For more than three decades, poet and prose writer James Galvin has remained a remarkably influential figure in American arts and letters. The author of eight award-winning volumes of poetry and two critically acclaimed books of prose (including The Meadow, a classic meditation on Mountain Western landscape and the people who inhabit it), Galvin has received fellowships and recognition from a chorus of major literary organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop for over thirty years, and he currently serves as a member of its permanent faculty and director of the poetry program.
I first met Galvin during my time as a graduate student in the Workshop, and his intelligence and pedagogy continue to shape my own work as a writer, educator, and publisher. Over the years, we have had a number of wide-ranging and vibrant conversations about the state of contemporary poetry, many of which occurred around his kitchen table in Wyoming, after long afternoons cutting wood and mending fence. To mark the publication of his affecting and contemplative new collection—Everything We Always Knew Was True, published by Copper Canyon Press in fall 2016—I sat down with Galvin for one such conversation, this time to discuss his history, his work, and his writing process. The interview that follows was conducted at his home in Iowa City.
Daniel Khalastchi: You grew up in northern Colorado, during which time you did everything from alpine rock and ice climbing, to construction and ranch work; you even apprenticed to be a luthier after attending Antioch College. How did you come to studying and writing poetry?
James Galvin: If you were a boy raised in post–World War II Mountain Western America, all you were expected to do was hunt and ride horses and be tough. You could go your whole youth and adolescence and no one was ever going to ask you to express yourself creatively—no one was ever going to ask you to write a poem, or paint. So when I went away to college, I met people who were sensitive, and creative, and talented, and smart. That was a revelation. I’d always read a lot, and when I first started to try and express myself in some creative way I was also studying Buddhism. I decided that I wanted to learn to see better, and I thought a good way to do that would be to take up photography. But after a while the camera started to come between me and seeing, so I tried to learn how to draw. I took a lot of art classes and art history classes and I got to where I could sort of draw, but I was really not very good. Late in my college career I decided to try to write poetry, and I was better at that than I was at drawing.
DK: So writing poetry wasn’t something you were doing all throughout college?
JG: No. I studied a lot of literature throughout high school and a lot of literature in college, but it wasn’t until my senior year that I ever took a workshop. And I don’t know if I could tell or if people told me that I was better at writing than I was at drawing, but either way I decided to pursue it. Around that time the girl I was dating got into the Writers’ Workshop. I was back in Colorado making guitars, working construction, and doing carpentry. It had never occurred to me to apply to graduate school. But when my girlfriend got in, I thought, “Well, you know, what the hell, let’s go see what Iowa City is all about.” I thought I might as well see if I could get in, though I doubted if I could; and they did let me in. Back then they let people into the Workshop mid-year—which we don’t do anymore—so I got accepted in January. They didn’t have any financial aid, so my first fellowship was pouring concrete in the Amanas, in the winter.
DK: So, nice and warm out there?
JG: It was rough. And I couldn’t afford to be a full-time student, so I signed up for a workshop, for one credit hour, which cost seventeen dollars. But because I only had one credit hour, I stayed at the Workshop for another two full years, and eventually they came up with some funding for me. Then I was just headed down the road.
DK: You mentioned earlier that photography offered you a “new way of seeing.” Something I’ve always been interested in when considering your work is how much attention is paid to the image, particularly through your renderings of landscapes. Since you were trying your hand at other forms of art before you committed yourself to poetry, what did you see in the ability of verse that other art forms couldn’t offer? What did poetry allow you to do that photography or drawing didn’t?
JG: Well, it gave me the same thing as an observer. Looking at paintings was very satisfying to me, and reading literature was, and so the arts always seemed irresistibly rich to me from a somatosensory, pleasure-oriented place. At the time I started writing, a lot of poetry from South America and Eastern Europe was just being translated into English for the first time. Much of it was surrealistic in texture. It was a new wave, and it was very imagistic (whether it was surreal or not). One of the nice things about images is that you don’t have to have any ideas; if you just stick to images, if you trust the images, ideas will adhere to them. So it seemed more interesting to me to write imagistically than to be expository or philosophical.
