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John Gallaher at the Geneseo Literary Forum

Posted by Chloe Forsell, former contributor and Poetry Reader for Issue 4.1

As he walks nervously up to the podium, the crowd of eager listeners packed tightly together in the Walter Harding Lounge on the SUNY Geneseo campus, silence themselves in what seems to be an unspoken but simultaneously universal knowledge of the immense vulnerability one must feel as he stands to share his art with a group of people—worse even, a group of people who care about his art. His glasses on, his hands trembling so slightly it couldn’t have been noticeable past the third row, visiting poet John Gallaher pulls a digital stopwatch out of his pocket, makes a joke about timing himself (which turns out to be very serious), and eases the tension of his own nervousness by accepting his vulnerability. He makes a self-deprecating joke, which the audience will soon find is a theme of the night’s reading.

Within the first sixty seconds of Gallaher’s reading, he communicated both a sense of discomfort and ease. I think anyone who attended Gallaher’s Monday evening reading of poetry from his book-length essay-poem In a Landscape (BOA Editions Ltd., 2014), would agree that this tension, this complexity of not knowing how to feel, of uncertainty in life, is a driving force in Gallaher’s poetry, as well as in the way he relates to those around him.

in a landscapeAt once eloquent and colloquial, Gallaher led the room through a collection of several of his “landscapes,” or numbered sections of an essay-poem comprised of seventy-one smaller poems written in about forty days. In one breath, Gallaher projected beautiful lines of poetry; in the next he shocked us with the hard drop of “fuck” or “shit,” his own speech spilling through the written lines, until his divergences began to blend with the poetry, the published lines began to mesh with the deviations from the page, and all of the words became Gallaher—a pure and whole representation of the human being who stood before us. A beautiful moment where this indistinguishable quality seemed to shine was a moment in which Gallaher reflected on a plane crash that killed three of its five passengers. Fluidly, so smoothly it was almost alarming, Gallaher brought this into the room, pointing to the row of five in the front, temporarily turning them into the passengers, the room itself into the plane, ourselves into horrified observers, and reminding us of the fragility and randomness of life, reminding us that “that’s just the way it fucking happens.”

This connection to his audience is what allows Gallaher’s poetics to resonate on a highly personal level. He often stopped in the middle of reading a poem or sharing an anecdote to ask us, “Do you know what I mean? Have you experienced this?” Gallaher’s search for connection, his desire to relate, and his judicious use of humor are comforting, humanizing. I think this is reflected not only in his own poetry, but perhaps this is the goal of, dare I say it, all poetry?

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