Arohanui: Shaun Miller Interviews James Galvin

AUTHOR OF EIGHT BOOKS OF POETRY, one book of prose, and one novel, James Galvin is often considered one of the great writers of the American West. Through his portrayal of the natural landscapes and agricultural lives of the Wyoming-Colorado border region, his poetry offers the bitterly hard-won insights that can result from the toughness and vulnerability of such austere ways of living. No one writes better about the Front Range.

To define Galvin as a writer of the American West, though, is to ignore the extraordinary range of his poetry throughout his career. While it has remained rooted in the Western landscape, its concerns extend far beyond the tall stands of lodgepole pine and the view of the Medicine Bow. In Everything We Always Knew Was True, his eighth and most recent collection, Galvin delivers some of his most playful and most surprising poems to date, and in so doing addresses subjects such as the paintings of Marc Chagall, the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, and a question posed to Wynton Marsalis by a girl in a small-town Iowa high school jazz combo. The volume also finds the poet returning to the Western landscape, this time in the face of our planet’s impending environmental catastrophe. We are all asking the question: is it too late for humanity to change course? The poet replies that though he may be pessimistic, he hasn’t lost hope. If Everything We Always Knew Was True is any indication, James Galvin is still discovering ways to translate hopefulness into new and uncharacteristic joy. I sat down with Galvin after he participated in a panel on the private and public language of poetry during the LA Times Festival of Books.


SHAUN MILLER: Thanks for being here with me. You know, asking you for this interview gave me a lot of anxiety, because I had read a 1994 interview (in The Iowa Review) in which you said that you don’t like to give interviews because it’s too easy for someone to interpret your response as an opinion rather than as a tentative idea. 

JAMES GALVIN: Well, thank you. I’m glad to be reminded that I once remembered to say that.

Does that anxiety have something to do with the necessity of utterance? As an interviewee, you have to say something, not necessarily because you feel you have something to say.

Well, what is poetry besides the necessity of utterance? Who wants to read a poem that doesn’t have that urgency — the poem demanding that it be written? If it doesn’t have that quality, then we don’t know where it comes from.

The panel you were just on — is that another scenario where you’re asked to speak outside of that necessity?

When I was presented with the topic, I remembered why I don’t like panels. I thought, “How do I respond to this?” It made me anxious to the point that I actually wrote down a paragraph, which I read. Luckily, there were other people there to talk. Panel discussions generally lack focus because the question starts out so vague, but this one turned out okay. Everyone spoke very well to the topic.

The panel topic was the public and private language of poetry. Your poems have often been very private — an individual communing with nature. But in your later poems, we begin to see more of a public language, a public statement.

I’m kind of shy of that word “statement,” because the rhetoric of poetry is more like the rhetoric of music or painting than it is: “Here’s what I have to say.” What they always tell you in workshop: If you have a message, send a telegram. Poetry takes a little bit longer, and that suits me just fine, because, I don’t have anything to say. There are things that I believe, provisionally, about things that I feel, and that forces me to ask myself, “So what do you think about that feeling?” It isn’t always that I approve of what I think or how I feel. That’s where the private utterance becoming public turns out to be a difficult thing — it’s spiritual work. A lot of the time I feel the vulnerability in making something like the first dark kiss into a publication is really scary. One of the things I’ve had to learn is that the poems I write that I’m most reluctant to show a friend or a colleague — or just about anybody that I trust — are often the ones that end up being the poems that people respond to most deeply.

Something else you pointed out during the panel is that poetry is meant to be read. How would you reconcile the need for an audience with the avoidance of “statement”?

I don’t have a cosmology. I don’t have a belief system. I don’t write out of a sense of knowing. The things that I know would be too simple and too trivial to bother a poem with. But it seems to me that looking back over our tradition, poets who have something to say are relatively few. Dante had a cosmology that he was sure about. Milton, same thing: “I may assert eternal providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.” William Blake had a cosmology. He was a visionary, a capital-V Visionary. There was stuff that he knew, that he could tell you, and it might be difficult for us to understand, but he knew. But most poetry is not Dante, Blake, Milton, or Whitman. Most art comes out of the anxiety of not knowing, and not understanding what in the hell is going on in life. You know, like, “What do I do? Oh my God, I’m in love.” That should be a good thing, but it’s an anxiety. Or, what do I do about walking around every day knowing I’m going to die? I don’t have anything to say about that. What did Shakespeare know? He knew a lot about anger and jealousy and deceit and dynamics of love, but we don’t know what he believed. I’ve heard people speculate about what he believed, but, more often than not, when people talk about that it’s just what they want to think he believed. There’s nothing in his writing that tells you what he believed. Does he believe that life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing? Macbeth believes that. It doesn’t mean Shakespeare believes that. We don’t know what Shakespeare thought or believed, and I think most people write out of the anxiety of not knowing.

