‘Amy Gerstler is a prime example of a poet who represents the fundamental nature of postmodernism. She often writes poems in prose rather than in more traditional poetic forms, and the surrealism of these poems suits their subjects well. Her poems offer popular culture references reimagined in an often amusing way, and she uses marriage and weddings as a broad theme that echoes through all her work. Another frequent theme is death. Her use of references from popular culture and narrators who are ambiguous in terms of both reliability and gender, as well as her experimentation with what a poem must be, creates a realm of otherworldliness for the reader that places Gerstler directly in the postmoderm tradition.
‘One of the most noticeable elements of Gerstler’s poetry is her use of a wide variety of narration options. Often eschewing the traditional “I” and speaking from her own perspective, Gerstler uses a dramatic “I” that is not always immediately noticeable as a voice. She puts herself into other personas and writes from their perspective, blurring the lines of identity and gender. One example is the poem, “The True Bride.” Focusing on Elaine, an invalid whom the narrator has fetishized, the poem reveals more about the imaginary narrator than Elaine herself. Through Gerstler’s poetic prose, the narrator dreams of many physically ill and handicapped women coming to him, calling these dreams his “ideal pornography.”
‘Gerstler inserts references to popular culture in many of her poems. One of the wittiest is “Dear Boy George,” a poem addressed to Boy George, the androgynously dressed bisexual British pop star. Referring to a perhaps fictional incident in which Boy George rescued a drowning girl, Gerstler writes, “. . . I’d give anything to be the limp, dripping form you stumbled from the lake with, draped over your pale, motherly arms, in a grateful faint, as your mascara ran and ran.” Gerstler provides humor through the image of the pop star with his mascara running but also conveys a sense of confusion, as the narrator is a teenage girl who seems to have fallen in love with a bisexual man who prefers men.
‘A more startling example of this use of popular culture is in “An Unexpected Adventure,” which revolves around fictional girl detective Nancy Drew. Although in the Nancy Drew novels, Nancy always manages to extricate herself from trouble, the same does not hold true in Gerstler’s poem. Nancy, stopping at night to change a flat tire, is attacked by a stranger: “Her intuition clicking like a geiger counter, she has a revelation she may have lost more than her compact and billfold to this ruffian, as, with leaden feet, she begins the long walk home.” Although “Della’s Modesty” slyly pokes fun at the idea of female modesty, “An Unexpected Adventure” holds some of the darker tones often present in Gerstler’s poetry.
‘To imagine the contemporary poetic landscape without Amy Gerstler is almost impossible. Under her belt, she claims thirteen collections of poetry, two works of fiction, and countless reviews, articles, and essays. Of language she is a master, and her education in speech pathology has undoubtedly enhanced her poetic ear. But it’s not only Gerstler’s immaculate attention to sound that sets her apart from other writers; her work also embodies a rich wit and a wide range of empathy. Her poetry takes on the voices of all walks of life, from fathers, to clairvoyants, to children. In short, reading Gerstler reminds us that one poet has within her the stories of the world.’ — collaged
Amy Gerstler @ The Poetry Foundation
‘CUL DE SAC’
A Slush Pile of Poem Fodder
Amy Gerstler: Ships In Bottles
Amy Gerstler on Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More than You
Interview with Amy Gerstler
Road Trip: Amy Gerstler
‘Till the Crows Turn White’
Audio: Amy Gerstler on Bookworm
Amy Gerstler Podcast
Amy Gerstler: Interview Transcripts, Recordings, Data, and …
In the Key That Our Souls Were Singing
‘THE FETUS’ CURIOUS MONOLOGUE’
Amy Gerstler at the Zoo
Audio: Amy Gerstler reads and discusses James Tate’s “Wild Beasts”
Amy Gerstler’s Rhetoric of Marriage
Buy ‘Index of Women’
Amy Gerstler. Scattered at Sea
Reading: Amy Gerstler reads from Six Scripts for Not I
Amy Gerstler is the featured poet on poetryvlog.com
What is poetry’s greatest role in your inner life? Why do you write poems?
Joan Didion, in her essay, “Why I Write,” said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” That sums it up! I also write poems to have an excuse to wallow in subjects I’m compelled by, to attempt to get inside other characters / minds (in order to better understand them), to speak to about the dead and the vanished, and to commune with and stretch my imagination.
What do you see as poetry’s role in our present society? A unifying force? A destabilizing force of social and personal change? A reprieve from the mundanity and suffering of day-to-day existence? An access to greater empathy? A glimpse of inspiring beauty and truth? A compass that reveals new clarity of thought, redirecting our collective course?
