A Conversation With Tess Gallagher
WHAT BETTER WAY to introduce Tess Gallagher than to quote the final stanza of the title poem of her first collection, Instructions to the Double:
It’s a dangerous mission. You
could die out there. You
could go on forever.
Reading these lines in my early twenties, when I had first come to poetry, was quite heady stuff. This stanza contained an entire, sprawling manifesto. Poetry as danger; as a way to live; until death do you part. Now, however, twenty years later, I realize Tess Gallagher was not offering a portrait of the writing life — the responsibility of writing — that involves only a young and fiery infatuation, but a commitment that involves a more enduring presence, encompassing decades and relocations from one continent to another-that involves loving and losing others, that includes helping others to bring their own voices forth, and being helped as well.
The consequence of Tess Gallagher’s commitment to the responsibilities of writing involves more than a long list of books, although these publications are indeed impressive. Her collections of poetry include Instructions to the Double, Under Stars, Willingly, Portable Kisses, and Moon Crossing Bridge. She has also published two volumes of new and selected poetry: Amplitude (1987, from Graywolf Press in the U.S.) and My Black Horse (1995, from Bloodaxe Books in England). Her fiction includes the collections At the Owl Woman Saloon and The Lover of Horses, while her essays on poetry have been collected in A Concert of Tenses.
But Tess Gallagher’s “mission” must also be explored off the page. For example, not only does much of her poetry deal with the various and entangled complexities of her family and childhood surroundings, she has also made a physical commitment to that world of beginnings by designing and building a house of her own — Sky House — in her birthplace of Port Angeles, Washington.
Since 1968, she has traveled to Ireland yearly, where she is an active participant in Irish letters, and which serves as the location of a number of her poems. She has also embarked upon a project with Irish raconteur Josie Gray to create a collection of stories with the working title Surrounded by Weasels, Stories from the West of Ireland (a selection of which directly follows the interview). She also has been active in aiding writers from other literatures translate their work into English, including collaborating with Romanian poet Liliana Ursu and American translator Adam Sorkin on the translation of Ursu’s poetry for a book in English entitled The Sky Behind the Forest (Bloodaxe Books, 1997). Artful Dodge is pleased to present three new poems from this ongoing translation project as well.
Last but not least, Tess Gallagher makes up one-half of certainly one of the premier literary couples within the American writing tradition. She is the “good woman,” whom the late short story writer and poet Raymond Carver described in his poem “Gravy,” published in The New Yorker directly following his death in August 1989. But, not only did she live and write in his company, and vice versa, for many years, but their collaborations also resulted in the screenplays Purple Lake and Dostoevsky.
Since his death, Tess Gallagher has served as the literary executor of Carver’s estate, and has written the introductions to his posthumous collections of poetry A New Path to the Waterfall, All of Us, and The Complete Poems of Raymond Carver. She also worked with Robert Altman on the creation of Altman’s 1993 film Short Cuts, based on nine of Raymond Carver’s short stories. Most recently, her collection of essays, Soul Barnacles: On the Literature of a Relationship: Tess Gallagher and Raymond Carver, appeared from the University of Michigan Press.
The following conversation took place on November 13, 1999, in the home of art historian (and Tess’s long-time friend) Ann Albritton, two days after the poet appeared in the Wooster Forum series at the College of Wooster.
During her presentation and reading of her work, entitled “Imagining the Perfect Reader,” Tess Gallagher presented her long poem, “The Dogs of Bucharest,” which we are also pleased to present in the following special section devoted to this American poet’s ongoing life and work. —Daniel Bourne, Wooster, Ohio, December 21, 2000.
Daniel Bourne: In “Borrowed Strength,” your introductory essay to the selection of your poetry appearing in William Heyen’s anthology The Generation of 2000, you write, “I know I’m writing towards an ultimate disappearance.” Even then, say in the poem “Tableau Vivant,” you seem very serious about grappling, through the preservation of poetry, with this ultimate disappearance of the people you have known. Has your life and writing since then confirmed this earlier notion, or does it seem to have come from an earlier you, while you have moved on?
Tess Gallagher: I think it was preparatory to my book, Moon Crossing Bridge, actually. I’m not sure exactly when that poem was written, whether my father had died at that point or not. But we’re mortal, our death is inevitable. We’re always going to have our nose to that window. Later, I went very, very deeply into the disappearance of my companion and love, Raymond Carver, in Moon Crossing Bridge. And in doing so, of course, you go into your own death space, too.
DB: Do you think you write about death differently now than you did as a younger poet?
Gallagher: “Tableau Vivant ” seems to me to have been written at more of a removal. I’m outside the event and I’m even a little ironic about it. In Moon Crossing Bridge, there are a few poems that make use of irony, but that’s not the main tool. My tone is more lyrical, more impassioned and mysterious.
DB: Because you are there very much within the experience, having experienced the loss directly, so that it’s much harder to achieve the ironic distance of a young poet, someone who is able to only imagine the process of death?
Gallagher: I think there’s distance, but it’s not ironic distance. It’s the lyric distance, which is also an immersion.
DB: One of the questions Artful Dodge often ask writers is where they woke up as a writer; the time in their lives when they began to suspect they would end up living a life dedicated to writing. Did you have a sense of waking up in this way? Was there something about the need to talk about the place where you lived or your family?
