In Gravitas, Amy Berkowitz explores cultures of silence, and the tendency of institutions to protect abusers because it is easy. In this short, powerful collection of poems, Berkowitz dares to speak plainly about the abuse she and others endured at a prestigious MFA program. She also explores how the professors who so vehemently protected abusers were the same ones insisting that her poems lacked “gravitas”—in other words, that her life wasn’t worth writing about.
Berkowitz’s loose, free-flowing poems mimic conversation, the feeling of all the things that “lack gravitas”—of women gathering, writing, talking, cooking, drinking, smoking. In Gravitas, Berkowitz explores how she and the other women in her MFA program learned to write in spite of the abuse perpetuated by the program by communing over casseroles and collaborative writing, accessing their individual and collective voices.
More than a decade after graduating, she finds freedom and power in these poems, reclaiming a form she lost to speak truth and understand what happened to her. These poems do not lack gravitas; these poems manage both to talk to you “like a friend” and to smash the silence around abuse to examine the loneliness of trying to make art in a hierarchical, hypocritical system.
But Berkowitz doesn’t let the abusers have the stage for too long. I came away from this book feeling the power of connection between women who found refuge within each other, in relationships that transcend hierarchy. A community of women who help and care for each other, who trust one another with their frustration, their anger, and their art. Something worth writing about.
Amy and I met over Zoom to talk about the book. After I spent a few minutes figuring out how to record our video call, Amy gave me a quick virtual tour of the space she was writing in for the day: a sculpture studio belonging to her friend, poet and visual artist Truong Tran. We talked about form (and content), process, how to balance life and writing, how to balance light and dark in a piece of art, misogyny in the literary community, and the magic of collaborative writing.
S.J. Buckley: I really love the loose, conversational tone in the poems in Gravitas, the way they “talk to you like a friend,” which is how you describe your favorite poems in “Fresh Blood.” How much were you thinking about things like form and line breaks when drafting these poems? What’s your typical process for writing and revising a poem?
Amy Berkowitz: That’s kind of naturally how I write—I’d have to make a concerted effort to write a poem that didn’t sound conversational in that way. There are poets I really admire who also write that way. Two that come to mind are the Beat poet Diane di Prima, who passed away a few years ago, and Wendy Trevino, who lives in the Bay Area. Reading their poetry reminds me that it’s completely legitimate to write poetry that sounds like a conversation, is simple and political, and makes a point without sounding “poetic.”
I wasn’t consciously thinking about line breaks very much. In revision, I tried to make the line breaks make more sense, but while I was writing, I was just letting it flow. In terms of my usual process for writing a poem, I hadn’t written a poem since about 2013. The book is true: I had a terrible experience in grad school, it made me feel like I had nothing to say, that poetry wasn’t a place where I could say anything. I moved to California after finishing my MFA program in 2010, and between 2010 and 2013, I wrote some more “gravitas-lacking” poems about my life and the people I dated and spent time with. I wrote a chapbook that Spooky Girlfriend Press put out called Listen to Her Heart, and that project was my attempt to get poetry out of my system. I really hadn’t written poetry since then. I wrote Tender Points, which has some poems in it, but I’ve mainly written essays and novels.
So, I don’t have a typical process for writing a poem because I hadn’t done it in ten years until writing Gravitas. I thought it was going to be an essay. Would it be fun if I screenshared my first attempt to write it as an essay? I’ve never shown this to anyone before, but you seem like you might be interested.
That would be amazing. I feel so special.
This is how it started. I was at a residency working on the first novel I wrote. I was on the phone with my friend who went to grad school with me, and I said, “Why was I always being told that my poems lacked gravitas?” She’s the friend in the poem “Chopping Wood” who said, “Your poems were all about female friendships and relationships—to say that lacks gravitas is incredibly sexist.” Until she pointed it out, I didn’t recognize the connection between the fact that all the professors were enabling another professor to abuse my friends, and the same professors were telling me that my life wasn’t interesting enough to write about. Without getting up, I opened my computer and wrote this essay. Looking at it now, it just seems overly dense. A lot of the words are the same, but they’re broken up differently. I wonder why it works so much better as a poem?
