Interview with Forrest Gander

by Ann van Buren

Ecopoet, Forrest Gander, will read his poetry as part of the Katonah Poetry Series on October 17, 2021. For more info and to pre-register go to this page.

KPS interviewer, Ann van Buren, spoke with Forrest in September, online, from their respective homes on the East and West coasts. Here is a lightly edited version of that conversation.

Ann van Buren: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us at KPS and more importantly, for the work that you do for nature and spirit in every form. I’m currently reading a book by a native American professor and forest biologist named Robin Wall Kimmerer. It is called Gathering Moss, A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. It talks about a lot of what you say in your poems.

Forrest Gander: That’s very interesting I’ve been reading a new manuscript by Brenda Hillman these past three days. It’s also focused on moss. She has a section that’s dedicated to Kimmerer.

AvB: I look forward to seeing that book when it comes out!

Your writing and perhaps your very existence is focused on interconnectedness. It explores this theme on the personal, planetary, and universal level. Can you tell us how this relates to the outline of your most recent book? The poem titles “Twice Alive,” “Aubade,” “Unto Ourselves” and “Sangam Acoustics” appear three times in this volume, although slightly altered. How does this structure relate to the concept of Sangam Acoustics? When did you discover this ancient Indian philosophy and text?

FG: On the personal level, interconnectedness is my focus, in part, because I lost my wife, the great poet CD Wright, nearly six years ago. I still feel her presence constantly.

I also had the opportunity to spend some time with the noted mycologist, Anne Pringle, up in Wisconsin at a research center in a very pristine forest. I became fascinated with lichen there. But it was Brenda Hillman who first turned me on to lichen. She was going around everywhere with her jeweler’s loupe checking out rocks. Later, my interest was compounded by my time with Anne Pringle. What I learned is that there are a number of elements—not just algae or cyanobacteria and fungi—that come together and are transformed into this new collaborative creature we call lichen. The components of lichen can’t ever go back to what they were, and the new organism—if that’s what it is—or this synergy of organisms—takes on properties that hadn’t existed before. Lichen are a kind of second act, a collaboration that models a new form of life for the component organisms.

To answer the second part of your question, when Ashwini Bhat, my partner now—who grew up in Southern India—turned me on to translations of Sangam poetry, I discovered a philosophy and a poetics that manifested the understanding that the self is always a part of the landscape around it. Self and its surround are interrelated to an extent that is inextricable. Sangam means convergence, which fits in with everything I’ve been thinking about. It also seems to anticipate—two thousand years ago—what’s now often called Eco-poetry. The sequences in Twice Alive—Sangam Acoustics—are a reimagining of the Sangam tradition in the context of California. The “Unto Ourselves” poems take on different different trajectories, but are also connected to the theme of convergence.

AvB: The last piece in Twice Alive is an essay by N. Manu Chakravarthy, a literary critic and professor of English in Bengaluru, India. The professor gives us a background to Sangam Acoustics and states that your work “cannot be interpreted as a translation of the cultural idiom of classical Tamil.” It is original. As a translator of many books of poetry and a professor of that art, would you say that what we consider to be good “translation” is, to a large extent, original and a reflection of the translator’s mind-state? Do you think there is potential for the teaching of a Sangam poetics in the United States?

FG: Let me answer the second question first, with a resounding YES! I think Sangam poetry has a lot to offer us in the Western world about our relationship between humans and the non-human. That’s also been an aspect of a lot of Native American thinking and it’s something I think that we need to re-engage in order to save the planet from the short-term, selfish, totally human-centered, logocentric thinking that underlines our exploitative relationship with the earth. So I think it has a lot of relevance for us now. And the first part of your question, Ann?

AvB: I’m wondering how that relates to translation.

FG: So I think Professor Chakravarthy is noting that my approach isn’t some kind of cultural appropriation. It’s more of an analog shift from the traditional Sangam poetry. As for translation, what you asked might be problematic, in my view. Of course, there are different kinds of translation. Some translations are very loose, some are imaginative flights on an original, and I think it’s fair for the translator in every case to be upfront about what the intention is. In the kinds of translation that I’ve mostly practiced, I’m not interested in just representing myself and turning someone else’s work into my own. In some ways, I think I do just the opposite. My practice is to get out of myself, to listen so deeply that I enter the music of someone else’s mind. I think of that as a kind of spiritual activity.

AvB: I’m thinking about a conference in Easton, PA, long ago, where Merwin spoke about translation and this distinction between the translation word-for-word and the actual translation of words as poetry. I think you’re doing the latter.

