Friday, October 13, 2006

An Evening With Tess Gallagher

Tess Gallagher last night was wonderful. Good thing too since we braved snow flurries and wind chill in the teens to see her. Gallagher read from and talked about her new book, Dear Ghosts (this is Graywolf Press's site and in you are interested, there are a few poems from the book you can read). She looks a lot different than when I saw her ten or so years ago. Then she had long hair and I remember her being thin. But she had breast cancer about four years ago. She's not as thin as she was and her hair is very short. The important thing is, her poetry is still beautiful. One of her poems is about her father who, in the 1940s Pacific Northwest, had a job as a fire starter. Each morning in winter, he would get up very early and go to each of the houses on the street and start a fire in the stove while the family was still asleep. Then, by the time they got up, the house would be warm. No one locked their doors. Gallagher's father would just go right in, as quietly as possible so as not to wake anyone. Isn't that fascinating? In the poem Gallagher manages to connect the goodness and innocence of her father's work to other kinds of fires like Nagasaki and Hiroshima which were neither good nor innocent. In another poem she talks about birds flying up as if they were coming out of the ground. She said she has noticed this happening many times and was finally able to include it in a poem. Then she mentioned that it had happened just the other day when she and a friend were walking beside the Mississippi. She said because of the cold the birds were huddled down in the shrubs along the river and when she walked by they were startled and flew out and it looked like the were flying up out of the ground. When she said this I thought, I've seen that happen lots of times, I know exactly what she means. But I never stopped to think it looked like the birds came from the ground. And I decided that is what makes her a poet, the ability not only to notice things like the birds, but to be able to turn it into something more and give it meaning. And I wished I could do that. Gallagher also answered audience questions. I don't remember the questions, but I remember parts of her answers. To one she said that poetry is not about sleeping with a dictionary. To her, poetry is a combination of being and language. I like that idea. She also mentioned that she purposely writes poetry that must be read more than once to be understood. I almost laughed out loud. I never thought a poet would purposely do that. Why I thought that I don't know. But it also reminded me of several blog discussions that have talked about difficulty with poetry. And I wonder if that is some kind of comfort to know that if I don't get a poem on the first reading, maybe I wasn't supposed to.