In the first poem, you write, “how funny, how perfect, that this should come out of me as a poem.” It’s an interesting examination of form and content because of your relationship with poetry.
There’s a quote that says that poetry is the closest art form to thought. So maybe that’s why these work so well as poems, because I was following a train of thought that my friend opened up for me. The essay sounds almost removed and academic. In “Gravitas Seven: My Thesis,” I have an interaction with a professor, and it’s written more like a dialogue or a conversation, the way I would tell a friend the story. For it to be authentic to my experience and my feelings, and as conversational as I like to write, it needed to be poetry.
How long did it take you to write the book, or at least, the bulk of the book (“Gravitas One” through “Gravitas Thirteen”)?
That residency was in September 2019. I wrote that essay and kind of forgot about it, but with Covid, I had a lot of time on my hands.
[Amy stops to show me another document with notes, titled “the way forward.”]
In 2020, this became my project, turning these ideas into poetry. It came together pretty quickly. I didn’t connect with a publisher until the end of 2022 or the beginning of 2023, so there were two years when I was trying to get it published. I had a long time to refine it and make edits with the help of my online writing group.
In the book, we see the poems in Gravitas One through Thirteen, which you wrote after your experience in graduate school. There are older poems in the appendix, which are meant to represent your “lack of gravitas.” In the very first poem, “A Poem Called Here Are the Things That the Professors Who Chose Not to Protect Us from the Serial Abuser in the Creative Writing Department Ten Years Ago Are Doing on Social Media Today,” you write: “But looking back, any form would have felt useless / because that’s what I learned in grad school: that I had nothing to say.” I’m curious how grad school changed your process or your writing style, and which lessons you have had to (or are trying to) unlearn? More concretely, I’m curious how your experience in grad school manifested in your poems, stylistic choices, and writing process.
Going into grad school, it’s not that I thought I didn’t need feedback or that I had nothing to learn. I really could have used a push from professors who had an idea of what I was trying to do; I don’t know what that would have looked like because I didn’t have that support. In a way, the worst part of it isn’t that I was treated poorly, but that I didn’t learn anything. When you ask about unlearning stuff, I really didn’t learn anything: They told me my poems didn’t matter, and to some extent I internalized that, but that’s not really something to unlearn. It’s been almost painful to get to know other writing teachers after my experience, who approach their students and teaching practices with such care. Not only did I not have to put up with this emotional abuse, but someone could have been really helpful. I strongly regret that I didn’t have guidance or mentorship, but as a result I’ve been very self-taught and have relied a lot on writing groups where friends and I have taught ourselves and each other how to write. I put a great deal of value in that, but it wouldn’t have been my first choice.
I’m also interested in the collaborative poems in the appendix, and in the process of collaborative writing in general. Do you still practice collaborative writing? What do you think collaborative writing can achieve or capture that solitary (or nominally solitary, since all writing is collaborative) writing can’t?
It was really magical. There was something witchy about it. I say this in the book, but it felt like there was a power greater than ourselves when we were doing it. It was a wonderful experience. There was a core group of five people, and some of us will actually be reading collaborative poems together at an upcoming event in Philadelphia. It reminds me of the scene in A League of Their Own where all the elderly baseball players reunite.
Most of our writing was exquisite corpse-style, writing two lines and then folding over the paper so the next person can only see the second line. I’ve done that on occasion since then, for instance with my friend Zoe Tuck, who is an amazing poet, before she moved to Western Massachusetts. When Covid started, the Washtenaw County Women’s Poetry Collective and Casserole Society did occasional Zooms, where we tried doing the exquisite corpse on Google Docs, making the text white to mimic the effect of folding over the paper. A few of the poems were really good, and I very much would like to find a press to publish a collection of our work. The first collection of our poems (The Feeling is Mutual, which was self-published by the Washtenaw County Women’s Poetry Collective and Casserole Society) has been out of print since 2010, and there are a bunch of more recent unpublished poems.
