Amy Gerstler on Writing: “Plunder and Take Notes”

What do you write and how to do you write it?

Most of what I write these days is poetry. Or that’s how I think of it. I take zillions of notes while tromping, stumbling and floating through life, scribbled in little notebooks whose outsides and insides tend to look something like this:

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Also, I collect items that have enticing bits of language on them and put them in the toppling pile of notebooks and notes that I keep on the corner of my desk:

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“Plunder and Take Notes” — Amy Gerstler

(the image above, for example, is the foil top from a brand of canned fruit soda a friend likes to drink, which got saved due to its possible useable-for-poem motto “TAKE THE MOST DELIGHTFUL WAY THERE.” I also borrow or otherwise acquire books, magazines, pamphlets, etc. to plunder and take notes from for ideas/language/diction/images etc. that might get woven into poems.

Can you tell us a little bit about your job(s)/role(s) and how you got there?

My current job is as a university professor. I got such a position through wild luck, and through the invaluable help and support, over time, of many generous teachers and fellow writers and others, too many to mention here. It’s an odd job for me to have for many reasons, but one of the huge perks is getting to have contact with writer- colleagues and with brilliant younger writers, and being given the opportunity to share resources, finds, obsessions, and discoveries with them…that fertile sharing is very much a two-way street, meaning that I learn a ton from my fellow teachers and students.

How do these job(s)/role(s) challenge/influence/inspire/intersect your writing life?

Unless money isn’t an issue in your life because you’re the favorite niece of a billionaire or something like that, I think that for any kind of artist in America, particularly an artist who wants to devote themselves to practicing one of the, shall we say less funded artforms, (such as poetry, in which you pretty much have to take as a given that supporting yourself and your work is not ever going to be via your writing) making a living while being productive making art also is a real challenge. How and where will you work to obtain sufficient money to live decently and still have time and energy to write? How will you essentially live at least two lives simultaneously: have a working life to support yourself financially, and a maintain a vital writing life, keeping writing and all you need to do to feed yourself as writer and artist central to your life? How will you balance these things and not drive yourself and others crazy? Can you find a writing-related job that you actually like and could be good at? Or do you want to find a job that isn’t writing related, because you want to keep a protective separation between what you do for money and what you do as an artist? Can you find a job where you feel you are doing important work, work that maybe helps others, does good in the world? How do you claim and guard your time to make art? How do you struggle with these issues across different phases of your life? I know very few writers and artists of any age, at any stage in their lives/careers, who aren’t perpetually wrestling with these questions in some form…

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“The mess of my desk at home. I also work a lot at various libraries.” — Amy Gerstler

Thanks for inviting me to participate in your blog, Alessandra!


Naoko Fujimoto: Reprise

Naoko’s graphic poems kept appearing in my facebook newsfeed and I got curious about what was happening over there in her world since our last interview (which took place four years ago…has it really been that long?!). Here is an up-to-date interview with graphic poet Naoko Fujimoto. You can find more of her work on her blog and instagram account: @graphic.poetry.trans.sensory.

What do you write? 

I am currently translating my poems into graphic poems. My project is called Graphic Poetry = Trans. Sensory. My entire collection will be published by Tupelo Press in the near future under the title “Glyph: Graphic Poetry = Trans. Sensory”. I am currently finishing up some of my works. My progress can be seen in my Homepage, Blog, or Instagram.

Recently, I published five graphic poems in Tupelo Quarterly Issue 13. 

Can you share a little about your project process? Continue reading

“I write these things through a steady chiseling away at myself…”


caitlinFor some reason, when I post interviews I always want to recount how I met the interviewee. In this way, this blog has also become a catalogue of first impressions. I met poet Caitlin Scarano my first day at my PhD school in my lit seminar. I was entirely intimated. (Am I smart enough to be here?) Except for Caitlin and myself, the room was entirely male. These men liked to drop theorists’ names and wanted to “create knowledge.” (Actual quote.) The first day of class we went around the room and introduced ourselves and our discipline. When I learned that she was also a poet, I was like, um, why isn’t she smiling at me. I later learned it is because she is Caitlin.

