The world faces an ecological catastrophe and the ubiquitous consumerism seems like a new form of totalitarianism. In such circumstances, does individual action matter at all? Can we be hopeful about the future? Julia Fiedorczuk talks to the poet Forrest Gander.
Julia Fiedorczuk: Don’t you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the news of catastrophes? The Amazon fires last summer, the catastrophic fires in Australia at the beginning of this year… I remember when I was a child, whenever there was something scary on TV, I used to cover my eyes with my hands and watch through my fingers. That way I could see and not see at the same time. Increasingly, this is how I feel watching the news these days. But I wrote down a few phrases, such as this headline from The Guardian: “Emergency warning for Eden. It is too late to leave. Seek shelter as the fire approaches”. These phrases have haunted me for weeks.
Forrest Gander: As someone from California, I was immediately struck how that quote applies to Paradise, the town near me which recently burned to the ground. A few years ago, many people died there. Yes, I think a lot of us are doing just that: we cover our eyes. Sadly, if anything can disrupt our habits, our short-span attention, greed and satisfied self-absorption, only these huge fucking disasters can, like the fires in Australia [or the coronavirus pandemic. The interview was conducted on 23rd February 2020 in Louisville, before the pandemic was declared – author note].
It does look like what is happening in Australia is going to affect the politics there. The support for coal mining and the support for carbon-based energy is shifting now, only because the people have lost so much. The scale of disaster is going to turn things. In California, there were immediate and significant changes to water usage after the devastating fires rolled through. And even though the water table has come back up and we have had two seasons of good rain, those conservation policies remain in place. So the politics have changed.
One of the big exports from Southern California is almonds, a super water-intensive crop. President Trump has promised to divert Northern California water, necessary for salmon and wetlands, to service agriculture in Southern California. We will need another disaster to change that kind of thinking. The worst thing is that countries like Australia or the US can manage relatively well with catastrophic disasters, while poorer countries can’t. If we continue to ignore the environmental warnings, then massive migration and starvation, suffering and the obliteration of species is around the corner. But it doesn’t seem like humans will organize in a way to address these kinds of long-term problems without the stimulus of one horror or another.
Do you think individual action matters? Are individual choices important? A lot of environmentally-conscious people are appealing to consumers at large to change their habits. On the other hand, there is this mantra on the Left that we must not accept too much responsibility because individual responsibility is one more trick played on us by the corporate world so that we feel guilty and helpless. And of course, these feelings don’t help…
No, because they take the joy out of our lives.
It is a curious thing. As far as literature is concerned, I believe in multi-nationality. Languages, ideas, emotional and imaginative records need to cross borders. The same applies to the people who bear them. But the internationalism of multinational corporations often has been a form of predation, a project of exploiting labour markets, and skirting ethical and environmental responsibilities. One of the beautiful things about literature is that it is one of the least predatory things that people can choose to devote themselves to.
Reading Passolini lately, I came across this quote: “Modern consumptionism is a new form of totalitarianism.”
Again: literature is the opposite because it celebrates difference. The great thing about translating and translations is that they expose us to differences in cultures, language constructions and imaginations.
And that quote is true. These last few years I’ve been spending a lot of time in China, and what strikes me is the reality of a surveillance state. Ordinary people don’t bother much about the fact that there is no access to independent news or to non-government-promoted information. They have access to products that make their lives comfortable – phones, TVs, food. Because of this comfort, they accept the stuffing of all difference into one, single totalitarian society. Of course, the same thing might be said, albeit to a different degree, of the populations in the United States or Poland.
I think there is a similar trend in Poland. People are made into consumers who do not stand up against the assault on the legal system, for instance.
It’s happening everywhere. Look at Hungary, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Venezuela, Chile.
Given what we said before about the inability to see certain things, and given this tendency of the world towards a new kind of totalitarianism, do you see a chance for rebellion? Is the rebellious spirit alive in the US? In Poland, during the communist era, the US was associated with freedom and counter-culture. Does counter-culture exist at all in the US, or has it been entirely commodified?
I remember Allen Ginsberg in an advertisement for khaki pants and Bob Dylan in a TV advertisement for the ‘New Angel Collection’ for Victoria’s Secret [laughs].
