As part of the 2019 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Forrest Gander in response to a video of him reading his poem “Kata: Bus Stop” aloud. Forrest Gander wrote letters back to several of these students; their letters and his replies are included below.
Forrest Gander reads "Kata: Bus Stop" for Dear Poet 2019.
I quite enjoyed your poem ‘Kata: Bus Stop.’ The words themselves were well written of course, but what I enjoyed about the work was not the words so much themselves, but rather the alignment of the words. The way the spaces seemed to say so much more than the words could. Blank spots like in black out poetry, but clear and open, leaving a hint of possibility in their wake. My favorite excerpt is when you said;
“Hidden in fog, the mountain
light here this hill I love”
Part of the reason I enjoyed the portion so ,much was because the words seemed to roll down the page, like the tidal waves you mentioned earlier in the piece. However the main reason I loved this part was that you didn’t end with a period. You didn’t end, you just stopped writing. My questions for you are these; if you were to paint a picture to co-inside with your poem, what would it look like? Also, if you were to play a song while someone was reading your poem, what song would you use? However I don’t mean how far away would the mountain look, or if you’d include a bus at the bus stop, but rather I ask the feeling you would wish to convey through the piece. I am a firm believer that physical art, written art, and musical art should all co-inside. So if you were to sit someone down, a painting on an easel beside them, and your poetry on the table, what music would be playing to reinforce the feelings you wanted to convey in your piece?
That’s a really sharp reading of the poem, and good conceptual questions. Thanks for reading so closely and for asking. I like what you say about a physical, written, and musical art coinciding. But I like that to happen with words themselves. I think the words make their own kind of music, the music of a human voice (maybe each reader’s interior voice shaping the vowels, striking the consonants, pausing at line breaks, etc). I sometimes make poetry-films— there are a number of them online— that include music and visuals. But I don’t always want to determine everything for the reader. Once it’s written, the poem’s meanings and the way it’s read belong to each reader. To you. I’d like to keep the experience open enough so that you bring your own musical and artistic tastes to the poem.
Dear Forrest Gander,
My name is Henry, and I’m a sophomore in Fort Lee, New Jersey. I found your poem, “Kata: Bus Stop,” to be vastly different from any piece of poetry I have read so far. In school, I’ve typically only studied Shakespearean sonnets and other Renaissance poetry. This gave me the impression that all “formal” poetry had to follow certain rhyming and stanza structures, while poems with unique formats were limited to poets like Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein who had younger audiences. Therefore, I was delighted to discover how your poem blended a compelling message with a mesmerizing format. You may think that it is an exaggeration, but no poem has held my interest for so long after reading it.
An example of how these two elements blend together perfectly is your use of ocean waves to create the form and content. The poem repeats itself just like how the tide flows and ebbs. Additionally, the staggered placement of the words gives the reader an image of ocean waves as well. A powerful image despite the paucity of descriptive words of the ocean. This image was further strengthened when I listened to the poem as well. The way you read the poem, the repetition of certain phrases and words became more emphasized. When I was reading the poem, I could only feel a vague sense of familiarity. Listening to your recitation revealed how the poem captures a daily routine that we all partake in.
By reading the poem, the reader experiences a routine through the repetition of many key phrases and words in the second half of the poem. The meta nature of the poem makes the message of the poem hit that much harder. In my daily life, I rarely think about the meaning of my actions. Brushing my teeth, eating cereal, and waiting for the train are all occurrences that happen so often that they are now second nature to me. However, after reading your poem, I began to think about how much of my life is a routine and thus feels like a dream. Events that really stick with me are those that break away from this routine and, like you said in the poem, habits collapse once this happens.
I do have a few questions about your poem. The biggest one that comes to mind is about the title. “Kata: Bus Stop” is the name of the poem. While the second half of the title makes sense to me, the first half greatly confused me. What does Kata mean in the context of your poem? I looked it up and found that it was a Japanese word that meant form. This raised more questions about the poem. Was the title supposed to show that all bus stops follow the same pattern with the same type of people? Or maybe it means that people create bus stops to be this way by sticking to one custom or repetitive behavior? Either way, I think it is amazing that I am still thinking about the poem even after reading it so many times. Thank you for showing me that poetry is not just limited to traditional structures, but rather both the content and shape can be as open ended and thought-provoking as you wish it to be.