Gallagher: I can remember those early poems I wrote in Theodore Roethke’s class. One in particular was about going hunting with my father and his having shot a deer that didn’t die. We had to follow this trail of blood through the woods and it was a very moving experience for me. Finally, when we were about to find the deer, my father made me stay back. He wanted me to be a part of the hunt, but he didn’t want me to see the actual dying, in case the deer wasn’t dead yet. It was a very defining moment, and I tried to write about that. That may be the first real poem. I thought I was getting into the idea of what a poem might be. But, I don’t know that I “woke up.” I think poetry did rather kidnap me; that I just, poem by poem, was baby-stepping my way into the great, large cathedral — or forest — of poetry.
DB: What occasioned your ending up at the feet of such a large tree as Theodore Roethke?
Gallagher: Audacity. Ignorance. I didn’t know that I wouldn’t belong, and that was a great help to me. He had quite wonderful students in his literature classes. They were very well prepared. I managed to get into his writing class in the third quarter, in the spring. On the first day he told us that those of us who’d just come in, and I think there were only about three of us, that we’d have to be geniuses to stay up with everybody else. Then he began to prove it by talking in a wide-ranging way about poetry and poets. I didn’t know a lot of the writers he was talking about. I really was very frightened to be in there, and I asked to be excused. I told him I didn’t think I was ready. But he wouldn’t let me leave. He just said, in a very humorous way, with the sexual implication quietly there, “If you’re coming dear, come now.” He died that summer, so if I hadn’t gone into the class I would have missed him entirely. But, I took heart that he was willing for me to be there. I was mostly silent except for recitation. Otherwise I said very little in the class. I just listened. But I was physically effected every single class. I went out weak-kneed. Every class I was stricken, and I would go to the library and just read any name he had mentioned. I would find their books. I was at the library all the time, trying to catch up, trying to be worthy of the experience. Years later, things he said continue to come to me so I’m still holding class with him. There are things he said. . . I can’t even tell you what they might be, but I know they have occurred and still do occur, where I have some recognition, something he was trying to emphasize.
DB: Last night, you read one of your new poems, “The Dogs of Bucharest,” and I also have in mind the section of poems on Ireland in Under Stars. Is there something about new places you’re visiting that attracts you as a writer? Is there a difference in your approach to writing poems about places new to you vis-a-vis poems about your old stomping grounds as a child?
Gallagher: Well, your ground is quite different, much more shaky when you’re writing about a place that you’re just visiting, especially when you’re not a part of that culture. I think the unknowns are very attractive, but they’re also dangerous. There are a lot of poems I haven’t written that I might have about Northern Ireland, but because I knew the poets of Northern Ireland and felt it was rather their turf, I haven’t said much. I’ve written a few poems, but mostly I’ve deferred to these poets because they live that situation. But I think the poems you write out of experiencing another culture have exotic possibilities that won’t come as quickly to you in your own backyard. That’s tasty. We like to read books that have different flavors, that have things we don’t know, that we have to learn. I think that extends our reach.
DB: So writing a poem about these new flavors is enticing in the same way that being a reader of the exotic is.
Gallagher: Yes, exactly. You’re your first reader. You have things to satisfy in yourself.
DB: Going back to that early deer poem you were talking about, do you remember realizing there are things exotic in your own backyard, in your own background, and that these are very fertile areas to deal with in poetry?
Gallagher: I never really thought of them as exotic. I have more believed in the stature of the ordinariness of them, if that’s the way to put it. I suppose it is exotic, the detail of my father having black money, that he would take this black money out and give it to us as children. Not so many children had to go to school with black money to buy their school lunches. This is an exotic detail: that the sulfur had changed the metal in his pocket and made it black. So that might be an example of what you’re talking about. But, to try to present intimate family members in your poetry is very hard. I think it’s much harder than the exotic because you don’t know what will make them come alive, make them appear before the reader as they do before you, so tenderly and so bound to your life.
DB: Or make them mythic?
Gallagher: To make them large enough, yes.
DB: Did you revise any of your earlier poems that you collected in Amplitude or My Black Horse?
Gallagher: Not much. I did add dedications in My Black Horse. There was a sense that a lot of those poems were attached to particular people. I’m glad I secured the belonging of the poems to those particular individuals. With Amplitude, there were a few poems that Harold Schweizer, who helped me put that collection together, wanted out. He wanted “The Hug” out, I remember. Ray loved that poem, so it stayed in. Harold, on the other hand, defended all the horse poems. There are some very mysterious horse poems in there. Because they weren’t clear to Ray, because they were more in the alchemical, magical zone, Ray couldn’t get to everything in them. He didn’t think they belonged. He thought they were less good. But Harold defended them and I kept them. So, that’s what I remember of the making of Amplitude.
DB: The Heyen anthology, The Generation of 2000, has itself been around for a couple of decades, and the year 2000 is now almost upon us. Do you have any sense that you and your work belong to a certain generation of poets distinct not just from the mid-century Formalist poetry that preceded you, but also from the poetry being generated now by younger writers?
