There’s never been much money in interviewing poets. And it takes time to familiarize oneself with their work to such an extent that one can talk about it with the author. But there used to be a kind of cultural capital, it seems to me, in interview poets that’s no longer there. True or not, that feels kind of right to me, so we interview ourselves. But do we ask the hard questions? And do we give ourselves straight answers? It’s with these thoughts in mind that I sat down with John Gallaher. John Gallaher was born in Portland as Eric Enquist, in 1965. He’s the author of five books, most recently In a Landscape (BOA 2014). This interview was conducted in his home in Maryville, Missouri in October, 2014.
Eric Enquist: Why this interview, in this way?
John Gallaher: Well, I don’t know really. It started as a joke. A kind of Gertrude Stein self-interview, but then the idea of talking with Eric Martin Enquist (though I thought it was Lynn Martin Enquist until last year) seemed kind of nice in a way. I’ve often wondered what would have happened to Eric Enquist if I’d kept that name, which I imagine is a common thought for people who’ve been adopted and had their name changed. This seems kind of like some inexpensive therapy that I can go through in public, which is always the best space for therapy, I’ve heard. So here we are. Hi, Eric.
EE: Hi, John. And since you brought it up, being adopted is something you talk about several times in your new book, In a Landscape. Do you think it figures into your approach to poetry generally, other than as direct subject matter?
JG: I have tons of theories on this subject. We all feel, at least sometimes, like we’re dislocated. But for adopted people, it’s actual. We are dislocated. And that can be a very good thing, don’t get me wrong. People are adopted for very good reasons, helpful, healthy reasons. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’ve been plucked from their context and dropped into this other context. Now you’re this thing. When I was adopted, I called my adoptive parents New Mommy and New Daddy for a time. I had speech problems. I hid a lot. I got used to my new name. I forgot the old one. I went to speech therapy.
All this is to say that postmodernism, when it came along as a theory or way to describe the world, felt very natural to me. All these theoretical descriptions of the world being inscribed and inscribing felt very real to me. It felt like a true description of my life. My birth certificate was changed, you know? I was now born of John and Pat Gallaher in Portland, Oregon, while they were living in Houston, Texas.
People can say surrealism isn’t realism, but it feels pretty real to me. Maybe not Surrealism, with a capital S, but at the very least the absurd.
EE: Do you ever wish your name was still Eric, if it ever was?
JG: Oh, I don’t know. Not really. Truth is, like a lot of people, I don’t really feel like my name, but I don’t really feel much like any other name either. Then again, that’s not something I think about much. Mostly we go about our daily activities, right? These big questions just kind of skitter in and out. I don’t sleep all that well, though. But a lot of people don’t sleep all that well.
EE: So about little s surrealism and the absurd, In a Landscape, was going to be the book where people didn’t compare you to John Ashbery, and already they’re comparing you to John Ashbery. What went wrong?
JG: Ha! Everything. All the time. Meeting John Ashbery was my brush with greatness. It’s one of my favorite stories. I got to meet John Ashbery! Because he’s been a literary hero of mine since the 80s, when I first encountered his work. You see, he, for whatever reason, spoke to me. The variability and beauty of his drifting syntax and images . . . the meandering thoughts, they all matched the way I see the world. And I still see the world that way. So, yeah, I’m a card-carrying member of that way of seeing things. And my first few books, especially the second, third, and the collaborative (with G.C. Waldrep) fourth, all participate in an Ashberyian sensibility. I see that.
But then, with this new book, at first I didn’t even know what I was writing, I just wanted to talk, to say real, un-made-up things. I thought at the time that it was very not Ashberyian, that maybe it was more like Robert Lowell maybe, from Life Studies, or like Cole Swensen’s Gravesend, or A.R. Ammons . . . but not Ashbery. But then now it’s done and people are saying to me (there haven’t been any reviews yet, so maybe I’ll write one) that it has an Ashberyian wandering thought to thought thing going on, despite the fact that it’s non-fiction.
EE: Right. You’ve said that at first you didn’t want to call this book poetry. You were calling it non-fiction. Why did you decide to go with poetry in the end?
JG: Well, we’re all mostly fiction, in the way that Eric Enquist is fiction, or John Gallaher is fiction, but yeah, I was wanting it to be non-fiction. The blurb on Amazon.com for the book describes it as “Falling somewhere between a ‘diary-poem,’ a ‘daybook,’ ‘autobiography-in-verse,’ and an ‘essay-poem.’” Thinking of this, calling it “poetry,” at first, seemed to me to be setting up the wrong sort of expectations.
EE: Do you ever worry that in writing “only true things” that you’re getting them wrong?
