bruce is in love with elaine
An Interview with John gallaher
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
TMR: What was your childhood like? Who were you listening to?
JG: I was born in 1965, in January. When I started really listening to the radio, it was the mid- to- late 70s. The Beatles were still everywhere, especially on FM. I was living in Long Island from the late 70s through the mid 80s, listening to WLIR. Great stuff, from The Waterboys to The Replacements, R.E.M., The Cocteau Twins, and on. Always, David Bowie was there. Kate Bush. Peter Gabriel.
TMR: Do you remember the first thing you wrote?
JG: I wanted to write adventure stories when I was in middle school. Great adventures about people going into caves and finding new civilizations, that sort of thing. I read a lot of Jules Verne and Robert Heinlein, as well as Madeleine L'Engle and Louis L'Amour. I didn't start reading or being interested in poetry until my second year of high school. I took an honors English class and got to see how the other half lived. It was a revelation. Rather than worksheets and tests, we got to listen to records and talk about what we were reading. I remember being consumed by the Modernists, e.e. cummings and Gertrude Stein especially. I had no idea at the time that they were something of outliers. I thought that's what poetry was and I loved it. So I was disappointed when I found that most of the rest of poetry wasn't nearly so wild and interesting. But, reading them, I was well set up to enjoy poets I would come across later, like John Ashbery, Russell Edson, and Rae Armantrout, and that has made all the difference.
TMR: What was the first thing you wrote that you were proud of?
JG: Heh. A little thing in high school I still remember! It was a Stephen Crane kind of thing, and in Catholic high school, lightly transgressive for 1982:
A man said, "I don't believe in you, God, unreasoning, fire breather."
"That's all right," said God, "I don't believe in you either."
Derivative as it was in so many ways, it still pretty much summed up where I was at.
I spent a lot of time moving around when I was young, so I always had at least something of a feeling of dislocation. Books were a constant, and set me up for how I was going to relate to the world.
TMR: Did you always want to be a writer?
JG: It's all I've ever wanted to do. I'd rather write about things, or think about things, than do things, usually. I've always been this way. I spent a lot of time moving around when I was young, so I always had at least something of a feeling of dislocation. Books were a constant, and set me up for how I was going to relate to the world.
TMR: Why poetry, and not prose? What does poetry do for you that writing longer work doesn't?
JG: It's the inevitable question of any of us … why this and not that? Especially in regards to poetry, that is so little read, so little valued in the culture at large. But the real question is personal, for each of us. Who am I? Where am I going to find value? Who am I going to be? I'm a fan of that way of thinking. Do what you're going to do. For me, it lead here. I've never gotten too archaeological about it.
TMR: Would you ever write a novel?
JG: Nope. If I were going to do something like that, I bet it would be more like a book of essays or some other non-fiction thing. I wish I could write a book of philosophy, but I'd have no idea how to even start that. Poetry is a good place to sit, where you can include those impulses without remaining in their structures and forms.
TMR: Rather than utilizing a lot of metaphor in your work, some may consider your poetry rather straightforward. Why do you choose this method of writing, and why do you think others choose not to?
JG: No ideas but in things! We all, I imagine, are wanting to do the same thing, to share and experience our subjectivity. How one does that owes as much or more to that person's experiences and disposition as it does to any aesthetic or formal decision. In my view, it's not a choice. I'm sure I'm at least mostly wrong in believing this, but it allows me to feel like I know why I'm doing what I'm doing. Now it's mostly habit rather than decision.
TMR: Is a poem written, in general, with the end goal being publication? Does a poem still have importance if it isn't seen by anyone but the author?
JG: I think all art forms share this situation. Yes, and no. If we're talking about for the author, the creator of the art, then the creation of the art could be all that is necessary, the commitment and experience of creating. But there's this other aspect of art, the social aspect. For this, the art must be available. People must have access. This is why conversations about who gets art into what museum are so very important. If no one can see it, it might as well not exist. It's why I really like the proliferation of online journals. I'd much rather have the problem of an unwieldy amount of venues than too few.
Answers are usually provisional, while questions can be, well, who knows. Larger. I did answer one question, though, the question, the somewhat formal question, of the writing itself. Can this be something? That's the second question of art, I think. I'm not sure what the first one is.
TMR: What sort of questions were you able to answer by writing In a Landscape?
JG: No large questions about living, unfortunately. But I got the opportunity to ask them, and in some ways, that's even better. Always the question. That's a good goal, I think. Answers are usually provisional, while questions can be, well, who knows. Larger. I did answer one question, though, the question, the somewhat formal question, of the writing itself. Can this be something? That's the second question of art, I think. I'm not sure what the first one is.
TMR: You teach, you edit The Laurel Review, and you write and publish poetry. As a working poet, what words might you have on how a modern poet can make a living?
JG: I've no clue. Really. One cannot—most people, at least, cannot—make a living directly from their art in America. So one must learn to live on Plan B, whatever your plan B might be. The only thing I really have for advice or suggestion I have, is to remember how you're making a living is Plan B, and that Plan A, though far less remunerative, is still the main thing.
TMR: How do you go about writing your poetry?