FG: The worst translations are made by scholars who are perfectly bilingual but who don’t really have the poetic intelligence that would keep them from very literal translation. Merwin is very aware that sounds themselves have meaning. They need to be taken into account. Language’s meanings aren’t solely semantic. The nuances of words in one language don’t usually translate directly into other languages, so you need to take risks. Merwin was brilliant at doing that and very intuitive. I’ve learned a lot from him. As a poet, I’m not interested in creating a translation document; I want to create a poem.

Merwin brought attention to the art of translation in a time when the United States was very monolingual and most people simply weren’t very interested in what was going on in other languages and in other countries, not only in literature, but generally. His generous attention brought into our literature the richness, the imagery, sometimes the sounds and syntactical differences of other languages. His passion for otherness—an animal otherness, a plant otherness and in other languages and cultures—was healthy for nourishing the kind of America that I want to be a part of. And I imagine you do too.

AvB: Absolutely. I feel like I am a part of it.

Tell us about the innovative typography that you incorporate into your work. Some poems are flush left and appear to be traditionally formatted. Others use large black dots instead of line breaks. Then there are the poems with jagged line breaks—poems that are sprawled across the page the way that wind, water and landforms alter the trajectories of what might move through them—

FG: I’m glad you read the poems that way. Thank you.

AvB: Twice Alive also includes photos. Is it my imagination or are the typographical elements of the poem “Redwoods” similar to the lines in the bark of the redwood tree?

I’m also wondering if these changes in typography occur as you’re writing or in the editing process and if you can talk more about these various techniques that seem to appear throughout.

FG: Sure. They do, and I don’t think them out ahead of time. The poem gradually comes together from notes to drafts and as I’m working on those drafts and working out the relationship of form and content. The large black dots that fit inside the caesura between fragments in the poems—those are also breaking up the habitual rhythms of iambic pentameter. I’m setting up almost a call and response across that gap and also maybe a kind of erotic longing between the start of a phrase and its completion. And so we pause—and I think that helps us pay attention to the language.

I’m grateful for your interpretation of their movement across the page—enacting the movement of fire or rhizomes—they are doing just that.

“The Redwoods” was inspired by the Australian poet Stuart Cooke. I had been engaged by a magazine called “Emergence” to work with the artist Katie Holten who makes alphabets of trees. We went into the redwood forests and developed a collaboration. I photographed a lot of the redwood forest at the time.

Those images of bark and tree trunks prompted me to think of using lines, backslashes and forward slashes, as a motif for representing the structure of cavities in the redwood’s thick bark.

AvB: Wonderful! I saw the tree’s structure. It was very visible in the words and typography.

Your website includes poetry that’s presented in the context of movies and still images. Do you look at these images as illustrations or as integral to the poem itself?

FG: I think of the poems as working independently, but I don’t think that it’s the only work they can do. When I make a poetry film, I’m trying to make something operatic. I’m thinking of the poem in another mode, making meaning in a different context. I don’t want the film to be illustrative. I want it to be sort of like the Sangam—a convergence, a coming together of the pulses of image and voice. I’m interested in all the things language can do, not just one thing.

AvB: I’ve been thinking of video poems as a new way of sharing poetry vs. poems on the page.

FG: Yeah. There’s something I really love about poetry on the page, poetry without any visual reference except for the reference that the words themselves make. I think it’s kind of miraculous that although our culture is focused on spectacle and on the streaming visual, people keep being drawn to poetry. As language is reduced to Twitter feeds and Facebook emoji’s, there is a kind of diminution of lexical range and nuance. I’m not criticizing these forms of language, because Twitter and emojis can also be creative forms, but our computers collaborate with the general diminution by correcting our grammar and by providing us a range of limited choices. I think about what a miracle it is that someone, alone in the room with a book and nothing else, can feel expanded, harrowed, touched. Polls and surveys tell us that poetry is wildly more popular than it’s ever been. A lot of that increase in interest is coming from people of color and the young.

AvB: Do you think that this popularity is, in part, because there is more performance of poetry? The Spoken Word poetry of Amanda Gorman caught the eye of everybody.

FG: I think that’s part of it, yes I do, but I think there’s also an interest in the language itself. Language has a particular capacity to express experience—emotional, intellectual, spiritual experience.

AvB: I’ll think about that—

FG: Everyone who falls in love suddenly becomes a poet. They want to understand and begin to articulate the incredible nuances of what they feel.

AvB: True! Poetry speaks to/through something that makes us human.

FG: An anthropologist told me that every human culture ever been studied has had some form of poetry, often connected to shamanism and healing as well as visionary experience. He said the three things that tend to be present in every human culture are some sort of laws about incest, some special ritual regarding how we treat our dead, and poetry.

