Ask a Poet: Forrest Gander

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Welcome back to our Ask a Poet blog series! Leading up to the 2018 Dodge Poetry Festival, we will be putting the spotlight on poets you can see at #DPF18, October 18-21. Learn more about a new Festival Poet every Wednesday and Friday, presented in no particular order.

Today, we’re getting to know Forrest Gander!


XGander1What is the role of poetry in today’s world?
Poets ask themselves this same question all the time. Some people say cultures have moved away from words, towards image: movies, video, spectacle instead of quiet hours of reading. But in Roman times, two thousand years ago, poets shared work and read out loud in the street and most people ignored them and went to see the spectacle of lions eating gladiators in the coliseum. Ask yourself: what matters to us now from Roman times? It’s the literature and the art, not the wild spectacles or the names of lions. We see those times and hear the voices of those times in poems by great Roman poets. Literature has a way of enduring, of making a deep impression on our souls. I think it’s the same way now. In every country on earth, in every culture, young people are writing poems. The young continue to find poetry. Poems, the keenest deployment of language, seem to fill a need in human beings, some longing for a sharper articulation of our feelings, our imaginations. Poetry doesn’t make anyone much money, but it helps people to recognize themselves, and so it has a place in today’s world. You sometimes have to look for it, but maybe that makes it even more valuable to find.

Tell us about your favorite experience reading for an audience.
Let me answer that from the side of the audience, with someone else’s reading. Michael Ondaatje has a poem—and the poem is way better than my narrative of it—in which he describes some memories of a close friend. The friend has come to a poetry reading to hear a poet whose work he doesn’t know. He’s sitting in the front row when the poet appears on his left and goes up to the podium. After two poems, Ondaatje’s friend realizes that he absolutely can’t bear this guy’s poetry. He starts looking desperately for a way to escape, but he’s in the front row. To his left, he sees a door that he presumes the featured poet must have entered the room through, so after the next poem, he jumps up and walks quickly to the door, opens it up and steps into . . . a broom closet. He stands there for a while in the dark and he starts laughing uncontrollably, so hard that he’s sure everyone in the room has heard him. When he gets control of himself, he opens the door and goes back to sit down in his seat again.

What is the funniest/strangest response you’ve ever gotten to telling someone you are a poet?
At a party I was at in Arkansas, a fundraiser for Bill Clinton, I was talking with a man, each of us with a glass of white wine in our hands. I’m usually uncomfortable in those situations anyway, but this guy had cornered me. He was talking nonstop and I was listening for ten minutes or so, when finally he asked me, Well, what do you do? I said, I’m a poet. He looked at me like I’d said I was an alien come to abduct his children. Really, his eyes dilated in disgust. And he just turned and walked away as though he had wasted all that talking on me. Later, I asked someone who he was, what he did. Turns out he was a proctologist. He spent every day looking into people’s butts, and he thought writing poems was crazy.

Forrest Gander is a writer, translator, and editor of several anthologies of writing from Spain and Mexico. His 2011 poetry collection Core Samples from the World was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His other books include two novels, As A Friend and The Trace; the poetry collections Eye Against Eye, Torn Awake, Science & Steepleflower; and the essay collection Faithful Existence: Reading, Memory & Transcendence. Gander’s essays have appeared in The Nation, The Boston Review, and the New York Times Book Review. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim, Howard, United States Artists, and Whiting Foundations. His next collection of poetry, Be With, is forthcoming in May of 2018.

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