That counter-culture movement was mythologized to a great extent, because so many people in so many countries were looking for ways of democratizing their political systems, and so they romanticized the so-called Beat Revolution into something more unified and powerful than it was. I mean, it was powerful. It did help stop the Vietnam War, it did achieve a lot of things, including the introduction of many environmental policies. At the same time, the 60s was a period of rampant misogyny, of pseudo-zen platitudes and casual cultural appropriation. Suburban white people moving to reservations and dressing up as Native Americans. There were countless drug casualties and the barfly poetry of Charles Bukowski (or more recently ‘trust fund bohemian’ August Kleinzhaler), whose clichéd posturing is sometimes mistaken for bad-ass rectitude.
Meanwhile, there is now an undercurrent of powerful protest, but it’s flowing in a different direction. Take the #MeToo movement or the insistence that Black Lives Matter, or the take-overs of derelict housing by homeless people, the efforts to legislate green economic programmes. These are energized trajectories. They come with less romance than Beat or punk performances, but they may leave more lasting changes.
Still, it’s hard, in the US at least, to get ordinary middle-class people to protest. Those who are comfortable can easily overlook homeless camps or even the fact that their own jobs are connected to plutonium burial sites. To shift short-term personal interest and focus on long-term communal interest, to recognize that our private lives are already inextricably involved with the lives of people we don’t know and never will meet, with the land and with other species, with the unseen life of oceans – that’s the hardest adaptation we’ll make. Or not make.
That would be a real revolution. Some people say this revolution will start with poetry. But yesterday you spoke about poets and intellectuals who are living very privileged lives…
Each of us is full of contradictions and paradoxes. You and I live privileged lives and we are protesting against privilege. We’re meeting here in Louisville, Kentucky because we both flew here from distant places. But as you said before, I don’t think we can live our lives with a constant sense of guilt. I don’t think there is anything like perfection. I don’t believe in purity, and I’m terrified by the people who do. Racism has always been connected to misperceptions about purity. And there isn’t any kind of pure, original space that we can return to. On the other hand, I think we can make choices that are ethically meaningful. Don’t you think?
Yes, I agree. I think it is important to have a clear direction. I try not to fly whenever it is possible to take a train. If I get invited to an event I always ask about this possibility. Sometimes the organizers will say that at this point flying is the only option. But the mere question plants an idea – and so perhaps in the future, they will consider other possibilities. On the other hand, the kind of puritanism that turns into accusation and finding fault with others for their environmental ‘sins’ can become quite aggressive. And it’s not very productive.
No, it’s cannibalizing. We can’t sacrifice human joyfulness. Mournful, bitter or angry protests aren’t the only effective means of making change. We need a kind of energy that is ebullient and hopeful so that when people look at us, they want to know what lights up our eyes.
Are you hopeful for the future?
Yes. Nevertheless, I am as worried as you are.
Where do you find hope? Do you see changes happening?
The discussions are everywhere. The fact that Richard Powers’ book The Overstory won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is hopeful. The book is a radical realignment of thinking about trees, industry and the environment. It’s sold something like 20 million copies and is being made into a TV series. So clearly, people are ready. They are talking.
Take another example. The initial coronavirus outbreak was reportedly related to the import of exotic species. China has now banned that trade – no more selling pangolins, bats, rhinoceros horns (although there are loopholes). Still, our interconnected and environmentally precarious world is poised for more pandemics. And the next ones might start in the US or South America or Poland.
Perhaps the spread of the virus will finally make us realize that parts of the world, aspects of economy and ecology are all interconnected.
But we know that already. We just don’t want to adjust to the responsibilities of that knowledge.
Do you think that freedom is still possible today? Or at least some zones of freedom?
I think zones of freedom will always be contaminated. Once again, I’d avoid trying to lobby for any formulation of a ‘pure’ space or ideology. I collaborated with the photographer Lucas Foglia and we recorded the words and images of people living in intentional (what used to be called ‘utopian’) communities. Those people are trying to establish zones of freedom, which are of course contaminated because you can’t completely separate from the world. As you said, everything is connected. But in the US the counter-culture impulse to detach from corporate totalitarianism is very much still present. These ‘intentional’ zones, once again, are not without their contradictions, but their existence is significant. On the other hand, the inclination for a pure ideology or an absolute position is crippling. Say you want to give some change to a child beggar somewhere, but you know that as soon as you do, you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of other mendicant children. You’ll feel overwhelmed. If you can’t commit completely, purely, do you not help anyone at all?