DK: That resistance to the expositional/philosophical is palpable in your work. In fact, your poems often present an “everyman’s” voice that is deceptively simple (even though rhythmically and structurally the pieces are quite complex). Was your decision to take on such a direct, no-nonsense voice a conscious choice? Was it related to the way people spoke out West and the reality you were trying to capture?
JG: I like the way people talk more than I like how they write, and there are a lot of deceptively simple ways poor people and country people speak. Translators have told me that my work is impossible to translate because it is so idiomatic. That wasn’t something I had to try to do. Robert Frost was always a favorite of mine, a poet who took the way people—often “plain people”—speak and rendered it in blank verse, the same line John Milton uses in Paradise Lost. That was very attractive to me, to try to capture human voices. I was also a student of Donald Justice, and I knew how much I needed to get educated about prosody and about the architecture of poetry, but I always wanted to maintain that voicey, spoken quality, and I didn’t want to sound like an Oxford don, and I didn’t want to sound like a French philosopher. I wanted to sound like people I knew, people that I grew up with, the people who I admired first and most.
DK: Was Donald Justice your first workshop instructor?
JG: Don was the first person I studied with after that initial semester; I took his forms class and his workshop and realized that I didn’t have a very well-developed understanding of what a poetic line is or what it could be. So while studying with Don, I actually began writing prose poems for a while, buying myself some time in which to learn at least some rudimentary idea of what a line could be, and I still haven’t given up on that pursuit.
DK: Well I’m happy you brought that up. If we look back at your first book—Imaginary Timber—roughly a quarter of that collection is fully detailed, beautifully written prose. When you came to the Workshop and started writing and studying with people like Don, did you receive any backlash from your stylistic choice to move away from the line? Did it appear avant-garde or radically different from what your peers were writing at the time?
JG: From what I recall, a lot of my peers were writing free verse, or some kind of grammatical parsing meter that focused on simple lines made of phrases, clauses, and short sentences. They were writing line breaks. I wanted to complicate it. Studying prosody with Don showed me just how much of a beginner I was in terms of the form of poetry, so I wrote the prose poems as a way of investigating the art without being a simpleton of form. I did have one instructor at the Workshop who told me that “the bathroom is the place of prose,” and he literally crumpled some prose poems I’d given him and threw them into my face. But Don himself would say the prose poem is an experiment that the French already took care of about one hundred years ago—I think Don has one prose poem in all of his work. I was really just trying to buy time to figure out some way to proceed in lines. But I also found that writing in prose—for mysterious, temperamental reasons that I couldn’t explain then or now—gave me permission to talk about things that writing in lines didn’t really let me do, and so writing about the landscape I grew up in and its inhabitants really started with those prose poems.
DK: So the form gave you a freedom you didn’t feel you had otherwise?
JG: Yes. And it’s a false freedom because it’s still poetry, but somehow I felt more permission. As time went on, I wrote fewer and fewer prose poems, but that material stayed with me and I started writing poems in lines that were about mountain landscape, mountain environment, the sky, the people who inhabit that landscape, and then I started inventing new forms to access it, which I think some people look at as a hybrid between prose and verse.
DK: I believe it’s in God’s Mistress, your second collection, where we see the hybrid form appear for the first time in your work. These poems use a “stair-step” movement across and down the page that feels both focused on a prose sensibility and yet open to white space and the power of line breaks. When you began writing these pieces, were you searching for new ways to investigate what the line could do? Did the pieces initially begin as prose poems that were later broken into lines, or were you aware of the need for increased structural complication from the onset?
JG: I don’t think they ever started out as prose poems. At the time, people were talking a lot about “projective verse” and not being slavishly justified to the left margin—ideas that I now think are slight. I came up with a very simple formal idea with complex possibilities. The only rule, really, after you set the right margin to a medium prose length position, is, after every period you just drop down a line, and then keep going. If the period coincides with the right margin, you scroll down two lines and return flush left. That’s it.
What happens is the “fatality” of the right margin “decides” the end words, so you can engage chance and get a lot of “weak” line endings, such as W.C. Williams might have enjoyed. Or you can write into the right margin (change words or syntax), and use it like rhyme, to access the potential expressiveness and heuristic value of formal rigor.
