Professors who do cool things: Forrest Gander, Beyoncé remixer, collaborator, and poet

Beyoncé and Forrest, BFFsYou may have heard it from The Guardian or Slate. Maybe you read it on the websites of New York MagazineE!People, or Vanity Fair. If you haven’t, now you will: as Vanity Fair put it plainly, “Beyoncé Wrote a Poem About Blue Ivy and God with a Pulitzer Prize Finalist.” As part of her feature in high fashion magazine CR’s fifth issue, Bey (with some help) produced a poem titled “Bey the Light.”

Often, the remix of anything is better than the original (the only evidence I need is Ignition, right?). In the case of “Bey the Light,” remixing credit has been given to Brunonia’s own Forrest Gander. The byline actually reads: “Remixed by Forrest Gander.” How avant garde.

Professor Gander, the Adele Kellenberg Seaver Professor of Literary Arts & Comparative Literature, was once just a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Now, he’s a peer of Queen Bey. Which is more impressive? It’s very, very debatable.

We sat down with Professor Gander, who speaks like all his words are meant to be inhaled in stanza, to find out everything you want to know: WHAT? HOW? DID YOU SAY BEYONCÉ? As usual, we got down to the bottom of all of your Bey-related qualms. Read our interview with Professor Gander below.

BlogDailyHerald: Did you find Beyoncé or did Beyoncé find you?

Prof. Forrest Gander: I’m not sure that we really have found each other yet… um… but the editors of the fashion magazine knew that they wanted –

BlogDH: CR, right?

FG: Yeah, CR, they were going to focus on Beyoncé in this special issue, that really splashed her into the public eye where she’s spent so little time [Ed. note: Forrest is sometimes sarcastic]. So they contacted me because they did an interview with her, and because with anybody who gives lots of interviews, you end up saying the same things and it’s hard to make it sound fresh. And I think the editors thought because they’re creative and intuitive and have a really sharp magazine, they might be able to do a different kind of take on the interview and do something fresh. So, they contacted me. So, it was Beyoncé, to editors, to Forrest.

BlogDH: And how did they find you? Why you?

FG: There’s a fashion photographer named Peter Lindbergh, who evidently likes my work, and he had a show of his fashion photographs that he wanted to collaborate on, so he sent me all these images before his show and I wrote a poem that was both recorded – played at the gallery opening – and it was also printed and available there. That was the first connection I had with the fashion industry. You probably were guessing that it had to do with the way I dressed, and they probably noticed, and they called me… but it wasn’t. And so I’d worked with these editors before, they knew me, and they thought I might be a good person for Beyoncé also.

BlogDH: Did you meet Beyoncé in this process?

FG: Beyoncé, you know… she’s been having a hard time with Jay Z, so she’s been hanging out a lot in Providence with me. She really likes Providence, and in fact we can go down the hall, she’s right… I didn’t meet Beyoncé. No.

BlogDH: Have you met Blue Ivy?

FG: No, I haven’t met Blue Ivy either.

BlogDH: The poem was “remixed” by you. So it was Beyoncé’s words?

FG: She did an interview, and she told stories responding to questions. I didn’t want to compete with Beyoncé lyrics because she does Beyoncé lyrics better than I would, but I could do something else, put a different kind of pressure on that kind of language, make it into something else that I thought might be interesting to her because it might sharpen the focus on the way interviews come out — sharpen the focus on things that were most important — and that I could give it a different type of form, and make it something unusual, and bring her into a different kind of arena.

BlogDH: So technically, all the words are hers but you reordered them?

FG: Because I end up using a form that has rhyme and off-rhyme, I sometimes changed her language also, but mostly kept it. I changed it occasionally when I needed to, in the spirit of what she was saying.

BlogDH: What was your creative process like? How long did it take you to work on the piece, how did you decide that you wanted the poem to look, or sound, or…

FG: I did a couple different versions, actually. I had this material, and it was enough material to work it into two completely different poems that worked very differently. And the editors at CR chose one of them. And I think they talked to Beyoncé, who had a suggestion, and I took the suggestion, but I worked on it after that. Like any magazine stuff, it was on a very quick deadline, so poets – you know, there’s a big tradition of writing poems given your end words, and you have a day to write a poem… a kind of constraint project is what it became for me. So it happened in, like, a week.