Gallagher: That’s quite a question. My feeling is that I don’t belong to any group in the way I write. I think that I’m straddling things in my work, writing this intense, lyrical poem, being able to continue to write that, but not in the Formalist sense. No rhymes, no fixed stanzas. Then, working at the other end of the spectrum, to write this quite wide-ranging, narrative, dramatic, cinematic kind of poem. There are writers, of course, who also write both kinds of those poems, but I don’t know who’s doing it simultaneously. I’m like a hand that opens, then makes a fist. Opens, then draws in on itself, flexing. But I don’t feel I’m anecdotal in the way some narrative poetry is. Even though it may enter in, it’s not the main element. Rather the rhythms are very driving and strong, and the image is still the important element. And mystery. Maybe I’m out of the mainstream in that way, in that I refuse to give up the element of mystery in the more lyrical poems, and I think that’s why I keep that way of working, because it wouldn’t satisfy me just to tell stories.
DB: So you don’t really have any sense of there being a generation. And, not only that, you don’t feel really connected to what others might say is your generation.
Gallagher: No, I don’t really. But I know where I began. I began in that generation of women writers who stepped forth out of the feminist revolution. That was very, very, formative. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were extremely important at the beginning to the forming of my mind, a certain attitude that was important, say, in Instructions to the Double, in the poem and in the book.
DB: To me, the title poem “Instructions to the Double” seemed like a manifesto. Women have been called this and that, but now it is time women named themselves, and wrote their own ferocious stories.
Gallagher: It was a very important poem. And I’m feeling more and more that the fact we as women and men who want the best for women still need that poem is the worst news. I mean, I wish the poem by now had become an old antique carriage, this sort of shrine-like remnant of how things used to be. But, in fact, it’s not, because women young and old still need that poem. And they still need poems like “Beginning To Say No.” It’s still pretty much a “yes” culture for women, at many levels. Although it’s changing, thank God. But, yes, I do feel close to poets like Linda Gregg or Louise Glück, poets in whom I recognize things, so that I want to take their arm, carry them in my heart.
DB: But these connections don’t necessarily show up in the poetry itself?
Gallagher: No, not really. I’m not working off any current American writers. I think you would probably have to go to Anna Akhmatova, maybe, or to Louise Bogan to gauge where my lyric sense is coming from, and to Roethke, to John Donne, his metaphysical poetry. But he’s a much more ordered mind than mine. His figures are worked out and honed in quite another way. Mine are much more serendipitous. I heard the name of a tune on the radio yesterday that reminded me of my tone and method. It was called “Black Jazz.” That’s me! Jazz can never be sad really because there’s so much that’s together. But it’s serious play.
DB: Following up on your statement that some of your sensibilities as a poet stemmed from Plath and Sexton and the feminist movement at that time, I wanted to ask if you felt the need early on to stake your ground as a woman poet vis-a-vis any male poets, either individually or collectively? Or, do you feel like you were automatically accepted as a poet from the very beginning?
Gallagher: It was important to me to speak from a woman’s point of view at that particular time. I think the poems we’ve been talking about, like “Instructions to the Double” or “Beginning To Say No,” are strong poems, but this type of poem was also controlled and measured in emotional tenor. That gave it its strength. There was a lot of wild-haired ranting that did go on. Probably. Why not? Centuries had been brewing it. So, I think that all did have to come out when it did. You write in your time. You are of that time. I did have things to say on that ground. In any case, Instructions to the Double was picked up and read. That book sold out immediately, and I think it rather shocked Graywolf. You know, it was printed by hand, with five hundred or so copies. The edition was gone as if you’d snapped your fingers. It had to go to off-print immediately. I don’t know how many editions have been made of that book since then. Now it’s in this classic edition by Carnegie-Mellon. So, it’s still finding its place. But, in regards to males’ reactions, I was just trying to think. No man during that time of the feminist revolution dared say anything. They were as shocked as anyone that all of this came pouring out. They rather fell silent before it, as I recall.
DB: One of the reasons why I’m asking this question is that in the previous issue of Artful Dodge, a colleague of mine, Nancy Grace, interviewed Joyce Johnson and Hettie Jones from the Beat Generation, the Beat community. For those women, who were connected with some of the Beat poets, it was very difficult to be taken seriously as writers at all. Only recently has Joyce Johnson, for instance, really come into her own as a writer and separated herself from the shadow of Kerouac, even though when she first met Kerouac, she had a book contract with a major publisher. But her own writing seemed to fly out the window. It seems as if, during this period when you started writing, a lot of those old battles were not necessarily over, even if there weren’t any overt pressures put upon you, individually.
Gallagher: No, all that change took place in the late ’60s. Much of Instructions to the Double was probably written in 1970, right before I went to Iowa, so it was right in that period. Everything was pretty lively. There was a great opening. It was as if you found your permission to speak.
DB: In 1999, are there any things you would like to complain about in regards to the state of American poetry. I’m reminded of that one line back in the title poem to Instructions to the Double, how you want your readers to go to poetry as to a temple of fire, not some snooty country club.
Gallagher: I don’t like poems that are just decor. If the poet is sitting in bed in his ratty sweater, his elbows out, writing about the act of writing poetry or whatever music is playing, I’m not going to be interested probably. There is a lot of this sort of schmoozing going on. I have to feel that the poet has some stake in the matter. The questions always lurking with me are “What does it matter? Why are you writing this?” I test my reading, I test my own writing against those phrases. Make me care. I must be awful, I think, as a teacher, because I say it to students as well. Make me care about what it is you had to write about. You have to make me care in the rhythms, the images, the subject matter, what it is you’re willing to take up to grab my attention with. I think it’s a good test to think if that person were on their death-bed, would that piece of work have any relevance. But maybe it wouldn’t. And maybe that’s the wrong test too, because there are some pieces you just want to write that have a melodic or an incidental appeal.
