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A Poet Who Savors the Elegance of Simplicity

October 16, 1986|PENELOPE MOFFET | Moffet lives in Los Angeles

PORT ANGELES, Wash. — Like the working-class women in her first book of short stories, "The Lover of Horses" (Harper & Row: $16.95), poet Tess Gallagher has weathered some rough times.

The oldest of five children of an alcoholic longshoreman and logger, Gallagher grew up in a family where money was scarce but quarrels were plentiful. She was "a child with responsibilities" to her younger brothers and sister, and reading was "a stolen pleasure . . . it wasn't an authentic activity" in her parents' eyes, Gallagher said.

But, she added in a recent interview, while she still carries many troubled memories from those formative years, she also feels strong affection for her siblings and parents.

A lively woman who laughs often and likes to dress dramatically in silk and satin clothes, Gallagher, 43, draws on her childhood experiences in her writing. Some of her strongest poems play on her feelings toward her father, who could be alternately tender and abusive. By the time he died in 1982, she said, they had "reached an understanding" of each other, and a "loving forgiveness" existed between them.

In Close Touch

Today, Gallagher stays in close touch with her 72-year-old mother, Georgia Bond, who often serves up late-afternoon cake and tea for "Threasie" (before her first marriage, Gallagher's full name was Theresa Bond) and relates stories about the family and the neighborhood. Sometimes those stories work their way, in transmuted form, into Gallagher's poetry and fiction.

"That's how fiction really occurs," Gallagher said, "you build something new out of what's already given."

With three collections of poetry ("Instructions to the Double," "Under Stars" and "Willingly," all through Graywolf Press) published to considerable acclaim in the last 10 years, Gallagher is no novice at writing. She's been called a refreshingly "confident, radiant and strong" writer by Pulitzer prize-winning poet Carolyn Kizer. She won a large Guggenheim grant in 1978, and the poetry reading fees and teaching stipends she's commanded have been sizeable enough to enable her to build a spectacular home in Port Angeles four years ago.

Yet, because Gallagher is relatively inexperienced at fiction, she's a little nervous about how her stories will be received. However, "The Lover" has already had a few major reviews, which, while they haven't been unqualified raves, have been positive. Recently the New York Times Sunday Book Review termed Gallagher "an excellent writer of prose who savors the elegance of simplicity . . . whose stories resonate and linger." Publishers Weekly called the new stories "rewarding reading from a gifted writer," and in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Elizabeth Tallent wrote that "in Gallagher's best stories, the ambiguities are dealt with a fine hand."

Muted Sound of Waves

Most of Gallagher's writing takes place in Sky House, the dream house she helped design, which sits near the top of a hill facing the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Inside, a multitude of windows lets light into the aerie. In every room, one can hear the muted sound of waves crashing on the beach that's a steep five-minute walk away.

Here, Gallagher said, "the water is like a current through your days," and she relates to this current "the way a bird dips into water, 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."

Gallagher was born and raised in Port Angeles. As an adult, she's left the Olympic Peninsula often--to study at the University of Washington in Seattle, to attend the University of Iowa's writers program in Iowa City, to teach and travel--but she always comes back for part of each year. When she goes elsewhere, even for short intervals, she feels like a ship that's "always pointed on a course of return to this town and its waters," she wrote in a 1981 essay called "My Father's Love Letters."

Most years Gallagher teaches poetry writing classes from September to Christmas at New York's Syracuse University, where she's been employed since 1980 and is now a full professor. This year, however, she's staying home to recover from surgery performed in March and to write her first novel, a still untitled work for which she has a contract with Harper and Row.

Gallagher also recently finished the manuscript of a book of essays, "A Concert of Tenses," due to be published in mid-November through the University of Michigan's prestigious "Poets on Poetry" series. In addition, she's getting "hungry to write poems again," she said. "I think that has todo with appetite. There's appetite in art, just like there's appetite in anything else."

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