A Conversation with Amy Gerstler
Amy Gerstler is a sympathetic and intelligent woman. She reminds me of a woman I had planned to become (in a time when I was making such plans) but instead I became––without reference to any such plan and mostly via misadventure––myself. It is also quite flattering to be told you remind someone of such a woman, so flattering that you end up interviewing her, buying her a coffee on a warm, humid day instead of a beer in order to hide your inevitable slur, and sweating it out on a patio.
She is from a family strangely mirrored to my own (our fathers were high school principals, our only sisters 2 1/2 years apart from ourselves), and she began referring to us as “alternate Amys” as if we were universes gone awry––and meeting for coffee on the Emory campus. Our similarities perhaps led the conversation into shared interests in the accessibility of language, the relative usefulness of education, the state of the arts, and hairdos.
I read her poem “Conversation with a Dog” to the house dog in preparation for our interview, and when I attended her reading (What’s New In Poetry? organized by Bruce Covey and Gina Myers) she read the same one, providing an alternate voice for the dog character. Dearest Creature (2009) is her latest book, but she shared with me her current projects and a few obsessions that afternoon, and in return I pointed out the excellence of Mason jars for beverages.
The product details for Dearest Creature indicate a reading level of 18 and up on Amazon (where I just double-checked the publication date), and in this is a point of contention I believe Ms. Gerstler would feel strongly about.
Amy Gerstler: Poetry gets a bad rap. Its reputation is that it’s opaque. That it’s going to make you feel stupid and you’re not going to understand it. Or you’re just going to be lost, and it’s a little club that you’re not a member of. But a lot of the same people will walk up to an abstract painting and be totally happy kind of tripping on the colors and the use of space and the mood it puts them in and thinking that it’s––I mean this is a big question right? It’s not like I have an answer. But I always think sometimes if you say, “Okay so you don’t understand it, what do you get out of it? Do you get anything?” The things people will say would be the things that anyone who was interested would say, more or less, in a workshop about a poem or just talking about it. But they think because it’s words that there are these expectations that it’s going to offer up a kind of informational, explanatory, particular kind of articulation or elucidation, which it may also do, but just like directions how to put a table together, where it’ll be strictly narrative. I feel like if people aren’t scared and they aren’t feeling like they’re going to be made to feel stupid and they feel like whatever they get out of it––whether it’s a mood or a fragrance or a reaction to what the poem does spatially, or that it’s okay to think about sound in it, that that’s one of the parts of it––that it doesn’t make them stupid or babyish. If they just have a larger definition of what understanding a text means.
In school we’re just taught there’s a right answer. A lot of discussions in junior high school and high school are framed around the teacher asking questions and people offering stuff up and a lot of times being told “No, no Emily Dickinson isn’t saying that” or “Your history text isn’t saying that” or is waiting for “I don’t understand it” until you get this one right answer that everyone shares. And it’s like “No, nothing’s like that!” Shakespeare isn’t like that.
It’s something I’m a little obsessed with because it’s so sad––doesn’t it make you sad?––that there are so many people who are smart and who like books and who say “Ooh, I hate poetry,” or “I don’t understand poetry because that’s too deep for me” when you could show them 50 poets right off the bat who they would probably love according to their taste, but they don’t know that that’s poetry.
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Dearest Creature reads not like an advanced text for college students, but like a conversation with the remnants of human wildness. Here is a bit from “Mrs. Monster Pens Her Memoirs”:
- If only someone else could slip inside this body
- (the soul’s meaty Halloween costume:
- sometimes it’s pinkish, or the brackish color of wet wood:
- depends on my mood) and look out through these pinhole eyes,
- work the opposable thumb, squeeze into the driver’s seat
- beside me, they could pilot this rig awhile while I sleep.
- I am so tired. And I demand to know:
- who stuffed me into this old-lady suit and how
- do I burst out now––unzip it and step free?
AG: I think that my writing deals with––or tries to deal with––a lot of things that have to do with perception and psychology and negotiating the world and being kind of nuts or feeling kind of nuts or what’s “normal.”
Fanzine: I noticed in “Mrs. Monster Pens Her Memoirs”––I really enjoyed that one––an investigation of her psychology and also into Mr. Monster’s psychology.
AG: Yeah, and in the idea of being aberrant or not, what’s a monster and what’s a non-monster, and how do we think about that.
FZN: There seems to be an interest in the inhuman creature, like there’s the interview with the dog, and Mrs. Monster, and there’s the Dear Creature, who isn’t dear person, so what is that interest to you? What is the importance of addressing the inhuman element?
