John Gallaher is the author of the books of poetry, Gentlemen in Turbans, Ladies in Cauls (Spuyten Duyvil, 2001), The Little Book of Guesses, winner of the Levis Poetry Prize, from Four Way Books, and Map of the Folded World, from The University of Akron Press, as well as the free online chapbook, Guidebook from Blue Hour Press. He's co-editor of The Laurel Review and GreenTower Press. Currently he's working on a co-authored manuscript with the poet G.C. Waldrep, titled Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, due out in Spring 2011 from BOA Editions.
Self Interview, with John Gallagher
This interview was conducted in late September, 2009, in the Gallaher family living room, a comfortable room with large windows overlooking the front yard and street, in rural Missouri. It was 59 degrees at 9:00 a.m., when the interview started. Later, the temperature rose to around 78 degrees, with full sun. Overall, a very pleasant day. This was going to be a self-interview, but luckily for me, I had a couple questions from Amy Unsworth for the website Pages Rustle, which she allowed me to incorporate, so I didn’t have to just talk to myself, which, to be honest, wasn’t getting me very far.
How you would classify your poetry, and what interests you in contemporary poetry (lyric, narrative, language, sound, etc)?
I wish I knew how to classify my poetry. I feel things would be a lot easier for me if I could. When I was first publishing, back in the 1990s, I had very little luck. My work didn’t begin to be published with any frequency until 1998, when I had poems in Sulfur and Denver Quarterly. And so, looking at the poems around mine in those issues, I thought that’s what I must write like. And perhaps I do. At least some of the time. If that’s much of an answer.
So do you think of yourself as writing differently at different times, or in different situations?
Maybe. It’s just that I suppose we all do . . . and, well, there are times where I think I’m doing something radically different than something else I’ve done, and then someone sees it and says, “that looks just like a John Gallaher poem.” So I’m learning to keep my assertions tentative.
And what interests you in contemporary poetry?
I like when a poem surprises me, when it does something I don’t expect it to do, but not just to be surprising, or unexpected. There’s always a danger when one goes for a kind of surrealism, maybe, or a relationship with the absurd, and is looking for surprise, that the poem will just kind of spiral out into confetti. Still, a little confetti now and then never hurt anyone . . . We’ll all survive the experience. I like art to be a little shifty. Like life.
Are you describing what Tony Hoagland calls, negatively, the “skittery poem of our times”?
Or something like that. But Hoagland does a pretty poor job describing it. And he critiques a lot of poets for writing that way, but he also praises a lot of poets (Dean Young, famously, but also younger poets like Dobby Gibson) who write in the way I think he’s critiquing . . . so who knows. Styles and modes and methods come and go. And they come around again. So for now, I feel the post-confessional autobiographical mode is exhausted, but that doesn’t mean it will remain so. And now this mode that Hoagland is noticing (that others have been noticing for close to two decades) is perhaps at its zenith and will start to be supplanted. At least there are current essays out there to that effect, one by Stephen Burt in a recent issue of Boston Review.
Changing tracks a little bit, who did you study under?
Kathleen Peirce, Wayne Dodd, and, for a short time, Mark Halliday.
“For a short time”?
Well, by the time I studied with Mark Halliday, I was finished with my classes and working on my dissertation. Mostly we just disagreed on things, which turned out to be quite valuable, in its way.
Well, with Kathleen Peirce and Wayne Dodd, I had two wonderful thinkers and teachers who were very much on my side, encouraging me. They were both saying things like “more!” and “go further.” Mark Halliday came along with a big STOP sign. Or maybe a YIELD sign. DANGEROUS CURVES AHEAD, maybe. It was healthy. It made me defend myself to a skeptical audience.
What sorts of things did you disagree on?
Oh, the usual. Which poems were good and which weren’t. But such things are to be expected. It’s good to disagree. We’re supposed to have the force of our opinions. And different styles of poems reflect different opinions and desires of what wants to enact in a poem, and desire in the poems one reads. He asks questions about what a poem means, and I, well, I’m less interested in that approach.
Do you subscribe, then, to McLeish’s idea that “a poem should Be/ not mean”?
Wayne Dodd used to say that a poem should “mean AND be.” I always liked that formulation, and would like to, as he would say, associate myself with those remarks. But I feel like that might be hedging, to leave it at that. I am drawn to moments where meaning is deferred, knowing that meaning is inevitable, as our lives contain meaning, or embody meaning. So yes, I would side with the “Be” if such a choice were demanded, but only if I could remind myself that there’s a lot of meaning tucked away in that “Be.” I guess what I’m trying to say is that a poem should be thought of more like a tree than like a newspaper.
