Roll Call: A Conversation with Amy Gerstler




“SHE IS ME.” That was maybe my first thought as I finished Amy Gerstler’s new collection of poems, Index of Women, then started to read again from the beginning: “She is me, and she is me, and she is me, and she is me…” You don’t have to tell me this is not the way we’re supposed to read, as if “supposed to” is the point when you’re diving into a book — or a performance, I should say — at once this intimate, funny, poignant, present, this true to the inner lives of so many women, of every conceivable woman (and since that’s the case, why not me?), and this beautifully crafted. 

Except, to identify with a character, “is the worst thing a reader can do,” said Nabokov. “This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use,” he wrote. In this case, I’d have to take issue: How not to relate — be you woman, man, animal, vegetable, or extraterrestrial — in a world so variously and vividly imagined? What to do but nod along, yes, yes, of course, this is how it is, how beautiful, funny, terrifying, fragile we all of us are. Admittedly, I always feel this way when I read Gerstler, who has authored 13 books of poems to much-deserved acclaim.

What’s counterintuitive with this particular collection — given the presence of so many women, goddesses and fairies, singers and actors, artists and scientists, mothers, daughters, sisters, lovers and wives, suffering and joyful, young and old — what’s miraculous, even, is that this clamor of voices across continents and centuries somehow amounts to the experience of a single mortal: she contains our multitudes. So, first off, I had to ask Amy if that’s what she was going for.

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DINAH LENNEY: I’m trying to figure out how you managed this. Each poem stands alone, of course; and together they form a gorgeous chorus. But also, it’s as if the whole documents the emotional phases that are necessarily part of one person’s life. As in the everywoman

AMY GERSTLER: My fingers are crossed that the book can be read just as you say: as a chorus of women’s voices, composed of poems that can be read solo or en masse for a kind of loose thematic choral unity. I do hope those voices are particular and individual at moments, and that at other times they harmonize or vibrate together from poem to poem to speak to shared aspects of female and human and animal experience.

That’s just what they do. But did you also know they might come together as if to tell a single story? Can you talk about how you put the book together, please?

When editing the collection, yes, I did eventually come to the idea that it could have a “womb to tomb” aspect in the order of the poems. The idea was to arrange the poems in a way that suggests the arc of a woman’s life, or of women’s lives. The first poem being about virginity and one of the last being a rant from an elderly woman who is pissed off and sad, and having a bit of a tantrum.

That’s the “Woman with Her Throat Slit,” right? (I love her.) Writing a response to an insensitive (hilariously, unfortunately credible) email from a stranger who begins, “Please confirm if you are still alive.” I got to this point —

… Mr Langtree, 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.

Oh Amy, I could have cried. I laughed out loud. So painful, so funny, so finally reassuring. (She is me, take that Vladimir.) And coming at the end of a book that reckons all the way through with aging: aging and love, aging and sex, aging and death. How is that done? How do you write about this stuff without falling apart?

Sometimes drawing on experiences that I am falling apart about already helps me process them when I go to write about them. And sometimes I fall apart a bit more during the writing. It’s temporary and I’m kind of used to it at this point, though it still can surprise me. I was embarrassed to write about aging. I kept resisting, but it wouldn’t go away, just like aging itself!

Well, it is hard to talk about. But it’s important, and I’m grateful to you for leaning in. And in other ways, too, the book feels politically charged. Do you think of yourself as a political writer? Did you want to take on certain issues, or were they only impossible to avoid?

Political writers are much admired by me, but I have never considered myself one in any overt way. I believe in that old adage that the personal is political, and I think that the only way in which I could even slantwise or momentarily be considered a political writer is via the personal. I try to push myself to discover my own ways to be political, to figure out what that means to me in different contexts and to find approaches that don’t render the writing hamfisted, which I think is my tendency when I try to approach the political straight on. I am still wrestling with that. Maybe I always will be. It’s an interesting struggle.

Speaking of which, how hard is it — how much of a struggle, I mean, to write a poem? How long does it take? How often do they come out whole?

It takes me different lengths of time but as a rule I’m always a slow thinker and slow writer. I lean on forms of collage frequently so besides a lot of revision, it takes time for me to collect source materials, bits of language and fact I want to play with and use to push, pull, and mutate a poem, to open up trapdoors and secret rooms inside it. Once in a great while, especially with a short poem, it can feel like one is almost possessed, and that it (relatively speaking) slides out kind of fast, of its own accord, maybe sort of like having a baby on the car ride to the hospital, like, “Whoops, better be ready to catch this one if you can.” But for me that’s rare. Usually it’s a long slog. Which is fine by me.