Great list! All those things and more! Poetry can delight and comfort. Unsettle and expand consciousness. Help us comprehend/contend with being human. Allow us to pay little visits to each other’s wild minds. Keep us alert to the possibilities of language and how it differentiates and binds us together.
What is the most radical thing a poet can do in her work?
She can devote herself to following her own course, as writer, thinker, and emotional animal—whatever that may mean at different times in her life. She can cultivate and explore her own obsessions without letting anything or anybody stop her.
Your forthcoming poetry collection, Index of Women (Penguin, April 2021), showcases exclusively female speakers in poems that wrestle with mortality, animality, love, gender, and the nature of humanity. What inspired this new collection on womanhood and the magic, meaning, humor, sorrow, and struggles of our days that create the hidden meaning of our lives?
Dramatic monologues thrill me. Edgar Lee Masters Spoon River Anthology stunned me when I was young. All those vivid voices spouting dark truth from the grave! I love the poet Ai’s dramatic monologues. My interest in women’s voices, spoken or sung, and their stories and experiences was also generative. Coming across the ancient Greek poet Hesiod’s book Catalogue of Women was a fortunate and influential accident. Such an odd, compelling idea to compile a catalogue of women! I wondered why one would do that and what it would be like if a female attempted such a project.
Your book of poems Scattered at Sea explores hedonism, gender, ancestry, reincarnation, the philosophy of the ancient Stoics, imagination, drug highs, memory loss, bereavement, spirituality, and the nature of prayer—many distinct arenas and inquiries! What unifies the pieces in this collection? How did Scattered at Sea find its form?
Since the book invokes scattering via its title and poems, I felt released from pressure to make the book “unified.” Instead, I tried to pursue the opposite: making it scattery, dispersed, a bit all over the place (which is reflective of the way my brain works, anyway).
What 17th and 18th century poets do you read? And what has their work awakened in you?
Having very little formal education in poetry makes me a dubious source of intel about 17th and 18th century poets, sadly. Among the few I know I love Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, each for different reasons that I fear there is not nearly enough space to enumerate here.
Are there any reliable critics? If so, who, and why is his/her perspective useful? If no, why not? What happens when poetry is critiqued? What is gained? What is lost in translation?
This is a fascinating notion, the idea of a “reliable” critic. I suppose it would depend on what you wish to rely on a critic for. Sharp, inventive writing? Humor? Interesting opinions? Erudition? Open-mindedness? Fairness? Ability to appreciate and describe the letter and spirit of a work? Historical context? Links to other works? Analysis? In other words, I think the idea of a “reliable” critic involves very individual judgements on the part of each reader, who determines for herself what she’s seeking when reading literary criticism, what she needs from it at that moment, and whether she gets that or not.
What themes and inquiries most fascinate and inspire you?
Emotion is key for me. Sex, gender, love, mortality, animals, science, pseudo-science, spiritual longing, loss, and the occult are all abiding fascinations.
What are you working on now? What creative pursuits most excite you?
I’m collaborating on a musical play with composer/actor Steve Gunderson. There’s a possible comix project on the horizon that’s in the earliest stage of discussion. I really hope that will work out as I find graphic novels and comix an amazing medium.
You edited the 2010 edition of The Best American Poetry. What was that experience like for you? How, if all, did editing the anthology affect you? Are you proud of the book? How do you feel about the process—and the product of your labor—in retrospect?
Editing that anthology taught me tons and was profoundly inspiring. I will always be so grateful to the series editor, David Lehman, for trusting me and gifting me with that opportunity. The process brought home to me what a thriving, vital, various field American poetry is. Narrowing the book down to the requisite 75 poems was the hardest part.
Amy Gerstler Index of Women
‘From a “maestra of invention” (The New York Times) who is at once supremely witty, ferociously smart, and emotionally raw, a new collection of poems about womanhood
‘Amy Gerstler has won acclaim for sly, sophisticated, and subversive poems that find meaning in unexpected places. Women’s voices, from childhood to old age, dominate this new collection of rants, dramatic monologues, confessions and laments. A young girl muses on virginity. An aging opera singer rages against the fact that she must quit drinking. A woman in a supermarket addresses a head of lettuce. The tooth fairy finally speaks out. Both comic and prayer-like, these poems wrestle with mortality, animality, love, gender, and what it is to be human.’ — Penguin
Woman with her Throat Slit
—-Please confirm if you are still alive, because two gentle men worked into my office this morning to claim your Contract funds in our custody. I got your email from one of the files of those who have not been paid for the Contract you or your Parents did. If you are still alive please confirm with your full contact details ASAP for you to receive your payment.
