Forrest Gander on the Investment and Involvement Required of Reading Poetry
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Forrest Gander is the guest. His new poetry collection, Twice Alive, is out now from New Directions.
From the episode:
Forrest Gander: Nietzsche described himself as a teacher of slow reading. I think that’s the fear some people have about poetry, is that it takes a slow reading. It takes a kind of an investment and involvement and not just a kind of passive looking at images blow up on a screen.
Brad Listi: Well, this is a question I have as a reader of poetry, is trying to find equilibrium between intentional slow reading, careful consideration of the text, and getting bogged down or insecure in places where I feel like I’m missing references or not quite understanding the full intent of the author. I think there has to be some balance between a slow, careful read and also just kind of letting it wash over you. Sometimes you just have to let yourself go along for the ride, right?
Forrest: Totally, totally. I think that’s really important. It’s not so vital that you understand logically everything that happens in an artwork or in a poem than that you do let things wash over you, because its importance isn’t as just a message. Essays are good for that and can be really logical, but a poem is using a system of thinking and feeling that has leaps in it. Sometimes in my work I use scientific language that I know not everyone is going to understand, or sometimes I use Spanish because I’m interested in bilingual texts. Even if someone doesn’t understand those, they have a texture, a sound quality, and also the context often lets you sort of know what it means. You know, Keats most famously talks about negative capability. Says to his brother, you don’t want to be scrambling after every little meaning as you go along. You want to be hit by the whole thing. You want it to hit you between your brain and your genitalia, where your heart is.
Brad: And you do some interesting things formally with the text that I haven’t seen or haven’t seen much of. One of them is the use of I guess you would call it bullet points, but it’s not bullet points in the traditional usage. It’s not a vertical stack of bullet points, but it’s bullet points in between words in the text, words in a particular stanza. The other thing is the use of boldface. I’m sure there are other instances or examples of this that I simply have not seen, but it was striking to me, and I’d just be curious to hear you talk a little bit about those creative choices.
Forrest: I’m really interested in line break and poetic line break and the way that can remake meanings. But in those poems, which are often based on these Sangamon poems, which is this Indian tradition, I wanted the connections to be a little quicker, so there wasn’t a line break that you came and jumped all the way back to the beginning. But I also wanted to break up the iambic pentameter so that there was a stumble in perception. The way we use iambic pentameter, it’s like the perfect break in casual conversation. We have little pauses about after every five syllables. But to break that up and make the reading experience a little more complicated, a little more hobbled, so that it’s breaking up before the rhythm finishes and there’s this little connection, but not a complete syntactical connection to the next line, that interested me.
The boldface, I use boldfaced words Brad’s talking about in the longest series in the book, the title sequence called Twice Alive, and curiously, it’s been the thing that I’ve heard most from others who have written me saying, really liked the book, but what’s this with the boldface words here? I totally don’t get it. So I’m wondering about how that worked. But this is the poem about lichen, and so I’m thinking about having a different characteristic. You know, you have the fungus and the cyanobacteria. This is like the dark cyanobacteria. You have this different quality embedded in in the text as a kind of enactment of a cooperative system.
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Forrest Gander was born in the Mojave Desert and grew up in Virginia. In addition to writing poetry, he has translated works by Coral Bracho, Alfonso D’Aquino, Pura Lopez-Colome, Pablo Neruda, and Jaime Saenz. The recipient of grants from the Library of Congress, the Guggenheim, Howard, Whiting, and United States Artists Foundations, he taught for many years as the AK Seaver Professor of Literary Arts & Comparative Literature at Brown University.