A long, solitary slog, right? But recently you’ve been collaborating on a musical. Can you say more about that? About your relationship with music and lyrics?

Steve Gunderson (a super-talented composer, arranger, and actor) and I are collaborating on a musical play called “The Artificial Woman.” My relationship to music is that of a fan with uneducated taste … I know little but am eager to learn. My mother wanted to be a singer and studied music in college. I spent large swaths of my childhood listening to her musical comedy record collection over and over. The wordplay and rhyme and the magic catalyzed by the interaction of music and words and singers’ phrasing, pacing, and emphasis mesmerized me.

And when you’re working with a composer, which comes first?

Steve sometimes sends me sound files of music to work with. Other times he requests lyrics before he writes any music. We talk beforehand about what the song needs to be/do, what might be interesting about that dramatic moment in the play. I try to pay attention to sound effects when I write poems but fear I have an idiosyncratic ear. Usually, I end up deciding I simply have to utilize that in some way(s).

We should put that on a T-shirt: Pay attention to your own idiosyncratic ear. But when you’re not writing lyrics, can you write to music? Do you?

I don’t, though I know people who do, who find it inspiring. I’m seeking a kind of silence for writing. Because it’s frequently noisy here, I often put on headphones and listen to sound effects of rain to block out slamming and drilling construction sounds or neighbors yelling or my dogs going nuts barking because a cat had the audacity to walk by, or whatever other rumpuses are tuning up. I’m listening to the sizzle of rain via headphones as I write this, now.

That’s so interesting, isn’t it? Maybe it’s because we don’t have to actively listen to rain. We can if we like — but rain is undemanding in ways that other kinds of noise, music included, are not. Anyway, tell me, when you’re not writing, who do you listen to? Do you have favorite lyricists?

I’ve admired Elvis Costello’s lyrics since high school. I think he’s brilliant. I don’t know rap well but there’s so much bold genius and pleasure in rap’s rapid-fire, exuberant wordplay, in the multiple kinds of chiming it employs, in its emotional energy that I often end up gasping with delight, playing songs many times to catch additional lyrics. I stuck Kendrick Lamar’s name into one of the poems in this book because someone played him for me, and I was bowled over. The rise of female rappers is a special joy. Stephen Sondheim is a deity to me.

Which brings us back to theater. And the poems. Did playwriting inform Index of Women, do you think? I always want to hear your work out loud, but this book seems especially theatrical — such a big cast, so many good parts. Was that the idea from the beginning?

Both the book and the play have roots in my longstanding obsessions with dramatic monologues, and with the beauty of women’s voices, spoken or sung, and with what women have to say about their lives, especially in moments when something happens to crack them open. I did want this book to be a roll call of some women I feel I contain/have been/could be.

Did you finish the collection during the pandemic?

Yes. The book was just about done when the pandemic hit the United States, and completed and edited during the first few months. A dilemma presented itself: I didn’t want to retroactively pretend that the book had been written during the pandemic, or that it was a book responding to that crisis in any substantial ways. But at the same time the pandemic felt so monumental and staggering, even initially, that I ended up wanting to tuck small references into the book acknowledging the enormity of it, because I knew the book would be coming out a year hence when all of us would be pandemic-battered, and so at that point the book might seem strange to read if it didn’t mention the virus at all. So, I added two poems and tinkered with another with that in mind.

And how did the events of the last year otherwise affect your writing life?

I feel like I am laboriously processing what the pandemic has done to parts of my life, including my writing life, so maybe let’s check back in with each other in another year. One thing among many I think the pandemic has made me reassess is my relationship to solitude, loneliness, and independence inside and outside of writing life.

Well. As you continue to process, you should know, this book is such solace. So bolstering. Who does that for you? Who did you read while you were writing, and who are you reading now? Which poets do you return to again and again? 

If the book is a solace, I am pleased! So many writers’ work has bolstered me, including but not limited to: Ada Limón, Sigrid Nunez, Alice Notley, Patricia Lockwood, Tracy K. Smith, Natalie Diaz, Kimiko Hahn, Major Jackson, Heid Erdrich, Wisława Szymborska, Miriam Toews, Tom Clark, James Tate, Eileen Myles, Joy Williams, Diane Seuss, Franz Kafka, Ross Gay, M. F. K. Fisher, Sei Shōnagon, Virginia Woolf, Elaine Equi, David Trinidad, Matthew Zapruder, Sylvia Plath, Rumi, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Bishop, Harryette Mullen, David Lehman. And that’s only the beginning. No one should ask me this question because my list goes on for miles. Reading literature has saved and bettered my life so many times.

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Dinah Lenney is most recently the author of Coffee and an editor-at-large for LARB.

 

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