An Interview With Tess Gallagher

Penelope Moffet
From the July/August 1988 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

At the time of this interview, Tess Gallagher had just published Amplitude: New and Selected Poems, which gathered poems from her first three collections, with Graywolf Press. Her most recent book, The Man From Kinvara: Selected Stories, also was published by Graywolf in September 2009.

Entire Trees—Douglas Firs, Alders, hemlocks—have washed up onshore. Some are over twenty feet long, with parts of their root systems still attached.

Waves roar in, loud enough to obliterate conversation on the beach below Tess Gallagher’s hilltop “Sky House,” which faces the wide sweep of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Cargo ships and tankers inch across the horizon toward the docks of Port Angeles, Washington, some bringing Japanese imports, some bringing local timber to be mashed in the town’s pulp mills.

“People are up against it here,” says the poet and fiction writer, who was born and raised in Port Angeles. “Nobody has time or money to beautify old Victorian houses. They’re just lucky to keep the rent paid. The mills are rather off and on, and the lumber industry is the same. People don’t sit in bars planning their novels here.”

Familiar with poverty from her childhood and early adulthood, Gallagher now lives most of the year in an exclusive development on the eastern border of Port Angeles, in the house she built with money hoarded from twelve years of college-level teaching and public poetry readings around the United States.

Her three-level home sits at the crest of a hill. Because of its many skylights and windows, the house is always full of light, even on gray and rainy days. It feels like a place built to celebrate the surf sound and light refractions filtering into every conversation, every silence.

“The qualities of light and water are very influential to my sense of poetry,” says Gallagher. She often stares at the water “the way a bird dips its beak in, takes a drink and looks up. I’m always dipping my bill and looking and savoring at the same time, and not really aware of it. I can write just about anywhere, but I feel very good here.”

In Amplitude: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 1987), Gallagher gathered many of her poems under one roof. Selections from her first three books, Instructions to the Double, Under Stars, and Willingly (all published by Graywolf) precede twenty-six newer poems.

Her most recent poems are more political than earlier ones, although, she says, “my way is still a storytelling way.” These newer poems all relate to the title of her book: Amplitude. “We’re a country of amplitude in comparison to Third World countries,” says Gallagher. “One becomes uncomfortable with the amplitude if one doesn’t find good ways for it to go out.” A number of poems were written during a 1984 visit to Brazil, while others were composed in early 1987–interrupting a first novel Gallagher was trying to write.

Much of Gallagher’s poetry also draws on her years growing up in Port Angeles and in nearby logging camps, in a family where money was scare and quarrels were plentiful. Gallagher’s father, who died of cancer in 1982, was an alcoholic logger and longshoreman named Leslie Bond; her mother, Georgia Bond, is a strong-willed storyteller and gardener who still lives in Port Angeles.

Gallagher was “a child with responsibilities, because as the oldest [of five] you have a lot of chores,” she says. Although she learned early to love books, there weren’t many in the house (the Bible, Jack London, and Rudyard Kipling were the main literary staples) and “reading was always a stolen pleasure. It was never an authentic activity” in her parents’ eyes.

But some of Gallagher’s teachers encouraged her to read. She remembers the excitement of helping out the school library in the third and fourth grades, thus beginning “a love of libraries.” The experience taught her, Gallagher says, that “once you learned to use a library, you could educate yourself.” In high school she wrote articles for her hometown newspaper and she began writing poems.

In 1961, Gallagher enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle. In the spring of 1963, she took a class on iambic pentameter with Theodore Roethke. “I don’t really know how I got in,” Gallagher says. “I really felt honored to be in the class, as if I hadn’t earned it, as if some fluke had occurred!”

Did Roethke encourage her as a poet? “Not hardly!” Gallagher exclaims, bursting into laughter. “Not hardly! Mainly I was a terrified person. By that point in his career, he had everything he wanted to give us, and it wasn’t a necessity that he hear from us. We were spectators.”

