Faculty Profile: Crossing Borders with Forrest Gander

Posted by on April 1st, 2012

Napa Valley Writers' Conference 2012 faculty member Forrest GanderBorn in California’s Mojave desert with roots in the South, schooled in Virginia and California, now living in Rhode Island, but frequently traveling abroad: Forrest Gander’s itinerant physical existence is mirrored in his writing, which travels widely.

Gander has authored 12 books of poetry, a novel, a book of essays, and a “hybrid book,” and has published nine books of translation. Describing his penchant for crossing borders of form and genre, he told the Poetry Society of America, “Despite the way mainstream books are sold, genres are, of course, porous and I’m not invested in defining or sustaining them as either writer or reader.”

That refusal to impose limitations through classification has formed the basis for Gander’s translations as well as his original poetry and prose. As he explained in an interview in Coastlines, the act of translation requires moving outside the boundaries of literal meaning to capture the essence of the work:

Texture, impression, feeling, meaning: to sliver away any of these aspects in a translation is to diminish the work—and that’s not only a literary failure but an ethical one. It’s a very mysterious process, translation. The translator must disappear into the original, must absorb the music of another’s mind. And then the translator must return full force, with everything she has ever learned about the art itself—about poetry if it is poetry she is translating. In its iterative obliterations and reincarnations, it’s much more a spiritual than a transcriptional activity.

Within his own original poetry, Gander defies the limitations of stylistic categorization. His works combine lyric and experimental sensibilities, describing the abstract and the concrete with equal verve, and taking up subject matter as various as Mayan ruins and family relationships.  As the editors of Shearsman Press put it, “Gander … has stepped outside the easy classifications of avant / post-avant / experimental and so forth. His work owes something to the post-Poundian tradition … but his background in the sciences and his engagement with Latin American poetry, as a translator, lend him a quite different mindset than many of his contemporaries. He remains a great original, and a powerful shaper of words for our time.”

Gander also plays with the shifting nature of words themselves,  experiencing them both as sounds and as the meanings they carry. In a statement on poetics for Lyric Postmodernism, he wrote,

I think we see [words] and we see through them. Texture and text. Nontransparent aesthetic form and transparent thematic content. It is this staging of transparence and density, of appearance and disappearance, which is, for me, the erotic tension in the work.

Gander frequently pairs his poems with images, which serve not merely as illustration, but which are given equal footing with the words, creating a mix that is more than the sum of the two parts. Describing Gander’s latest collection, Core Samples From the World,  which combined poetry with photographs from abroad, Publishers Weekly poetry reviews editor Craig Morgan Teicher wrote,

It’s as though the images and poems get on each other, the way a dash of some ingredient might accidentally spill into a mixing bowl and suddenly the unsuspecting chef is making a delicacy.  The photos inflect the poems, and vice versa, the way two neighboring words in a poem can subtly inflect each others’ meanings.

Apply to the conference to work with Forrest Gander this summer — and meantime, peruse these additional resources about him:

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