BlogDH: Were you familiar with Beyoncé’s music? You know, were you a fan of Beyoncé, is it something you felt passionate about, or was it just a cool offer where you were like, “Oh, okay, I’ll see what I could do with this.”

FG: You can’t be in the United States and not be exposed to Beyoncé. So I had listened to her, and it interested me enough that I thought I might be able to do something. For me, it would be a really different angle into poetry and would be challenging, and I hoped might be interesting to her because it came from a different field, also.

BlogDH: As your student, from what I’ve seen of your work and what you’re interested in, I felt like it was very out of genre for you. Or maybe it wasn’t and I just don’t know that you have a secret passion for writing about pop music. So how did that work? Was it out of your comfort zone at all? Or just honestly and personally, what’s your opinion on art and celebrity like that?

FG: The comfort zone thing: I think that as an artist, it’s really important to get out of your comfort zone. So challenges like this force you to do things that you wouldn’t ordinarily do. This is a kind of poem that I wouldn’t have written on my own. It has some terza rima in it, it has some tripartite stanza with rhyme in it, that’s very different from what I do. For me, getting out of my comfort zone was a challenge that I found attractive. And pop stardom, I don’t know anyting about it, you know? Poetry operates in a completely different world than that. But I don’t think that anything is alien to poetry. You know, I write about rocks. There’s also a tradition of poetry that I drew on of writers who use other people’s language. So, Charles Reznikoff uses language of law cases, or the Nuremberg trial testimony to write poems…it’s mostly other people’s language. There’s an interesting book that came out more recently called Zong! that’s made up just of the trial of the owners of a slave ship for the slaves that they murdered and threw into the Atlantic, and that’s an interesting project, too. So there’s a long poetic history of that. I’ve done it before also in collaboration with a former Brown student, a photographer named Lucas Foglia, who photographed intentional communities, utopian communities. I listened to lots of tapes of these people and wrote a long poem. It’s in one of my last books.

BlogDH: Do you like your poem, or your remix? Do you think it’s a good piece of work?

FG: That’s a really good question. If I didn’t like it, then I wouldn’t have published it. I didn’t want to publish something that was just going to be crappy, but that would have an audience or something. So no, I do like it, even though I wouldn’t have written it without the assignment.

BlogDH: What’s your favorite Beyoncé song?

FG: I can tell you the lyrics, but I can’t tell you the title.

BlogDH: Whatever indication of it you have…

FG: She’s got a song that starts with, “Hanging in the bar with 50-11 girls,” that phrase, like “50-11,” was really interesting to me as opening line. She’s got some interesting lines later, like, “’Yoncé all on his mouth like liquor,” that has got interesting phrasing… but I also like how she drops out of songs into talking and how she really modulates what song might be.

BlogDH: If you could remix one other artist, or work with one other musical artist, who would it be and why?

FG: I would love to work with Nico Muhly, who grew up in Providence and is a composer… but he does sort of contemporary classical music. I’ve thought about it before.

BlogDH: Do you have anything else you want to add about your experience, or, I don’t know, anything?

FG: Well, it’s really peculiar to mostly have a community of readers of poetry and suddenly for that to intersect with the pop world so that suddenly I heard from hundreds of people, all of a sudden, from all over world. That was a curiosity to me. It’s like what pop is, too. It’s like this explosion and then it disappears. It doesn’t make a lasting impression on my art or my trajectory as an artist, but it was a pleasant experience.

In the full CR interview, Beyonce notes that she reads poetry, that “it keeps me focused on my purpose.” I’m sure if I ever become involved with Beyoncé on a business or writing endeavor, I’ll refer to it endearingly as a “pleasant” experience. Just, like, casually “pleasant.”

Here’s Professor Gander’s favorite, haunting sliver of “Bey the Light”:

I saw a TV preacher when I was scared,
at four or five, about bad dreams,
who promised he’d say a prayer
if I put my hand to the TV.
That’s the first time I remember prayer,
an electric current hummed through me.
You can read the full poem here.

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