JG: I write extensively from notes. Anything that seems interesting to me, I write down in a little reporter notebook, and then, when I get a chance, I sit down, flip it open, and see if I've anything in there to spark something or to riff off of, or to use directly. A lot of people write that way. It's not specific to me. I remember in an interview David Bowie saying much the same thing about his writing process. What's interesting to me is that, though a lot of people share very similar ways of composing, what they come up with is completely different. The key is what goes into the notebook in the first place, and then how you process it.
TMR: What is your process when writing? How do you find the right atmosphere within which to write - ambient music, absolute silence?
JG: I do like sounds when I'm writing, as long as the sounds don't demand something of me, like people talking or knocking on the door. As long as it's a recording or general traffic, I'm fine. Lately, I've been listening to ambient music a lot. K. Leimer's recent albums Pale Catalogue and Grey Catalogue are great. Sometimes, when I'm writing, if I'm listening to music with words, the words will tap me on the shoulder, will suggest something in what I'm writing. In composing, that's what I like to have happen. Right now, Talking Heads are playing on my computer, "Memories Can't Wait." And so I'm wanting to say something about memory…
TMR: Tell us the last story that deeply affected you. What about that story resonated?
JG: This is a hard one. One of the ideas behind my last book, In a Landscape, was to get a lot of stories out of my system, to allow myself to tell the stories that I've kept, be they my stories or ones I've been told or read. One story that I came across last summer was the story of a guy who creates miniatures of a fictitious town and then photographs them, using a lot of forced perspective techniques. There's a beauty and a pathos in that I can really relate to.
TMR: In your Tupelo Quarterly interview, you were asked what you'll be doing next. In February of last year, Ghost / Landscape, your collaboration with Kristina Marie Darling, was released. What was it like to collaborate with another poet? Were there any "creative differences" that had to be solved?
It's really important to me in making art, especially in the beginning stages, to wing it. That's really my only demand. I don't want a plan or have a desire other than to see what happens.
JG: It's really important to me in making art, especially in the beginning stages, to wing it. That's really my only demand. I don't want a plan or have a desire other than to see what happens. Sometimes nothing happens, and we have to be willing to let that be a possible outcome as well. Kristina Marie Darling, and before her, G.C. Waldrep, who I collaborated on Your Father on the Train of Ghosts with, were great at that. I didn't feel with either of them that either of us really had to negotiate creative differences. They're both better organized than I am, so there's that. And we had to kind of negotiate, decide, when to stop. That was really the only large back and forth with either of them, how to know when it's done.
TMR: Who is a musician that you would be interested in collaborating with?
JG: I'd like to do something with Matthew Cooper, who records as Eluvium, or really, anyone who would want to collaborate with me. If it was going to be more traditional song-making, I'd love to play guitar and write songs with Neko Case. Ha! If only I knew people who know people…
TMR: Also in that Tupelo Quarterly interview, you mentioned a few manuscripts that you intended to send over to BOA. Some of these manuscripts date back to over a decade ago. Do you find that your old work continues to define you in some way?
G: I'm happy sending out anything that might seem to make an interesting book, if it defines some version of "me" or not. I'm not much interested in being defined, in any case. Actually, an old manuscript, like "Guidebook," which is in prose and was finished sometime around 2001 or so, might make a funny little moment if it were to be published in the future. I can imagine it coming out from somewhere, and having someone say something about my development into the prose form after working with Kristina Marie Darling, or something, and how charmed I'd be by that. Not to say that the future can't inform or cause the past to happen, of course.
TMR: You were adopted, and in interviews you've spoken a bit about how that affects your work, wondering about your place in the world and such. Were your parents supportive of your art?
JG: I never really knew my birth parents. My adoptive parents weren't much for the arts. That sounds judgmental! I don't mean it that way. Maybe better to say their tastes were more general, and, looking back, I'm happy about that. One can make fun of Hee Haw all day long, but there is also something to find there and I like having that also in my viewing history.
TMR: Because we have the opportunity to, can we ask you to freestyle a stanza for us right here?
All day today I was able to pretend none of this was happening. It's
my version of empathy. Like how they say people who read fiction
are more empathetic than people who read nonfiction. I was reading
that a bit ago, and was struck with the fact that I was reading non-
fiction. But what if I found out later they made up the study? Or what
if the study was in a novel? Maybe Bruce is madly in love with Elaine,
and they're working in this lab, and she only has eyes for test results.
TMR: Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get published for the first time?
JG: Keep plugging away in the face of rejection as well as acceptance. And keep plugging away as long as you believe in what you're making. The publishing side of things is very different from the creating side of things. It takes a very different side of one's personality to function in that way. I'm very jealous of artists who can have a staff to handle such things. Having someone else worry about that, and to have conversations about that for you, would be great.
TMR: Lastly, who is your hero?
JG: The one who is to come. I love saying things like that. What does it even mean, and why does it sound vaguely religious? Indeed. More reductively, I'd say Neil Young has been something of a hero of mine. He had this way of just doing it, just throwing himself at it, and it served him well for a long time. Miles Davis, as well, same thing. Just throw yourself at it. Whatever it is.