A Conversation with Forrest Gander
BY DOYALI ISLAM
Forrest Gander, a writer and translator with degrees in geology and literature, was born in the Mojave Desert, grew up in Virginia, and taught for many years at Brown University with his wife, the poet CD Wright. Among Gander’s most recent books are Be With, the novel The Trace, and Eiko & Koma, a collaboration with the eponymous movement artists. Gander’s book Core Samples from the World, a meditation on the ways we are revised and translated in encounters with the foreign, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Gander is also a translator whose recent works include Alice Iris Red Horse: Poems by Gozo Yoshimasu and Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda Poems. He’s the recipient of grants from the Library of Congress, the Guggenheim, Howard, Whiting and United States Artists Foundations.
Doyali Islam, interviewer: I am just realizing, Forrest, that you were born in Mojave Desert, and that I was born in Bahrain, which is, according to my extensive Wikipedia research, approximately 92% desert! And you were, very recently, in Thar Desert. Yusef Komunyakaa, in “Notations in Blue: An Interview with Radiclani Clytus” (Blue Notes), speaks about how he grew up in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and how that landscape imprinted on him. He calls it the ‘internalization of a terrain.’ How has desert geology impacted your poetics?
Forrest Gander, poet: Bahrain. I’ve never been to the Arabian Desert, but I would love to see it. So you were born on an outcrop of limestone and dolomite semi-famous for its Sharks Tooth Shale formations, an island surrounded by salt water surrounded by desert. Are there sources of fresh water you remember? I ask, because I wonder how unusual it is, your natal geography. Fifty percent of the world’s population lives within just three kilometers of a body of fresh water. And only ten percent lives further than ten kilometers from one.
I was born in the Mojave, as you note, and I’ve spent time in and written about many other deserts: the Sahara in Libya, the Gobi in China, the Atacama in Chile, the Sonora in the U.S., the Thar in India, the Chihuahua in Mexico, among others. The desert, like the blank page, humbles me like nothing else. No mark I make improves either the desert or the page, but both call to me. And maybe there’s something intrinsic to the human psyche that prompts it to project itself into spaces from which human presence is missing. Maybe there’s something both dreadful and hopeful about a terrain so indifferent to human beings that it manages to repel most traces of the world’s most aggressive species.
DI: I just asked my mother your question, because she has long been the family ‘memory keeper.’ (We left Bahrain before my long-term memory was really in place, although I do have one vivid memory that my sister verified as being true/plausible.) My mother says that she doesn’t recall ever seeing fresh water sources! For the first six weeks of my life, we were staying in the Delmon—a hotel in Manama, close to the Gulf—and the taps ran with saltwater, with which she would brush her teeth. She would fetch water bottles from the ground floor and bring them up in the elevator for our drinking water. This was in 1984. And then, for about two years, we were living in Isa Town—and again, never an experience of a body of fresh water, although the house/plumbing had fresh water. What a contrast against my father’s and mother’s life ten years prior as a young married couple in Toronto, living on the 33rd floor at 24 Mabel, with a clear view of Lake Ontario!
I love what you’re saying about the desert’s ability to repel aggression, and about the human psyche. Sometimes I wish we would spend more time and energy travelling inward, as a civilization, rather than projecting ourselves outward.
Speaking of the human psyche and turning to your most recent poetry book, Be With (New Directions Publishing, 2018), it took me weeks to move past the truth and weight I felt in the William Bronk epigraph: “I thought you were an anchor in the drift of the world; / but no: there isn’t an anchor anywhere. / There isn’t an anchor in the drift of the world. Oh no. / I thought you were. Oh no. The drift of the world.”
Was there a turning point—that is, one that you can recall—when you knew that you could be open enough to work within this emotional terrain?
Which poem in the book did you write first—and did you know it would be part of a full manuscript, then? Similarly, what was the last poem you added to the book? And how would you describe your writing journey—intellectual, emotional, spiritual, political, artistic, and(/or) technical, between these two points?
