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The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

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APRIL 2020 Issue
Books In Conversation

JOHN GALLAHER with Tony Leuzzi

John Gallaher
Brand New Spacesuit (Poems)
(BOA Editions, 2020)

If you ever wondered what Wallace Stevens might sound like doing George Carlin-style standup you should read Brand New Spacesuit, John Gallaher’s brand-new collection of poems, published this month by BOA Editions. Bold, searching, sometimes irreverent, yet expertly orchestrated, the poems gathered in Spacesuit signal an alert and original voice, one whose respect for certain literary traditions is also attuned to the thrills and angsts of our age. “The last days of any system are chaos,” Gallaher observes in “The Chapter on Time,” “…but when you’re in it, it just looks like Tuesday.” While he might be alluding to the end of the Roman Empire, or the collapse of the Third Reich, Gallaher could just as easily be referencing the US and its citizens’ precarious experiment with Democracy. In a world where we are routinely immersed in the minutiae of work emails, fast lunches, social media, digital streaming, and device addiction, people roll from one Tuesday to another without always realizing what losses have transpired between them. The poems in Brand New Spacesuit pay homage to those losses while alerting us to the importance of what remains—and they do so with staggering fecundity and skill.

A typical Gallaher poem here (and there are more than 70 to choose from) unfurls as a masterful performance where the author’s incessant curiosity and heart are matched by an equally impressive technical accomplishment. As mentioned below, each poem possesses the kind of exploratory spirit one associates with jazz improvisation. This is not to say Gallaher forgoes revision, for these poems are as artfully shaped as a Brahms piano sonata; yet none of their original spontaneity has been sacrificed through successive alterations. The conversation below shows Gallaher to be as inquisitive and generous as his poems, a writer whose work navigates the lovely, absurd, and inscrutable world we share.

Tony Leuzzi (Rail): Congratulations on Brand New Spacesuit! It’s a remarkable achievement. The poems are dense, frequently verbose and exploratory, but the overall tone, while accommodating many shifts in mood and subject, is accessible, very readable. Clearly you put a lot of thought into your approach to these poems. Could you provide a little background on how the collection began to take shape? Were there, for instance, any guiding concepts and principles that you followed in amassing these poems for the collection?

John Gallaher: From your mouth to the poetry reading publics’ ears! Thank you. Yes, absolutely. Really, if there’s a premise, the premise is, more or less: what would it be like just to talk? What I mean is, I want language to approximate the kind of conversation one might have some evening, talking about real things, serious things, but not feeling especially dire, and the talking is happening just as one’s thinking about it, so that the thought and the expression of the thought are happening simultaneously. I love and crave those conversations, so I try to replicate them, or create some one-sided version of them, which is me talking with me, so there’s almost a back-and-forth quality to the phrases. I don’t have any idea if that is how anyone else experiences them. It’s the first time I’ve said it this way, that I know of.

The world is so filled with shouting and manufactured emotions! We’re surrounded, crowded in, by fabrications, the cheap fabrications of daily life that dull the senses. I want to write as directly as I can against that. A lot of poets have something like this as their project, to cleanse the language, to freshen the experience of living, so I’m not saying I’m blazing any new trails, but we each have our ways of going, of attempting some real moment. It’s a social act. The poem goes out into the world. Even so, a lot of poetry feels writerly to me, which is fine, I like a lot of those poems, but it’s not what I’m after as a writer. Maybe, if I had to describe it in these terms, I would call my poetry “readerly,” at least that’s what I’m after. I use bits of real, overheard language, incorporating that into the poems, as well as paraphrases of what I’m reading, etc., so, though the hope is that what comes out is conversational, there’s also, I know, going to be something of a meandering quality to it. When I’m writing, I tend to panic and throw in everything I can grab. My current idea is, if I ever get the chance to put out a selected poems, I’m going to name it MORE COWBELL.

Rail: After spending some time with the new book, I am struck by how relentless the poems are: relentless in their structure (usually full one-page poems with long lines and no stanza breaks); relentless in their ironic yet serious fixation on an abiding coexistence of hilarity and devastation, mystery and mundanity, wonder and boredom; relentless in their discursive armor against the inevitable silences that undergird them; and relentless in their refusal to be politely contained despite their nearly uniform appearance. Have you ever considered relentlessness to be a part of your world view or aesthetic?