Then let’s get into Everything We Always Knew Was True.

Good segue.

That phrase, of course, serves as the title. But it also serves as the last line of the poem, “The Hunchback,” which ends “the Future / Stone Age will arrive to whisper in each of our ears / everything we always knew was true.”

You want to know what that is — everything we always knew was true?

I have a feeling what it might be, but I’ll let you tell me.

The easy answer is nothing. What we always knew was true — there is nothing we always knew was true. On the other hand, the Future Stone Age, if we know anything, it’s probably that we know we’re going extinct, that it’s at least increasingly likely that we’re in extinction mode. It’s a fairly easy thing to know since all species eventually go extinct, except for the species that were smart enough to keep it simple, like amoebas. Have you read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? That’s what we’ve always known.

That’s what we’re up against.

It’s coming. And we’ve certainly got the president for the job.

In the poem, a fog is devouring the land and people’s lives, and you even mention those who ignore what’s coming — the climate deniers. While a lot of the book speaks to impending environmental catastrophe, the title, Everything We Always Knew Was True, also seems to suggest certainty, and certainty provides the comfort of knowing. Do you somehow feel more settled in this world than you did when you were writing the previous volume, As Is? Does this book represent a new way of figuring out how to live?

I think it’s always a new way of figuring out how to live. Your life keeps changing. Every day you have to adapt to what’s different. I used to be married. I’m not anymore. I’m going to keep reminding myself and you of the default answer of the title, which is nothing. We don’t know anything. I’m older now, and that’s something to adapt to. I’m closer to my death than I am to my birth. There’s an anxiety in that, but there’s also, maybe, a comfort in that, in the sense that when I was younger I hadn’t done anything. I’m also to the point that I feel like, whatever I do now doesn’t matter. Whatever I could do, I’ve pretty much done. Am I going to get better as a poet? I’m going to get older. And, maybe, if I’m very lucky, getting older will make me better. William Butler Yeats was lucky in that regard. He got better the older he got. But he didn’t get more talented; he didn’t get more Yeats. He just got older. I think that that gave him more complexity in his late work. So I can hope for that. But I can also sort of feel like, “If you didn’t like it by now, then you’re not going like it.” That’s kind of a comfort. I don’t have to impress anybody.

When I read this book, I see a new openness in your work, not always what we find in poets who might be at the same point in their careers. You seem to be willing to allow change to come into your work.

I started out very early on demanding change. There are a lot of poets who, once they arrive at a mature style, keep writing the same poem until they die. I decided very early on never to let that happen, because that’s a kind of death in life, and I’d rather not die until I die. Staying alive means changing. There’s kind of an equal sign: life equals change. I think that my poetry should change as my life changes, and if there’s a new openness, then that makes me happy. I’m not trying to impress anybody with my technique anymore, but I am trying to stay alive. Allen Grossman — a poet who’s dead now — said that life is not a sign and hence it has no meaning. But we are surrounded by signs of life. Poetry is a record — not of life as a sign but of signs of life — and I would like to think that my work will continue to be a sign of life, not a sign of somebody who’s on cruise control until the bridge abutment.

The first half of the book, especially, exhibits the kind of joyfulness, as in “The Newlywed Acrobats,” for instance.

I almost didn’t put that poem in the book, because it doesn’t really belong. It’s not like anything else. As a principle of art, you should never do anything just once. And so I was in Rome and I went to this Chagall show, and you know I like Chagall, but he doesn’t rock my world exactly, he’s just such a happy painter, everybody’s always flying around and smiling — it looks pretty nice. I saw the title of this painting, and I wasn’t that impressed with the painting, but I thought, “Man, that is a great title.” I just started thinking about it and then I wrote something that was, for me, really different — because I’m generally not that blissful, not that playful, not that carefree. So I guess I put it in there almost as a spiritual exercise, even knowing that it was a little bit out of tune with the rest of the book.

As far as the rest of the book, it’s a matter of composing it the way a painter would compose something that seems to have integrity and an arc from beginning to end. I don’t have an idea of a book when I write — it’s as much as I can handle to write one poem at a time. After a certain amount of time, in the case of this book seven years, I thought, “Well, that’s enough.” I wanted there to be certain motifs that you could trace throughout the book: love and loss, provisional ideas about wildlife management — which I don’t think is the human being’s strong suit — the problem of nature. Nature is inexhaustible, as something to think about, and to change in relation to, and to complicate how you think about other things. There are also the problems of human nature and the body. We love our bodies, but they always betray us. The ultimate betrayal, of course, is death. Maybe one of the reasons why I can write something and you can read it and pretty much know what I’m talking about is that we’re both going to die. We share that, and that’s a deep feeling.

