John Gallaher talks decidedly non-musical poetry, being both Bambi and Superman, and asking oneself “Why now?” with assistant managing editor Chase Cate.

John Gallaher is the author of six collections of poetry, including the forthcoming My Life in Brutalist Architecture (Four Way Books 2024); two coauthored poetry collections, one with G.C. Waldrep, Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, and one with Kristina Marie Darling, Ghost/Landscape; and two coedited collections. He teaches at Northwest Missouri State University and coedits the Laurel Review.

Chase Cate: I’d like to talk about your new book, My Life in Brutalist Architecture, that you graciously gave me the opportunity to read, which I really appreciate. It was incredibly beautiful and following this very important and central narrative arc about your adoption, and I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about the process of writing it and why you think it took you so long to be able to tell that story. 

John Gallaher: That’s a great question, and thank you for reading it. I’m sorry that the copy I gave you had to be a super, super pre-press copy. I didn’t even have a PDF from the publisher at that time, as we’re still a ways off from the publication date, but advance copies are starting to come in now.  

So, part of the question was “why now,” and that part of the question I’ve thought about a lot. Why now? When I was writing in the eighties and nineties, a lot of the writers that I still admire the most, John Ashbery and so many others, like Jorie Graham, weren’t directly content autobiographical. What I mean is, there was still some distance between the speaker and the poet. At least there was enough distance to still speak of a “speaker.” And there were elements one could assume were from the writer’s life, but they were more writing out of that subject position than toward it. Something like that?  

Now, in the last fifteen years, it has become much more common, much more popular, for the speaker and the poet to be much closer, much harder to split apart. And it’s not that in the past I avoided the content that’s in this book, but I think I have a very difficult relationship with content, and in the past avoided its direct telling. Maybe that’s a better way to say it. And for me, in a poem, I prefer “thinking about things” to “telling a story.” That’s more my home base: not my story. But as the things that were happening in my life, DNA testing, finding my birth mother, and the things I was thinking about, identity, inheritance, kept getting closer and closer to my content, I saw that this book pretty much would be circling my subject position. And out of that circling, I’ve ended up here.  

I’ve never written a book with a narrative arc before. None of my other work is like that, but it is all personal. If I was going to say that there was a type of poetry or poets that were the closest to me that I admire the most, that I read the most, it would be the first and second generation New York School poets. Writers like Ashbery and O’Hara, but also the second generation of Alice Notley and Bernadette Mayer, etc. Those writers use their stories, but they use their stories in a different way than the more usual “I have a story, let me tell you.” It’s more associative than that. That’s my very clumsy and circuitous way to say why this book happened the way it has.  

CC: That makes a lot of sense. I think you can really feel the pushing and pulling to and from narrative that is happening in the book in the closing in and distancing from this. There is something that the speaker is trying to approach but can’t. 

JG: There is. There is zero distance from me and the speaker in this book. It is kind of a thing I’ve been doing for a while, which is “nonfiction poetry.” Which I find creates an interesting formal constraint, because so much of the way I wrote for years, and was brought up writing, had a lot of distance, imagination, flights out and such. But when stepping into this zone, the “don’t make things up” zone, especially when telling a story like this, if I am saying something about my birth mother, I had to approach things differently. It would be a violation to “make things up.” So it had to be nonfiction. So the speaker is me, I don’t even know if it’s a heightened version of me or not. I don’t even really think it’s necessarily all that artful of a voice. But, as it’s still me, there are tangents, and associative leaps. Which is, unfortunately, in a lot of circumstances, also the way I tend to speak, which makes ordering at restaurants interesting.  

CC: I think the part of the book that feels really curious to me, or the part that I am really fascinated by, is the pieces that feel, not imaginative or untruthful, but speculative in the way that they bring a sense of uncertainty. Meaning there’s this investigation that’s happening about the meaning of home, about the nature of origin, about what it means to name something, and about how all those things come together to locate and construct some self. And the speaker feels, or you feel, uncertain about those things at certain points in the text. I wonder if you could speak to that complication of naming and locating the self. 

JG: Thank you so much for that. It’s weird, you know, here’s this book that is so self-exposing, but the truth is, I don’t really like to talk about myself. At least I feel I don’t. Other people might say I talk about myself constantly.  

Being adopted at the age of three, I knew—I always knew—that I was adopted, but at the same time, I could have been convinced that I wasn’t, you know what I mean? Like how you can convince a kid of something? But I always knew something was off, not quite right. And like I say in the book, I forgot my birth name, and I forgot my life before being adopted, but I always knew I was adopted. So there was this blank space, and in the blank space, adopted or dislocated people put imagination.  

