A Conversation with Forrest Gander
BY ZACK FINCH
Forrest Gander, born in the Mojave Desert, lives in California. A translator and multi-genre writer with degrees in geology and literature, he’s the recipient of numerous awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize, the Best Translated Book Award, and fellowships from the Library of Congress, the Guggenheim, and United States Artists Foundations. His new book, Twice Alive, focuses on human and ecological intimacies.
Zack Finch: Forrest, I’ve been reading and rereading Twice Alive all summer. These poems are so deeply life-affirming, in a way I suspect will feel necessary to many readers emerging from the trials and tragedies of the past year. The book has such an elegant architecture to it, too, patterned by three movements of repeating types of poems, each opening with a poem called “Aubade.” What was your attraction to this lyric genre and how or why do you think it became a prominent framing device for the book?
Forrest Gander: The aubade takes place in that littoral zone where we find ourselves at the moment of awakening, while we’re still distracted by some retreating dream, before we’re fully strapped into ourselves, before we slide so comfortably behind the wheel of our conscious minds, before the features of the day come clear and perceptions drop into their familiar ruts. It’s when our listening is least adulterated with expectation, when we’re still vulnerable. That’s the time and mode of the aubade.
My three aubades are poems of what Miles Davis called “listening into.” The first is a poem connected to grief. Because if sleep visits us at all in our grief, then when we come into consciousness again, before we open our eyes in the morning, loss is already there—like someone lying beside us and inside us at the same time. And loss has mass, we can feel it taking up space. So we discover absence as another kind of presence. If we listen into it, it speaks to us in the voice of our beloved telling us a dream. And if that voice, that incomparable, uncounterfeitable voice of the absent beloved has come from somewhere within us, then we are awake with all the evidence we need to know that we are communal, that we are both host and hosted.
The second aubade, as you know, is for Ötzi, the name given to a man who five thousand years ago was shot through the shoulder with an arrow and slid into a crevasse on a glacier in what we now call the Alps, dragging with him the implements he carried and wore. In 1991, as ice melted, his perfectly preserved corpse was discovered by a pair of hikers. I don’t know how we can NOT feel involved with him. How we can NOT imagine him as the “listener who listens in the snow” for the sounds to fade around him, for his own death to arrive, for the vastness of the future, rushing forward, to take place without him. Weren’t we there too, killing him and listening in the dark with him?
And in the third aubade, we’re groggy, barely awake. Having boarded a plane at predawn, we turn to stare outward through the plane’s small window only to be met by our own reflection. A doubling. We find ourselves looking in at ourselves even as invisible, silent, subatomic particles rain right through us as though we aren’t there. “Here and not here,” I’ll come to say in the book’s last poem, “Rexroth’s Cabin.” In the condition that gives rise to the aubade, I think we listen through time to the multiplicity of our selves.
ZF: “An Ecology of Intimacies,” the collection’s subtitle, got me thinking of a few things—first of all, that intimacy is something you’ve been thinking about for a while (“the political begins in intimacy” was the epigraph for Be With) and also that nearly all the specific ecologies explored in Twice Alive occur in the company of another person, other people. Contrary to main-line traditions of ecological writing in the West, which often privilege solitary experiences in so-called natural environments, in Twice Alive hardly ever do we find a “solitary” individual hiking in a watershed or studying lichens, despite the fact that I’m sure you sometimes take walks by yourself. Can you say something about how this works in Twice Alive?
FG: A number of people have asked me about the bold-faced words in the title sequence of Twice Alive. What was I up to? I wanted to animate certain words, to give them a different typographical density as though to suggest the presence of an alternate life inside the life of the ongoing poem. The boldfaced words are like nodules or seeds of something else. Independent but connected. And that’s sort of what I’m doing on a larger scale throughout the book, insisting that any self is a congeries of selves. I’m not a Buddhist, but I’ve read a lot of Indian poetry and philosophy, and I think the Sanskrit term anātman, so significant to Buddhist thought, likewise suggests the absence of any singular self. We are never alone. That was one of the great shifts in Western philosophy also—the realization that there’s something quite wrong about Descartes’s announcement that “I think therefore I am.” Because we are already somewhere when we think. And that somewhere is involved in our thinking. We are already in relation to a world inhabited by others, human and not human. Even the language in our heads is the language of others. With this in mind, you can see why I was drawn to lichens which, although we call it a species, is an intimate company—as Creeley might say—of various organisms from two or three different biological kingdoms.
