A Freedom in Being Minor
Jeff Alessandrelli interviews John Gallaher
April 28, 2015
Apr 28, 2015
21 Min read time
In a Landscape, John Gallaher’s fifth book, is his attempt to put into words “what (he) really thinks of things without making anything up.” It’s a challenging task for any writer, even more so for one Keats might call a “camelion poet,” meaning one who “has no character” of his or her own, but who is instead constantly adapting, dissolving, and delighting in contradiction. With collections such as Gentlemen in Turbans, Ladies in Cauls (2001) and The Little Book of Guesses (2007), winner of the Levis Poetry Prize, Gallaher emerged as one of the most dexterous poets of the new century, working primarily, and not surprisingly, in the mode we had come to call “Elliptical.” In his review of Susan Wheeler’s Smokes, Stephen Burt first used the term “Elliptical” to delineate lyric poetry whose “I” “speaks the poem and reflects the poet” even as it deploys “all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves.”Considered somewhat innovative at the time, the mode, says Gallaher, has gone mainstream; it’s been “folded into the mix.” Many would agree.
But with its sequence of straightforward and “unfiltered” autobiographical meditations, In a Landscape comes as a departure from Gallaher’s previous work. Gone are the gizmos, imaginative leaps and self-destabilizing constructions of Ellipticism; in their place we find sentences like “Once, when I was in high school, six or so of us / went to Brendan’s house for the weekend” and “If things contain their opposites, why bother?” Far from roiling in fabrication for its own sake, the poems in In a Landscape are largely matter-of-fact, introspective, anecdotal, and refreshingly unguarded; if there’s a governing question at the book’s core, it’sHow much of what we accept as truth is actually an illusion we submit ourselves to? How can we ever be sure—and do we even want to be? Earlier this year, I wrote to Gallaher via email to ask him about his take on the imagination, the progress of poetry, memory and music, and how this remarkable new book came to be.
Jeff Alessandrelli: “The Way We Live Now,” the fourth poem in your 2009 collection Map of the Folded World, opens with a subtly disarming line: “I told as much of the truth as I could imagine.” That sentiment resonates interestingly with your recent book-length sequence, In A Landscape, because unlike most of your other work, In A Landscape plays on, and with, autobiographical “truth.” Moreover, you have stated that while writing the work collected in the book you were “consciously trying to not make a poem.” Given all that, I’m curious to know if you’re finding the imagination somewhat overrated as you get older? Having published multiple books, written hundreds of poems, edited The Laurel Review for a number of years, and essentially given your life over to poetry, do you ever simply get tired of poetry, of its feints and ambiguities? Is In a Landscape a response to this? Or do you still approach it with the same verve and freshness that you did twenty-five years ago?
John Gallaher:I’m still very much a believer in imagination! But how I’m working with imagination has changed. So it’s less a “loss of faith” than perhaps an enacting of W. S. Merwin’s “If you find you no longer believe, enlarge the temple.” Writing this long poem where I challenged myself not to “make anything up,” to say only “real things,” I ended up with a renewed faith in the role of the imagination in the everyday. There is this way that, rather than the imagination being overrated, I think it’s been too narrowly defined.
But yes, absolutely, In a Landscape is a response to my feelings about these issues, but only in the way that all the things we write are responses to what we think of things as well as what we’re going through. I guess I’d say the same thing for the modes I write in, or that people write in. There are some poets who can stick with something—a way of writing—and continue to find things there. But I, at least in this book, decided to make something of a fresh start. I don’t know if it was me being tired of “incessant feints and ambiguities,” but it could have been. I wanted to talk. To just talk. I’m in the middle of that still, and I don’t see its horizon.
JA: In her treatise “Poetry Is Not a Project” the poet Dorothea Lasky makes the claim that “Naming your intentions is great for some things but not for poetry. Projects are bad for poetry. I might argue that a poet with a ‘project’ that he can lucidly discuss is a pretty boring poet, at best. Or that a poet with a ‘project’ might not be a poet at all.” I’m curious what your own relationship is with projects built of or with poetry and how you yourself would define the term “project.”
