An Interview with John Gallaher by Kristina Marie Darling

Photo by Natalie Gallaher.

Photo by Natalie Gallaher.

John Gallaher is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Your Father on the Train of Ghosts (a collaboration with G.C. Waldrep) and In a Landscape.  As an editor, his most recent book is Time Is a Toy: The Selected Poems of Michael Benedikt (with Laura Boss, 2014).  He also co-edits The Laurel Review and The Akron Series in Poetics.  I recently had the chance to ask him a few questions about In a Landscape, which was published earlier this year by BOA Editions.


Kristina Marie Darling:  First, let me just say that I truly enjoyed your new collection.  Since so much of contemporary hybrid genre writing focuses on the intersection of poetry and experimental fiction, it’s refreshing to see a writer explore the many ways that poetry can intersect with memoir.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between poetry and nonfiction writing.  What does poetry make possible when working with autobiographical material?  What is possible within a poem that may not be so easily attainable in an essay or a memoir?

John Gallaher: Kristina, thanks!  And this is a topic that’s interested me since the 1980s, when I first started reading poetry seriously.  Back then, a lot of the poetry I read sounded like autobiography, but there seemed to be a collective allergy to talking about it.  There was this speaker who was not the poet, but who seemed an awful lot like the poet… But the distancing of the speaker seemed to be the important thing, I guess.

It’s always kind of bugged me, and I wondered what would happen if there was no distance, if I came right out and said, “No, it’s just me.”  No aesthetic distance.  No “artifice.”

This is just to say that I also have your question.  This book is less an answer or my putting into action some discovery, than it is a way for me to pose the question.  Or really, just opening things up for an idea to proceed from.

There are other ways, profitable ways.  Recent books from Dana Levin, Rachel Zucker, and Claudia Rankine all proceed from variations on the same question.  As does Karl Ove Knausgaard in the novel.

KMD:  I’m intrigued by what you said about the book as an effort to lessen the distance between poet and reader.  The poems in your new collection invite the reader to observe the inner workings of memory, to see consciousness create, question, and refine narrative.  In many ways, the book gestures at the inherent instability of the individual self, as the speaker and his narrative are reconfigured again and again as the sequence unfolds.  How did this interest in memory-as-processual shape your choices with respect to style and craft?

JG: You describe this so much better than I could have!  Mostly I was just doing it, like a snowball going downhill.  But at some point after I’d gotten pretty far—maybe about the time I called it quits, I did start to think about it as craft.  In some ways it’s almost anti-craft, I think.  But that’s not quite it either.

Somewhere between A.R. Ammons and Robert Duncan I came across this way in, the idea that whatever happens around the poem can belong in the poem… That idea of keeping all of one’s thinking on the page.  And I always thought I kind of did that, but in writing this book, I realized I was really doing that for the first time.

And there was a kind of form to my thinking, my way of moving forward. Maybe that had to do with my daily practice, how I’d usually start with a question, then an anecdote, and finally some movement toward synthesis, which I’ve been intrigued with in a lot of Rae Armantrout’s poetry, that three stanza, three step poem, but exploded.

There’s this delightful power in John Ashbery’s poetry, this restless imagination of how association works, but there’s also this powerful force of personal history that Robert Lowell, say, is able to bring to the page.  How to allow those two forces to coexist is maybe my little chemistry problem, and something in Rae Armantrout opened a door.  At least in my reading.

A cognate approach in painting would be Jane Freilicher, whose obituary I read this morning in The New York Times, how her work is described this way: “she put her expressionist style of paint-handling and allover approach to the canvas at the service of recognizable images.”  Hers is a wonderful and powerful model.

KMD:  Your description of “keeping all of one’s thinking on the page” perfectly captures what the poems are doing from a visual standpoint.  I found your use of the page as a visual field to be fascinating.