JG: Constantly. But “getting things right” and writing “only true things” are not necessarily the same thing, right? It’s a stance, a goal. The fact that it’s impossible or unattainable isn’t a reason not to adopt it. This book is just me talking. Maybe I’m talking to my kids. I think that’s kind of how it started, wanting to record where I was, how things were going. Something I could give to my kids when they’re older.
I really like a quote from Miles Davis I remember hearing, maybe on 60 Minutes or something, where he had no setlist, that he was planning on playing “whatever the day presented.” YES! I’d love to wave that banner.
EE: There’s a lot of interest in this sort of writing right now, this kind of maximal non-fiction, as evidenced by the popularity of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Have you read it? Do you feel any kinship with his work?
JG: Yeah. I’ve read the first two books. They’re kind of amazing, aren’t they? Love them or loathe them or don’t care either way, but they’re really going for it. I wish my book had come out first. Because now, if anyone mentions my book, it’ll be at least in part in the context created by Knausgaard. Knausgaard is the 1,000 pound gorilla. My Struggle is casting a large shadow. It’ll probably swallow my little book whole.
EE: What are you hoping for in writing this way?
JG: Probably all the usual small things we all hope for. I hope a lot of people read it. I want people to say things like, “this isn’t so special; anyone can just sit down and write what they think of things” and then to do it, maybe. Write back to me. Write The Book of Enquist, but tell me real things. I want to know you and I want you to know me. I want all the impossible things we all want. I want not to feel alone. I want to feel like we all belong. That there’s hope for us. The planet.
EE: As well as noting things like your revisions, you often talk about writing the book in the book itself. Why did you include these bits? They seem rather obsessive.
JG: I hated the fact that as I was trying to be all truthful and such, that some of the thinking was happening off the page, like to change a section, or to put two sections together . . . so I felt this need, when I thought the changes were large enough to matter (not just a grammar change or a change in phrasing—though these matter as well) that I would talk about it too, that it also belonged to the poem, that thinking.
I like all those directives about writing that poets have come out with over the years, all the “no ideas but in things” and “writing in the language of real people” and “all the thinking should be in the poem” and “poems are made of words not ideas” and on and on. But there’s a flip side to each one. I honor these thoughts, but I also want to nod to the fact that there’s always going to be a time when the most universally agreed upon directive about writing is going to be wrong. For instance, when we quote Mallarmé as saying “My dear Degas, poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made out of words,” there’s this little voice inside of me that says “ideas can also be a kind of music.” Poems are made out of ideas. No matter how we try not to, if we try not to, they’ll be there anyway. The only real directive is Be Interesting, and even that one is violated constantly.
EE: In a Landscape is comprised of sections that are usually three stanzas long. Why this form?
JG: It kind of plays against all this stuff I’ve been saying about “just talking,” doesn’t it? That there does seem to be something of a form to it. It started from section one. I wrote it thinking I was going to write maybe five or so sections and that would be it. The first section fell into three stanzas, with just the barest trace of a form, in my mind at least. I thought it was a bit like a sonnet. The first stanza would set up a problem or an idea. The second stanza would apply it to evidence, usually a story or something that was happening that day. Finally, the third stanza would be the synthesis.
On the first day, while writing, I was listening to a CD of John Cage compositions, titled In a Landscape, so that became my title. I was also re-reading Cage’s SILENCE, and thinking about how he constructed the book, as well as his chance-driven formal operations, so when I started to write the second section (it probably didn’t happen this quickly, it might have been several sections in before I realized) I kept to the three stanza, loose volta form. Michael Theune is very good on this subject, the idea of the turn in poetry.
EE: About John Cage. He shows up several times in In a Landscape, including once in something your daughter says about ghosts, as well as an epigraph on empathy. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you something about Cage. As well as the fact that as much as you felt you were moving away from Ashbery with this book, he also figures in as well, in quotation as well as epigraph, as do Wallace Stevens and Rae Armantrout.
JG: Well, whatever I was thinking had to get tossed in, and those are some of the poets I think about a lot. I would write a section a day, usually. Sometimes I’d skip a day, sometimes I’d write more than one. So I was always desperate to find something to say. A bit of Armantrout would come to me. Or a bit of Cage. There really was no program. If I were writing In a Landscape today, there would be a lot in it about soccer, as I’m now helping with the teams my kids are on.
EE: So you’re not using these poets to help position the book in a context?
JG: Not in any way I could spell out. It’s just what was happening. Mostly it’s a book about me trying to process where I fit into things. Where I fit in with people. So I thought about high school a lot. And people I know who have died or gotten sick. And to ask myself if I’m happy and if I’ve been a good person.
EE: Are you? Have you?
