As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Forrest Gander in response to a video of him reading his poems “Lava” and "Moon" aloud. Forrest Gander wrote letters back to three of these students; their letters and his replies are included below, along with several additional responses from students.
Forrest Gander also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Dear Readers and Writers,
I'm so grateful for your letters, the memorable stories of your own lives in relation to these poems, and the complexity of your questions. As some of you have noted, the little "MOON" poem is what is called a kind of "concrete poem." In other words, it acts out its meaning. The light of the moon that we see at night is, as you know, a quiet reflection of the sun's more intense light. In the same way, the lower case word "moon" is a quieter, lower case reflection of the capitalized word "MOON." The poem a soft echo or reflection of its title.
And most of those of you who wrote to me about the poem "Lava" had insights and personal experiences that suddenly made the poem richer for me, because your lives and imaginations became part of the poem. Its meanings expanded. I wish I could answer all your letters. And even though I'm not able to do that, we have nevertheless entered into a different kind of relationship. I have witnessed, by reading your insights and questions, your minds working. That experience, your experience, has become part of me. I hope some day to be reading your poems.
Dear Forrest Gander,
I am Zhiyi, a junior in high school from China. I am so lucky to have a chance to read your poems, which appeal so much to me while we are discussing poetry during English class. For some of my classmates, the poem caught their eyes, starting from the poem "Moon" with only one word, "moon." Of course, that was interesting and appealing. However, the idea of writing a letter to you triggered when you said "in geological sequence" in the video. Now, I am here, finally, writing to you about my little thoughts on your poems, "Lava" and "Moon."
When I first listened to you reading your poems, I felt very comfortable with your language. "A stream of ants shining to the baseboard from the cut in my palm." An image appears in my head: I am lying on the futon in a Washitsu when the sun has already hung in the sky, scattering sunlight. I open my eyes, using my arm to cover from the shiny sun and turn my head away toward another unrolled arm pointing at the baseboard. The sunlight goes through the wooden windows, forming a rectangle-shaped light stream that falls on my palm, the wooden floor, and straight to the baseboard, like lava pouring out from the top of the mountain. Then I read it for the second time, the third. This cozy and comfortable feeling brought me back to the time when I was traveling in Japan and Hawaii. Hawaii is much like Japan. The sun, the beach, the ukulele. "Lava" was even the name of the music that I used in my “Hawaii” vlog. Later, every time I read "Lava," it just brings me the exciting memories and this enjoyable song. Even now, I am listening to this song while I am writing to you. Following the geological sequence, we moved up to the moon. After the sunbathing, we reach the quiet night. The white and clean moon shines in the blackened sky. Peaceful. Maybe sometimes I can still hear the ocean wave, the wind, and my breath. Although it only has one word, this poem creates enough images and feelings for me to appreciate along with "Lava," from the ground to the sky.
I clicked on the website for more of your information. Your degree in geology interested me and explained the "geological sequence." These intersections between different subjects have always intrigued me. A slight showcase of knowledge from another field which seemingly has no relation to poetry added attracting mystery into these two poems. I looked down at the ground, and I looked up. Then a question came up to my head: why did you choose to pursue literature instead of geology? And how does a degree in geology affect your writings? I always think about my knowledge from other fields' effect on me or the way I think. It turned out that I have used so much interrelated knowledge to solve problems, and I did not notice them! How charming these things are!
Thank you so much for giving me a chance to relish your magical poems which brought me such vivid images. I really hope you could respond to me!
Kansas City, MO
Your letter is its own poem. Your writing is lovely and your imagination so fluid and natural. Curiously, you write from the Barstow School; I was born in another Barstow, an impoverished little town in the Mojave Desert. And your teacher’s name is very similar to my own. Shanghai University Press is publishing a book of my poems in translation this year. So lots of coincidences. But your response, your rich, fluid imagination and the precise language with which you describe a kind of waking dream— that’s really impressive.
The poem entitled “MOON” is the small case “moon,” as you observed. I was thinking of the poem as a smaller echo or reflection of the title, as the moon is a less intense reflection of the sun’s light.
In response to your question, I loved geology, but my first love was writing. I wasn’t sure that I could ever make a living with my passion for writing. But after I had a bout of serious cancer at the age of 21, I decided that if my life might be short, I only had time to devote to what I most cared about. My parents were anxious about it, but it worked out gradually. Publications came and then jobs came. Maybe with your writing talent, you’ll be facing similar decisions.
Thanks for writing!