Fort Lee, NJ
Your close reading of the poem really lights up my insides. Thank you for giving it so much of your attention, and for paying such close attention to the way meaning and structure are connected. As you found out, a kata is a training exercise in karate. Katas are sequences of movements, often practiced in slow motion, that take the body through different stances. So in a way, they are like our daily rituals that take us through different stances— eating breakfast, picking up a knapsack, saying goodbye to someone, closing the door to the house, waiting for the bus. Even the sequence of woodblock prints of Mount Fuji that the famous Japanese artist Hokusai made might be considered katas— different stances that allow us different perceptions of a single mountain. It’s great that you are reading Shakespeare and older forms of poetry! But you might feel more connected to the sound of the poetry of your own time, which is often not rhymed. There’s a lovely contemporary poet who shares your last name whose work you might like: Cathy Song. Check her out!
Dear Forrest Gander,
I feel like your poems are like people, changing and evolving as you go through the stanzas revealing their true, whole selves by the end. When you are writing do you change, your posture your mindset? When I write I go into this kind of mode where all I can focus on is writing and the music I’m listening to like my hands move on their on while my eyes follow. For you it seems like you focus on each and every word studying its meaning and perfectly fitting it into your poems and I would like to see how I can do something similar and write poems with such deep meaning. Hi, I’m Jayson and I’m in 6th grade. I am writing to you because I really admire your work and how you put so much meaning in such short lines, and how the enjambment you do really flows, and it allows the reader to understand and change with the poem and I want to learn more about your writing and how I can edit my style to engage readers and make them want to decipher the meaning in my poems.
I really liked how you really revealed your poems with meaning and words and allowed the reading to let it unfold before their eyes. Whenever I am reading your poem it takes me quite a while to see all of the meanings, well I think all of the meanings then a couple hours or minutes or sometimes even days I’ll realize another thing I missed and I’ll add it to the collection of meaning in the poem.
over habits of
waking up coffee standing for the bus
that re-enact themselves
On every block,
This impacted me in a way I wouldn't have thought it would, it impacted my writing style and now when I am writing poems I have started using more metaphors, similes and enjambment even I have tried changing formatting. The poems you write are really interesting, intriguing and always make me want to unravel the secrets, but sometimes I will frustrated and take a break for a couple of days but then I’ll come back to it and try unraveling more. I wonder how I can make my readers want to keep unraveling secrets and meanings of the poem, like a bucket that never empties.
The way the poems you write seem kind of jumbled then so clear is astonishing and how you seem to allows have a way of making it flow no matter the topic or what it sounds like. When you write your poems what are you thinking about? Obviously the poem, but what inspires you to continue writing your great poems? When you write your poems the meanings are all over the place, scattered throughout the poem is a specific reason for that? Is it just so to get your reader to think and wonder cause that’s what it did for me? Some of your lines sound weird an example “So a shutter, lifted, offers to looking to the very oracular interior of that openness into which bird inserts itself.” Then it unravels itself and it sounds weird by itself but when it’s with the rest of the poem it sounds and flows amazing, but sometimes when I write my poems it all sounds weird and I want to try and fix that so when I write something “weird” it flows and sounds perfectly imperfect in the poem and the meaning comes along with it. Something that I think I have to learn is that weird isn’t “weird” it’s just unique because there will always be someone out there who likes reading my poem even if I have not met them or will not meet them, there is still someone for everything.
If you had any advice for a writer who wants to write a poem or a series of poems that engage readers what would you advice? If I want to fit meaning into the poem without losing the poem, how can I do that? Poems are like people evolving as they go on, developing changing becoming better and more and more deep.
I’m so glad to hear that you are writing poems and thinking about what makes them work. There’s no one secret about making a poem interesting to others. And it will never be interesting to everyone. But there is an art to writing poetry. And you’re exactly right, the art is successful when it engages someone besides the poet. Often what makes a poem worth reading is the way it can offer a new way of seeing something familiar. Sometimes that can be abstract. The line you mention (from the poem “Witness”), “So a shutter,/ lifted, offers/ to looking/ the very oracular/ interior of that openness into which the bird/ inserts itself” is an example of poetry that is concerned with thinking about what happens when we look at something. That poem, as the dedication makes clear, is for a French photographer who photographs birds. What I write is that when the shutter of his camera clicks, the film becomes— like our vision— an open space where the form of the bird inserts itself like an oracle of some kind. It’s about the way that our sight can suddenly concentrate on a single thing. More often, poems take familiar situations— like those in “Kata: Bus Stop” and let us seem them in fresh ways. The success of those poems often comes from a kind of heightened clarity. Particular details, rather than cliches or generalities, can be super useful to focus the reader’s attention. Form also— for instance the way, in “Kata: Bus Stop” that the lines stagger and isolate moments of seeing or the way that the poem repeats itself, the way so many of our daily rituals are repeated— can also offer to your reader a fresh way of experiencing feeling and meaning. Is that helpful?