JG: It’s all in what terms one uses. What really matters to me is the experience of the work, not how one describes its method of production, what one’s notions of it are. One person might call it a “project,” and another might call it “an engagement with the earth” or some such. I’m fine with both of them, and many more. Intentions! Don’t we all have intentions when we write? Maybe I’m thinking of intentions in a different way than Lasky meant. That often happens, right? That people are talking or arguing about art and then realize they’re saying the same thing, just with different terms, or they’re defining the same term in different ways. But I certainly have intentions when I’m writing. I want to talk to someone. But I think Lasky is meaning her critique more narrowly, right? I don’t use the term “project” to describe my creative process, but I guess I could without flinching. I don’t think it would undermine it in any way to say something like, “I had a project to write every morning what I was thinking about, without making anything up, and to see how long I could keep it going.”
JA: I like “marshmallow,” “bunt” and “verily.” I revile “spat,” “pumpkin,” “shoe,” and “gargantuan.” Are there certain words you love and others you hate? Any words you find yourself oft-repeating in your work? Any word or words you refuse to use?
JG: I love that! Ha! I want to hear more of these words you like and revile! A lot of people feel that way, the way you do, about words. Words as words, though, are pretty neutral to me. I like to use connective words a lot, I guess, things like “kind of” and “maybe.” “And.” “But.”
JA: I love the Merwin quote you used above, specifically because it speaks to the varieties of imagination every writer has access to. But I’m curious how, within the context of the book, your version of “talk” potentially differs from someone else’s version of “imagination.” You write, “Reality is a parade of people twisting and saying, ‘Boo’ / as we’re all chasing our own waiting rooms. Or something like that.” I guess what I’m asking is if, in your opinion, it’s important for the reader to know that In a Landscape is non-fiction, is “unfiltered autobiography.” Does it matter if he or she takes the poem as a completely imaginative work?
JG: Well, I’m just happy if someone takes it at all, really! I had a funny conversation with a friend of mine a couple months ago, where she mentioned something from one of the sections of In a Landscape, and she started talking about the psychology of “the speaker.” I was surprised she would approach it that way, and it made me kind of laugh a bit, right? Do people talk to non-fiction writers about “the speaker”? I suppose they could, but the thought wouldn’t occur to me. I don’t think it hurts anything to look at it that way, though. It just changes it a bit. It colors it in differently. We’re all a construction of voices in however we write or present ourselves. Imagination is key. I just like, these days, to present myself as myself saying these things: an autobiographical dramatic monologue. But I’m not alone. A lot of writers, from Frank O’Hara to Rachel Zucker, among numerous others, have done similar things. It’s also a stance.
JA: Taken from your 2007 collection The Little Book of Guesses, the final stanzas of your poem “Campfire Girls at Sunrise Hill” have always stuck with me:
It was horrible. But that’s just
words. I could just as easily
have said wonderful.
Don’t remember me like this,
remember me some other way,
some way I never was.
Since many of the poems in In A Landscape explicitly deal with memory and remembrance, the passing of time and selves, I’m curious as to your current conception of words and their place in your life. As a parent of youngish children, as someone who deals with death and mortality far more so than I assume he did fifteen or twenty years ago, does the fact that, in the end, they’re all just “words” impact you in anyway—as a writer, parent, or human?
JG: I think about this a lot. Being adopted when I was three, and having my birth certificate changed, along with my name, and knowing and remembering most of that (my name changing, and then forgetting what my name was before the adoption, and then “learning” it later), I’ve always kind of had the feeling that we’re all in some way put-up jobs, you know? How we’re talked about is who we are until we’re talked about some other way, by ourselves or by others. There’s great freedom in that, and responsibility.