Dear Mr. Gander,
We were told to make this personal and deep, but a template was provided, which I feel is sort of contradictory. I typically don't attempt to try to connect with individuals I've never seen in person; however, an exception may be arranged. In order to accomplish this, I may need to completely disregard the recommended format, so I hope you don't mind. Oh, and one last thing before we begin: I would like to make it clear that no word in this letter holds any disrespectful connotation.
To be completely honest, poetry is not my forte. I feel as if the same poet is speaking to me every time I lay eyes on a poem. In class, we went over multiple sonnets Shakespeare wrote, and after every single one, a moment of silence would fill the room, broken by my teacher saying "delicious." Yet, after experiencing the so-called master's work, it isn't so obvious to me why he holds that title. When I was assigned this task of writing to a poet, I anticipated that I would need to make up some interesting incident in my childhood that I supposedly related to once I read the poets' work. Once I began reading them, it surprised me that none of the poems rhymed, which I thought was a defining characteristic of poetry. It was somewhat discouraging to realize that most of these poems are almost like prose pieces, except the language is meant to confuse readers and the lines are broken up in funny ways. Also, it was difficult not to find a poem that was not about some awakening in the poet's past, which I could not relate to at all. However, this was what I half expected starting this task. Mr. Gander, let me tell you how fortunate it was that your poems were higher on the page, for if it were buried deep, who knows if I would've been motivated enough to come across your masterpiece: "Moon."
When many of my classmates discovered I planned on writing about the impact of "Moon" on my life, they assumed I would take on an ironic approach. What a disgrace that would be to someone who reminded me of the purpose of poems. I'll say once again I'm no expert on the matter, but I would argue that poets strive to shift our perspective of particular subjects; I dare say that your poem was one of a few successful. I became extremely self-aware of how rarely I even notice the moon, even if I follow the lunar calendar for religious purposes. The end of every month may vary from predicted days and can only be confirmed by the moon, yet I can't recall the last time I even glanced at the moon. It's funny, isn't it? We as humans are vulnerable to losing our curiosity and awareness as we age on in what some believe to be a pointless life. For instance, as a child looking out the car windows, I used to believe the moon was chasing us. It made me search for an answer around me; some may call this stupid, but I feel as if I was more mature at that age, for now I wasn’t aware till now that yesterday had a supermoon. Other poets may have taken on your objective with a different path, calling the moon beautiful and describing it with random look-alikes, but none would have been memorable enough to me to even walk outside and stare at the moon's eyes. As a toddler, Mr. Gander, I didn't know why the sky was blue. The only difference today is that I stopped wondering. I am not confident if these were your intentions when writing this poem, but it affected me nonetheless.
Apparently, I must have another paragraph discussing another work of yours that inspired me. Unfortunately, since I am not proficient in the language of poetry, I decided to take on one of your novels. By random chance, I blindly followed through with As A Friend. As a high school student, I can safely assume I was not the target audience, and I had no idea what I was getting into. I shared with my teacher that I was reading it, and she instantly purchased the book when she heard it was by you, so I hope she enjoys it and not judge me for it. I can tell you that it was definitely a weird experience reading it, but one thing did stick with me when I finished: "It's a barren feeling to know at the age of twenty five that you've already lived the most intense period of your life." Although this hasn't occurred to me yet, I can guess how it would feel with your depiction of it reminding you "what it felt like to be alive but not feel it again." It sounds like a tragic emotion, as you claim that one "can't bear it," for "it's too ploughed with guilt and pain." I hope I'm not prying too deep when I ask if this is referencing an experience in your life, so feel free to ignore that question.
I wish that you take pride in your work, as a writer never truly understands the impact of their works on others. I thank your patience for reading my madness, and I'm grateful for this opportunity to be real with you, and I hope you take the same chance and respond.
A learning reader of poetry,
I’m interested in the way you think and in your honesty and directness about why poetry hasn’t seemed to offer you much so far. Yes, you say that you’re extremely self-aware,” and your letter makes that clear. You are thinking about how you think and why.
It’s a funny thing about poetry. Anthropologists say that every human culture ever studied has shared three things. All develop burial rituals or some special way of dealing with the dead; all form some kind of taboo regarding incest; and every culture has had poetry. Good poetry can encapsulate the voice and concerns of a time; it often articulates the deepest and most subtle human feelings. (Really, isn’t it miraculous that we can read fragments of Sappho, who wrote in a language that disappeared from the earth 2,500 years ago, and we can FEEL her emotion?!) And poetry can display the art of language— which is what makes our species what it is— at its peak, in ways that allow us to recognize thoughts and feelings and perceptions that we’ve had but never quite put into words for ourselves. Then again, that’s good poetry. There’s a lot of bad poetry out there, like there’s a lot of bad anything— psychiatrists, drivers, painters, and presidents.
