For poet Tess Gallagher, creativity grows from collaboration

Tess Gallagher finds creativity grows from collaboration. Her diverse writing partners give rise to surprising work.
Published April 15 2014
Updated April 15 2014

For many writers, poetry is a solitary craft. But for acclaimed poet Tess Gallagher, creativity is often a matter of collaboration.

"It's really neat to have a poetry pal," she says of her recent collaborative work with Lawrence Matsuda. Gallagher and Matsuda will be reading from that work and their own poetry in St. Petersburg on Monday evening.

Gallagher hasn't visited Florida for a long time, she says. "I lived in Pensacola during the Vietnam War, because my first husband was a pilot. I remember riding my bike all over town."

These days Gallagher, 70, is something of a globetrotter. Speaking by phone from her hometown of Port Angeles, Wash., in March, she was preparing to leave for her other home in County Sligo, Ireland, for several weeks' stay before jetting back to Florida.

Gallagher met Matsuda through a friend, after reading his poetry collection A Cold Wind From Idaho. "Larry had had such a dire time of it. He was born in a prison camp," the Minidoka internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II.

"So many Americans are unaware of what our government did to its American citizens," Gallagher says. "His parents were newly married" when they were forced to leave their home. His mother gave birth to Matsuda while still in the camp.

He was raised, Gallagher says, with the Zen Buddhist concept of gaman: "You must bear the intolerable with dignity."

But the first collaborative poem by Gallagher and Matsuda is anything but dire, and not especially dignified. Pow! Pow! Shalazam! is an exuberant, sexy, pop culture mashup bursting with '55 Fords, Marilyn Monroe, gangster movies and Road Runner cartoons.

Gallagher says of their collaboration, "We just frolic. We rock 'n' roll in the popcorn palace." They're currently working on another collaborative poem, Wild-Haired Labyrinth Renga. (Renga is an ancient Japanese collaborative poetic form.)

Pow! Pow! Shalazam! was published in 2013 in Plume, an online journal of poetry ( founded and edited by St. Petersburg College English professor Danny Lawless. Plume and SPC are sponsoring the reading by the two poets.

Gallagher had published in Plume on her own, in one of its earliest editions. It was the first online-only journal she published in, she says, after Lawless approached her agent. "It's very unusual for a poet to have an agent, and for them to show any interest in placing your work is even more unusual. So I took a look and thought, this is pretty interesting."

She says, "I'm at home now on the Internet. It's my medium, except for my own (poems). I'm very old-fashioned about that. I use pen and paper."

Gallagher's life in County Sligo, where she has been spending time for more than 30 years, has yielded collaboration as well. With her "Irish companion," painter Josie Gray, she wrote the 2009 book Barnacle Soup and Other Stories From the West of Ireland. "He's really a good storyteller," she says. "He'll be 89, and once his generation goes, that will be gone. I don't hear anyone telling those kinds of stories anymore." Gray's paintings also grace the covers of her poetry collections.

Gallagher's most famous creative collaboration was with her second husband, the influential short story writer Raymond Carver, who died in 1988. They met at a writing conference and encouraged each other's work for a decade.

In recent years, she campaigned to publish the original version of his best known work, the story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Gallagher contended that the stories' vaunted minimalist style was a distortion of Carver's intent by his editor, Gordon Lish. In 2009, she published the original, substantially longer version as Beginners in the United Kingdom; it was also included in the Library of America's anthology of Carver's work.

"Last year," Gallagher says, "we had a big festival for Raymond Carver in Port Angeles. He's very much alive and appreciated there. I wanted to have readings at the places he wrote about, so we read at the Safeway, on the street corners. We ended up at the cemetery. ... His grave faces the sea."

But it was not a somber rite. "Ray loved pie, so I challenged people to make all these different pies, and we ate the pies at the grave."

Gallagher says she stays busy wrangling new editions and translations of Carver's work and hopes to organize readings of it again this year, but that doesn't keep her from finding her own poetic moments.

"I'm looking after Ray's work, I'm looking after Josie's paintings, I'm living on two continents, I'm working with Larry. But right now I'm sitting here watching my hummingbirds."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.