ZF: This understanding of identity as relational and combinatory speaks to the ethical dimensions of your work and of this collection in particular—and I loved how the bold-faced words imply there are so many alternate ways that one might read a poem. Interestingly, you have one poem in Twice Alive that does something very different, expressing a perilous kind of relation to the world: in “Wasteland (For Santa Rosa)” the “I” of the poem suddenly becomes a kind of fire tornado, violently “sucking up // acres of scorched / topsoil and spinning it / outward in a burning sleet / of filth and embers…” This anthropomorphic moment (slightly reminiscent of Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler with its poems written from the perspective of Hurricane Katrina) felt so surprising to me.
FG: I’m more than a little distrustful of personification of this sort, and there’s no poem like it in any of my books. Both this poem and the other “Wasteland” poem are part of that series inspired by ancient Sangam poetry, in which our surround—the landscape—is involved in our subjectivity, in what and how we feel. Just as we, too, affect what is around us—the sensate and maybe even the insensate world. So this question is related to your previous one. The Tubbs Fire which swept into Santa Rosa, the town next to mine, in 2017, killed 22 people and destroyed some 6,000 structures. Untold numbers of animals died. I think about the fire taking into itself all those lives. All those lives become fire. But I’m also writing about myself, about my own greed, my moments of blindness, the times when I’ve gone numb, empty, when I’ve hurt people, when it took a huge dose of remorse for me to begin to feel again.
ZF: Yeah, the end of that poem stands out as a real cautionary tale about the violence of lyric personification, and the all-too-human rapacities of egocentrism. Whereas practically all the poems in Twice Alive do the opposite— their language “senses” the specific surrounds that envelop you in incredibly sensitive, tactile, and often erotic ways. On that note, can you talk a little about the Sangam tradition you mention, and which the series “Sangam Acoustics” is informed by? How did you come to Sangam poetry and what did it open up for you in writing Twice Alive? Do you see these poems as “essentially love poems” the way that the scholar N. Manu Chakravarthy describes the akam genre?
FG: So Sangam, which means “confluence,” is the name given to an impressive body of South Indian literature written between 300 BCE and 300 CE. There were two major trajectories of the poetry—one focused on morality, heroism, and philosophy, and the other focused on the multiple dimensions, the “inner landscapes,” of intimate relations. The ultimate goal of this kind of poetry was the erasure of any distinction between self and landscape. So, two thousand years before Western ecocriticism, the Tamil poets were insisting that human experience occurs in mutualistic relation with the environment. My partner, Ashwini Bhat, introduced me to the classic translations of this poetry by A.K. Ramanujan. After my initiation, I dove in whole hog. I met Ramanujan’s son in Jaipur, I read other translations and critical research on the subject by scholars such as Indira Viswanathan Peterson, Norman J. Cutler, M. L. Thangappa, and Martha Ann Selby. It soon occurred to me that the five major landscapes of Southern India so often referenced in the poems are the same five major landscapes of California, my home state. And I quickly began to imagine a contemporary American poetry inspired by Sangam. The poems you were talking about, the “Wasteland” poems, take on the bleakest aspect of intimate relations; to wit, as you aptly say, the “rapacities of egocentrism.”
ZF: It’s uncanny how Sangam poetics so perfectly fields your own somatic experiments in inscape writing. This blurring of the distinction between self and landscape is why the poem’s language feels so sensual and numinous. This stanza, for example, from “Twice Alive II: Tahoe National Forest”:
long soft sarongs of moss
ensorcel rocks treestumps up-
lifts of granite and gneiss
pine needles blackberry brambles
arching up wet and tousled
I was recently listening to an interview that David Naimon did with your friend the poet Arthur Sze, who spoke about how one possible ethics of an ecopoetics is “letting things be themselves in the poems” (he was actually answering a question you asked David to ask him about poetry and ethics). However, Twice Alive suggests that things are never simply just themselves: as soon as moss gets sensed linguistically, graphically and acoustically—not to mention a metaphor like “sarongs of moss”—the so-called objective world gets transformed (ensorcelled!) into something deeply experienced.
FG: It’s a provocative observation you make, and the poet in you comes clear in your attentiveness to the collectivity of linguistic, graphic, and acoustic qualities in the poems. What they make happen, those lineaments of technique. At one point in the second “Unto Ourselves” poem in Twice Alive, the speaker asks “Whoever / thought anyone was just one thing?” I think Arthur Sze, a renowned mushroom hunter who happens to be visiting me today here in Petaluma, would agree that “itself” is a plurality, a convenient shorthand. I think, when he spoke about “letting things be themselves,” he’s saying something akin to what Pound says, that “The natural object is always the adequate symbol.” In his own poetry, Arthur insistently suggests connections between even unlike things and events through his use of juxtaposition. Our meaning-making minds want to link those two things, to intuit the invisible ligaments between them. And of course, as you sharply suggest with your reference to a “so-called objective world,” there is no world but worlds, no one “thing.” When Wittgenstein asserts “The world is all that is the case,” he doesn’t mean “world” as an abstraction, I don’t think, nor some objective thing we can control by force or ideation. It’s a stopless, insubordinate sequence of events. And our life, any life, always goes beyond itself.