Through multiple weeks of class, starting an orchard on campus, and running beside a river with a dog who is afraid of water, we became friends. She has just published her first book of poetry, Do Not Bring Him Water, by Write Bloody Press, out of Los Angeles, CA. Here is our interview.

Continue reading

Rachel Kincaid: Managing Editor and Fiction Writer

Rachel's desk.

Rachel’s desk.

It was my good fortune, shortly after moving to Milwaukee, to catch a ride with Rachel Kincaid and her husband, Franklin, to a party featuring tamales and homemade salsa. On the car ride, I learned that Rachel is a fiction writer and managing editor for, an online journal featuring “News, Entertainment, Opinion, Community and Girl-on-Girl Culture.” I was especially drawn in by her regular chatty lifestyle column called “Helping You Help Yourself,” which links to advice from DIY household decoration projects to tricks to using gmail more efficiently. You can find links to her work at her website and you can follow her on twitter at @monkeykin.

She took time this week to share about her life and what it looks like to be a managing editor, fiction writer, and person generally excited about the world. I hope you will enjoy this interview as much as I did.

What do you write? How do you write it? (Like when, where, with what, etc.)

I write essays, news & politics coverage, and lifestyle advice for, where I’m the managing editor, as well as writing fiction. My actual writing time is usually interspersed with lots of other job tasks — editing other people’s work, soliciting people, managing a team, etc. Starting around 9:30 or 10 am, I sit at my desk in my home office (or on my couch, if it’s chilly and I need a blanket) with my MacBook. I use Google Docs and WordPress for my day job, and usually Scrivener for fiction (with a Google Docs spreadsheet to keep track of where I’ve submitted my work). I usually take a break around 6 pm or so to make dinner and hang out with my husband, and then do a bit more work and wrap up around 9 or 10 pm.

Can you tell us a little bit about your job and how you got there? Continue reading

“The voice that emerged from the pages became so raw and tragic and comical and real that I wanted to kiss the pages of the book. I want to write like that.”

lanaLana shared with us from her wells of wisdom a little over a year ago. Since then she’s been published in several journals. I wanted to learn more about what was fueling her so I asked her a few questions. And I’m so glad I did. Her honest self-reflection and love for the craft is mesmerizing and inspiring. Please read on and enjoy!

What have you been up to since the last time we spoke?

I’ve been swimming in flash fiction ideas. And every time I finish a new piece, I overhear a conversation between two octogenarians in the street or recall a summer-camp incident from my childhood, and off I go to start a whole new piece.

I’ve had twelve publication acceptances in the last year—mostly flash fiction—and this has increased my confidence in working with the genre. Acceptances and kind words from editors energize me to no end. I wish that approval seeking were not such a fueling force for me. I’m working on this. But for now, approval seeking is one of the reasons I continue working on pieces that become too hard. And I’m thankful for this impetus, because regardless of my motivation in sitting down to write, once I am actually writing I end up forgetting myself and exploring human emotion in the most genuine way I know.

I’ve noticed recently that when I spend a chunk of time working on a string of flash pieces, I do start to miss longer stories. I miss existing within their settings. I miss exploring the characters within the spaces of their homes and then following them to churches or bars or watching them sit on the tram and gaze out the window.

Continue reading

“I return to these scraps during the day and type them…”

Luke Hankins in Uniform at the Biltmore Dining Hall

Luke Hankins in Uniform at the Biltmore Dining Hall

In my first days in Bloomington, Indiana, where I had just moved to go to school for my MFA, I met Luke Hankins. He spoke deliberately and with a bit of southern drawl, and he taught me that the building where most of our days were to be spent was called Ballantine, which rhymes with Valentine (not with trampoline, as I had mistakenly been pronouncing it). Besides making the world a more grammatically-correct and well-pronounced place, Luke is devoted to the craft of poetry and machine of writing, that is editing and publishing, the needful things to get writing to readers. He is the founding editor of Orison Books, a “literary press which is focused on the life of the spirit from a broad range of perspectives” and which has a prize for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.  You can find links to his work and learn more about Luke at his website.  Below, Luke was generous enough to share a little bit about his writing and working life. Read on and be inspired.

