Interview with Amy Gerstler

Amy Gerstler’s most recent books of poetry include Dearest Creature, Ghost Girl, Medicine, and Crown of Weeds. Her book of poems Bitter Angel received a National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1991. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. These include The New Yorker, Poetry, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, several volumes of Best American Poetry, and The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry. She teaches at University of California at Irvine. Chaparral’s new Assistant Editor, Freddy Garcia, sat down with Amy on February 25, 2013 at a Red Hen Press reading she gave at Annenberg Community Beach House.

Freddy Garcia: At the 2011 Festival of Books, you took a few words from Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem”–“could one ever describe this?”– to support what you believe is the poet’s responsibility. You emphasized the word “this” and said “that all poets have their this, and that’s what they’re responsible for.” Could you tell us a little bit about “this” and what is your “this”?

Amy Gerstler: I guess what I meant was that everybody decides what their responsibility is, or what their territory is, or what their passion is, or what their mission is as a writer (or in whatever they do in life.) One of the things that is great about literature is that there are so many different “thises.” Akhmatova’s “this” was determined by the awful circumstances of living in Stalinist Russia but also her love life, mind, fears, and interests (eg in biblical figures–she wrote that great poem about Lot’s wife) were factors. I think your “this” changes as you go along. You’re always reinventing yourself. You can’t help it. Change happens to you, so it’s going to happen to your work. One of the joys of literature is that there’s Akmatova’s “this,” there’s Kafka’s “this,” James Tate’s “this,” Terrance Hayes’ “this.” It’s amazing that there are all these different minds dredging themselves and pulling out parts of their soul and trying to be true to whatever their “this” is at the moment.

FG: What was your “this” the moment you decided you were a poet?

AG: I always loved writing, even as a little kid. I mean I loved literature and books. Books are a savior, a blessing. They contain knowledge, deep pleasure and communion, and give us a way to walk around inside other worlds, inside other people’s minds. For me reading was sometimes more deep and intense than actual interaction. Talking is great, but I was a very awkward, shy kid, and talking often seemed frustrating and ineffectual, like you couldn’t really get anywhere; people would misunderstand each other. When you read a good book, the text or utterance is so condensed and distilled and beautiful and effective…, it seems like a higher, more potent way to communicate than mere speaking. I revered it. Also I loved that with books you could revisit the exact utterance too, re-read, re-experience it many times, study it, linger over it, reconsider it, which is generally not true of conversation, at least not in the same way.

FG: And that’s the attraction that you had for literature?

AG: Books seemed to me then and still do like one of the great perks of being alive, being able to read them, live and breathe in them, be affected by them. So that made me, somehow, want to participate or contribute something if I could, besides just reading all the time, gobbling books down.

FG: You wanted to add to the conversation?

AG: Exactly! To jump into the conversation, if I could.

FG: What are some things you wish you knew about poetry going into it?

AG: I didn’t study it formally (only a couple of classes in college) and I wish I had. There’s so much to learn in terms of poetry’s history, linguistics, prosody and so on. I’m trying to study those aspects now as I teach. There are many things I wished I had studied when I was younger. Other languages, for example. And more science! I kind of come at poetry like a folk artist, because of my lack of formal training. I was planning to be a speech pathologist, so I was reading psychology texts as an undergrad.

FG: That’s right; you have a Bachelor’s in Psychology. Does your psychology background influence your work?

AG: It does. I was always interested in psychology and abnormal psychology; and I’m interested in science (but sadly I am horrible at math.) I still read layman grade science writing in certain fields, the stuff that I can understand. I was also interested in neurology, psychopharmacology, how the mind works. Still am. But I think poetry is very much about how the mind works.

FG: Do you remember the first poem that you wrote?

AG: Yes. It was in third grade. I think it was three lines and about hiccups. It received a little prize and was published in a student magazine, so my third grade ego was very pumped up.

FG: How old were you when you decided you wanted to become a poet?

AG: I don’t know if there was ever a formal decision that I was aware of. I just wanted to write good poems and to improve my work and be some kind of writer from when I was quite young. But being a poet either seemed impossible, like wanting to be a duchess or a sword fighter or something, or seemed like such an honorific title that I could never call myself that with a straight face. Later, in and after college, I realized that elbow grease is involved. You have to rewrite stuff and take it seriously and spend time on it, and maybe show it to other people and get some suggestions and rewrite more… The revelation came to me that it’s not just, “oh, oh! the sacred gold of my emotions exactly as they first emerged, spilled out upon the page” but that you had to become your own fierce exacting editor. So, college, or the years immediately following, was when I began to realize that writing was something that takes devotion, and rigor, and many successive drafts.

FG: What would you tell someone who doesn’t think poetry is significant?

I totally understand why somebody would think that. I think a lot of that feeling boils down to the fact that some people have tried to read, as a first approach to poetry, really difficult poems, and then they feel stupid. Humans don’t like to feel stupid. It’s like getting hit. It feels bad. We tend to avoid what makes us feel stupid or excluded.

