Jewish Journal

A Charmed Existence

by Michael Aushenker

Posted on Apr. 26, 2001 at 8:00 pm

Amy Gerstler with her dog, Gina. Photo by Sean Dungan

Amy Gerstler with her dog, Gina. Photo by Sean Dungan

Amy Gerstler lights up as she describes the physical rush it gives her.

"It fills you with energy, it sets your mind on fire," Gerstler said. "The lines get in your head, in your bloodstream."

If Gerstler sounds like a woman in desperate need of rehab, it wouldn't be for drugs -- her addiction is poetry.

Her most recent work -- an article rhapsodizing the glory of Union Station -- appears in the latest Westways, a magazine of the Automobile Club of Southern California. While journalism (with teaching) helps pay the bills, her true passion and reputation rest in the poetry she writes.

Not that you might ever learn this if you ran into Gerstler at a party. Over coffee in Larchmont Village, Gerstler -- petite and 40-ish, with brunette locks -- admitted to refraining from such admissions in social situations.

"I don't like scaring people off," Gerstler said with a bemused laugh. "When I tell people I'm a writer, they look kind of interested. Then I tell them that I write poetry and they think I'm weird."

But April is National Poetry Month, when poets like Gerstler get at least some of the respect they deserve. The Skirball Cultural Center, for one, is presenting a unique poetry series (see box).

Gerstler finds poetry "powerful and intoxicating." And indeed, power -- as well as humor -- inhabits her lyrical meditations.

By her own assessment, Gerstler may not be the most observant Jew. Yet peruse her latest collection, "Medicine," and you will discover Jewish imagery permeating her pieces with organic, unself-conscious aplomb. Sample line from "July 3rd": "Scrolled white jimson flowers jut up, ready to unfurl like small torahs and reveal their stern laws..." Or this from "Word Salad": "Pharaohs, feral babes, farmers' wives, you persecuted Jewesses: tell me the truth."

"Corpse and Mourner" refers to a Jewish funeral, and metrical compositions such as "Yom Kippur in Utah" and "A Non-Christian on Sunday" express cultural alienation.

"There is an element in some of my work that has to do with being an outsider, feeling like not part of the dominant culture," she offered. "Only recently have I realized that being different is not something you want to hide or squelch or suppress."

Gerstler's father spoke German until age 6, when his family moved to Bensonhurst. Gerstler's mother, raised at Ebbets Field (the Dodgers' original home), comes from Russian lineage. The Brooklynites met in San Diego, where Gerstler grew up. Although Gerstler majored in speech pathology at Pitzer College, it was a course taught by poet Bert Meyers that proved influential.

A few years ago, Gerstler and her parents became consumed with the plight of the poet's younger brother, Marcus, who died at the age of 33 in 1998, after a long struggle with brain cancer. "Medicine" is dedicated to his memory.

"I actually thought about getting his name tattooed," Gerstler said. "I wanted to always carry him with me somehow."

Gerstler is working on two books, one of essays, another of poems. And despite her brother's premature passing, her optimism and her wit remain intact.

Granted, poetry may not be the most lucrative of literary traditions.

"Most people who write and publish poetry teach or do something else," said Gerstler, who surmised that as long as she can make a living through writing, she won't complain.

"That's a pretty charmed existence," Gerstler said with a lower-case smile. "I'm mostly grateful."

Amy Gerstler is the author of "Medicine," "Nerve Storm," and "Crown of Weeds" (all Penguin Books) and "Bitter Angel" (Carnegie Mellon University Press).

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