Dear Forrest Gander,
I am Vivian, a freshman, and I happened to read your poem “Kata: Bus Stop”, out of the many poems we were given to read in class. This poem caught my eye because at first glance, it was structured differently from the other options. Reading it allowed me to easily imagine a tranquil scene in Japanese bus stop. I noticed how the words seemed to simply exist, rather than move, almost as though how one would appreciate art.
The poem starts by painting a scene of “hill here / light / the mountain.” The spacings between these three words personally allowed me to find the beauty in these words simply being there, without any motion to distract from their existence. Was this your intention or did you simply enjoy the placement of the words this way? The next lines “hidden like Fuji // in Hokusai’s sketches by a tidal wave // of fog” clarify that the poem is set in Japan. I was not familiar with the name Hokusai, so I looked up the name and found that he was the painter of a piece I was familiar with, one of a tidal wave. This cleared up many of my questions but still left me with one : What is the reason for the many comparisons to Japan? Did you ever live there or visit? The next few lines are similar to the first few because it also has the effect of spacing between the words “waking up / coffee / standing for the bus.”I particularly enjoyed the expression “which collapses // over habits of...” because of the odd combination of words: “collapses” and “habits.”
This is when there seems to be a shift in the poem. Around the line “on every block, // re-enact,” as the second part of the poem begins, words from the first part seem to repeat, but in a scrambled and unfamiliar order. Was this shift intended and what was it intended to create? This effect reminded me of effects in film where the characters start moving but backwards, as the words seem to retrace their steps and look back on their actions. This unusual effect made me wonder: what is the purpose for this odd repeating and what inspired you to put it in this poem?
There are countless effects to note in this poem, about diction, breaks and more. When it all comes down to it, however, I think this poem is really about the regularity of human life, their patterns and everyday routines. It made me realize how my life may seem to an outsider, with my own patterns of waking up, going to school, track, and coming home to do homework and study. Although thinking about my rather boring daily routines usually make me rather disappointed that most likely will not be able to make much a difference in this world, this poem allowed me to look for the beauty in the familiarity of my simple life.
This poem’s charm, to me, is how the carefully chosen diction and fragile imagery all come together to both please and touch the reader. I can imagine the voice of the mysterious yet wise speaker of the poem observing the delicate scene of the bus stop but making sure not to affect it. I thank you for both your time and your artistry in “Kata: Bus Stop.”
Oh, your reading of the poem is so sharp and articulate! I think your response is better than the poem. I just love what you say about how the words “seem to retrace their steps and look back on their actions.” Yes, the line breaks and the extra spaces between words help to isolate images, to give them more clarity and singularity, and maybe also to mimic the way that we see things— behind, beside, in front of each other with little leaps in our visual attention. What you notice about the “shift” in the poem, where the poem begins to repeat itself in the opposite order, is connected to your intuition about patterns and “everyday routines.” The same words are used in the second part of the poem, but because they are used in a different order, they say something different the second time around. In the same way, our daily routines—so familiar to us that we sometimes don’t even think about them—are full of meanings and feelings that are connected to the way we interact with the things, people, landscapes, and rhythms around us. I’m especially delighted by your insight about the connection of these poetic techniques to film. In fact, I also make little poetry-films—there are a number of them online—and I’m very interested in the relation of film and poetry.
Dear Forrest Gander,
I am in an English 10 class and we listened to many poems. We worked on writing related to each of the poems and we were asked to expand on our journal entries and send a letter directly to our favorite of the poets. I selected you because you created a poem "Kata: Bus Stop." The poem was so simple yet so complex, and It meant so much to me because I could picture myself in it.
