In 2010, Ali Liebegott took a road trip by train. Destination: the Emily Dickinson house. Along the way, she interviewed poets—Dorianne Laux, Marie Howe, CAConrad, and many more. We’ll be reposting the series to celebrate the release of Liebegott’s fourth book this March, The Summer of Dead Birds.
When I was talking to poets while planning my cross-country trip, everyone kept saying, “You have to interview Amy Gerstler.” I knew nothing about her work. This was a result of my ignorance not her accomplishment—her books of poetry include Ghost Girl; Medicine; Crown of Weeds; Nerve Storm; Bitter Angel; and Dearest Creature. In addition, she’d just finished guest editing Best American Poetry 2010. So I wrote to her from Mexico.
Through our internet exchange, I found out that she was also an animal lover who lived with two of her own rescued dogs in a Los Angeles home, which turned out to be brimming with art. In addition to being a poet, she’s written reviews of art and books. The first poem I read of hers was “Fuck You Poem #45”. I couldn’t believe how much her poems reminded me of Emily Dickinson—in the way that there is a prayer-like or mantra quality to them, expansive yet compact. They’re often a poetic study of suffering. When we met in person, she answered each of my questions in an expansive, thoughtful tone, and I was struck by her openness and humility throughout the interview. We spoke on a cafe patio in Echo Park, Los Angeles.
THE BELIEVER: If you had the choice to make out with Emily Dickinson or Rilke, who would you pick?
AMY GERSTLER: [Thoughtful pause.] The two dead writers I’d most like to make out with would probably be Kafka and Virginia Woolf. But between those two I’d really like to alternate. One of the great things about sex is that who they are on the page and who they are in life, and who they are in public and who they are in private, and then their sexual self can all be really different and surprising or another door opening. It’s sort of like, whose work do you want to make out with? Really hard choice. They both look cute in pictures.
BLVR: I’m threatened by Rilke’s mustache. Can you talk a little about your relationship to Emily Dickinson’s work or to her as a poet?
AG: Emily Dickinson seems to me as a feature of the earth, like eucalyptus trees. Maybe because we’re American writers interested in poetry, and we’re women, and she is so elegant and intelligent and unexpected and such a mixture of slightly tamped down boldness. She shows how you can be in your time and totally outside any time. The only things I can say about her are drooling, gaga, generalized admiration about her wit and her intelligence and her grappling with spirituality, and the will to believe and ideas of what god might be and ideas of what death might be and ideas of mortality or immortality of the body and soul. It’s kind of unparalleled—I don’t mean that other writers haven’t dealt with those things astonishingly, but her particular brand has never been seen before and will not be seen again on the planet. How incredibly compact she is. People always mention her and Whitman in the same breath, and in a way it’s like the Rilke/Emily Dickinson who do you want to make out with question—the bearded garrulous “I” will have sex with everyone. I embrace all, all is me, I am you.
BLVR: Do you remember the first Emily Dickinson poem you read?
AG: Yeah, I do because it was in school and it was that one—“We never know how high we are/ till we are called to rise…” [Continues to recite the entire poem from memory.] What about you?
BLVR: I remember reading “I felt a funeral, in my brain” and being like whoah—so have I! That was the real moment I could enter into her work and not see her as this thing you have to learn in school. Have you been to her house?
BLVR: I went about ten years ago and you go upstairs and see the window that she looked out of and they have a replica of her dress—she was so small. And they had her bed behind these red ropes and I just wanted to lay on the bed so bad.
AG: Of course. That’s why they have the ropes.
BLVR: But I got to read one of her poems in that room. It was really powerful to inhabit the space that was so much in her work.
AG: So they probably get a lot of people like you, who come to her house very much with a religious feeling, as a shrine. My friend David Trinidad who is a lovely poet once sent me a leaf from the yard there. It was like, anything that had to do with her aura.
BLVR: Do you know the poet CAConrad? They wrote this poem about rubbing all the dirt from her yard on them. I didn’t take anything but once when I was cashiering at the grocery store, because of the way arms move when you ring up groceries, people constantly comment on my tattoos. It’s mostly annoying. But once this guy came by and he was with this woman and she looked at my Emily Dickinson tattoo and said, “You know, he’s a poet.” And I thought, “Great. Who isn’t?”
AG: Like that’s what I want to hear all day long. Especially in the Bay Area.
BLVR: And they kept going on and I was very withholding emotionally, but eventually I said, “Have you ever been to Emily Dickinson’s house?” And he says, “Yes, I actually broke my finger in her house.” He did some carpentry there as a young person. And I thought, oh man—I wish I’d broken my finger in Emily Dickinson’s house.
AG: I’m not much of a pilgrimage maker because I’m sadly not much of a traveler. But because I teach in Vermont and Robert Frost’s grave is right there and there’s not much to do in Bennington and everybody was like oh you gotta go see Robert Frost’s grave, I did. And it was nice because it’s in a beautiful old, east coast super antique churchyard that’s old enough that there are Civil War graves. It’s beautiful in summer or winter so I’ve visited his grave several times. I like Robert Frost but he’s not—I mean, if I could visit anybody’s grave I’m not sure I would pick him out of every writer in the universe.