This appeals to my appreciation of the absurd, how the absurd feels like realism to me, how we go through life in these mediated ways. I wouldn’t call it irony or surrealism, which some try to lump it in with (though both of them are also necessary and valid stances, and also form a part of my conception of reality). And because that’s how I see things, it’s natural that I work with it. I want to try different approaches of writing, as we all want to I suspect, to get at as much of experience as I can, knowing that all ways of engaging language and experience are going to be partial, and that all ways have something to reveal that other ways maybe can’t. So, for now, this is what I’m doing.
On the other hand, my mother has Alzheimer’s. It was diagnosed, as much as one can diagnose Alzheimer’s, just before I started writing this book. I was dealing with her daily losses by turning to my own memory, to shore up some “real” things. Now she’s further along. It’s a terrible way to go.
I’ve always kind of had the feeling that we’re all in some way put-up jobs, you know? How we’re talked about is who we are until we’re talked about some other way, by ourselves or by others.
JA: “How we’re talked about is who we are until we’re talked about some other way, by ourselves or by others.” That’s an interesting sentiment in so far as it allows language’s primacy to constantly assert itself; our construction of self is indebted to how we think, then speak what we’re thinkingAnd your mother’s Alzheimer’s is explicitly referenced in Armin Müsahm’s art for In a Landscape’s back cover, in which a medley of, to put it lightly, misfortunes—Diabetes, AIDS, Heart Attack, Depression, Stroke, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s—advertised on a shopping center sign. Yet in many ways this is a poem reveling in, if not abject happiness, at least mild contentment or acceptance. I just spent twenty minutes trying to find the poem/line and couldn’t, but at one point don’t you assert, “Right now is the happiest I’ve ever been.” Am I making that up?
JG: That’s always happening to me. I’ll remember something from a book and then not be able to find it again. That’s one of the handy aspects of having an electronic copy, being able to word search. Otherwise, I much prefer books. But the bit you’re thinking of is in section LIII. The life we get is ours, you know? It’s the one thing we can hold out and say “Look, this is uniquely mine!” Until, of course, you realize, in the realm of statistics, we’re all pretty predictable and average. I keep flipping back and forth between the two. One of my favorite poems, on a similar topic, is a short one by Stephen Crane, “In the Desert,” where the beast likes eating his heart, because it is bitter, and because it is his. That makes me laugh!
JA: Shifting gears, In a Landscape takes its title from a John Cage musical composition. Wayne Coyne and Clem Snide provided endorsements on the back cover and the list of musicians name-checked or quoted from in the manuscript is fairly extensive: Willie Nelson, Woody Guthrie, Neko Case, Jason Molina, The Flaming Lips, Neil Young, John Lennon, a bunch I’m not naming. Let’s say you’re still in the band and your plethora of responsibilities, both familial and work-related, are non-existent. Are you the frontman? Lead guitarist? The drummer? Bassist with his head down in the back? Or some combination thereof?
JG: I would give up all of the glitz and money and fame of poetry for rock and roll in a second. These days, I guess I’d be all of them. I’d be happy just to be someone like Robert Hunter, a lyricist, who worked for years with The Grateful Dead. Someone like that. I don’t like staying up late, and I don’t much like nightclubs. So a travelling, gigging band, no thanks. A high school friend of mine who appears in the book several times, Brendan MacNaughton is doing that. I’m jealous of him, but I also like getting my sleep.
JA: How big of an impact does music generally have on your own writing? Within the context of In a Landscape it seems to figure greatly—but from reading Map of the Folded World, The Little Book of Guesses, even Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, one might not know you had any concentrated interest in music at all. Does what you’re listening to or when you’re listening to it affect in anyway your compositions as a writer?
JG: I’m not much in the advice giving business, but here’s something I firmly believe in, and am always suggesting people try. Look at what you do, what you make, and then look at who you are. I found, in so doing, that, though to me, my writing was using all of my faculties—memory, imagination, craft, whatever—there were things I wouldn’t say. That interested me. Why not name the names of real people? Why not tell stories of things that happened to me? I listen to music much more than anything else. So why isn’t that in there directly (though I know it was there in more subterranean ways)? And since this book was a book of formulations (How did I become who I am? Who are my kids becoming?), it needed a kind of conversational openness that I’d never tried before. I say that now, but at the time I was writing without a plan.