If you write a series of short sentences, you get a cascading effect, not unlike triadic stanzas, with a lot of little tag ends. Medium sentences produce more enjambment. Long sentences take on the appearance and texture of prose blocks. In later books I started getting interested in the ability of this form to accommodate another famously simple idea with famously complex implications: the iambic pentameter. In different poems I tried different rhythms and substitutions, trying to mix it up without losing the ghost of regularity. So there are two things going on: there’s the sentence, and the right-hand margin determining the lines—the sentence length determining the descent, the rate at which the poem descends the page—and then there’s also a lot of blank verse, that I guess I can say is secret because no one notices it.
DK: You’ve been using the word “fatality” to describe the structural impact of the right-hand margin. Considering the differences between what a person writes and how they present that writing, do you read these hybrid pieces differently than you do your other poems? There’s a lot of white space in these pieces—do you want that vastness to impact the way the reader engages with the text?
JG: No. I think—even when I write justified left—I read the sentences more than the lines. I don’t make dramatic pauses at the ends of lines. I just read the sentences. The white space is important, but it’s more of a visual effect than an aural one. If a line is rhythmic you’ll hear it even if it isn’t emphasized.
DK: So why the line breaks? Years ago, when I had you as a workshop instructor, you would often say, “Don’t break the line if you don’t know why you’re breaking the line.” The way you’ve explained your stair step/hybrid poems makes total sense, but in your other work, are you breaking the line based on meter?
JG: Yes. A lot of it’s in blank verse or accentual lines, not unlike a line you would find in Wallace Stevens’ “free verse.” It’s not slavishly a certain number of beats per line, but the poem will have either a two- or a three-beat center, and most of the lines will have that heartbeat. Some of the lines will be shorter and some will be longer—some a lot longer—but the poem keeps returning to a two- or a three-beat heartbeat. I’ve got some poems that I would say are accentual even though most other people would say that’s free verse. I try to avoid writing lines that are just a phrase, a clause, or a sentence. And I definitely don’t let my lines be determined by the word that’s on the end of them. I hate the idea of line breaks. I don’t write line breaks.
DK: So you’re writing toward...?
DK: And the rhythm and the music of them?
JG: Yes. And that’s very traditional. Whether it looks that way or not—like the poems we were talking about before, those hybrid/drop-down poems; those don’t look traditional but they are. It seems to me that there are certain things that we know work on us as readers, and there are certain things the art can do to us that we know works—it’s not an experiment. So a lot of the way I make lines is actually pretty old-fashioned.
DK: I often think of you as a writer whose work is full of heart (in terms of its striking emotional directness), something that is perhaps connected to—but not reliant upon—heartbeat (the structural precision you mentioned a moment ago). Though there are philosophical elements to your work, you aren’t a poet who hides behind philosophy or an impenetrable stylistic facade. You write straightforwardly about the world around you—the landscape, our social issues, love and loss—discussing things that immediately resonate with your readers even if the world you use as the backdrop for your poems differs greatly from what they are familiar with. When you write, how much are you thinking about the reader and about what will impact them?
JG: Not that much. I want to please myself. So I guess if I posit a reader that’s not just me, it is just me, only it’s not me in my life, it’s me in somebody else’s life. I posit a reader who likes the things I like, has read the things I’ve read, is moved by the things I’m moved by, interested in the things I’m interested in, it’s just not me. I can trust that person, but I also have to account for the fact that that person is not in my life. So there needs to be some telling. I would like to think that there are some ideas in my poems, but I would like to think that those ideas are sensualized, and that they work on the body. I did write one book that I addressed to my daughter.
DK: While there might be some expository flashes in your poems, the pieces never feel didactic or heavy-handed. Long before I had the chance to spend time with you out West, I felt deeply connected to the landscape you describe in your work even though I’d never been there. How has that landscape influenced your writing?
JG: Well I hope not. I think the Western landscape teaches us things. It’s extremely dramatic, and it can be extremely violent. Just the weather can be extreme, and so the lives of the people under that sky tend to be dramatic. But the culture is stoical. And so I’d like to think that landscape that I grew up in and the sky I grew up under and the vistas that I grew up trying to assimilate became somehow internalized in me. I would like to have, yes, drama, grandeur, but also an understatement and a stoicism in my work.
DK: Well, that’s your whole book Elements.
JG: I don’t remember that book.
