Tess Gallagher to receive international lifetime achievement award

At home and away, Port Angeles-based writer celebrates a poetic life

Port Angeles-born poet Tess Gallagher lives in the house her father built. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/for Peninsula Daily News)

Port Angeles-born poet Tess Gallagher lives in the house her father built. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/for Peninsula Daily News)

PORT ANGELES — Not far from her house is a peaceful spot, a refuge Tess Gallagher dreamed up a little while ago.

“It’s next to Morse Creek — just a normal-looking bench,” she began on a recent afternoon.

“One day I sat down on it. And it feels like a bench outside time. You don’t feel pressured by time. You can just sit, and think — of everything,” Gallagher said, looking out her window on the dove-gray sky and bay.

That nearby stream, Gallagher said, has a way of transporting everything away, to the sea. The creek is a companion to those who sit on the bench and meditate. The aquatic force is “so powerful to me.”

Gallagher, born here nearly eight decades ago, is devoted to such places, to her friends and to her home. She walks as often as she can with poet Alice Derry, her longtime friend, and with Gary Copeland Lilley, her sweetheart.

These days they’re delighting in the news that Gallagher will receive a lifetime achievement award from the International Fondazione Roma in Italy. The Fondazione, which hosts the annual Ritratti di Poesia or Portraits of Poetry festival, will present Gallagher’s prize to her personally in April.

“I’m terrified,” she said of the forthcoming trip — with a smile on her face. Then: “oh, dramatic, dramatic … all those years with Josie, I went back and forth twice a year,” to Ballindoon in Ireland’s County Sligo. Gallagher’s companion for a quarter-century was Josie Gray, the Irish painter. He died, at 93, in 2018. She considers his family hers as well, and plans to return to Ireland after her sojourn to Italy.

Gallagher will then return to Port Angeles in time to mark the birthday of her late husband, Raymond Carver. She’ll invite lovers of poetry to that May 25 event, where she and friends will read from Carver’s writings beside his grave at Ocean View Cemetery. He would have been 85 this year.

Come summer, Gallagher will be present for the opening of the Field Arts & Events Hall on the Port Angeles waterfront. After the July 27-30 festivities, she will be the center’s artist in residence.

Also in July, Gallagher’s birthday — her 80th — will coincide with another event that brings a sparkle to her eyes. She’ll be teaching again, for the second consecutive year, at Centrum’s Port Townsend Writers Conference July 16-22. One of her class descriptions starts out this way: “Poetry is the last freedom. You can start anywhere and go anywhere in your imagination … ”

Gallagher knows this from writing 11 books of poetry, plus volumes of essays and short stories. Her poetry collections range from “Under Stars” in 1978 to “Portable Kisses” in 1992 to “Midnight Lantern” in 2011 and “Is, Is Not” in 2019.

Her short-story works include “The Lover of Horses” in 1986 and “At the Owl Woman Saloon” in 1999 and “Barnacle Soup and Other Stories from the West of Ireland,” written with her companion Gray in 2009. She has taught writing at universities from Syracuse, N.Y., to Tucson, Ariz., and at Whitman College in Walla Walla.

At home in Port Angeles, Gallagher reminds a visitor that her feet are resting on boards laid by her parents, Leslie and Georgia Bond.

Before they came here, the couple had been writing to each other for years — he was a logger out West, she a Missourian working as a nanny in Denver. Then Leslie told Georgia he had found a beautiful place where they could make a life together.

“This was their dream,” Gallagher said of the house her father built. “When I come here, I feel connected to their dream.”

She added she’s sorry her mother didn’t get to see the later incarnation of what Gallagher calls Bay House. When it needed a new roof, she decided to raise the ceilings and the windows, giving the place more air and light.

In this house now, Gallagher and Lilley have begun their own new chapter.

“He is just an excitement,” Gallagher said of her partner. “He’s handsome. He’s smart, and he’s young at heart. And he’s a wonderful poet,” who plays a good guitar along with it all. The pair have an easy togetherness, often sitting on the sofa, savoring the silence, writing.

A writer and teacher well-known around the region, Lilley has published eight books of poetry including “Alpha Zulu,” “The Subsequent Blues” and “The Bushman’s Medicine Show.” He is in his second year as the artistic curator of the Port Townsend Writers Conference.

Gallagher and Lilley met at a poetry reading years ago. Then, circa 2019, when she went off alone to her cottage in Ireland, he began writing letters to her. They’ve been together now throughout the COVID era.

Lilley, for his part, admits to being in awe of Gallagher at first.

“There’s not a poet in America who doesn’t know of her. You know what I’m saying? She doesn’t act like a star,” he said, “but I’ve told her: You’re like royalty here.”

As the two spent more time together back on the North Olympic Peninsula, Lilley found he could talk to Gallagher about anything.

“She has all these ideas,” he said. “And she’s driven, too. She’s very focused,” when it comes time to write, teach, converse with people.

“She is a fun person. I mean, really,” he added, “and she’s a very giving person.”

Lilley, 72, is working on new poems this winter — poems Gallagher said have been unlocked by work he did last year.

“At this point in my life, with Tess in it … it is inspiring. It has lit a fuse,” Lilley said.

Gallagher is alight too. The past, the present, friends, ancestors, Port Angeles, Ireland — these continue to nourish her poetry and her life.

“I will never retire,” she said.


Diane Urbani de la Paz is a writer and photographer living in Port Townsend.

Tess Bond, circa 1948.

Tess Bond, circa 1948.

Tess Gallagher’s longtime friend Alfredo Arreguín painted a portrait of her in 1995.

Tess Gallagher’s longtime friend Alfredo Arreguín painted a portrait of her in 1995.

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