Sometimes, at poetry readings, I find the bits between the poems, when the poet’s just talking, to be some of the best bits of the evening. Not all the time, but enough of the time for me to work up a bit of a theory. That’s when they’re most in the moment, when we’re reaching out, trying to connect directly with these people here. It’s a social act. So why not be that person in the poem as well? It’s a very David Antin idea, I guess. He was a master at that. I would love to be so “on” that I could show up and just start talking, you know, not bring anything with me to read. I would love to be there when someone else is doing that. There’s a tremendous challenge there, thrilling and terrifying. Because also, there are people who flounder in those moments between poems.
JA: Perhaps a lot of poets are somewhat hesitant to name names and, explicitly at least, tell stories because it seems reductive in some way . . . if they are merely “telling it how it is” (or at least how they perceive it to be) then the poetic part of the poem might go missing; the “real life” details might override the imaginative ones. But that’s just a guess.
JG: It’s that poem by Robert Lowell, right? “I want to make something imagined, not recalled” . . . and then he goes on to claim some power, or some value to giving “each figure in the photograph his living name.” Maybe it’s less than, right? Not the metaphorical power of something imagined, but it’s still metaphor. Your life is a metaphor of mine and mine for yours. It’s also important. By having lived, we’re important.
JA: And I find In a Landscape to be so compelling precisely because it refuses to act like so many other contemporary books of poetry. It is social and chatty and open. It’s very readable! At the same time your biography is different than everyone else’s, and you’ve had a fairly extraordinary life. The places you’ve lived, the people you’ve known, the experiences you’ve found yourself enmeshed in—in short, there’s a lot of action. I feel like my version of In a Landscape would be a lot less eventful.
JG: All our biographies are unique, minor as we mostly all are. But there’s a freedom in being minor. Every person I’ve ever met, if we spend long enough telling stories and talking, these great stories pop out. Maybe, like for me as well, it’s not their story, maybe it’s their cousin or parent or whomever . . . but they’re the one getting to tell it. And a lot of our stories are more interesting than we think they are. Why should I tell anyone the minor story of some boy pushing me into a urinal in first grade? It’s not heroic or grand in any way, and most of our stories just kind of wander off, as things don’t happen the way good narrative needs things to happen, but in the telling, they become stories. And in so doing, we find that a lot of them do end up meaning something or being helpful in some way, if only as an act of empathy between the person telling the story and the person hearing it, and then telling a story back.
Your life is a metaphor of mine and mine for yours. It’s also important. By having lived, we’re important.
JA: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the bulk of In a Landscape was written five or so years ago, right? With subsequent revisions made in 2013? If I’m correct in those assumptions I’m curious what the work you’ve written subsequent to In a Landscape has been like. Did you actively write against the “Why not name the names of real people and tell stories of things that happened to me” mindset?
JG: You’re right. 2009, and then a few additions (mostly dated, as that seemed important to me) up until about 2013. I’m kind of lucky in a way. I’m 50. I don’t feel any pressure to write in a particular way. It’s the freedom of flying under the radar. I can go where I will. But, in some way, once I said “screw it” and just started talking, it’s become difficult to reel myself back in. Once you step across that kind of line, it’s difficult to unstep. I tried some poems where I said to myself that I would only make stuff up. That was fun, but it didn’t last long. Most days now, when I write something, just letting it be whatever it’s going to be, there’s a strong autobiographical element to it, but usually something of a tighter structure than In a Landscape. That was really a one-time deal. The “book-length poem” aspect of it allowed me a freedom of space that I don’t really have anymore. Or at least that’s how it feels to me now that I’m writing titles again. I used to love writing titles. It was my favorite part of making a poem. I don’t know if I’d call that my favorite part anymore, but it’s nice to be back.