AG: I’m interested in the idea that a lot of humans seem to think that we’re not animals and I don’t agree with that. And I think that––these are not unique views to me––but I think that it’s a big lack-of-inclusiveness and humility problem that humans have. One of the difficulties that it’s led to is mistreating other species and mistreating the Earth…. I think that deciding that other people or other creatures are Other is––I mean if it’s being fascinated with and loving and exploring the Otherness because it’s in all of us and it really isn’t the Other, cool––but if it’s a way of ghettoizing or cutting off (not to get political or insane and I wish my work was more political)––[that] sort of Other-izing of people or groups or sentient beings seems like it leads to a lot of the worst things that humans do. The Jews are Other or the Arabs are Other or the government is Other or the people are Other… you know it’s not. It’s a big hairy problem. So I like the idea of writing and trying to get inside Others. I mean maybe it can’t really be done but I think the imagination’s this blessed human thing that lets us do that, or feel like we do that, or attempt to do that, or even pretend to do it, and for some reason that’s important to me. Does that make any sense?
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As if Ms. Gerstler’s Mr. Monster were my generation’s Two-Headed Boy. Her attempt to effect a dialogue with people made outsiders by language also found expression in her choice of undergraduate studies.
AG: My undergrad degree was in child psychology, and I was going to be a speech pathologist and I was working with autistic kids, really young ones, which I liked a lot.
[Speech pathology is] a bunch of different things: some of it’s speech therapists who work with all different kinds of people… people who have speech impediments or stuttering, or people who have aphasia [and] have for some reason some kind of brain injury or disease or congenital problem, people who have trouble processing speech or producing speech. Or sometimes people have strokes and they lose language either partially or wholly. Or people have different learning disabilities that interfere with either language acquisition or ability to communicate or to write. I was particularly interested in communicative disorders.
FZN: I was wondering how that might link to your writing. Do you see a connection there, or am I making this up?
AG: I think for sure, we’re writers, so language means a lot to us. I don’t feel too presumptuous saying that. So I wanted to––in addition to writing––I wanted to find a job that dealt with helping people with this thing and was language-involved. And being of use and people who had difficulties with this area of being human I think is so… duh, key to being able to function in the world and being human and being able to enjoy literature and being able to be social and being able to read and write, with kind of the same interests really. That’s what it was. ‘Cause If you’re around people with communicative disorders or language-processing disorders or autistic kids who have trouble with language, you can often see a smart, amazing, sensitive person who’s kind of trapped, who is having trouble negotiating something that makes it possible to navigate the world that we humans have set up. So it seemed that if you could help people who are having difficulties with that, it’s fascinating and you’re steeped in language.
FZN: And then you decided to pursue your graduate degree at Bennington?
AG: I had been writing for a little while, I was teaching, and I really wanted to study writing or literature. And to be honest, I had [been] invited to apply for a couple of better teaching positions, and when they found out I didn’t have an upper division degree they––disinvited me to apply. So I thought, maybe I’m getting a message here. I want to anyway, and now there are low-residency programs so I can continue to work and go back to school. There are a ton more MFA programs, there are more low-residency programs, extravaganza-explosion. There are a lot more people, more programs, ergo more people studying it, more people jumping out into this fabulous economy [with the assumption they will teach].
I think that that worked for a while, but like you said––I’m not good at math but this isn’t too hard––if the numbers of people who are graduating from MFA programs all of whom are expecting to teach keep rising, there aren’t enough jobs and there isn’t enough demand… and now teaching programs and teaching positions are being cut cut cut hugely. California’s pretty much bankrupt. All their nice systems, [including] the community college system, are just being decimated. So yeah, that assumption, that’s a hard one––it’s almost starting to seem like MFA programs should also teach related job skills. ‘Cause that is really hard and unfair and I think it ruins a lot of people’s lives. You know, they invest in graduate school, it costs them a super-scary amount of money, a lot of people graduate with a huge debt. And it’s not like so you’re graduating from med school with a lot of debt so you go hang out your shingle and start taking people’s tonsils out and making a ton of money.
FZN: I find it strange how important the arts are, and then how sidelined they are at the same time.
AG: I can’t disagree with you, that’s the United States right now: completely underfunded and kicked to the side and super-incredibly important.
FZN: ‘Cause it seems with so many more people in the MFA programs that there’s the recognition from a certain group how important it is… and let’s do this! at the ground level.
AG: There’s a huge amount of really great activity, and there’s a huge amount of really devoted people, like Bruce [Covey]. I mean, look what he does, it’s phenomenal: he publishes a magazine, he publishes books, he has book contests, he does a reading series, he teaches, he administrates, he does a lot of service to the community out of love. And there’s a lot of DIY stuff that gets to be fairly substantial. I think people do care about art and reading and literature. We just have to figure out how to support it and fund it.
