Tomorrow (or today if you're reading this on Thursday), the U of I MFA Program's reading series, VOICE, has a special event that will celebrate U of I's award winning literary journal, Ninth Letter, by having John Gallaher drive all the way from northwest Missouri to Champaign, IL to read some poems. There will also be live music and light snacks.
John agreed to do this, presumably, because of the stipend he's probably being paid, and because he's had his poetry published in the Ninth Letter. Oh, and also because he's never read from his work here in C-U before, despite what I thought when I set out to interview him earlier this week.
Smile Politely: You were in Champaign last June for a reading alongside another poet, G.C. Waldrep as a part of the U of I's Carr Reading Series. What brings you back this time around?
John Gallaher: Whoever that was, it wasn't me! I'm glad to hear, though, that it seemed like I was there. I like the idea of going places I don't go. It adds an air of mystery to my normally not very interesting life. I'm going this year to take part in celebrating Ninth Letter. I love the way Ninth Letter tosses everything together, it's one of the journals I suggest to anyone who asks what interesting things are going on in literature these days.
SP: Okay, this is off to a good start. I guess I'll have to go rough up my source. Anyway, I'm assuming that the readings you have done with Waldrep were set up because the two of you collaborated on a project together. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like?
Gallaher: I did a couple readings with him in Colorado last year, and will do a few more this summer, and yes, it is because of the book. If not for the book, I'd still want to read with him, though. He's fascinating.
The book! It's called Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, and we wrote it in two big frenzies of activity in early 2008, and then a couple months about a year later. In total, we wrote 425 poems. The book is collaborative, but the individual poems aren't. What we'd do is that one of us would send a poem to the other through email, and then the other would, as soon as possible, respond to it. Sometimes that involved quoting from the received poem, but mostly it involved listening to its world and trying to find some further messages there. You might call it riffing, I guess. Or spelunking. Maybe a version of SETI.
SP: What impact would you say the collaborative experience has had on your writing?
Gallaher: I don't know that it's had much of a direct effect on my writing. GC and I both are pretty receptive to whatever happens, when we're writing. We share similar metaphors of composition. The collaborative process just made it all more literal. I consider, in my abstract way, all of my writing to be collaborative, it's just that most of it is in collaboration with a wall of TVs in an electronics store.
SP: So, if your book get's nominated for a Pulitzer, who will give the acceptance speech.
Gallaher: Do they give Pulitzers to collaborations? I suppose they must, but I know there are some awards and things that don't. If that happens, I'd like to stand wherever the winners stand (do they get a stage or a podium or something?) and move my mouth while GC speaks from behind a partition upon which would silently play Jean-Luc Godard's Une histoire d'eau. That would be nice, as I've never seen that film, and it sounds interesting.
SP: In addition to writing your own work, you also publish other writers in The Laurel Review. At the risk of sounding like my father, allow me to ask: what have you learned from this experience?
Gallaher: At the risk of sounding like my son, my first response is: I don't know. My longer version of a response is that the more I learn about writing in all its forms, the less I feel certain about saying anything specific about it. What I'm most interested in is what surprises me. I like combinations of things. I want to feel that the author is being as surprised by what's happening in the work as I am reading it. And editing, and having a blog where people comment, has pushed me more in that direction. I like rooms that are cluttered rather than rooms that are neat, unless I have to eat there. I like my eating spaces to be neat. I dislike bugs of any sort.
SP: In perusing your blog, it seems like you're pretty open about engaging the political aspects of the poetry world: from gender disparity in the publishing world to the recent Claudia Rankine/Tony Hoagland beef. What do you think the writer's role is when it comes to these issues?
Gallaher: The poetry community is a community, and functions as such. Some people try to deny that, and say we're all just supposed to sit somewhere and make art . . . but even then, the art we make exists within a community once we've made it. No matter what our intentions are, we're always coming back to the community. We have to talk with each other. That's the only real role I see for us when it comes to these issues. We have to talk with each other. And then what we say, well, that can float off and come back as voices speaking to us in our art. For good or ill.
SP: You also have some pretty interesting thoughts on contemporary music in your blog. Does the music you listen to inform your writing? Does it ever get in the way of your writing?
Gallaher: Right now while I'm writing this, I'm listening to the new album from The Mountain Goats. The song that's playing has just mentioned gathering jewels from graveyards, and then it mentioned shame and guilt. It's all just more stuff that floats around that we sift through in a day. I like to remain open to whatever floats by. Guilt, shame, and graveyards, you know? There's a lot there to work with.
I don't know if any of it gets in the way. Mostly I find that the biggest thing that gets in the way of my writing is when I try too hard to make it be something. When I bring my intentions to it, then it tends to flatten out. Keeping myself open to people stopping by, to what's playing, is usually better than my intentions. But I don't know. A lot of poems, in the end, don't work out. But then again, a lot of things we do don't work out . . . and of course, a lot of things that we don't think are working out, later turn out in interesting ways. We're never quite free either way. "Never Quite Free" is one of the song titles from the album I'm listening to. It's all one thing, I guess.
John will be in town tomorrow (Thursday) night reading at the Krannert Art Museum from 7:30-whenevs. Don't miss it.