Tess Gallagher on Raymond Carver

The celebrated poet, who'll be in Portland for Imago's Carver stage adaptation "Human Noise," talks about life with and after Carver

It’s difficult to imagine a question that has not been asked of the poet, short story writer, essayist, playwright and teacher Tess Gallagher. As one-half of the legendary literary partnership with the revered, Oregon-born poet and short story writer, Raymond Carver, there was a time when Gallagher, well-published on her own, was one of the world’s most interviewed artists. If you’re familiar with her writing, you are not surprised.

Gallagher’s been generating poetry and prose for decades that shocks and moves with its vast range of expression. All of her work, even the most emotionally raw, seems to be guided by a steadfast intelligence and relentlessly penetrating vision.

Tess Gallagher: writing a life.

She’s published and taught extensively while also being the devoted steward of Carver’s work since he died in 1988. After reading Gallagher’s Moon Crossing Bridge and seeing the invaluable Carver collections that Gallagher shepherded to posthumous publication, one gets a sense that the communication between the two never really stopped.

Much has been made about Carver’s longtime editor, Gordon Lish, and his influence on Carver’s writing. Yet anyone who has read Gallagher’s Soul Barnacles understands that while Lish’s contribution to Carver’s legacy is undeniable, it is truly Gallagher who was most instrumental in his life and work during a period that was arguably his most productive.

This beloved Washington native, who still resides in her home town of Port Angeles, where she and Carver shared the last decade of his life, will be reading at Imago Theatre on Saturday, September 30, before Imago’s final performance of Human Noise, three stories and a poem by Raymond Carver directed by Imago’s Jerry Mouawad. A question-and-answer session will follow the show. The show runs for six performances beginning Thursday, Sept. 21.

We caught Ms. Gallagher, who was kind enough to answer a few questions via email while on holiday in Romania.

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Danielle Vermette: You write about and discuss so many forms of art fluently: painting, photography, writing, dance. I have heard of at least two one-act plays you co-wrote with Raymond Carver. Are there more?

Tess Gallagher: No, I think these two were all we did. We might have done more had Ray lived longer.

DV: What is your relationship to the theater these days?

TG: I have been working mainly with dance as I have a longstanding friendship with one of my teaching colleagues from Whitman College, Vicki Lloid. We have done dance projects with Ray’s and my poetry, both in Walla Walla and in Port Angeles, and I enjoy these collaborations very much. I read the poem and the dancers perform their interpretation of the poem. Vicki directs, but often also dances in these productions. I have also been present at some presentations of Ray’s work in a readers’ theater format, both in my home town of Port Angeles and in Seattle.

DV: You wrote a moving letter to Robert Coles in defense of Robert Altman’s movie, Short Cuts, his 1993 adaptation of several Carver stories. You use the term “flat-footed” to describe other attempts by artists who seem to get stymied by the process of working with Carver’s material and never find their own way with it. Altman, you felt, added his own sensibility to the work in such a way that it truly expanded Carver. Have you seen other re-imaginings, apart from Altman’s film, that have stuck with you?

TG: Well, Altman’s sense of humor was different from Ray’s and his nature was tougher in some sense, and perhaps Altman had a more fluid sense of reality than Ray. In Ray’s world his people were always running up against obstacles they couldn’t figure how to go forward with. They often ended up in a kind of Chekhovian hopefulness. Very impotent and wondering how they got so isolated and without notions of getting to what they wished for in life. Altman was able to connect up these stories and bring the characters into collisions and intersections with each other so they became more novelistic perhaps.

Carver and Gallagher, back in the day.

DV: There are plenty of screenplays and scripts in the world. Why do you think people continue to be drawn to the challenge of dramatizing Raymond Carver stories? Do you field each request for these projects?

TG: Yes, I do receive and make a judgment about which projects seem worth going forward with. I read the scripts and decide, just as when Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s script for Birdman [whose plot involves a faded superhero actor who is trying to bring an adaptation of a Carver story to Broadway] came to me, and I could see the potential of that film before it became an Oscar-winning film. I think Ray’s work will continue to draw dramatists because the stories are almost ready-made in their clarities and wonderful dialogues for adapting. They are about people we can recognize and the couple themes, as in Chekhov, are those that repeat themselves in any time.

DV: So terribly much has been written about Raymond Carver, some pieces by people who have, at one time or another, been close to him. I am thinking of his first wife Maryann Burke Carver’s memoir, and most recently, his brother James published Raymond Carver Remembered by His Brother. Do you feel compelled to read these accounts?

TG: No, I haven’t read or concerned myself with their reflections as I know without a doubt that the Ray I lived with and loved was very different than who they will be talking about. I feel the Ray I knew is enough and that Ray deserves, at least with me, his freedom from that other life.

DV: I read somewhere that you once considered publishing Carver’s journals. Do you still see this as a possibility?

TG: Actually I don’t know about “journals” existing. There are some small notebooks with ideas for stories and notes. These may eventually come forward. It will depend on other energies at this point such as the scholars with whom I worked on Beginners and the posthumous publications of All of Us and Ray’s prose in No Heroics, Please—William Stull and Maureen Carroll.

Michael Streeter and Carol Triffle in Imago Theatre’s “Human Noise,” adapted from three stories and a poem by Raymond Carver. It runs for six performances, Sept. 21-30. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

DV: It is widely known that Raymond Carver thought of himself as having lived two distinct lives, the second one with you being the “gravy” years. In reading your short stories, poems, and interviews over time, I marvel at your ability to seemingly integrate so many different periods of your own life, including times of great suffering, not in a way that you compartmentalize, but in a way that opens you up somehow, so that you seem so thoroughly integrated. Has it been a practice of yours to cultivate this kind of integration?

TG: I think it is good to be able to relate the various chapters of one’s life to the whole, to realize when one was blessed and when things were tough, and what strengths we had and weaknesses. I try to be deeply present as I go along, but also now as the story comes closer to its end, to look back and take stock, but also to let some sleeping dogs lie.

DV: Raymond Carver died nearly two decades ago, before Twitter and Facebook and text messaging. But I’ve been struck in recent readings by his abundant use of the telephone. “Landlines” are prominent characters in so many of his stories, used to incite action, avoidance, and conflict — often toward surprising, epiphanic movements. What’s your own relationship with technology? And what’s your best guess about how Raymond would feel about this new device-driven world? Would he check his devices compulsively?

TG: Oh, I have thought of this—how delighted Ray would have been with this. He did have a rather addictive personality so I think he would be checking his messages rather compulsively. But he would still, maybe because of me! be getting his shut-down time when we would just walk by the river and watch the ducks fly!

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The poet, essayist, and short story writer Tess Gallagher will read from her works before the final performance of Human Noise at Imago Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 30. The event begins at 7:30 p.m.

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Danielle Vermette has been a company member and appeared in shows with Imago Theatre since 1999, and is the dramaturg for and a cast member of Human Noise. She holds a BFA in acting and spent three years in PSU’s MFA fiction program. She writes poetry and fiction.

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