Amy Gerstler’s most recent books of poetry include Dearest Creature, Ghost Girl, Medicine, and Crown of Weeds. Her book Scattered at Sea will be published by Penguin in June, 2015. She teaches at the University of California at Irvine.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Patrick C. Dennis. Of the process he said, “It was very exciting to interview Amy Gerstler. Her work is a joy to read, and her style is full of life and endless variation. The responses to this interview encapsulate her skill in writing and her immense love for books.” In this interview, she discusses her latest collage, her writing process, and her reading habits.
Superstition Review: I love the poem For "My Niece Sidney, Age Six." It shows a great depth of knowledge and intellectual curiosity. In it the speaker is called a “bookish old aunt.” Could you talk a bit about what role reading and books play in your life? Did you come from a reading family?
Amy Gerstler: Thanks! Books have been friends, teachers, and saviors. They’re a refuge and a joy, and a solace and an awakening. They contain so much information and emotion. To me they’re alive. You can live in them. You get to walk around in other minds via books. Some of the bodies that were attached to those singular minds disappeared long ago. But the minds live on in books, fresh and fierce as ever, and we can sit at their feet, be changed by them. I know that’s all cliché…it sounds like a poster in a library designed to sell kids on reading. But it’s also completely true if you love books. I was lucky to grow up in a house where there were books, an odd mix of detective novels, reference books, cookbooks, and popular literature. My dad was a high school principal so reading and education were hallowed values. One of my longstanding problems is that life inside books often seems more real to me than life outside of them.
SR: The poems in Dearest Creature maintain a conversational tone that draws the reader in. They speak to us, sometimes even directly as in "Advice from a Caterpillar." Could you please describe your approach to audience from poem to poem?
AG: The issue of audience is tricky when it comes to contemporary American poetry, which doesn’t have anywhere near the audience it deserves. I try very hard (not that I succeed, but this is important to me) to push each poem to find its own way of talking to the reader that’s not too simplistic or flat, that includes a dose of strangeness, that can contain interesting mystery but that is also, on some level(s), comprehensible.
SR: The epigraph to "A Million Happy Endings" quotes Pablo Picasso stating, “You see, casseroles can shout too. Everything can.” The poem features a woman speaking to household objects and getting advice from them. Will you explain the genesis of this poem?
AG: A student I worked with at the low residency MFA program at Bennington College used that quote in a critical paper. I loved the quote so much I practically started shaking when I read it. The quote reminded me of this Irving Feldman poem (he is an AWESOME poet), You Know What I’m Saying, in which a bunch of allegedly inanimate objects console and cheer the speaker on. The lives of objects interest me and I had wanted to try something inspired by the Feldman poem, where objects speak, for a long time. The Picasso quote gave me a shove in that direction.
SR: Your poems in Dearest Creature all have such wonderfully varied topics, starting with "For My Niece Sidney, Age Six" and ending with "Midlife Lullaby." Could you speak to your selection of subject matter as you draft individual poems? How did you arrange such disperse topics into a manuscript? How do topics come to you? What is your process for organizing your poems into collections?
AG: Subject matter for me is sometimes suggested by words or phrases that lodge in my brain like thorns. Sometimes it’s suggested by research, reading, and/or an abiding obsession. Like a lot of writers I carry little notebooks around and jot down words and phrases, quotes, overhearings, mishearings, bits of songs, emails, articles, captions, things I hear on the radio, etc. that arrest my attention. Big messy piles of these “notes” amass on my desk: a slush pile of poem fodder. I’m a collagist, mostly. I love the color names on those paint samples that are shaped like bookmarks you get for free at hardware stores. Here on my desk now, for example, there’s one strip of paint samples of orange paint and the color names are Russian amber, Spanish paprika, high life and tangerine peel. I like weird old books and magazines for poem building material, also. The fact that most funky, dusty, cheap, old-school used bookstores around here have gone out of business causes me pain. They were an unparalleled treasure trove of source material.
My method for organizing poems into collections needs revamping. I like to spread the poems out on the floor so I can see what the book trajectory looks like. But dogs sit on them and walk on them and pages get blown around, and it’s chaos. I wish someone would design a computer program where you can see all the pages in a neat grid or series of grids on the screen and then shuffle them around electronically. If such a program already exists that’s user friendly and not expensive maybe someone will take pity and tell me. In organizing mss. in the past sometimes I have tried to pretend that the mss. itself was one big poem.
SR: I’m interested in the widely differing forms the poems in Dearest Creature take. You move nimbly from long to short lines, couplets, tercets, and longer poems. Will you talk a bit about the formal influences you have had upon your poetry? In what ways do you think about shape and subject as you compose?
AG: I didn’t really study poetry in school, so I am always playing catch-up in learning about form. I just got Paul Violi’s Selected Poems which contains some delightfully inspiring uses of form. There’s a poem in the form of police blotter entries, an index, TV guide listings. I like hybrid forms, and quotidian forms (forms that come from “real life,” like letters, diary entries, advertisements, case studies, drug labels, recipes, etc.) as well as traditional forms (though I’m terrible at the complicated ones.) I try to nudge the poem into showing me what sort of form it might like after a few drafts. Some poems are more helpful and communicative about this than others.
