Gravitas / Poèmes deep: An Interview with Amy Berkowitz

Interview by Lauren Turner

A contemporary study of the institution, Gravitas boldly explores academia’s tendency to tolerate gendered abuse. Amy Berkowitz lifts the veil on the ordinary violence that female students are subjected to — violence that goes so far as to interrupt their writing practices and distort their relationships to words and literature. Illuminated by vivid memories, these poems denounce the sexist academic culture that allows men easier access to the « deep », relegating women’s writing to the surface — insipid, superficial, the so-called feminine themes are never deep enough. – Éditions du Noroît

Lauren Turner interviewed Amy Berkowitz about her latest book, Gravitas (Éditions du Noroît/Total Joy, 2023). Translated into French by Daphné B. and Marie Frankland, the bilingual edition, Gravitas / Poèmes deep recently came out with Montréal publishing house, Noroît.

Lauren Turner (LT): Thank you for making the time for this interview! My first question–which I’m sure I won’t be the first or last person to ask–is did you write Gravitas with the title in mind?

Amy Berkowitz (AB): It’s my pleasure. I have a very specific and weird relationship to the word “gravitas”—the professors in my MFA program were constantly complaining that my poetry lacked gravitas, without giving other feedback or explaining what they meant by the criticism. I was writing about my life—friendships, sex, hanging out, cooking, washing dishes, dancing, feeling lonely, feeling hopeful, things like that. And the feedback was always, where’s the gravitas?

I started writing Gravitas after a phone call with an old friend from grad school. She pointed out the connection between my professors’ criticism and their failure to do anything about the serial abuser in the creative writing department. I’d never seen the two things as connected before, but as soon as she said it, there they were: twin evidences of our program’s disregard for the lives of young women.

As I wrote and edited the poems, it was clear that Gravitas was the name of the project. What else could I have called it? It’s fun to reclaim and totally take ownership of this word after spending two long years being scolded for not possessing it.

LT: How did Gravitas come to be a collection? I’m curious about whether the idea for this book project arrived fully formed, or if its origin story was slower, more piecemeal.

AB: This is definitely a case where the project came to me fully formed. It’s a very tight little unit. I spent some time trying to add material to it — I had a couple of presses say they’d be interested if it was longer, so I wanted to try to make it longer, but I couldn’t. There’s nothing else to say.

I wrote the poems in Gravitas in the span of a few days, and edited them on and off over the course of the next few years, while I was mostly preoccupied with other projects.

LT: Dismissal is a pervasive theme throughout Gravitas. I originally wrote down silencing, instead of dismissal. But silencing suggests the possibility of being heard, which I think the poems refute outright. They speak to the structural nature of abuse, how academic institutions enable abusers and perpetuate further harm to students–systemically, regardless of time, place, or institutional prestige. “[T]he shit/ I’m about to describe happens fucking everywhere.” Do you have thoughts on the role of universality, and also even collectivity, in your book?

AB: It was important to me for Gravitas to be universal. When I was trying to figure out what I could do to make the manuscript longer, I thought about including some of the poems I wrote with WCWPCCS, the collaborative poetry project I describe in some of the later poems in the collection. Those poems are wonderful and weird and smart and funny (and I would love to find another press to publish a collection of them!), but they didn’t belong in Gravitas. When I added them to Gravitas, they transformed Gravitas into a book about something that happened to me and my friends, something that happened to the young women who wrote those poems, and that’s not what Gravitas is. Gravitas is about something that’s happened to countless people since the beginning of freaking time, something that’s currently happening to a lot of people.

Since Gravitas was published, I found out that there have been two other accounts of harassment in the creative writing department at the university I went to. Current students don’t even know about what happened with the professor that Gravitas is about — there are these other abusers now, a new generation. It’s worth mentioning that they were both teaching when I was at the program — they were two of the many faculty members who laughed off the guy’s behavior. There’s a Twitter account called “Abusers at _____ University” with 10,000 followers. And it’s not like this one university is especially prone to abusers. This is the status quo.

That’s why I’m not interested in naming the university or any of these clowns. It’s not about them. This is a systemic problem. Making it about one university or one guy or one group of apologists presents the problem as so much smaller than it is.