FG: After my wife’s death, I had no interest in anything, much less writing, for close to a year and a half. I was just barely managing to function at a minimal level. I wasn’t interested in giving any expression to my grief; I was its expression. But I accepted a job teaching at The Writers Community at Squaw Valley where everyone, so-called students and faculty, are given to write something new every evening. There was nothing inside me but abyss, and yet when I bent to the page for the first time to make notes, a tumult came out of me. It was like vomit, an involuntary gush. For the next ten days, I wrote drafts of the poems that came to be the foundation for this book. I think I wrote them in the order that they appear in the book, starting with “Son.”
The last poem I added, “Littoral Zone,” I had drafted years earlier in a collaboration with Canadian photographer Michael Flomen initiated by the editor of Alligatorzine, a terrific Belgium-based literary site. Flomen lays out large sheets of photosensitive paper in streams in the Canadian wilderness at night where they register the light of stars, meteors, the squiggles of small fish and pollywogs, debris, and current. The images are fascinating. It’s difficult to tell if you’re looking at something on a galactic or a microscopic scale. They offer an in-between world, a kind of purgatory I began to think as I looked back on them. I re-wrote those drafts in the context of my mourning.
So one of the signal issues for me was how not to theatricalize grief, the complex ethical questions about turning tragedy into “art.” How do you think about and deal with that, Doyali?
DI: I see the poet-speaker questioning in that way in the opening ten lines of “Son.”
I don’t know if the word ‘grief’ feels quite right for me in the context of my own work, but with regard to grief, longing, pain, and despair and the ethics of writing into these spaces, I think—hope—there’s a way to explore these emotions/experiences without cheapening them or commodifying egregiously our relationships/memories.
I guess I would consider the necessity to write about longing, pain, and despair a poetics of survival. I want to survive. I want you to survive. I want my readers-listeners to survive. I want certain kinds of language to survive. I want certain versions of history to survive. I want questions to survive.
With regard to this poetics of survival, I am thinking about “water for canaries,” “susiya,” and five other poems within my forthcoming book, heft. If I had written these poems as, “These Palestinians have had their homes decimated; let me gaze from a far-away privileged perspective and wail about this tragedy and thereby reinscribe it,” I think that would not be a responsible kind of writing. But the persons in my poems have agency, resourcefulness, courage. I point to tragedy so that I can point to the tragedy itself, but also to what survives tragedy—to what endures.
The kind of poem I would like to write—and I’m not sure I’ll ever manage it, unless “water for canaries” is exactly this kind of poem—would be something like Nikky Finney’s “Liberty Street Seafood,” with those young black men who are cutting and scaling fish behind a counter, as juxtaposed against the white fishmonger. There’s a Cave Canem reading/panel in which Aracelis Girmay talks about how Finney is able to gesture to the brutality done to black bodies by white supremacists, police, et cetera, “without further brutalizing” those bodies. How?—by showing us the fish, and letting the fish “stand in as a kind of proxy.” “The boys are in danger but the fish are the ones being killed” (1:02:45 – 1:04:37 in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9prFEx9Zr2Q).
Anyway, I also hope to never place my poet-speakers above criticism, error, or regret. To render pain in multifaceted and multitoned ways, a poet-speaker must be fallible. …Some of my favorite poems in Be With include the first three—“Son” (found here on The New Yorker website—with wonderful audio, but without the opening insight, “The political begins in intimacy”), “Beckoned,” and “Epitaph”—as well as the prosaic sections within “Ruth” about a son-mother relationship, so I’m not surprised that the poems came out as a tumult, in the general order that they appear. Those first three poems are so charged… And I find fallibility in those first poems—for instance, in the lines, “I gave my life to strangers; I kept it from the ones I love” and in the lines “the / ugliness I originate / outlives me.” I don’t think these moments equate to the “self-abasement” questioned in “Son.”
