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Discrete incisions

 

Poet and visual artist John Gallaher meditates on making identity and history through his life in and as collage

Haines Eason: You are a father, professor, poet and, perhaps to the surprise of some out there, a maker of collages—a visual artist. Would you talk me through the visual side of your creative nature? When did you begin making collages? Who or what inspired you to try the form? What other mediums may have inspired you?

John Gallaher: I think of the artistic impulse as independent of the product or the form it takes. That’s perhaps a bit airy of a way to say it. Let me try it another way. I get bored with doing only one thing, as most of us do. So we mix things up. And I like to mix things up by moving away from poetry now and then.

When I first went to college, it was to an advertising art program, and though I didn’t stay long, that and music (I was in a band for a few years) were, I guess, ways that I participated in art before poetry. That’s not really true, though, now that I’m thinking of it, as I was always writing things down. Oh who knows. It’s all a mish-mash.

 

I feel strongly, though, that it’s important for people to do different things. In sports it would be cross-training, or a conversation about one’s off-season sport. I guess I’d call collage and music my “off-season sports." It’s one of the things I encourage others to do as well, to do something else other than write poetry, and to go all-in. And then, of course, to come back to poetry. It could be gardening or coaching soccer or whatever. I think it brings a freshness and clarity of vision back to the poetry. That’s the hope. And also it might turn out the other way, the secondary art (or other endeavor) might turn primary. That would be great, too.

 

 

HE: I’m intrigued by the mention of your time in a band. Can you take us further into that side of your life? Tell me more about your band, and tell me more about the artists you admire. Something about your collages to me screams The Beatles, but maybe I’m off?

 

JG: The Beatles were first. I was born in 1965, Jan. 6, and The Beatles were still dominant on the radio all through my elementary school years. It was impossible to keep out of my DNA even if I had wanted to, but why keep that out? They were great. John Lennon was my favorite, and his was the solo career I followed most closely, though of course, Paul McCartney (and Wings) were also impossible to avoid in those years. Lennon’s approach to lyrics—especially in songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and the whole group’s approach to structure, the collage, suite structure, were unlike most other things going on.

 

In the end, they were more popular than I like. There’s a beauty to the less-popular artist that I’ve always been drawn to, so bands like Mott the Hoople, The Replacements, Galaxie 500, Luna, Cracker, Mazzy Star, those sorts of bands—along with singer-songwriters like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell—those are the ones I identified with more directly.

 

So in the mid-80s, when I was in a band, it was always going to be something of a disaster. I still have a few songs on Soundcloud that I recorded with a friend, Brian Bonhomme, in 2003, and others, demos really, I recorded at home since then: soundcloud.com/jjgallaher. I’m restless, I guess.

۞

 

_______________________________

 

So you can see where this is going. My birth certificate says I was born of John and Pat Gallaher. I wasn’t, but I was, legally, when I was four. That knowledge has stuck with me all my life, that these relationships, entanglements, are in language. We go through what we go through, but, in the end, whatever happens becomes what we say about it. We’re all collage.
 

 

_______________________________

۞
 

HE: Talk to me about work-life balance. To my mind, collaging would take an extraordinary amount of work. Collecting materials, layering materials, taking the time to muse and reflect on the process... Perhaps quite a bit of time planning the process? How do you fit this endeavor in with your teaching and writing and family lives?

 

JG: It’s true, there are only so many things one can do in a day. But making a collage is, in a daily practice way, the easiest thing I’ve been able to fold into a day of other things. I have a table in the front room of the house that I work at which keeps me in the thick of the family action. I don’t mind interruptions really in anything I do. I think I rather like interruptions. So I walk away. I’ll keep a collage open as long as I can, often a month or more, before gluing it down. It’s a pretty slow process, but easy in that way, as long as no one bumps the table. It’s a pretty solid table.

 

I’ve grown to rather relish this long process. It helps me continually visualize the various collage elements, people in a landscape, and I want them to relate to each other, and for me that’s a long process.

 

HE: If you'll allow it, I'd like to get a little personal. I have In a Landscape on my mind as it's the last book of yours I have read. I found “IX” powerful for its intimacy. I am speaking to the last stanza, where you or your speaker delves into being adopted and mediates on his first father, his second father... “IX” begins with a waitress asking "What would you like?" and effects a meditation on getting what one wants and whether we as a species really remember anything, whether desired or not. Do the specifics I've outlined here tie back to your poetics or theories of art making?

 

JG: Sure! Yeah, maybe a little background on that book is in order. 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. So, specifically to your question, yes, this is my story, and also yes, I think this ties back to my poetics or theory of art.

 

Similar to having something like my collage table now, in the fall of 2009, I had about an hour every morning, 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, or formal device, 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 nonfiction 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 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 was part of that struggle.

 

I think it’s the same, generally, in making collages. You mention In a Landscape “IX,” and the subject of adoption. I’m adopted. It’s almost silly, it feels like, to even say this now that I’m in my 50s. But one’s status of having been adopted remains with one as a constant tapping on the shoulder. This reminder that you will always be collected, cut from, pasted in.

 

So you can see where this is going. My birth certificate says I was born of John and Pat Gallaher. I wasn’t, but I was, legally, when I was four. That knowledge has stuck with me all my life, that these relationships, entanglements, are in language. We go through what we go through, but, in the end, whatever happens becomes what we say about it. We’re all collage.

 

It’s been my compositional practice in writing all along. Bits and pieces here and there, seeing how they fit. I’ve used magazines and books textually for years, but I only used the pictures as a kind of pre-writing exercise, never bothering to affix them. Now, I’ve decided to keep them, make them more permanent.