SR: I really enjoyed your piece "Interview with Dog" where you ask questions of a dog, such as “How come I get you all nice and clean and you immediately roll in something stinky?” This piece struck me as being fresh and interesting, and provided me with a different perspective on a dog’s habits in general. What did you hope to communicate with this fanciful interview? How did the idea for the poem come to you?
AG: Animals are intensely interesting to me. I admire them. I could watch them endlessly. Interspecies communication is a fascinating subject. The movies about Koko the gorilla who was taught sign language drive me crazy with excitement. It would be heaven to be able to interview a dog or a tapir or an elephant or a housefly. Now it is possible only via imagination. In the future, who knows? The idea probably came to me from observing my own dogs, wondering what motivates them, what they are thinking, why they behave in certain ways.
SR: Could you describe your process when you sit down to write a poem?
AG: It’s probably not the same every time. Sometimes you have something weighing on you, or occupying your mind, that wants out. Sometimes it’s more playful. Usually both. Almost always I work from these heaps of accumulated notes, and from books. The Internet is a godsend. If you’re writing a poem and a bear appears in the poem, you can instantly look up what bears eat or what sort of claws they have or get some actual bear vocabulary (names of kinds of bears, of the parts of their bodies and so on) without leaving the keyboard. It’s invaluable. Reading is often a good warm up, and provides models or tools when you’re stuck. If it’s at all noisy and therefore hard to concentrate, I use headphones to listen to sound effects recordings of rain to block out distracting sounds. The rain sounds help me focus and are oddly calming. Right now my husband is watching a tennis game on TV in the next room, and the shot by shot commentary is pretty loud, so I am wearing headphones listening to a recording of rain while I write this.
SR: Do you ever reach a point in a poem where you can't stand looking at it anymore? Do you revisit these or let them dwell in a drawer?
AG: Yes! And yes. Sometimes they dwell in a drawer for a long time, and then get revisited with varying results.
SR: What is most important to you when titling your work? What elements of your poems do you try to capture in their titles? How does that extend to naming a collection?
AG: Titles work different ways for different poems, I think. Sometimes they’re informational, like labels. Sometimes they’re actually the first line of the poem. Sometimes they are ornamental, or you want them to pull against or interact with the body of the poem in some way. Or they may seem to mean one thing as you’re entering the poem, and then that meaning mutates and surprises you with what it comes to mean once you’ve read the poem. Depends on the individual poem. Collection titles are important. It’s ideal if they can be beautiful and enticing and fitting and resonant, and lure readers into picking up the book.
SR: How have other writers influenced your process? What is some specific advice another writer has given to you that has changed the way you look at writing?
AG: Other writers influence me daily via their inspiring work. Reading is so vital. Dennis Cooper was a huge influence on me. He's a mentor I always mention because he really changed my life. I met him when I was young, at college, which was very fortunate for me. He would always talk about writing about your obsessions, at a time when that was not only a new idea to me, but also almost a taboo. Henri Cole, when I had the privilege of teaching with him, would talk about “putting poetry on the front burner,” or “putting poetry at the center of your life” which I struggle with constantly. That’s something I always want to strive for, but never achieve in the way I wish. It’s not easy.
SR: I read in an interview you had with Amy Herschleb that you originally wanted to become a speech pathologist. What made you want to become a writer?
AG: I had wanted to be a writer (after I got over wanting to be an actress) from childhood on. I was interested in science as well, but being a complete math moron is a problem if you want to pursue most branches of science. My father, the high school principal, who I loved and looked up to, would say, when I went around saying I was going to be a writer when I grew up, That’s fine, dear, that can be your HOBBY, you can do that on weekends, but what will your REAL job be, your SERIOUS JOB, the job that will provide you security? Since I loved language, I thought I would become a speech pathologist. I could learn how speech was produced technically and what interfered with language use in humans when there was a breakdown, and what could be done about it. That seemed important and useful. My plan was to help people who were having difficulties with language recover or acquire language or get closer to having language, via sign language or whatever worked for that individual. I was interested in communicative disorders and I worked with pre-school autistic kids, as an intern in college in a couple of different settings. I liked it a lot. But I didn’t get the literary bug out of my system. Eventually I defected to a life of stumbling around trying to figure out how to work hard on improving my writing. And that turned into my life (supported at first by odd jobs and then by teaching and journalism.) This was to my father’s disappointment, though he eventually forgave me. He was a sweet man.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
AG: Like my brain, it’s small and messy and pretty disorganized. Right now there are push pinned into doors and walls pictures of Kafka and Elizabeth Bishop and Temple Grandin and manatees and giraffes and a close up of a Geckos’ foot and to do lists and tree houses and a poem by John Ashbery, by Harryette Mullen, by John Donne (his is a real sexy poem) and snapshots of dead family members, and of course pictures of dogs.