Forrest Gander is the author of numerous volumes of poetry, including Eye Against Eye (New Directions, 2005), Torn Awake (New Directions, 2001), Science and Steepleflower (New Directions, 1998), Deeds of Utmost Kindness (Wesleyan, 1994), Lynchburg (Pitt Poetry Series, 1993), and Rush to the Lake (Alice James, 1988). He is also the author of a novel, As a Friend (New Directions, 2008), and a book of essays, A Faithful Existence: Reading, Memory, & Transcendence (Counterpoint, 2005), as well as several volumes of translation, most recently Firefly Under the Tongue: Selected Poems of Coral Bracho (New Directions, 2008). The recipient of many awards, including fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim, Whiting, and Howard Foundations, Gander serves as Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Brown University. Andy Frazee conducted this interview over e-mail, from October 2008 through February 2009.
From your first book of poetry, Rush to the Lake, to your most recent, Eye Against Eye, there has been a movement from what we might call discrete lyrics to longer sequences or series. In A Faithful Existence you write that "if we approach [human experience] with a different model, we will ask different questions." Although in that essay you are discussing scientific methodology, if we assume that the discrete lyric and the sequence are two different models, two different poetic methodologies for approaching experience, what do you see as the differences in the questions asked?
Maybe it’s something like marriage, the sequence. The wham-bam impact of the discrete poem has endless variations of course, and I like them. But there’s something compelling about a commitment over time to a singular development, a signal promise that the serial or long poem draws from writer and reader. And then subtle connections—rhythmical, thematic, syntactic, imagistic, sonic—deployed across wider intervals. There’s both a faithfulness and an erotics in the sequence which appeals to me. Prolongation and delay, the extended play.
Also, facing the same poem every day—rather than starting a new one—is another kind of challenge for the imagination, like high monogamy. You prod yourself to keep it, as Miles Davis would say, on the one. It demands all your resources to keep it going, to keep it transformative, surprising. The first sequence I wrote was “Life of Johnson Upside Your Head” in Lynchburg, my second book. After researching unreleased recordings of Delta blues musicians at the Library of Congress, I spent a summer in Hog Jaw, Arkansas, near Lead Hill, in a cabin miles from paved road. I paid visits to communities where many Delta musicians had passed—Memphis, Three Forks, Robinsonville. On those rural dirt roads, you often find yourself walking up one tire rut and talking across a low mound of rock and weed to someone in the parallel rut. You’re always a car’s width apart and so conscious of conversation as a kind of call and response. On foot in the country, your perception is more telescopic than it is in other places; there are multiple levels of borrowed scenery. You see the person you are talking to and the scrim of trees on the other side of her and the field through the trees and hills beyond the field. All of this is to say I’m interested in perceptual rhythms and how they change in different situations. And I’ve felt I could best explore the complex of those rhythms in sequences. In “Mission Thief” from Eye Against Eye, it’s the Mission District of San Francisco. In “Carried Across” from Torn Awake, it’s Mexico City. Taking on place as event requires some room.
You've described your recently published first novel, As a Friend, as a work "that may escape genre description—a melding of poetry and prose, incantation and narrative." How did the book come about, and in what ways may it be (or not be) an extension of your poetic work? What does this melding of genres achieve that couldn't be achieved through any one genre?