In Fencing the Sky, Marty gives a lecture to ranchers and environmentalists in order to bring the two groups together. Each group wants to save the land, but their attempts to save it manifest in different ways. At the middle of Everything We Always Knew Was True are three poems titled “Wildlife Management,” and these poems mark a turn of the book’s arc, and we return to a subject matter and a tone that is more familiar to your readers. The dilemma of whether to intercede in nature or to let nature run its course calls to mind another theme of your work: futility. But, I’m wondering, is it futility or is it worse than that?

Historically, it’s way worse than futility. The worst thing that ever happened to the Earth is us. The worst thing that ever happened to any species of life is us. We seem to be here to destroy. If we could just kill ourselves, we might just save the planet, but that’s probably not going to happen. That scene from Fencing the Sky is based on the three years I spent as a liaison for the Nature Conservancy. I traveled around Wyoming and eastern Montana setting up what appeared to be literary events in small towns — Cody, Sundance, Miles City — really nowhere places. But I had written this book, The Meadow, that was appreciated both by stock growers and environmentalists, so I thought I had an opportunity to say, “Come on, we all basically want the same thing,” which is to save this landscape, to save our relationship to it and our lives in it. That was the mission, and it did get a little dicey between people who hate wolves and people who love wolves, but my job was to say there are bigger things than what they were arguing about. I went to college with a guy who became director of the Izaak Walton League. League members are hunters and fishermen — not necessarily the people an environmentalist looks to for assistance. But because he had this insight, which I was inspired by and learned from, by enlisting the support of duck hunters and fisherman, he got rid of acid rain in the northeast, because it’s bad for hunters.

I hope those three poems are a turning point, structurally, in the way that the whole book is returning home in terms of voice, in terms of place, in terms of the concerns. Those three poems — maybe they are all one poem; if it were a painting, you’d call it a triptych — goes from one situation it might be appropriate to do nothing about, one situation in which it might be appropriate to do a small thing, and one situation in which it might be appropriate to do something a little more dramatic. It’s all taking instruction from — I don’t know what word to use here — the environment, nature, wildlife, whatever it is — anything that’s not us — to learn what is an appropriate response to any given problem. Just like the problem of the body and the problem of being in the world: the more complicated you make your thinking about it, the truer it gets.

It seems like what humans have done that other animals have not is 1) recognize that they’re part of an ecosystem, and 2) reject that ecosystem. Wildlife doesn’t recognize itself as a part of that system, yet still operates so that everything wildlife does more or less helps to continue the survival of that system.

Do you think that there’s a correlation between being conscious of a relationship and rejecting that relationship? Like, a coyote is not necessarily thinking about helping biodiversity. I think what you’re suggesting is that being unconscious is a good thing, because once you are conscious, you better become ultra conscious.

That’s right. I’m thinking of Lyle in The Meadow, when he’s watching the coyote lope across his front yard. He’s thinking that coyotes are smarter than humans.

You could break it down to just survival. On one level, everything that survives is equal. The reason coyotes act like coyotes is because that’s what Darwinian evolution gave them to survive. I don’t know how we fit human beings in that, but I used to think that there was progress in consciousness about our place on the Earth and our implied stewardship of it, because we do have the power to destroy it in a way no other species does. There is no place on the planet that we haven’t impacted, including the sky.

So, is there an evolution of consciousness that could save us? I mean, I remember in 1968 there was a book called The Population Bomb that projected that by the year 2000 there would not be enough food for people on Earth and that we would all die. And zero population growth was advocated. It took like six years for the United States of America to achieve zero population growth — I don’t know if six is right — but it didn’t take very long. And then, typically human, we went, “Oh, that was easy,” and we just forgot about it. Can we get scared enough to where we start acting responsibly? Can we evolve past the consciousness of people who either think: A) it’s god’s will or B) it’s not god’s will, and we’re all going to die, so we might as well die with a lot of toys? Or if there’s fossil fuel, either A) god put it there for us to burn or B) it’s just there to burn, so let’s burn it? You know, the Green Party in Europe is a real force, but then there’s not that much open space to give people permission to misbehave. The federal administration we’ve got now doesn’t indicate that progress happens. Which doesn’t mean that I’m hopeless.

What’s the best way to put this? I’m pessimistic, but I’m not hopeless.

And there are more hopeful poems toward the end. “Convenience Store,” especially, is one of those. In that poem, you’ve just been in a car accident. You’re hunched on the floor of a convenience store in disbelief that you’re alive. A woman comes in and offers to buy you something to eat. You respectfully decline — a friend is on their way to pick you up — but the woman says she’ll call the store in two hours to check on you and take you home if she has to. That very simple, kind gesture resulted in a poem.