Yet she’s been “ghosted” by Roethke—who died that summer—ever since, Gallagher says. “He was just a wonderful example of someone who was wholly devoted to his art.”

Between 1963 and 1969, Gallagher wrote very few poems. Instead, she voraciously read “everyone Roethke mentioned: Bogan, Yeats, Hughes, Lowell, Dickey, Donne, Drydon, Pope, Tennyson, and a host of others.” At age twenty-six, just after her first marriage (to a Marine Corps captain named Larry Gallagher whom she had met when they were both students at the University of Washington) had ended, she began writing the poems that would fill her first book, Instructions to the Double. Those early poems, Gallagher says, are about “risk-taking… just the hilarity of being a woman, sometimes, the ways in which you express your danger.”

Gallagher had left the University of Washington before completing her undergraduate work. After getting divorced, she returned to the university and earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English. Mark Strand was one of her teachers at Washington. “He encouraged me to think in a national way about my talent, to go out and be challenged by talents from all over the country,” says Gallagher. In 1972, at Strand’s suggestion, Gallagher entered the Writers’ Workshop at University of Iowa.

Studying at Iowa for two years had a great deal of impact on Gallagher’s poetry. ‘The best thing was the fellowship of the students in the workshop,” she says. She deepened her friendship with poet Laura Jensen and came to know such other writers as Michael Burkard (who became her second husband), Michael Ryan, and John Skoyles.

Gallagher took classes from Donald Justice, Norman Dubie, Marvin Bell, and others. Useful as the experience was, she says, the criticism offered at Iowa also temporarily “drove underground, to some extent, my metaphysical kind of John Donne self, those poems that arise out of the unconscious have and have more to do with soulmaking. They weren’t easily received there,” she says.

Then she and Burkard split up and Gallagher went to Ireland to visit some Irish friends she’d met years earlier, friends who had become “a kind of surrogate family for me,” she says. Irish places and people inspired many of the poems of Under Stars, which also contains poems for Gallagher’s parents and a series of more cryptic meditations.

“I like some mystery and I like to blur, sometimes, the way in which I’ve arrived at a mood in a poem, so my development might not be linear,” Gallagher says. “I’ll have little grottoes, sometimes, signals that maybe not everything can be known. I don’t do that just to be oblique, but to preserve the secret” from which the poem emanates.

She begins writing a poem only when an idea or image comes into focus for her, so she seldom experiences writer’s block. ‘I’m not aware of [block] because usually when I decide I’m going to write, I write, and the periods when I’m kind of fallow, when I’m not saying, ‘You must write,’ are periods of generation.” However, she’s discovered that prose is much more amenable to daily routine. “I write fast, and then I revise, a lot,” she says, whether she’s writing fiction, or essays like those in her book, A Concert of Tenses (University of Michigan, 1986).

Although Gallagher’s fiction has been published by Harper & Row, she prefers to continue publishing her poetry with Graywolf, a small press in St. Paul, Minnesota. Graywolf was a new and unknown press when it published Gallagher’s first book in 1976. ‘The press’s reputation and my reputation grew in a parallel way,” says Gallagher. She has received “very direct offers” from larger houses in recent years, she adds, but she has stayed with Graywolf because the small house offers her “individual attention” and allows her to participate in designing her books. In addition, she’s realized that “small presses are more aware of who the large audiences are for poetry than the large presses are,” says Gallagher.

Years ago she realized that “in the publishing world of New York, the personnel of the [large] presses changed at a very rapid rate. If you wanted continuity in your career, it seemed terribly practical to stay with a small press,” Gallagher says. “I just could not see that these other presses could do that much for me.”

In the afternoon of a sunny July day, Gallagher drives into Port Angeles to visit her mother. Georgia Bond hears the truck and comes to the door of her house, which sits right on the edge of a sheer cliff overlooking the strait. She’s a strong-faced woman in her early seventies who wears her steel-gray hair pulled back, partly braided across the back of her head. She smiles, a bright and slightly mischievous smile.