FZN: I’m going to make an assumption here, that as a writer you just write [whole-hog]. How do you decide that this is going to be a book? How do you mark off those ideas for yourself, or do you find that you have more overlapping ideas that continue to interest you?
AG: In terms of deciding that something is a book or its own project or something, I think, in making collections of poems, it does seem like a weird thing to do. Writing is––like we were talking about before, one does it kind of privately and one feels like it gives one a weird relationship to one’s own mind and then other minds and one’s own works and other works in the field itself. It can seem like it takes a kind of leap to think “this is a book” or “I’m going to shape this into a book.” With me, when it’s collections of poems, I write for a while, and throw some out and then it seems at some point I try to decide if I have critical mass, or put them together and see if I can stand them or if they talk to each other, or if they can be together, or if I want them to be together and think about a title that might have something to do with all of them. And then try to think of the book as a poem itself, another thing that you’re trying to make the beginning of it cool and the end of it cool and to have its ups and downs or do something with, or have these different parts and then you think about whether you want sections or just sort of a sampler.
FZN: Every once in a while I try to assess…
AG: Where am I?
FZN: What is all this? where has all this stuff come from? It’s interesting to try to identify the separate [impulses]. What is this compartmentalization of things that takes place when you’re not looking?
AG: Right, and if you leave things alone for a while, and then you go back to it and it suddenly seems like “Oh! this is a lot more unified than I thought.” Or “This has a lot of abiding concerns,” or “Wow, I really seem to like the word ‘grout,’ and how come it’s in so many of these?”
FZN: It’s fun to go back and see “Oh, so this is what I’m obsessed with!”
AG: Yeah. Or something else that kind of seeping up through, or you show it to someone else and they maybe say something that you find interesting but maybe hadn’t been too conscious of––
FZN: “That’s not what I was talking about at all!”
AG: And then maybe that’s something you can work with.
FZN: You said something about throwing out poems. Do you ever look back and feel unsatisfied with things you have written?
AG: I think that’s something that happens to almost everybody, that’s why you keep working, or one reason why you keep working. Also, it’s possible that’s an editing impulse. Another thing is hopefully one is always growing and changing as a writer or artist, I know that sounds completely dopey––and therefore you might not be as interested in what you’re thinking about now, what that work led to. And also, for me––I talk to other writers about this and I get varied opinions––but I don’t necessarily feel that one can turn to one’s own work for the same pleasures that one can get from reading other writers. And to expect that seems––maybe some writers can do that, maybe some writers can go back to their old work and be like “Wow! this is me? You know, this is just like reading Virginia Woolf!” I just think if you wrote it it’s a different relationship to the text, even if it’s older, than encountering the mind and heart and soul and literariness of someone else. So when you go back and look at old work and it doesn’t knock your socks off, I think there can be so many reasons for that. Sometimes you actually do want to revise it even if it has been published, sometimes you’ve just moved on, and sometimes it’s that––I don’t know, you don’t sit around reading yourself and what’s done. Your mind is on what you’re going to write, or what you’re working on now, you’re not THERE anymore.
FZN: I just have this funny image in my mind of reading one of my favorite authors––does Margaret Atwood look back at hear earlier work and say “Oh, I could’ve done better” [laughs] or, “No big deal!”
AG: Well, she might. You know sometimes you read in interviews or biographies writers you admire greatly talking about works that you think are amazing and practically flawless and they’ll be like “That’s a minor work” and you’re like “Shut up! Don’t tell me that, that’s so not true!” Different writers do sort of looking back either not at all or a lot or differently or––you know, at this point Margaret Atwood has a whole career to look back on, so maybe she feels differently about her early work––but who knows? You’d have to interview her.
FZN: I’ll have to ask her.
AG: Yeah, it’s interesting to try to look back at early work with interest and sympathy and say “Ooh, what was that girl up to?”
FZN: I guess maybe because there’s less mystery––you know what that girl was up to, and that’s either a part of you that you either continue to be amused by or you’ve lost patience with her.
AG: Well, you were trying to teach yourself something in the writing and the thinking. And maybe you kind of did that thing, for better or for worse. It probably depends on the specific piece and your specific feelings about it, when you wrote it, and why. Sometimes also, reading old work can be like looking at old pictures of yourself and being like “Oh my God, did I have that haircut? Why did everyone not come up to me and say, ‘you look like a balloon head.’ This is so mortifying!” Except everyone else had that haircut too.
FZN: Yeah, the 80s.
FZN: What’s your next project?
AG: I’m sort of working on three things––you never know if any of them will pan out––but I have about a third of a manuscript of poems, a little-bit-hybrid project, and then I have these “personal essays” that I’ve been working on, on and off. Those are the things I’m tinkering with.