What do you write?

I primarily write poetry, but also essays and book reviews, and I also translate Stella Vinitchi Radulescu’s French language poetry. In fact, my next book, The Work of Creation (Wipf & Stock, forthcoming Jan. 2016) is a collection of prose pieces in various genres (literary criticism, personal essays, meditations on art and literature, etc.). I also hope to start writing a memoir focused on my religious upbringing and eventual evolution out of traditional religion over the next few years.

How do you write it?  Continue reading

“I got to know a highly collaborative art form that helped me to question why poets sat by themselves so much in coffee shops and at home.”

vardaman2-12I was lucky to meet the wise Wendy Vardaman at The Book Cellar last year because we both had saint poems in the anthology St. Peter’s B-List  and joined together with a few other poets for a poetry reading in honor of Saints and Strangers. Wendy writes poems that are warm, human, inviting, and often humorous. They kind of poems you want to walk around inside for a little while. I loved listening to her read her poems that night at the Book Cellar and loved reading her first collection, Obstructed View (Fireweed Press), on my own afterward. Wendy is the poet laureate of Madison, WI, and recently published another collection of poems, Reliquary of Debt (Lit Fest Press 2015).  As you can see by taking a look at her website and the following interview, Wendy’s interests and accomplishments as an artist and an interpreter of art are many and varied (Check out the #midwestpoetic project in the list of links below the interview). I’m so grateful she took a moment to share with us about her journey because she’s reminded me of the importance of learning and collaborating and questioning and growing all the time.

What do you write? 

I write poetry and prose. And prose poems and poetic prose. I write creative nonfiction and book reviews and author interviews. I write reviews as prose poems. I write scholarly poems and poetic scholarship. I write comments on student essays and poems. I write up product information for one of my jobs and upload it to websites. I write website content for the poetry press that I co-founded (Cowfeather) with Sarah Busse, and I write that with html and css code. I write journal entries and notes to myself and lists of things to do. I write Facebook status updates (occasionally) and Tweets (rarely) and blog entries that are more long form essays than blog posts. I write up events and copy for the jackets of books and the occasional press release, which I’m terrible at. I write texts to my kids, which I am also terrible at. I used to write letters, but I gave up on those a few years ago. I write way too many emails. I’m a compulsive note taker.

How do you write it? (Like when, where, with what, etc)  Continue reading

“The blog is all about the comedy and the novel is, well, not.”

awkwardprofilepicIf you have been feeling a lag in motivation in your writing life, you need to read this interview with Emelie Samuelson. Emelie is humorist, YA novelist, and all-around inspiring woman. She lives in the small town that the Gilmore Girls‘  Stars Hallow is based on. Read on to learn more about how and why she picked up and moved to this town. You’ll be inspired to follow your dreams.

What do you write?

I have my own blog, Awkwardly Alive and Pleasantly Peculiar, on which I share weekly stories about my many embarrassing moments in life, and I also just finished the first draft of my first novel. Now I’m in that dreadful editing process. The two projects are different enough, though, so my brain is never bored. The blog is all about the comedy and the novel is, well, not.

Can you tell us a little more about your first novel?
My novel is a psychological one, dealing with a teenager with schizophrenia, although I think it’s more about the characters than the illness itself. I think it will be marketed to young adults, which is great because that’s a genre I’m incredibly comfortable with. I’m pretty inspired by the Y.A. authors (but would never dare to compare myself to any of them because they’re too brilliant and I am…me.) Rainbow Rowell, John Green, and David Levithan (just to name a few, although there are a least half a dozen more). I like when authors of that genre can write books for teens that don’t over-dramatize things. It’s important to me that teen fiction is respectful towards what teenagers go through and what they feel. Whether or not my book will accomplish that, I have no idea, but I’m really hoping it will. Continue reading