Before long, mother and daughter are deep into gossip about relatives and neighbors. They trade convoluted stories with ease in a sort of verbal soap opera that’s obviously been running a long time. Georgia recounts more incidents than does Tess, who frequently asks leading questions, “mmm-hmmming” and “tsk-tsking” when appropriate. At one point Tess turns to her guest to say, half-laughing, “You see where the stories come from?”

Later she says that her mother gives her some of her best ideas for the short stories she’s been steadily writing since the late 1970s. Twelve of Gallagher’s stories were published in The Lover of Horses and Other Stories (Harper & Row, 1986).

“I will even take notes when I’m over there at her house,” Gallagher says. “I’ll come back with envelopes that are filled, and napkins, from listening to her. And sometimes I’ll make her wait—oh, she gets so upset, when she has to wait in the middle of a story until I find a pen and paper!”

Other Gallagher stories have come from adapting incidents from her personal experience, and from tales she collects from other people. “It happens a lot, that people want to give me their stories, and they don’t even know I’m a writer,” she says. “I don’t know why that is. It’s very lucky, if you happen to be a writer.”

Eventually Georgia leads a walk around her extensive garden of flowers, vegetables, fruit, and trees. “Stanley’s tree,” a Dawn Red wood that poet-gardener Stanley Kunitz gave Georgia, is pointed out. (Kunitz and Gallagher’s mother were introduced by Gallagher in 1978, and they became friends through their shared interest in gardening. Kunitz made the tree, a present in 1982, shortly after the death of Gallagher’s father.)

In early 1986, when Gallagher was recovering from surgery performed after she was diagnosed as having a pre-cancerous condition, she lived for a few months at her mother’s house. Her doctor’s have since given her a clean bill of health, Gallagher says, and “I’m now able to talk about it in calmer terms,” but when she was first told about the need for the surgery, ‘it was like your whole body was on fire, like every molecule of your body was afraid.”

Raymond Carver, with whom Gallagher has been involved for ten years, was concerned about her, Gallagher says, but “I don’t think he ever believed that I had the remotest possibility of having cancer. He really wouldn’t look at that possibility. So I went through that, physically, pretty much alone. Which I think in the end you probably do, anyway. I was very aware that the jig could be up.”

But, Gallagher says, “I think you could live several lifetimes and not hit it so well” as she has in her relationship with Carver (who himself underwent an operation for lung cancer in October, 1987). When both writers are home, as they are for at least half the year, they usually split up during the day and get together in the evenings. They read and critique all of each other’s work.

During her early years of writing after the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Gallagher did “the gypsy poet thing” of working temporary jobs at different colleges and universities around the country. She won a Guggenheim and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and in 1980 was hired full-time by Syracuse University, where she’s now a full professor. She usually teaches there during the fall semesters.

Yet she always returns to Port Angeles. ‘If I had all the money I spent getting back here, well, I could have built three houses, I’m sure!” she says, laughing.

At night, from her second-floor worktable, Gallagher can see the lights of ships crossing the strait. A lighthouse rhythmically flashes white and green. Mornings, fog may envelop the house.

“There’s a sense of mystery” to the country around Port Angeles, Gallagher says, a feeling that “there is something [here] you don’t know and you will never know.”

“Port Angeles is a place of solitude for me,” she says. “I love the sense of wildness that is there in the landscape, the feeling that there is wildlife and wild terrain that hasn’t been domesticated. Being close to that wildness encourages a kind of mental and spiritual freedom in me.”

Penelope Moffet is the author of one book of poems, Keeping Still (Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, 1995). Her poems, stories and articles have appeared in Green Fuse, the Missouri Review, the Sun, the Los Angeles Times, Publishers Weekly, the Devil’s Millhopper, Columbia, and other magazines, as well as in the anthology What Wildness Is This: Women Write About the Southwest (University of Texas Press, 2007). She lives in Southern California.