There is an anecdote about this: the Indian Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello was walking with a friend by the edge of the sea where thousands of jellyfish had been washed ashore to certain death. Without interrupting the conversation, De Mello would bend down every few moments to collect the unfortunate creatures and put them back in the water. His interlocutor said: “You are not going to save them all, why bother?’ De Mello replied: “Ask the ones I rescued…”
Exactly. This is about particularity. It’s very empowering individually to make small choices, which is what I think literature does, too. Few people can introduce large scale changes, like Gandhi or – since we are here in Louisville – Muhammad Ali. People always ask this question: does poetry make anything happen? I think it does, but on a low level. However, what happens at the low level radiates outward.
People often complain that no-one cares about poetry. How can it make a difference?
People who say that have usually given up poetry, and maybe even passion, a long time ago. In fact, poetry reading in the US has increased massively in the last 10 years, largely among young people and people of colour. We’re talking about people living in a culture that bombards them constantly with images of things they are expected to ‘need’, a culture that equates happiness with purchase power. So it’s astonishing to see them turning to poetry – the oldest human art, the one least connected to the economy. In their/our vivid material culture, something essential inside them is being met by an engagement with thinking and feeling, and language that poetry offers and articulates more penetratingly than anything else.
This is my first time in Louisville and I find it moving. Every few blocks you see plaques that mark stores and theatres and sites where there were demonstrations against racism. Encountering those memorials, I began to wonder: what if every city made its secret history visible to the inhabitants and visitors? I’m talking about the honest history, not like for instance in Austin, Texas where, if you need to conduct business at the courthouse, you have to walk past a huge Confederate monument that celebrates the Civil War and the Texans’ heroic role in it. That plaque makes the case that Texas was winning the war for the Confederates. It talks about ‘independent spirit’ and bravery but makes no reference at all to slavery, which the Texans were fighting to maintain.
Toward the end of the 20th century, we became suspicious of the notion of one truth for everybody. The Japanese poet Ryūichi Tamura compared one voice speaking for everyone to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A single voice obliterates all others. In this decade, we have witnessed a great deal of effort in the US to represent other voices, not just in literature. The next task will be to open our ears to the voices of other species, other forms of life. Because if we don’t engage with that wider world – with the animals and the space we all share – our human voices will drown out the differences that sustain us.
How do engage with these questions in your own work?
You and I are both trying to work out those issues in our writing and in our daily lives. Lately, I’ve been studying Sangam literature, a body of work that flourished in Southern India between 300 BC and 300 AD. There used to be a kind of poetry called akam in which there was no way to write about personal emotion without connecting it to an actual, particular landscape. It was a genre requirement but also a way of understanding the world. You don’t experience emotions in a vacuum. The world around us is involved in our perception and in our emotions. Without a place, there is no self. Descartes’ declaration “I think therefore I am” is pure fiction. You always think in relation to something, and in an actual place that has an influence on you. You asked me earlier whether poetry makes anything happen. I think that the more that we recognize ourselves in relation to the world, to other species and other people, the more hope there is for finding our place in all that. Understandings change, though perhaps too slowly.
What scares me is that geological time and human time have suddenly merged. Geological time is changing so fantastically fast that we’re able to witness it. The extinction of species, the acidifying oceans, melting tundras, rising sea levels, desertifying heatwaves – all those things are completely visible to us.
And therefore this present extinction event is different from the previous ones.
The Trump administration claims that there have always been ups and downs, that the current situation is nothing new. That’s untrue. It’s not normal at all. The sense of exigency is super-great. Two modalities of time are collapsing into each other. Some scientists say it’s already too late for the oceans to recover, so perhaps we will disappear after all. As the American poet Gary Snyder says, the planet will recover and go on without us.
How do we write and live our lives joyfully, even in the face of this catastrophe? Let me repeat the quote from the beginning: “It is too late to leave, seek shelter as the fire approaches”. What do we do if – metaphorically – it is too late to leave and we must seek shelter right here?
[It’s astonishing to read this question now, during the coronavirus pandemic, when everyone in California has been ordered to ‘shelter in place’. Your language applied to a crisis you anticipated but, of course, didn’t expect – added by Gander when he was approving the interview]
Your question is, perhaps, another way of asking: how will we live our lives? We tend to think that we have a lot of time, but perhaps we don’t. The main question is always the same: What do you want to do with your life? Do you want to be a good person? Merwin says: “On the last day of the world I would like to plant a tree.” And Brecht asks: “Will there be singing in the dark times?” The answer is: “Yes, we will sing of the dark times.” We can’t give up poetry and we can’t let the ignorance that has brought us to the brink of this catastrophe turn our lives into nothing but grief. We want to be happy. People who are passionate but also happy are a lot more persuasive. If you want to inspire people to want to be a part of something, joyfulness does that.
