Lately, we’ve seen a lot of lists of influential poets. Amy Gerstler would definitely appear high up on mine. She is yet another example of how So. Cal has plenty of writing heavyweights. She was gracious enough to share some of her writing life with us. Enjoy.
Who has been a major influence on your writing?
Dennis Cooper was a major mentor to me in college and beyond. He transformed my life, pointed me in important literary directions, introduced me to Rimbaud so much else when I was very wide eyed and naïve and unworldy. David Lehman has also been a generous mentor whose approach to writing and teaching has taught me tons. Other authors I would love to believe have affected or will affect my work in the future include: Wislawa Szymborska, James Tate, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Tom Clark, Sei Shonagon, Charles Simic, Marianne Moore, Russell Edson, Frank O’Hara, Franz Kafka, Elizabeth Bishop, Lucia Perillo, MFK Fisher, Phillip Larkin, Rainier Maria Rilke, John Ashbery, Mark Twain, Elaine Equi, Eileen Myles, Benjamin Weissman, Walter Benjamin’s writing about drugs, Robert Walser, Donald Barthelme, Walt Whitman, Alice Notley, Ai. I could go on forever with this sort of list, past influences, current ones, writers whose work I hope will yank my writing in fresh and better directions.
Can you give us insight into your creative process?
I tend to be a collagist and cull from a variety of different sources. Research and note taking help me generate phrases and ideas and get juices flowing. I love doing research and collecting odd bits of language. Usually I need to be surrounded by books I can flop open and cannabalize in order to write. I just learned the word syncretistic and have a bit of a crush on the word at the moment. I consider myself a syncretistic poet. Old reference and text books, instructional or spiritual texts, science and nature books, art and film texts, old national geographics, books on ancient religions or archaeology, the newspaper….anything wordy and strange and packed with odd information could be useful. It’s hard for me to leave used bookstores empty handed. My house is a chaos of piled, crammed, shelved, stacked booksprawl. (This is typical writer stuff, I think.)
How has teaching impacted your work as a writer?
What a blooming miracle to be able to teach to support one’s writing. What a relief. It’s amazing to have a job that’s related to writing. A job you like. This is a big luxury, especially these days, when it’s a gift to have a job at all. To get paid for hanging out with smart, talented young humans and hearing what they’re reading, interested in, thinking about, worried about, wanting to do is kind of nirvana. Trading ideas with them. It’s like having a bunch of literary scouts out in the world. Ditto for accomplished colleagues who are writers or literary scholars or artists or scientists, etc. obsessed with some version of the things you’re obsessed with: writing, books, information, figuring out how to balance supporting yourself and forging a writer’s life. Students and colleagues teach me a lot. And of course preparing to teach whatever writers, forms, and books you assign, immersing yourself in all that, enriches your brain for writing too. Teaching forces me into the world in ways I’d probably avoid if I wasn’t compelled to do it, being a natural hermit, so that’s probably healthy. Otherwise I would just be living in a cave with a couple of feral dogs, eating berries, grunting and scratching and talking to myself, or something pretty close to that lifestyle. And having the amenities of a college or university available (library, bookstore, lectures and classes you could theoretically attend, visting writers and academics who come through, an intellectual and research community, a center of learning etc.) doesn’t hurt, either. So these things help my work, (and I should take advantage of them more!) The down side is of course teaching sucks up precious time and energy. It’s great but depleting. That’s the trade off. And I’m shy so being in front of a class is always a bit of a leap for me.
Do you consider yourself part of any movement in poetry?
No. Sometimes I regret that, not having that special camaraderie, but I’m a loner, mostly.
What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice?
Nothing they haven’t already thought of and that hasn’t been already said to them repeatedly: write tons, read tons, find peers, go to readings, cultivate your obsessions, try to customize your life so that writing is at the center of everything. Fill yourself with whatever inspires you, and if you don’t know, try lots of things: art, music, all forms of literature, nature, solitude, love, travel, sex, ballroom dancing competitions, making pastry, whatever. Be patient and persist. Keep keeping at it. Have faith. I know this is cornball but believe in your work and its potential as though it were your kid. Remember art can be play. Push your work out into the world when you’re ready so you can see what happens. Don’t take rejection personally, or at least try to work towards that admirable goal of calm detachment.
Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?
I’ve been lucky as a writer. Real nasty adversity hasn’t reared its head much so far in my literary life. Sure, I’ve had difficulties and disappointments, who hasn’t, but many of them were probably self inflicted when I look back and think about it. When I hear the term “adversity” I think of truly dire stuff: Denton Welch writing while lying in bed horribly injured, or Dennis Potter sipping morphine from a to-go cup during his final illness to keep going long enough finish his last work, or what I’ve been reading recently about the bravery of David Rakoff hanging on to complete a final project while suffering a similar punishing fatal illness. My tiny troubles look microscopic in comparison. When I was much younger I sent out 30 or so inquiry letters over a period of time trying to get a book published and no one would even agree to read it. I was discouraged by that for quite a while. Then by pure happenstance the editor of a lovely publishing house (the now defunct North Point Press) saw the manuscript and got interested. That kind of thing is why I vehemently advise young writers to persevere.
What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?
That I am double jointed. That I love Ella Fitzgerald’s voice to the point of swooning. That I am a big fan of graphic novels.
About the Author
Amy Gerstler’s most recent books of poetry include Dearest Creature, Ghost Girl, Medicine, and Crown of Weeds. She teaches at University of California at Irvine.