Forrest Gander and John Kinsella with Andy Fitch

gander kinsella photo
Forrest Gander and John Kinsella

Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Gander and Kinsella’s book Redstart: An Ecological Poetics (University of Iowa Press, 2012). Recorded on June 18th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: I’m not much interested in classifications of genre or discipline, but given Redstart’s early consideration of the efficacy of ecopoetics, I would be curious to hear you two describe this book’s primary functions, specifically its positioning of authorial agency. In an early essay Forrest outlines the possibility for a mediated, interactive, relational practice to construct an ongoing textual environment, one that might promote ecological-minded orientations among its audiences. John later provides a thornbill-inspired poetics of the passerine—a process which allows for cross-movement and cross-reference, even as the group internally migrates from place to place, thereby contesting categorical identities without abdicating collective agency. That all makes sense as a theory of this book. But I’m curious of the extent to which you wish for Redstart, in Forrest’s words, to “make something happen.” What would that something be? How does it depart from prevailing conventions in ecopoetics?

Forrest Gander: That question of authorial stance is one we want to investigate. We hope to break down traditional notions of what authorial agency might mean. John, in writing about collaboration and using a word like “cross-hatched,” challenges our assumptions about where authority comes from, challenges the very dialectic of subjectivity and objectivity. This book takes on such work without turning it into a logical exercise. It takes on a formal investigation and adventure.

John Kinsella: Redstart only could be completed collaboratively, for the very reasons Forrest outlined. The whole concept of so-called Western subjectivity gets imbued with concerns of ownership and possession. But here we’ve attempted to broaden the scale of our collective responsibility. Personally, I don’t think there’s much purpose to a poetry that doesn’t try to make things happen. This world is damaged, and becoming rapidly more damaged. Though I’ve never felt that’s irreversible. Individual components may be sadly irreversible. Still in a general sense, things always can get better. This book provides a blueprint for identifying problems—not only how they present themselves in ecologies, but how we actually talk about them. Because how we talk leads to how we change and rectify problems. Forrest’s poetry always has offered an active textuality. The active world gets embodied in the words of his poems. These words aren’t just representations of things. They almost become organic matter, be they rock or be they vegetable. This organicism extends across all existence. Ideas of the “I” or the self long have been challenged in poetry. That’s nothing new. But the way we’ve described our relationship to place…I think we do need a new language. Not saying we’ve found that new language, but we’ve explored new parameters of representation.

FG: So saying collaborative writing can be redemptive, that’s already an act. That makes something happen.

AF: I appreciate the premise that ecopoetics emerges from a critique, rather than a reaffirmation, of Western subjectivity. I like John’s implication that Redstart’s dialogic structure prevents present global trajectories from seeming irreversible, since potential always remains for a shift in momentum. But before we get too far, can you give a brief sense of what you mean when referring to the big glossed lie of “‘experiencing nature.’” What makes this phrase a lie? Why does that equal the death of nature?

FG: That’s John’s phrase, and John also says in the preface that we have no landscape to speak of. He insists that as soon as we’ve identified a landscape, we have separated ourselves from it. Historically this leads to tragic consequences.

JK: Once again, we are not just this outside energy that can look and observe to gain leisure and pleasure. We are culpable and responsible and receptive to nature as well. The whole point to saying that one doesn’t write nature, but actually is part of nature, is if you start fetishizing and objectifying and reifying, then readers can create a comfortable distance between themselves and what you’ve observed. One thing I love about working with Forrest is our shared sense that you don’t have a debate without responsibility. Once you bring some sense of belonging and participation and inclusiveness to the so-called nature/landscape debate, that brings along responsibility. The exchange has a purpose. We write because we believe in the work. It’s not just entertainment.

AF: One last question on Redstart’s dialogic structure. You cite Felix Guattari’s work, which calls to mind the pairings of Deleuze and Guattari, Guattari and Negri, Negri and Hardt. And you’ve both collaborated in the past. Presumably this collaborative legacy contests largely unquestioned concerns in “nature writing”—its primary focus on individual experience as privileged mode of accessing the natural. Again along the lines of John’s thornbill transcriptions, does this book implicitly argue that the natural resides in group behavior as much as in solitary epiphany? Does dialogue create its own ecosystem?

FG: John writes about this beautifully in “The Movements of the Yellow-Rumped Thornbills.” He connects conceptions of property (as something an individual owns) to claims of authority and control. As opposed to property as something shared, communal, involved in endless process. Because no place exists free from event, from activity that impinges upon groups of people, upon everyone, all species.