But there is something about poetry that has made it significant to every time period in every place humans have come together.
I think part of your dismay with poetry comes from what you call “language … meant to confuse readers.” And in Western culture, rational and logical language has become the way we expect communication to work. But rational experience is only one part of experience, and it has never been our only reason for using language. When you are wildly in love, you can do irrational things. In fact, people in love often write poetry. When you are grieving over someone’s death or even just looking at your best friend standing beside you, there are multiple things that you think and feel at once. Maybe you love your friend, but you also feel jealousy or competition. Maybe you feel the pain of someone’s loss, but also a sense of relief. Even while you are reading this, you are thinking of other things. The light in the room, the voices you hear, you’re thinking about lunch, about that irritating kid in your class, etc. By which I mean to say that your experience is always a confusion, a mix of simultaneous streams of awareness. What you find at first “confusing” in poetry might be its capacity to be open to multiple events and interpretations at once— which is closer to the reality we know and experience than the logical language of the newspaper.
Briefly, in those two little poems of mine. Moon is capitalized in the title. It is lower case in the body of the poem. In a way, that mimics what the moon does. The moon is a quieter reflection of the light of the sun. The body of the poem is a lower case reflection of the title. So the poem acts out its meaning.
And in the lava poem, I’m describing an actual experience of sleeping on a futon and waking up to find that ants were feeding on the cut in my palm. What makes it a poem, if it works, is the quality of the language. The dreamy almost-rhyme of futon and palm. The compression of the experience into a sentence that doesn’t preach or lecture or tell anyone what to feel; it shows you something and invites you to think about and feel it. You sort of have to participate in the poem for it to mean anything. And maybe that’s a good thing— finding an expansive space to wander/wonder into, a space that has some mystery in it, that isn’t completely resolved and handed to you as a completed act already accomplished, that has little to do with you.
I’m honored that you took at look at As a Friend. That was enterprising of you. You’ve got an interesting mind, Ajad. I’m thankful you wrote to me.
Dear Mr. Forrest Gander,
My name is Avery and I am a junior from Edina High School and I must tell you how I came to write about your poem. Upon receiving this assignment from my AP US Literature teacher Mrs. Benson, I was ecstatic as I love poetry and having the opportunity to analyze and write about a poet/poem seemed right up my alley. Oh god, was I in for an awakening. You see, Mr. Gander, I adore poetry, but I’m more of a Robert Frost, EE Cummings, and Allen Ginsberg kind of gal. I love feeling as if I’m falling back in time through poetry to witness the literary revolutions of said poets, so usually 21st century poets make me mad with their surface level 3 lined “he was water and I was oil” nonsense. But oh Mr. Gander, your poem made me furious.
I came across your video to respond to, and you read 2 poems from the “Blue Rock Collection” titled “Lava” and “Moon.” To my surprise, “Lava” was only six lines and 19 words, and it didn’t even talk about lava! Even worse, “Moon” was just one word, “moon”! At first I was enraged, seeing as though you were deemed fit to sit among these other esteemed writers with a poem less than 24 words long. I struggled terribly searching for meaning within your writing, so I decided to investigate. I read what must have been 20 of your poems, some of them were incredibly long, and some were short and sweet. What I noticed in all of them however, was that the meaning was very much between the lines. You tend to use your physical as well as metaphoric structure to convey meaning. You write from the perspective of people with a story, never directly indicating what it is they wish to tell. In “The Tapestry”, the woman you speak of undresses her guests in front of mirrors to allow their “dragonfly bodies” escape from their human shells, (lines 9-10). That line could be interpreted in many ways, and picking apart your diction could lead to what you wish to say about this woman. Dragonflies are beautiful, but they’re fearful and quick to hide. Some may say they’re annoying insects and nothing more. What does the subject think about them? Who really knows. I respect that, how quickly you know how to make someone shift via the complexities of your diction. You could’ve said “butterflies,” a universal symbol for innocence and beauty, but dragonflies? The definition is not as clear.
I read about how you’re a geologist and a teacher in Rhode Island, and how some of that has influenced your work. What I also read about was your work with Latinx writers and the translations you’ve done for many poets. I also read that your poetry has been translated into several languages as well. Do you ever write with the intent of your poem being translated for a certain audience?