DB: But there’s something in the language that makes someone care, that entices the reader or the listener?
Gallagher: I think it could be enough that the music of a poem is compelling. This could be the happening of that poem. But I am meeting poems in the magazines that have only a veneer. They’re very shellacked. They’re very engineered and gesturally pert, apt. But I’m going to forget them and I’m not going to go back to them. I’m interested in the type of poetry that will haunt me and stop me in my tracks. That I’ll have to share with someone; that I cannot just close the book to. That I have to ring up someone and say “Look here. Did you read? Did you hear this?” I think that impulse to share is an important signal. I remember talking with Jeffrey Skinner about a particular poet and I said, “Yeah, but the guy doesn’t have a single wound! He cries out from nothing! I can’t find that any harm has been done to that consciousness.” So, I’m having a hard time trying to connect with him.
DB: A certain element of inauthenticity, there.
Gallagher: I think we do connect through our pains and questions quite a lot, and he was just missing too many keys on the keyboard for me.
DB: What drew you to the work of Liliana Ursu to the point that you collaborated with her and Adam Sorkin on translating her poetry into English to create the collection The Sky Behind the Forest? Was it her work or Romanian poetry in general that attracted you?
Gallagher: I love it that she has this wonderfully religious soul that speaks outright to God in the poems. That is missing in American contemporary poetry. At least I haven’t encountered it with the veracity and the emotional and intellectual truth, plus language and wit. Ursu isn’t like Emily Dickinson, testing God and even redefining God. To quote an old hymn, she’s worshiping and trusting and resting in the everlasting bosom of the Lord. That’s so different to have on the scene, and with stature, not pandering or simpleminded, and it’s a real challenge to present it because the main expression of American poetry is so secular. I love her drama. I love the way in which the endings of her poems come down. As she says about both of us: “We take their heads!” and she’ll make a mark in the air like a sword. She is describing the way both of us like to work in our poetry readings, that we both like that emphasis at the ends of the poems. I think we have that in common.
DB: So you take their heads.
Gallagher: We take their heads. We don’t invite, we kidnap.
DB: And didn’t the way you came to know her also figure in your attraction to her work ?
Gallagher: Well, you know she was writing under the time of oppression by Nicolae Ceausescu, and so another thing that attracted me was this voice which had been compressed and not allowed to talk about many, many things. Most of the hardships of the life under Ceausescu had been submerged into these love poems of hers that I later began to work with in The Sky Behind the Forest. I first heard them in Barcelona, and I heard them in the Romanian because we were both guests at the Catalonian poetry festival in Barcelona. I think the year was about 1990. Ceausescu had just fallen. Liliana had been invited to come to Barcelona to the festival previous to this, but was not allowed out of the country. The year before at the festival they had put her book on an empty chair to signify her absence. So, finally, she’s there. She’s full of this sudden freedom, and we struck up a conversation. I heard her read. I thought, it was magnificent. I thought, “this voice is just incredible. I don’t know a thing she’s saying, but the person in the poems is very compelling.” So we struck up this conversation — it was after the reading — and we were watching some Andalusian dancing, gypsies dancing, and we were sharing that, sitting side by side, then beginning to talk a little. We just really took to each other right away. Staying at the same hotel, we began to have meals together. After the festival was over, I wanted to go on to Madrid and so did she. Then we decided we would go together and then on to Toledo to see the El Grecos together. So that’s how the friendship was forged. We told each other our lives just as you always do when you have a feeling that this person will understand you and you can share everything. Just an immediate trust, an immediate bond. So that was the beginning of the friendship, and it has been really wonderful and is still ongoing. But I didn’t really begin to be involved with her poetry until I was invited later to go to an international poetry festival at Sibiu, which happens to be where Liliana was born. She and I had been in correspondence, and she saw to it that I was invited to this. At the festival I met her first American English translator, Adam Sorkin, who teaches in Pennsylvania and I got to know him a bit. Then on the way back, on the airplane, it happened we could sit together and he began to show me translations of Liliana’s work. Then I began to show him a few things with the poems and I think he was very happy with the kinds of things I was suggesting, mainly tactical things, and later he sent me the manuscript and asked if I would help get it published. But I didn’t think it was ready and I asked him to please turn the manuscript over to me and I would work on it. He was very, very generous and really wanted those translations to be the best they could be. So I did work on it. He had gotten these originally from Liliana, made versions from her English and defined them as far as he could go, then I worked from those versions. Next we checked them back with Liliana.
DB: In working with her poems so closely as you were, trying to fashion them into poetry in English, were there any particular aspects of her poetry that you noticed, interesting things that as a poet you might have learned, some remainder of a Romanian sense of lyricism somehow still bubbling up in the English versions?
Gallagher: I really wasn’t in a comparative mode or a learning mode. I wasn’t thinking of pilfering from her to garland myself as it seems some American translators do. I think she and I are already very close in our work actually, and our relationship proceeds from our personal and artistic closeness more than any cultural or language differences. Her love of the strong image is also in a lot of my work, while her emphaticness, a real strength in her I so much admire, is something I aim for in my poems. A strength of voice, of character, of substance.