Gallaher: I really love the idea of throwing yourself at it, whatever the “it” happens to be. All in! The kitchen sink approach. So, yes, restraint has never been the way anyone has described my work. I admire subtlety, but I’ve never been able to pull it off. So instead, I kind of just say “grrr!,” and start throwing things. Living is complex, surrounded by an amazing amount of mess, and for me, I find it difficult not to include that. Even as I try to focus, to focus on a question, an artistic research question, all these other things, they also cry out as being part of what’s going on, what kind of thinking this is, and they make these demands. There are so many great poets out there who can make sense of it all, or at least one aspect of the sense of it all, but that’s not really me. I tend to be more like some poor soul in a wind tunnel as the sadistic game show host blows money through it, and I’m to grab as much as I can, only they’re also blowing wrenches and oranges through as well. I’m going to miss so much when I finally step out of the wind tunnel, it’s like I just want as much as I can while I’m still here, in it. I see as much value, as experience, in the wrenches and oranges. In fact, I’m eating an orange right now, it’s why I included oranges in this wind tunnel metaphor. And it’s a good orange. That also means something.

Rail: Would it be more accurate to say the relentlessness I sensed from the poems is a result of your acceptance of the world as relentless? That, in this way, your poems are testimonials about the complex, minutiae-laden business of living?  

Gallaher: That’s a much better way to say it! Ignore what I said and pretend I said this instead. 

Rail: In the opening poem, “The New Formality,” you write: “There are no things here but in the ideas / of things.” Clearly an against William Carlos Williams sentiment, but I see it also as a salute to Wallace Stevens via John Ashbery. In fact, these poems, which are filled with ideas and things, seem like the kin of mid-period Ashbery and James Tate à la Return to the City of White Donkeys (2004). What’s your take on Ashbery and Tate and, more importantly, what, if any, influence have they exerted upon the poems in Brand New Spacesuit

Gallaher: John Ashbery has meant at least as much to me as any other poet. I see, though, something of a different Ashbery than the way I mostly hear people talk of his work. He said once, back in the ’70s, that his poems mirror thinking, or a kind of thinking, the way the mind works, with a light, surreal touch. Something like that. And I love his work, and I love that idea, though I don’t really see his work proceeding that way, at least his poetry doesn’t match how I think. It’s more, in my reading, a play of wit through dreaming. Topical, lucid dreaming maybe.

That brings up two questions: One, how is his work proceeding then? And two, what might poetry look like that mirrors thinking. First, as a lover of his work, I dive into it almost as one might dive into ritual practice or a lake in summer, just to exist with it, to swim in it. Then I take from this experience a mandate to also try to mirror thinking, so I practice, I try to do all of my thinking on the page, and that anything I’m thinking as I’m writing might be part of whatever it is I’m writing. I want to include as much of the interior narration of how my thinking operates as I can, which often goes awry. That’s fine too. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Thinking itself, actual human thinking, isn’t a one-way of doing things economy. I’ve recently read that some people don’t have an internal narrator, that instead they have some sort of filing cabinet, or one of those wall charts you see in detective movies, with push pins and string. I have a hard time imagining how that kind of thinking, or internal processing, would work.

So that’s me talking about Ashbery! It’s probably best that I didn’t become a literary scholar. But the rest of the question, I’ve the same response: there’s this way that artists produce what they’re doing, and there’s this way they have of talking about what they’re doing that I usually don’t see so much. I love the modernists. I specifically love Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens. One thing that especially struck me was the Imagist Manifesto, and the idea of “the direct treatment of the thing.” And, of course, all we’re really treating when we’re writing is language, so one could go the postmodernist route and directly treat language and maybe be a language poet (many of whom I also love reading), or you could go more with the spirit of the idea, as the modernists did. I’d really like to have my cake and eat it too, this cake that keeps reappearing (which, as well, could, after a few slices turn into a whole new form of monotony, etc., so that, as well, has to be moderated). Stevens and Williams both use versions of the phrase “No ideas but in things,” and I wanted to start off the book with that idea, and my twist became “no things but in ideas.”

I could easily talk about Tate as well, or Mary Ruefle, Rae Armantrout, and others. These are all writers I turn to often.

