Gravitas: An Interview with Poet Amy Berkowitz
I first read Amy Berkowitz’s book Tender Points (2015) in early 2016, after coming across a recommendation for it on an online reading list about chronic illness and disability. I read Tender Points—a smart, deeply moving meditation on chronic pain, trauma, and sexual assault–in one sitting. When I found out that Amy and I both reside in the San Francisco Bay Area, I emailed her and asked if we could meet for coffee. Initially, I was nervous about doing so–I didn’t want to come off as somehow entitled to her time or attention, or have her first impression of me boil down to “WE HAVE THE SAME HEALTH CONDITION AND WE ARE BOTH WRITERS, WE SHOULD TOTALLY BE FRIENDS!” In the years since, our friendship has bloomed into one of mutual support, and I’ve felt proud to witness Amy’s growth as an essayist and nonfiction writer. Her latest book, Gravitas (out now from Total Joy), is a poetry collection that, in her words, serves as a “testament to how conservative academia can be in regards to gender and disability.” The poems that make up Gravitas ask essential questions about who belongs, whose work gets to matter, and who gets left to deal with the after-effects of academic abuses of power.
AH: In the first few poems that make up Gravitas, you talk about how your favorite poems feel like conversations; can you tell us how you got into writing poetry?
AB: I liked writing poetry as a kid, and in high school I had a great creative writing teacher, Kip Zegers. It was from him and the poets he introduced me to that I developed an understanding of poetry as a free place where anything could happen. I remember he took the class to a poetry festival upstate and I bought books by Anne Waldman and Diane di Prima. My dad had given me Howl and some books by Richard Brautigan, but it was cool to have books by these women, too. And yeah, all of these poems were very talky, conversational. There was no pretension. I liked that.
In college I thought I’d try to write fiction instead — I’m not sure why, I guess maybe I wanted to be able to tell a story — so I signed up for a fiction writing class. But my attempts at fiction were just horrendous. I thought something really big had to happen in a story, so I wrote a story about a guy who has a plane crash into his house. After that I went back to poetry, which felt like an appropriately sized vessel to contain my own experiences. I was lucky to have another great poetry teacher in college, David Rivard, who gave us a lot of freedom and took our work really seriously.
And then a year after college, I had the good fortune of meeting CAConrad right after their book Deviant Propulsion came out. They were reading at a library in Philadelphia, and only a couple of people were there — they weren’t as well known then, and I don’t think the reading was advertised very well. I loved the poems they read; I felt like they were continuing and growing the queer, conversational, anarchic tradition I’d always been a fan of. We started exchanging emails, and later on, when I started grad school and my professors were trying to sell us on this narrow, miserable idea of academia being the only way to do poetry, just knowing that Conrad was out there doing their thing meant the world to me.
AH: What inspired you to write this book?
AB: In 2019, I took some time off work to focus on writing. I went to the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, and a few weeks later, I spent a month at the Anderson Center at Tower View, in Minnesota. The MCWC was my first experience with structured writing education since grad school, and it felt shockingly different from grad school: the teachers approached every student and their writing with care and respect. And it cast my MFA experience into sharp relief — this feeling of, oh, what if grad school had felt like this instead? It’s worth noting here that the MCWC is organized by women and all the teachers I worked with were women.
A few weeks later, I was at the Anderson Center, and I had nothing to do. I was there to revise my novel, but I was waiting on feedback from a couple of friends. So I took long walks and talked on the phone a lot. I was on the phone with a close friend from grad school, and for whatever reason we were talking about how I was always being scolded by professors for not having enough gravitas, and she pointed out the connection between that criticism and the fact that those same professors did nothing to prevent their colleague from continuing to grope students in the program. Those two things had always disturbed me, but I’d never connected them before, and when she said that I was like oh, shit — like, they just didn’t take the lives of young women seriously at all. As soon as we got off the phone, I started writing an essay about it. I put it aside for a while to work on the novel, and when I picked it up again, I knew there was something wrong with it — and I figured out that it needed to be poems, not an essay.
AH: In the book, you tell readers that in grad school, you were newly disabled by fibromyalgia. Can you talk more about what it was like to be a disabled person in a grad program, and how things have changed for you since then, both personally and in terms of your career?
AB: It’s interesting to think about myself as disabled then, because I was, but I wouldn’t have used that word. I just had no idea it was mine to use. I knew I had fibromyalgia and bipolar disorder, but at the time, these things just seemed to be fucked up things about me. And part of that was internalized ableism –again, more words I didn’t know at the time–and part of it was the way I was being treated. There’s a poem about that in the book, about a professor’s response when I had a mental health crisis during my first semester teaching: to her, I was just a fuck-up. She didn’t care that I wasn’t well. She made that very clear to me.
The difference now is that I don’t feel alone anymore. I don’t feel pathetic for needing a lot of sleep. I don’t feel like having bipolar disorder is anything to be ashamed about. I feel like I’m part of a community, a culture. And that’s in no small part due to friendships like the one I share with you. Meeting and making friends with other disabled people has dramatically changed my life for the better.
I did work with one professor during grad school who was disabled, but she wasn’t part of the creative writing department. I remember visiting her office and noticing that she had a cozy-looking lounge area where she could lie down — I’d never seen that in a professor’s office before. It made a big impression on me, this physical manifestation of a disabled person making space for herself in academia. But by that point, I knew academia wasn’t a world I wanted to fight for my place in.