DB: I noticed that the attribution of translator is handled very scrupulously with the Ursu book. It was translated by Liliana Ursu, with Adam J. Sorkin, and Tess Gallagher. There are many readers of other literatures in translation who might wish that other translation projects would be so scrupulous in their attributions. As a matter of fact, some writers and translators have criticized the so called “English-ing” of translations by various American poets creating English poems out of literal versions provided by the native speaker and then passing off the resulting translations as being translated by the American poet without even any acknowledgment of the native speaker. This isn’t so much a begrudging of the new work coming into English, but it’s rather a concern that the quasi-translator is not given credit where credit is due. Do you feel that there is a problem with poets not knowing the languages that they are purporting to translate?
Gallagher: But, no matter how the translating gets done, it needs to be done; that is, if we want fine American poets to be involved at this stage in their careers with, say a writer from Romania, Bulgaria, Moldavia, Croatia, The Czech Republic or any of these Eastern European countries where we don’t know the language, we don’t have time to go learn those languages. Most writers at this stage will still be teaching, they will have their families, and they will be trying to do their own work as well, so to try to ask them to learn that language is probably unrealistic at this point. Especially since those foreign writers, many of them, do know English. Liliana Ursu, for instance, is a wonderful English speaker, but she can’t get her poems to come clear yet in American English, although she does very, very well, at getting us as close as she can to where those poems are located. We just don’t have a word for this process yet. Yes, I think “translation” is quite a sloppy term, and everybody’s trying to fit a lot of things into that word. We need a new word, though I don’t know what it would be. The “with so-and-so” wording was the best I could do. I think if I were being translated into another language, I would appreciate it that any good poet in that language I was coming into would respect my work enough to help me get into that language in the strongest possible way, but without hijacking me entirely!
DB: I must admit that although I’m not one of those people who are against poets working on putting into English poems from languages they don’t know, I do have problems with the term translation. It might not even be an intentional attempt of falsification on the part of the poet making the English versions. It might just be the inadequacy of that word translation.
Gallagher: I think it is. As I was saying to you last night, we’re not getting rich doing this. We’re doing it because we love this poetry. That’s the only reason I became involved with Liliana’s poems. I have never translated anything-here again that word — or been involved with translating ever before. I have since. I was asked by Chana Bloch and her co-translator, Chana Kronfeld, to help in a very mild but engaged way with the Yehuda Amichai book, Open Closed Open which they’ve been working on. They invited me to work with them and I thought it was a real honor. Then, as I went over the manuscript I found it the most compelling book of poetry I’ve seen in any language. I thought the English it was coming into, under their work, was superb. I know that they know the language, but they still profited by the fact that Chana is a wonderful poet and maybe also from having me take a look at it, helping them settle out whatever questions that they still had. Since I’m not Jewish, even my ignorance served them.
DB: Maxim Gorky once made the comment that he didn’t believe in God because he knew Leo Tolstoy was alive, and the notion of Tolstoy and God co-existing in one universe was as far-fetched as the idea of two male bears inhabiting the same cave. Although I won’t speak to Gorky’s theological soundness I do like how his image resonates with the complexities of two writers living in one household. Any comments about the complexities of living with Raymond Carver, especially in regards to any awkwardness, any disruptions of your work to help develop and promote his writing, or vice versa?
Gallagher: I think more of the disruptions came from teaching at Syracuse University, that I had to run the program the first year I was there. I did run the household, but I hired someone to help as well. I loved those days. I found Ray a big encouragement to my own short story writing. I was just beginning to write stories again at that time. He protected me a lot, and I only realized this after he was gone. He was extremely jealous of my company in a very beautiful way, not in an irksome way. It was partly because he needed my help with his work, but also because he wanted me to have my work, time for my work. We did a lot of things as a couple to make room for it. He wasn’t fussy about meals. If I didn’t want to cook, good. We’d get Chinese take-out or we’d snack. It wasn’t a three-meals a day and you cook it, Tess.
DB: I remember the couple eating the french fries, breaded oysters and lemon cookies at the beginning of his poem “Marriage.” The couple is getting ready to watch Anna Karenina on television, and they’re having a very unhealthy, but still probably quite tasty, meal beforehand. But, still, any disruptions or awkwardness?
Gallagher: The classic example would have been with the short story “Cathedral,” where the material happened to us at the same time and, of course, Ray knew that I would write about it as well because it was my friend visiting, this blind friend. Ray knew all the back-ground of the story, too. I had told him a lot about my working relationship with this man when we worked together in Seattle. But, Ray didn’t respect anybody’s ground as far as story-telling goes. If the story was out there, and he could get to it before you did, he was going to do it. But I had to run the writing program, and I had hardly any room to get my work done, so he did get to it first, and he knew how to make it his own.
DB: He was the bear who got to the salmon first.
Gallagher: Yes. So I had to make the decision: “Well, okay, he got to it first, so does that mean I can’t do anything?” And I decided, no, I could do something. So I wrote my version of it from a woman’s point of view and Ray loved the story. I sent it out a few places and it came back and I got discouraged and I said, “It’s probably no good.” But Ray said, “No, that’s a good story. I’m going to send it out. I’ll make the envelope out and send it to Joyce Carol Oates at the Ontario Review. He actually made the envelope out and put the story into it. I licked it, got stamps on it and off it went. And she took it. At that point, it was called “The Harvest.” Then I later rewrote it and it’s in At the Owl-Woman Saloon, entitled “Rain Flooding Your Campfire.” It’s expanded and changed yet again. All these versions! I enjoyed the play of that story. It actually became a kind of joke for us, I mean, the fact of it, you know. Serious work, serious stories, but between us, we had a lot of good laughs over it. Now both stories are anthologized and taught together in The Story and Its Writer, edited by Ann Charters.