Rail: One of the most intelligent critiques of his work came from the late Rane Arroyo who wrote, “I think John Ashbery is one of the great comedy writers of our time, one that understands the many ways to feast on darkness.” I mention this because the ways in which you have internalized his (and Tate’s and Ruefle’s and Armantrout’s) procedures and made them your own also includes your embrace of the absurd and the comical, a world in which “bayonets and office parties” (“Brand New Spacesuit”) share proximity and where “day three… [has] gone out for peanuts and hasn’t yet completed its travel forms” (“Addenda to Your Emergency Evacuation Plan”). Your poems in Brand New Spacesuit capture the absurd yet ultimately logical relationships between seemingly disparate things—and in fact “thing” and “it” also figure prominently in the poems’ tidal outpours. Where is my question? Perhaps I’ll quote you: “[O]ne could sit and ponder the big questions and come up with simple insights” (“When We Say ‘Cause’ We Only Go Back So Far”). What are some big questions driving the poems in Brand New Spacesuit? How would you explain your attempts to address them?

Gallaher: First, I love the distinction here that you make, regarding Ashbery, through Arroyo, using the word absurd rather than surreal. Not that you were choosing between them (or maybe you were I don’t know!), but that’s a huge distinction for me. I’ve admired the poetry of Surrealism for a long time, but I’ve never been able to inhabit that space as a writer. I feel all dressed-up funny, like getting “costume party” and “cocktail party” confused. Instead, I’ve found the absurd to be something that I naturally fit into. Beckett is a favorite. It’s funny! It’s tragedy, absolutely, but in performance it’s a comedy. If there was a big question, one I could say without just saying “AAAAAAAAAAH!” it would be that. Then, just because life is absurd, that doesn’t exonerate behavior. One must still act, because action, and people—those we love, those we’ve never met—we must interact with ethically, we must strive to do good. But, you know, also: absurdity. That’s also a solace, at least of a sort, how in one of the poems I thought about it directly, at my mother’s funeral, and was able to make a joke about it to my brother. The next step is to not let that be the end of it, so in another poem I talk about a friend of mine who was contemplating asking his dying father about his stance on the absurdity of life, and decided against it. Because absurdity can also be a torture, like how “yay cake” can quickly become “too much cake,” and can then become a form of quicksand from out of which you must extricate yourself.

Rail: You’re a visual artist as well as a poet. Collage appears to be one of your favorite mediums, both in writing and visual art. Your self-made cover art for Brand New Spacesuit is quirky yet troubling. The image of the man dressed in a spacesuit on top of a suburban home says a lot about alienation but also about discovery, about the exotic and wondrous to be found amidst the mundane. Or, as you say in “Sugarbomb,” “bright yellow houses full of the smell of coffee and rainforests.” But when I look at the cover I also see Chagall, his green-faced violinist standing on a small home in a quiet, unpeopled Belarusian settlement. That violinist is not only the music maker whose string work enlivens the village; he is a kind of shaman who is sensitive to energies no one else considers or sees. I’m wondering how much your arms-akimbo spaceman on the cover is also a being in touch with two worlds, and if his adventures beyond (the beyond of the mind?) enable him to bring back to the rest of us new ideas or greater understanding of ourselves.

Gallaher: I love, as I say above, conceptions of things. Conceptions of things are how we make meaning. I also don’t like diving too deep into any one of them on a daily basis. In other words, the internet was made for me. I adore rabbit holes, bite-sized philosophy, way leading on to way. I understand that might make me look facile! I’ll stress then, that I do have books that I read cover to cover, that I live into and experience fully, to which I return. It’s the pull between the two that keeps me going. There are many rooms in this one house. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to say. We each have to find our way in, knowing we’re finding our way into the same thing, and we have to find the room we’re most comfortable in, but also, it’s fun to walk the halls, to browse, tour, stroll.

Context is important to me. For me, that’s part of the allure of collage. It allows me to re-contextualize, and that is a kind of hopefulness. Making collage, using mechanically reproduced images (magazines, etc.), doesn’t destroy anything. There are still plenty of copies of my spaceman out there (I cut him from a copy of Horizon magazine from the late 1960s), but now there are one-time-only new copies of him out here, doing new things. I think of it as a kind of afterlife, a heaven of images. “The Heaven of Images” appeals to me.

