Forrest Gander is an award winning poet, essayist, novelist, critic, and translator. Born in the Mojave Desert to a single mother, Gander’s childhood was financially difficult. Gander developed his love for travel, language, and culture when he and his family would tour extensively across the United States on summer road trips. He is known for his wide variety of writing subjects, collaborations, (he even worked with Beyonce before) and is all around awesome dude.
He has degrees in geology, (a subject frequently mentioned in his writing) and in English literature, where he taught at Providence College and Harvard University before becoming the Adele Kellenberg Seaver Professor of Literary Arts and Comparative Literatures at Brown University. (Or the AKSPLACL, if you will.)
Gander has won numerous awards for his work in literature;
National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry (2x) (1989, 2001)
Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative North American Poetry (2x) (1993, 1997)
Whiting Foundation Award (1997)
Howard Foundation Award (2005)
Pulitzer Prize Finalist (2012)
Jonathan Kim: In your poem “Citrus Freeze,” you mention Orange Blossom Trail. Is there any specific experience or reasoning that led you to choose Orange Blossom Trail among all other places?
Forrest Gander: Wow, thats an old poem! I guess it’s in my first book. I was down in Florida visiting my estranged father. He lived not far from Orange Blossom Trail. I liked the sensuality, the way the name carried a scent and color with. Thats why I used it.
Jonathan K: It seems in this poem, as well as many others, location and nature play a big factor. Having been such an avid traveler, especially in your youth, how has your past experiences traveling influenced/shaped your poetry today?
Forrest G: When you travel, YOU become the stranger. Your perspective changes, along with your expectations and your habits of relation with others and with a landscape. It makes you more vulnerable, if you let it, and that can promote a kind of freshness, an enlivened sensitivity to experience. (Also, different images, different textures, and sounds and rhythms of languages come into you.)
Jonathan K: Being a recipient of numerous awards, as well as a Pulitzer Prize Finalist several years ago, is there a specific award you cherish the most, or holds the most significant value?
Forrest G: I really loved getting the Rockefeller Fellowship from United States Artists. They had such a classy, wonderful, mixed ceremony of presentations and performances in Chicago, I made some new friends and had memorable conversations.
Jonathan K: You noted for writing multiple genres, with frequent collaborators. Is there anyone you especially enjoyed working with? What made it so fulfilling?
Forrest G: I loved having the chance to work with one of my favorite living artists, Ann Hamilton. And also I’ve had a long collaboration in many forms with the post-butoh dancer Eiko, of Eiko & Koma.
Jonathan K: You were born in the Mojave Desert but grew up in . Virginia. How did your financial struggles growing up affect your work and mindset?
Forrest G: I realized that I was going to have to work really hard to get anywhere. It never occurred to me even to apply to an Ivy League school- I knew almost nothing about universities. The financial struggles that my mother faced helped me equip me with diligence that has served me all the rest of my life.
Jonathan K: Out of all the places you have travelled to, what is the most memorable, and why?
Forrest G: Good question. I used to say Japan- because I love that country, the mix of rural and super modern urban, the highly aestheticized culture, the history of art and poetry there. But more recently it is India, which is almost the complete opposite of Japan. A country of more than a hundred languages, a complete mess as far as its physical structures (city planning) and governmental culture (fantastic corruption at every level), and I find it fascinating! And then you look at Christian churches with their bloodied, thorn-crowned, pierced and suffering image of God and then you look at the Indian gods at Hindu temples- sensual, erotic, connected to animal life, smeared with red pollen, etc- and well, which gods would you want to hang out with? And in any conversation anywhere in the country, you are likely to hear elements, words, from at least three languages. And then there is some of the most amazing and ancient love poetry- in the Tamil tradition, in literary history.
Jonathan K: Lastly, if you had the opportunity to read one poem to someone who has never heard/read a poem before, what poem would you choose, and why?
Forrest G: I’d want to read Song of Myself by Walt Whitman because it is so expansive, so American, so positive in its egalitarian message. But that might be too foreign in its language to someone who has never read poetry. I might read instead a short poem, “Freedom, Revolt, and Love” by Frank Stanford because the language is simple and powerful and the poem keeps a mystery to itself even as it may speak to America, racial inequality, intimate love and imagination. Or, if it were a poem of mine, “Anniversary.”