What makes it special is the element of surprise. You can kind of surprise yourself if you’re writing alone; you can use some form of intervention like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, or bibliomancy, or some randomization technique that helps you introduce an element of chance into your writing. But writing with a real-life person, you don’t know what they’re thinking, and there’s a very powerful energetic experience of thinking along with someone. It’s out of print, but I really like Matt Rohrer and Joshua Beckman’s collaboration called Nice Hat. Thanks. The whole book was written word by word. It’s so funny and wonderful what two minds can come up with. I once heard someone say that every poet really just wants to be in a band, which I think is true. I think writing collaboratively, if you’re not someone who’s musical, is kind of the closest you can get. It’s an experience of improvising and creating in real time with other people; it’s very exciting.
The criticism that your poems “lacked gravitas” (and also the term “kitchen poetry”) reminds me of criticisms I’ve seen of women nonfiction writers, that the work is “navel gazing” or “diaristic,” essentially indicating that the work is unserious or self-involved—criticisms that most likely wouldn’t be lobbed at men writers. That kind of thing is always interesting to me, because I think people tend to see the writing world as very progressive. Why do you think these kinds of misogynistic criticisms persist in the writing world, even though most writers and critics don’t think of themselves as being misogynistic?
Well, who thinks of themselves as misogynistic? Ninety-nine percent of misogynistic people don’t think they’re misogynistic. The writing community holds itself apart from society in some ways, and in some ways it’s valid; writers are creative and thoughtful and have a special community and hold each other in a thoughtful way. But it’s very easy to slip into thinking “nothing like that could happen here.” Which is what my first novel is about, abuse in the creative writing scene. There’s always that feeling like, “but he’s a poet,” or “but he hosts the reading series. How could he have done that?” The simple answer is that writers are part of society and society is very misogynistic, so unfortunately we’re not exempt. It reminds me of a conversation I had with Jessie Male, who got her MFA in memoir from Hunter College in New York. At the time, it was a memoir program, and since then they changed it because memoir wasn’t serious enough and was too feminine. Now it’s adamantly a nonfiction program. That is a very loosely veiled misogynistic move. A woman can make a piece of art or writing about her life, and it’s not considered meaningful, and if a man does the same thing, it’s a significant piece of art about the universal story of mankind. In the novel I’m currently writing, I’m having fun with two characters debating about that.
That reminds me of the poem “Chopping Wood,” where you write about how another student wrote a poem about eating a hamburger on the Amtrak. Do you think there’s something about MFA programs in particular that encourages or makes people feel comfortable to abuse others? Is it the hierarchical structure, maybe? Do you have any thoughts about that?
Absolutely, yeah. I recently did a virtual event with Daphné B., one of the translators of the French-Canadian version, and something she said at the event was, whenever there’s power, there’s abuse of power. It’s exactly what you’re saying, anything with a hierarchical structure and having more or less power, that’s going to lend itself to a situation where there’s potential for abuse. Since Gravitas was published, the professor my book is about resigned. But since then, two of the fiction professors who enabled his behavior have gotten in trouble for abusing and harassing female students. One resigned. The other is still teaching there but is not allowed to have students in his office unless he leaves the door open. If you can’t feel safe on a basic physical level with your professor, how can they teach you to write? The professor I mention in the poem “Sexism in Academia” wrote this book about how women get pushed out of the sciences, and I’m sure that’s true. I think what’s added in the context of a creative writing program is an extra element of intimacy. It’s a little extra aspect of the situation that introduces more potential to manipulate people. There’s vulnerability. I mean, if you want gravitas, you need to be writing about something that means a lot to you. So if you’re doing that and sharing that with your professors, that gives them more power over you, which they don’t have to abuse, but a lot of them do.
Yeah, that relationship between professors and students in creative disciplines requires a lot of trust, which makes it even more harmful when that trust is betrayed.
