Artist Interview: John O’Callaghan

Posted: by The Editor

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John O’Callaghan is mostly known for his position as frontman of Arizona rock band The Maine, but songwriting aside, he has also been known to pen poetry as its own form of art. In 2017, he released his first official poetry book in conjunction with his solo project John the Ghost, and a year later released a collection of his most cryptic, but often thought-provoking tweets off Twitter. His earliest collection of poetry however, can be traced back to 2011 when he released 15 poems alongside photographs from Dirk Mai in a series titled “Exaltation” in an open print box format. Over the last few years, O’Callaghan has found himself newly inhabiting the roles as a husband and father and in the process compiled a new collection of poems that document his thoughts and what he claims to be half-bad advice. We spoke with him about his book “The Highly Unqualified Hand-Guide To Keeping Plants Alive” below:

This will be your third poetry book since your first book in 2017 and it has been interesting seeing the evolution of “Sincerely, John the Ghost” to the collection of your tweets in “A Thought A Day,” and now this particular series. How did you collect these poems for this book? Does it typically begin with the intention of writing a book, or does it come from writing freely and eventually compiling enough for one?

Much like the first “book,” (I don’t know why I still shudder when I claim they’re books) I had no intention of compiling anything other than free thoughts floating in my head. They all just needed a place to live so I could make room for other useless information in my brain, but as I started to see the volume of entries grow, and the content finding itself a theme, I thought it would be nice to leave some words behind for my kids when they grow older. (I don’t plan on dying, but none of us ever really do.)

I know some of these were written after your daughter was born, and wanted to ask how has that role of becoming a father shaped your artistic expression when it comes to your poetry? Do you feel that it has made you more intentional/mindful about what you’re leaving behind in your art?

When it comes to inspiration, I think it’s only natural that my real life experience molds the subject matter of both creative and non-creative things. Becoming a father certainly puts mortality into focus a bit, but I think that also happens with the coming of age as well. I think the only thing I truly want to convey to my kids is that path that is paved is fine and safe, but the possibilities are endless when you veer and create your own. 

Because your poetry is more of a singular avenue of expression than writing music with the band, how does your creative approach in writing poetry differ from your approach to writing lyrics?

To be honest, I think I’m less precious about the free verse stuff. It feels less permanent somehow. Or maybe because I know that the next entry comes so quickly for the reader, there seems to be less pressure on the thoughts. I don’t do much revision once I’ve written, and that is probably why I won’t win any Pulitzer’s, but I think it’s important for these ideas to be as raw as possible so I don’t muddy up what my head was thinking to begin with.

Are there other poets you looked to for inspiration in writing these poems?

I haven’t read much poetry as of late, but had been in the middle of “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius at the time, so I certainly was drawing some from that. I feel strange even saying my words are poetry, because to me I am simply journaling ideas, and then reading the works of someone like Pablo Neruda (one of my favorites) only cements those insecurities. 

thefifthjohn Instagram

How did you and Rich Raun arrive at the visual designs for the collection?

Rich just has a way of telling his own story through his work. I gently guided him with vague ideas of what I pictured and then I got completely out of the way to allow him to create. We knew we wanted to be on the nose with the imagery while also having something that was visually compelling in its own right was the goal and I think he did just that.

I noticed there will be an audiobook for this book as well, and it made me think of some of the old videos with The Maine where you did spoken word poetry for “It Feels Great” and “Said & Done.” Is the audiobook for this collection a way to explore more of the spoken word aspect of your poetry? What made you decide to do an audiobook for the collection?

I had never really listened to an audiobook until I bought Rick Rubin’s most recent one and it made me want to do one of my own. I ended up having a bit of sonic fun and took a John The Ghost song and slowed it down by something like 800 percent and put that behind the entire thing (spoiler alert) to create more of an ambient bed for the listener. It was definitely an interesting experience and one that I’m glad I did.

What is one of the most significant lines of poetry from the book that resonates with you more now that your son has arrived?

That’s so tough because they all mean something different now that he’s here. But it’s neat for me to see that they all still apply to not just my daughter but to both. The themes of love written down on paper can’t even begin to compare to the love that I feel for them in my soul. And I’m going to continue doing my best to make sure that a book isn’t the way they understand that.

In the future when your children are grown and are able to look back on this book and get some insight on who you were at this point in time, what do you hope they would take from it?

I really only hope they take away the broad strokes; be authentically yourself, find the things you love in this world and hold them close, and life is too short to take anything too seriously and it’s too incredible to not live it to the fullest.

thefifthjohn Instagram

John O’Callaghan will also be doing a book signing in Tempe, Arizona at Changing Hands on February 17th at 6:30 pm. Tickets available here.

“The Highly Unqualified Hand-Guide To Keeping Plants Alive” is available to order here.

Loan Pham | @x_loanp

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