DK: I mean, that whole book is the sky, wind, weather, and landscape in a way that (as you’re saying) never hits a reader over the head and yet proves impossible to escape. Which is how that sky is: oppressive—sometimes in the most beautiful way—and also incredibly dangerous. Is that drama alluring to you as a writer? Did you always feel drawn to write about it, or has it just become a part of you in a way you can’t avoid?
JG: That sky is dangerous. I know people who have frozen to death, not that far from my house. So yes, there is drama in it, and I think that when I finally started talking about that more explicitly it was in prose (like in The Meadow, where I started trying to demonstrate the ways in which the inhabitants of that landscape internalized that landscape). That vast, Western, mountain, big sky country is interior as well; it is a soul that people carry around with them and maybe the only way you can stand up to the drama and the dimension of what you look at every day is to internalize it.
DK: Did you ever worry—particularly with The Meadow—that the landscape you were writing about was too specific or too internalized by certain people to reach a larger audience?
JG: I was surprised that The Meadow got published because I thought it was too much about a very particular place and very particular people that no one would care about. I was surprised to find out it had more of a universal appeal than I had intended or known. But I’ve traveled to Italy a lot, too, and in Italy there’s an analog to the largeness and largess of the Western landscape, and that’s history. There has been more art created in Italy over time than in any other place on earth, so far as I know. Just the sense of—if you live in a house in a fifteenth-century hilltop town—how many people have died in that house? A lot.
DK: You clearly have a deep connection to the West—you grew up there, you spend your summers there, you have familial and personal connections there, and that seems to give you a broad authority to write about it. Recently, there has been a lot of talk regarding who has the right to write about something, and who can effectively speak on particular subjects; when you yourself are writing (or when you are talking to students about their writing) are there certain things you feel shouldn’t be written about? How does one avoid the pitfall of playing it so safe that we end up not writing about anything at all?
JG: We are always told in workshop to write about what we know. So I think that when I started out, I took that to heart and thought, well I’m certainly not going to try to write about something I don’t know anything about. I’ll just stay close to home and write about what I know. But then I realized I didn’t really know about what I thought I knew. In fact, any place—or any body of knowledge—is connected to mysteries that are beyond us. Now what I think is that what I’d like to write about is what I don’t know about what I know. And that’s what I would like my students to write about, too. If you tell me what you know, I’m going to be bored. If you tell me something you don’t know anything about, I’m going to be even more bored. But if you tell me something you don’t know about what you know, then I’m down. I think it was Jorge Luis Borges who said that “poetry is no less a mystery than anything else on earth.” So even if you try to write about something you know, if you’re open to it, and if you’re honest about it, it’s still going to be beyond you—it will be something you don’t know.
DK: In 2009 you published your seventh collection, As Is, a moving meditation on love and politics. At times, the book feels very much like a James Galvin book, and at other times it feels quite different. Some of the poems in that collection approach the subjects of war and government by using satire, a technique I’m not sure you deploy in your earlier work. Were you nervous to address what you didn’t know about what you knew in this manner, and did it take something specific to get you to start writing those poems?
JG: Yes. It took where we were as a country in history. It took eight years of George W. Bush, it took going to war in the wrong country (as if there was a right country to go to war in), it took the curtailment of our constitution and our freedoms, and all those things in fact did drive me for the first time to satire. I am not comfortable in a satirical mode. I don’t like it. It doesn’t feel good. But during those years when really terrible things were happening in the world, I couldn’t ignore it. I mean, am I not going to write about 9/11? Am I not going to write about Katrina? Am I not going to write about Iraq and Afghanistan? No—I felt like I had to acknowledge where we were in history, but I was also at that time in my life trying to be in love, and trying to learn how to value life in a time when history was mitigating against the possibility of valuing.
DK: You say you “couldn’t ignore” writing about what was going on in the world at the time, but there are many poets who did. Given the political climate we are currently facing, what do you say to writers who feel like they either don’t need to or don’t have the right to write about larger social concerns? Do we have a responsibility as poets to say something?