Can you imagine sitting in an office across from a professor and knowing that you’re not allowed to close the door? How are you supposed to open yourself to his feedback? The university making that decision rather than taking his position just goes to show the consistency with which it disregards the lives of its female students.
You’ve mentioned a few writers during this conversation that influenced Gravitas. In the book, you mention that poets like Richard Brautigan and Frank O’Hara were big influences on your work as you were entering grad school. Were there any writers that influenced Gravitas? Or any other works of art or media that influenced your work on the book?
The first person who comes to mind is the Canadian fiction writer Miriam Toews. In an interview, somebody once said that her books were simultaneously deeply sad and very funny and asked her whether that was intentional. I’m paraphrasing, but she said it’s not really intentional, that’s just how life is. It’s always sad and funny at the same time, it’s never just one or the other. I think that’s a very important thing to strive for, at least for me. Can you imagine reading a version of Tender Points with no lightness? I wouldn’t impose that on my worst enemy; nobody would buy that book.
Other than that, the biggest influences on Gravitas were my friends and the conversations we had. I appreciated you saying earlier that all writing is collaborative. For this book, we didn’t sit around and write it together and my name is the only name on the cover, but it was really influenced by my friendships and the conversations I had about these experiences.
That definitely comes through in the book: the power of relationships and friendships, how magical and important they can be, and how those relationships are more nurturing than the hierarchical structure of an MFA program.
I’m curious what your day-to-day writing practice looks like. Does your writing practice change a lot based on what genre you’re working in or what kind of project you’re working on?
I’m laughing to myself, because I had a baby. When I was about six months pregnant, I just couldn’t write anymore. I’d written about a third to a half of a novel before that. I had the baby, and then I was dealing with postpartum depression. I mention that because none of my friends told me about it, but when I told them I was going through it, they said they’d had postpartum depression too. So, it’s a good thing to talk about. Now my baby is ten and a half months old, and I just started trying to make time to write about two months ago. I have childcare two days a week; one of those days is for paid work, and one is a writing day. Often, errands start to take over the writing day. But I’ve started taking iPhone notes; I like doing dictation while I’m driving or walking or feeding the baby and recording notes for my novel. Then when I sit down to write, I can put all the notes into a Google Doc and organize them. I have a really robust outline of the second half of my novel that’s just been in my phone notes. I’ve been telling everyone that I haven’t written much while I was pregnant or postpartum, but so much of that was done during that time.
Are you still involved in a writing group?
Yeah. My last writing group was great, but I was the only person trying to write fiction. Since 2017, I’ve mainly been working on novels. I reached out to a couple of fiction writers who I know, and now I’m in a little group with one other person, and I think we’re going to add a third person. My poet and essayist friends have always given me great feedback, but it’s been really helpful to be in a writing group with someone who has written a novel and thinks more in terms of plot.
Could you talk more about the novel you’re working on?
Right now I’m calling it Untitled Bisexual Jumpsuits Project. The premise is basically this: What if you met this really cool person who wears the same jumpsuit all the time, and you hang out a few times and she gives you a matching jumpsuit and asks you to travel around in a van with her as part of an art project? I was just saying to someone the other day, “I’m so glad I’m finally writing something that’s not about trauma,” and then I realized the novel is about intergenerational Holocaust trauma and depression. But nobody is sexually assaulted! I’m bisexual, and there isn’t great bisexual representation in literature; there are bisexual characters, but not a lot of exploration of biphobia and feeling like you’re not queer enough or not straight enough, etc. So it feels good to write about that.
I can’t wait to read it.
S.J. Buckley is a writer and editor from Delaware. She earned an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where she was the 2020–2021 nonfiction thesis fellow. She also served as the nonfiction editor of So to Speak journal for two years. S.J.’s writing has been published in JMWW, Ligeia, Door Is A Jar, Grub Street, and the So to Speak blog, and featured in the Memoir Monday newsletter. She currently lives outside of Washington, D.C., where she’s working on her first book, an essay collection about the perils and joys of being seen. You can find her at sjbuckley.com.
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