DB: Of course, Gorden Lish for a while has been laying claim to making Raymond Carver as a writer because of editing his work. I know you’ve reacted to Lish elsewhere, but is there anything more you might want to say?
Gallagher: I haven’t really reacted to him. I have told, in a very brief way, some of what occurred in my essay called “Nightshine: Ten More Years with Ray,” that was published in Philosophy and Literature in the summer of, what was it, 1999? But I didn’t get into the fray immediately after that publication because I’m so emotionally invested in the whole question. I’m not a bystander like D.T. Max who wrote that piece for The New York Times Magazine. I have things at stake. I just didn’t want to go into that particular arena having the intimate knowledge that I do, because I didn’t want these things to be pulled out of me in that particular form while an issue is “hot.” I think that there’s a right time for the things that I feel, to come forward with them, and it is probably better that I do so in writing because speaking in an interview format-even if you can make some adjustment as you come toward publication — it’s still a kind of microwave medium and a responsive medium instead of a considered, meditative effort. I have to speak not just from my point of view, but from my companioning of Ray, and Ray, while he was alive, never wanted to cause harm to Gordon Lish. Of course, this thing that’s being done to Ray is being done because he’s dead. He can’t answer. There’s a great temptation for me to rush home and start typing, but I think that my place is to do otherwise, to have patience with this question until we can really see it more. I don’t know what worth these revelations have. The claim, let’s say, of Gordon Lish to have authored, or at least so heavily edited, Ray. . .
DB: Lishified him?
Gallagher: I don’t know what the significance of Lish’s role is/was because Ray didn’t ultimately accept it, as we know from his letter, which was quoted in part in the D.T. Max article. He did not want that book What We Talk About When We Talk About Love to be published in the form Lish designed. His wish did not prevail, but he did correct all those versions that he wanted to correct in the final book, Where I’m Calling From. I think it’s a cautionary tale for writers and editors: to try and somehow maintain respect for each other and when they can’t, then they should part company. That’s what happened in this case, that respect fell away at a crucial moment for Ray.
DB: Do you think that the first falling away of respect might have been Lish’s respect for Carver, though? Wanting to do such radical things to the stories?
Gallagher: Absolutely. I think it was very unfortunate that — whatever motivated Lish, one doesn’t know — he sought to override the writer’s wishes in regard to his own work. And he did override Ray’s wishes. We have the results of that. As you asked me in your writing class today: why did I allow that book to be out there still? Well, I allow it to be out there because it’s part of the story. I think that cautionary tale is important for writers and for editors. When you begin working with an editor, you enter a relationship of trust. But also you know you need to stick up for yourself when you can. Ray was not at a strong point then. He was recovering from alcoholism, so there’s every reason to wonder about his strength. His first priorities were really to stay sober, just doing everything in his power not to die. It was a miracle he was writing at all at that point. He hadn’t written for four years. He’d been in this alcoholic recovery, and these were the first things he’d written after four years of nothing. When you know the whole story, you grieve for both of them, you really do. You grieve for Ray, having to suffer, and having something going forward out of sheer survival that was not his own. And you grieve for Gordon Lish because he didn’t honor Ray and because he lost an incredible friend.
DB: I have a question about your work now that you have been exploring not just poetry, but fiction and screenplay-writing. Did you switch to fiction because you could say things there that you weren’t able to say in poetry, or was it just plain playfulness, or the proximity of being around Ray Carver?
Gallagher: I had already written fiction when I was at the University of Washington and at the same time I was writing poetry for Theodore Roethke’s class. In fact, my first published work was a short story called “The Newly Dead.” It was based on the death of my youngest brother who died in a car accident at age fifteen. I really wanted to get into the fiction writing program at Stanford, and I applied, but I didn’t get in. So I was writing stories and poems at the same time. It just happened that my poems, at that point, won a place for me at Iowa. Mark Strand was very helpful in getting me to the attention of the poets there. So, when I could get a teaching assistantship, I went to Iowa. But Ray revived my love of stories. I remember when I went to Iowa I put all my story-books into the attic of my parent’s garage, and just took all my poetry books. It was like “I’m going to intensely devote myself to poetry,” and I really left prose behind at that point. But I came back to prose through the side door, the essay. I was writing essays when Ray met me. I wrote in our living room in El Paso, Texas, in front of a juniper fire. And that inspired Ray to write some essays, too. But it was in El Paso that I wrote my first story of that period, one called “At Mercy,” and from then on I kept writing them. Ray was just so encouraging. He loved it I was writing these stories.
DB: Since then, have any poems started out as stories or vice versa?
Gallagher: I didn’t really have that mixing of impulse that Ray had. I generally know what I’m going to do and in what genre I’m going to work. I can’t write them at the same time very easily. So, I generally have a period of fiction, then go to the poetry.
DB: Because of your working with screenplays, do you have any observations about moving from the world of poetry into the world of film and drama ?
