As mentioned below, Aaron and Jon connected with John Gallaher at a recent Writer's Place reading in Kansas City. Afterwards, John was very amiable in consenting to an interview à la email.
AM: So, you said, somewhat jokingly, about this interview that "I usually change my mind and/or don't really have much of an opinion on most things. But I'm ready to say whatever I think this week." That indecisive personality, I think, is actually in some of your poems. You've got a whole book of "Guesses," not certainties. Yet your style has this element of the aphoristic to it (and much of it is certainly quotable) but, though it is often wise, it's also playful about that whole shebang. Care to talk about that balance, how you establish poetic authority but still keep it indeterminate?
JG: You’ve just landed on THE question that I keep coming back to more than any other. Well, maybe not more than any other, but certainly it’s the question I feel I practice answers to whenever I try to write something. I have this authority problem, you see. Maybe it’s Catholic high school on Long Island in the early 80s. Maybe it’s who knows what.
Jorie Graham, when she was in her heavy epistemological phase in the late 80s, had this turn she’d make, where she’d be going on about insubstantiality and then say something like, “Reader, there are real things in this world, believe me,” or something like that. You know? There are things in this world, knock-knock, but also, in our interactions with them, a large measure of undecidability. (My spell check tells me that “undecidability” isn’t a word, and suggests I really mean “undesirability,” which is, I suppose, also true.) As David Bowie sings, playfully, in the song “Law [Earthings on Fire]”: “I don’t want knowledge, I want certainty.” We all have to work out our own balance between the certain and the plastic.
Something in this also makes me think of that movie cliché, where the villains get the best lines. They are, by their position as antagonists, wrong. But they have a point, you know? I think art can work a bit like that. Art is not science, but it gets a freedom of assertion that propels the shebang forward. Maybe it doesn’t propel it forward so much as put bumps in the road. And if you look at bumps in the road a certain way, it’s dancing.
JG: ADDENDUM (Day 2) I think we, to some degree, all agree that there are logical (or at least arbitrary) forms that our thinking must submit to in order to be expressed. Thought is messy, and language is a set of controls to form that into something that others might be able to receive. Because of the social nature of language and the private nature of thought, it is difficult for us in daily life to remain consistent in what we say, for each new saying creates at least a slightly different message. One of the ways the word arts, and poetry in particular, can find power (or interest or energy or value) is by playing with, or investigating, this relationship between thought and language. There is profit to be found in wandering through these veils. Cue Whitman: “Do I contradict myself?”
AM: "Very well, then, I contradict myself." Do you think that the auspice of an autonomous individual, then, is more or less merely a literary conceit as much as it is a real and present personage?
JG: Now we’re getting into some hardball territory! I was just reading the other day about all these parasites and microbes and things that live in us. We’re each an ecosystem, you know? And all these creatures have their own goals. Some of them do things to our nervous systems and our brains that change how and what we think. As well, there’s this British guy, I forget his name, who was a petty criminal and drug addict who had a massive seizure/heart attack when he was 51 that destroyed part of his brain, and then boom, he suddenly was a visual artist who abhorred violence.
And then comes language, right? We have to use this handed-down, social instrument, this agreed-upon thing, in order to “make sense” to others. And this instrument, as much as it allows us to create new ideas and meanings, also forces us into a pre-existing arrangement. It’s convenient, by the way. I don’t want to give you the impression that I sit up at night worrying about it.
What I mean by all of this is that, though I believe we are each what we are, autonomous and all that, what it means to be autonomous is much more plural and situational than we’d like.
AM: I once gave a talk on New Historicism before Stephen Greenblatt came to our campus at UNI, where autonomy and agency were very much at the forefront of conversation. All I could say was, "look, I'm an individual organism, and inside my head is this thing called a brain." Back to authority, one of the things I think is so ironic about how we constantly anthropomorphize divinity is that we use that as a vindication to idealize ourselves.
JG: Right, and in that brain can be all sorts of parasites affecting the release of neurotransmitters, thereby altering the person’s personality, etc. But, that said, we’re not the Borg, we don’t have hive mind. We are individuals, we author ourselves more than we’re authored, I believe, even as science keeps chipping away at what that means. And then there’s authority itself, our outside constructed authorities, through which one group idealizes itself and subjugates others, which happens in art as well as in the larger society. That said, there are some good laws. The helmet law, for one. That’s a good law. And we should all eat our vegetables.
AM: Dear sir, may I suppose that age and parenthood have given you perspective?
JG: A funny thing happens with age. Things which seemed boringly annoying clichés when I was younger don’t seem so boring anymore. For instance, today I was driving to the chiropractor thinking that I will never be younger than I am today. That’s banal, I know, but it’s also this weird thing. When I was young my hair was longish. Now I can’t grow hair and I never will again. What little hair I have is going gray. I’m almost 50. And then I have these two little humans in my house, growing up, coming into all this, and they’re so obsessed with being older, as I was, as we all probably were. It’s amazing. I don’t know if I’ve gotten perspective or not. No more so or less so probably than anyone else, I’m guessing.
AM: Are your poetics aging, as such? Are more clichés becoming admissible? What about more of the "'knock-knock' things in this world"? Do you at some point throw your hands up and let /allow life to be life? Or have you been doing that the entire time? Are you any more certain about anything than you were twenty years ago?
JG: Well, another writer cliché alert: I do think I’m less certain about things as I get older. Or maybe that’s not really true, either. I think. Hmm, how to say this. Let me take these one at a time. I don’t feel that my poetics are aging, really. It’s just that as one does things, makes things, then there’s this choice: do I keep doing things the way I know how to do them or do I try new ways of doing them? I like to try new ways. I don’t know if one way or the other is better in general, but for me, I have to try doing things different ways. So, over time, I think my poems look and sound a bit different. But that’s just that I’m listening to different things, different uses of language, different ways to process. But my ideas of how poetry works, what I believe in about the artistic encounter, I think that is unshakable. Or at least pretty solid. So one could just as easily say my poems tend to look and sound the same. As Neil Young says: "It's all one song."
Clichés are a different question. Hackneyed, cliché language is so constrained, is so firmly embedded in common social experience, as to be pretty close to useless, unless used self-consciously for some effect. On the other hand, people begin to look at some emotions or experiences as if they were inherently cliché. That, I don’t like. There aren’t that many emotions, you know? And the same with experiences. To close yourself off from them is doing a disservice to possibility. Now if one approaches those emotions or experiences with the received, handed-down bag of words for those emotions/experiences, you’re going to find yourself in artistic trouble double quick.
When it comes to “letting life be life,” I don’t know. I think it’s all life, you know? There’s no opportunity to “let.” If one “lets,” then life is life, but if one acts upon it, doesn’t “let” it, life is still life. In the end, it’s an internal conflict, or a definitional one. Perhaps a categorical one? Other than that, I like nouns more than verbs. Perhaps that’s my acquiescence to “knock knock.”