Does the Anthropocene change the way we write?
It does change the way you and I write. It is impossible to write a sentimental poem about nature anymore. Eco-poets write about plastic, styrofoam, chemicals. The dimensions of what we call ‘nature’ have expanded to include the complications of how we see our relationship with the world. Even at the syntactic level, contemporary poems often becomes complex because we are living in a time of processing complexity. At a fundamental level, poets have had to acknowledge that looking at things as singularities, or looking at the human species as a singularity, isn’t actually descriptive of our situation. This is an example of how ideas change over time. We now understand that there isn’t a moment of reality where human experience isn’t impinged upon by lots of other things. That awareness changes the way that we write.
You like to collaborate with other artists.
Lately I heard a nice quote from Kathleen Fraser, a San Francisco poet. She said that “what we call a poem is getting larger and larger by the moment.” The romantic notion of isolated genius making an individual work isn’t, and probably never was, true. We’re all part of each other. “Books come from books,” Cormac McCarthy says. Collaboration models the kind of social relationship that I want to live, where I recognize myself in relation to others and what I think, and the impulses that I have as an artist are affected by the impulses of others. The advantage of that model artistically is that you arrive at a result you would never arrive at on your own. But, to repeat, it also models a social relationship. We are all involved in writing the book on how to live together in the world.
In the case of The Littoral Zone, which was a part of your book Be With, you collaborated with a photographer.
The Canadian photographer Michael Flomen and I were put in touch by the editor of a Belgian magazine called Alligatorzine. He thought we had something in common and suggested a collaboration. I wrote some new work based on his photographs and we published that version. But two years later my wife, the major American poet C.D. Wright, died and I fell into an abyss, a purgatorial place. I started to look at the photographs again and they have begun to speak to me in a different way. They opened into a dark indeterminate zone. I couldn’t tell whether I was looking at something on a galactic scale or a microscopic scale. All my reference points were lost.
Flomen takes big pieces of photographic paper into the Canadian wilderness and immerses them in streams at night, so they are only developed by starlight. Currents in the stream itself and fish leave their marks on the sensitive paper. So the photographs are both a record of galactic movement and of very particular local movement in a combined register that’s unlike anything you’ve seen. It’s a record of deep time and common time.
So I went back to those poems and re-wrote them. Because I couldn’t look at them without thinking about C.D. That’s where I was, in some space between the physical realities that I recognized.
The poems of that sequence are divided into three parts. First, we have the description of the image. The second stanza poses questions about looking, and the third stanza is always very intimate, bringing my relationship with C.D. into the picture. I recognize that those parts are the most difficult to translate and to read. The language is super-saturated. I felt I had to invent a new language to express what I was feeling.
Loss is such a useless word. When my beloved died, I had no language for what I was experiencing. I didn’t want to be around people, I didn’t want to write, I didn’t have anything to say. But a year and a half into it I accepted a job participating in a workshop at Squaw Valley, California. It required me to join the students in writing a poem every night. So I was forced to write. The first nights I felt terrible anxiety about putting words on the page. But in those 10 days, some things began to emerge, and then they poured out of me.
You ask me: where is the place of poetry in the world? For me at that moment, poetry became a way of metabolizing grief that was so large I didn’t think I could digest it at all. I thought I would just choke on it. But when the book came out, many strangers wrote to me or came up to me after readings and told me that the poems spoke to their own experience in a way that never happened before. And I remembered: that is what poetry can do. It can articulate the inarticulate. In offering your world to someone else – even your most wounded world – you find your own experience isn’t unique, though that’s exactly how it feels. Other people know that too. To make contact with that response made me feel part of the human community.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
An American poet, novelist, essayist and translator. He has published 10 poetry collections and two novels: As a Friend (2008) and The Trace (2014). Among his many literary awards, he was the recipient of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection Be With (2018). His poems often employ insights from geology and talk about landscapes, which Gander treats as a primary setting or even a source of action. He was born in 1956.
Introduction and biography translated from the Polish by Jan Dziergowski