Gallagher: I actually studied film at Iowa and I could have had a degree in film. I made films there and didn’t really know all that was preparing me to work with Robert Altman on Short Cuts. But it was extremely helpful to have been in editing rooms for a couple of years, to know a lot about the camera, shooting and editing. It’s just very valuable. I enjoyed that work very much, but it was a world I was glad to leave when it was over and go back to my “cheap movies.” I used to kid Bob, show him a poem and say, “Here’s one of my cheap movies!” I didn’t have to hire a bunch of actors, get the film, keep the cameras rolling, fight with the producers.
DB: All the while on a shoestring budget.
Gallagher: You know, that film was made on about twelve million dollars, which is almost nothing in movie terms.
DB: Nothing in the world of Hollywood.
Gallagher: Right, right. But think how far that much money would go for poetry! I thought it was an extremely exciting period in my life and I was glad that I wasn’t teaching so I was able to go down there. I went down twice to L.A., to the sets.
DB: Do you feel the dialogue in the film preserved the dialogue, the language, of the stories? Or were there some changes?
Gallagher: No, no, there are many changes. By virtue of film being such a different medium, sometimes in the movie it’s going to take longer than in the story and sometimes it’s going to take less time.
DB: So there was some evolution of language.
Gallagher: Oh yes. I think Harold Schweizer, the critic from Bucknell did a whole essay on this, which will be out in Qwerty, a French magazine. Schweizer brings in a term which I think is very wonderful: “translatability.” That Altman was responding to Ray’s translatability and was not trying to translate Ray to film. The accuracy question, “Did he use exactly those words that Ray used in his stories?” isn’t very applicable to what Altman did, because he was bringing those stories onto his own turf. I suppose there are some people who want to interpret that as disrespectful to the originals, but I really didn’t. I thought Altman too is a maker, and he is not going to take that path of moving these stories verbatim onto the screen in some documentary fashion. I don’t think he could have done that even if he had aimed at it. His own psyche was really different from Ray’s. They meet on some very important points, but I think his film might have failed if he had tried to do that. I think it’s finally going to turn out to be a very important American film, defining what it was to be American in the nineties. Ray’s stories belong to the eighties, but also, like Chekhov’s stories, they travel well.
DB: Right after Ray Carver’s death, his poem “Gravy” appeared in The New Yorker as a sort of self-eulogy, self-obituary. Were you aware of his working on it, of the moment he started to compose it?
Gallagher: I was aware even of the moment that the poem would be written. That occurred after a conversation we were having at Sky-House, out on the upper deck. Ray was openly mourning the fact of his life coming to an end. There was just almost nothing I could think of to console us and him. Suddenly I said, “You know, Ray, it just might not have happened at all. We just might not have gotten these ten years at all. You might have died before I even met you. You might never have gotten sober.” At that point, Ray said, “You’re right, babe. It’s gravy. It’s all been gravy.” And I heard that word “gravy” just hit him in a certain way and I knew it had gone into the place where a poem gets generated. There was just a particular way of listening that we had and you could recognize when something might germinate. I knew it had gone into the bank in the sense of his going to be able to bring that conversation of ours to fruition in a poem.
DB: Was it a poem that he worked on quite a bit, or did he pretty much just write it and that was that?
Gallagher: A lot of those poems just came very fully formed, but we did make adjustments and changes. I looked over all those poems and did make suggestions.
DB: How did it come about then to be “on hands” at The New Yorker already?
Gallagher: It was part of the book. It was already in the manuscript. You see, that manuscript was ready to go. Nobody but me had seen that poem when he died. When I did go into the office and read it with him, of course I was very moved. First to meet it as a moment between us, then to think of it as being still there after Ray had gone. I sent it to The New Yorker after his death.
DB: And they published it almost immediately?
DB: Have you read Without, Donald Hall’s book about the death of Jane Kenyon, their time together trying to deal with her upcoming death?
Gallagher: Oh I read it, yes. I think that book was very moving. He was able to do things I couldn’t do in my book Moon Crossing Bridge at all. He was able to volunteer, in such a personal way, that relationship. I remember Greg Kuzma writing to me after I had shown him the poems in Moon Crossing Bridge. I know he didn’t mean to, but it brought me to attention. It made me think that maybe what I was writing wasn’t good at all. Greg said, “Where is Ray in these poems?” But it’s true that Ray, in his daily-ness, was seldom present in the way Jane is for Don. I knew both Jane and Don, but I got to know Jane better, and I got to know Don better in those poems, so I’m personally grateful. But I didn’t give that day-to-day intimacy in my poems. Mine were written from a very different place. I didn’t seem to have a choice in how those poems turned out. My poems were dictated almost, sounds strange to say, but they just arrived, fully formed. They were an enigma to me. I just felt like “This is beyond me.” I felt the poems knew more than I knew. I don’t get that sense with Donald’s poems. I get that wonderful sense that he’s completely an equal to his subject matter. He knows what he’s doing and he’s just very much able to do it.
DB: I’m not saying this in a way to diminish his poems at all, but it seemed that they were more a type of chronicle of what happened.
Gallagher: Yes. I think that’s true. An insightful, deep accompaniment.
DB: It’s not just a chronicle of events, but of all of the emotions and so on. But your collection would not be termed a chronicle at all?
Gallagher: No, mine isn’t a chronicle as such, whereas his is an important document of going through that territory of losing a loved one and the awful and tender machinery of that. In Moon Crossing Bridge I give a few glimpses of Ray and me together, but mine is written in the moment after the death mainly, and then it’s done in flashbacks. I’m not telling you about going to radiation with Ray. I situated my poems differently. That wasn’t a place I could give, that I knew how to give in poetry.
