Interview With Forrest Gander

Born in the Mojave Desert, Forrest Gander grew up in Virginia. He has degrees in geology, a subject referenced frequently in his writing, and in English literature. A writer in multiple genres, Gander is noted for his many collaborations with other artists. He is a United States Artists Rockefeller Fellow and the recipient of fellowships from the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, The Whiting Foundation, and the Howard Foundation. Currently, he is the Adele Kellenberg Seaver Professor of Literary Arts and Comparative Literatures at Brown University in Rhode Island. An author of numerous collections of poetry, his 2011 collection Core Samples from the World was an NBCC and Pulitzer Prize finalist for poetry.Gander’s most recent title is The Trace, a novel.

Additionally, Forrest Gander is a prolific editor and translator. He has translated collections by Mexican poets Pura López Colomé and Coral Bracho, Pablo Neruda, and with Kent Johnson, the Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz’s Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jamie Saenz and The Night (2007), for which they won a PEN Translation Award. He has even edited the bilingual anthology Mouth to Mouth: Poems by Twelve Contemporary Mexican Women (1993). Gander’s own writing has been translated into several languages as well.

It’s as a translator and editor that we approached Gander for an interview at Miami Book Fair, where he presented Alice Iris Red Horse, a collection of poetry by Yoshimasu Gozo (New Directions) he edited, and Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda (Copper Canyon), a bilingual edition of Gander’s translations of twenty previously unknown Neruda poems.

Gulfstream was especially interested in the Japanese poet, performance artist, and filmmaker Yoshimasu Gozo, whose poetry has spanned over half a century since the publication of his first book, Departure, in 1964. Gozo’s work is known to challenge the print medium and language itself. As the publisher says, Alice Iris Red Horse “is as much a book on translation as it is a book in translation.”

Michael A. Martín sat down with him at the Miami Book Fair to see how Gander could help us better appreciate this mystifying poet.

MM: In your introduction to Alice Iris Red Horse, you write that the poems are not so much translated from the Japanese as much as they are “translated from Yoshimasu Gozo.”  Can you say more about that?

FG: Sure. There’s no one on earth who writes like Yoshimasu Gozo. He’s a post-book poet in some ways, and very much a performative writer. And he’s even more international, perhaps, than he is Japanese.  Although he still draws from deep Japanese tradition, both classical literature and contemporary argot like Yakuza slang, he also brings in French, Korean Hangal script, and Chinese.  He makes visual and sound puns between Chinese and Japanese characters, too. It has to do with the difference between how each language’s respective characters are pronounced and what they look like. Those things can’t possibly be translated into English.

MM: What’s most challenging about translating Yoshimasu Gozo? What’s it like editing translations of such a performative poet in print?

FG: If you look at the more traditional translations of Gozo’s work—and only a few that came out some 20-25 years ago—they’re all very flat. That’s because those attempts try to translate the work for its semantic value. The work isn’t about just telling a story. It’s about linguistic play. You know, Ezra Pound had these ways of making image rhymes, so that a postman’s bag in sixteenth century Italy would rhyme in the next stanza with a reference to a samurai’s garment. Gozo is making these kinds of connections across languages and cultures too.

When I first encountered those earlier translations, I could see that a regular translation process wasn’t going to work. But only now has there been a group of hot shot young translators who are informed by more international innovative poetics as well. When they translate Yoshimasu Gozo they take the kinds of risks necessary to find equivalents to performative play in English instead of reducing the poem to its most obvious semantically literal meaning.

MM: Does translating more traditional lyric poets like Pablo Neruda anyway influence editing these translations of Gozo?

FG: Ha! That’s a great question. Let me think for a second…yeah, no. When translating Neruda I’m really attuned to sound. I will make choices translating him that will elevate the meanings those sounds make, even sometimes over semantic meanings. This is because I think sound is so important to his work. But Gozo’s is a whole different kind of poetics. And as you find in Alice Iris Red Horse, it’s almost impossible to read the collection in the way that you would read a traditional book. For instance, a lot of reading Gozo in English translation is going back and forth across the margins of the poem to the translators’ notes on the facing page. That makes for a deeper conversation. It adds to the possible ways that we might read translation.

MM: Should we expect to see a similar Japanese influence in your own poetry?

FG: It’s been there since my early poems. There’s a poem in my first book called “After Hagiwara” that comes to mind. Japanese translations, particularly through Hiroaki Sato —a translator of Japanese poetry and just a great national treasure—have been important to me for a long time. But the radical poetics of Gozo Yoshimasu, or Kiwao Nomura, whose work Kyoko Yoshida and I also translated, is different. Their radical play and repetition/variation, their complete openness, does influence my work. I hope it points to possibilities in American poetry that we have yet to explore.

MM: On first read, Western readers may experience Gozo as comparable to the more theory-driven avant-garde poetics of this hemisphere. Would that be mistaken?

FG: Gozo would hate that, just hate it. Kiwao Nomura might like it more. His work (Spectacle & Pigsty from OmniDawn) is more influenced by French poststructuralism. But Gozo Yoshimasu comes out of Japanese shamanism. He’s a mystic. His poetry is about crossing borders, not only those between cultures and languages, but between the dead and living. That’s why so much of the recent work is about going to sites like Fukushima, a radioactive disaster area he’s not supposed to be in, where he unrolled a copper scroll, used a camera, and even took out a tape recorder and then sat on the lethal beach, listening. listened. All to contact spirits. Also, Gozo’s performance work is completely visceral. It’s about the body, not recondite or abstract poetics.

MM: How might readers relate Yoshimasu Gozo to American poetry?

FG: You know, Robert Creeley, that great American poet, became famous for writing nuggets of uncanny, strongly enjambed poems that seemed perfect, unalterable. And he immediately became bored with them. He didn’t want to keep writing a poem that carried the image of a polished, finished thing. So, he went on to write the much more process-oriented, serial, open form poems of Pieces. Same goes for Gozo. He’s not interested in pinning down the poem, making it a pretty or merely entertaining object, but rather in making it an event of spiritual, mental, memorial, and emotional investigation that involves the reader. It’s difficult to read at first. You don’t just sit and watch it happen in front of you. The poetry becomes something dialogic, investigatory. It never closes its eyes.

MM: Putting a book together almost seems antithetical to his poetry!

FG: Except that he really loves books! Yeah, he loves the somatic, the embodied voice, but he loves the materiality of paper, too. Especially when it comes to writing in Japanese—the strokes, which are so particular.

MM: He’s got his own script too.

FG: That’s right. Even his own scripts with invented characters, ideograms, rebuses…

MM: Now for something a bit unrelated. Does your background in geology influence your writing? How so?

FG: I think so. I’ve had to think about this myself, how make background in geology affects my writing—beyond the obvious ways in which I reference rocks or topography in my novels and poems. The landscape is clearly a main, even overriding character in both my novels. I have a sense that the place around us is deeply, even if subtly, involved in the rhythms of our thinking. But besides that, geology trained me to look in two simultaneous but different ways. When you’re looking at crystalline structures, for instance, in x ray spectrography, you focus on microscopic structures in relation. But then you relate those structures to the large-scale—what happened, for instance, in this uplift that accounts for the mineral composition, the deformation? This warping, this intrusion? I’m really interested in a poetics that moves in and moves out. Our reality is composed of all the ways of seeing, intuiting, imagining, not just those conventional angles of incidence and reception by which humans mostly engage each other as we are now—speaking-distance apart, face to face.

MM: That was illuminating. Thank you so much.

FG: You’re very welcome.