On Oct. 19, Southern Miss students and faculty gathered to hear Pulitzer Prize winning poet Forrest Gander in the first of the University of Southern Mississippi’s 2021-2022 Visiting Writers series.
The event, taking place in Ogletree House’s Poynter Room, lasted from 7 to 8 p.m last Tuesday. Gander’s reading marked the first in-person event Southern Miss’s Center for Writers has held since October 2019.
Adam Clay, the Director of the Center for Writers, talked about how surreal the event felt during its introduction.
“ feels like another life ago.” Clay said. “And how lucky we are to break that long hiatus from in-person events with a poet like Forrest Gander.”
Forrest Gander, the main speaker of the event, has worked for years as a poet, editor and translator. His work has been in a number of magazines, including The Nation, The Boston Review and The New York Times Book Review. In addition to his literary awards, Gander has also received a number of fellowships, including from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim and the Whiting Foundation.
“His most recent collection, ‘Twice Alive’, considers humanity as an active collaborator with the natural world and the people we share it with,” Clay said. “In 2021, a time of fear, uncertainty and sheer exhaustion, ‘Twice Alive’ articulates a view of the world as an ecology of intimacies that asks us to be absorbed in the next moment beyond our given life.”
Gander primarily read from ‘Twice Alive’ once he took the stage. Most of the poems he presented, such as “Wasteland (for Santa Rosa)”, “Post-Fire Forest” and “Sea: Night Surfing in Bolinas”, were heavily inspired by his initial studies of geology. The poems of ‘Twice Alive’ try to rationalize Gander’s complicated relationships with intimacy and grief by exploring natural phenomena.
“Post-Fire Forest”, for example, describes the real life work of post-fire biologists. In the immediate aftermath of a forest fire, these biologists scour the burnt remains of the forest to try to find evidence that life is returning to the area quickly. This is so they can protect the area from lumber businesses, whose expansions would end up damaging the area far more than the fire.
Gander, in an initial explanation of the poem, said he had the opportunity to work with one such biologist in California. They spent several days attempting to look for a Black-Backed Woodpecker, one of the first animal species that returns to a post-fire forest. Gander found that the journey felt similar to navigating the world after a tragedy — specifically, navigating the world after the death of his wife, poet C.D. Wright.
“It’s like two kinds of grief,” Gander said. “[As if] I’ve also met someone who’s full of life [like the woodpecker] and I almost don’t know what to do with that.”
Gander himself seemed like a very reserved man, speaking with a gentle affect throughout most of the presentation. He wasn’t afraid to make a few jokes here and there, and there were times you could hear him try to work through his thoughts as he spoke them. When it came time to present his work, though, his confidence and passion were on full display.
In a Q&A shortly after the reading, Gander said how glad he was to once again present his work in front of a live audience, especially with all of the hardships he has faced over the years.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be alive, and what I think about [the most] is, you know, what will I have done with my life, what did I focus on?” Gander said. “And I’m really glad it’s not money.”
The next writer featured in the Visiting Writers series, Maria Kuznetsova, will be at Southern Miss on Jan. 27, 2022. To find out where the next reading will be, visit www.usm.edu/writers/visiting-writers-series.