 

“Permanent” is a pretty loaded phrase, and kind of laughable, but there it is anyway. Paper is fragile. Glue rots. Sun is the enemy of ink. So my guess is these collages will last a few years and then, in some way or another, dissolve.

 

When putting a collage together, I think narratively. I want to give these figures a kind of story, a plausible life or counter-life, as most of the images I use are from old magazines and books, where most of the people pictured are likely dead. But here, in this context, they get one more story. Maybe it’s a kind of afterlife I’m imagining, in the way the final scene of The Shining reveals the caretaker (Jack Nicholson) in a new/old context. I like this idea very much.

۞

_______________________________

 


 

About living and life itself, I’ve not much of a clue. Making jokes helps. Especially bad jokes. I sometimes think of my poetry that way, as stand up comedy gone awry, set-ups for punchlines that don’t happen. That might be a loss, as well, but I think of it as honesty.

_______________________________
 

۞

HE: You say “we’re all collage,” but I have to ask you to go further with that. What about collage making makes that statement ring true for you? The completeness of each component as it comes to the composition? Are you arguing our experiences are retained in as crisp a form as are the cut components that make a collage? I get the implied idea that we are the sum of our experiences, maybe a little more than the sum, but a symphony is also a summing of experiences. Can you elaborate?

 

JG: I love this question! I have this terrible tendency to get carried away by an idea, and sometimes I get a little overly carried away. I think of all the things I’ve done, art things as well as life things, and for me, looking at them, there’s a bit of intention, but it comes from the random bits of whatever’s around. As I said, I was adopted, so at four I found myself dropped into a new context, and really that’s all of us in all contexts, no matter how much planning we think we’re doing. We’re at the mercy of the random elements of the day. But there’s a lot of space for intention as well. It’s probably why I’ve never written a novel. I’m not much for plot.

 

In collage, the books I cut from are a fairly random occurrence—whatever I happen to find—but when I’m in there and cutting, I’m looking for what might fit next. For me, that feels a lot like how I go through writing poetry or go through life. The idea never comes first, or not until I first come across something, and then I build from that. Specifically, I work from notes when writing poetry, and I flip through [my notes], incorporating lines from [them] into what I’m writing, to see what might fit. I like that approach as it really is a chance-operation kind of thinking that’s going on, where my own thinking is more in the organization of what’s happening than in the thinking itself. More conductor, I guess, than musician. That’s not a great analogy.

 

In life, I had a few years of being Eric Enquist and then I was John Gallaher. Maybe it’s a personal disposition, stemming from that, this “life as collage." A slight dissociation perhaps. Things just kind of accrue mostly, in my experience. I’m imagining us all as snowballs rolling down the mountain. Most recently it’s been being a father. That’s not something one can really prepare or plan for. You just have to make it up as you go along. We’re doing this interview while you’re going through that as well, being a brand new father. Does any of this make sense in that context?

 

HE: It totally makes sense. Every day I rebuild myself impartially out of the fragments of myself left over from the night before, and the “whole self” I thought I was before my son arrived seems pretty abstract and distant only a handful of weeks into this endeavor. Wholeness in general at the moment seems like a pretty comical idea. And then there’s the “loss” (of self, of autonomy) a remote observer who’s not a parent might fear were they to become one… It’s not to be feared at all though, parenting. Neither is breaking, falling apart. It’s all opportunity, wouldn’t you say? Even as we fragment, we find—at least I find—a collection of new whole selves in the chaos. Suits, possibilities. Maybe I’m describing a fun house mirror? I don’t know what the analogous sense experience would be. What do you think of all this?

 

JG: I think you have to love the mess—or maybe that’s more “accept” the mess—I think that’s how I’d define opportunity, at least in art, or actually, maybe in life as well, now that I’m thinking about it. I’ve not thought about it in quite this way before. For me, this opportunity (loss of self or loss of autonomy) means to write about everything that happens, and whatever happens has a value by the fact of it happening, and as part of that, to allow the day itself to speak (overheard conversations, news reports, TV, etc). To trust that and see where it goes. About living and life itself, I’ve not much of a clue. Making jokes helps. Especially bad jokes. I sometimes think of my poetry that way, as stand up comedy gone awry, set-ups for punchlines that don’t happen. That might be a loss, as well, but I think of it as honesty.

 

One thing I do know, it’s necessary for all of us who write to keep writing, to keep doing what we do with language in the face of the pressures language is under from cultural and political spheres. That’s the way I’d make the “necessary” argument, when people say it’s necessary to make art in fraught times, but it’s not specifically the way I think while writing. While writing, it’s more “what can come next that does no violence to truth and reality?” That’s probably not it either, as it’s phrased in the negative, and I feel positive, that I’m making a positive step when writing, or making art in general. But there is a battle I feel I’m entering into, a very specific battle between the reductive essentialisms of discourse and the iffy bits, the side-alleys, the whims and stray thoughts of thinking, that such discourse elides. I want to un-elide the iffy bits, to foreground them and force us to consider the messy totality of the human language and behavioral endeavor.

 

HE: When you look into the word elide, you are in for a real journey. The definition itself is contradictory: on the one hand, in speaking, to elide means to omit. On the other, when referring to ideas or things, perhaps, the meaning flips: to elide is to merge. One source I found said “smear,” instead, which I like for our purposes here—there is no smearing in collage! Or is there? The older dictionaries do not seem to give credence to the latter meaning, but that usage seems to nonetheless be gaining steam. What say you to all this?

 

JG: Exactly! Now we’re in a good place to begin making art.

John Gallaher's forthcoming collection is Brand New Spacesuit (BOA 2020). He's the author of, most recently, In a Landscape (BOA 2014). He lives in rural Missouri and is the co-editor of The Laurel Review

Read three poems by John Gallaher in Bear Review 5.1.