Michael Trocchia: On the Library, the Classroom, and the Study

CS-MT-Unfounded-Cover_FrontCoverMichael Trocchia lives not only a double life as a working poet, but triple life: he also finds the time to teach philosophy at James Madison University. His first book, The Fatherlands, is a collection of short fictions/prose poems that, for me, nod toward a haunted fairytale world where logic doesn’t unfold in the ways you would expect. This world is peopled with faceless figures of “the woman,” “the man” and “the boy,” and every time a character resurfaces he is changed. His newest book, Unfounded, is a bit more traditional in appearance–there are no prose poems–but here again nothing can be understood as common. Every line break is followed by a surprise turn in logic or a not-yet-imagined imaged. And reading this collection also became an exercise in letting go, allowing myself to be lead through the mazey path each poem beckoned me down.  In the second section of the collection (there are three sections total), the poems took a turn toward Ars Poetica. As a sometime instructor of poetry and writing, I’m always on the hunt for new Ars Poetica, and Michael has provided me a new one to add to my personal anthology with his poem “Poem Without Itself.” You can find Unfounded on Amazon.

 Michael was kind enough to share some thoughts on his triple life and the myth of finding the perfect job. Here’s what he had to say:

What do you write? How do you write it? 

Claudia in the study

Claudia in the study

I write poems, prose poems in some cases, and the shortest of fictions. I’m working on a lengthier project though, a hybrid novella, a narrative blend of poetry and prose. In it we meet a professor who in his youth was a thief. While he’s long given up thievery—having sold off, lost, forgotten, or abandoned much of what he’s stolen—he has to this day retained one item in particular, an item taken under strange circumstances. The work picks up with his decision to return this thing, decades later, to its rightful place, the very spot from which he took it, however wise or foolish that may be. We follow his journey back and meet with all sorts of characters and happenings along the way.

How do I write? Slowly, as if I am constantly learning to see, or learning to read for the first time. But sometimes it will pick up a degree or two and it is more like learning to play a piece of music that, in some sense, I already know. It occurs in the mornings mostly, or whenever I manage to find generous moments of solitude. If I’m out and about and there is no pen or keyboard at hand, I work the words over in my mind repeatedly, a small rehearsal of sorts, as if learning lines from a play. When at home in my study, there is often a cat nearby.

What are sources of inspiration that you return to?

The worlds of mythmakers, for sure, whether fallen to us in letters or images. There are other sources: I am often drawn back to the poems of Georg Trakl in autumn, the novels of Hamsun in winter, the Italians Sinisgalli, Buzzati, Vittorini, and Quasimodo in summer, and Yannis Ritsos, the Greek, all year round. Spring is my wildcard, a season for who-knows and not-yets, though Jeffers claws through sometimes, his narrative poems mostly. Then there is the music of J.S. Bach, Arvo Pärt, the sounds of Górecki and A Hawk and A Hacksaw.

Can you tell us a little bit about your job and how you got there?

Carrier Library Stacks

Carrier Library Stacks

I’ve two jobs, or perhaps one job while the other, if not itself my vocation, comprises a good part of it. What I call “the job” is my work for James Madison University Libraries, where I am the E-Journals Coordinator in the Technical Services Department. In short, I’m responsible for setting up the university’s electronic journals in all library systems, maintaining the holdings and date coverage, and making sure all access points and linking to the journals are working. In recent years, I’ve also headed up an event program for the library called JMuse Café. Our series of events provides an informal and lively forum for students, faculty, staff, and the community to come together and explore topics of public interest in ways that reach across multiple disciplines and diverse educational backgrounds.

What I refer to as a part of my vocation is the work that goes into teaching philosophy (also at JMU). In this work, as much as I am teaching students philosophy, I am of course always teaching myself along the way. The teaching opportunity and its various rewards could very well cease one day, but it is tough to see a day when pursuing my own studies and its rewards will come to an end. The work I do in philosophy is integral to the work I do as a writer. If we were to shred many of my poems, they’d become, I hope, no less than confetti tossed in the streets by a parade of old philosophers. This is certainly so for a large portion of pieces in Unfounded.