BLVR: So no pilgrimages and no desires for the pilgrimage?
AG: I did visit Freud’s house. I found myself in Vienna and I love Freud’s writing.
BLVR: What do you remember about the house?
AG: I thought Vienna was a terrific city. There was a little courtyard. A lot of his stuff had been taken out and moved to England. But there was a replica of it. The consulting couch. There were little Egyptian antiquity doo-dads. I probably felt a little like you did in Emily Dickinson’s house—I was like did Freud breathe this air? Did he touch this banister? I wouldn’t mind making out with him either.
BLVR: What do you do to allow yourself the psychic space to sit down and write?
AG: I have got to use the time I have. I’m terrible in the morning. That’s just the kind of person I am. I wish I wasn’t. I write almost any time except when I first wake up. I love computers. I’m old enough that I started writing on a manual typewriter and then electric typewriters, and being able to move blocks of text around and being able to send them to people and being able to not have to use carbon paper and white out and retype things if you want to move a word, it’s just absolute heaven. And I’m very research based—that’s where I get inspiration and that doesn’t mean fact checking or factual research—it can mean taking notes out of weird old books that are anything but factual. I like to work at home because I like to be a bit of a collagist and I have a lot of weird old books and magazines and the computer’s there so if I’m writing about an anteater and need a few anteater facts… and then quiet and aloneness…
BLVR: Do you need to be alone?
AG: Yeah. I really do like to be alone. If I could afford it my ideal thing would be to have a little office as far away from my house as this café so I could go back and forth if I forgot something but I’d be away. I could bring my dogs with me if I wanted but the phone wouldn’t ring. Or an office at the bottom of the backyard.
BLVR: How long have you been writing?
AG: I got interested in it almost as soon as I learned how. I liked books better than anything. I think that’s also a common tale. I was fascinated by rhyme and poems and almost any kind of picture books. So I’ve tinkered with it and liked repeating songs and lyrics. I always found it kind of comforting and focusing. For some reason, language and words, that seemed like the realest life to me. I’ve always had a problem with books or movies seeming more real to me than real life in some ways, or maybe less bewildering and more focused and more concentrated. It’s like life bouillon—it’s boiled down and I love that. Also, I feel like I’m not that good verbally and when I was younger I was kind of semi-hideously shy and I didn’t like speaking extemporaneously and I had a lot of trouble making small talk or making conversation with people. I liked the idea that instead of talking you could work on something for a long time in private and try and get it right and try and layer it up a little bit or make it seem more true because I was always frustrated by conversation and either I was scared and would say nothing or just run on at the mouth—not so different from exactly what I’m doing now—and make no sense or not say anything that had any real heft to it and I loved language so much I wanted it to be important, what people said, I wanted to say things that really meant something and I wanted to have deep conversations with people but it just always seemed like it fell short but in the books that I liked everything seemed like that magnified—importance and depth and beauty.
BLVR: What are the books you keep on your desk to use as encouragement or inspiration or guides?
AG: This goes without saying, there are some people who stay with you for a long time and then there are some people who you come and go with, then there are some people that you had when you were younger and then maybe you get new friends. James Tate’s work has just been really important to me. Sylvia Plath’s work was really important to me when I was growing up and it still is. I love Anne Carson’s work. I’ve never read anything by her that I didn’t think was not only phenomenal but singular, a great mixture of erudition and absolute emotionality and then controlled emotion and then kind of digesting other voices because she’s such a classics scholar and literature scholar that and having it come out as an absolute oneness. I love that Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. I went through a period when I was younger where I read lots of anthologies of women poets, anyone I could find I would read. I’m kind of old at this point, but a lot of the stuff you would see in anthologies would be men and they’re great but I was like I’m not a man. I love Elizabeth Bishop. I adore Marianne Moore. I like that poet Ai who died recently, especially her early work—I love dramatic monologues—I think some of her early ones are just incredible. Lately I’ve been liking this guy Bob Hicok and Lucia Perillo who is really smart and fantastic. Alice Notley was really important to me for a long time and I still like her work a lot. I like Eileen Myles’ work. I think our work is really different but I think she’s absolutely pure and astonishing and I just read her most recent novel, the Inferno. It’s absolutely wonderful. Dennis Cooper was a huge influence for me. I knew him in college and that was a real fortunate life event for me. I will always bless the days that I knew him. I like Terence Hayes a lot. I think he’s a really good poet. And I love Elaine Equis’ work. She and Rae Armantrout are good buds. I love David Trinidad’s work. I love Tom Clark’s work. I think he’s in Berkley and he’s somebody who I think is one of the best lyric poets in America and one of the most neglected. He has a huge body of work. It’s absolutely amazing and it’s a source of great pain and shock that he’s not given every MacArthur.