From the late 70’s on, the lyric has been under sustained, healthful critique. These days, the focus on line break seems to have been eclipsed by a focus on juxtaposition. Many poets are as suspicious of conspicuous musical prosody as of any equation between truth and beauty. While notable poets are writing beyond conventional genre boundaries, some influential prose writers—David Markson, Carole Maso, and John Wideman come to mind—veer toward poetry. I’m more interested in writing, period, than in genre. For most of my writing life as a poet, I’ve been keen on the line, on how perceptual and emotional registrations might be sharpened by line break or by the staging of line across page. In my books from Deeds of Utmost Kindness to Torn Awake, I was particularly absorbed with developing emotional and intellectual depth through polyrhythms, stacked clauses, and multiple voices. I drew from a wide range of lexicons, from my background in geology to my obsession with photography, from the rollercoaster experience of fatherhood to the erotic life of adults. For all its limitations, expansive lyric prosody can unleash a deep and complex realm of feeling, one that often seems to characterize my actual experience of being awake in the world. But I’m interested in other strategies and in other inquiries. I worked on that slim novel, As a Friend, for nineteen years. It was hundreds of pages long, I stripped it down, I built it up again, I flailed through I don’t know how many versions. It took me nineteen years to figure out how stop trying to write like “a novelist” for one thing, and to figure a way for myself.
In A Faithful Existence you discuss the Mayan belief that "the final apocalypse, the one they predicted for our time, would be brought about by … hubbub, commotion," which I relate to the inundation of information we receive through the media and the quasi-art of advertising. What do you conceive as poetry's role in such an environment?
Nietzsche called himself a teacher of slow reading. I think poetry itself is a teacher of slow reading and that in our age of spectacle, poetry is often that anti-spectacle summoning us to insight. I’ve always felt that in the silences within poetry, a transformative inquiry opens.
In a 2007 interview conducted in Sarajevo, you responded to the question "How is it to be an American nowadays" in this way: "As I was assembling the anthology [Ten Significant American Poets]… I noted that the last sentence in Ben Lerner's biographical note reads: 'He is currently ashamed to be a citizen of the United States.' I think he speaks for many of us."
As I think through and write this question on the morning of Tuesday, November 4, 2008—Election Day—I wonder what relation you see between poetry and political life. Your poetry doesn't seem as overtly "political" as, say, Adrienne Rich's often is—or, as another example, Juliana Spahr's. What do you see as the political role of poetry? Is it primarily one of being "the anti-spectacle," the source of "transformative inquiry"? How may your political views come into play in your writing—or, to re-phrase the question, how do you see them expressed in your work?
Ben Lerner’s work seems to me exemplary in this respect and others. As for my own, I think the politics are intrinsic if not overt. “Life of Johnson Upside Your Head” is a paean to the delta blues musicians of the 1930’s, but it’s likewise a depiction of a racist and segregated south. I’d say its politics are implicit in the angle of attention. In “The History of Manifest Destiny” in my book Science & Steepleflower, I reference language and scenario from Archibald Menzie’s Journal of Vancouver’s Voyage in 1792 to highlight the astonishing presumptions of the Europeans who, with unremitting brutality, aimed to render a new world of plants, animals, and human beings into commodities. In Torn Awake’s “The Hugeness of That Which is Missing,” a dehiscent narrative of flickering faith takes place in the radioactive desert near the Pahute Mesa Test Site. And in another poem from that book, “Carried Across,” I braid Spanish phrases into a meditation on “national, ethnic, linguistic affiliation” in the construction of the word “we,” that designation that every cultural group uses to distinguish itself from “them.” To me, all these poems are political even as my choice to explore material through inquiry and implication is itself a choice with political dimensions.
More recently, the first long poem in Eye Against Eye, “Burning Towers, Standing Wall,” links historical violence to America’s 9/11, drawing into encounter the way the past and others, even the dead whose marks we can still read, fill out our experience of now and self. An anonymous reviewer for Publishers Weekly, not always noted for the depth of its analysis, read “Burning Towers, Standing Wall” as a poem that “examines Mayan architecture in Mexico, turning the visible stones, their ‘mutilated stelae’ and ‘rubbed out glyphs,’ into a plea for patience in the face of violence….” I’d agree and say I consider that my work is generally political, and that the intensive way I reference the so-called natural world is political, and that my focus on the domestic is political, and that my choice to translate Mexican and Latin American writers is political. There are sundry valid approaches. Not every poet needs to pound a gavel to convene the light.