Petaluma’s Forrest Gander wins 2019 Pulitzer for new collection ‘Be With’

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“Poetry, I think, has educated every choice I’ve made in my life,” says Forrest Gander, “and that goes back to childhood, when I first encountered poetry as a thing that matters, something that can be more than just words on a page.”

Gander still fondly recalls being read poetry as a child, by his mother, and remembers observing older relatives stalking through the house reciting snippets of old poems in dramatic fashion.

“Poetry,” he adds, seated in a chair at his book-filled, art-bedecked Petaluma home, “continues to inform all the different kinds of writing I do today.”

As hinted at, Gander, a Petaluma resident for the last year-and-a-half, is not just an acclaimed poet and novelist. He is a teacher and essayist, a translator of poetry and other works, and a collaborative artist working with others to create an indescribable array of innovative works.

And as of last month, he is the winner of the 2019 Pulitzer for poetry.

The prize was awarded to Gander for his 2018 collection of poems, “Be With” (New Directions). The collection met with strong critical praise when it was first released, but Gander says the thought of his book winning a Pulitzer was never something he’d considered.

“I have yet to fully grasp what that means for me to have won it,” he says with a smile. “But it’s certainly nice to have been chosen. Where it’s going to take me, and what new opportunities come along because of it, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Born in Barstow, Gander was raised in Virginia, the son of a fifth grade teacher (his mother Ruth Gander), who, as mentioned, loved to share her lifelong affection for poetry.

“I was quite taken with it,” he says, of his mother’s readings of Poe and Sandburg. “I started writing early on, and I mostly read older poetry. It wasn’t until my freshman year at the College of William and Mary, that I started reading newer poetry. I had a professor there, David Jenkins, who I showed my work to, thinking I was a hotshot poet. And I remember his looking at a few poems, then sadly looking up at me and saying, ‘Forrest, these are terrible.’ That was a really important moment, because it was only then that I started really reading contemporary poetry avidly, trying to find out what I was doing, to find out who I was in conversation with.”

Recognizing that for some writers, that moment would have marked the end of their drive to write poetry at all, Gander says Jenkins’ critique never made him consider ending his writerly pursuits, but did motivate him to work harder at becoming a poet.

“I’ve found that for the things you care about the most, you should want your friends, and those close to you, to be critical, as critical and truthful as possible, because you care about that thing,” he says. “You should be serious about the things you are most serious about, and that means taking it seriously when someone points out a flaw of some kind in what you are doing.”

Even so, at William & Mary, Gander’s primary academic pursuit was geology.

“It would have been a responsible job, being a geologist, a way to be what we used to call ‘the man of the family,’” he notes, adding that he actually interviewed for some geology positions shortly after earning his first degree. Those plans were thrown a curve, however, when he was diagnosed with Stage 3 Melanoma. “It was a close one,” he acknowledges, “and now I have a grapefruit-sized scar on my back. I lost some lymph nodes. But I was in the hospital during that time, thinking, ‘What if I don’t have a very long life? What do I most want to be doing with what time I might have left?’ And the answer was very clearly writing.”

It was then that he returned to California to attend grad school at San Francisco State University. That’s where he met his wife, the late poet C.D. Wright, with whom he relocated to Mexico for a number of years before returning and settling on the East Coast.

“The landscape here, in Northern California, just shook me, though,” he recalls. “C.D. and I always planned to retire somewhere in California, eventually. Petaluma is a nice distance from San Francisco, it’s close to places I like to hike and explore, and it’s a community that has a history of being a good place for writers. A lot of writers have lived here, and still live here.”

Wright passed away in 2016, suddenly, a major life shock that Gander prefers not to talk too much about (“It feels a bit ghoulish,” he says), but a subject which he’s approached, beautifully, in his poetry. Along with poems about his mother, currently in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s, “Be With” does contain some extraordinary pieces written about his wife.

Not surprisingly, geology makes an appearance as well. In fact, scientists are among Gander’s most active readers, he says, since geology plays such an important role in how he sees and relates to the natural world and its landscapes. At his Petaluma home, his coffee table is covered from one end to the other with books, mostly poetry collections, but with the occasional geology book for good measure.

“I found early on that I can fuse my love of geology into my poetry, and that I can bring all kinds of language — including scientific language — into poetry,” he says. “Poetry is an open enough art form that it can contain whatever we bring to it.”

Currently, Gander has become enamored of the science of mycology — the study of mushrooms — with a specific interest in lichens.

“As preposterous as this sounds,” Gander says, “I think my next book of poetry is going to be almost entirely devoted to California lichens. Lichens, as we all learn in school, are what happen when these two things get together synergistically - cyanobacteria and an algae. But it turns out that scientists aren’t really sure what a lichen is. When these two things get together, they seem to lose the properties that they came in with, to become this third thing, which acts very differently than any of the organisms that compose it. And according to some scientists, lichens also challenge our notion of death, which, not remarkably, we tend to think of in terms of our own species, or in terms of mammals, which all die. But it looks like lichen may not die. The original organism, as it continues to slowly, slowly, slowly grow, do not actually die. The thought of two things that become a third thing together, and that don’t die, that seems like a fantastic and accurate imagination of intimacy, to me. So I’m writing about lichen, but I’m writing about human intimacy also.”

Asked whether his early brush with mortality, and his more recent experiences with death, have something to do with his current explorations, he considers the thought, then quotes Wallace Stevens, who once wrote, “Death is the mother of beauty.”

“I think our awareness of death,” Gander nods, “is responsible for making us value the poignancy of our lives. That makes sense to me. I can appreciate that.”

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