JG: In the early 2000s, I don’t know if people said they didn’t have the right to write about Iraq or our government, it was more that they preferred not to. And I had nothing to say about that. It’s a temperamental thing. I knew a lot of people during that decade who said, “You know, I just want to tell my stories and I want to make my images and I want to write my lines and I just want to write my poems about my love life or other things that are bothering me more, more personal things, and I just don’t want to write about that (the war, etc.).” Well, that’s fine. It’s a temperamental choice, possibly a philosophical choice, possibly a moral choice, but I have nothing to say about people who avoided writing about those subjects. I was uncomfortable writing about them, I’m still uncomfortable with those poems, and I’m glad now that I wrote them so I don’t have to write them anymore.
DK: Okay, so some people just want to tell their stories. Why do we go to poetry then? I happen to know you read a lot of fiction, and you started this conversation by saying you were interested in other art forms; what can poetry do that these other art forms can’t? Why do we go to poetry?
JG: This might seem like it’s contradicting what I just said, and maybe it is (which is fine) but maybe it’s not: I don’t think that art of any kind comes to us offering solutions, especially not political ones, but not even personal ones, not historical ones, not philosophical ones. Art comes to us offering nothing, whether it’s painting or music or poetry; all it offers is a quickening of the pulsations in our lives. It offers a heightened experience of experience. It offers a heightened awareness, it offers heightened emotions, it offers pleasures of all kinds, but no poem is ever going to stop a war, or start one. No painting is either. Poetry can’t change the world, but it can change how we see the world. When I wrote the poems that were in As Is, I felt like those were the things that were bothering me. Getting back to writing about what I don’t know about what I know—well, what I don’t know about what I know bothers me. And the anxiety of not knowing is what drives me to want to express myself or just to try to speak, to have permission to speak. It’s the anxiety of not knowing that I think drives most art. Sure there’s Milton. Milton knew (or thought he knew), but we don’t read Milton for his religion. Dante thought he knew, and if you’re a theologian maybe you do read Dante for his cosmology (it’s pretty good) and it actually touches on particle physics, so maybe we read Dante for his science. But really we read Dante and Milton (and Blake) for their poetry. Most poets—including Shakespeare—I think are driven by the anxiety of not knowing. There’s something about what they know that they don’t know, and that’s what you want to write about. So it’s the anxiety of not knowing that drives us to want to create. What did Shakespeare know? He knew a lot about jealousy, and envy, and gossip, and anger, but he didn’t have a vision of reality the way Dante, Blake, or Milton did. Most are driven by the anxiety of not knowing. And as for poetry compared to other arts? Here’s another contradiction: poetry has more ideas.
DK: You’ve been teaching for how long?
JG: Thirty-three years at Iowa. You add on Humboldt and you add on Murray State, it’s probably more like thirty-eight.
DK: So every year you go through this grind: you go out West, you decompress, you come back, and you face these students again, many of whom are like you were when you came to Iowa—eager but with a lot to learn. Do you still enjoy being in the classroom and helping young writers see what’s possible on the page and explore the known unknown?
JG: Oh yeah. Of all the jobs in America that are involved with teaching young writers to be young writers, this is the best one. I have the best students, and the most talented students. They are always amazing me, amazing to me—they do amazing things, they say amazing things, they are so alive that it inspires me not to let go of life myself. And luckily I’m not a disciplined writer; I write on and off, fits and starts, and so they never get in my way (or I don’t feel as if they do). And I think they give me back more than I give them in terms of inspiration (which is an idea that I do believe in, no matter how unfashionable it may be). I do believe in inspiration, and I do believe in excitement, and I do believe in discovery. I also believe there’s nothing new, and that nothing good ever goes away. But these students are on so many different frontiers at all times; they’re learning their own versions of prosody now, at least some of them are.
DK: So you came to Iowa not knowing exactly where art, specifically poetry, would lead you and it seems you fell into teaching. Looking at the job market now and how it’s changed—in terms of the proliferation of MFAs, and PHDs, and people who are in essence trying to live as a writer—do you offer any advice to these young poets in terms of how to make it and survive as an artist?