LT: Gravitas delves into the questions surrounding whose work deserves to be read, to be taken seriously. Questions often rife with inherent misogyny and marginalization. Did you have a readership in mind when you were writing Gravitas?

AB: In general I aspire to have as broad a readership as possible. Jeannie Vanasco, who’s a friend and a writer I deeply admire, wrote a beautiful blurb for Gravitas. I shortened it a little bit, and one of the sentences I cut was, “If you’re a poet who has been made to question whether the things that make your life your life are worth writing about, read this book.” It’s a thoughtful, provocative statement (and as I write this I’m second-guessing my choice to cut it) and I think that poets who’ve been made to feel this way would get a lot out of reading Gravitas, but I don’t want to limit its reach to those who’ve already gone through the pain it describes.

LT: Poetry is depicted as a casualty of the MFA experience. The speaker expresses bemusement, even perhaps disdain, that poetry somehow overtakes prose as the vehicle for these narratives. “Am I writing this in verse out of spite?/ Or is it that whenever I’m angry, very angry/ prose won’t do/ It’s messier than that./ It comes out like this.” Writing poetry goes beyond an act of reclamation–that feels too simplistic. Maybe it’s also part defiant middle finger, part trauma response. How would you describe the functionality of poetry in Gravitas?

AB: When I got off the phone with my friend and started writing what would become Gravitas, I thought I was writing an essay. I’m looking at it now, the Word doc called “Gravitas essay,” that I started that day. I say this in a poem in the book, but grad school really did teach me that poetry wasn’t a place I could be heard, wasn’t a place I’d be taken seriously. And when I wrote Tender Points a few years back, I made the decision to write it in prose, not verse, because I believe that when you write poetry, you’re writing for an audience of people who already like poetry, and that’s a pretty limited audience. So I had no intention of writing a collection of poetry, but the essay version of Gravitas was very flat. There was something wrong with it. I put it down for six months or so and then I found myself in Sophia Dahlin’s Generative Writing Workshop and we had an assignment to write a poem in the form of a song, and I wrote the poem that would become “Gravitas Three: Song.” And then a few months later I took another look at the essay and translated all of it into poetry. I’m not sure how or why, but poetry allowed me to step inside the moments described in the essay and make them come alive.

LT: Gravitas begins with mentions of American poets, Richard Brautigan and Frank O’Hara, and closes on friends in a Google Doc, gathered anew outside the MFA program. Friends described as “brilliant poets./ They still are, even if they stopped writing.” I read this as a full circle moment–brilliance moving beyond canonical male writing, assigning that same everlasting quality to former graduate students whose voices were silenced. These days, what role do literary friendships play in your creative practice? Who influences you?

AB: I did really love Brautigan and O’Hara, but I was also obsessed with Diane di Prima and a fan of Anne Waldman, and I was just starting to get to know my contemporaries, writers like Leigh Stein and Lily Ladewig. So, to be clear, I wasn’t just reading men when I started my MFA!

Literary friendships are everything to me. I’ve never really had a mentor — I mean, how could I have trusted any of my grad school professors, even if they had shown respect for my writing? So friendships have filled that role.

I’m still close with my friends from grad school, and even though we’re living in different places now, we’ve experimented with a long-distance version of collaborative writing a few times, and keep in touch pretty regularly.

I’ve been in some form of writing group or another since 2017, and I’ve learned a lot from those informal workshops. It’s very intimate — you’re getting feedback on your writing and you’re seeing their writing as it develops, naturally that’s going to be a site of influence. Some of the writers and friends I’ve been influenced by in this context include Katy Burnett, Nico Peck, Misha Crafts, Marisa Crawford, Miri Karraker, Jennifer Williams, Liam Curley, Shawn Wen, Zoe Tuck, Jordan Karnes, Davey Davis, Thea Chacamaty, Tanea Lunsford Lynx, and Caitlyn Tella.

LT: How did the French translation of Gravitas come about? Daphné B. and Marie Frankland are both accomplished translators in Montréal. It was intriguing to see their names paired up on the cover. I tend to conceptualize translation as a solitary activity. Their collaboration mirrored, in a way, how “Gravitas Twelve: Kitchen Poetry” presented the women MFA candidates writing collaborative poems to intertwine their strength, creativity, and voices.

