A Conversation with Tess Gallagher
July 10, 1997
Tess Gallagher does her writing at Sky House, the home she designed and built for herself in Washington state. Situated in Port Angeles, where she was born, overlooking the landscape of her childhood, Sky House is a carefully constructed study springing from a complicated web of past and present. Here Gallagher attends to history much as she does in her poems and stories -- by honoring intricate temporal relationships.
Gallagher's books of poems, essays, and short stories -- alternately serious, funny, and melancholy -- include Under Stars (1978), A Concert of Tenses (1986), The Lover of Horses (1986), Moon Crossing Bridge (1992), My Black Horse: New and Selected Poems (1995), Portable Kisses (1996), and At the Owl Woman Saloon, due out September, 1997, from which her story "The Poetry Baron" (Atlantic, July, 1997) is taken. In addition to co-authoring two screenplays with her late husband, Raymond Carver, she also contributed to the making of the Robert Altman film, Short Cuts, based on Carver's stories.
A recipient of numerous literary awards and teaching positions, Gallagher, who during the academic year 1996-97 was the Edward F. Arnold Visiting Professor of English at Whitman College, will serve as Poet-in-Residence at Bucknell University for the spring semester of 1998.
Gallagher recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.
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The protagonist of your short story "The Poetry Baron" (July, 1997,
Atlantic) -- a bumbling, delusional poetry professor who sends his
students off to their "garrets" while mistaking the campus for Napoleon's
battlefield -- is a caricature of grandiose proportions. Can he be traced to any of your own university experiences?
"The Poetry Baron" certainly was fun to write. It came all in a great rush, very much the way some of my poems arrive. Just fully formed. I have revised the story many times, of course, working on the ordering of segments, inlaying what you call the "delusional" elements about Napoleon. I had been reading a lot of books about Napoleon and, like a painter, I just kept brushing on layers. I hope someone reading it can feel the fun.
Graduate writing programs have become increasingly popular during the past twenty years or so. As an alumna of the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, and with a handful of teaching positions under your belt, what are your thoughts on the place of contemporary poets and fiction writers in the university?
My own way of being fruitful in the academic community has been to work in little stints. Although I did teach for nine years at Syracuse University, it was usually only one semester a year, which allowed me to retain my own writing. Too much teaching empties me out, because I love it and try to excel. Even the emptiness is a good emptiness. But it's a great mystery to me how those writers who teach every year sustain their writing. I couldn't get to the deep water if I did it every year, all year. Sadly, universities don't help a writer protect the well they're drawing from. If a writer takes time from teaching, it's the writer who must pay the penalty of meager pay in order to protect the very essence of their being from which the writing springs. Too often the university is like a bad spiritual overlord in this regard. They should be as creative as they currently are frugal toward the work ecology of all professors in this regard.
Because I have many things in mind that I want to write now, and my craft in hand, I find I'm getting greedier for a completely solitary arena of thinking and reading and writing. As I was deciding to leave Syracuse in 1989 I hit a particular vein in my poetry that I didn't feel able to communicate to my students -- and I also wasn't sure that I wanted to. It was mysterious and my alchemist-muse didn't want anyone looking over her shoulder. So leaving the university altogether made sense. But only by really taking stock of my condition could I actually give up tenure to do it. I saw that I didn't have children to support, no husband, that I had these two beautiful houses in the Northwest -- and I couldn't imagine why I was in snowbound Syracuse. So I came home. I didn't know how I would get by financially. For a while I coasted on savings, living frugally, and then a three-year Lyndhurst grant allowed me to write At The Owl Woman Saloon.
As for students, I have found it wonderful to be with them recently at Whitman College. I get very fond of them as people and like getting to know them. If I'm successful they are going to be their own teachers. I aspire to being lovingly discarded like an old toy. Maybe kept around like an artifact of their early efforts. All I can do is give them a few little nudges and hopefully some benefit of thirty-five years of life as a writer. It is wonderful to be able to go into a classroom and talk about what you love. To read poems and to listen to young people recite them from memory. In that way I'm like the Poetry Baron -- I make students memorize poems. But they love it.
"The Poetry Baron" is part of your forthcoming short-story collection, At the Owl Woman Saloon. "Rain Flooding Your Campfire," another story in this collection, seems to tell Raymond Carver's celebrated story "Cathedral" from a different perspective. What led you to take this tack?