What really got to me, Mr. Gander, is what I saw when I came back to your original, “From The Blue Rock Collection.” I started to re-read and pick apart your diction and once I noticed one thing, the poem itself started to come apart. This was the word “to.” Originally, I read “Lava” picturing a man lying on a futon waking up to ants crawling onto his hand. Then I read the line “to the baseboard/from my hand”, and the picture shifted, (lines 5-6). Suddenly, the man was waking up from a deep and heavy slumber to a static television, turning down to see a stream of ants leaving a cut in his palm. Lava-like red ants seep from this man’s cut, dripping underneath the floorboards into a world unknown. My interpretation shifted from a surface level hatred to a dive deep into the meaning of your words due to your diction. The once somber and pitiful mood of a man lying on his couch had changed to that of an existential psychedelic search for meaning via the ants through the floorboards. I fell absolutely in love with my newfound image of your poem.
“Moon” left me with a few more questions than answers, but I came to appreciate them. I was asking things like, “why call these blue rocks if they’re not blue? Is the speaker making an observation or talking to the moon? Or are we as the audience on the moon? What is the point?” and so forth. Then I came to realize something.
It doesn’t matter.
Perhaps this wasn't the intention of “moon,” but it made me realize something about the poetry itself. The meaning doesn’t have to be so translucent, and perhaps, poetry doesn’t require meaning at all. Not to say that this poem is meaningless, but rather that in its simplicity, it completes the task that a poem has. It made me feel something. Although the first emotion surrounding this poem was anger, it led to confusion, discovery, and finally appreciation. Evidently, “The Blue Rock Collection” sent me in pursuit of your other works, as well as gave me a different perspective on poetry as a whole. The mood of the poem was virtually non existent, as the poem itself was only one word. My question to you is, what is your meaning behind the poem? What do you, as the author, wish to convey, and was your intention to make people create their own mood?
Thank you for writing, may you always be inspired to continue.
I love what you conclude in the last paragraph of your thoughtful letter. You say, “the meaning doesn’t have to be so translucent.” I think that’s really one of the keys to our lives. We want things to be black and white, we want to be able to say this is good, this is bad; we want clear, single meanings. And we have a language— and this is typical of European-derived languages— that can work logically. We have philosophy that values rational thinking. But other cultures have languages and philosophies that value nuance, simultaneous implications, and the complexity of feeling. U.R. Ananthamurty, a famous Indian (Kannada speaking) intellectual said that we Westerners depend on a language “based on the Aristotelean logic of either/or, but Indian thought is a five-limbed logical system . . . Here, it is not just either/or but this, or this, or this; it has five-limbs.”
And really, isn’t that how you experience the world? You feel many things at many levels at the same time. You win second place in a race and you feel pride, but also jealousy for the person who won first place, but maybe you’re happy for that person at the same time because he/she/they is a friend of yours. But you’re also thinking about how you might have pulled a muscle in your calf. And you wonder if your parents or best friend was watching. All of that you feel in an instant, at once, because our real experience and our real feelings and thoughts are rarely ever singular and “translucent.”
I was also impressed by your close reading of the Lava poem and your attention to the preposition “to.” Yes, the poem describes an experience just as you imagine it: I woke up on a futon and saw ants around the fresh cut in my palm. I saw the moving line of ants and thought of a stream of lava coming from a volcano. But that’s the subject. What makes it a poem is the language, the dreaminess of the off-rhyme between “futon” and “palm.” The compression of the experience into a single sentence. The relation between the title and the text— which the reader has to bridge because there is no pedantic explanation.
In the moon poem, there is a similar play between the title and the text. The title is capitalized and the text is in lower case. That sort of models what the moon does, doesn’t it? The moon is the lower case reflection of the sun’s light. So the poem acts out its subject and meaning. Poem as a quiet reflection of its title.
In a way, I think you’ve already answered the last question that you ask me. It was a question about my intentions. I think the great thing about art is that the author’s intentions aren’t so important. We can’t ever know what an artist or writer was thinking at the moment they were making their art. Even they can’t remember, often. Good art doesn’t postulate some argument, some logical instruction or declaration. Maybe like all spiritual things, poetry and art have more to do with asking questions than with intentionally answering them. Essays are for answering. Poems invite you to look, to add your own experience and imagination and intuition, to determine whether or not this poem is meaningful to you.
Which reminds me! Stay away from butterflies in your own poems. You are exactly right when you say that they have become a “universal symbol for innocence and beauty.” And that’s precisely what has made them clichés. The poet’s job is to refresh language, to rescue it from the clichés that become stand-ins for actually seeing and feeling. The poet’s job is to make that floaty conceptual “universal feeling” feel raw again by particularizing it, grounding it in the details of real experience— or vivid imagination.
