Friday, September 22, 2017

Scripted Interview with Poet John Gallaher on "IN A LANDSCAPE"

Chris Rice Cooper 

Scripted Interview with Poet John Gallaher on His Poetry Collection In A Landscape
The Unadorned Nonfiction In Verse

The date you first started writing In A Landscape and the date In A Landscape was completed?
August 25th, 2009 – January 6th, 2010.  I’m guessing.  But it was something like that. 

Can you describe in great detail the step by step process of writing In A Landscape from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final book form?
This book came about through several things happening at the same time.  First, I had just come off a long collaborative project and wanted to do something very different.  I happened to be re-reading John Cage’s book SILENCE at that time, and I had just recently watched a
Pitchfork Classic documentary on the making of The Flaming Lips album The Soft Bulletin, where Wayne Coyne talks about moving away from making things up in his lyrics to just saying what he thought about things.  The Coyne and the Cage went together nicely in my mind, and I decided to try just talking, without thinking what it was leading to. 

I had about an hour every morning in the fall of 2009, before waking the family up for work and school, and I had a little writing ritual I would follow.  I would put on the album In a Landscape, a collection of compositions by John Cage with Stephen Drury on piano.  Then I would ask myself a question and try to answer it without making anything up.  Whatever “without making anything up” might mean. 

That was how I specifically started section one, and I then used the chance elements of how section one turned out, to become something of a blueprint for the rest of the book; how each section usually starts off with something like a general question; how each section is three thick stanzas; how the middle stanza is often unfiltered autobiography.  “Unfiltered autobiography” is as close as I can come to naming the process right now.  Maybe tomorrow I’d name it something else.  But what I mean is that I was consciously trying to not make a poem.  I wasn’t thinking about craft or coherence so much as I was really just turning over ideas and experiences, to see what I thought of them.  People have called this book a “diary-poem,” a “daybook,” “essay-poem.”  I was just trying to think some things over.  I’d recently seen the video (it was everywhere for a time) of Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” at Carnegie Mellon, and I think a lot of the issues he brought up were still with me. 

As for its form, the book is poetry, it looks like poetry (the lines break!), but yet, it doesn’t do a lot of the things poems usually do.  The “just talking” aspect of the book works against things such as central unity, resolution, and a narrative or formal arc.  I think it helps to hybridize the description.  If one were to come to the poem thinking only “here’s a poem!” that would probably still work fine, but thinking “here’s a shot at non-fiction in verse” might help situate the reading a little more.  I guess I’m just uncomfortable with myself maybe.  I feel very, well, present in this book.  Unadorned, maybe.  There’s not much to hide behind in this book.  It’s all pretty much right there: what I really think about things, what I’ve been through.  And some of it’s slight and some of it’s uncomfortable.  Calling it non-fiction or something makes me feel I have this other genre to help me out, that I can call to for support.  It’s probably just a game I’m playing with myself, but it’s working so far. 

But in a larger context, I’ve written the way I have for years from out of the idea that, as Robert Lowell (right, at the Harvard Bookshop in the 1960s. CCbySA3.0) says, “I wanted to make something imagined, not recalled.”  And to recall, to place memory and my experience to the front like this, that made me very uncomfortable.  All my life I’ve had problems with authority, both as someone living under authority, and being seen in any way as an authority figure.  I am suspicious of closed, or final, authoritative meaning, as well as the authoritative voice.  But at some point I want (or I need) to say things, to name what I believe.  This book is part of that struggle. 

Can you describe the publishing process of In A Landscape?
There’s not much to say about this, really.  The individual sections that were published, were published with the title “In a Landscape” followed by the section number.  As for the book, I was already under contract with BOA from the book I co-wrote with G.C. Waldrep, Your Father On the Train of Ghosts.  BOA had right of first refusal on my next manuscript, and I sent them this one and, bless them, they took it.  It was a gamble on their part, as it’s not an easy book to classify or describe, and I will forever be grateful for their support. 

Excerpt from In A Landscape given copyright privilege by John Gallaher

“Are you happy?”  That’s a good place to start, or maybe,
“Do you think you’re happy?” with its more negative
tone.  Sometimes you’re walking, sometimes falling. That’s part
of the problem too, but not all of the problem.  Flowers out the window
or on the windowsill, and so someone brought flowers.
We spend a long time interested in which way the car would
best go in the driveway.  Is that the beginning of an answer?
Some way to say who we are?

Well, it brings us up to now, at any rate, as the limitations
of structure, which is the way we need for it to be.  Invent some muses
and invoke them, or save them for the yard, some animus
to get us going.  And what was it Michael said yesterday?  That
the committee to do all these good things has an agenda to do all these
other things as well, that we decide are less good in our estimation,
so then we have this difficulty.  It just gets to you sometimes.  We have
a table of red apples and a table of green apples, and someone asks you
about apples, but that’s too general, you think, as you’ve made
several distinctions to get to this place of two tables, two colors.
How can that be an answer to anything? Or we can play the forgetting game,
How, for twenty years, my mother would answer for her forgetfulness
by saying it was Old-Timer’s Disease, until she forgot that too.

On the television, a truck passes left to right, in stereo.  Outside,
a garbage truck passes right to left.  They intersect.  And so the world continues
around two corners.  The table gets turned over, with several people
standing around seemingly not sure of what comes next.  Look at them
politely as you can, they’re beginners too.  And they say the right question
is far more difficult to get to than the right answer.  It sounds good,
anyway, in the way other people’s lives are a form of distance, something
you can look at, like landscape, until your own starts to look that way
as well.  Looking back at the alternatives, we never had children
or we had more children.  And what were their names?  As the living room parts
into halls and ridges, where we spend the afternoon imagining a plant,
a filing cabinet or two . . . because some of these questions
you have with others, and some you have only with yourself.

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