——————————————– –Derek Langtree
Dear Mr. Langtree,
Your email was uncannily timely. Yes, I’m alive,
thanks for asking, if a bit stricken. Alive, though I’ve
lost that sweet taste in my mouth of…what? That tang
of everlastingness in the transitory, like a note of rust
in gulped water? My breasts feel like hand grenades
about to explode, Mr. Langston. A heaviness in my
gut suggests someone cut me open as I slept,
and filled my body’s pockets with rocks. The sight
of my face is a disquieting surprise, like stepping
on a snake. Mr. Langston, which I’m aware
isn’t your real name, I’m in mourning. Between
the teeth of a disconcerting grief. Wouldn’t you say
the brain’s crenulations rival the topography
of the Himalayas? Don’t you agree that while
the feet seem meek, they harbor darker knowledge
than the easy-to-please hands? By praising parts
of the body I’m hoping to call them home, or
at least to locate myself. One grows tired of reciprocity,
of nodding, of fixing one’s hair. One snarls in one’s
sleep. The body leaks secrets.
Someone I loved decades ago, with the full force
of what I was then, died, a suicide, in his parked car.
This news appeared in a paper to which I subscribe
and which I read during morning coffee. I haven’t
spoken to him in thirty years, though I probably
dreamed of him weekly during that time. Back
in our day I craved praise, declarations. We both
did things of which we were later ashamed. He came
to see me as a trap and was thus right to flee. Still.
I could not swallow my low acid coffee or anything
else today after reading his obituary, squinting at
its grainy picture. Someone, I felt, not for the first
time in my life, had drawn a knife lightly across my
neck. Then came your fake email.
As for the payment you mention, please keep it,
Mr. Langston. Easy for me to be free with
fictitious money. You’re an internet swindler.
How do you feel about that? I imagine you have
your reasons. I don’t want to be awake any
longer this evening, reduced to writing a thief
who doesn’t have the guts to case neighborhoods
and jimmy windows and instead siphons cash
from the gullible across a faceless international
netscape. Mr. Langston, did you know: growing
old is violent, like being kidnapped, like waking up
to find your throat slit while you’re still alive and
able to burble words. And getting elderly has not
quieted the feral girl who’s crouched inside me
for as long as I can recall. To most people I’ve
become about as interesting as a papercut.
But I digress.
I think I’ll take a sleeping pill to staunch
consciousness for a while. So much can spill
out of a woman whose throat has been slit.
Gasps, demands, viola solos. I promised my
doctor not to talk like this anymore. But I can
speak to you any way I like, can’t I Mr. Langston?
I promised the doc to be more vulnerable and honest,
though I’ve lost the knack for honesty if ever I had it.
Perhaps you have similar feelings? I promised the doc
to stop telling that sordid, self-congratulatory
fairy tale written on my underwear, to quit insisting
on the validity of that narrational panty-stain the shape
of an island of which I crowned myself queen. I
promised her to abandon my unhealthy former self
and forge a new one, complete with a fresh set of legends
about my backstory. I just need someone to hand me
my styrofoam sword and cardboard shield, to drape
my bathtowel cloak gently about my shoulders.
The thing about a woman with her throat slit is how
much more can pour out of her now. We females
being just a heap of seeping orifices with the power
to drown, one more perforation just cranks up
the music. Perhaps you feel I’m drowning you now,
if you’ve persisted in reading this. I hope so. Even
when she’s lying on the floor, trying to sleep,
her arms budding into Venus flytraps and her legs
elongating into cutlery, you can’t shut a woman with
her throat cut up. Do you think, Mr. Langston, that
either of us will ever regain that sweet taste in our
mouths? Do you regret losing it too? If I prayed I
would pray not to dream about you.
Here on my lap, in a small plastic bag,
my share of your ashes. Let me not squander
them. Your family blindsided me with this gift.
We want to honor your bond they said at the end
of your service, which took place, as you’d
arranged, in a restaurant at the harbor,
an old two-story boathouse made of dark
wood. Some of us sat on the balcony, on black
leather bar stools, staring at rows of docked boats.
Both your husbands showed up and got along.
And of course your impossibly handsome son.
After lunch, a slideshow and testimonials,
your family left to toss their share of you
onto the ocean, along with some flowers.
You were the girlfriend I practiced kissing
with in sixth grade during zero-sleep
sleepovers. You were the pretty one.
