Short cuts to a bigger picture - Tess Gallagher interview

She inspired her husband Raymond Carver's best work – now Tess Gallagher's producing her own.

TESS GALLAGHER IS READING TO me from a review of Dear Ghosts, her latest volume of poetry: "If ever the iron fist were concealed in the velvet glove, it's in the poems of Tess Gallagher."

Her musical voice purrs down the phone from the house overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington State. "I did recognise myself," she says. "I think it might be true."

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After 90 minutes in the company of the 74-year-old poet, widow of short story writer and poet Raymond Carver, I think it might be true, too. This is a woman who fought breast cancer while nursing her mother through Alzheimer's disease and helping her young unmarried niece with a newborn baby. Her graciousness and frequent laughter conceal a steely core that has dared to take on the giants of US publishing over her late husband's literary legacy.

Gallagher will be in Scotland later this month to give a rare UK reading at the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews. She fits it in between lecturing on creative writing programmes and promoting Barnacle Soup, a book of stories she has written with her partner, Irishman Josie Gray. Her energy is unabating.

Gallagher found herself at the centre of a literary firestorm when news broke that Carver's breakout book of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, had been the subject of radical redrafting by his editor at Knopf, Gordon Lish. Stories had been slashed by 50 per cent and endings rewritten, causing speculation that Carver's spare, laconic style, which led to him being described as "the American Chekhov", was actually a product of Lish's cuts and rewrites.

Journalist DT Max, studying Lish's personal archive at University of Indiana, discovered Carver's original manuscript, as well as a letter from the writer to his editor in 1980 begging Lish to withdraw the book. Gallagher, who is Carver's literary executor, has announced her intention to publish the original manuscript as Carver intended it, under his title, Beginners, though the project raises complex issues of authorship and copyright.

"I want to restore Ray to his work and to himself. I want to tell the truth, and I'm not afraid of the truth. I think that Ray's work will stand up to the truth," she says. She has made clear that she doesn't aim to replace the existing version of the book, just make both available to readers. "This isn't a situation where I'm out to get anybody. Editors do carve out territories and, with the best of intentions, they may want to codify an author at a certain position. There can be this submerging of the writer."

She argues that Lish's interventions came at a time when Carver, a recovering alcoholic, was vulnerable. Later books had much less aggressive editing, and showed a more expansive style. "Ray's main battle at that point in his life was to keep sober. He once said: 'I have no religion, except for these stories.' He was really attacked at his very core to find these stories so radically changed. The book was something he had to stand by in a public way, and yet it caused him to be regarded in a way which was counterfeit. He never considered himself a minimalist – he would say 'precisionist'; he wanted to get it exactly right. He considered minimalism a shrinking of the purpose, a shrinking of the attention to character and story. He didn't sign on for that."

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was published shortly after Carver and Gallagher got together. She is credited with nurturing a late flourishing of his writing, providing stability in a variety of forms, from literary encouragement to fresh flowers on his desk and a sharp eye over his messy business affairs.

Literary critic Harold Schweizer, a friend of Carver and Gallagher, has said: "I think what happened in Tess's life with Ray was that she was both furthered by that contact and hindered. She probably came out even, finally. For whatever fame she gained on his coat-tails also belittled her own talent. The problem was that people cannot but think of a couple with one partner superior to the other. Tess was given that inferior role, which she was gracious enough to accept, but she also has tremendous talent."

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Gallagher has dismissed the notion that she put Carver's career before her own, preferring to talk about their creative kinship. She wrote more stories under Carver's influence; he wrote more poetry under hers. She has described them as being "a composite person" and has written vividly about her grief after his death from lung cancer in 1988 at the age of just 50. She commissioned his memorial, overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and inscribed her own name next to his.

Carver is one of the "dear ghosts" that haunt her book of poems, her first for 14 years. Yet she describes it as "a book of regaining", not a book of loss. It may be populated by those who have died – her parents, Carver, her first husband, who was a pilot in Vietnam – but in its pages they are full of life.

"The Buddhists believe that anything that has ever lived can't go out of existence, that it still will exist in some form. They have another form and they are still touching our lives, as much as we will allow. I think this makes the world larger too, not to just let the dead be buried."

So far, so elegiac. But Dear Ghosts is no New Age flight of fancy. It has a hard edge, posing difficult questions about life and death, and the territory which may lie in between. There is also a fierce political subtext, questioning US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a poem titled "Firestarter", which is ostensibly about her father lighting fires for neighbours during the years of the Second World War, she writes:

In the open malevolence of this young

millennium, we are like lilies struck by snow:

asking why democracy works so well when

nothing's going wrong.

Why some lethal agreeableness chloroforms

the general will to dissent.

Gallagher says: "There is a sense that the poems seem very approachable, and I think that's disarming because the cargo is not. It's unrelenting, it really doesn't want to let you off, it wants to involve you in some quite difficult matters. That's what the iron fist is about, but you have to find a way to deliver the hard things so that people can be with it. I think poetry is a political act; I've always viewed it as such.

"Although my poems come out of my life, I don't feel them as personality events. The 'I' may be very personal, but it's a multifarious 'I'. You may think that it's only Tess Gallagher, but I don't think so. Again, it may be my velvet glove."

Gallagher does not flinch from questions about her own mortality. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, and faced four years of surgery and drug treatments which "left my body like a stubble field". But she also discovered unexpected strength, iron in the soul.

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"I remember sitting there and hearing the doctor say, 'There is no cure,' and realising the dimensions of that. And instead of being demolished I felt, 'Wow, you're really going out there!' " she laughs. "I had a kind of inverse reaction. That seemed valuable to keep that recognition, because I don't think it's a clich. I think poetry is about saying the thing that isn't the clich.

"As they say, there is no cure, but there are many treatments. They are pushing the borders out so you get somewhat of a horizon. We are all going in the same direction, it's just how intensely we are going to use the time we have. Having come up against a life-threatening disease, you really hang on to your days. You don't throw away anything, you are a real ecologist of the moment. I'm an ecologist of the moment."

• Tess Gallagher reads with August Kleinzahler at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, on Friday 14 March. Visit or, for tickets, tel: 01334 475000.

'There are so many wonderful storytellers in Ireland'

GALLAGHER'S latest writing project is Barnacle Soup, a collection of Irish tales on which she has collaborated with her companion, Josie Gray, an artist and storyteller from Sligo. It was published by Belfast's Black Staff Press last autumn and has just been published in the US.

"It has become very popular," she says. "There are so many wonderful storytellers in Ireland, one in about every family. It would be good to get some of them treasured. The stories in the book are stories of Irish life, from Josie's own life and people we both knew. There are some wonderful Zen moments in it. It's a book that really delights you with ingenuity and wit.

"When I started recording Josie's stories he didn't like it at all, but as he began to see that I wasn't going to let him off, he fell into it. By the time the project was well on its way he was saying: 'What about those stories?' He wanted to make sure this book got finished."