I think as long as we, as poets, continue to ask ourselves, “What do I want my language and nuance to enable? Where and how do I want to trespass?” we’ll keep trying to create responsible work. And then hopefully our readers-listeners will feel invited to introspect, and a poetics of survival can be an ethics of survival.
But your question also reminds me of a response by Natasha Trethewey in a 1996 Callaloo interview with Jill Petty. Speaking of a series of poems about her grandmother’s work and life, Trethewey says, “I don’t think I would have been able to write those poems if each feeling expressed and what her character goes through in every poem wasn’t something that was close to home, something I knew very well. So it’s still my pain, but I have taken someone’s life and made a picture out of it. And that can be cruel.” So there we have it.
…Returning to your lines, “the / ugliness I originate / outlives me,” they seem kind of inverse to Taha Muhammad Ali’s lines in the poem “Twigs”: “After we die, / and the weary heart / has lowered its final eyelid / on all that we’ve done, / and on all that we’ve longed for, / on all that we’ve dreamt of, / all we’ve desired / or felt, / hate will be the first thing / to putrefy within us.”
FG: Taha! What a wonderful hopefulness and dignity he sustained! How grateful we are to Peter Cole for those translations!
Maybe the act of translation has something to do with what you’re saying, too. In his translations, Peter Cole sublimates himself, he steps aside, makes a space inside himself so that he can receive the music of another mind. It’s a kind of spiritual act. It’s one of the many gifts that Erin Mouré lavishes. Maybe you’re suggesting that if the fish in the Finney poem “stand in as a kind of proxy” for the brutality committed against the fish-scalers, we may be able to see the brutality more sharply, looking at it from a different angle, from what we might call its translation?
But to confront the thing itself directly is also a way, of course, right? Kurosawa says, “Never look away.” There are risks no matter what the trajectory. A poem about suffering, one’s own or that of others, can become almost pornographic with detail. I love the ethical swerve that the normally Technicolor Neruda makes when he refuses to extend an analogy in the poem “I’ll Explain a Few Things:” “and through the streets ran the blood of children / simply, like the blood of children.”
I was compelled to try to find a way to write poems about grief that focused on the one who is missing. (Alice Oswald’s Memorial makes an astonishing art of this.) And as I wrote, I found, as the months went on, the poems reaching out to include more and more of the world. So Be With starts from an intense interiority and then, I think at the moment I include a version of a poem— my friends would call it a translucination—by St. John of the Cross, there is a shift. What can come next is a bilingual poem about the U.S.-Mexico frontera, where I’ve spent a lot of time, and a poem minding a mother and son’s relation as the mother is diminished by Alzheimer’s. As you noticed, Be With begins with the sentence: “The political begins in intimacy.”
Your new book, heft, also moves across political and worldly concerns and toward deeply personal emotional relations, to wit, your own father’s dying. How, for you, does the one fit beside or within the other in a single book?
DI: “The political begins in intimacy” would make a great tattoo!
What I understood from Girmay’s thoughts about Finney’s poem was that, with certain kinds of tragedy—systemic kinds with long histories, such as the brutalization of black bodies—we must be extra careful, as poets, to not, as you say, make it “almost pornographic.” So “Liberty Street Seafood” manages to bring that brutality and its long history into focus by going slant and not making a show of direct re-brutalization. And the contrast in that poem of those beautiful iridescent fish scales on the black skin of those fish cutters… That tension speaks volumes.
Perhaps this is sacrilegious to say, but I haven’t found a way in to Neruda’s work. I only read a few of his poems, and the hips and lips tired me; it was like, enough already! Perhaps what I was reading in English was translation rather than that truer kind of ‘translucination.’ (What a genius word!) (Do you have any poets/poems that you’re supposed to love but don’t?)
