BOOKS ‘YOU CAN’T LIVE IN THE PAST’

Deccan Chronicle - - Front Page - For­rest Gan­der

FOR­REST GAN­DER, poet, trans­la­tor, es­say­ist and nov­el­ist, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2019 for Be With, a col­lec­tion of poetry writ­ten in re­mem­brance of his wife, C.D. Wright, also a poet. Wright sud­denly passed away in 2016. Dur­ing an in­ter­ac­tion with SUCHETA DAS­GUPTA on the side­lines of the 13th Jaipur Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val, For­rest shared that he has found a new patch of cre­ativ­ity fol­low­ing his friend­ship with Ash­wini Bhat, sculp­tor, who has helped him move for­ward.

As a pi­o­neer of ecopo­et­ics, how would you de­scribe your knowledge as a ge­ol­o­gist in­form­ing your writ­ings? Ge­ol­ogy taught me how to look. When you look at a land­scape as a ge­ol­o­gist you have to see the large-scale fea­tures, the up­lift­ing and the sub­duc­tion, all the ma­jor things that will ac­count for a moun­tain or a val­ley, but you also have to be able to see the crys­talline prop­er­ties in the shear zone and what’s go­ing on there, and so the con­stant go­ing back and forth be­tween the large scale and the very par­tic­u­lar has be­come an as­pect of my own poetry. It’s how I tend to look at things, mov­ing back and forth across scales.

Your po­ems are said to be highly stylised with their syn­tax, shape and line breaks ex­press­ing their mes­sage. How did you come to shape this form of poetry? What were your in­flu­ences?

I don’t have a sin­gle shape. Ev­ery poem calls forth a dif­fer­ent form. It’s by lis­ten­ing to the poem that you be­gin to feel the form take place. I’m in­ter­ested in the line of a poem be­ing con­nected to per­cep­tion. A line gives you a mo­ment of vi­sion, and you can iso­late things or you can run things to­gether, and I am in­ter­ested in the emo­tional en­ergy of the line. De­pend­ing upon the emo­tional en­ergy of the poem, the line will change.

How many lan­guages do you speak and read? Which has been your most in­tensely en­joy­able trans­la­tion project?

I trans­late mostly from Span­ish. I have trans­lated a lot of Latin Amer­i­can writ­ers. I fo­cussed on women be­cause they tend to be un­der­rep­re­sented in ev­ery coun­try and in trans­la­tion and be­cause there is such good women’s writ­ing in Latin Amer­ica — Co­ral Bra­cho in Mex­ico, Veron­ica Volkow in Mex­ico, Ale­jan­dra Pizarnik in Ar­gentina, Gabriela Mis­tral in Chile — she was Neruda’s teacher — Myr­iam Moscona. But the most en­joy­able trans­la­tion project that I worked on is of a Ja­panese poet named Gozo Yoshi­masu or Yoshi­masu Gozo, as they would say in Ja­panese. He is an artist and a per­for­mance artiste and a poet. He is prob­a­bly the most in­flu­en­tial avant-garde poet in Ja­pan.

The cen­tral char­ac­ter, Les, in your crit­i­cally-ac­claimed first novel, As a Friend, is a gifted man with a cer­tain knack for vul­ner­a­bil­ity that pro­vokes sim­i­lar self-ex­am­i­na­tion from the peo­ple with whom he in­ter­acts. Did you have any per­son or in­ci­dent in mind when you wrote Les?

I did. There was an amaz­ing Amer­i­can poet who died at the age of 30, who wrote one of the long­est po­ems in English, called The Bat­tle­field Where the Moon Says I Love You, and he has a huge cult fol­low­ing in the United States. His rep­u­ta­tion has ex­panded long af­ter his death. The skele­ton of the idea that I had for this book is based on his life. His name is Frank Stan­ford.

Do you think vul­ner­a­bil­ity and orig­i­nal­ity are qual­i­ties that are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly rare in to­day's pat, ac­ces­si­ble, all-know­ing, glob­alised world?

