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Petaluma poet Forrest Gander, awarded Pulitzer for reflections on loss, embraces brighter new chapter

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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.”

Gardner was born in Barstow, in the Mojave Desert, where his mother raised him on her own. When he was 5, they moved to Virginia, where she taught school.

Gander’s major at the College of William & Mary was geology, and that often leaps out in his verse. The middle third of “Be With” is a multilingual poem, according to the Pulitzer committee, “examining the syncretic geological and cultural history of the U.S. border with Mexico.”

Of his gift and passion for writing about the land, Gander said, “I’ve always been interested in the way the place that we’re in affects the rhythms of our speech and our thinking. In writing about the border between the U.S. and Mexico, I’m interested in how the landscape holds the memory of the trauma, and the triumphs.”

After graduating from William & Mary, Gander earned his MFA at San Francisco State, where he met Wright. Once he finished school, he supplemented his writing income by working in a methadone clinic on Polk Street.

He and Wright were editing for Lost Roads Press in 1981 when they were awarded a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. “It seemed like an enormous amount of money,” he recalled. “We said, ‘Wow, for $10,000 we could publish five books and live for five years in Mexico. Let’s go!’”

Living south of border, in Dolores Hidalgo, he learned Spanish well enough to start translating it. He has since edited numerous anthologies of poetry from Spain, Mexico, and Latin America. Gander returned to the United States in 1983 and has since taught at several universities, most recently Harvard and Brown, in Rhode Island.

Dana Gioia, who is California’s outgoing poet laureate and the former head of the NEA, said that Gander’s newly elevated profile coincides with “an actual poetry boom” in this country. “The younger audience has doubled in the last five years.”

Despite Gander’s long tenure in academia, said Gioia, “he is actually an old-style Bohemian, eager to experiment in new genres and collaborate with other artists. That makes him very unusual.”

Living back East, Gander had long harbored the desire to come back to California. For the past 16 months he’s been a full-time resident of Petaluma, where he lives with the ceramic artist Ashwini Bhat.

Gander says his next major project is poised to be something more uplifting, reflecting the turn his life has recently taken.

After “three years darkness, now I’m with someone, an artist who’s really full of life. It’s rejuvenated me.”

For this book in progress, he is working with Anne Pringle, the world-renowned mycologist, or, as Gander puts it, “mushroom person.”

“Weird as it sounds, my next book is about lichens,” he said. “These two forms of life, bacteria and algae, when they meet each other, are completely transformed” — into lichens. “They no longer have the properties of the organisms that they were. They become something else.”

“And, according to Anne Pringle, they don’t die.”

That life-affirming area of exploration seems light years from the artistic space he’s occupied since Wright died.

By challenging the idea of death, he went on, the lichen “seems like a really beautiful metaphor for intimacy: these things that come together and form a third thing. And that thing lasts.”

Staff Writer Austin Murphy can be reached at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com.

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