I wrote something about this problem, and in that piece I compared poetry to food. Saying that you don’t like poetry is analogous to saying you don’t like food. You might not like bananas, or you might think nuts are disgusting, but there are countless other kinds of food out there to feed and delight the hungry. There are even more kinds of poetry available, from one’s own time and across the ages. So anyone can find a lot of poetry that they like if they get a little guidance and /or want plunge in and really look on their own. Some people are understandably overwhelmed by the vastness and variety of the field and don’t know how to navigate it. Like, I’m not very up on music, so I rely on friends who are smart about music and keep up with it to suggest bands and singers because I get intimidated by all the amazing music and music genres out there from every country on the planet and think I don’t have time or expertise to find anything I’ll like in that avalanche. I think people get similarly overwhelmed by poetry, which is much more obscure in current American culture, unfortunately, in the sense that people don’t come into contact with it in their daily lives, than music is. They just look at a couple of poetry books; feel they can’t understand them or they don’t respond to them and then they give up right away and decide they hate poetry as a whole, or that it’s insignificant, or both.

It’s also true that people sometimes have expectations for texts, that language will be explanatory, narrative, informational, and will behave in ways they’re used to. They can get uncomfortable when those expectations are violated, even though it can be fun to let go of some of those preconceptions and let language be a medium for wildness and artful play. To let it stretch beyond everyday usage parameters. People are willing to approach paintings sometimes, like abstract paintings, more flexibly and say, “wow, wild colors and crazy shapes. It’s great. It makes me feel this or that.” But for texts, we think it’s supposed to explain something or make a particular kind of sense. We rely on texts in certain situations to do that. People get offended when that is subverted. You have to kind of loosen up when you read poetry. I forget what writer said that everybody’s a poet until they’re four or five, and then you lose that feeling of openess towards language.

In poetry education (this is not a new idea but I’ll repeat it here anyway) I think that sometimes it’s beneficial to begin with the most recent poems and work backwards into history rather than doing what is often done and beginning with the most foreign, most unfamiliar, and/or most archaic poems. Beowulf and Chaucer are great, but when kids are not inclined towards the literary in the first place, which may be more and more true today, making them read Middle English or something very removed from their own experience and ways of speaking first often dampens their enthusiasm. This is not true in all cases but there’s a danger they’re just going to say “pee-eww on this poetry stuff.” If you start with the recent works, something that speaks to their concerns, slang, culture, references, that links to their lives, etc. then they may say, “Oh, that’s fabulous. That’s interesting. That speaks my language. Where did that come from?” Then their appetite is awakened and you can go back to tracing antecedents when they’re more “versed.”

FG: Which poets would you recommend to a person who doesn’t think poetry is significant?

AG: I don’t have an answer to that because it is decidedly not one size fits all in my view. I really like to tailor it, very individually, to try to construct a very individual poetry reading prescription. So, I’d ask them lots of questions about what prose they read and find significant, if they’re interested in baseball, animals, molecular biology, war, religion, politics, mourning, absurdity, satire, family, the gothic, etc. or if they like funny stuff, regional things, sexy texts, etc. I do this with students sometimes. “What writers do you like? What writers you not like? What are you interested in? Where are you from? What movies do you like? What music do you like? What are you struggling with in your life?” Based on that, I try to make guesses; and when I suggest things, then I say, “OK, my feelings won’t be hurt, tell me truthfully after you’ve read what I’ve suggested which ones you like and which ones you hate, please. And be lavishly descriptive. Tell me WHY.” Once you get going and find texts that people connect to they are often more and more willing and even eager to read outside their comfort zones. They become more confident and adventurous readers. There are writers I like a lot who I recommend often, because they are godlike, foundational poets for me personally. But I try to really customize suggestions to the person receiving them, especially at first, to lure them in, particularly if they are “poetry reluctant” or “poetry phobic.”

Back in the dark ages, when I was in high school, if you misbehaved, you had to memorize the “Charge of the Light Brigade” and recite it to the teacher. It was punishment. It was an odious task, memorizing this weird, long, old poem about soldiers getting killed in an ambush. My dusty memory of the poem is that everyone advancing in this charge could see from the outset that it was hopeless, sure suicide, and that the poem extolled how noble that was. A great metaphor for how trapped and doomed one felt in high school.

FG: What advice would you give to all of the struggling writers out there?

AG: Feed and cultivate your interests and obsessions. Write tons. Read like there’s no tomorrow. Don’t wait around for ideal writing circumstances, because they don’t often occur and you have to write anyway. Try to find interesting living writers to befriend who understand your work and aspirations and whose work you admire– via school, or chance meetings or working on magazines or through correspondence or collaboration or writers’ groups or whatever; and persevere, because the rejection thing happens to everybody. You have to make your peace with it, it never goes away. Rejection doesn’t mean you’re not a good writer. There’s a weird sustaining faith in oneself and one’s work element, and sometimes that’s hard to maintain. Sure, some writers are confident extroverts, but a lot of us are nerdy, quiet-ish, self doubting, hang-back types who take rejection real hard. It’s not personal. Lot of times the rejection is not even about you or the work. Don’t be scared of revising. If you write a great line and it doesn’t fit in the poem, maybe it will fit in somewhere else. Maybe not. That’s ok. Be tough with your work, because you want it to be as good as it can possibly be.