To the question of how I got here: In 2007 I began working at JMU after graduate school at Temple University in Philadelphia. My first job here was full-time in the library as the Processing and Binding Manager. In this role I took care of the stream of books acquired by the library, ensuring that the books and their catalog records received everything they need (checkout information, call number labels, stamps, security strips, etc.) in order to make it safely and swiftly to the shelves. I was also responsible for binding the journals routinely and whatever books that were falling apart. I had been in touch with some professors in the philosophy department at the time and, shortly after, I was offered a spot teaching part-time (on top of the library work). In 2010, I moved into the E-Journals position I mention above.

How does these jobs/vocations challenge/influence/inspire your writing life?

Danielle Campbell Photography. Trocchia reading at Chop Suey Books in Richmond, VA.

Danielle Campbell Photography. Trocchia reading at Chop Suey Books in Richmond, VA.

I go to work with thousands and thousands of authors each day, from antiquity through the present. There they are when I arrive, sitting on shelves throughout the library, always willing to have a conversation, to confound and astound me, to reveal some new aspect of the world, or force me to reconsider this, to imagine that. I can ask for no better company from 9 to 5. At every turn in the building I am reminded of something exquisite, of some immensity indexed, some wondrous triviality. I am met with volumes, with orders of worlds bound up with our experiences of them, with stacks and stacks of fragmented knowledge, with the colorful and worn spines of our languages and thought, with imprints of question and formulae, with the inks of countless laws, natural and not, that line much of our existence, and will, as far as I can tell, continue to do so long after I’m gone. The library as a whole, we might say, is something of a law unto itself. As Borges writes, “the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.” And now many such “secrets” and more have surfaced at our fingertips, at the touch of a key, given the electronic sphere that libraries, publishers, service and content providers have built up in recent decades. Through the course of a simple morning in the office, like this one for instance, I’ll work on a mix of electronic journals such as Psychology of Music, The Public Historian,  Journal for General Philosophy of Science, Canadian Slavonic Papers, American Antiquity, and so on. The various journals from our collections flood my workday, and sometimes bits of their content are thrown together, deposited here and there in my mind after I’ve finished working with them. And these sediments can often find their way into my writing in one form or another.

My work week setting then comes three-sided: this library environment, the classroom, and my study at home. Yes, the days come in the shape of a triangle, a shape well suited to my aesthetic.

So it seems that you’ve got a full plate, but your that plate is full of good things and each component nourishes another. I am reminded William Carlos Williams  when he said “As a writer, I have never felt that medicine interfered with me but rather it was my very food and drink, the very thing that made it possible for me to write. ” What are your thoughts on this sentiment?  

I would agree with Williams, but the key is for one to make “food and drink” of whatever it is one does for work. Not every doctor is a poet of course, but Williams made his work in medicine “food and drink” for writing because he was a poet. In a comprehensive way then, yes, everything must be made to nourish the other. So I’d say Poet Williams also fed the very experiences, shaped the vision and ear, of Doctor Williams, in the invisible ways he took to his daily work and what he took from it. “The poet feels abundantly the poetry of everything,” said Williams’ contemporary, Wallace Stevens, himself no stranger to a job “outside” of writing. But, I’d add, the poet only feels it abundantly insofar as he’s sought and gathered it inside him. If it wasn’t medicine for Williams, I imagine it would’ve been some other food and drink he’d gather together and put on the writing table. This is no easy effort, for sure. “Poetry,” wrote Jean Genet from a prison cell, “is a vision of the world obtained by an effort, sometimes exhausting, of the taut, buttressed will. Poetry is willful.” The challenge to all writers, I believe, is not to write but to live and write, no matter the living. This challenge, to echo Genet, is met by the will.