This story was originally written as "The Harvest," which was chosen by Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Smith to be published in the Ontario Review back in Fall/Winter 1983-84. It was written around the same time Ray wrote "Cathedral." Ray loved my story, and as I'm sure he would admit if he were here, it was my material. The blind man who visited us -- and upon whom both stories are based -- was my friend, and Ray knew I was going to write about it, but I was teaching and he wasn't, so he got to it first. When I finally had time I just went ahead and wrote mine. My story became its own story, but it was also in dialogue with his. Literature isn't a closed circuit. It's a universe full of intersecting dialogues. I understand that "The Harvest" is being taught with Ray's story in some literature and writing classes across the country. Now they'll have this version, "Rain Flooding Your Campfire," which goes a step further. Ray and I both loved rewriting a story, trying to see what it was about. So here are three views of the same material.
Although you have written numerous essays and four screenplays, the bulk of your printed work is divided between two collections of short stories and seven volumes of poetry. Do you feel most at home writing poems? Could you talk about the difference between writing prose and writing poetry?
Four years ago I would have answered that I feel most at home writing poems, but not now. Now I know the territory of the short story and I feel equally at home in both prose and poetry. At least I feel I can write a good sentence. Still, in any medium what I'm really trying to do is to unseat myself. After Moon Crossing Bridge and Portable Kisses I wanted to reposition my experience and my language -- get out into foreign and surprising waters -- so I started immersing myself in the short story.
If poems are deep-sea diving, writing fiction is foraging. Rhythms and metaphor can carry you in poetry, but fiction has a whole different tempo. In fiction you have to get involved with characters and human nature. While writing my short-story book At The Owl Woman Saloon, I had to be extremely alert to what people say and who they are because I was writing out of my place and out of the people around me. This foraging has bound me back to the community. A phrase like "I got a guy once" seems very Northwest. I heard its tempo first and then its sense. It became the title for one of my stories.
When I write poems I'm in the world in my most demanding way and the language can be much more dense. But there are certain blue-gray, incremental areas of experience which can't be conveyed at lyrical pitch. Then I need fiction. I like the language of fiction to be very transparent, conventional even -- the fish to the water -- so it reaches those gliding, slip-knot sequences of human interaction poetry can't easily get to. Writing fiction is more like sitting in a clearing and waiting to see if the deer will come. All that gray waiting and watching and slow magic. Poetry to me is lightning of the moment. It's second nature. I don't discard the power of poetry when I write fiction. Still, I'm more able to be profitably lost in prose right now, especially with a non-intrusive use of poetic elements. I believe all this prose writing will extend the reach of my poetry when I go back.
In your essay "The Poem as a Reservoir for Grief" you contend that poems are "the best and oldest forms we have for attending and absolving grief." Your Moon Crossing Bridge -- a book of poetry written in the wake of the death of your husband -- puts stock in this belief. When writing this book did you experience your grief as images and words, or as something even more abstract that you then struggled to pin down with language?
"The Poem as a Reservoir for Grief" was written in 1984, eight years before Moon Crossing Bridge, and although I didn't know it at the time, much of what I was writing in that essay was preparatory to those poems. At this point, I don't think the word "absolving" grief is what my work is about in Moon Crossing Bridge. That book was written partly in order to sustain the grieving process long enough for me to absorb the loss. I think the word "attending" is more true to what I was doing. I was noticing all the different inflections in the process of grieving and how lively and varied that experience is, how it quickens everything around you. In the epigraph I say that I'm going to carry the grief, and you have to get hold of an amorphous entity before you can carry it. I would say the book is about discovering a form you can use to move with the experience on its terms, instead of merely constructing a container.
I don't think I was looking to pin anything down with my language. In fact I didn't have language at all as I'd once known it; what I had at first was silence. I was certainly unseated by this void. Those poems were just waiting for language as it would come. I had to stay open and leave time and try to be receptive. I was reforming my way of being in language, or it was reforming me.
I remember giving my mother Moon Crossing Bridge after it had been published. She read it, and seemed very sad, and said, "I'm just so afraid nobody will understand you." That was her maternal love for her child, wishing for me to be received; she felt a lot of loneliness for me. But I found that's not the case. I have been received. People have gone with me.
Despite the humorous tone of "The Poetry Baron," loss and grieving have also been central to some of your most recent short stories. How has each genre -- poetry, prose, essay -- reflected the evolution of your own grief-handling?