JK: “Communal event” hits the nail on the head, Forrest. Even operating as so-called individuals, we actually have communal effect. Even if we live hermetically, on top of the mountain, the fact that we breath air and exhale and so on has its effect. The whole “butterfly flaps its wings” principle. We are not alone and can’t be alone. I’ve increasingly felt, as time passes, that collaboration might be the only dynamic way of writing. For me at least. For others, not so. I’ve more and more lost interest in writing solo because ultimately I don’t function alone, and don’t think any of us does. Throughout this exchange, every time I’d get an email from Forrest, it made me rethink not only what I was doing, but the whole parameters of what poetry could and might do. That dialogue never seems static. I’m an anarchist, so I believe in mutual aid. I believe we assist and help each other and that this can have a positive environmental outcome. One problem for ecopoetics arises when it becomes exercises within the classroom, or within the text, without further reflection about cause and effect, including how a book gets printed, when and how it’s read, how it gets discarded. All these practical concerns remain a part of writing, right down to issues of postage.

FG: Something else I find important: collaboration surprises the authority and stability of the self, and can make for a very productive discomfort. When John writes “I do self too, in self-same split / of bark,” he connects the self to the landscape. Yet he’ll constantly address the discomfort of that self. He doesn’t deny subjective experience. In some ways this book seems very personal. John’s wife, John’s children become involved. Intimacy gets complicated through form and language in such a way as to provoke discomfort.

AF: Well a question did arise, following the…at least what seemed the dialogic preface (you both sign it). Why, after that, the consistent attribution of individual authorship for specific pieces? Especially since you long have embraced processes of collage, and there’s John’s “International Regionalism” project, and going back to what Forrest just said: do these discrete assertions somehow add to the book’s polyphonic thrust, to the discomfort? Do you wish to foreground pluralities even of the individual’s experience, as your points of reference, Nietzsche and Dickinson, do? Here the book’s closing allusion to “male Noh actors in female masks, with beautifully feminine hand gestures” comes to mind. What types of rhetorical performances, solo and choral performances, does Redstart provide?

FG: I think both of us preferred not to attribute individual authorship when we’d handed the manuscript…

JK: Absolutely.

FG: We did not specify whose writing was whose. And anyway, the writing only happened because we’d worked together. We can’t tell who even wrote some passages. But the editorial house’s peer reviewers wanted that information. They thought it added something. We hadn’t considered the book that way.

JK: We gradually had absorbed each other’s registers. We’d approached a collaborative voice. If a liminal zone exists in poetry, I think we’ve neared this capacity. That’s what excites me, not the initials at the bottom of the page or whatever. Of course there’s a kind of geographizing in the sense that, oh, my parts came from this very specific point in Perth, West Australia. Forrest wrote his from particular places in the United States or North Africa. And those geographies shape the dialogue as much as anything else. But then parts of America flow into parts of Australia and vice versa, cross-hatching. That’s an international regionalism if you like. These local integrities amid broader conversations hopefully energized the process. The author initials, which I think was our compromise—the editorial board has reasons for that, in terms of how this whole series works. From our point of view, neither of us owns any of the text.

AF: I love how, in the preface, all the sudden “me” starts appearing. As Forrest says, that “me” discomforts, because I’ve already attuned myself to reading multiple voices. I have to recognize that “me” could in fact be plural, or not.

FG: Right. Does this book have a “me”? Does it have an “I”? How singular is that “I”? We hope for those questions to stay unresolved, to problematize the assertion of any discrete vision of the world from which the seer is not consonant.

JK: Yes I think that’s the nutshell of this book. You know the expression “sum of its parts”? I hope the parts aren’t even parts. The book’s about fluidity. It might provide a preface kind of section. It might hint at some sort of closure. But it remains open-ended, and these reflections only can be open-ended. The moment they close we blind ourselves to truly horrific ecological developments. Those developments demand a second-by-second proposition. This book has to get out there, has to stay open-ended, has to participate in something. Whether people love it or hate it, all I ask, and I’m pretty sure all Forrest would ask, is that it becomes part of the broader conversation. There is some kind of redemptive—that’s the word Forrest used—some kind of redemptive gesture beyond just more paper scraps getting stolen from the world’s forests.

AF: And this redemptive act involves provoking questions? Does redemption come through the momentum given to a reader to in some way respond?

JK: I hope so.

FG: One thing John says: “I and I: to implicate you” at some point of “Codex for Protest.” That’s exactly what takes place. It’s a call-and-response not only within the self, but within the selves.

AF: Another question about Redstart’s overall arrangement arose near the end. The early presence of essays attributed to Forrest, followed by lyric pieces attributed to John, had seemed to suggest Forrest’s status as initiator of the project, and the primacy of a critical vantage. Though then in Redstart’s final, email-based assemblage, I realized a reverse process probably had occurred. There John seems to initiate the dialogue with Forrest. So I’m curious, did you deliberately construct a convoluted presentation of this project’s history? Did you wish to interrupt any seamless association we may make between the temporality of a bound book and the process of its making?