ZF: Wow, say hello to Arthur and congratulate him on the momentous publication of The Glass Constellation! I love that you mention how juxtaposition enacts relational meanings in his poetry, because I’d been thinking about your—somewhat different—use of this technique in Twice Alive. Rather than the dry, crisp disjunctions that one associates with Pound’s “ideogrammatic method,” Twice Alive often negotiates a very fluid crossing or meshing or even dissolution of boundaries between the relating elements. “In the Mountains, Placer County,” from the second “Sangam Acoustics” cycle, is a poem I keep rereading. Made of ghazal-like couplets, almost all of which are nested with parenthetical inlays, you seem to be writing about two narratives at once—an erotic coupling with a lover and a day-hike in the mountains west of Lake Tahoe with that same person:
Where, he asks, as she initiates the uplift, and when
did you learn to do that? (decamping downslope)
A rattler riding its coil (her torso on her hips), she leaves
chatter marks on a succession of moraines
(Dark paired suns) the aureoles dilate
as suction-eddies whirligig along the melt stream
When the supplicant slowly bends, long
thighs separate along the joint plane
No undertow of doubt, every part willing, the forest
encroaches ashen earth (when her knees begin to jerk)
To me, this feels like a daring sort of montage, managed by two distinct sets of vocabulary (geological and physiological), yet the movement is not so much “shot-countershot” as it is a sluice of narrative images in which each context is bleeding into the other, so that the “itself” of the poem is mysteriously composite.
FG: Yes, my own approach in a poem like this is to dissolve the presumed membrane that keeps us from recognizing the way we extend beyond what we call ourselves, the way in which the world (which has already shaped our bipedal, opposed-thumb, eyes-forward bodies) is always a part of us. I’m touched that you caught the give-away nod to the ghazal in the last couplet. My dear friend Agha Shahid Ali wouldn’t have approved of this as a ghazal, but he was a stickler for traditional forms. He loved writing in Sapphics. You speak of “In the Mountains…” as a montage, and that makes sense. But I like to think of it also as a kind of realism. Despite what we may find it convenient to tell ourselves, consciousness isn’t really discrete and unified. It seems to me that the streams of biological and functional phenomena that lead to experience are ongoing, constantly merging. Poetry and art and many spiritual practices have suggested as much. At their best, they lead us, as I write in “Unto Ourselves III,” “To see what’s there and not already / patterned by familiarity.” But I want that kind of seeing to take place in the poems, to be felt there. I’m not interested in proposing—here or in the poems— some kind of abstract phenomenological argument. Suddenly I’m thinking of William Bronk. Do you know his work? It remains durable in me. I’m thinking of the last line of Bronk’s “At Tikal”: “And oh, it is always a world and not the world.”
ZF: Bronk seems pretty durable. He has a sonnet I recall, called “The Real World,” whose final couplet is “There is a real world which does make sense. / It is beyond our knowing or speaking but it is there.” I mention this only because your poems, in Twice Alive especially, are never bound by such limitation:
maculas of light fallen weightless from
pores in the canopy our sense
part of the wheeling life around us and through
an undergrowth stoked with the unseen
go the reverberations of our steps
A macula is an area near the retina where vision is sharpest (I looked it up) so if the sunlight is made of maculas, you get the sort of inter-relatedness that a thoroughly porous realism is referring to. But just so we don’t get tangled in too much abstraction, I was wondering if you could say something about your research into lichens, since this experience was so indispensable to the new book. I understand you worked with Emily Pringle (the mycologist), Lynn Keller (the literary critic), and Emily Arthur (the artist). What was this collaboration like?
