Welcome to “Behind the Byline,” the column in which we share conversations with our current NER writers in all genres. Poetry editor Rick Barot spoke recently with poet John Gallaher, author of “Addenda to Your Emergency Evacuation Plan,” which appears our current issue, NER 36.3.
RB: When I first read “Addenda to Your Emergency Evacuation Plan,” I thought of it as a “near-elegy.” There’s grief in the poem, but it’s not the grief of death, it’s the grief of seeing frailty in others. Can you talk about how the poem came about?
JG: Sure. I’d just spent a couple weeks in Texas as my father went from a heart attack, being dead for a bit, to the very beginning of recovery. When I got home to Missouri, there was this “shock of the normal” moment that I was having a difficult time readjusting to. The poem was my attempt to put that experience I was having into language while still in the experience. The first thought I had when thinking about this, was that line from The Princess Bride, “Mostly dead is slightly alive.” https://youtu.be/xbE8E1ez97M
RB: In the first line of “Addenda,” I hear an echo of Galway Kinnell’s poem “When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone.” This made me wonder who has influenced your work. Who are your poetry heroes?
JG: I love that book by Kinnell! So much so that I once wanted to title a book When One Has Lived Too Long Among Other People, but settled for using it as a poem title. The poets I go back to the most are John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Rae Armantrout. There’s a comforting closeness that each of them has that makes me feel I’m sitting with them. A lot of poets strive for intimacy, but the kind of intimacy I find in these three is often a kind of dailiness, and I like that. It’s like sitting over coffee with them, like sitting over coffee and just being there.
RB: You’re a big music aficionado. What new music should we be listening to this fall and winter?
JG: My favorite topic! 2015 is a pretty good year for new music. What I’m enjoying a lot are the new albums from Courtney Barnett, Destroyer, and Giant Sand. Courtney Barnett especially has that quality to her phrasing and lyrics that gives one the feeling that she’s just talking to you, in a kind of “let me tell you about this thing that happened to me” way that is captivating. Destroyer (Dan Bejar), as well, has a similar, off the cuff way of singing that he uses in more associational ways that are to me equally effective. And Giant Sand is Howe Gelb, who’s been making albums since the ’80s. He’s an underground (or near underground) genius. I love everything he touches. Here’s a performance by Courtney Barnett (and she’s wearing a Bill Murray t-shirt!): https://youtu.be/QJdnurMDe0g
RB: Your poems are often characterized by a rangy, conversational, associative quality. What is the process of composition like for you?
JG: I’d characterize it, I guess, as rangy, conversational, and associative! I work from notes, and then just kind of talk about them. I don’t want my poems to feel written. I revise a lot, though, so the “just talk about them” aspect is a little more constructed than if I were really just talking about them, but it still starts out that way. And then I see what happens. Sometimes not much happens.
John Gallaher is the author of five books of poetry, including Your Father on the Train of Ghosts (with G. C. Waldrep, BOA, 2011) and In a Landscape (BOA, 2014), as well as two chapbooks and two edited collections. He co-edits the Akron Series in Poetics and the Laurel Review. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Poetry, Boston Review, Chicago Review, and elsewhere.