Interview: Andrew Galan
Andrew Galan’s poetry has been published in the United States, Chile, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Ireland and Australia, including in Verity La, Jet Fuel Review, Cordite and The Best Australian Poems 2011. He has performed in the US, Spain and all across Australia. With Amanda, Hadley and Joel, he founded BAD!SLAM!NO!BISCUIT! at the Phoenix Pub. His first book is That Place of Infested Roads (life during wartime), Knives Forks and Spoons Press.
Interview by David Stavanger
Each interview I am doing will feature a found question from an interview with another well known poet. This was once asked of Neruda, re-mixed for you: Why did you change your name, and why did you choose “Andrew Galan”?
My full name is Andrew Stefan Galan. I had an offer to change my name twice, once when I was really young to mum’s maiden name and then to mum’s new married surname. I stuck with Galan both times because there were no others in the phone book, though there were plenty of Harrisons and Thorntons.
When I started performing and getting published I examined my name to decide if I needed another one, or at least mysterious initials. I asked where does the name come from, does it mean anything? I’ve got one each of Danish, Australian, Polish and Ukrainian grandparents, three were immigrants to Australia and they brought with them a mixture of atheism and religion. The result for me was that I never felt I had or needed a central pillar of ethnicity or religion to attach myself to and so my name didn’t feel like it had roots in a particular Diaspora. I’ve also lived in more houses than I am old so never felt a historical attachment to place that would lend some importance to a name. But once I thought about it I realised I had strong attachment to some memories of my grandad, Stefan Galan. A blacksmith in the Polish Cavalry who in Australia gardened, had a still, made homemade wine and worked for the New South Wales State Railroads. I also found that Galan is a verb for mournful or martial music and singing. It is used in religious texts for Satan singing his lamentations as well as for followers of Christ singing their sorrows, I figured that was pretty cool: Satan and Christians singing the same song. I enjoy the tension of that from a literary perspective. When I write I like to speak with different voices, to explore the different perspectives of characters. So I chose to stay with Andrew Galan because there are endless characters there, there’s tension in the name, and I like some memories of my granddad.
Your first book That Place of Infested Roads (life during wartime) came out through Knives Forks and Spoons Press in the UK. What have been some of the positives and unique challenges of having an overseas publisher as an Australian poet?
Diversity of voice and willingness to explore (which is for me the core of experimentation and risk-taking) are the two greatest strengths of having an overseas publisher.
Knives Forks and Spoons Press is willing to take on experiments and explorations and in doing that publishes a range of voices from different countries. It has published two of my favourite books of poetry too, Scene of the Accident by Howie Good and Poland at the Door by Evelyn Posamentier. I also like that my poetry can stand with all that other writing without me being physically or vocally attached to it. I like that I had no connection to Knives Forks and Spoons Press beyond poetry. Alec Newman the editor sent a friend request on Facebook while I had coincidently been looking at his press online due to the poetry he was publishing, poetry that I enjoyed and found in places that had accepted my work, places like the now closed Delinquent Magazine, as well as the ongoing REM Magazine and Verity La. There was also an interview online with him where he laid out what he likes to see from poets before they submit a book for publication with his press. He was not prescriptive of poetry style or content, but wanted a baseline of proof that you were willing to work at getting poems published and had done so successfully. The article is no longer available but it was a great piece for someone starting out as it provided insight into the criteria I needed to meet to have his press consider my book, and it indicated the strength and openness of the Press by not offering boundaries on the content of the book.
Another thing I like about going overseas is embracing the lack of borders; you can reach more places now than you could ever conceive of previously. I like the massive potential of publishers that have embraced that.
When I think of overseas I don’t separate it from Australia, I look for the things I like in publishers — openness, excitement about the potential of writing. “Send us: Whatever works. Words on a page. Things that haven’t been done before. Poems. Short stories. Diagrams & folk art. Articles. Reviews? Anything. We’d prefer a selection of poems. The shorter the story, the better. Pieces longer than 4 or 5 pages will have to make their own rules. We value ideas above description. Specifics above the general. And concision in all things. Excite us.” That was the Delinquent Magazine in their five year run and that made me want to send writing to them. When Verity La asked me if I was interested in submitting to their journal I checked how they described themselves. The core was their statement “Be Brave.” Sending words to their journal was full of potential, its description was about possibilities.
“The better a singer’s voice, the harder it is to believe what they’re saying.” David Byrne, Social Exclusion
Talking Heads is an influence on your work. How do you relate to this quote in the context of voice in relation to both the page, and even more-so the stage, given your role in the growing spoken word art form in Canberra and Australia?
“Performance doesn’t make sense.” My favourite poetry can stand without a physical being and voice speaking it; its voice carries it off the page. My favourite poetry performances are those where it feels like I am hearing the poem for the first time, that the poem itself is new, and that it feels like it comes from the poet’s passion for the words and what those words mean to them. I don’t even have to understand what their message is, the poet doesn’t have to spell it out for me as long as I feel an intent and that the physicality is being dictated by the moment. I enjoy puzzlement as opposed to clarity of message, stumbles into weird places as opposed to well-planned pregnant pauses.
