John Gallaher is the author of Brand New Spacesuit, which was recently launched from BOA Editions, Map of the Folded World (University of Akron Press, 2009) and The Little Book of Guesses (Four Way Books, 2007), which won the Levis Poetry Prize. He is an associate professor of English at Northwest Missouri State University and coeditor of The Laurel Review.
Kristina Marie Darling: Your poems frequently utilize long, Whitmanesque lines, which result in unexpected juxtapositions, wild associative leaps, and carefully constructed narrative arcs, all within the space of a single poetic line. The work in your latest collection, BRAND NEW SPACESUIT, is no exception. In a literary landscape where spare, fractured forms are often in fashion, what are some of the artistic advantages of longer lines in poetry?
John Gallaher: It means I don’t have to worry about being popular! Ha! That’s my flip answer, but I do feel a little freedom in that, just the same. There is no one way of writing that fully captures experience and thinking. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Years ago I wrote in spare lines, and I loved that, very few words, a lot of white space. But I started to feel like I was skipping over stuff, and that worried me, artistically, and my poems started getting more and more language in them, trying, impossibly, to get it all said.
When I’m writing, I’m just writing, and I want to be as complete as possible, but I’ve always been allergic to “final thoughts.” My method is skepticism. I want to think of it as “healthy skepticism,” because skepticism, if leaned into, can become a vortex, getting us nowhere. I believe in navigating the questions. That’s my goal. It’s just that for me, I end up doing a lot of navigating, and there are tributaries and sights to see as we go. Hopefully in a helpful way.
One of the drawbacks to these long, packed lines, though, is they can make a poem look daunting. You open a book of poetry, and you maybe imagine seeing a lot of white space on the page, and in a book like Brand New Spacesuit, that isn’t happening. I’ve heard some people refer to the look of it as claustrophobic. On the other hand, I could counter that in Brand New Spacesuit, one is getting more words for their entertainment dollar. Heh.
Because (possibly) of my geographic isolation, in a small town in the Midwest, as well as writing in a way that, as you say, isn’t the most fashionable, I’m separate from much of the machinery of what’s going on. There are advantages and disadvantages to that as well. I feel I have more room. So the artistic advantage is freedom, and that’s important to me. When I come to a page, the open field of a page, I don’t have preconceived notions of what I come up with, what it will look like. Maybe that’s just a feeling. And on the flipside, the drawback can become a lack of connection to people, to what’s going on. And that’s a real drawback.
I write a lot. And I don’t publish most of what I write. So, when I’m writing, as daily practice, I can just do whatever, without feeling any specific weight, just the usual weight of the word happening around us, which is a lot of weight. It also helps that I have a very supportive and patient publisher in BOA. Brand New Spacesuit, in it’s first draft, was almost twice as long as it is now, and many of the poems had even longer lines than they do now. BOA has been great, giving this book, and my previous one, In a Landscape, a wide trim size, allowing the lines to extend to their full width, without having to break. But even with that, I found that, in manuscript, many of my lines were going even further than that. I thought about that a long time. And some ended up a bit narrower.
And who knows, maybe this way of writing that I’m part of will become fashionable. I’m willing to find out! (Well, for a few weeks maybe.)
KMD: The dense and sweeping lines in your poetry frequently evoke the appearance of prose on the page. As a reader, I appreciate the way you blur the boundaries between the lyric, the personal essay, and autofiction. What is the relationship between poetry and these varied prose forms in your creative practice?
JG: I have been told I have a prose sensibility, and I love flash fiction (and all flash forms) and prose poetry, so I think if I were to define, or categorize what I write, I think “prose poetry” would be where I’d land. But I also like line-breaks, the hesitations they cause to the reading experience, the way that they highlight the rendered form in front of a reader. So, where one might conventionally think of prose poetry as “looking like prose, but with the compression of poetry,” I’m interested in something that “looks like poetry, but has the expansiveness of prose.” If those might be considered valid ways of expressing it. It becomes a kind of non-fiction dramatic monologue, as I think about it. How a reader sees it, though, I don’t know.
Years ago people were more interested in schools and groups of poets than they are now. We don’t talk about things in quite that way these days. Instead, we talk more about content. There are a lot of poets, though, who write in a what I’d term the “essayistic mode” of poetry. Kathryn Nuernberger is one. Her new book RUE, also from BOA Editions, is a remarkable feat of genre-busting. There’s a gamut, and I’m not sure where what I write would fall on it. It would be fun to map it out sometime. Cole Swensen is another. Her book Gravesend is one of my favorites, as it weaves through essay, prose, lyric. It’s marvelous.
