Texas State Has an Evening with Poet Forrest Gander

Overhead light shining down. On the background is a meshed window.

Forrest Gander is a poet, a translator, a collaborator and a reviewer. He has written multiple books of poetry, translated an impressive amount of literature, and won the Pulitzer in 2019 for his book Be With. This fall, at Texas State University, I had the opportunity to sit down with Forrest to talk about poetry, translation, and language. What transpired was an intimate discussion about experience, practice, recollection, and the impact of translated literature.  

Emily Fullenwider: Can you recall your first experience with poetry and the first time you were interested in translating poetry? What called you to translation? 

Forrest Gander: The first poetry I remember was my mother reading to me from books. I was raised by my mother and two sisters. My mother was a public-school teacher and her father was Swedish. He was of that generation of people who memorized poems so she had picked up a love of poetry from him. When I was little, I remember her reading Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven,” “The Bells,” and Carl Sandberg to me. So that’s the first poetry that I remember. 

A long time later I met the great American poet C.D. Wright in California at San Francisco State University where she had come after she left Arkansas. We were running a book press called Lost Roads, so with the grant we got to publish the books. We decided to move to Mexico because neither of us had been out of the country and I had a little bit of Spanish because unfortunately in the United States we don’t learn second languages and third languages as early as we should. It seemed like a great adventure. We could publish the books we were supposed to publish even cheaper there and go longer without working. So, we went to Mexico and I began to study Spanish intensively. 

One of the things I thought would help me was translating so I began to collect contemporary poetry which is available everywhere there, even food stands. I found that the poetry I was most attracted to tended to be written by women. It was an explosive time in Mexico for women. This was in like 1980, 1981, and things were as patriarchal as you’d expect them to be, and still are in Mexico, but it was the explosion of small presses. Suddenly women had access to publishing their own books and magazines. What I ended up doing was focusing on contemporary Mexican women and learning Spanish through translation. It was actually a good way because it was the most intent close reading that I could have done. 

Fullenwider: During my undergrad, here at Texas State, I took a translation class with Cyrus Cassells and I’d have to agree, translation helps with learning a language. Having to read word by word, you kind of slowly learn pieces that you might have overlooked otherwise. 

Gander: Did you find that it helped you with your own work in some ways? 

Fullenwider: Not at the time but I would say I think about that tedious word for word process with my work now. 

Gander: I hope you’ll keep it up. If you work with contemporary writers instead of writers that have already been translated a lot then your translations are the best in the world. 

Fullenwider: Yeah, I think I would like to further explore translation at some point! Yet

I was first introduced to Pablo Neruda and translations of his work in Cyrus’s class so I am curious as to when you first read Neruda’s work, and what was your experience of translating his poems for the first time? 

 Gander: I read him early on like you have. Probably in undergraduate school and like everyone else, I succumbed to that lush technicolor lyricism but I went on to find other Latin American writers that came after him. His writing was so gigantic and influential it cast a huge shadow. Everyone was trying to imitate Pablo Neruda until maybe someone just as big and also Chilean like Nicanor Parra began to write with mathematical formulas, science, colloquial, and street speech. He opened up another avenue for poetry in Latin America. I got to the point where I had said publicly, several times, that the last thing we need is another Neruda translation because everyone is translating Neruda. There are so many other fantastic Latin American writers that we ignore, generally the women. So it was a surprise to me to end up translating Neruda as much as I have. 

I was asked to contribute to an anthology. When Neruda’s third wife died, the estate was going through all of his boxes and came across poems no one had seen before. There were like 24 of them. They published them in Spanish and I thought, terrible idea. If he wanted to publish these, he would have but the reviews were great in Spanish so when I had the opportunity to see the poems I recognized that Neruda was just, you know, a great poet, whether he intended for these to be published or not. It’s likely he lost track of them because he was writing on things like the back of menus then put those papers under other papers. He wrote constantly so maybe he lost track of things, and I had the opportunity to translate those so-called lost poems of Neruda and it was a fabulous experience. 

Fullenwider: Would you say you maybe have a top three list of writers you’d like to translate in the future? Maybe pertaining to those women writers you’ve been speaking about. 

