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