BLVR: I love to ask who’s forgotten and underrated and why?
AG: There’s a lovely poet who I had as a teacher in college and his name was Bert Meyers I think almost no one knows about his work. He died kind of young which is not always a guarantee of being under recognized but in some people’s cases really doesn’t help.
BLVR: Do you have a spirituality that’s at all related to your writing or separate? Do you see the places where they come together?
AG: I’m interested in human will to believe and the histories of religions and belief and the power of that in people’s lives and the different ways that different cultures from ancient to now have dealt with that craving and what role it’s played in life and I’m very interested in the accoutrements of religion, the props, and the ornateness and the beauty of it and the dictions of it the mythologies of it. All of that. And how religion and science used to be kind of one. And the different ways they’ve intertwined or parted company throughout history. The only things I could say with any confidence that I actually sort of believe in—I’m really interested in reincarnation, that doesn’t necessarily mean I believe in it—I just think it’s an appealing, imagination-sparking concept. So many cultures have had variants of that belief and there are deep human reasons why. I’m interested in ethics too. I’m not saying I’m ethical, or spiritual—I’m just saying I’m interested in these things. I’m interested in prayers a lot. What prayer might be—what it’s limits are because poetry has such incredibly deep religious roots as all the arts do.
BLVR: When thinking about reincarnation—I was teaching ESL at the time—and I had several students who were firm believers in reincarnation.
AG: Were they Buddhists?
BLVR: Buddhists. I remember saying I wanted to come back as a duck because I loved ducks and they all wanted to let me know that was not a good thing—that I’d be moving backwards. When I think about reincarnation, what’s appealing to me is to be able to come back as a creature other than a human.
BLVR: I know the experience of being human.
AG: And if you’re interested in other animals you probably spend a lot of time wondering what they think and feel and perceive and feeling like you can almost feel that or thinking about it—but really wanting to know. I mean I feel that with other humans too. It’s so hard to know anyone. It would be great to be able to try being the other gender. It would be great to try being another race. It would be great to try being all kinds of things. In a way that’s a thing you can attempt or pretend or fancy you’re doing through writing.
BLVR: I’m really interested in human interaction and how we do this now in this kind of age of uber technology. I’m not against technology.
AG: Me neither. But I want both. I want to be able to live with goats and have a great computer and a perfect cell phone. I want all of it. As long as it’s not dangerous and ruining the environment or irradiating the crap out of your and other people’s bodies which is a big IF. I think we lose something by not living with animals more. We’re so removed us city dwellers. It’s nice to just see a chickadee and to see this dog here. One of the great things about being alive is being alive on the planet with these other animals. I’m just saying my life would be better if I was around animals more and interacted with them more. I don’t think I romanticize them. Nature red in tooth and claw. There is no getting around that. But I feel like they’re good role models in certain ways. And it reminds me of things I need to be reminded of. Being around dogs and cats. The way they live and the way they die.
BLVR: My closest moments to my own spirituality is watching people and animals die. For me, as horrible as those moments are there’s also something calm about the clarity of it. For some reason, the fear is worse than the actuality. I also want goats.
BLVR: Do you have a book that you’re most proud of?
AG: The short answer is no. It’s my goal and my tendency to always be most interested in the most recent thing. I want my work to change and grow.
BLVR: Do you have any advice for writers in the world today?
AG: Advice giving is a very tricky business that I’m interested in. I used to have an advice column under a fake identity. That was the best job I ever had in my whole life. A wonderful, fun job. But it taught me what a weird undertaking even fictional advice is. If someone specific comes and asks me for specific advice I’ll definitely try and talk to them and I ask other people for advice all the time. But I think it’s a slightly dangerous area. Things I would say that helped me when I was coming up and I’m always trying to come up like some kind of squash seed—Dennis Cooper told me when I was much younger, You have to cultivate your obsessions if you want to be a writer, and for me that was like, “Yeah.” Everyone knows that but at that moment for me personally that was really helpful—the idea that you could and should do that. I like the Buddhist idea of having a beginner’s mind. That it’s okay to do that. Writing is hard and you kind of always feel like you’re starting over and to know that that doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or not meant to be a writer—that that’s just the fucking deal. I think that’s helpful. And to know that many, many writers feel that way—that’s why more people don’t do it, cause you just feel like you’re starting over every time.
BLVR: If you were playing ping pong you would be getting better at ping pong. It would be easier to play ping pong.
AG: Right. So, yeah. Persevere. Especially in poetry. In other fields you might get a lot of encouragement. You’re not going to get encouragement from anybody for being a poet. Your family’s not going to be wild about it. Not like if you came home and said, “I want to be a surgeon.” Then there’s a cause for true joy. The world isn’t going to be begging you for it so you have to love it a lot and find a way that you can stand to earn your living too. Persevere, cheer yourself on, find colleagues, cultivate your obsessions, soak yourself in what you love whether it’s books or jumping out of airplanes or animals or whatever films make you want to write—if Tom Clancy makes you write great poems, then read him every day.