Still, I do love the example you gave of Neruda’s sudden shift in “I’ll Explain A Few Things.” I hadn’t read that poem, and I really appreciate your insights into how those lines operate. Do you mean that Neruda makes the choice to not make metaphor out of that blood?—to let the blood be blood, and thus speak for itself? The blood has agency in the moment—perhaps similar to the way that Emmett Till’s body had/has agency to speak from the open casket. …When I read those lines of Neruda’s—“and through the streets ran the blood of children / simply, like the blood of children”—I feel ‘close’ to the blood of the children because no screen of metaphor is impeding it. A moment that is ‘art’ but not ‘Art.’ Is that what you mean?
You are sneakily turning this conversation on me, though! I’ll try to answer your question succinctly: my father is still alive, although he has Multiple Myeloma. I think the poems in heft—written over the past eight years or so—were/are my way of pre-empting distress when he does pass. To come to terms, in advance, with the distance and difficulties within our relationship, and to remember the best aspects of his being. The title of the book comes from a poem called “the ant,” which begins with my father trapping an ant and taking it outside instead of killing it. …Who was it that said if you want to look at who a person is, observe how they treat creatures smaller than themselves, rather than how they treat their friends/equals? …Anyway, it seemed natural for me to bury this ant poem deep in the centre of the book and to place it right after a poem I mentioned earlier, “susiya.” My political consciousness was, in part, cultivated by my father’s concern for justice for the Palestinian people. (At this very moment, he is sitting quietly at the kitchen table in his pajamas, reading Virginia Tilley’s The One-State Solution. My mother, by contrast, is currently on the landline asking TTC for directions on how to get to a dermatology clinic for his appointment. This contrast pretty much sums up their primary modes of being and operating in the world!)
The poems in heft—father poems, global poems, et cetera—cohere through form: split sonnets, double sonnets, and parallel poems that all contain a thin column of white space down the centre of each poem to gesture toward various kinds of rupture but also to gesture toward fertility and possibility. I kind of moved in the opposite direction as you—beginning with a few ‘worldly’ parallel poems and split sonnets and then moving into the familial and personal. I risked more and more as I went. But all of the poems arose from the latitude line of my body, and there is a surprise in the book that speaks to this diction and enables everything to cohere even more tightly! In short, all of my selves—physical, social, philosophical, emotional, political, spiritual—intersect in heft, as I think is inevitable. So the “reaching out to include more and more of the world” that you experienced when writing Be With does not surprise me, and the juxtapositions within—the capaciousness of—your book seems very natural.
Speaking of juxtaposition, in A Faithful Existence, you suggest that “apposing poetics” widen the scope of one’s understanding of a particular poet. So, for example, reading the work of Brathwaite and Keane can add to, imbue, and/or shift our understanding of Walcott’s work. I’m curious which poets—contemporary or otherwise—you feel have an ‘apposing poetics’ to the work in Be With?
FG: I get what you are saying about Neruda. I can’t disparage him; I’ve translated him too. But I’m more of a vociferous advocate for—when it comes to Chilean poetry—Raúl Zurita, Cecilia Vicuña, and Galo Ghigliotto. For me, it was Elizabeth Bishop—the poet I’m “supposed to love.” I certainly admire the work, its luminosity, but it never sunk into me the way it does for most others. I prefer her odder, lexically outrageous, scientifically-fascinated close friend Marianne Moore—although Moore is certainly better on the page than in her public readings (one of which I recently wrote about here).
While reading your incisive remarks on “not making a show of direct re-brutalization,” I wondered if we were both thinking about the same elephant in the room: “outlaw” Kenny Goldsmith reading Michael Brown’s autopsy report as a poem at Brown University, where I taught until just recently.
You get my mind whirring. What you note about judging people by how they treat smaller creatures and friends (agreed!!) calls to mind two examples, one Canadian, one Chilean:
Michael Ondaatje’s “Listening In”: “Overhear her in the bathroom, talking to a bug: ‘I don’t want you on me, honey.’ 8 a.m.”