The poems reminded me a little of H.L. Hix’s recent work, which sometimes appears in long, Whitman-esque lines, looking almost like prose at first glance.  Like Hix’s work, your poems create a false expectation on the part of the reader that each text will be prose-like in its language (i.e. a linear narrative, filled with exposition and ending with a clear-cut “message”).  As a reader, I was surprised and delighted by the many ways that your book undermines these readerly expectations, presenting us instead with questions, anecdotes, and the decidedly nonlinear workings of memory.

How did the visual presentation of the poems that we see in the book emerge?  In what ways did the work change shape as you drafted it?

JG: I’m pleased you’ve read the book this way!  The form was accidental, or, more accurately, I guess, a chance operation.  I was rereading, after many years, John Cage’s Silence, and I was charmed by his use of anecdotes between and among his essays and talks, and I think that has a lot to do with how the book turned out.  But formally, as a structure, I sat down one morning to write, and Cage’s composition “In a Landscape” was playing, as I’d just bought the CD, and so I used that title for a poem, which is now the first section of the book.  At the time, I was just writing.  There was no structure or plan.  And it turned out to be about starting things off, and it was in three prose-like sections, and, more importantly for me, it contained a bit of a conversation I’d had the day before with Michael Hobbs, the chair of my department.  (It can be found here).

When the “poem” I’d written was finished, I kept on going, and I decided to try to stick with that general form: Three stanzas, a question of some sort that I really have, that I don’t have an answer for, and to explore that question with only real things that are happening or that I remember happening.  Basically, I just wanted to—not really at first, but over time—try to do all the things I like to do in art, which is to plow forward and play and throw whatever I think of at the page, but to restrict myself from “making things up.”  So there are no surreal flourishes, no bending narratives to achieve resonance, and most importantly, no “speaker” to hide behind.

I’ve always been envious of poets who have a lot of ideas: Cole Swensen comes to mind, and you, as well, how each new thing you put your mind to, it’s this whole new starting out, so it’s always a fresh start.  I’m not able to do that, or at least not as purely.  All my startings-out are basically the same landscape, but maybe I’m wearing a different hat or it’s a different day.  This time, I wanted to throw away my car and walk, or something like that, something to get me to look at what I’m always looking at, but differently.

KMD:  I’m so glad that you mentioned the delightful sense of continuity between your new collection and your previous books.  There are certainly many parallels between In a Landscape and The Little Book of Guesses especially.  In much of your work, domestic spaces are defamiliarized, rendered suddenly strange and disconcerting.  And this is often made possible by the wonderful associative leaps in your poems.  But I was also struck by the differences between In a Landscape and your previous books.  While a great deal of your earlier poetry is beautifully spare, this new collection is much more lush in its descriptions.

I’d love to hear more about the relationship between In a Landscape and your previous books.  What advice do you have for poets who want to experiment without losing that sense of continuity with their earlier poems or books?  How did this new collection grow out of previous projects?

JG:  I get bored with myself.  So I guess my advice is for artists to get bored with themselves!  But we all change the way we go about things, or most of us do, right?  And then at some point we stop changing.  That’s what scares me the most, to stop changing.  I’ve always felt this pull in two directions, between the spare work of, say, Rae Armantrout at her most imagistic, and John Ashbery, maybe, in his most extravagant, or perhaps it’s William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, or Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman…  Whatever it is, I see it working formally in this series of opposing forces in my books.  It gives me something I imagine I’m working with, even though this is all made up in my head.  In my earlier books, the ones that have been published, not the unpublished ones (that’s a different story!), I was wanting to get as close as I could to what I thought of as the “less is more” side of the equation, but, over time, I wanted more stuff in the poem.  Rather than gesture to what’s not there by empty space and short lines and short stanzas, I tried to get more in.  At some point it felt like settling for a diminished thing, and I didn’t want to settle, so now maybe sometimes it’s a mess.  But that’s good too.