Gander: I just finished a second book of translations of one of my favorite Mexican poets whose name is Coral Bracho. I did a selected poem of hers earlier on but this book, which is her most recent, ‘Debe ser un malentendido’ or ‘It must be a misunderstanding’ is about her mother’s Alzheimer’s. I really identified with it because my mother died during the pandemic due to complications related to Alzheimer’s. Coral’s book is not full of the grief that my experience and my writing about Alzheimer’s took. Her book has a magical tenderness and humor. The personality of her mother comes through so clearly; a strong independent woman. The book just really knocked me out so Coral Bracho for sure. 

There is another Mexican poet, Maria Baranda, and I just translated a book of hers called ‘Dylan y las ballenas’ or ‘Dylan and the whales.’ If I had a third poet, I have done a couple of books by a poet named Porta Lopez Pura Lopez Colome who would like me to do another book of hers, but I might be more interested in doing someone like Grabriela Jaurgui who is both a fiction and a poetry writer and just a political but humorous but often prose poetry sensibility. 

Fullenwider: When it comes to translating, when you run into things like slang, humor, or certain emotions that can’t translate directly, how do you handle that? 

Gander: How do you handle it? That’s the hard stuff! 

The slag varies from country to country quite a bit, dramatically. When I translated a Bolivian poet named Jaime Saenz, this great visionary poet, it was necessary for us to go to Bolivia and hang out in his neighborhood to pick up some of the slang that doesn’t occur elsewhere. Especially not in the sort of Mexican Spanish that I have, so being in the place is very useful. 

As for humor, I think that is one of the hardest things to translate. It’s also one of the most human qualities. You know when you have a partner, you really want them to get your sense of humor and vice versa. It’s a necessity for living together. So that’s hard, and there is an example I can use: In my book Be With I use some southern slang that my wife C.D. Wright used to say. 

“You don’t know me from Adam’s goat.” That got translated into Spanish but it couldn’t be translated literally because it hardly makes sense in other places in the US besides the south. It’s this religious poke at biblical stories.

I asked my translator to simply make up or use an expression that wasn’t that expression, but was colloquial to Mexico where the translator was. That is something I learned from Ezra Pound, who said that the particulars needed to be translated as particulars. 

Fullenwider: That’s interesting! So I guess with translation in general and maybe the harder stuff like humor, when you sit down to translate poems do you set rules or guidelines for yourself? 

Gander: Well first I read the book. I don’t start translating without having a sense of the whole book and I think that’s a mistake that some young translators make. If you’re doing a whole book there may be key words that reoccur and change their meaning throughout and that will be important to know before you begin to translate those keywords. In the beginning, you’ll have to know how flexible they are going to be. 

Also reading the poem out loud because the sonic values of the poem and the meanings that the sound makes are, in poetry and for me, often just as important as the semantic meanings. You’re going to lose a lot of that sound quality but you want to be aware of it and you want to try to make something happen in English along the same lines.  

Fullenwider: What do you think translation offers readers? What does it offer poets? 

Gander: I’m really glad you focused on these questions because in the US, until very recently, only 3% of all the books published, of any kind, were translations. Whereas in most other countries, an enormously higher percentage is in translation. It’s been characteristic of the US that we feel independent and superior to other countries. We feel like they don’t have anything to offer us and we are not interested in knowing what goes on over there.

When in fact we are all invested in each other and interrelated. Living in the US and using a language that is exported all over the world that is displacing so many other languages all aside from the literary value, it’s kind of politically important to recognize literature in other languages. To bring them to other readers so that they become aware of themes and concerns but also the knowledge of cultures. It adds to English because the difference in tactical possibilities, the image repetois, and the different ways that other people handle language come into English and change the English, refresh it. Languages die if they don’t change and the biggest source of change can be translation. So that’s why I think it’s really important culturally. 

As a poet, you said you might be starting to find too, when you’re listening so deeply to the music in someone else’s mind, it opens up possibilities for you that you wouldn’t have reached on your own. That it adds to your wingspan as a writer. The things that you learn by deeply reading someone else’s work. 

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