Petaluma poet wins Pulitzer Prize

Forrest Gander won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his collection “Be With.”|

Forrest Gander, a Petaluma writer, has won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his collection of poems “Be With.”

One of the most prestigious awards in American poetry, past winners include Robert Frost, Amy Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg.

In announcing the award based at Columbia University, Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedy called Gander’s work “a collection of elegies that grapple with sudden loss, and the difficulties of expressing grief and yearning for the departed.”

Gander, a former professor at Harvard University and Brown University, said he found out he had won Monday in a phone call with an editor.

“I thought he was hoaxing me,” said Gander, 63. “Then I got hundreds of emails and figured it was true.”

A finalist for the Pulitzer in 2012, Gander called the win a “crowning achievement” in a literary career that has spanned decades. A prolific writer, he has authored numerous works of poetry as well as novels and translations of anthologies of Spanish poems.

Born in Barstow, Gander grew up in Virginia. He earned a degree in geology from the College of William & Mary, and a master’s degree in literature from San Francisco State University. He spent time living and writing in Mexico and Arkansas before joining academia. In 2017, he was elected as a Chancellor to the Academy of American Poets.

Five years ago, Gander and his wife, the poet C.D. Wright, bought a house in Petaluma, but they remained living in Rhode Island. They have a son, Brecht Wright Gander.

After Wright’s death in 2016, Gander moved to Petaluma, where he currently lives with ceramic artist Ashwini Bhat.

The title, “Be With,” is borrowed from the dedication to Wright’s 2016 book of poetry “ShallCross” - “for Forrest/ line, lank and long,/ be with.” In a review of “Be With” for the New Yorker, Dan Chiasson wrote that the series of elegies for Wright deal with mourning.

“The poems in ‘Be With’ recall the happy parallel paths in life and in art that he and Wright followed - always within a holler of each other,” Chiasson wrote. “After Wright’s death, Gander’s memories revolve around objects, landscapes, work, and routines - symbols that become nearly sentient in their embodiment of his pain.”

Gander said he did not expect to win the Pulitzer, but he hoped the platform would help him bring attention to poetry.

“People are looking for something deeper than their Twitter feed and Facebook posts of cats,” he said. “Language is what we have to offer our individual worlds to each other.”

Retired from teaching, Gander said he is enjoying being a full time writer.

“Petaluma is a great place to write,” he said. “The landscape is fantastic.”

The Pulitzers will be awarded at a ceremony in New York next month. The poetry prize comes with a $15,000 award, which Gander said he might use to “throw a big party in Petaluma.”

(Contact Matt Brown at

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