I think the same way about words, and the images words make, but talking about it becomes unwieldy and abstract, so maybe it’s better to just say that language, in its many unique manifestations, also has a new life in new combinations, which we’ve known since day two of language. I especially like reading and repurposing journalism and the kind of language found on Wikipedia, the way, when cut from its context, it becomes suggestive. Today I became enthralled by escalators, for instance, and, when I googled “escalators,” this sentence popped up: “The escalator began, however, as a form of amusement rather than a practical mode of transportation.” Now I’m excited, especially by that “however.” I’ve no idea what the sentence was referring to with its “however,” but I’m looking forward to what it might mean, what it could mean.

Rail: I'm glad to hear that the internet fuels your imagination in such productive ways. You say, “I adore rabbit holes, and bite-sized philosophy… I especially like reading and repurposing journalism and the kind of language found on Wikipedia.” While using the internet in this way to jumpstart or scaffold poems is not unique, you foreground the technique—and I think you do it better than many others using similar techniques. How do you think what we used to call “Information Super Highway” and social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have enabled you to more effectively build poems that speak to your temperament? How might you have satisfied your yen for rabbit hole, bite-sized philosophy and repurposed journalism had you not had access to the internet?

Gallaher: I used to adore the Facebook-status-update genre, before Facebook became what it is now. They sounded like setups for poems, or stories or stand-up comedy: pithy little two liners, establishing character, setting up a narrative situation, and then often some quirky question or picture of food. It was inspirational, in the sense of presentation and evasion, what we show, how we present ourselves, disclose or hide what’s really going on inside our lives, our heads. It’s not very often that way anymore. It’s more like a rack of brochures in a hotel lobby, advertisements, and political slogans. Those all have their benefits, but I regret the losses. I’ve always been a browser, so when the internet came along, and you would access it through this thing called a browser, I was like, “Hey, not a problem, I’ve got this.”

When I was young, I enjoyed flipping channels on the TV, letting the flipping be my watching experience. It’s John Berger’s critique of image culture. In his foundational TV series, and then book, called Ways of Seeing (1972), he presented this channel-flipping as something of a warning, at least it felt that way. I see that, flipping from horror, something devastating on the news, people screaming and running, to people dressed as a pack of playing cards screaming in joy at winning a barbecue grill on a game show… so there you go. The critique is almost quaint now, looking back. But what is that experience? How do we navigate it, as it’s now unavoidable? We live there. And suddenly Gertrude Stein or John Ashbery seem a lot more directly descriptive of daily life than they maybe once did.

Rail: The flip side of instant information access is automation and impersonalization. In “View of the Accident from the Center of the Accident,” you write: “My favorite / new explanation of life is that we're living in a computer simulation, / so hello computer simulation, as everything is data, from DNA / to fantasy football.” It’s hard not to read these lines without hearing them ironically.

Gallaher: There was a time, not that long ago, when the more important information was, the more you had to work for it. You’d have to travel for it, at least to a library, but often further, the county seat, libraries in other cities. Now, the more important information is, the easier it is to access. This is a massive informational shift, and it has brought with it a lot of baggage, because there’s just so much of it, and raw data needs to be contextualized, to be situated, explained. It’s in this contextualizing and explaining where our new information culture has let us down. We’re all already in the rabbit hole, because we’re the rabbit.

This doesn’t sound like an answer to your question! Let me try to reel it back. The computer simulation theory in my poems is another version of the other minds problem. On the one hand, ideas like this stress me out. On the other hand, I find them interesting, like panpsychism, the idea that everything has a conscious element to it. Both these ideas sound absurd. But then, if one is going to refute them, one comes across the problems that brought those ideas into the conversation, such as, how does consciousness, your consciousness, form inside you from all the unconscious elements you’re made of? Now those weird ideas sound a little less absurd, maybe. They also make a kind of music to me. What I’m saying is there’s a tension between the glaze of all this stuff coming at us and the importance of making a meaningful life, which isn’t a very original idea. How are we to survive these overwhelming distractions? Most answers are to find ways to escape them. Well, there’s no escaping them. So here we are. Maybe though, we can find better questions.

Rail: Through DNA data you were recently able to reconnect with your birth mother and meet your brother. That is intense, life-changing stuff. With the exception “Blast Off!,” the poems from Brand New Spacesuit appear to have been written in advance of that reunion; however, some of the impetus behind finding that lost part of your life seems connected in spirit to the wonderful opening lines of “Addenda to Your Emergency Evacuation Plan,” in which you say: “When one has spent a long time away, coming back doesn’t happen /all at once.”

