By Dinah Lenney
"Dearest Creature" is a collection of conversations, letters and interviews in which unlikely people (and animals and plants) appear in unlikely places and spaces in time. It's the work of a poet of appetites, intellectual and otherwise, and not just because the poems reference food -- "broiled plover on toast," "buttermilk layercake," "popcorn balls" -- again and again.
When I wonder why food has such a presence in her work, she turns the question just a little: "You mean, why do I like it so much?" We're at Fix Coffee on Echo Park Avenue and she has ordered a shot of espresso in a tall cup. Now, she takes a carton of rice milk from her big black satchel and fills the cup to the top. The ideal life, she muses, would include reading, writing, cooking, playing with dogs. Then she reminds me that because she's not actually religious, food and its preparation are evidence of a kind of spirituality, having to do with the urge to nourish and connect. "All those herbs that grow in the ground," she says, "they're so beautiful. And chocolate -- who thought of chocolate? Who figured out what to do with that bean?"
These are the kinds of questions Gerstler thinks about, the kinds that inhabit her poems. Addressing a misunderstood child, she wonders, "[I]f our thoughts and feelings were soup or stew, would they taste / of bile when we're defeated and be flavored / faintly with grace on better days?" Of a "Dear Departed" friend, she asks, "Did earth melt you down and chug you / like fortified wine?"
Gerstler knew she was a poet in the third grade, she recalls, sitting at the counter behind the barrista, somehow cutting through the roar of the blender to be heard. "I wrote a poem about the hiccups," she says. And she recites:
Hiccups, hiccups, up they perk,
I would like to know where they lurk.
Her toothsome grin is its own reward; and her guffaw belies her stature -- slight -- and her usual manner, shy and self-deprecating. Partly it's the topic under discussion: writing, a subject she owns. But it's also her sense of humor, mixed with a kind of inner fierceness, a way of laying claim to her place in the world. I defy you to outrun this woman in an airport. I challenge you to interrupt her if she has a point to make. She'll take on a spider the size of Catalina, while I, twice as big, twice as loud, watch and cower from the corner of the room. She is tiny but intrepid; respectful but irreverent; infallibly polite and insatiably curious. Never mind when she wrote this first poem. It's her voice: funny, forthright, idiosyncratically preoccupied, true to the writer she is today.
Gerstler's late father was a high school principal; her mother, a lover of musical theater. She grew up in a house full of books and records, fell in love early with wordplay and rhyme: the wit of Cole Porter, the romance of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Even so, her parents were a practical influence. Writing, according to her father, was a fine activity for the weekends, so she earned her bachelor's in psychology and planned for a career as a speech pathologist.
But it was in college also that she came under the influence of novelist and poet Dennis Cooper, who took a more uncompromising view toward the artist's life. He brought her to hear Robert Bly, who was obsessed at the time by preindustrial male bonding. Gerstler confides that she knew so little of the literary scene, she figured everybody wore tribal masks when they read poetry. Even so, she was hooked. She deferred her acceptance to graduate school to try writing for a year. And that was that. Her 1990 collection "Bitter Angel" won a National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. "Dearest Creature" is her 13th book.
"Who do you write for?" I once asked her in an e-mail. She wrote back right away: ". . . with contemporary poetry having approximately as many fans outside the immediate field as there are devotees of undergoing knee surgery, any sentient breathing reader who's genuinely interested in poetry . . . not scared of it . . . seems a godsend. . . . Ideally, I'd love to write poems that intrigued humans across the board: literary folk and academics as well as . . . dog-walkers, doctors, plumbers, chefs, math professors, jugglers, etc. . . . "
Now, as she sips her coffee, I ask why she thinks people are afraid of poems.
She furrows her brow. "See, many people, including me, are afraid of looking or feeling stupid. It's OK not to understand particle physics. But poetry that's dense and complex and difficult to read? The threat is implicit: If you don't understand poetry, you don't have a beautiful soul." In high school, she remembers, "If you did something bad you had to memorize Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade.' " Poetry as punishment -- but she has a solution. "It should be taught chronologically backward," she says. Her idea is to introduce contemporary forms like rap and spoken word before "Beowulf" and Chaucer. In that way, we'd cultivate a palate for poetry.
Gerstler is devoted to the ancient texts, sparked by history and myth. "The human imagination," she insists, "can connect to practically anything." Even when it's tongue-in-cheek, her work resonates with urgency and longing. Two lines into the title poem of "Dearest Creature," the speaker asks: "Why don't you / write? Why make me beg? Are you even / reading these letters?" And then:
. . . that tussle
in the motel tub when I accidentally knocked
you unconscious? A minor concussion.
Surely you've forgiven me . . .
It's a love poem, of course: hilarious, but also touching, seductive, mysterious, surprising, entirely unsentimental -- much like Gerstler herself. "Don't forget humble," says her old friend Jim Krusoe, a writer and teacher. She is, he asserts, the humblest person he knows.
It was Krusoe who introduced me to Gerstler and her husband, writer Benjamin Weissman, more than a decade ago, alerting me to the fact that one of the best poets in the nation lived across the street. And it was Gerstler, Krusoe says, who helped him put certain kinds of pettiness into perspective. She once told him: "It's so impossible to write a good poem, it's all I can do to work as hard as I can to even come close." Her relentless focus doesn't leave time for professional jealousies and resentments.
"So are you ambitious then?" I ask. She doesn't hem and haw. Assuming the work represents the best part of herself, she believes, she's ambitious to do it well, to find the time to write, to push herself with every poem.
As for what this means, I keep thinking -- once we've tossed our crumpled napkins, gathered our things and are headed up the hill toward home -- of the speaker in her poem "Advice From a Caterpillar," which is pinned to the wall above my desk. "Molt. Rest. Molt again," she advises.
Self-reinvention is everything
Spin many nests . . .
But Gerstler has a simpler answer. She taps the cover of the book of essays she's still carrying. "I'm very interested in these," she says. "And I will always write poems."
Lenney is the author of "Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir."
Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times