With poetry I try to go into the mystery, to accompany it, to make a language that would speak toward the mystery. Although my book of poems Portable Kisses is very light, I think humor can come out more in my prose -- I can look at what we do and laugh with my characters and be with them in the funny strangeness. In "The Poetry Baron" the humor depends on timing. Poetry also depends on exact timing, so my poetry is very much present behind the scenes. I also enjoy writing essays because they're a hybrid form. I can use metaphor and image and language very strongly, and also carry a narrative, plus an argument.
I tend to hear back from readers a lot more in response to my essays; that form is more of a dialogue with the self and therefore the community. Stories are closer to essays than to poems as far as getting a response. The critical apparatus towards poetry is almost nonexistent in America at the moment, so you don't find critics talking about poetry in a very enlightening way -- for my taste anyhow. Luckily for me I have two or three close readers who help me know what I'm doing.
A central preoccupation of yours has been tense. In a past interview you discussed your attempt "to work with syntax in such a way as to almost create a verb tense in poetry which accommodates a faculty missing in the language as we use it daily." Do you feel you have achieved this aim? What is the missing faculty? And how does this struggle lend itself to writing prose?
I was talking about the structure of a poem itself as creating what I call a "composite tense." Instead of simply progressing in a linear way, a poem can be conceived as several tenses encircling or slicing through the layers of an imaginative event, thereby comprising a composite body, or, if taken as a whole, a composite tense.
We tend to think of story as linear, so to disrupt that is more difficult. In "The Poetry Baron" I move an historical event into a contemporary overlay by superimposing the Napoleanic era onto the ongoing action of the story. I have collapsed time. Affecting the time-sense of a story without changing the tenses of the sentences is one way of making a good end-run on tense, subverting the linear compulsion.
"She Who Is Untouched by Fire" is a story in my new collection that has also affected space and time. The action of the prose -- a woman having what amounts to an out-of-body experience -- is wave-like. Certain elements keep repeating only to come back slightly changed, which becomes more and more absorbing, until you are really inside her experience and have been lifted out of yourself in the same way that the most wonderful poems can lift you, almost physically, leaving you to hover above the earth. If I've told it right, by the end of that story you feel you're in an afterlife that is also life; it makes a flesh-and-blood ghost of you. Still, I don't know if I'm as inventive with tense in fiction as I might yet become.
In your essay "Again: Some Thoughts on the Narrative Impulse in Contemporary Poetry" you write, "The seeing eye of the contemporary poet is progressively more camera-like in the giving of details -- i.e., clinical, emotionally reserved." How do you view the nature of this transformation? In what ways do you think the increased awareness of the general "they" -- through mass media such as television, video, the Internet, and so on -- will inform the personal "I", whether written or lived?
Yes, the personal "I" is getting more marginal all the time to that world of the "they." We have to be careful not to surrender to this great general "they." If we do surrender to what we think "they" want we'll have capitulatory art. Made-to-please art. We may need to mistrust more and question and somehow try to get a true reading of what's taking place around us out there. This is how poets are going to be fruitfully engaged in this kind of world, because the position of the poet is always to be questioning, responding, telling it like it is or might be. It's more and more difficult to make larger generalities meaningful. Poetry is a very stilled organism time-wise, almost an island retreat in the midst of all this. And yet it's not a retreat at all. It's really an implosively alive form -- our most vigorous arena for getting to the truths of things in all their prismatic fullness. Not this stripped down, sound-bite stuff that's served up in the media.
The more I'm in touch with the large mix of world events, the more productively inward I become. Maybe this is what has caused me to become more locally invested in my own writing. It brings my impulse forward to try to matter on my home ground, and to write poems and stories out of the people around me, because I at least know that territory. But I also want to engage the larger world when I can, and I do travel a good deal. But the traveling I do by reading in the literature of the world is the most important traveling I do.
We are becoming such a visual nation. There's so much hunger of the eye. I don't know what this is going to do to the world of writing, which has also been our most important thinking world. Even writers too often seem to assume that it's enough to be present in a very journalistic way -- to attend, to witness the occasion -- but too often do not show their colors. Why don't they venture to have an attitude, an opinion, some volition toward the situation? I do hope we're not going to be the nation who stood outside.
Copyright © 1997 by Tess Gallagher and The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.