I really like the way you’re reading that poem. You made it much bigger than the way I’ve been thinking about it. In the sense of everything we’ve been talking about — there are still good people. There are people who do the right thing. And that’s why you can be pessimistic but not hopeless. A dramatic event did happen, and, you know, my border collie was acting like, “Man, I’m not gonna ride with you anymore.” I mean, he wasn’t wearing his seat belt and we went all the way over. But I was thinking about the idea of the self, and self-knowledge, which is another thing we’re not very good at. For decades in American poetry there was a lot of critical theory that preached the idea that there was no such thing as a self; that it’s a construct, an illusion. Interestingly, it’s not an illusion to a neurologist. A neurologist can tell you that your sense of self comes from untraceably fast conversation between your brain and your body. I wanted to write a poem that reclaimed the idea of knowing who you are, because that woman knew who she was. And she was a good person. But you put it in a context that makes that a much better poem than I thought it was.

That gesture is also a way of offering up a solution to our current problems.

Yep. If everybody was like her, the Earth would not be in danger. She was a farmer. She makes her living off the land and she’s not going to destroy it. She was being a decent human being, a moral human being. Whether or not she was religious, she was doing what Jesus would do: offering a stranger shelter and food. If everybody was like that, all the things that are threatening us personally, us as a species, the whole world, it really wouldn’t be a problem. If we just took care of each other instead of having an aversion reaction to otherness. If instead of being intolerant, we were tolerant, and we were gracious, we would make the sacrifices necessary to protect the planet. Everybody just has to be like that woman. It shouldn’t be that hard to do.

But it takes that ultra-consciousness to be that way all the time, because even those who we are most tolerant of become intolerable in certain moments. We need others to remind us that everyone comes with baggage. We need others to remind us to be kind.

That’s back to art as empathy, which we were talking about in the panel. To remember to do the work that’s necessary, to remember that we all falter. The extreme of intolerance is hate, and hate is bad for the hater, not just bad for the object of the hatred. It’s bad for your heart. It’s what religion reminds us of: you don’t want that burden in your heart. It’s not good for you, and so you have to do the work of forgiving, tolerating, and realizing that you’re not exactly a rose either.

Well, then let’s not talk about hate. Let’s talk about love.


Arohanui — a Maori word for Big Love. What does that idea mean for you?

Well, when we say “love,” we think we know what we’re talking about, and maybe we sort of do, but this is a suggestion that there’s something that transcends mere love and it’s called Big Love and it’s maybe what in our tradition we’d call true love. True love was invented in the 12th century in the south of France. Before that, it didn’t exist. It was a troubadour thing, where love between people can be exalted to be bigger than anything. Bigger than god. And so, I was in love with somebody and it seemed to me like the way I felt deserved to be called arohanui. And that poem — it’s a weird poem, huh?

I wouldn’t call it weird, but I would say, like most Jim Galvin love poems, it isn’t just a love poem. Bound up with love is the dread of the end of love.

That’s my gloominess coming in. I felt very strongly about this person — still do actually — and the details in that poem — you’d almost need to annotate every line for anyone — except maybe someone from New Zealand — to understand what I’m referring to. It’s a deeply private poem, and, yes, it does end with a notion that love is not true until it’s lost. Okay, so that’s what I think. How do I feel about thinking that? Not so hot. What do I think about feeling not so hot about what I think? That’s where poems thrive.

Then the following poem, which ends the collection, “Why I Am like New Zealand”: do you consider that a private poem as well?

It wouldn’t be to someone from New Zealand. You could Google everything in that poem. It starts with: “My feet stick out from beneath the sheet.” The Maori have this belief that the land of death was to the north of the north island where this shallow sea extends. That’s where people go when they die. So, my feet sticking out from beneath the sheet, that’s like a morgue image, but it’s also attached to the way the Maoris thought the dynamic of death was geographical. The five faults are the five senses. We think people [in Los Angeles] are worried about earthquakes — people in New Zealand are a hundred times more worried.

What is it about New Zealand? This is your third book that has ended up there: “The Stations” sequence at the end of Resurrection Update, the last poem in As Is, and now this. What’s your connection to New Zealand and how do you find yourself ending up there in these last three volumes?

I was not aware of this structural pattern that you’ve identified. I have to think about it. Maybe we can talk about New Zealand on the spectrum of countries that are harmful to the Earth. New Zealand is not, really. There isn’t much corporate rapacity. New Zealanders are very environmentally conscious. They’re humble. They live in an unbelievably beautiful place, which they think is going to kill them. But they’re not like China, they’re not like the United States, they’re not like any place that’s, like, actively killing the Earth fast. If every place was like New Zealand, it would be like that woman in the convenience store. If everyone was from New Zealand, the Earth would not be in danger. I just made that up, you know, because this structural pattern is news to me, and I did the best I could. There’s at least a chance it could be true, what I just said.


Shaun Miller writes fiction and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son.