Petaluma poet Forrest Gander, awarded Pulitzer for reflections on loss, embraces brighter new chapter
Forrest Gander was pleasantly surprised.
Standing in the backyard of his Petaluma home, high on a hillside on the west side of town, the 63-year-old poet, author, translator and literary critic looked to his left and exclaimed, “Ooh, the wisteria is in bloom!”
That he hadn’t noticed this development until late Thursday afternoon was understandable. Gander’s life has been a bit hectic since Monday, when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection, “Be With.”
After receiving the news in a phone call from an editor, then making sure he wasn’t being pranked, Gander emptied the dishwasher, did some vacuuming and then called his son, the sculptural furniture maker Brecht Wright Gander, who’d just read some pages from his father’s next book.
“He had an excoriating and accurate critique of it,” said Forrest, with a wry smile, “and I was regular again.”
On Thursday, after returning from the South Bay, where he’d given a reading at San Jose State, a congratulatory bottle of wine from a neighbor had awaited at the front door.
Less than three hours later, he would turn around and head back to SFO for a red-eye to the East Coast, for the opening of a collaborative show at Brown University. That packed schedule, made more frenetic by Monday’s news, seemed to energize Gander rather than deplete him.
“It’s super special,” he said of the Pulitzer. “My work is sometimes classified as on the more innovative or experimental side. What this means is that suddenly I now have a larger audience.”
Gander has authored 11 volumes of poetry two novels, numerous multimedia collaborations and award-winning translations.
The title “Be With” is borrowed from a book of posthumously published poems by Gander’s partner of more than 30 years, the renowned C.D. Wright, who died unexpectedly in her sleep in 2016. That book’s dedication states, “for Forrest / line, lank and long, / be with.” The compilation is divided into thirds. One third, on the loss of Wright, grapples with “the difficulties of expressing grief and yearning for the departed,” according to the Pulitzer committee.
Another section of “Be With” explores the decline his mother, Ruth Gander, who first read poetry to him when he was a small boy, and is now in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Despite the grim terrain he traversed, Gander’s book was highly acclaimed before it won him a Pulitzer. As Dan Chiasson wrote in the New Yorker, “The book’s sputtering, flinching style, with its syntactical dead ends and missed connections, feels like both an accommodation to the necessity of language and proof of its inadequacy.”
The collection “works through experiences of loss and memories, the sudden death of his wife, and constant changes in perception accompanying the experiences,” Sonoma County Poet Laureate Maya Khosla wrote in an email. “The poems are intensely personal, yet often shift from personal to public spaces and back.”
But getting his grief on page was no simple act of healing and no way to resuscitate Wright’s full life.
“I’ll never do her memory justice,” he said. “She is the most ethical, brilliant, funny person I’ve ever met. In 30 years she wasn’t ever uninteresting. Not for a minute. So it wasn’t cathartic. But from the responses I’m getting, it is helping people deal with their grief.”