“What do the words of your songs mean to you?” When I read poetry I like to be able to derive my own meaning. When I listen to and watch a poet I like to be able to derive meaning from the way they perform their poem, it’s another dimension of the words.
“So I used my fault to an advantage.” I am a proponent of poetry performance as opposed to performance poetry, I write the poem and work with it, exploring what has been written to try and achieve something with it, I think that comes from my writing being directed at me, I write then try to figure out what I am going to do with what’s been created on the page. I don’t know if that is turning my faults to an advantage but it is working with what I’ve got. Maybe I should write a love poem to a lamp or another household appliance.
As someone who has worked for years in the public service you’ve been quoted as saying that “the great writers in history have all been involved in public service in some way”, also referring to the likes of Dylan Thomas. Do you aspire to be a great writer? What other occupations may assist you in achieving such ends?
I’m sure I said that the great writers in history that I like have been involved in public service in some way, even if they may not have thoroughly enjoyed it. I think the media and some public conceptions of the Australian Public Service have lost sight of the reality that you have a large number of people working for the betterment of Australia and the world — providing a service to the public. I think any occupation that is contributing to something bigger than you as an individual and involves throwing yourself into something that you feel makes the world better for others can help you become a great writer, a better artist. Working at something that requires empathy, empathy that takes you outside your comfort zone or has you imagine consequences for others and so influence your actions is going to make you a better writer. Catullus’ 1st Century BC poetry laments the death of his brother in service to the Roman Republic, and that his brother is a better man for his efforts. I feel that if you work at shaping the world then you are writing about shaping the world too. When Picasso was convinced to accept the commission to create an art work for the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 World’s Fair he accepted the commission from a delegation that included two poets, Max Aub who represented the Second Spanish Republic as a diplomat in Paris, and Juan Larrea who also worked at the Spanish Embassy. Both wrote about their country’s civil war while also working for their republic and their efforts contributed to the painting of Guernica. The American Alexander Calder worked as an engineer before turning completely to art and I find that his art conveys something of that world to me, its inescapable mechanics. George Orwell went to Spain to kill fascists during the Spanish Civil War before he wrote 1984 and Animal Farm. Julius Caesar didn’t just write the Conquest of Gaul he did it first for himself.
I think it’s rare for me that I feel completely comfortable with my writing but my work in the Australian Public Service definitely contributed to my writing positively. Caesar may not be the best example but I do aspire to be a great writer, I find poems can often be a battle, what’s the point if you don’t want the words to be the best ones and you aren’t willing to fight them, whether it is a grand melee with an entire concept or a cage match with just one line.
How is Spain? You’re currently undertaking a writing residency there. Tell us more (or less). Can you give us one fresh line written in Spain (or even a line you haven’t written yet).
Many of the poems in my new book started life during my first trip to Spain and were resolved during this second stay.
My first period in Spain was seven weeks, I hiked for a couple of hundred kilometres through Navarre and the Basque country and visited villages, towns and cities, such as Valladolid with its Museum of Contemporary Spanish Art, the Pato Herreriano; Estella-Lizarra where I went to the Gustavo de Maeztu Museum and the Carlism Museum which chronicles the fight in support of absolute monarchy by sections of the Spanish populace; and Segovia, one of the more popular tourist destinations I visited, with its museum that traces the local history from geological formation to present day. All these places provided surprises and opportunities to learn, and I often got to explore the museums and galleries with just security guards for company. This time I revisited Madrid and Barcelona. The Museum of Catalan History was a particular focus and I gained a much greater awareness of the push for Catalan independence from the museum and spending the majority of my time in El Bruc — a small village in Catalonia. I also returned to the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona, and to Madrid to see Guernica in the Reina Sofía as well as paintings by Goya in the Prado. Travel for me is an educational experience, learning by interacting with all this art and history.
The residency was to work on my next book, the working title is for all the veronicas (the dog who staid), and to develop performances based on that and my first book. It was a valuable experience and very different to my previous residencies. I got to live and work alongside artists from Iran, India, France, Australia and the United States as they developed their practices and ideas. To try and answer their questions and provide perspectives on what I thought of their work as it developed, as well as receive critical feedback on my poetry and performances during our weekly discussions leading up to an open studio that ended the residency with people from El Bruc coming to view the art and performances.
I don’t think I can share an individual fresh line. The poem I am so far most happy with from the residency started life over a year ago in Spain, but solidified during this residency in response to several factors, including QPF’s Night Uncurls Its Palm and issue two of the zine, Today, the voice you speak with may not be your own. You can read it at Pascalle Burton’s website. If there are any newer fresher lines from this trip they are likely to take another year to be worked into something.
To end, would you kindly share a poem of yours to whet our QPF appetite for August.
By Andrew Galan
Heliosphere to Cosmos
Snekoun, the approaching quack of aliens
Pitiri, the 1977 transmission
without talking heads
I just listen
to scores of video games
I will never play.
(Cue bagpipes under soaring starry night)
Photo by Adam Thomas