in this household it’s two writers who both teach and do journalism, so, um, we’re in and out at the various schools where we teach, and sometimes also having deadlines, and reading a lot of student work. There’s three dogs and a cat here, so there’s a zoo-like quality. On most days, Benjamin gets up earlier than I do because he still has this farm-boy physiology and, unfortunately for me, I don’t. I’m kind of a sleepaholic. He has some days where he has early classes, where he’s out very early, and other days he teaches later stuff. Most of my stuff is in the middle of the afternoon. Sometimes we have what we like to call reading parties here, because he has, like, 9000 pages of student work to read and mark up, and so do I. So then it’s very quiet in the house, and the dogs are walking around going, ‘Why are you guys just sitting there staring at those pieces of paper which we would like to tear up?’ So. There’s that. And there’s squeezing in working on our own work. We both try to go to the gym some, so that you don’t just end up being a brain on a lollipop stick. The house is very messy. There are millions of books crammed every which way into bookshelves. Which I keep saying that I am going to hire a student to help organize, or do myself, some summer. I don’t know if this is giving you very much of a day in the life. You know, a lot of time is spent sitting in front of computers.”
So when does she get her own work done? The poems must come together relatively quickly when they do.
“Well, that would be nice! But you know, the years do go by. I’m not 20 anymore. With varying results. I’ve been at this for a very long time. And it is what I love to do. And I have these other jobs, which I enjoy, and which are very interesting, but I have them to support the writing. And I’m constantly scheming how to sleep less, or how to win the lottery, or get more money with less hours put in, so that I could write more and read more."
How does Gerstler feel about her latest book?
“Well, I’m very happy to get published. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. I’m happy that it’s out; I’m happy to get published, but I feel restlessness lately, that has to do with wanting to push my work further and in some different directions. So 1 think it’s a transition time for me. Also, people have been saying stuff to me about the work being entertaining or something like that, and in a way that’s interesting and funny to me, because that book and the book before it are, I think, in a way, elegiac. Or they have some poems in them that are about death or loss or grieving or something like that. And so I feel like, I don’t know, it’s time for me to make a leap. A change and a leap.”
“Well, that’s where it’s especially scary because I’m not exactly sure. I’m working on a book of essays, so I’m hoping that might be a part of it. I want to write more prose, and I also want to push the poetry in different directions. I want the work to deepen and grow, although that sounds like the biggest dichl on the planet, and it’s not very specific. I mean, every artist wants their work to deepen and grow.
“One of the big paradoxes of writing is figuring out what your relationship is at that moment between freedom and control. You want mystery and surprise, but also with a certain amount of technique and steering. I like this thing that Elizabeth Bishop said, that she thought good poems should have accuracy, spontaneity, and mystery. And the spontaneity and mystery are in that camp of not knowing what’s going to happen, and the thing kind of seeming like it has a life of its own, rather than the poem just validating itself or coming to some kind of expected conclusion. But the accuracy is important, too, that the poem not just be some sort of unshaped flailing. Although unshaped flailing, I suppose, could also be kind of interesting.”