AvB: Wow. I hadn’t thought of that particular set of threes.

Speaking of anthropology, you hold degrees in geology and literature but your work encompasses so many other disciplines as well. I’m alluding to your explorations of intentional communities in the US and abroad. One might also consider your work to be a kind of anthropology. You also collaborate with photographers and artists. Can you tell me how you find your way into these different niches and how they circle back to my original question about interconnectedness?

FG: Yes. Thanks for asking that. The Romantic version of the poet alone in a small garret writing works of genius is a very rare case, really almost never the case. Our language has come to us from others. The words that we use are the words that we inherited and those words have structured our minds. So we’re involved at the outset with those who have preceded us on the earth; we start in collaboration. And that collaboration models a form of social activity that I really admire. It has to do with our integral relation with others, not just with some Romantic notion of the rugged individual. Although that’s part of the mythology of America, in fact, everything is done with others and ethics might be defined as how we account for otherness, the kind of empathy we experience with otherness. So collaborations have led me to give up my sense of complete control and helped me learn to listen. Listening to others, to otherness, can lead us in directions we would never take by ourselves. I find collaboration to be both a model and a useful way of making discoveries.

AvB: That’s wonderful. So you mention this collaboration that incorporates trees into the shape of letters.

FG: Yes, Katie Holten has made alphabets from the forms of trees. They’re really wonderful. That work, and our collaboration, was published in a magazine focused on spirituality and ecology called Emergence.

AvB: You curated a reading as part of The Brooklyn Rail. It was a delight to hear you read, along with Vievee Francis, Ranjit Hoskote, David Shook and Rosmarie Waldrop. What unites the poets you called together to be part of this reading and what do you look for in a writer’s work?

FG: I look for writers who aren’t simply repeating the forms and styles or themes of poems that others have written. I look for the particularities of voice. The work of those four poets is completely different. Vievee Francis has moved from Texas to Michigan to North Carolina to the northeast, navigating a healthy—and often unhealthy—dose of America. She has an unusual intelligence and modes of expressing it. Rosmarie is one of our most important, innovative, avant garde poets. Her recent and moving work focuses on the body and aging. Ranjit Hoskote, not yet well known here, is one of the most prolific and exciting contemporary Indian poets writing in English and a translator. David Shook is as much a translator as a poet. His poetics has been shaped by his astonishing international experience.

AvB: I think you answered this question but I’m a little curious. Do you think that the appellation of “Ecopoet” is limiting?

FG: No. I’m not proposing that everyone become an Ecopoet, but I am recognizing that we all live in a time of unprecedented ecological crisis. So I’m one of many poets who feel a responsibility to write into that, to speak to it, to try to take some responsibility for the situation that we’re in and to imagine a way out of it. I think that scientists have been warning us for a long time that this was coming and that the oceans were acidifying; that the coral was dying and fish disappearing; that the whales are dying off. People aren’t always persuaded by the language of science, so I think it’s going to take a chorus of others, including artists and poets, to affect a more wide-scale change of a hardened point of view for all of us.

AvB: I agree. And the reverence that you have for life and life’s processes is so beautifully represented in your work. I’m thinking of all of the things that people don’t notice. It takes a special awareness to notice what’s out there and what our impact is. One of my pet peeves is when I see moss that’s been disturbed by hikers. It’s significant that everybody wants to go jump on the spongy moss. But no! Don’t step there! Walk where the deer have walked already. Don’t disturb the moss!

FG: That was one of the things that surprised me about being with Anne Pringle and these mycologists. I’d spent a lot of my childhood alone in the woods. My mother was a schoolteacher and busy when I came home from school. I didn’t have a present father. I spent my time in the woods. I learned to identify trees and amphibians and reptiles and lots of the things I encountered. But it wasn’t until I was with these mycologists that I became aware of how surrounded we are by fungi! They’re everywhere, and I hadn’t noticed how ubiquitous they are. As you know, they have secret lives. We see the only the so-called fruiting body, but the better part of them is underground.

AvB: It’s phenomenal.

FG: Part of the work we do, as teachers, artists, parents, and as poets, is to draw attention to the things. That goes for other cultures, other languages, but also all of the details of the world around us. If it’s only the human world we see, then we’ve become disconnected from ourselves, from the very source of our being. That work of paying attention is critical.

AvB: I really appreciate everything that you do. Thank you so much. We look forward to seeing you at the KPS reading at 4PM on October 17, 2021, in the Katonah Village Library.