FG: Lynn Keller, just finishing her book Recomposing Ecopoetics: North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene, imagined an open-ended dialogue and the possibility of some sort of unspecified collaboration between herself, the Native American artist Emily Arthur, me (in role as poet), and the biologist/mycologist Anne Pringle. We spent time together in a pristine forest preserve at the edge of Lake Huron that had been supervised, originally, by the so-called “father of wildlife ecology,” Aldo Leopold. For me, it was a little like John Cage’s experience in the isolation tank. I’ve spent a lot of time in forests since my childhood, and I can identify many trees and animal species, but I’d never paid much attention to mushrooms or lichens. Being in the forest but focusing my attention on fungi and lichens, I was shocked to find them all around me. They were as hidden and yet present as my pulse, dozens of species, everywhere I aimed my looking. When you pluck a mushroom—and we took many samples, some to cook and eat in the evenings and some to identify and record—you don’t kill the organism since the essential part of the fungus is underground. The mushroom is only the fruiting body. Emily began making casts of the different mushrooms, from which she later made drawings and brass models. Anne identified them and educated us about their respective characteristics. And I started writing poems, drawing from both scientific and sensorial lexicons. Eventually, there was an exhibition at University of Wisconsin which included Emily’s bronze mushrooms on beds of living moss, photographs, broadsides of my poems, and a contextualizing essay by Lynn Keller. Soon there will be a lushly designed book bringing all of our work together. I should say that I drew inspiration for the form of my title poem from Stretched Necks in Stillness, an as yet unpublished translation by Olivia Olsen of a book, particularly attentive to mosses, by the Swedish poet Mats Söderlund.
ZF: Collaboration with others—people and forms—is so deeply woven into the fabric of this book. And the collection ends with a poem that re-imagines a hike you took searching for the place where Kenneth Rexroth used to go to write, in a little cabin in Devil’s Gulch, Marin County. What made you want to end the collection in this way, in relation to Rexroth?
FG: I love collaboration for the way it models a social interaction I admire—the letting go of one’s need to control, the opening to input from others—and from which I keep learning. For me, Rexroth is a signal poet, translator, and activist. For the second time in my life, I’m living close to where he lived. You know “Provincia Deserta,” that dreamy early poem by Ezra Pound of walking in the footsteps of the troubadours? Pound writes:
So ends that story.
That age is gone;
Pieire de Maensac is gone.
I have walked over these roads;
I have thought of them living.
It’s the same for me. There are writers I carry in me, whose work can never be shaken out of me. I like to walk in the places where they walked, I like to think “of them living.” I’m in conversation with them in my mind. They’re not less present for me than my contemporaries. With the wonderful Kyoko Yoshida, I co-translated a book by Kiwao Nomura (Spectacle & Pigsty) which includes a long poem in which Nomura takes a pilgrimage to find the place where Kunikida Doppo, a celebrated poet from the turn of the 20th century, stayed. Doppo’s lodge site is real in as much as it’s a historical marker of the spot where Doppo once lived, but it is not real, since the lodge collapsed long ago and the city of Tokyo has risen around its ruin. While the poem’s speaker ambles through the city toward the lodge site in order to pay homage to the old poet, he remembers Doppo’s poems and wrestles with the continuous, even “infinite” presence of the past in the obliterations and transformations of the present. I guess I think we’re all doing that at times. Whitman does it in reverse, imagining us in the future walking where he has walked. I love those lines: “I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face, / Leaving it to you to prove and define it, / Expecting the main things from you.”
ZF: Just one last question, if you don’t mind, circling back to the notion of “intimacies” we began with. Lately, I’ve been rereading a lot of the late Lauren Berlant’s work, including their essay on intimacy that begins with this sentence: “‘I didn’t think it would turn out that way’ is the secret epitaph of intimacy.” On this note, I wonder if you could say what about the writing of this book felt particularly surprising to you, unprecedented, impossible to foresee? What kinds of swerves did this book serve you?
FG: Be With, the book I wrote before this one, seemed to write itself rather suddenly. Even a year and a half after my wife’s death, I had no interest in writing. I was barely staying vertical. And then, quite unexpectedly, the poems of Be With just poured out of me. When I look now at the new book, Twice Alive, I see how focused it is on acts of listening. In “Aubade,” “Can you hear the voices…” In “Unto Ourselves I,” “if we . . . cared to listen” and “we sensed without speaking….” In “Forest,” “was it / something the earth said?” In “Immigrant Sea,” “where they stand without speaking.” In “Pastoral,” “before it // became visible we heard….” In “Sea: Night Surfing,” “I duck and listen a moment underwater.” In “Unto Ourselves III,” “but what language are you whispering to me?” In the title sequence, “a / vascular language prior to our / breathed language.” And in “Rexroth’s Cabin,” “you squat, listening in the tangible density of what is and isn’t there.” I have no doubt that after the trauma of losing my stepfather, my wife, and—during the pandemic—my mother in a very short time period, I was profoundly altered. Whatever afflatus I thought I had before that sequence of deaths was scooped out of me like stuffing. Instead of initiating a poem or imagining a writing project, I just found myself listening more attentively and considering what might be at stake in each moment. Simone Weil said that prayer was a kind of listening, not an asking. In that sense, these poems came very gradually as responses to my secular prayers, as modes of “listening into,” as forms of opening toward a heightened level of reception. But I didn’t notice that until the book was already out in the world.