Paul Magee Interviews Forrest Gander

By and | 1 August 2014

PM: Do you use eavesdropping much as a way of composing?

FG: Yes, I do. The last book that I wrote, Core Samples from the World, has a long poem called ‘Moving Around for the Light’ that’s entirely composed of other voices, those of people who live in intentional communities.

PM: You interviewed them?

FG: No, in this case, the photographer, Lucas Folia, recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with people in intentional – what we used to call utopian – communities all across the United States. I listened to these tapes and drew out phrases. It was very like reading a geological landscape: having a mass of language and trying to find structural patterns in it, patterns of credence. It involved listening to hours and hours of conversation and paying attention to the fracture points where things became contradictory, and to the strong beds of belief upon which these particular people base their radical choices.

PM: So are you piecing together verbatim quotations there or are you – ‘generalising’ is the wrong word – are you dramatising perhaps …

FG: No, no, the poem is made of mostly verbatim quotations.

PM: It’s a fabulous poem. It’s really trippy to read.

FG: I’m interested in this as a process. It’s also what Reznikoff does with his books. He’s a poet that’s very important to me. I mean the Objectivists were really important to me. I mentioned Oppen earlier. Reznikoff’s work is almost entirely constructed of other people’s language, including ‘Holocaust’, an almost unbearable-to-read poem which is constructed of the testimony of others from the Nuremburg trials. What I really learned from his ways of using the voices of others is how to disappear. Often when other people’s narratives are interpreted and given to us, what we see is the interpreter, in a big way. That happens in a lot of so-called witness poetry, where you see the burning city and these people suffering through the figure of a poet, standing in front of everything else. Reznikoff is of course there too, making decisions about what to edit. But there’s an extraordinary humility in the way that he allows himself to disappear, in order to reveal the lives of others.

PM: Is there a specific mood you would associate with composition? Or even an absence of mood? Does mood have any relation to when you’re writing, to when you’re right to write?

FG: As you well know, the notion of waiting for inspiration is a pretty bad way of approaching the task of being a writer. You have to show up previous to the inspiration. It’s that unknowing, again: you come without the thing and see what happens.

But the mood for being a poet … it seems to me to be something that one cultivates as a way of being in the world. It’s not just a way of being so as to write on a page. It’s a way of being. One’s poetics are also part of the way one acts in shops, or talks with others.

PM: Perhaps the following is a related question. Whose emotions are expressed in your poems?

FG: I like that question, partly because, as I was cutting my poetry-teeth in San Francisco, we were all questioning the valuation of the emotions of a writer. Significantly, Pound doesn’t mention the writer when he claims that ‘Only emotion endures’.

As for whose emotions endure, I recall that Valéry says it’s not the job of the poet to be inspired, it’s the job of the poet to inspire the reader. The emotions when a reader reads a poem are that reader’s emotions. But whether or not the poet has manufactured them, the poet has explored those emotions and made connections between feeling and the world.

PM: You used the word ‘sincerity’ before, when we were talking about reading other people’s manuscripts, and we discussed the possibility that each poem or poet brings with it, or him or her, a set of criteria. Would what you are saying relate to the idea that a composition needs to have somehow been lived through?

FG: I think that the worrisome thing about that idea is that it leads to glib contentions about whether a line or a poem has been ‘earned’ or not. That becomes a kind of reactionary cliché. It is, nevertheless, our experience when we encounter important work to imagine that we feel its genuineness. This brings to mind something that the artist Ed Roscha says: that when you see bad art you think, ‘Wow! Huh?’; and when you see great art it’s ‘Huh? Wow!’ There’s an unknowing that you have to enter first. The ‘wow’ coming after – that may be the recognition of authenticity.

PM: When you are writing why do you stop writing? In other words, how do you finish poems?

FG: I can’t think of anyone who’s asked me that question before. I don’t have a really good answer for it. I stop writing when I feel I got the thing that I was offered. I’m interested in long poems and in series: one of the things they offer is that you can come to the end of something and then you can start again and approach from a different angle. I really like that. But those also, eventually, come to a closure.

Creeley talked about his work being really all the same work – even though his poems changed dramatically over his life from For Love, to Words, to those late poems with more regular rhymes. He thought it was really all one writing. You put it down and when you picked up the pen again, you were continuing the thing that you’d left. He wasn’t interested in thinking about writing poetry as perfecting a little object, and then moving on to the next one. Instead, and perhaps like my sense of poetics as a way of inhabiting the world, his perspective allowed that the poem doesn’t stop being written.

PM: It’s intriguing what you are saying about Creeley, because I do think of them as little jewels, each of those poems. I don’t see any linearity to them.

FG: Yes, I agree with you. But continuous doesn’t have to mean linear. Creeley felt fairly early on that he’d learned how to make perfect little gems, and he almost immediately lost interest in them. That wasn’t what poetry came to be about for him.

PM: One still has to finish that individual poem, though.

FG: And to find a place to close that out, yes.

PM: Is that something that’s different in each circumstance? Or is there a familiar kind of feel to it? You referred before to having ‘got’ the poem, which sounded to me like a fishing metaphor, as if you had netted something.

FG: I think it’s really various. Also, I think our sense of how things end has changed. It used to be really satisfactory for a closure to be dramatic and very final. Many of us distrust that kind of ending now. We reconceive modes of closure in whatever we call this time we’re in, the postmodern era, the late Romantic period.

I really like the question, but I don’t have a good answer for it.

I do get the sense that I’ve come to the end of a poem’s engagements and that I have nothing significant to add. But it seems too easy to say that’s when my ideas have run out, or where my ideas about this material have played themself through. It’s never about ‘ideas’ anyway. Maybe I only stop when the poem tells me to.

PM: Is it maybe that you know you’ve got something that is likely to engage the reader’s emotions? I’m referring to a sort of a prognosis of the impact that the material might have upon another …

FG: Maybe it goes back to Clifford Geertz’s concept of ‘thick description.’ I mean the sense that you’ve gotten the fullness of an experience, of a perceptual and emotional and intellectual experience, an experience embodied in this language that has body and texture and rhythm – the fullness of that occasion of its expression. The sense that you have really arrived into it. And then you stop and look around.

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