It's not unusual for Amy Gerstler to trip down the street from her house to mine bearing gifts: a ripe avocado, a jar of martini olives, an article of interest, a plastic Cupid the length of my thumbnail. Today, she meets me outside with a book she wants me to see -- John D'Agata's eclectic "The Lost Origins of the Essay" -- and, because I asked, a mock-up of the cover of her new collection of poetry, "Dearest Creature" (Penguin: 96 pp., $18 paper). The image, of a diorama created by local artist Marnie Weber, brings to mind one of those Hidden Pictures puzzles in Highlights magazine, where you're supposed to find the objects that don't belong. Here, though, every item seems to have its place, all of them whimsical, witty or heartbreaking -- reflecting the poems within.
"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.