Forrest Gander

Pulitzer Prize Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Finalist

Interview with Mario Hibert in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzagovina

You are geologist and writer so it would be inevitable to ask you about scientific and poetic languages that influence your writing. How do you correlate and explain that connection between science and art that is obviously present in your work? In which way is science and art commensurable? Are scientific and poetic languages in search of the same goal? How does your “laboratory” function?

I think scientific language used to be oriented around the attempt to find specific truths.  Scientific language was written, basically, across an equal sign.  It was a language of equivalences.  E=mc squared. That made it very different from poetry where you can’t substitute words or phrases without obliterating the work.  But the intensely interesting thing about science at the end of twentieth century is that it embraced uncertainty. Physics, at subatomic level, encountered relativity.  Science came to recognize the effects of observation on whatever is observed.  As a poet, I tend to be more invested in the inquiry itself than in any pretense that I can capture and articulate Truth, as though it had some eternal quality. It’s uncertainty in science and poetry that draws the two realms together.  And philosophy, too, has drawn closer to poetry.  Nietszche, Wittgenstein, and the Derrida of Glas are poetic stylists.  And one of the operative terms in American poetry now, via the wonderful Joan Retallack, is poethics, ie. the ethical concern of poetics.  

What I was going to ask you is actually: what is your favorite subject matter?  How engage in poetry after losing the vertical axis in today’s postmodern world? Is it possible to live on the other side of culture and struggle after shapes and forms in the deconstructing world that celebrates the absence of the truth?

What poetry can do is to make us more attentive to language, more attentive to the kinds of language that use us, to which we have become so accustomed that we don’t question its implicit assumptions.  So we encounter political language and newspaper language—we read it to find out who did what to whom, to calculate facts, to be persuaded, wooed, entertained. But until recently when this one kind of language, the language of business, became so dominant, every culture allowed space for different language modes.  Poetry challenges the most relentless paradigm.  It offers a transformative summons.  It can engage our intellectual, emotional and aesthetic capacities in ways that are neither self-serving nor predatory.  Poetry harrows the soul.  It can fill us with illumination.  It can articulate the most subtle human experiences. If poetry offers one transcendence that is available to all of us, if poetry can deepen our humanity, open the imagination, and suggest our deep interrelation with each other, then it IS linked to what you call the vertical axis.  Poetic language has to do with something greater than us, whatever that might be, with what has been called a spiritual dimension. I think nothing makes that link so fully as poetry.

It seems like your style is much more orientated to subtle and polysemic interconnections of language accomplished by the phenomenon of reception. How do you succeed (or do you perceive language as medium of reconciling, yet summing up converging social and political meanings with forces that transcends profane identifications…)

I do think that my poetry emerges from a stance that acknowledges perception as the product of a participatory relationship with the world. 

Hans Georg Gadamer claims that the distinctive feature of poetry is its autonomy. (Language of poetry is not a mere pointer that refers to something else, but, like the gold coin, is what it represents). Since the words of the poem are irreplaceable in an interpretation, and translation is always a separate poem, autonomous as well.  Your last book of essays A Faithful Existence: Reading, Memory, and Transcendence explores possibilities of being faithful in the act of translation.  Can you share with us some secrets on your techniques?

When I translate, I work to introduce into American English some of the essential and distinctive qualities of the language from which I’m translating.  Not only its image repertoire and subject material, but the sequencing of its sounds, the rhythmic pulse, the syntactical sequence, and more subtle suggestions of resonant relations.  In a good translation, I think the original may be veiled, but it doesn’t disappear.

You are very much engaged in translation projects. Is it maybe your way of fighting the marginalization of the Other in today’s world?

America’s power flows outward so readily, so fatally, that as an American poet I feel all the more invested in honoring other languages, in trying to bring them across the border this way, in encouraging them to alter my language, to refresh it, re-energize it, and inform it.  At the same time, it is just one of the great pleasures in life—moving into another language is like sex, a realm of encounter, attentiveness, and attunement.  And in that encounter, I have come into contact with people and with work that has changed my life.

What do you enjoy the most about translation courses you regulary teach?

I am very lucky to teach at a university that draws very brilliant and particularly innovative students.  In my last translation workshop, I had students translating from Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Georgian, French, and Arabic.  My biggest pleasure is to find contemporary writers for them to translate.  That’s why I collected so many books here in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  I mostly suggest poetry to them since translating poetry brings into focus the major problems in translation more than any other genre.  Many of their translation projects have been published subsequently, so it serves the students well, connects them to an international world, and immeasurably deepens their sensitivity to language.

You have told me that you have been running a small publishing firm? Is it a kind of business that has a chance to survive among giant publishers?

As Jimmy Cliff, the reggae musician, sings, “The harder they come, the harder they fall.”  And the bigger they come, the bigger they fall.  Because independent press publishing takes place as an act of love, not an act of greed, it succeeds on its own terms.  Because the larger presses have continued to move away from publishing literary titles, a kind of vacuum has opened and there is a real audience, even if it is a small one, for innovative literature and poetry.  Our books often sold quite well.  Relatively.

At what extent are you familiar with the works of Bosnian writers in living in United States (for example, Semezdin Mehmedinovic, Aleksandar Hemon…)

I met Semezdin Mehmedinovic in Florida at a poetry festival.  I had already heard of him and read his searing Sarajevo Blues, which I loved not only for its writing and the quality of his observations, but for its wonderful, mixed formal structure.  (One of the things I noted in my time in B-H was that no one, any longer, seems to smoke Drina, the cigarettes that Sem mentions so frequently in his book.)  I was very excited to read his more recent book of poems, Nine Alexandrias.  In Sarajevo, I got to meet a number of poets, you Pedrag Kojovic, and Dijala Hasanbegovic, for instance, whose work I’ll follow now.  It wasn’t until I got back from Sarajevo that I bought The Question of Bruno by Hemon.

In one of your poems, you write, “Guernica not appropriate the ambassador of the US to speak of war…” and it probably alludes to the tapestry copy of Picasso’s Guernica displayed on the wall of the United Nations building in New York City, at the entrance to the Security Council room.  That poem “Background Check” seemed to me like your favorite during readings at the Sarajevo Poetry Days. How do you comment on it?

In the poem, I try to encourage language to take on that cubist, interrelated violence of Picasso’s painting.  The fact that the Bush administration considered it inappropriate for the U.S. ambassador to drum up support for war with an image of women and children and animals suffering behind him—well, the irony is hideous enough.  For George W. Bush, violence has been a means for denying history in the cynical severance of linguistic from perceptual representation.

How is to be American nowadays?

As I was assembling the anthology I mentioned to you earlier in this interview, Ten Significant American Poets, I noted that the last sentence in Ben Lerner’s biographical note reads: “He is currently ashamed to be a citizen of the United States.”  I think he speaks for many of us.

What was the most moving, impressive or bewildering moment you experienced in Bosnia?

Most bewildering were the pyramids at Visosica, billed as the only European pyramids.  They're mostly underground still. Of course, I am no expert in archeology, but I know something about geology and those excavations looked a lot like natural conglomerate formations to me.  Can't wait to see those again.