I love nature; I love everything about its unpredictability and raw strength. I think it's fascinating how mountains were formed, and the land was forged from water and ice. I love soccer; I live and breathe it. The beauty of the sport allows me to go into a flow state when I play it. This state allows me to not think about anything and just live completely in the moment. I reside on the top of a tall hill overlooking the lake. The sun sets on the opposing side of the lake, so I get the most beautiful sunsets. In the summer when the sun falls it makes the water shimmer and turn orange; but in the winter it lights up the ice with colorful blues and reds. Spring is personally my favorite season. It is the time when I can wake up and go out on my jetski or go wake surfing with friends. My friends are incredible. They are funny, playful, caring, enthusiastic and overall the greatest people I know. The last thing about myself I will talk about is my pets. I have a dog named Kendall. She is a black lab, spring mix. She is so sweet and caring. She always meets me at the door and lays by my feet. We have a tight hallway in my house and she has to hug the wall because she is always scared of the doors opening, its kinda funny to watch.
I picture the light in your poem as me sitting and watching the sunset. I sit on my hill seeing all of the fish jump, and the birds fly around. Watching them eat from the feeders. I know this doesn’t directly correlate because you talk about being secluded, by saying the line: “hidden like fuji”. I know your tidal wave of fog is a metaphor but its reminds me of waves crashing into the shore. Many days I wake up and I can’t even see the waves crashing in because there is so much fog. This is more literal of an interpretation but it was what I immediately thought of.
Every day when I wake up for school I have habits. I wake up at 7:20, take a cold shower to wake myself. Then I generally eat a banana and pack my lunch for the day and i'm out the door by 7:40. I then go through my day which is the same every day. Then I come home with my friend Jake, and we eat some type of food. Then I go to the gym around 4 and soccer at 7. This is my every day, so I know what you mean by the habits. You can see it in every person and every household. I think habits are a good and a bad thing. Some people's habits allow them to do things more efficiently, but once you develop a habit you are just going through the motions of life. You stop enjoying every second. This is why I think you flipped your poem because you believe that habits are both good and bad. Sometimes you just need to live in the moment and get swept away by the fog and others you need to let it crash over you and continue your task. There is always a balance and I think that's why both sides of your poem has the same words yet such a different message. “in Hokusai’s sketches by a tidal wave of fog” What caused you to use Hokusai’s Sketches, instead of just using a tidal wave of fog?
Thank you for this incredible poem that allows me to think about my habits and actions throughout a day you made a difference for me by showing me the power of placing words in certain places. That timing has an impact on everything. You really helped my connect to such simple words that are, yet so complex.
Thanks so much for your letter. I’m so glad that you found your own experiences inside the poem. It seems to me you FELT the poem’s meaning without having to strain intellectually to construct or interpret meanings. The poet John Keats writes in a letter about the necessity to not scramble immediately after meanings, to let the poem happen to you. He calls that openness “negative capability,” the ability to not have to experience everything rationally. Your intuition seemed to lead you into the poem and I especially appreciate that. I wonder if that intuition comes from your physical life— your trust in your body as you play soccer or exercise in the gym. And I agree with you about habits. Sometimes they are a comfort and sometimes, when we become aware of them, we can find in them particular beauties that mostly go unnoticed. And as you say, sometimes habits are just ruts we fall into that actually KEEP us from seeing clearly or from having fresh experiences. In any case, I’m really grateful you took the time to respond and make contact over a poem. I hope you’re writing some of your own as well.
Dear Professor Gander,
As a seventeen-year-old student in a school that places value on STEM above all else, it was difficult to get into poetry until this school year, when my friend Sofie told me just to write a poem-any poem, any subject. That sparked a fire in me to not only write poetry, but read it, and when looking at your poems, the rich metaphors and analogies to nature – the plants, the animals, the still earth on which they live brought to life in your poetry – and their connections to domestic life drew me in.
Your use of a mirrored structure in “Kata : Bus Stop” spoke to me – that idea of coming full circle, living life in a routine, day in, day out, the same soup just reheated emphasized by the repetition. Juxtaposed by this was the rich imagery of the fog over Mt. Fuji, over the city, painting a stilling image of the repetition life has to offer us, and a surprisingly domestic way of life that exists all around the world – even in those places that seem exotic. AS someone who loves both the diversity that life inherently has to offer and the quiet unity that intertwines the globe, I was deeply appreciative of “Kata: Bus Stop,” as it interpreted, coupled, and presented the two ideas in a unique way.