What’s been important to me continues to be important to me, and that’s the little and big negotiations we make in our mostly domestic lives in the time spent between the big moments.  The large issues of our time also play out in these in-between moments, and I want to explore that.  So for me, it’s all been the same question, just turned and looked at a slightly different way.  If there’s anything like advice in that, it would be to know what your thing is, what is it that you are in art, and then say everything else about the art is up for grabs.  Neil Young is something of a hero for me in this regard.  His new album is a double album of solo and orchestral versions of the same ten songs.  He’s 68 and he’s still trying to come at his thing from different directions, because no one listening to this album would think it’s anyone other than Neil Young, and yet he’s doing something he’s not done in this way before.

I don’t know if that’s much of an answer.  I really don’t have a plan.  I just do what I feel like doing.  I live in a small town.  There’s very little pressure on me to do things in a certain way, to fit in.

KMD:  I agree that it’s crucial not to become too comfortable in a particular style of poetry.  I imagine that your work as editor at The Laurel Review must bring you into contact with many different literary forms, styles, and aesthetics.  Do you find that reading and selecting new work for publication, and seeing other writers’ process, opens up possibilities within your own practice?

JG:  Does it ever!  It’s the best thing that could happen to anyone, I’d think.  If not a literary journal, then a reading series or some way to force myself to encounter things I wouldn’t stay with otherwise.  And I find myself thinking differently when putting an issue together than if I were simply thinking about what I want to read, it’s more like putting a chorus or a dinner party together.  You want it to be interesting as an event, and to do that, in my estimation, one needs a mix of styles, voices, content.  A good school will do this for its students, as well: BA, MFA, PhD, whatever.  But once you graduate, you have to find a way to do this for yourself, to see a landscape that is as large as possible.  And even so, schools can’t do everything.  There are people who leave graduate programs never having encountered Tender Buttons!  To me, no matter your aesthetic leanings, that’s a book you simply must deal with.  And there are a lot of others, of course.

If I were left to my own devices, I doubt I ever would’ve left the first poets I read.  I found so much there that it would be very easy to set up camp and not go out into the woods.  But I’m very glad I did.  On the flipside, Mark Strand died recently, and on Facebook, I was seeing some people asking who Mark Strand was.  The generations turn over very quickly.

KMD:  It was very sad to hear about Mark Strand (and sad that there are poets who still haven’t read his gorgeous work!).  I love editing for those same reasons you mentioned.  The task of orchestrating a conversation (between writers, critics, and artists) can be wonderful for pushing the boundaries of one’s own aesthetic.  With that in mind, I’d love to hear more about what you’re currently working on.  What can readers look forward to?  And in addition to your creative work, I hear that there’s a prose issue of The Laurel Review that will be going to press soon?

JG: It’s going to be a great issue! I’ve been a prose poetry fan for years, and continue to be surprised that there’s still controversy regarding the form.  I loved Michael Benedikt’s anthology (which is long out of print now), and coming out of editing a collection of his work, I got interested in doing a full issue of prose poetry.  Thankfully Richard Sonnenmoser, The Laurel Review’s co-editor, was into it.  So it’s done now and will be out for AWP 2015.

As for my own work, who knows!  I took a year away from writing, after In a Landscape.  I called it my “NOT a poem a day project.”  I went a full 365 days.  I was quite proud of myself.  In the meanwhile, I got my youth soccer coaching license.  That was also something to do.

And now I have eight completed manuscripts, one, a prose poetry manuscript, dates back to 2001.  I’m probably going to send a few manuscripts to BOA and hope they like one, and so whatever one it is will be next.  I find it funny that it could be something I’m writing right now, something from 2009, or possibly something from 2001.  Someone might think I’ve developed into it, and then find out it’s 15 years old!  Ha!

KMD:  Well, I certainly hope you get the last laugh!  I’m very much looking forward to your next collection.  And thank you for taking the time to chat with us about your new book.

JG: My pleasure!