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Amy Gerstler

Po-Biz and Letters to Nancy Mitchell and Amy Gerstler [by Nin Andrews]

Nin Andrews (2)Sometimes as poets, we need to get together and bitch, my friend, S., says. So last week we got together to bitch about po-biz. Her complaints are familiar ones. Like many poets and writers today, she feels overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated. She’s published a lot, has a few books out, and has had teaching stints here and there, usually as adjunct faculty. But she says, I 'm almost never invited to give readings or speak at conferences. I don’t sell many books, and I'm beginning to ask myself, What the hell am I doing? She points out that the literary world mirrors the economic world. 1% of us are rock stars, and the rest are street musicians.


I tell her my latest absurd idea: I think we should start helping each other, maybe writing each other fan letters. We could get pompoms and have pep rallies for fellow poets. I say it as a joke, of course, but the truth is, I love writing fan letters. Sometimes when I can’t write, I imagine myself as a gum-chewing, unstable, teenage  groupie who is in awe of  poets, and who writes them fan mail.  In fact, right now I am in the middle of writing a silly fan letter to Nancy Mitchell because I just started reading her latest book, The Out-of-Body Shop, and it's terrific.  My letter begins: 

Dear Nancy,

Do you have a southern drawl? I swear I can almost hear the lilt when I read your lines. I love a good drawl, and I love your poems even more. Maybe one day I'll get to hear you read them out loud! 

I wanted to tell you how the other day when I was getting my hair done, I read your poem, "Work," the one about working a late-shift at the factory.  I burst out laughing when I got to the parts where the you talk about a woman who kept her man in line by weaving her hair around his zipper. "What's so funny?"  my beautician, Kylie, asked, so I read the poem out loud to all the ladies at the salon. We laughed so hard, one woman said she almost got perm fluid in her eye. Kylie said to tell you that if you want to keep a man, you just put a little salt on his tail. I don't know what she means, and I'm not sure I want to know. Do you?

I also loved and laughed at the poem “Praise.” 


You be my Sunday

morning hot







I be your coffee cup,


But when I tell S. about my fan letter-idea, she's not enthused. She's not in the mood to laugh. Instead she tells me about the literary magazines that accept her submissions and collect fees, but never respond to her work. Years go by, she says, and I hear nothing. Sometimes she writes query notes, and they, too, go unanswered. I know exactly what she means. Oh, the unfairness of it all!  

I tell her about a rejection note I received years ago that read: Dear Poet, Your poems have been in our office for ten years now. The editor still has not read them and he never will.  He doesn’t give a shit about your poems or anyone else’s.  (I learned later at AWP that the note was probably written by a grad student who despised the professor/editor. The review is no longer in existence.)

I'm also reminded of my first editorial job. I was in eighth grade, and my friend, Ginny, and I were given the job of editing The Bell Ringer, the eighth literary magazine. After spending a recess reading submissions, we decided that only our own poems deserved publication. We had just ten poems between us, so over the next few days we happily wrote many more, penning our poems in loopy script on stencils before taking them to the office to be mimeographed.    

In high school, when I reread The Bell Ringer, I was overcome with embarrassment—not only by my egotism but also by the poems. In eighth grade, as it turns out, I had a fondness for words like prettily, merrily, verily, and frolicsome.

Also in high school I began working at the New Dominion Bookshop and buying poetry books. There were always a lot of poetry books on the sale table, and C.C.Wells, the bookshop owner gave them to me for a song. C.C. once said he never understood why anyone would want to be a poet because no one wants to buy poetry, much less read it.  Would anyone write a poet a fan letter? he asked once. (Why we were discussing fan mail, I don't remember.) That’s when the idea for writing fan letters to poets began.

One afternoon, while working at the shop, I read Some Trees by John Ashbery, and I fell in love with his poem, “The Instruction Manual.” I wrote Ashbery my first fan letter:

Dear John,

Do you mind if I call you John?  