Dear Mr. Gander,
My name is Noelle O’Regan. I am a senior AP English Literature student at Old Bridge High School. I have just finished reading your poem, “Moon.” Although it did not take me very long to read, it did make me think quite a lot. Using a singular word opens the door for a ton of different thoughts.The poem brought me back to a trip upstate. I was sitting in a yard staring at the stars while the moon shone brightly upon us. It brought me back to my school’s peer retreat. We sat under the stars discussing the emotional journeys we have been through. What made you choose to use a single word? Reading the poem on my own, it was hard to choose a certain emotion the poem brought me. After listening to you read the poem, a sense of calm fell over me. I imagined the calmness of the waves crashing along the shore. What was your inspiration for this poem? The word moon can mean an array of things. Are you talking about the moon up in the sky? Or are you speaking of the “moon” teenage kids might prank each other with? When I think about it in that sense, the poem does become quite comical. I also remember you laughing at the end of the reading.
I did enjoy reading the poem. I like how the simplicity of it can affect any reader. You take its meaning however you want, and nobody can tell you otherwise. What is the true meaning? I hope this letter finds you well.
Old Bridge, NJ
Dear Forrest Gander:
I was able to see your poetry in a new light after learning about your education in geology. Your poems are like gemstones glinting in my palm, distinct and impersonal in their beauty. Like sedimentary rocks, however, they can also be analyzed for their many layers.
The first aspect of your poem “Lava” that really captured my attention was the slightly off-kilter structure of the piece. The short poem consists almost entirely of monosyllables, with three bisyllabic words: “futon,” “shining,” and “baseboard.” The poem also has an eerie and dreamlike quality, with otherworldly characteristics such as “a stream of ants” coming out of the narrator’s palm. Meanwhile, “futon” and “baseboard” seem to take up more mass, not only visually but in the poem’s hypnagogic atmosphere. They are concrete objects, cementing the image in reality despite the other surreal elements. Was this poem based on how you perceived a real experience, or did you make all of it up?
As if “Lava” weren’t weird enough, “Moon” really took me by surprise, since all of my focus was concentrated in a single word. Not only does “moon” bring to mind the famous celestial body, but the word itself serves as visual art. The m in the beginning is deliberately lower case, and appears as two arches. This visual is repeated in the n at the end, and the two o’s in between mirror the moon’s roundness. The o’s also evoke the image of two eyes, which brings to mind the fact that the moon is a distant and universal image that all animals stare at in the night sky, just like how I stared at your poem. Even if you didn’t intend for your poetry to be analyzed on such a visual level, I want to thank you for inspiring me to perceive words this way.
It was only after hearing you read your poetry that I noticed the dimensions of rhythm, cadence, and broken syntax in your words. The subtle rhythm in “Lava”, with choppy syllables and accentuation of “on/futon” and “from/palm” are written with a precision that I did not notice while reading. Just as a stream of lava is viscous and full of molten rock, your poetry flows imperfectly. Your deliberate enunciations, as well as the grin you gave following “Moon” helped me understand the playful tone of that piece. Your poems are truly like a collection of rocks or marbles; they are not necessarily meant to be heavily analyzed. The beauty is partly in experiencing them on a surface level and accepting all the individual interpretations or associations.
New York, NY
Dear Mr. Gander,
Hello! My name is Edgar and I am in Mr. Covey's 8th grade Language Arts class in Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School. I have read your poem “Lava” and “Moon” and noticed that it is a very short poem. So I then took a look at your other poems thinking that they would be short as well but they weren't. I noticed that the poem is in first person perspective. I also noticed that the setting is in a room because of the futon and baseboard.
I have a question for you about the poem. Why are the words lava and moon in the poem? Are they supposed to represent anything? Are they anything important? Do they affect the poem? If they do, how do they affect the poem?
The last 2 words in the poem are MOON moon. Are these words supposed to represent the narrator falling back asleep? If the word moon means that the narrator is falling back asleep would that mean that the word lava means that the narrator wakes up? Why a futon and not a bed? What happened to the narrator's palm?
This poem makes me think of a time when I felt something crawling on my arm. It was dark so I couldn't really see anything. The feeling kept me awake and it started to get really annoying. I kept thinking that it was a spider but maybe it wast anything. This poem reminds me of this because the narrator woke up and ants crawled from the cut of his palm.
In conclusion the poem may be short but it does leave me wondering. What do the words Lava and Moon mean in the poem?
Santa Ana, CA