All this is to say, it’s complicated. What I’m getting at, is that names always have felt false to me because when I was adopted they changed my name to John, and not just John, but John Junior. So I’m actually named after my adoptive father, and “juniored,” and then also, my birth certificate changed, which is what they would do (still do, I’m sure) with adoptions. So my legal birth records show that I am the child of the Gallahers, and my name is John Gallaher, three years before I met them. There’s this dislocation in time and space.  

What happens in adoptions, or at least did in my case, is that I was born in Portland, Oregon, while my adoptive parents were living in Houston, Texas, and I flew to meet them three years later, as the book says early on, and I know all this, but I don’t remember it. And so being adopted manifests post-modernism, in that way.  

But what comes out of all those ideas mixing is: what is it to name something? What does a name mean? And then trying to put it into these legal and lived contexts. In one of the poems, I talk about this idea that some people have religiously, that when you die there’s someone there to meet you. And when you show up, they speak your name. And so, in the poem, it asks what name would they speak to an adopted person that an adopted person would remember or know? Especially for people who never knew their birth name. Who meets you, in that general fantasy idea of our deaths?  

CC: I am really curious about this dual concern between the naming and being able to refer to something and how that maps itself onto the body in the text. I think it’s also very present. And I am curious how that complication about naming maps onto the experience of one’s own body in the book. 

JG: Sure. I feel a deep sympathy for anyone who has a lost or forgotten or erased name. The adoptive community is one version of that, this idea of carrying a hidden, second name with you. Some people later in life, depending on what their experiences have been, change their names or go back to a name. So there is this transitory nature of a name. What is the name that becomes the self and what is the name that one doesn’t have control over? I am very curious about these issues and how they play out in different communities in different ways. In the adoptive community it happens, generally, in this kind of way, especially for people who don’t know anything and never find anything out about their birth. So for them, it’s a forever black hole, a forever empty space. 

So then of course that’s where literature and Hollywood and all this other stuff comes into it, the kinds of things the movies do with adopted people, and the idea of not just naming but also just kind of experiencing, and how the adoptive experience becomes a narrative beginner. You know, you become Superman, but when adopted people see movies like that you can see how that plays, watching yourself become a trope over and over again. It’s just such an easy way to get a narrative going right? You dislocate a human, you abandon them someplace. And for an adopted person watching something like that, I mean, I can only speak for myself, but I become Bambi, I become Superman. It can become a dangerous fantasy.  

So naming, I don’t know, it’s even naming when it comes to something like the word mother, you know: Who is your mother? Families are written into relationship by law rather than birth. So what I mean is, I was teaching a class one time years ago and we were reading a story about a father who was a stepfather. One of the students, when I was talking about the stepfather caring for his stepdaughter, and the future of the relationship, said “Well he could leave anytime; he’s not her real father.” And so I, as an adopted person, say, does that mean my adopted parents could have left anytime, because I’m not their real son? It’s like, well in what way? What is the way that it’s different? If you can write a relationship into existence in that way, you can be written out in that way. And so I was thinking about these things from the standpoint of someone who’s in that theoretical space, and it’s always been difficult for me, but it really came to the content level in the writing of this book, because all those issues come into play. They become literal.  

They come into play for an adopted person, when one has children oneself, because then you finally see someone who resembles you. And then, there’s the other move, of finding one’s birth story, parents, family. What is the relationship with all these elements of “the real”? Like which one is “the REAL real?” And of course that takes me back to postmodernism and the ideas of the real versus the simulacra. And this is coming at the time where people on TV are saying the universe is perhaps a simulation. Well, an adopted person will say, “Whatever, my whole life has been a simulation.” 

CC: Well I guess to stay on that question of naming, I am interested in how you settled on and how you thought about the title for this book. You are thinking about these poems as architectures, and not just as architectures but Brutalist architectures, and I am curious what you would say about how the content relates to that idea of architecture.  

JG: Absolutely. One of the earliest memories I have is Halloween, 1968. That’s why Casper keeps popping up in the book, because that’s one of my first memories of doing things as John Gallaher, when I was Casper the Friendly Ghost, and of course that played right into the ideas of who I am. I wore that costume a lot and really thought of myself as a ghost boy.  

But anyway, in one of my earliest post-adoption memories, we were living in an apartment, a high rise, and I was hiding, I thought I was being funny or something and hiding. And the sliding door to the balcony was open, and so my adopted parents though that I had maybe climbed over the fence and fallen off, and it was a long way down, you know, the high rise. And I don’t know if it was a Brutalist building, I doubt it, but it was that kind of industrial large apartment complex. And so my memories of it were always vivid, and I remember that kind of general architecture.  