AB: Daphné and I started talking online after she wrote a really nice shelf talker for Tender Points when she worked at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly. We started exchanging emails, and then we hung out one day when she visited San Francisco. We don’t email very often, just every few months, but it’s been a really fun and intimate connection. We’re fans of each other’s work, and we would exchange manuscripts and works in progress from time to time. In the fall of 2021, I sent her an early draft of Gravitas, just to share it, and she started translating some of the poems for fun. I also imagined translation to be a solitary act, but it sounds like Daphné and Marie really enjoyed working together, and that it was very much in the spirit of the joyful collaboration I describe in that poem.

LT: During Living Room Musings, the translators’ conversation following Gravitas, Daphné B. remarks, “Gravitas is a concept with no direct equivalent in French.” That revelation was striking to me, given the pivotal role of, quote unquote, gravitas within the poems. How did you feel learning that?

AB: Lord knows if my professors hadn’t had the word “gravitas,” they would’ve told me my poems lacked something else. The poems are more about my total dismissal — call it anything you want.

I do really like the French title. Daphné explained that “deep” is often used kind of sarcastically in French. I think Poèmes deep is perfect.

LT: There’s a level of cult following for your first book, Tender Points, in the sick/disabled literary scene. I think for a lot of chronically ill writers, myself included, it was a pinnacle work in terms of influence and laying down a path forwards. Did you feel any pressure–or sense of expectation–going into your second book?

AB: Thank you, it’s nice to hear that perspective. I’m glad I could help lay a foundation. Well, I didn’t think Gravitas would be my second book. I’ve been working on a novel for the past several years, and I imagined that would come out next. When approaching the novel, I didn’t really feel a sense of pressure per se, but I did want it to speak to the same audience who felt a connection to Tender Points. That’s one reason that the protagonist is chronically ill and there’s a subplot about how writing about chronic illness introduces her to other sick and disabled people. That was my experience with Tender Points, and I talk about it in the afterword to the Nightboat edition — I didn’t have any chronically ill friends until I wrote a book about chronic illness.

LT: In “Gravitas Two: Fresh Blood,” you present the MFA program with an accessibility framework. “I went to grad school because I couldn’t type anymore, literally.” The speaker hopes the new environment will provide respite from a disabling illness, brought upon by gendered violence, only to encounter further violence and stop writing poetry as a result. Needing “fresh blood,” “like it was anemic,” the program itself is a place of disablement. What can we gain by assessing academic institutions through a disabled lens in writing?

AB: It seems to me that academic institutions have all the same problems with ableism and inaccessibility as other settings. It’s true that the MFA was a respite for me — I couldn’t stay at my job, it required too many repetitive motions that aggravated my chronic pain — but it’s not like the university was a place where disability was understood or accepted. I remember in my final semester, I’d started writing about some more serious topics (gravitas!), including my experiences with mental illness and the sexual assault that precipitated my chronic pain. When I asked my thesis advisor if he would read these newer poems, he looked disgusted. He said, “No, I think what you have is enough.”

Olivia Dreisinger has a great podcast called Diagnosis Grad School about the challenges of being disabled in academia. (The last episode features me reading one of the poems from Gravitas.)

LT: Now that Gravitas is out in the world, what’s next for you?

AB: I’m working on a second novel (about bisexuality, making and not making art, and the humiliating experience of becoming yourself) and a top-secret nonfiction project I may never show anyone. I’m also co-hosting an outdoor reading series with my friend Erick Sáenz, the Light Jacket Reading Series, which is a lot of fun.

Amy Berkowitz is the author of Gravitas (Éditions du Noroît / Total Joy, 2023) and Tender Points (Nightboat Books, 2019). Her writing and conversations have appeared in publications including Bitch, The Believer, BOMB, and Jewish Currents. She’s working on a novel and a nonfiction project, and she co-hosts the Light Jacket Reading Series. She lives in San Francisco on unceded Ramaytush Ohlone land.

Lauren Turner is a disabled poet and essayist. Her first book, The Only Card in a Deck of Knives (Wolsak & Wynn, 2020) was shortlisted for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry. Her work has appeared in Grain, Arc Magazine, PRISM International, Poetry is Dead, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Maynard, The Ex-Puritan, Peach Mag, canthius, and elsewhere. She lives in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal) on unceded Kanien’kehá:ka land.