Don't you? It seems it is so easy to pro­tect our­selves with the ar­ma­ments of tech­nol­ogy, and we are less ex­posed to dif­fer­ent points of view now. The me­dia we can choose to at­tend to can be very nar­row on­line. It can be very hard to re­mem­ber that only by be­ing vul­ner­a­ble that we can be sur­prised, that we can learn things when we drop our de­fences — things that are very im­por­tant in terms of how to live with other peo­ple and with other species.

You have lost some­one very dear to you. Does grief, in its need to pre­serve mem­ory, spell the end of new ex­pe­ri­ences and vul­ner­a­bil­ity? What is the con­nec­tion be­tween land­scapes and grief?

You want to but can’t live in the past, so you live with a pain that eats at you con­stantly. In some ways, the light in my life is less sub­stan­tial than it was be­fore. But in our deep re­la­tion­ships with oth­ers, our sub­stan­tial­ness in­creases. In their ab­sence, we can feel like a much smaller thing be­cause it is re­la­tion­ships that make us what we are. So that grief has been and con­tin­ues to be very pow­er­ful for me, and at the same time I have con­tin­ued to live, and I have met some­one now whom you just met — Ash­wini Bhat with whom I have a new re­la­tion­ship. She is full of life and I was full of death and sad­ness, and that’s opened me up and made me vul­ner­a­ble again to feel­ing things which I didn’t re­ally even want to feel. I didn’t want to get over my grief.

This ques­tion is to do with your phi­los­o­phy of in­ter­na­tional re­gion­al­ism. As a ge­ol­o­gist, how do you think ge­og­ra­phy af­fects the per­son­al­ity of a peo­ple, es­pe­cially in re­la­tion to the works that you have trans­lated?

A won­der­ful Amer­i­can writer who wrote a lot about Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­ture, Mary Hunter Austin, sug­gested that the places where we live af­fect our speech and our think­ing. She notes, for ex­am­ple, that if you read Abra­ham Lin­coln’s Get­tys­burg Ad­dress, you hear the rhythms of a man who spent a lot of time (in cold Illi­nois, where he lived) chop­ping wood. In the south in the United States, houses are built with porches. Peo­ple sit on porches and talk to their neigh­bours walk­ing by, and the porch is a place where peo­ple meet up. It’s com­mon­place in the US South that peo­ple will ac­knowl­edge each other when they walk past — un­like in many places in the North, New York for ex­am­ple, where peo­ple pass within inches of you with­out ever mak­ing eye con­tact. I think there are sub­tle ways that where we live af­fects who we are. Jaime Saenz, a Bo­li­vian poet whom I trans­lated, lived in La Paz and so, all his life, was con­scious of the im­pos­ing moun­tain, Il­li­mani, that pre­sides over the town like some enor­mous toad over a scat­ter­ing of ants. That kind of pres­ence surely af­fects us in ways we can’t eas­ily de­ci­pher.

You have been spend­ing a lot of time in In­dia lately. Who is your favourite In­dian writer in any lan­guage?

I’ve been read­ing some an­cient books, The Life of Har­ishchan­dra trans­lated by Vana­mala Viswanatha, the poetry of An­dal trans­lated by Ravi Shankar and Priya Sarukkai, and the Sangam poetry trans­lated by A.K. Ra­manu­jan. But among con­tem­po­rary poets, I’m drawn to Arvind Kr­ishna Mehro­tra, Ran­jit Hoskote and Biswamit Dwibedy. In­ci­den­tally, there has been a flour­ish­ing of­ter­rific In­dian-Amer­i­can poets— and I fol­low a num­ber of them hun­grily, book by book.

Can poetry re­verse cli­mate change?

(Laughs heartily) I think the things that poets want poetry to do are im­por­tant. But poetry doesn’t prob­a­bly ful­fil the in­ten­tions of many poets. But I think it does do some­thing, some­times on a small scale — mak­ing peo­ple aware of lan­guage that al­lows them to ar­tic­u­late emo­tions that are more sub­tle, of­fer­ing a way of see­ing the world that’s per­haps in the case of ecol­ogy more in­te­grated with hu­man life. So in small ways it does change the world but it cer­tainly won't save the world.

For­rest and Ash­wini met a long time ago in Delhi at a lit­er­ary event and stayed in touch. They col­lab­o­rated while she was at artist res­i­den­cies in Cal­i­for­nia. This photo was taken in Jaipur dur­ing the lit­fest.

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