Nicanor Parra: “EL VERDADERO PROBLEMA de la filosofía / es quién lava los platos,” which you can make out, I’m sure. (THE REAL PROBLEM in philosophy / is who washes the dishes.)
With regard to opposing poetics related to Be With, there is an elegaic book by Jacques Roubaud called, in Rosmarie Waldrop’s English translation, Some Thing Black. It was very important to me when I first read it. But when I came looking for it again, after my wife’s death, I was affected quite differently. Although elegy inextricably connects loss and figuration, Roubaud makes an ethical decision to try to write his poems without recourse to figuration. But still he eroto-dramatizes—it seemed to me in my last reading—his obsession for his wife’s image. It isn’t her absence that replaces her or that he speaks to, but the dark image of her former presence—and he includes as a coda to the book the multiply-exposed nude photographs she took of herself as though she were acting out her own disappearance. Roubaud’s work has been of signal importance to me, and we all metabolize grief differently, but in my own bleak experience of mourning, I couldn’t face, much less eroticize, images of my wife. It’s the images that went dead. For me, it’s still (somehow, impossibly) the very particular person I see and speak with. In my poems and out of them.
It cores us out, loss. I’m speaking for myself, but I’m curious about your split and parallel poems and the way you’ve come to write across a pronounced caesura, a penetrating empty space. What are the rhythmical effects that you’ve been honing? There’s a kind of call and response, no? And maybe an almost forced shift away from iambic pentameter? I love the doubleness of your reading of the caesura as both rupture and fertility. The brilliant Rosmarie Waldrop calls that “gap gardening.”
DI: I haven’t read Cecilia Vicuña or Galo Ghigliotto, but I have read/listened to some of Raúl Zurita’s poetry and interviews, and I love his courage and humanity. I’m wondering now about a passage in Core Samples from the World: do schoolchildren from the closest pueblo still come with shovels to keep fresh the earthen letters in Zurita’s Atacaman inscription, ni pena, ni miedo (page 89 / http://jacketmagazine.com/30/chile.html)?
I love your insight that, because these children turn over the ground and prevent the words from fading, “new editions of the poem are published” “in situ” (89). And thinking about research into Behavioural Epigenetics, I wonder if, in that manual act of shoveling, in that strike and heft, perhaps those children are both acknowledging history and also releasing ancestral trauma: genetic/energetic work.
Speaking of genetic/energetic work, I like very much your reading/sensing of my two-column forms as ‘call and response.’ I think that means you were listening to the work with your whole body, rather than with just your eyes. With my split sonnets in particular, I was playing with the idea of having a volta at the end of line 7, as well as toward the end of the poem. I had never thought of the effects of this kind of play as ‘call and response’ within my own mind, but it makes total sense! I wonder now if there is a kind of code switching occurring between the first and second halves of each poem—but perhaps I need temporal distance to investigate the work in that way.
FG: I’ll get to see Raúl Zurita next week and will ask him your question. It may be that the story of children digging out the letters is partly myth. The poem was bulldozed into a very isolated place in the Atacama desert. But, in any case, it has become a kind of internationally sacred literary/topographical space that many are concerned to caretake.
Doyali! It’s been such a surprise out of nowhere to be introduced to you, and then to be privileged to draw such a wonderful pleasure from getting to stand next to your mind, so to speak, in our conversation, and to come to know your work a little (with that to deepen). So my book, Be With, is already out. But will yours, heft, be in the world by the time this interview comes out? What’s the word?
DI: The pleasure has been mine, Forrest!
As to your question, heft (McClelland & Stewart) will emerge into this world on March 26, 2019. I can’t wait for it to join Be With, which I have seen on bookshelves here in Toronto in such independents as Another Story Bookshop, knife | fork | book, and Type!
And may you and I and so many others continue, through our poetry and ways of being, to investigate and participate in ‘caretaking.’