JA: Well, I’m glad you allowed yourself this particular one-time deal. That being said, I’ve always enjoyed your titles also—“When I Say World I Mean Please” and “I Will Sing The Monster to Sleep & He Will Need Me,” among numerous others—so it will be nice to read more of those. To close I wanted to ask you one of the questions posed to the reader in section XXXV of In a Landscape. Namely, “Do you do these things, or do these things do you? It’s the same old / question, as anything fits to cause all sorts of inevitabilities. Are you / having these thoughts or are these thoughts having you?” I guess I’m curious about them in relation to your present status in all senses of the word—as a writer, as a father, as a husband, as a professor, as an editor, as a collaborator, as a human being. Did you envision any of the selves that you’ve become or have they all crept up on you subtly, in ways impossible to predict? Do you do these things, or do these things do you?
JG: Yikes. Well, we’re a part of our context. You, me. There’s no way out of it. We’re infected by the thinking of our moment in time. In that way, we are pulled by where and when we are. And where and when we are dictates in a large measure what we value, what we consider beautiful or good or whatever. So things like The Best American Poetry or the Pulitzer Prize, they’re always going to be right, in their context. And we’re only going to be able to have the thoughts we’re able to have, due to our education, all a part of this context. But, and this is the important thing, we also affect our context. We can nudge it. So someone like Emily Dickinson, who was radically outside of her time in some respects, was dismissed for a time, then “fixed” for a time, and then accepted. Or something like that, right? So, yeah, we are done, but we also do. At least it’s a hypothesis that gives me a measure of hope.
JA: Lastly, I know you’re not much for predictions, but at the same time you’ve been in the game for a considerable period of time, and I was curious if you might hazard a guess at where American poetry is going to go next—do you see big changes afoot? Stealthy but steady progress forward?
JG: There are big changes afoot! As always, though not really “forward.” It’s more like art keeps changing, but it’s “around” more than “forward.” The type of poetry I came of age with, that Stephen Burt famously named “Elliptical Poetry,” is over as The New Thing. It’s been folded into the mix. The mainstream of American poetry continues to be a kind of lyrical pseudo-autobiography, right? That thing we call the mainstream, typified in the past by Sharon Olds, maybe? That still seems the most common poem I come across. But what is the new “other,” now that Elliptical poetry has been digested? What’s interesting me is the way some high-profile poets like Claudia Rankine and Rachel Zucker for instance, who are writing in the mainstream, at least in the wide version of the mainstream, are writing a kind of prose block, a kind of “essayistic cultural criticism” as poetry. So that’s certainly happening, and the fact that their books are popular (by poetry standards) means that they’ll have some influence. There’s also the kind of shifting adult/innocent voice that is popular, typified by the popularity of Patricia Lockwood. One of those might erupt into a big thing. Or something else entirely! I’m interested in seeing what will happen.
JA: As am I! Real quick: desert island songs/books. They don’t have to be your absolute favorites, but right now, at this moment, what would be the 5 songs and 5 books you’d bring to the proverbial desert island you’ll be spending the rest of your life on. No justification necessary.
JG: I’ll always be a Neil Young fan, and I’d be tempted to take Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After the Gold Rush, On the Beach, Comes a Time, and Rust Never Sleeps. They’re part of my DNA by now. But then I’d get lonely for all the albums I left behind, by Neil Young and others. Right now, for instance, I’m listening to St. Vincent while writing this. It would be terrible to leave the choices behind. It would be a lonely life on that island with no new options. Never hearing The Soft Bulletin (The Flaming Lips), OK Computer (Radiohead), or Middle Cyclone (Neko Case) again would be a depressing vision of the future.
As for books, probably the collected poems from Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, and then, more recently, Rae Armantrout (anything really, but maybe Versed or Money Shot, until a collected shows up) and Cole Swensen’s Gravesend. After that I’d probably cheat and grab the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry. And all the books by my friends, which are dear to me because they’re good books, but also because they’re by my friends, and how could I go without them?
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April 28, 2015
21 Min read time