Gallaher: Yes, I do talk about it directly in the poem “Blast Off!” which was a late addition to the book. I really wanted to sneak a little of it in, my DNA / birth family / adoption journey, so, in consultation with Peter Conners (publisher and editor at BOA, who was a tremendous help in forming the final version of the book), we withdrew a couple poems and got this one in. The manuscript I’m working on now, My Life in Brutalist Architecture, deals directly with this, and the first poem of the series, I’ve included in Brand New Spacesuit. I like the idea of these books, all of my books, really, calling back and forth to each other.

It was an important time and left me with a lot to think about. I’ve always known I was adopted, and that, because of the within-the-family nature of the adoption, on my family tree, I am my own second-cousin. But also, because of various events and plot twists, I didn’t know my birth mother’s name, and no one else knew, or would let themselves remember. I also had my birth name wrong, and my birth father’s name wrong, but close, but wrong enough to not be able to come up with much through research. All that changed a few years ago, and then last year was a year of answers and meetings. I’d gotten used to not knowing, and thinking that’s what my story was going to be. Now I have to get used to this new narrative. My world got bigger, and made more sense, piece by piece. Not all the pieces fit well. And when I get to the bottom of the box, I’m sure there will be missing pieces still, but it’s a lot richer and more complete than it was a few years ago, and for that I’m thankful.

Rail: In addition to “Blast Off!,” there are a number of other autobiographical poems in Brand New Spacesuit: poems about your father and his failing health; poems about your son and his imaginative play; and there is also “For the Asking,” a poem that begins with a conversation between you and your father-in-law about cancer and ends with a startling hypothetical in which one takes a “trip to the attic to find that box / of old family videotapes …only to find / they've rotten, but you find your grandparents sitting there / by the window in the half light. And they ask you to stay.” Your work balances generous interplay between personal and hypothetical stories. Could you talk about what it means to employ both in the service of your poems?

Gallaher: It’s something I found a number of years ago that became my last book, In a Landscape (2014). For pretty much everything I wrote up to that time, around 2010 or so, I inhabited the imagination, the hypotheticals that could come from imagining scenarios, and then, around 2010, I wondered what might happen if I dropped it all, everything I’d done and thought about writing, and tried just talking.

In one way, the poet David Antin is a great example. I’ve loved his talk poems for years. He’d just show up at a specified time and place, but instead of giving a reading, he’d just start talking, no books, no script, nothing. I love the energy of that. But also Mary Ruefle, though she doesn’t use direct autobiography, at least not as a rule, the way she just seems to hit the go button and rolls with it in a delightful, conversational voice. I just adore that. It makes me feel less alone. Maybe somewhere between those two motivations is where I aim. To try to fit somewhere in there, I just wrote down whatever came to me next, and, looking up, I’d see the yard out the window, the left side of my neighbor’s house, and hear my daughter, Natalie, nearing high school graduation, Facetiming someone, and giving some happy yell at them, and in a John Cage kind of way, the idea that everything that happens around a performance is the performance, I thought, “Sure, that’s all part of this thought I’m having about whatever.” There’s also, currently, a live album from the singer Aimee Mann playing, because I always have music playing.

If I was to make a theory out of it, I guess I’d say that, since I’m trying for some kind of conversation with the reader (even as it’s only a one-sided affair), the idea of tossing in anecdotes, names, dates, what’s happening, is what happens in conversations, so in it goes. It’s what causes someone to talk back, to say, “Yes, the same thing happened to me,” or, “Let me tell you about my dog too,” or whatever. I really like those moments when someone reads something I’ve written and responds with a story. Absolutely! That’s the response I want: more stories. 