FG: This project’s collaborative nature kept it in a kind of wonderful suspension. The book could have been ordered, and was ordered, many different ways. This particular possibility of an ordering came about by chance, really. But John’s energy throughout, his incredible enthusiasm when I would go quiet or get wrapped up in something, kept us moving forward. I needed to draw on that.

JK: Redstart presents a moment in a broader, hopefully lifelong dialogue that started in the early 2000’s when we first met. I had been familiar with Forrest’s work, and he with mine. And not only through poems, but through critical discussions that happen around the poems, which we both see as vital and equally important. The way we’ll possess a poem then break down that possession by sharing. Poems bleed together and become something greater. So this collaboration had started long before the first poem came through. Then even amid the silent intervals, the collaboration kept going. I’d read one of Forrest’s books or essays. I think the main point with this particular project is that it’s not a musty artifact. It’s not a curatorial process of putting pieces on the museum or gallery wall and saying: there they are, go have your aesthetic relationship with that. These pieces, I hope, are morphologically out there, are part of the topography. They don’t get closed off by the book. Forrest mentioned my energy—I am an enthusiast and probably get overexcited too much. But Forrest has incredible energy. It resonates in this work, geologically. It really echoes through the strata of rock.

FG: John writes that he remains doubtful of poetic practices as systems. Nietzsche has this lovely statement about the desire for a system being a failure of loyalty. For us, the loyalty of this book is to openness and to contingency.

AF: Though as somebody who often collaborates, I’m curious if you two have found that collaborative projects, which ostensibly contest concerns, models, projections of authorial identity…if collaboration often prompts those very habits in otherwise skeptical readers. I’m thinking of myself projecting onto your book: is this John talking? Is this Forrest? So what I mean is, does a demonstratively collaborative poetics perhaps unwittingly induce the type of projective identification that it seeks to dispel? Or perhaps a better way to put it—what’s productive for the reader in undergoing this triangulated identification?

FG: I think both in our individual writing, and in the collaborative nature of the whole, we constantly invite the reader to participate in the conversation. So this triangulation doesn’t make discrete particular voices and authorial identities. The triangulation allows for a passing back-and-forth. It invites a mode of meditation and consideration and experience that can be shared.

AF: Does the reader share as well?

FG: I hope that’s the experience of this book. The question you asked interests me, but it’s one the reader must answer.

JK: For me a reader’s never a passive entity. Readers are, first of all, never really alone. They may sit in a room reading on their own, but the reader remains a collaborative being. The desire to separate and identify individual authorship corresponds with the desire to individuate themselves as readers when, in fact, ultimately, they can’t. The whole process of learning to read depends on other people. You don’t learn to read very easily, and not very readily, on your own. The reader was collaborative from the start. But they want to become individual. They want to own or to possess—the very pursuits I personally would resist. And I think that offering a collaborative work and letting readers struggle (in the most positive sense of that word) raises a question they need to ask themselves, or that they might ask themselves. I’m not telling anyone to do anything. But it’s the whole failure, if you like, of Western subjectivity for me. Western subjectivity never can resolve itself. Here we’ve played with those internal discomforts over what the self-reading self is.

AF: In terms of how encountering this collaboration can help to refine one’s reading process (to sort through various projections onto and identifications with, possessions by and of, what one is reading), I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about the book’s “Redstart” section. Does some sort of exquisite corpse happen here, perhaps along the axis of an epistolary exchange by mail, by email? And does the epistolary serve as useful model for the thickness of “perceptual experience on the page” that your preface demands? Even amid this dramatized call-and-response, did you edit each other’s lines? Would somebody write lengthy sequences which only in retrospect resemble a dialogue?

FG: Yes, it’s more complicated than simple dialogue. “Redstart” began with one person sending another some lines. But then these lines became malleable material. We felt we could edit each other’s lines. I would incorporate John’s words and phrases into what I wrote next. This call-and-response includes such transformations. The language kept changing across the borders of any one person’s activity. That formal process matches the book’s poetics—breaking down any easy or comfortable depictions of identity.

JK: Another component at play, another variable, is place itself. “Redstart” got written over a period of time. Topographical changes occurred. In the case where I live, watching large chunks of bush bulldozed over, that kind of thing. As the ecology itself became altered so our language changed.

FG: John’s Jam Tree Gully project gets modeled on the movements of birds. Similarly, we wanted “Redstart” to reflect constant movement. Not to posit place or authorship as closed-off nouns, but to present constant transformations to which we could respond.