AH: Was there a specific point that you decided that you were done with academia, or that you knew you didn’t want to teach/get a PhD?
AB: I never felt wholeheartedly dedicated to pursuing a career in academia. A big reason I pursued an MFA was that my chronic pain was so severe that I had to quit my desk job. So it was like, okay, I’ll have two years to kind of take a break and sort out my life and maybe then I’ll be a teacher because it requires less repetitive motion than working at a desk? I think if I’d had professors I really connected with, I might have wanted to stay in academia, but that wasn’t what I came in expecting to want.
AH: Can you tell us about your writing process a little? I’m not a poet, so I don’t know if you write poems in short bursts, sit down and write at a specific time, things of that nature.
AB: It’s different for every project. With my novels, I have to sit down and assign myself a word count goal to get anywhere. I started another thing that has a similar structure to Tender Points and those are nice because you can just write an idea down when it occurs to you and explore them all together later. Poems always seemed to arrive whenever they wanted to, but it’s been a while since I wrote poems apart from Gravitas. Now that I have a baby, I write in my Notes app, which I think is a parent writer cliche.
AH: I loved the inclusion of the collective poems by the Washtenaw County Women’s Poetry Collective & Casserole Society, of which you were a member, in the appendix. Can you talk a little more about how the group came to be?
AB: In grad school, my friends and I started writing poems collaboratively in the evening. I think we met once a week, we’d have dinner and wine and we’d write these poems: each person would start with a sheet of paper, write two lines, fold the paper so only the second line was visible, and pass to the next person, who would add two lines, and fold the paper so only the last line was visible, and so on. We’d stop at 14 lines so they would be sonnets. I don’t remember whose idea this was. It was a lot of fun and we really developed a distinct voice. It felt very powerful, like we were in the presence of something more than ourselves. It felt kind of like being in a band. We just pushed each other in all these interesting directions we probably wouldn’t have gone on our own. We live all over the world now, but we actually tried doing it a couple of years ago in Google Docs, using white font to make lines disappear, and we were a little rusty but wound up writing some weird, surprising stuff:
If I had a dog I would go outside more.
If I had a cat I think I would sit next to the window more.
And if I were a cat I know I’d sit there all the time, sunning myself
and stretching my bunny legs out, my paws opening and closing,
greater than, less than, greater than, less than, greater than
the sum of my parts. It’s me! The me I’ve always been!
Yeah. Dropped the bottle of ground ginger on the counter
and almost got glass dust in the oatmeal, crunchy soft powder
that felt right for the moment, part sustenance, part that’s sharp,
like the way you used to nick my shoulders cutting my hair
and it felt like a horse hopeful that there were carrots
stashed on your person somewhere,
or cigarettes, except you don’t smoke, everyone knows that,
everyone knows you don’t smoke.
Anyway, there are a lot of poets who write collaboratively and a lot of other ways to do it. There’s an anthology of collaborative poetry called Saints of Hysteria which shares process notes along with every poem.
AH: One of the overarching themes of this collection is the ways in which people in power will go to great lengths to protect their institutional power, even if it means, say, exposing your students to a known abuser. I really appreciated the through-line of the first few poems and then, near the end, “Sexism in Academia,” where you reveal that one of the professors who protected this abuser wrote an entire book about academic sexism while contributing to academic sexism in the Creative Writing program, in the form of continuing to work with this guy. I guess what I’m asking is: do you think institutions can do things to change this pattern of powerful abusers being protected, and why or why not?
AB: Maybe this is overly cynical, but I’m inclined to say that it’s in the nature of institutions to protect abusers. So, in theory, I suppose institutions can do things to change this pattern, but I think that goes against their design. I know that there are people within institutions who want to stop protecting abusers, and I know sometimes they’re able to make some change. But I think often the people who want this change are people with relatively less power, so they’re either not listened to or afraid to say anything because their job is more precarious. The bigger problem is that society on the whole has a pattern of protecting abusers.
AH: Do you have any favorite contemporary poets or poems that you’d like to share?
AH: What advice, if any, would you give someone who’s thinking of going to grad school?
Think about what you want to get out of it: is it something you could get without enrolling in a formal grad program? For example, if you’re looking to be part of a community of writers, an MFA program isn’t the only way to find that; you could take writing classes, start going to a local poetry night, or start a writing group with friends.
Learn as much about the program as you can before you commit to going — talk to current students and visit if you can.
Try to choose a fully funded program. I personally would not feel comfortable taking on debt to get a poetry degree. But I have friends who paid for their MFA programs and don’t regret it, so this is a personal choice. As for me, even though my grad school experience was awful in the ways I describe in Gravitas, I don’t regret my decision to go. I needed the break from working a desk job, and I’m still very close with the friends I made there.
Anna Hamilton (she/they) is a disabled writer. Their work has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Teen Vogue, the Disability Visibility Project, and many other places; they also write Citizen Cane (https://tinyletter.com/annahamilton/archive), an occasional newsletter. They live in the San Francisco Bay Area with their partner and their extremely spoiled Pomeranian/Yorkie mix, Sushi. You can find more about their work by visiting http://annaham.net, or follow them on Twitter at @annaham360.