The theme of hyper-awareness that exists in your poem “Stepping out of the Light,” was yet another idea that was beautifully presented by the structure and style in which it was written. The short lines, interrupted thoughts, and long rambling sentences broken by line breaks worked to convey the thought process in which I personally would end at the conclusion of how uncomfortably aware I am of existence. Created by the use of animalistic analogies is a ferocious tone that conveys how “you have been the wolves,” have always been the monster that tears away at yourself, and how you, or I, or the reader know this, know what is happening and why, yet doesn’t want to. “Stepping out into the Light” is a poem of a curious nature that held fast to me, unable to let me go.
I would like to thank you for being a part of the Dear Poet Project, not only because of the opportunity it provides to students, but because I was introduced to your poetry as a result, and presenting intriguing theme in a manner that equals the power of the idea. I also understand that you appreciate traveling and nature, so I have included for you pictures that I have taken of the Rio Grande Valley – a region in which I’m fairly certain you have never seen.
Respectfully (and eagerly),
You sent me an amazing letter. Thanks so much for your terrifically focused reading of those poems. You said so many smart things, I’m not sure how to respond. Yes, like you in your comments about “Kata: Bus Stop,” I think that the ordinary parts of our lives—like those ritual things we do every day—can turn out to be surprisingly important to us. The things we do regularly have a rhythm to them and the repetition of the things we see or hear or feel come to have a vividness that we recognize later as the substance of our lives, terribly important to us.
I was especially touched that you read “Stepping Out of the Light,” and even more, I was knocked out by your perception about the structure—how the short lines, long sentences, and interrupted thoughts add to the emotional tension of the poem. Your psychological insight in regard to that poem stuns me. I’ve had graduate students who couldn’t access your level of perception. I have a feeling you are going to have a wonderful career. Whatever you do, I hope you’ll write poems as well.
Dear Forrest Gander,
My name is Numa, and I am a ninth grade student. I have recently read your poem “Kata: Bus Stop,” and I thought it was intriguing. The poem spoke to me, and it was very pleasant and calming to read.
As I was reading your poem, I was reminded of a small village in India, where I used to go during summer break. I would wake up, drink some tea, and run around the neighborhood. It was very comforting to read a poem that had so many similarities to my own childhood. I also really liked how the poem mirrored itself and how it was structured. I found it interesting how you played around with two different perspectives in each half of the poem.
I also have a couple of questions. What did the poem mean to you? Did the poem remind you of your own childhood, as it did mine? What inspired you to write this poem?
Anyway, I’m really glad that I came across this poem in my English class because it opened up my mind to a new kind of poetry. This poem was really inspiring, and I hope you write more poems like this in the future.
What a coincidence that the “Kata” poem reminds you of your summers in India. As it turns out, I’ve been spending a lot of time in India also, mostly southern India—in Pondicherry and Banglor—but also as far north as Delhi and Jaipur. One of the things that concerns me these days is the environmental crisis in which we live—with global warming and dying oceans and extreme weather. I have a degree in geology and have always been interested in the way that we are part of the places in which we live—and so our emotions are connected to landscapes or cityscapes. It turns out that in Southern India, between 300 BC and 300 AD, there was a flourishing of poetry, called Sangam Poetry, that made clear connections between human emotions and local landscapes. It might interest you to take a look at those poems. With regard to your question: I was inspired to write “Kata: Bus Stop” by the way I realized that my habits, which I didn’t normally think about, affected my moods. I realized that habits are, in some sense, our rituals for interacting with the world and they are full of both meanings and feelings that we sometimes don’t recognize because they seem so ordinary. Thank you so much for writing to me from Arizona.
Dear Forrest Gander,
I picked your poem because I really liked the symbolism and connection between ancient traditions and daily modern life. I like the idea of routine having kata. I play taiko, which is a Japanese form of drumming, and kata plays a large role in it. I’ve never tried to take it into my outside life though. With daily routines changing so much, and growing away from traditional ideas, how can we keep kata present?
Also your poem is very repetitive, almost coming in a complete circle. Does that represent each day repeating over, almost exactly the same? Also what is at the center of the circle? What does your life, or anyone’s like, revolve around?
Your letter to me turns into a poem at the end:
And what is at the center
of the circle? What
does your life, or anyone’s
life revolve around?
Your insights are very sharp—especially in the way that you connected the cyclical structure of the poem with ritual, with repetition.
And I’m elated that in 9th grade, you’ve already been practicing taiko! Incredible. Taiko drumming is so physical, it’s as much a sport as it is an art.