I am sitting in the New Dominion Bookshop and reading “The Instruction Manual,” and there’s only one customer here, a bald man who called me Missy and asked me, "Ain’t you a pretty little thang?" Have you ever been called a thang, John? Mr. Wells, the bookshop owner, says I should never let on when a customer gives me the creeps, so I am reading your poem, “The Instruction Manual,” and not looking at him and not thinking of the word, thang. I’m saying to myself it’s no big thang. Not like this poem, which I like so much, I am trying to do what it does—resting my elbows on the table and staring out the window so I can be someplace else . . .

That's just an edited form of my original letter to Ashbery that went on and on about "thangs" and my favorite song back then, "Wild Thang." Over the years spanning from high school to college and after, I kept a literary journal in which I continued to compose inane and embarrassing fan letters to the likes of Henri Michaux, Denise Duhamel, Robert Bly, Tim Seibles, James Tate, Yannis Ritsos, and Amy Gerstler. I was particularly smitten by Amy Gerstler (whose last name spellcheck always changes to Gerstner).

Over the years, I have written a few fan letters to Amy Gerstler. In one early letter I imagined I was sending her The Bell Ringer. I said I had a suspicion that we were kindred, frolicsome souls.  In another I wrote that I had had a vision that she was the reincarnation of Emily Dickinson. I was certain that if she had her druthers, she would lead a cloistered existence. I asked if she, like Emily, had a large white dog, and if she, like me, was the kind of gal who prefers dogs to men.

  Screen Shot 2018-07-09 at 7.50.50 PMOne of my favorite Gerstler books was the out-of-print book, Past Lives, which looks like a grade school composition book and has a few pages that replicate first grade penmanship exercises, other pages with photographs stuck to them, and others are abecedaries and  others that I can’t describe. You have to see the book to believe it. Past Lives might not be Gerstler’s best book, but if you have a slightly perverse sense of humor, this is a book for you.

Of course, I didn’t just write fan letters in my journal. I also complained bitterly about po-biz.  I’ve always hated the process of entering the literary lottery. And like S., I like to bitch. In a one entry, written when I was taking a class in Cleveland with Alberta Turner, I wrote:

Alberta says I should start sending my work out, but I HATE submitting poems!! Just last month I sent 5 poems to New American Writing. I figure I am new to writing and American. So I qualify, right? Wrong. Paul, the editor, wrote back that I didn’t meet his “editorial needs.” What does the term, “editorial needs” mean? Can Paul’s needs be pinpointed?  Defined? Met? I am feeling miffed.

 Miffed was one of Alberta Turner’s words. She said all poets feel miffed. Like me Alberta Turner admired Amy Gerstler.  I remember once when she spent the night at our house in Cleveland, we talked into the night, and I showed her Gestler's fan letter to Boy George from her book, The True Bride.  Clearly, no one writes a fan letter like Amy Gerstler.

Dear Boy George,

Only three things on earth seem useful or soothing to me. One: wearing stolen clothes. Two: photos of exquisitely dressed redheads. Three, your voice on the radio. Those songs fall smack-dab into my range! Not to embarrass you with my raw American awe, or let you think I’m the kinda girl who bends over for any guy who plucks his eyebrows and can make tight braids—but you’re the plump bisexual cherub of the eighties: clusters of Rubens’ painted angels, plus a dollop of the Pillsbury dough boy, all rolled into one! We could go skating, or just lie around my house eating pineapple. I could pierce your ears: I know how to freeze the lobes with ice so it doesn’t hurt. When I misunderstand your lyrics, they get even better. I thought the line I’M YOUR LOVER, NOT YOUR RIVAL, WAS I’M ANOTHER, NOT THE BIBLE, OR PRIME YOUR MOTHER, NOT A LIBEL, OR UNDERCOVER BOUGHT ARRIVAL. Great, huh? See, we’re of like minds. I almost died when I read in the Times how you saved that girl from drowning . . . dived down and pulled the blubbering sissy up. 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.

from the archive: first posted July 9,  2018

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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