In middle school I lived on diet Coke and
your sexual reconnaissance reports. In this
telling of our story your father never hits
you or calls you a whore. Always gentle
with me, he taught me to ride a bike after
everyone said I was too klutzy to learn.
In this version we’re not afraid of our bodies.
In this fiction, birth control is easy to obtain,
and never fails. You still dive under a stall
divider in a restroom at the beach to free me
after I get too drunk to unlock the door. You still
reveal the esoteric mysteries of tampons. You
still learn Farsi and French from boyfriends
as your life ignites. In high school I still guide you
safely out of the stadium when you start yelling
that the football looks amazing as it shatters
into a million shimmering pieces, as you
loudly admit that you just dropped acid.
We lived to be sixty. Then poof, you vanished.
I can’t snort you, or dump you out over my head,
coating myself in your dust like some hapless cartoon
character who’s just blown herself up, yet remains
unscathed, as is the way in cartoons. In this version,
I remain in place for a while. Did you have a good
journey? I’m still lagging behind, barking up all
the wrong trees, whipping out my scimitar far
in advance of what the occasion demands. As I
drive home from your memorial, you fizz in
my head like a distant radio station. What
can I do to bridge this chasm between us?
In this fiction, I roll down the window, drive
uncharacteristically fast. I tear your baggie
open with my teeth and release you at 85
miles an hour, music cranked up full blast.
Fruit Cocktail in Light Syrup
Rocket-shaped popsicles that dyed your lips blue
were popular when I was a kid. That era got labeled
“the space age” in honor of some longed-for,
supersonic, utopian future. Another food of my
youth was candy corn, mostly seen on Halloween.
With its striped triangular “kernels” made
of sugar, wax and corn syrup, candy corn
was a nostalgic treat, harkening back to days
when humans grew, rather than manufactured,
food. But what was fruit cocktail’s secret
meaning? It glistened as though varnished.
Faint of taste and watery, it contained anemic
grapes, wrinkled and pale. Also deflated
maraschino cherries. Fan-shaped pineapple
chunks, and squares of bleached peach
and pear completed the scene. Fruit cocktail’s
colorlessness, its lack of connection to anything
living, (like tree, seed or leaf) seemed
cautionary, sad. A bowl of soupy, faded, funeral
fruit. No more nourishing than a child’s
finger painting, masquerading as happy
appetizer, fruit cocktail insisted on pretending
everything was ok. Eating it meant you embraced
tastelessness. It meant you were easily fooled.
It meant you’d pretend semblances,
no matter how pathetic, were real, and that
when things got dicey, you’d spurn the truth.
Eating fruit cocktail meant you might deny
that ghosts whirled throughout the house
and got sucked up the chimney on nights
Dad wadded old newspapers, warned you
away from the hearth, and finally lit a fire.
A monument of unwashed dishes
has once again risen in the sink
an archaeological record
of what everyone’s eaten this week
so she grabs a scrub pad
twists on the hot water
and leans into the steam
wiping condensation from the window
she can see the ancient widower across the street
plundering neighbors’ recycling bins
recently bereaved, the widower wears
his dead wife’s sunhat
mashed onto his too-large head
he is tall and scarecrow-like
his clothes look scavenged from trash
and the wrecked little sunhat
with cloth flower pinned to its brim
looks comical on him
he seems a ravaged tree
badly impersonating a human
while above him a huge eucalyptus
rustles with squirrels
she clatters spoons into the drying rack
and wonders why her secrets
have lately gained the power of myth
like what happened long ago in a tent
on an island in a lake
filled with sunfish and water snakes
the rusty but functional canoe
overturned on the beach
oars stashed underneath
her bathing suit had a flounced skirt
that’s how young she was
a fondle and a squirt and it was over
it’s almost not worth scrambling eggs
if they’re going to stick to the pan so bad
is it too early for a glass of booze?
she thinks a quick spritz of endorphins
would hit the spot right now
after the initial vodka sip
she believes she could live a different kind of life entirely
perhaps in a tent? could she taste the happiness of saints
in their dark, unwashed garments
living only for herself, god as her alibi?
a saint’s joy dry and crumbly
as a handful of stale cake?
children toss a frisbee across a parched lawn
as streetlights waver on
and a girl and a dog play under a picnic table
while the mother reads her Sunday paper on the stoop
by porchlight one sister walks outside
holding a spatula and says, “how can anyone
take you seriously with that frosted blue eyeshadow?”
and they laugh
she wipes coffee grounds off the counter
with a towel that’s had its personality bleached away
the sun plummets in runny pastels
who knew shame was such a large part of growing older
as though through lack of vigilance you’d slid into ruin
as though drunk in front of everyone you’d fallen
down a flight of stairs
these endless ill-fitting versions of womanhood…
should she envision herself as something else?