As much as our daily routines change, I think many of us try to ground our lives in values that involve dedication—like your taiko playing. For me, the dedication has to do with writing. Anything that we train ourselves to practice every day becomes like a kata, don’t you think?
Thank you, again, for writing. Maybe I’ll get to hear you play some time.
Dear Forrest Gander,
I am Siqi, a junior in high school. My friend and I were lucky to read “Kata: Bus Stop” in class, and I wanted to tell you that your poem sparked many discussions! Our teacher asked us to go to the patio and read poems under the warm, spring sun, and that made reading your poem an even more joyful experience.
When I first read this poem out loud, the tidal wave flowed in my heart, so I read it twice, three times, four times…just to let the waves flow and clean up my mind. I started to wonder why it brings such a powerful image to me. Then we all talked together in a class to interpret it. Talking about it was like deciphering a code, only this time everything was free to our interpretations and there are no wrong answers. So, I hope you can reply to my thoughts and questions!
It was really intriguing for me to see the Great Wave referenced in the poem, and I personally think the way you shaped “Kata: Bus Stop” matches the image of the Great wave off Kanawaga. I can see it rises and falls between the lines! Why did you choose to incorporate this particular painting by Hokusai into your poem? Does it mean anything special to you?
I also noticed that references to Japanese culture appear in the poem, even in the title- and this specifically interests me because I am a Chinese student currently learning Japanese in America. This foreign studying experience made me resonate with the poem more, because the poem magically fuses “western” habits and “eastern” culture together. It gives me a vibe that is both exotic and familiar. What were you thinking when you decided to combine Mount Fuji and coffee together?
All the spaces and scattered words made this poem more mysterious yet even better…it leaves a blank space that allows me to use my imagination and swim freely between the lines. Why did you choose to turn the poem upside down by the word “re-enact?” What was your mood when you were writing this piece? I would love to know what you were trying to put together with all the images.
Thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to encounter this piece of art under the spring sun. It was magical. I would be jumping for joy if I can hear back from you!
Kansas City, MO
Thank you for your smart questions. I’m so impressed that you are mastering three languages, Chinese, English, and Japanese. You’ll be so well prepared for the increasingly international world in which we live. Your insight about the way that “Kata: Bus Stop” blends western and eastern references is right on target. I’m very interested in the way that our experience of different cultures can expand our perceptions and our ways of understanding ourselves and the world. My book Core Samples from the World, which has long sections about China, is a kind of meditation on the ways we are changed and translated in our encounters with the foreign. I imagine that you, yourself, would have a lot to say about that sort of experience. By the way, you wrote me from “The Barstow School.” I’m curious; is that Barstow, California in the Mojave Desert? That’s where I was born and I just went back there with my sister to visit. If that’s where you live now, you must have seen the big meteorite, yes? Thank you for your response to my poem and good luck with your language studies!
Dear Forrest Gander,
I find it ironic that the only thing that I seem to avoid questioning in my life is the questioning itself. From since I can remember, and probably long before, I have surgically torn everything I have ever heard, read, and thought to pieces in the name of trying to understand. That instinct is exactly why “Kata: Bus Stop” drew me in: it presented a hydra-like challenge of analysis, with every answered question spawning two more in its place. The imagery is not beautiful despite its simplicity, but because of it: being admittedly long-wind myself, this minimal feeling was what first sparked my curiosity. Soon, my copy of the poem looked like the scrawlings of a madman, the original text practically smothered in side-notes and annotations all in search of what each element of the poem meant.
In a way, I think that mindset was the complete opposite of what I finally learned from your piece. I had spent so long trying to understand the meaning behind each decision you made writing it, that I never reflected on what it meant to me. So instead of analyzing, I simply sat down and read it, letting the words wash over, and here’s what I pulled from that reading:
The serene simplicity of the images, the repetition that stands to mirror the poem across itself mixed with the idea of comfort in habit: all of it pointed to the quiet underlying beauty of everyday life. It is not glamorous, but it is there, hiding beneath the fog of habitual behaviors, waiting for a keen (or bored) mind to recognize. I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for putting my mind in the position to notice these small beauties in my life.
With that, the analytical side of me does still have some questions. Mainly, what is the key to making less more? As I’ve said (and you’ve read yourself), I’m quite long-winded in my writing. Yet, none of my attempts at poetry have had quite the emotional weight as yours. Are there any techniques you’ve encountered that have helped you condense your writing to what it is now? I know the general idea behind this poem, but I’m interested to know: was this setting derived from a personal experience, or is it purely fictional? And simply as a personal interest, is there a meaning to the universe?