There’s the concept of the Brutalist ideas, you know, not hiding its function, but it’s form revealing it. So I’ve always kind of liked that kind of architecture of exposed function. But then, when I was writing the book and not necessarily thinking of the title, but just thinking of the book itself, it occurred to me that it’s a very collaged book, and I’ve always thought of Brutalist architecture as looking like collage. But anyway, I was just thinking more and more about the architecture of the book, metaphorically speaking, and the question became more and more literal as I was writing, and so it actually became architectures.  

And of course Brutalist started as a pejorative, it’s “brutal,” but it’s also one that is under theoretical negotiation between those who think of it as the cold exclusionary, imposing, and those who look at it as a more warm, inviting, inexpensive architecture. These two ways are present, you can either look at it from the ground up, as the people, or you can be look as the top down, as the state imposing. So I really like that as well because that also kind of works with how I’ve always thought of the adopted experience, always being twofold, and so there are probably a myriad of twofold movements in the book, not just dichotomies, but “yes/and” or “yes/but.” 

 CC: That’s actually a great transition to what is probably my last question, which is about the tension between form and content. This is always present in some way, but there is a real tension between form and content in this text, where the content is so condensed and focused, and then the forms are very sprawling and open, almost prosaic. I am curious if you could speak to that tension and how you found this sort of prosaic sprawling from inside this question that you’re exploring. 

JG: I am not a very musical person. In real life I sing and play guitar and can write songs. I’m musical, but I not as a poet. There was someone I knew years ago, who said this kind of probably not really true thing, but they said there are two kinds of poets: poets of the line or poets of the sentence. And at the time I was like yeah, okay. I am not sure over time that that really holds up, but I knew immediately that my answer to that question was that I was a poet of the sentence. I’m a very prosy writer. And I even understand if people are going to complain about my poetry not being very musical and looking like chopped up prose. I am probably guilty of that, and that is probably something negative someone could say about my work. But I don’t write prose and then chop it up, you know, I write it with breaks, except that my lines are kind prose-like. And so I decided over time that I was just going to lean into that and let the from mirror that fact and not try to mask it with craft maneuvers or revision techniques that would sound more musical. So that conversational prose voice dominates, and I roll with it. And maybe for me, because of what I’m thinking about, it’s a natural thing. You can only do what you can do, really. Anything else at some point will feel fake. That’s probably the simplest way to say it.  

CC: It feels very interesting to me just because the language is under real pressure with all these questions about naming and about origin and yet it finds so much space.  

JG: Yeah, part of this was willed. The book before this, Brand New Spacesuit, was very dense and really looked like prose. It went from almost margin to margin and one big block. The idea, when writing those poems, was to find a length that I wanted my opening line to be and then to match that length with the last line of the poem. And then everything else would take those two as the margin line and try and stay within it, so that it naturally looked as much as possible like one block of text. I got into a place where that’s what I was doing, and it started coming naturally.  

In this book, I wanted to have things look different because over time what I was doing started to look really gray to me. Every page was filled and there was very little white space. I started to feel claustrophobic writing like that. So this book, because of much of what’s going on in it, is something that could become blocky and oppressive. I wanted to have more white space and I wanted to try to work against my natural inclinations of having that block.  

But, when the book was just about done, my dad died, and so that caused a revision, and made the book longer, as well. Unfortunately, you know, you don’t want to have an oppressively large book. I always felt that talking about adoption with my adoptive mom and dad was disrespectful to them. And if it did come up, the uncomfortable way they answered really gave me the impression that the less said, the better. Act like it doesn’t bother you, ignore it, that kind of thing. And so, because the death of my adoptive mother was the beginning of the book and my journey to understand my birth story, then, as I was finishing the book, having my adoptive father die, when my birth story starts with the death of my birth father, which was part of why the adoption turned out the way it did, changed things. The death of my adoptive father almost closes a door. And so that caused that last section to happen.  

Formally, there are a few poems in the final section that are two stanzas of fourteen lines, which is what I’m trying to work with now. Not really a double sonnet, but just looking like one. The ghost of form.   

Chase Cate is an MFA student in poetry at Colorado State University, where they serve as the assistant managing editor for Colorado Review. Their work is interested in the cosmic, the mundane, the moving, and the space between. Their poems and ramblings can be found in Defunkt Mag, Literary Forest, and Beyond Words.