Rail: We've talked a lot so far about the book as a whole, but I’d like to dip down into a specific poem to get a clearer sense of how you travel through a poem as you create it. The poem is “Each Thing Going on Is Several Things Going On” and the initial three-and-a-quarter lines read as such:

Your loved ones die so you eat their brains. It’s a sign of respect.
That’s one way. In the US, we send cards that we buy
at a grocery store. But what can you do? We’re creatures
of our moment…

The startling juxtaposition that opens the poem culminates in a semi-ironic shrug. By the beginning of the fourth line it seems the poem is going to be about ways we celebrate our dead but, pivoting on the idea of “creatures of our moment” you immediately shift discussion to a Holocaust “game,” where two Jewish people observe non-Jews and decide who would have turned them in. In just five lines, then, through a handful of surprising yet logical maneuvers, the poem branches in unexpected ways. Further associational movement steers the poem into even wider fields: current political and police practices; dystopian moments in sci-fi films; carrying your son to bed—all of this leads to the realization that “We never know.” Outside of the context of the poem, such a conclusion might seem as trite or dismissive as “What can you do?” but within the poem both responses feel profound and inevitable. What may you offer in way of background about this poem? Could you shed some insight into how you built this poem and, if relevant, how those procedures proved useful elsewhere?

Gallaher: I’m hesitating in answering this, as I’m ambivalent towards how to go about it. Things I write tend to include their backgrounds, I think. And yet, I get what you mean. Things I write, like things we all write, have unsaid backgrounds, moments. It’s just, in one way, the background spreads out in a kind of infinite regress, and in another, there is no background, what is, is.

First, then, a confession. I do no planning before beginning to write a poem, other than starting with a title (though in revision the titles sometimes change). I do, however, keep a notebook within which I jot down things I find interesting, that I’ve thought, read, or heard. In the case of this poem, the title came from my reaction to someone saying “This is what’s really going on,” and I thought about that phrase, that revision someone was trying to make of someone else’s conception of what was going on. For me, both things were going on, and so this is the way I made the note. I remember that much well. The initial sentence about eating brains came from a newscast about that, which turns out to be very unhealthy, and doctors were trying to dissuade people somewhere from doing that, but they were running into difficulty, as this was ritual, cultural practice. I responded with what contemporary ritual we have for that situation. After making my little shift, I didn’t want this to turn into a list, so rather than follow cultural rituals down that path, I remembered the story I heard or read once of this couple and their “Observe Non-Jews” ritual. It was shocking when I first heard it, and it made quite an impression on me. It’s such a devastating conversation to have, and I completely see why someone would do it. It’s a form of remembering, a form of self-care. The rest of the poem proceeded from there, running the thought out, turning it over, and looking at the future, my son’s future, as he’s just starting out down his long road of cultural and personal rituals.

And I want to stress that even though I think about this poem now in this way, it might not have actually happened like that. If I kept better notes, I could go back and look at the first draft, and maybe find something as I’ve described, but maybe I’d find something quite different, and what I’m remembering now as the process of the poem is really the process of revising and editing over a number of years. It’s that idea we have about starting out, that when you first walk out into the world, field, city, whatever, life, you see numerous avenues you could go down, but later when you look behind you, where you’ve been follows a direct line to now. So that now, looking back, I see that line, but in the composition, the actual thinking, I was juggling numerous possible paths and associations. Or not. [Laughs]

Rail: Thank you for that explanation. I am a bit surprised you do little-to-no planning before writing a poem and begin by riffing on a title, because your poems feel carefully orchestrated. And yet I’m not entirely surprised because the language feels spontaneous. I’m thinking about jazz improvisation. Specifically some of Keith Jarrett’s solo piano recordings that were recorded in one take. Like you, he often began a long solo performance with the germ of an idea and depended on his chops, nerve, and melodic sensibilities to carry him through. Like Jarrett (or Hill or Hines or Jamal, etc.), you appear to work intuitively, but what kind of practice or warm ups, if any, are required for you to achieve the kind of spontaneous facility that allows you to move in such a way?

Gallaher: It’s a great analogy. It’s all one thing, the art impulse. All that really changes is what instrument one chooses. Jazz, especially, is something I think about a lot in a similar way to how you’re phrasing it. Perhaps the more direct musical analogy might be John Cage, with his reliance on chance operation, but for my taste he was a little more wedded to the process, he made absolute formal rules out of chance operations. So we’re back to jazz! I think of the bebop era mostly: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, they’re great examples of what we’re talking about. Coltrane’s take on “My Favorite Things” is instructive. We’ve the thematic return. That’s important. But we also have, in Miles Davis’s words, “playing what the day presents.” That’s very much how I think about the composition process. You have your theme, and then you have your variations. The wider you can get your variations and still resolve to the theme, the better, as more territory now exists in the song. But then, sometimes if the theme itself breaks, that might be best of all! Neil Young, who was heavily influenced by Coltrane, speaking of himself as an electric guitar player, thought about it similarly, talking about more skilled guitar players, how they will play amazing figures within the form, all the way to the edge, the wall of training or standards, or even good taste. He likes to go directly through the wall. That’s just great. I love that.