A teacher of mine years ago, Wayne Dodd, once said to me that there are two types of poets when it comes to lineation, those who believe in the line, as the music of the line, or the thought-unit of the line, and those who believe in the sentence. I enjoy formulations such as this! And I don’t think he was trying to be final in his assertion, but more speculative, thinking, and wanting me to think. Well, it’s pretty obvious, in that economy, I’d be a poet of the sentence. If I had to choose. And of course, we don’t have to choose. But it’s fun, like one of those “what character are you” games on Facebook we used to play, back when Facebook was fun.
KMD: On a related note, many writers tend to imagine hybridity as only manifesting in shorter prose pieces. However, your poetry frequently reads as a deconstruction of literary tradition and an implicit challenge to genre boundaries. Do you envision BRAND NEW SPACESUIT as inhabiting a hybrid space? How so?
JG: Yes! And I say that hopefully, or aspirationally. Because I can’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else, or to situate art anywhere else. The most interesting things in art and life happen at the borders. It’s where the energy is. Where the ideas are. Or at least, where the ideas are most clearly visible up against other ideas. How I might be inhabiting such a hybrid space, though, I’m most likely going to be less coherent about. And I’m OK with that. I don’t like putting too fine a point on such things, more, I like the general idea, which allows a lot of elbow room. Aim for the edges! And then wherever you land is where you land.
If there was an artistic mission I could add my name to, it would absolutely be “a deconstruction of literary tradition.” And I hope it’s true. Because that is also a sign of respect to literary tradition. “It must change,” that sort of thing. And by must, we mean MUST. So many things must change.
I’m thinking of it this way right now, in this phrasing. I like occasional poems, poems on subjects, recognizable subjects, and making recognizable use of those subjects. But I also like the free play of ideas, the back eddies of ideas, I believe strongly in chance operations. And, in my estimation, it’s better to collect such things at the margins. One person’s margin is another’s leading edge.
KMD: You are also a prolific collaborator, and I’ve had the honor of co-writing a book with you. How has collaboration changed your creative practice as a solo poet? Is all of writing collaborative in nature?
JG: The honor and pleasure is very much mine! It’s rare to find someone who will open their practice, and share authorship on their work. I feel privileged to be able to have found that twice, with you and with G.C. Waldrep, in books. But also with others, including Rusty Morrison, who I just adored working with on a shorter project. Really, I consider all my writing to be collaboration. It’s just more obviously collaborative when it’s with another person.
I have a very specific method of writing. Everything I write incorporates something from my notebook. That’s already going to have a collaborative aspect to it, because the sorts of things that get put into my notebook come from all over. Bits of news stories. My reactions to reading. Overheard conversation. So, if I’m writing with another person, I would incorporate something from them, rather than something from my notebook, as my starting point. My guess is that a lot of people do that, and are collaborating without thinking of it that way. These little gifts, these lines, the world gives us.
KMD: With Luke Rolfes, you also serve as editor of the well-respected literary magazine, The Laurel Review, which is published by Northwest Missouri State University. What has editing and curating the work of other writers opened up within your poetry?
JG: Editing is a great opportunity for empathy. First, you’re a reader, and then you become, not a co-author, but, as you say, a curator, which I really like, by presenting it to others in a journal that has your name on it. As a writer, editing, and reading journals in general, allows one to see the right now of the art, what’s going on this minute. Journals are the newspapers of the art. And are very important places where writers test out what they’re working on, and where we get our first introduction to them. Print journals and online journals. They’re fundamental and I worry for their future.
KMD: What are you currently working on? What can readers look forward to?
JG: Right now, it’s the end of May, 2020, and we’re in the late stages of the first wave of the coronavirus. I am, like everyone, without a script for how the next few years are going to go. These things we talk about, about making art, they’re not just abstract art conversations. These are conversations about how we live our lives.
And, as we’re trying to figure out this new problem, the old problems continue. The murder of George Floyd by a police officer, along with those of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. There’s a reason why we protest, why we march, where we place our bodies, hold our words.
So I don’t know what’s next. I have a lot of material. I bet a lot of writers have a lot of material. The question is, what is it for, what to do with it. I have a manuscript centered around being adopted and reconnecting with my birth family. That’s one thing. But who we are as a country. What America is. Well, we can see that, and it isn’t good. That, and then what the future might be, that’s what I’m thinking about.