a flower full of fluorescing nectar?
though aren’t those mostly deathtraps for insects?
the green afro of the orange tree
studded with tiny white blossoms
might be nice to be
or maybe a fleet, arboreal creature
who can smell the age and relative health
of each leaf before eating it
a feminine epic lives in her under wraps
like a field of sheet-draped statues
fugitive, incognito, and when some of her ancestors
that chorus of ghost-women finally take her hand
and smooth her hair, they smile in sympathy as
the last of her mother’s wineglasses cracks
against the scoured pit of the sink
as the cypress tree sways perilously
when an owl lights on its pinnacle
she takes potatoes from the bin and lights the oven
her guts grumble reminding her
of the sloshing bag of viscera she is
when you love someone is it your duty to tell them?
shouldn’t you keep those revelations to yourself?
so far, her strategy has been to construct a hive of silence
to tuck honey away where no one will find it
in residual moments of the day
as the last flaming swipes of orange
abandon the sky to grey
p.s. Hey. Today the blog has the total pleasure of utilising its vertical white space to do its part to help usher into the world this brand new book by one of America’s very greatest poets, Amy Gerstler. Full disclosure: she’s also one of my oldest friends and my closest literary ally since the days when she and I were scribbling poem-shaped crap and being published seemed like a far-fetched dream. It’s a amazing book, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Please have a look. ** Dominik, Hi, D!!! Haha, well, you’re most welcome. Suffice to say spending all day laboriously deleting code with probably more than a week of doing that left to go is no fun whatsoever. But … that’s life? Relief that you got your payment sorted out, err, such as it is. Did you give into that book’s temptation (I hope)? I would be forever in your love’s debt if he had that power, thank you. Love as an email from the thesis payment people informing you that there was a technical error and that there were supposed to be three additional zeros at the end of the amount they sent and that you should check your account to confirm your unexpected windfall, G. ** Ian, Ha ha, thanks, Ian! May your day be like rolling around in clover. ** David Ehrenstein, Nice, but I’ve seen even better. ** Sheree Rose, Hi, Sheree. Well, the post was a collection of animated gifs only, and I didn’t see an animated gif based on your video with Bob and Mike, so there you go. Love, me. ** Misanthrope, That butt is famous? Didn’t know that. I guess I can see why. I’ll remember your twerking phobia when I capture you and need to torture important information out of you. Well, I hope it’s taking a week because it’s not a huge problem. Big up on taxing out, man. ** Jack Skelley, JACK-queline On-ASS-is! I don’t think I’ve been with an implanted ass up close, or else it was a very successful planting. I always imagined it would be like, ‘Hey dude, there’s something weird going on in your cheeks’. Soon is definitely better. As is online at this point. On the other hand, at the printer! AvaJackalanche. I … don’t think I know Eric Andre? I’ll find out. I could use some guffaws. Yes, finally, Saturday! Have you read Amy’s book? It’s so amazing. ** Brendan, Thanks. Yeah, butts for days, for weeks even. Big congrats on your second shot! Almost every person I know in the USA is vaccinated now. It’s still a non-vaccinated hell over here. Cool, I’ll go look for your email. Thank you tons, maestro! Enjoy your freedom. Keep it fresh for me. ** T, Hi there, T! Yeah, I thought it would be nice to do a thought-preventing post. Don’t know ‘Chubz’, huh. But I will now. You would really think there was a shortcut, but alas. I need a robot. Thanks, buddy! Have a shiny day. ** Brian, Hi, Brian! Ha ha, the sacred temple of Venus. That Sade is such a card. Gotcha on the general ‘where oh where have you gone, excitement’ situation. I guess I was imagining the moving out part being the stress center. But if it happens, you’ll be cool. It’ll just be a short-term hassle, mark my words if those words end up being relevant. Happy but not at all surprised that you liked ‘Story of the Eye’. It’s really something, no? My new plan is that when I’ve deleted all the necessary files and get the ‘all clear’ sign from my host, I will metro to the closest electronics store (if it has reopened) and return home with my Switch in a big bag. What is the writing you have to do? Good writing? Honestly, deleting files will be my week. Otherwise, long awaited Zoom meeting with the new film’s producers tomorrow, supervise the edit of the ‘Jerk’ film on Thursday, hopefully see a friend. Like that. Race you to Saturday? ** Okay. Have an Amy Gerstler kind of day, i.o.w. a great day. See you tomorrow.