That’s quite an amazing letter you wrote me, with a good piece of your own personality exposed in it— for which I thank you. Yes, our culture trains us to analyze constantly. We measure everything and scramble to control the world by pinning down its meanings. But, as you already figured out, that’s only one way of knowing. And it’s not always the best. And it’s rarely the way that we engage art. The poet Cid Corman says the meaning of the poem is like the meaning of a moon rise. You don’t point at it and say, It means this and this. First, you just feel it. The words (or images) take place inside you and they alter you in some small way. That’s why Susan Sontag, a literary philosopher, writes an essay called “Against Intepretation.” And why the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein tells us “Don’t think, but look!”
It felt so gratifying to me that you came, at last, to the experience that you had and that then you were able to articulate it so strikingly— “The serene simplicity … repetition… beauty of ordinary life.” That’s so sharp, succinct, and well phrased. With regard to your question about condensation, take a look at the Robert Hass translations of haiku called, I think, just Haiku. Translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry had a strong effect on poetry written in English during the 20th century, and on the appreciation of condensation. On the other hand, condensation isn’t the only way, and maximalist writers like Proust and Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Faulkner show us another way that also works.
Thanks for making contact, and for your churning mind.
Dear Forrest Gander,
I think your poem is about something special hidden somewhere. Somewhere dark, that you’d be scared to even peek through that scary door, but you still have to because in order to do that you can find something special or have the key to have joy every morning.
Like it says in your poem “hidden like Fuji” “sketches by a tidal wave of fog.” You have to go through a dark wave to get to the other side and hidden like a game of scavenger hunt. Towards the end when you get passed that something good happens. Next like you said in your poem “waking up; coffee” & standing for the bus, it can be giving a good head start to your days.
It sounds more like you’re trying to tell us that you had a rough time going through the big dark waves so you can live a good life.
The literacy I found in your poem was like would be “caesura” because you do have spaces and breaks between your poem. Some questions I have for you is that what are you doing nowadays and if you’re making any more poems?
Some other questions I’d ask is if you were scared to actually share out in public.
Thank you for your letter! I think it’s pretty cool that you wrote about the caesura. That’s not a word that a lot of people know. I like the way that spaces in the poem can make us pause. They can be like little sucks of breath. If there are a lot of them, it gives the poem a kind of nervous energy. With a few of them, it just adds some tension to the rhythm. I’ve been doing that more with some recent poems that I’ve been writing. Are you writing any poems? You asked if I was scared to share poems in public. That’s an interesting question. When you write about things that actually happen in your life—because those are the things you feel most deeply—it can be strange to share them. You don’t necessarily want to dramatize your pain or your anxiety. For that reason, I don’t read aloud some of the poems that I publish in books—when I give readings. But I also find that it often turns out that other people have felt things similar to what I’ve written about—and they are often glad that I was able to articulate something that bonds us together. So often, even if you are scared to share things in public, you’ll find that people are grateful to you for it.
I hope you’re having a wonderful summer. Thanks again for writing.
Dear Forrest Gander,
Hello, I read your poem and really liked how you paused in the middle of clauses and talked slowly. So it had a calm and relaxing tone and was very nice to listen to. I also liked how you were able to talk about the little things that even I could relate to. This poem reminded me of when I used to have to wait at the bus stop because I rode the bus for 8 years so I can relate to what the poem is trying to tell people. My favorite part of the poem was when you started describing how it felt to wait for a bus and I thought it was cool ho you could put something as vague as that and make it into an interesting poem. The poem made me feel nostalgic because I’m in high school now and don’t have to wait for a bus and sometimes I miss waiting in the mornings for a ride to school. Did you have to ride the bus for a long time? What other poems have you written so far in your career? I hope you have a successful rest of your career.
Thanks so much for your note! I’m really glad you could relate to the experience the poem describes. Yes, I think it’s often the things that are ordinary that—when you look at them carefully—offer surprises. I like the way that lots of us fall in love with our habits, our rituals. I imagine you think back on times when you waited for the bus and that you can recall particular feelings and images very clearly—the substance of your life. And yes, to answer your other question, I’ve written books of poems as wells as novels. My last book, called Be With, won the Pulitzer Prize, which was a big shock. But the interesting question is what you are going to do with your life! I wonder what poems you have inside you…