JG: Time is always changing such notions. And we mostly just continue on, you know? One of the things about poetry that kind of annoys me now and then is being at a poetry reading, and sometimes, now and then, what a poet will say between poems is more interesting to me than the poems themselves. The poet will give some background or tell a story or pose some large question or goal, and that just feels so much more human and fragile than what the poem ends up being. So I wanted that. I wanted to try to write the middle bits, and questions of being good or happy or whatever are what happens there, in our day-to-day negotiations.
I remember talking with a friend once a few years ago about poems, and I was complaining about some poems I’d come across that were heightened, making big declarations about big events. Poetry has an obligation to do that, if that’s what happens, but there are also all these little events. The joke is that these are First World problems, but, as Neil Young says, in “On the Beach,” “Although my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away.” There’s also value in that.
EE: You mention Neil Young several times in In a landscape, and other musicians appear, from The Beatles to Neko Case and Wayne Coyne. What is the importance of music to your book?
JG: It’s important to the book because it’s important to me. I spend a lot more time listening to music than I do any other activity, because it’s always running in the background. Even when I’m listening to music just to hear the music, I’m still doing something else. Looking out a window or whatever. Music is always a part of something else. And, as I was listening to John Cage while writing, and sitting there by the front window of our house, other music would come to mind, along with memories of times and places, other half-imagined things. The landscape is inscribed with all of this in equal measures. In my mind John Ashbery and Neil Young are sitting there talking about the farm. It’s all one song.
None of this is more or less important. It’s all important. Being adopted is important. Thinking about language. Having children. Actually, I’d say, if I were to pick something as the most important influence on my writing, I’d say it’s having children. Suddenly what I might write mattered to me differently. It’s hard to put into words, but everything changed. Maybe it’s because they look like me. Being adopted, no one in my family really looked like me. Then suddenly biology class all made sense or something. It’s small-minded of me, but family felt like a choice before my kids were born. I always felt like my parents might give me back or something. You know, the adoptee panic dream.
EE: So, what are you working on now?
JG: I was really into the dailiness of writing In a Landscape, and really hated leaving it behind. I even complain about it near the end of the book, my kind of mourning having to stop. So I decided to write a book called (DETAIL), in which I was going to—in my mind, right—explode some small moment either from the book or from other events and stories from my life in individual poems, to try to encapsulate moments rather than expand on them. Each poem was going to be called “(Detail).” I got twenty or thirty poems in before I decided to drop the whole “(Detail)” business and just let them be whatever they individually were, with regular poem titles. I just got lonely for writing titles. For a while they were hybridized as “(Detail):___________” but not anymore. I guess I could go back.
EE: You teach at a regional state university in rural Missouri, that you talk about some in In a Landscape. How does place inform this book and your work in general? Do you think place is important for poetry?
JG: Yes. It’s fundamentally important to all of us, where we are. It’s our context. But I’ve found a lot of things people have written about “poetry of place” to not draw me in. It’s just where I am. I’ve been other places in the past. Now I’m here. I don’t know. I don’t have much more to say about it. I live in a small town, and I hear small towns are dying, that rural communities are dying. They’ve been dying a long time. Maybe they’ll come back at some point. I’m ambivalent about the value of living in a small town. It’s not all heartland and real America. It’s also complicated, like any other community.
EE: You often talk of yourself as a B-lister. Why?
JG: Oh, I just say that because sometimes I think I’m funny. One of the best things about poetry I’ve read was from an interview with Mark Strand, where he said, in reference to being asked about his popularity, that, to the culture at large, all poets are losers.
I wish that weren’t the case, because there’s a lot of value to find in poetry. Books like Cole Swensen’s Gravesend, that I mentioned earlier. She did something really cool with a kind of investigative poet approach to a town. It’s a step, a new step in what the art can do with place and story. I simply loved it. And there are books like this every year. They should be talked about in USA Today. We should all know these people. And we all know a few, but there are very few shared books of poetry, even among poets. I wish the world were more like my living room. I also really liked Guardians of the Galaxy. But I also really liked Alfred Starr Hamilton’s A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind. That would be a culture I could really get behind.
EE: So how’s an interview like this supposed to end? Thank you? Any last thoughts?
JG: It’s been weird. But kind of fun. And maybe I do wish my name was Eric now and then.
Eric Enquist was born outside Portland on January 6th, 1965 of Lynn Martin Enquist and Patricia Gorman Enquist. They soon split up. Lynn Enquist died in 1968 in a car wreck. Patricia Enquist remarried sometime after that. At least that's the story. Eric was adopted in 1968 and his name was changed to John Gallaher.
John Gallaher is the author of five books, most recently Your Father on the Train of Ghosts (with GC Waldrep) and In a Landscape, both from BOA Editions. He the co-editor ofThe Akron Series in Poetics and The Laurel Review, and the collection Time Is a Toy: The Selected Poems of Michael Benedikt.