Paul Magee Interviews Forrest Gander

By and | 1 August 2014

PM: Is the critical voice the one concerned with what might be there?

FG: Right.

PM: Can you expand on your point before about reading in terms of someone else’s poetic, and how that’s different to reading your own work?

FG: With my own work, I might be interested in poly-rhythms and counterpointing, and a sense of lyrical propulsion. Someone who sends me her work all the time, Brenda Hillman, is much less interested in writing poetry defined by terms like those. She’s doing something else. So I have to be reading her work according to what it calls for. My own writing smells of my body and my rhythms. With Brenda’s work, I don’t want to be looking for the same things that I would look for in my work, because they’re not what makes hers work.

PM: Is that like saying that every poem brings with it its own criteria?

FG: Yes. Don’t you think so?

PM: Yes. I think that must be how I work critically. You can’t have a blanket set of criteria for all poetry, because then you wouldn’t be open enough to it.

FG: I think people used to have an idea that there might be such a thing, a blanket set of criteria. So they would talk about poems of eternal values, or things like that. But I don’t think that holds up.

PM: Are you saying then that for each poet there’s a different way of judging, a different set of criteria they bring with them?

FG: This is what Zukofsky and Pound talk about in terms of ‘a measure’, the idea being that one’s ‘measure’ has to be particular. One’s sincerity is identifiable and uncounterfeitable and all one’s own. That’s why this guy writing in this new edition of Harper’s magazine, who thinks that current poets should sound like Shelley, is so ridiculous. It’s not good enough to be working in the terms of someone else’s sublime. You have to make your own sublime.

PM: So you previously used to work with a community, whom you sent things to. Were they poets or non-poets?

FG: Mostly poets.

PM: And do you feel you learnt a lot from working with them?

FG: A whole lot. That’s who I’ve learned from. I mean that’s who I’ve primarily learned from my whole life.

PM: Given, you’re no longer sending stuff out to them, I’m wondering if you feel you have internalised that community of voices, to the point that you carry them with you?

FG: I’m in touch with lots and lots of poets. In fact one of the things that occurred to me to say, when you asked what kind of a poet I am, is that I’m a poet who’s very interested in international poetics. I want to know what people are doing in other places. I feel very much a part of a company, an active part of a company of poets all over, in Russia, Poland, Japan, China, Latin America. I’ll share my books with those people.

PM: How important is it to your own work, your own production as a poet, that you are reading contemporaries? Let’s say you stopped reading at Wallace Stevens, and decided only to read him and people prior to him. Would that affect how you’re writing, do you think?

FG: I do think it would affect how I write. Though I just read an interview with a poet who lives in Petaluma named Clark Coolidge. A jazz drummer, he’s connected with the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, but he also has a great lyric ear. He said that he thought for a long time that it was his job to keep up, and he had only recently realised that keeping up wasn’t necessarily his job. I think he’s still writing relevant poetry. But he’s in his seventies now.

It’s maybe different for different poets. I’ve also encountered people who didn’t want to read any contemporaries because they didn’t want to be ‘influenced’ by them. And I know that when Michael Ondaatje is writing fiction, he won’t read any contemporary writers. He’ll read writers from other centuries.

For me, poetry is community. It’s a way of being tensed against the aesthetics of all of those around us. It’s an active engagement and its activity is conversational. I’m still interested, in this point in my life, still very interested in that conversation and in what I have to learn from it. So I feel like staying tuned. Reading widely, avidly and internationally brings me into contact with the things that continue to transform me and to transform my poetics.

PM: Are you meanwhile reading many of the classics? Or even reading obscure people from the past?

FG: Yes. I taught at Harvard for a while and was interviewed by Helen Vendler. Vendler’s opinion is that before you read your contemporaries, you really need to bone-up on the history of poetry up until now in your ‘own tradition’ so that you have some basis to stand on. But I don’t think that’s how it’s ever worked for artists. Mostly you get on board in your own time, and then you get excited, and then you take the bus in both directions at once.

I read a lot of older work. I’ve been writing about Sappho translations recently. I teach Catullus. I teach as far back as the Greeks. There are also 19th century writers that I regularly teach like Hardy – I can recite Hardy for 24 hours – and Hopkins and others. The same with novelists.

PM: I’m getting the sense that reciting is an important part of poetry for you; also that there’s a great deal of poetry in your memory for you to draw on.

FG: It’s related to what I was saying before: I think our knowledge of the world is through the body, and that language comes out of the body. For me and my body, the way my memory operates, I don’t have to work at memorising poems. I will, all of a sudden, find that I almost know a poem by heart, as we say, and if I pay a little bit of attention to learning what I don’t have down yet, it will stick with me. Those poems make up part of the company inside of me, the company of voices and of friends. That company’s extensive, it’s international, it’s multilingual and it’s across history. And that’s a really beautiful fellowship to keep.

PM: It must be. I’m going to turn to a second set of questions, ones that are more about composition. If I can start with a quote, I’d like to get your reaction to the following. It’s from Auden’s T.S. Eliot lectures:

When we genuinely speak we do not have the words ready to do our bidding, we have to find them. And we do not know exactly what we are going to say until we have said it and we say and hear something new that has never been said or heard before.

I’m wondering how those words sit with you?

FG: I love that. Creeley says it in a different way. He says ‘I see as I write.’ He says that it’s only in the act of doing the thing, that fresh language comes to pass. The Wordsworthian notion of ‘reflection in tranquillity’, the past-tenseness of that engagement with writing, is not something I feel close to. I’m drawn to the unknown. St John of the Cross says

Entréme donde no supe
y quedéme no sabiendo,
toda ciencia trascendiendo.

[Forrest translates]

I entered into unknowing 
and I remained there without knowing, 
rising above all science.

So I’m with Auden there. Though I like the early Auden better than the later Auden.

PM: When you’re composing a poem, are you ever visualising what you’re writing about? I mean are you largely hearing words, or are you describing something you’re imagining?

FG: For me, often the words come before the imagination. The sound of the word leads the way.

But I would really hate to codify an approach. I’m interested in taking a lot of different kinds of approaches. I’m also very interested in description, in looking at something and moving into that, starting with an image and digging in and building out—

PM: Are you referring to writing with an object directly in front of you? Or having one in your mind’s eye?

FG: Well, for instance in a series of poems I’ve written about photographs by Sally Mann, it’s about looking at something that’s right in front of me and entering in. The image, in that case, opens the words. In other cases, it’s the words that open up a rhythm, that open up the possibility of the next word … I think the approaches are infinite. But, as we were saying before, it’s a listening. Even in the looking, it’s a listening to what you’re looking at. Simon Weil says that prayer is a kind of listening. David Antin talks about ‘tuning.’

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