A few more words on this, concerning the idea of interference: We put ourselves at a great loss if we regard the “job” or anything else as interfering with the writing. Taken as such, it opens up all kinds of harm to one’s writing and causes what may be the real interference. One easily slides into the thought that one is not writing what he or she could be writing, reducing one’s efforts to an “if only.” “Only if I had some other job, or no job at all, what wonderful things I’d write! What a writer I’d be!” In this state, whatever writing one does risks suffering in the shadow of this phantom writing (that he or she is not doing). Or worse, understood as interfering, one sets oneself up for an excuse to write less and less, or eventually not at all. We might compare the batter who says that all pitchers interfere with his hitting. This player has somehow missed that the pitcher, though his opponent, provides the very thing he’s meant to hit.

That is particularly important advice, it seems to me, and well-explained too. And, one more question, if you don’t mind! I noticed in the bio on Unfounded it describes you as teacher and then as working in the library. What was the thought behind listing teaching first? 

That’s a good question. I am not sure what my reasoning at the time was for putting it down in that order. What I can say is I identify myself a bit more with teaching philosophy than I do with the work I do in the library, as, again, I consider what goes into teaching to be part of my vocation. Also, teaching just literally requires more of me, as that “job” does not really slow down or end throughout a semester. In addition to class time, I am often, as any professor is, plugged into my teaching responsibilities in the evenings and on the weekends—whether it is putting material together for class, thinking up new ways to engage the students, responding to emails, grading, meeting with students, and so on. The library position itself—that is, the daily responsibilities—is typically confined to the forty-hour work week, aside from the resources I might draw on or the effects that the library world has for my writing.

Making a living vs. making art

In this article, cropped-mg_0080-version-32.jpgthe writer claims that as newspapers die so do writers’ opportunities to work, write, and get paid, while improving their craft. The MFA is no replacement as many force aspiring writers to take out loans, digging themselves into ditches that they will never be able to get themselves out of based on the skills gained in the MFA. He laments the loss patrons and the artists who created magnificent works with their financial support.

I agree with some points made here, but not all of them. I agree that the MFA is not worth going into debt, but not all writers/artists want to write/make art for a living. In an interview Cate Marvin said: “One cannot have ‘success’ in poetry. As a poet-friend of mine once said, ‘If I wanted to be successful, I’d have become a lawyer.'” And precisely because poetry has no monetary value, no aspirations for success, it is free to fend for itself, to dig out a space for itself that is not shaped by market demand.

Whereas art forms that do have potential to shower their creators with money are actually more dangerous. My sister and I are both artists. I am poet and Sonnet, my sister, is a singer and songwriter. Because I have never believed poetry will gain me a viable income, I’ve been forced to define success on my own terms and not on how people pay me, and I’ve built up my resume in other areas. My sister, on the other hand, has had success defined for her by a rabid dog, the music industry. She has been getting by on singing and big promises that have yet to fully pan out. I admire my sister for her stalwart pursuit of her craft as her primary income. No one I know is more dedicated to her art than Sonnet. But even with successful commercial campaigns, a fantastic first EP, gigs around LA, and a making it to the top 12 of the reality TV show Rising Star, it has certainly been the much harder road. She is living the dream, pursuing her dream, but it comes with high costs of inconsistency and never knowing what’s around the next corner.

William Carlos William points out not all artists need to be paid for their art or embrace the starving-artist model. I’m interested in finding this sustainable solution–the middle ground between crying about the loss of appreciation for the arts, and complaining about work that I don’t want to do, and starving for my art.

I think the worst part of this search for middle ground is that it will never be the same for every artist. There is no model I can follow, I have to find it for myself. William Carlos Williams found being a doctor as equally fulfilling (and inspiring) as writing. I am 100% sure being a doctor would not be a sustainable career for me. As the 5-9 interview series has highlighted, what works for one artist will not work for another. And even what has worked for me one year may not work the next.

At dinner with other writers and artist not long ago, one artist who was a new father asked the group if we would wish for our children to have the desire to be artists/writers when they grew up. The responses were mixed, but the majority said No! Life would be so much simpler, and perhaps even happier, if our unquenchable desire to create did not demand so much of our time/money/space. The desire to make art is a gift, a joy, a purpose, a calling and–at the risk of sounding overdramatic–it is a burden.