Thursday, July 02, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Forrest Gander

[photo: Nina Subin] Forrest Gander has degrees in geology and English literature. His recent books include the novel As a Friend, the book of poems Eye Against Eye, and the translation Firefly Under the Tongue: Selected Poems of Coral Bracho (a PEN Translation Prize Finalist), all from New Directions. A United States Artists Rockefeller Fellow, Gander is recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim, Howard, and Whiting foundations. He has authored essays for numerous journals including The Nation, Boston Review, and The Providence Journal. He is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Brown University and his website can be found at

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I read your question at first to mean the first book I owned that changed my life. As a child, I had an illustrated Ojibwa story of Shingebiss, the duck that so resourcefully perseveres through a pernicious winter. My cursed diligence, my passion for ecology and geology, even my name-- which, when I was adopted, became Gander-- seem, in some sense, derived from that tale. When Rush to the Lake, my first book of poems, was published by a cooperative press, Alice James Publishers, my community expanded, but I was already very involved as an editor and writer in that community. I still have the same feeling, with each new book, of intensely wanting to exceed my limitations, to pass myself on the left.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

My grandfather, a Swede, used to walk around the house reciting poems and monologues like Spartacus’ “Ye call me chief; and ye do well to call him chief who for twelve long years has met upon the arena every shape of man or beast...” My mom spoon fed me Edgar Allen Poe (“The Bells” and “The Raven”) and Carl Sandburg. I was writing bad poetry from an early age.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

From copious notes, yes, and slowly. And I always think it’s finished long before it is finished.

4 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I do find I’m interested in book. And I’m interested in serial and long poems. But I don’t have a conception for the structure of a book until, after several years of writing, I begin to find themes, parallels, rhymes. Then I’ll begin to have a sense of what to leave out and how to revise.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

They’re like dates, sometimes really hot and sometimes flat out duds. I like the feeling of knowing the work has made contact. And at the same time, I distrust the drama of the voice.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

See Edmond Jabes’ The Book of Questions and Stephen Field’s translation of Tian Wen.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I’m not prescriptive. I don’t even think writers necessarily should write.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?


9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Skip (Henry Louis) Gates reminds us that there are two kinds of writers: insecure writers who write and insecure writers who don’t.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I’ve translated poetry, novels, and essays, and I’ve written books of poetry, novels and essays. I’m almost completely uninterested in genre distinctions. Like you, rob, I’m given to embracing the whole hog.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I used to have very rigorous and early writing hours. Now the time is less regular and I often feel I’m dying to write. I don’t mean that metaphorically.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Books come from books, as they say. I read. Also, I translate and I travel quite a bit. Both translation and travel bring you into contact with new perceptual rhythms, image repertoires, sounds, impasses. And those can be generative.

13 - What do you really want?

To come closer.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I just used that phrase above. I heard it from Cormac McCarthy. In any case, yes and no. Geology-- I have a degree and lifelong interest in it-- the so-called natural world, the body performing at its limits, art, music, yes yes all of it, everything that feeds the burning tree, but we are reading each jot, if not in the moment of experience, then just afterward.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Michael Ondaatje, Brenda Hillman, CD Wright, Cormac McCarthy, Arthur Sze, Lorine Niedecker, Brian Evenson, Erin Moure, the list is extensive.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d like to write something better than I’m capable of writing. That’s a main, dogged and hopeless desire. I’d like to go to Sweden, where one side of my family is from, and Iceland. I’d like to collaborate with Cy Twombly....

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Had I stayed in geology, I might have gone on to pursue volcanology which still seems thrilling to me.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

A natural sympathy with failure.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Books: Brian Evenson’s Last Days and Coral Bracho’s Cuarto de Hotel. Movies: Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River and Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s 4.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’ve just been editing collaborations with two photographers and a Bulgarian musician. One (“A Clearing”) has to do with rock mines in Burma and the other (“Moving Around for the Light”) with intentional communities in the rural south of the U.S. Versions of both are up on you tube under my name. I’m finishing a book of haibun and poetry called Core Samples, a translation of Mexican poet Pura Lopez Colome’s last book (Watchword in English), and a co-translation with Kyoko Yoshida of selected poems by Kiwao Nomura.

12 or 20 questions archive (second series);

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