JG: No, I don’t offer them any advice like that; I’m not a guidance counselor. But you know, before the invention of the MFA program—which had been invented for painting hundreds and hundreds of years ago—English poetry was the province of privileged classes. These were people who had enough money to become literate, and then who had enough money to be able to not work, or not work all the time; [which means] a lot of our literature comes to us from the gentry of society. It’s kind of a good thing—I think—that MFA programs exist now so that it’s not just kids with trust funds who get to make the poetry. It can be anybody now. And so if an MFA program is now a de facto writers’ colony (which I think it is), where there are some older writers, and some younger writers, and there’s a discourse with everyone for two years during which they write and read and talk about art, how can that be a bad thing? And if somebody’s going to get a living out of it, what’s wrong with that? It’s better, I think—having worked a lot of construction—than pouring concrete. It’s better than driving nails in planks—a lot better. It gives you more time, more contemplative time, to read in a way that most jobs don’t, especially most proletarian jobs. So yeah, a lot of people who would otherwise be enlisted in the proletariat are teaching in MFA programs, and I think that’s great.
DK: Speaking of pouring concrete, you were talking earlier about sensitivity, and growing up in a place where it wasn’t fashionable to be sensitive. Do you ever run into problems—with friends, family, yourself—trying to straddle the line the between the art you create (which is full of emotion and heart) and the sense of masculinity/toughness that pervades the culture of the American West?
JG: I think my street cred is good in both realms. Part of the gestalt of the American West—it’s not against having deep feelings, it’s just against expressing them. My friends out West don’t read poetry, and they like my prose because it’s not personal. Everyone is expected to be stoic no matter how badly they are injured or damaged. It wasn’t until I left that world that I felt I had permission to talk about my inner life (or other people’s inner lives). But I still would like to think that my work is stoic, which in a way can be a means of intensifying feeling. It’s not a way of avoiding feeling, it’s just a cultural way of presenting it, understatement versus yelling or heavy breathing. I would like to think that my poems have an emotional depth, but I would also like to think that they’re not yelling or heavy breathing.
DK: You talk about the emotional weight of poetry and the openness to understanding the self and reflecting on it. I’m wondering if you can talk for a minute about your writing process—much of your work seems rooted in your personal history. Do you always use your own life as subject matter? I’m particularly interested in your book X—a collection that is unflinchingly raw and unfiltered when discussing the subject of divorce—and your most recent collection, Everything We Always Knew Was True, which is equally as powerful yet more subdued in the way the poems reflect the human experiences being written about.
JG: That’s a great question. I don’t always use my own life as subject matter. As you were talking, I kept thinking about the word confession. I was raised Catholic: Miguel de Unamuno once said, “Belief passes, but having believed never passes.” What I learned when I left home to go to college was to confess to feeling things, which I wasn’t really allowed to do the way I was raised. So if you want to say that my work is confessional, certainly X is. And I think the most recent book (Everything We Always Knew Was True) is too, but by confession I don’t really mean “I’m going to tell you all the dirty secrets about my life,” or that “I’m going to tell you all the inappropriate thoughts that I have,” because I don’t do that. I do confess to feeling things deeply. And by confessional, when I think of that word, all it means is that you use your life as subject matter; subject matter is just that. It’s subject matter, and the subject matter doesn’t matter, except, perhaps, in the way that it can energize—emotionally—the composition and its reception: it’s the poetry that matters. If a person chooses not to use their life as subject matter, that’s fine, they’re going to have to choose something else to use as subject matter (it doesn’t matter). I would say Elizabeth Bishop—who was a very stoical, very reserved, and very dignified writer—is confessional because she just uses her life as subject matter. John Berryman uses his life as subject matter. James Merrill uses his life as subject matter. So it doesn’t have to be the extremely plaintive voice that we might associate with Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton; all it means is that you have your life in your poems. It’s just subject matter—that’s not what matters; it’s the poetry that matters. I confess to having emotions, and to having a life; I don’t apologize for having a life.
DK: Were those two books in particular written in different ways?
JG: Yes. X was written under the emotional duress that its subject matter suggests. And this most recent book is not claiming an occasion like that. It’s just trying to go home. It’s trying to go back to that landscape, and to those people, in a way that’s not under duress or in an emergency.
DK: Where do you think your work will go next?
JG: No idea.
DK: Do you think you’ll move toward prose again or do you think you’ll stay with poetry?
JG: I write about what’s bothering me—and if what’s bothering me next presents itself as something that can only be handled as prose, then I’ll do prose. I don’t enjoy writing prose; I enjoy writing verse. I don’t envision writing another prose book, which some might be sad to hear. It just depends on what’s the next thing that’s going to bother me. That’s what I’m going to write about.