AF: You write across vast (but ultimately communicable) distances, and work within interrelated yet distinct idioms. For me, almost inevitably, Forrest’s descriptions feel local. “Unsprung the / crab-spider rushes / (self returning to itself) / over the lip of hibiscus / (petal all detail / and anticipatory).” Somehow I hear Dickinson in that. John’s descriptions compel me toward identification with “the local” for quite different reasons. It’s their crystalline precision, their modest authorial vantage: “I have seen them almost ‘gang up’ on larger birds, but in general their energies seem spent on food collecting, communication, sentinel activity, and a vigorous display and response during courtship.” I don’t mean to affirm some nationalist identity for either of you, or your writing or reading habits, but did putting Redstart together heighten your sense of difference within the English language? Differences in idiomatic, cultural, historical, personal modes of poetic arrangement? What does is mean to meld present Australian and U.S. (and perhaps for John, U.K. as well) English, particularly in relation to John’s postulation of a “center- edge effect,” recognizing that there is “both no more weakness at the edge and no greater strength in the center”?

FG: That’s one of the great pleasures in reading outside one’s comfort zone of language, and why translation, for instance, remains so important to the life of a language, as other languages infect ours with different rhythms and image repertoires and syntactical possibilities. John’s language, which of course isn’t translated, still constantly refreshes my English with a vocabulary, with idiomatic and rhythmic particularities I find revelatory. It excites me as a thinker, as a feeler, as a writer.

JK: I feel the same way. I’m not saying this as a kind of “one says one thing so one says the other.” That’s not the way we operate. I say it because it’s genuinely the case. But there’s two or three important points for me. First, I’m anti-nationalist. I don’t believe in nation as a mode of identity. I believe in region, locality, and community. And I take from Forrest’s work a language of specificity mixed with a kind of ontological breadth, almost theory, where perspectives get shifted around and considered through the lives of other beings. That really interests me. Now his language and my language (our vernaculars) may sound quite different but we share, I feel, a vernacular of observation. Both of us right now are listening to birds. He’s always sending emails about the bird songs. They’re one of the great joys in my life. And I spend almost all my time outside with family and my work, actually in the bush, watching animals and plants, which have rhythms you can put into language. Hopkins does it. I think we all do in some way or another. I’ll never forget one American editor 20 years ago saying about some of my poetry, “I don’t understand these rhythms.” And I wrote back, “I don’t want you to understand the rhythms. They’re just what I absorb around me and what I try and put into a poem.” That’s really where the model points, the Venn diagram of our collaboration—this harmonics of observation and experiential ecologies. That, to me, is the key. I lived in the U.S. five years and we had a son born there. I’ve spent a lot of time in Ohio. But that’s not “Australia” or “America.” These are immense places with many, many different environments amid the so-called sovereign nation.

FG: That word “harmonics” excites me. This book is also about the ethics of description. In describing something, or trying to interpolate and to communicate rhythms and description, how do we keep from mastering, controlling it, owning it? John specifically says “I am not trying to ironize or diminish”—he’s talking about the birds, their chests—“in describing this.” And so, in that way, our whole book addresses a politics of observation and description.

AF: I’d asked about vernacular idiom, but your answers make me recall David Antin’s concept of vernacular thinking, of the potential for a vernacular of observation, a vernacular of harmonics that Redstart explores. It’s clearly not that you’ve just written this book because you like each other and admire each other’s work, but because there is a more exemplary demonstration of international regionalism at play, a tracing of colonial histories, of environmental difference, of contemporary modes of commerce and exchange and their ecological consequences. This last question though…I’m somewhat dumb about birds, but the title, Redstart, could you say a bit about its significance?

FG: John, why don’t you do that?

JK: Well Forrest thinks I thought of it, and I think Forrest thought of it. I never will be convinced otherwise. I doubt he ever will be convinced otherwise. But that’s the beauty. Obviously Redstart relates to a specific bird but also, in terms of physics, to red shifts and blue shifts and the variegating movements of light. Because something we hadn’t mentioned while discussing sound is that the book’s really, really concerned with light. I used to wake with joy when a piece would come in from Forrest. The first thing I’d clamor for was sound. But the second, and often simultaneously, was light. He has this great sense of the light where he’s composing. For me, our title became an ecological identifier, but also became a marker of light and color in the text, and our thinking of—if I could mention Rimbaud, one of my favorite poets, his “Voyelles” and that movement between sound and light. I’ll hand it over to Forrest now.

FG: One other of the multiple meanings comes from red zones on a map, designating critical areas. Those zones have been growing. That’s where we start. That puts pressure on us all to do something about them.


Forrest Gander is a writer and translator with degrees in geology and English literature. Concerned largely with the way the self is revised and translated in encounters with the foreign, his most recent book, Core Samples from the World, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His recent translations include Watchword by Pura López Colomé and, with Kyoko Yoshida, Spectacle & Pigsty by Kiwao Nomura, winner of the Best Translated Book Award in 2012.

John Kinsella is the author of over twenty books, and is editor of the international literary journal Salt. He is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University. In 2007 he received the Fellowship of Australian Writers Christopher Brennan Award for lifetime achievement in poetry.

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