DB: One final question, and this, hopefully, is more on not just a lighter note, but an exuberant note. You were describing last night your work with an Irish storyteller. It seems like an interesting project.
Gallagher: Okay, this is Josie Gray we were talking about. Josie came into my life about five years ago. I knew two of his sisters. He is a widower. His wife had died, at the time I met him, about twelve years before. He had lived in this area of county Sligo called Lough Arrow, named after the lake. Ballindoon is the little town. It’s not even a town; it’s just a store. I had been going to this place since 1968, and I knew his family. I knew his mother, though I didn’t know his father. And I knew one of his brothers very well. But I had never met Josie. He was always off in another part of Ireland. So, about seven years after Ray’s death, I was in Dublin and one of Josie’s nieces said, “Would you ever take a look at our Josie?” She knew that I was getting interested in having companionship again, and she was saying, “my uncle is quite wonderful.” So I said, “Where is your Josie?” “He’s up at Mammy’s,” she said, “in Ballindoon,” which was exactly where I was going. So I met Josie and he was seventy years old and I thought surely they have to be kidding. This man is a good many years older than me. But I thought, “I’ll just see who he is.” So Eileen, his sister, cooked up a fishing trip for us. We went out fishing together and we had a wonderful time. He was such a great storyteller, you could tell immediately. I was just amused the whole time. I ended up staying over a day because he asked me to go to the horseraces in Sligo. But I didn’t know if I would ever really see him much again because I get to Ireland about once a year. Then he turned up in America on the east coast to see his daughters. He phoned me. It was the same year we’d met, and I said, “Well, you’ve gone that far, why don’t you come out?” So he came out and he ended up staying in Port Angeles for several months. We just have a wonderful companionship. Out of this, of course, has grown some unexpected things. That is, he began to paint. As of the last five years Josie’s been painting. He had his first show in Ireland, in Belfast on October ninth. It was a great success. His work is carried by the best gallery in the Northwest now, Foster/White. He’s able to have something he goes to everyday. So I think he more understands what it is I do now that he has his painting. Earlier, he had done everything there was to do to survive in Ireland, such as run a butcher shop, act as a rate collector, a gillie-gosh, I can’t think of the other things. But, in the course of all this it was maybe the time when he ran the pub that he especially honed this craft of storytelling. And the more I was around his storytelling the more I felt “isn’t it too bad that you can only have access to all this if you’re sitting in the room where he is”. I felt a lot of the culture of the area would be missing if these stories went off the planet. Earlier, I hadn’t given very much to that part of the country, although it had given me a lot because that’s where I wrote Under Stars, right down near Lough Arrow in a caravan next to the Abbey Ballindoon. So I decided I would record him when he was telling these stories and then have them taken off the tape by my then secretary Dorothy Catlett and see what they looked like on the page. For the last four years I’ve been recording these stories. Then, once I get them back from Dorothy, I ask Josie questions, things that aren’t quite clear in the story, and I also shape it a little bit, work with him on it. I’ll send it to him, whatever version I’ve brought it to. He’ll add what he needs to, change names, correct spellings.
DB: You mentioned that you had first heard these stories in the pub pretty much, where you couldn’t record them.
Gallagher: Right, I’d hear them in company, in the pub or in the car or wherever we happened to be. But then I would get him to tell me the stories when I could record them.
DB: And you would make notes?
Gallagher: Yes, I’d make notes when I heard them the first time so that I could cue him about the story later.
DB: And what do you call this that you are doing?
Gallagher: I don’t know what to call it. I wish somebody would give me a term. It’s another way of accompanying someone who’s very good at what he does. But I know without me this action wouldn’t happen, this act of bringing these stories to the page. They need quite different movements on the page than they do orally, at times.
DB: Another type of translation.
Gallagher: It is another type of translation, that awful, sloppy word again. Maybe I’ll come up with something in the interim. If we end up calling the collection Surrounded by Weasels, Stories from the West of Ireland, or maybe just simply The Courtship Stories, what would you put down there underneath the title? Stories by Josie Gray as told to Tess Gallagher? That’s too clumsy.
DB: Josie Gray with Tess Gallagher?
Gallagher: Maybe so. Or: Told by Josie Gray, written by Tess Gallagher. I have added some details that he may drop out from telling to telling. Or, I have added things that weren’t there in the beginning. So, it is a joint making. I’m very much present. And I know the culture after this long association with it. I know storytelling well enough, too. I know how to get those stories to come forward. How to get the melody line out so that the telling shines; it comes to the page. I hope people will love them. I read them for the America West Irish Studies Conference in Ellensburg, Washington, about a week ago and they came up and said “Where are these published?” and I said, “They’re not published yet.” Still working. I still feel the need to collect. We have about one hundred and seventy pages, with titles like “A Bad Night for Dogs,” “A Man Killed by Whiskey,” “A Stray Bullet and Sick Cattle,” “The Elbow,” “Coffin Money,” “Scanlon, The Divine Instrument.” With that one, I think we’ve changed that name to protect the guilty. “The Best Blood in Europe.” “The Hair,” “Tommy Flynn and his Bielding.” Do you know what a bielding is? It’s a type of a blister or boil. “The Fox and the Bullet.” “The Major in the Ditch.” “Trouble.” “Two Slippery Heifers.” It’s going to be fun.
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