People, when talking about your work, often mention the influence of John Ashbery, but there’s also the mark of Wallace Stevens there as well. Would you consider Wallace Stevens and the Modernists to be a major influence on your writing? Or do you look more towards the New York School poets?
The only two Library of America editions that I’ve purchased are the Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery ones. I know their work better than I know anyone else’s. So, if that might be evidence, I suppose the answer would have to be that I have a foot in each world. But, truth to tell, I read the poetry of Rae Armantrout, Michael Palmer, Martha Ronk, and Charles Wright, as well as numerous others, nearly as much. There’s such a large world of reading out there, and I adore so much of it, I’d hate to narrow myself to one (or even two) writers. And that’s just poetry. I’m also very interested in painting. That’s probably had as much (or maybe even more) influence on the way I see things, or attend to things as poetry has had.
You maintain a blog (http://jjgallaher.blogspot.com/). How did you get started doing that, and what do you think of blogs in general? Do you see them changing the way we talk about poetry?
I started my blog a few years ago because I was, well, lonely, mostly. I live in rural Missouri, and I don’t get to see or talk to many poets. The Internet seemed a good way to, as they say, “reach out and touch someone.” The Internet has changed the way we think. It’s changed the way we value information. It used to be that information had value if it was hard to get. You had to go to the library. You had to buy a book or magazine. Information was valuable. Now, it’s turned completely upside-down. If information is valuable, it’s available in seconds on the Internet. It’s only things that are devalued that are not there. I’m probably overstating it, but certainly there are things that are not there that should be there. We’ve lost a lot of things from the past. Blogs are crazy places. Things go viral for a few days then crash. And the comments stream remains. When the history of our age is written, I think it’ll be seen as one of high clamor. There’s a lot of noise out there.
The Water Ending
You are in one
of the later buildings.
You can stand at the window
and watch the city fill
You can sit in one of the chairs
or on the desk
and make of it a little boat.
You can listen to the water
rising through the elevator shaft
and up the stairs.
The roof is always
the last step.
The people there will welcome you.
The horizon will be
a barely perceptible
Daily Life in Classical Antiquity
No one remembers what it was for, which seems troublesome,
but only if we think about it. If perhaps at some point
someone decided, let’s do this, and we’ve been doing it
ever since, or if someone, out on a deck overlooking a lake maybe
said let’s do it this other way now, what’s been slowly sneaking
around the houses, and looking in the odd
window. The first thing would be to blue the windows
and put some greenery around the place, then some people and music
hidden in something that looks like a rock, or a rock
on top of a rock, so that at some point you might be able to whisper
to everyone at once, or try out one of your bits,
because you’re cute and the universe is unknowable.
They’re over by the pool now, not wondering anything special
outside of conversational probabilities
and basic human nature. Still, anyway, we do what we can,
passing the telephone around the circle and wishing plenty of birds
and bright colors, under which, some basic conception of things
might mingle with the things themselves, giving us a little more
to hope for than how fragile deer look
and don’t the clouds look soft as well, while motioning to each other
that isn’t that a bright star, or perhaps an average airplane
on some errand or sleepy pursuit of another city
nearly as remarkable as all the other unrecorded journeys
we’ve been meaning to get around
and watch from the other side, sooner or later.
And then we get caught trying, and it all gets kind of muddled,
the monkeys running across the snow, and several new holidays
to consider, or reconsider, as the new explanatory narrative
is in the making. But that’s our project, we say,
and we meant nothing by it. Maybe some thoughts about the weather,
and some papers to move from this stack to that,
like these houses everywhere we look, falling over each other,
adding to the general air of some other place
that reminds us of who we were back there once,
standing with the emergency personnel, folding and refolding
the maps, pointing in several directions.
The World is Empty & A Splash of Salts
Where maybe you’re living above a cave
and you’re covered in bats
wondering how memory works.
Is it an elevator shaking the walls?
Is it an old woman with a filing cabinet?
Or is it that we love it best
when we don’t know where we are
and it’s maybe a party of some sort,
which permits you to catch several things
in unresolved bits,
like our interchangeable fathers
deep in snow.
Above a cave just like this cave,
there is a man talking about this cave,
or one just like it.
“It’s much like this cave,” he’s saying.
In full winter, it’s good to be
above a cave. That’s one option. Or,
I am made nervous by the cave.
I am made extravagant
by the hooks along the walls, the hooks
that are made to dance.
Presence is enough, perhaps.
But perhaps I meant something else by that
in the past. Perhaps I meant,
on the verge of becoming gestural,
like overnight clouds,
I kept meaning to do something.