Rail: To continue with the improvisation analogy, how much revision happens after the initial flow?

Gallaher: From what I said, it might seem like I pile up all this mental whatever and then BOOM, out pops a poem! It’s really not like that at all. I was simply speaking of the composition process, not the full process. So, yes, I go through the arc of associations, memories, thoughts, until I get to something that feels summative. That’s draft one. Then, for the rest of the existence of the poem, until it’s published or discarded, I read through it, and when I come to something that doesn’t feel right, I imagine where it could go instead. I think that’s what most people do? I do massive revisions to what I write over time. Two writers I’ve collaborated with, G.C. Waldrep and Kristina Marie Darling, both of them are much more assured with what they make than I am. Or at least, that’s how it feels to me. When we’d revise together, their revisions were much more of a honing, while mine would be dumping three quarters of the poem and putting a whole new thing in there. I hope I didn’t frustrate them too much. I know I did at least a little.

I tend to revise in the way I write, which is associative, and with a little hint of chance. I love opening my notebook at random, coming down on a phrase, and seeing if I can fit it into whatever I’m writing or revising. My hope, my idea, is that the culture might help me, the operations of living, might hand me what the poem needs. Often it’s terrible. But when it works, it’s better, smarter, than I am. That’s the moment I chase.

Rail: By your own admission, you have learned a lot from Stevens, Ashbery, Tate, Ruefle, et al. At the same time, your poems, unlike most of theirs, feel more fully rooted in the zeitgeist of the 21st century, in what it means to navigate the absurd and often confusing socio-cultural landscape of present-day America. You allude to the ephemeral more directly than most. While I believe your work transcends the here-and-now, how do you think someone reading your work, say, 30 years from now might react to it? How might your poems resonate when removed from their immediate cultural context?

Gallaher: Well, I’ll be 85 then, so I hope whatever they say, they’re respectful of their elders. Maybe it’ll be like looking at old pictures? I don’t know. I’m really hoping we have a world in 30 years in which the question might exist. But it does get me thinking about how art shifts, changes, grows, evaporates over time. At some point we’re all as if we were never here. All ripples resolve, the question is when. I’m okay with that. Maybe, at 85, I’ll be writing about the ephemera of 2050. I took one of those internet tests recently that’s supposed to predict your death from a series of questions, and I got Sunday, March 12th, 2051, so I’ll be pretty close to not needing to have much of an opinion on such things by then.

In a different way, though, my thinking about this question gets at something fundamental about living a life. Why do we do anything? What’s our goal? Our long-term goal? The question arises, “how do you want to be remembered?” And the truth is, we’re not remembered for very long. So I want to aim for something other than that, maybe just to know one’s helped things along during one’s brief window of being a part of things, no matter what they do. We’re all gardeners in that way, and the garden won’t ripen until after we’re gone. We have to grow ourselves into being okay with that, and get back to work.

Rail: Well, this has been a truly exciting interview. As we wrap up, I’m wondering if you have anything else you want to say about Brand New Spacesuit, something I didn't really provide you the opportunity to discuss.

Gallaher: You’ve been so helpful to me, getting me to talk and think about things I usually just leave internal. I don’t talk to people much about this stuff. It’s mostly just the falling apart nature of our age. But we have to keep doing what we do. So thank you.  

The only thing to add would be that, as we mentioned earlier, I touch on my adoption and birth family a bit in this book, and I’m now attempting to deal directly with that, to carry that one idea through a full manuscript. A few of those poems are starting to come out in magazines this year. I’m not sure if that’s going to work or not, or if I’ll have to abandon the idea, so this might be the only time I mention it. I’d say “stay tuned,” but, you know, we’re talking about a book that, if it comes out, would be years away. The publishing world is slow, which used to frustrate me, but now I like it, somewhat. It gives a manuscript time to grow accustomed to itself.

Contributor

Tony Leuzzi

TONY LEUZZI is an author. His books include the poetry collections Radiant Losses, The Burning Door, and Meditation Archipelago, as well as Passwords Primeval, a collection of his interviews with twenty American poets.

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The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

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