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A Conversation with Jeannine Hall Gailey

Continuing our celebration of National Poetry Month, Lori Hettler sits down with poet Jeannine Hall Gailey. Jeannine recently served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She is the author of four books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, and The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, just released from Mayapple Press. Her work has been featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac, in Verse Daily, and in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, and Prairie Schooner. She tweets at @webbish6.

LORI HETTLER: While reading through a few of your titles, I couldn’t help but notice that your poetry, as a whole, is heavily influenced by science, fairytales, and Japanese culture. Though each of your collections might focus on one element in particular, the other elements always seem to creep their way in. Where do these influences originate from?
JEANNINE HALL GAILEY: I always say that people’s poetry reflects who they are, their secret obsessions, their personal language tics, all that stuff. If you want to stay private, don’t write poetry! Because it will all come out.

For me, as a child, I was obsessed with fairytales (I had a collection of Andrew Lang’s “color” fairy books – Olive Fairy Book, Crimson Fairy Book, and on and on – that I still treasure.) and was also really interested in “World” folktales – tales from Africa, Asia, Native American culture, basically anything I could get ahold of. I became acquainted with Hayao Miyazaki’s work as a child, as well, when I watched a somewhat-oddly-edited version of his movie, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. My little brother introduced me to the world of comic books, and later, when he minored in Japanese in college, tried to teach me a bit about the language and culture, as well. His Japanese professor became a family friend and helped me with the second manuscript!

As for the science part – well, when you grow up with a robotics professor father who takes you to RadioShack for fun, and who keeps robot arms and Geiger counters in the basement, you’re probably going to have something of an interest in science and technology. I programmed my first game in BASIC when I was seven, on a then-state-of-the-art TRS-80. I was always really interested in fossils, dinosaurs. I had a collection of “Safari Cards” that taught you how to categorize animals into different species. I mean, I think I was pretty much destined to be a nerd from the beginning.

So, when I wrote poetry as an adult, of course all these influences crept into the subject matter.

Let’s see if I have the order down right: Becoming the Villianess was published through Steel Toe Books in 2006; She Returns to the Floating World was published by Kitsune in 2011 and rereleased by Two Sylvias Press in 2013; Unexplained Fevers was also released in 2013 by New Binary Press; and this year saw the release of The Robot Scientist’s Daughter with Mayapple Press.
Yes. There’s a bit of a sad story behind the second and third books. The publisher of Kitsune Books, Anne Petty, passed away about eleven months after my second book came out, which was just tragic, because she was a real force for good, for intelligence, and for geekiness in the best sense in the world. So it was kind of the editors at Two Sylvias to release the book in a second edition, with all new art and a few minor edits, in 2013, so it wouldn’t go out of print permanently after the press was closed following Anne’s death. Unexplained Fevers had been accepted at Kitsune Books, as well, so when the press closed, I had to find a new publisher fairly quickly and was happy to work with James O’Sullivan at New Binary – which I found from a tweet by Margaret Atwood, of all things.

I had been in correspondence with Judith Kerman at Mayapple for some time before she published my latest book; a lot of my friends had had their collections published by Mayapple, I had reviewed books from Mayapple, and I really liked their cool notebooks, so we had written a little back and forth over the years before she became my publisher. It’s nice to have a good feeling about the people you’re publishing with, and I had that feeling about every single publisher I’ve had.

What has it been like, working with each of these publishers? Was there any one experience that really stood out to you during the publishing process?
All of my publishers have been great. I have to say it was wonderful to work with all of them. I will say that getting an advance – which happened for my second book – was pretty amazing. I’d gotten advances before (for a technology-related book) but never for poetry!

Were the poems written specifically for each collection, or did you create your collections out of poems that were already written?
I think it’s a little of both. You start writing poems, you kind of see how they fit together, then, once you have the idea of the book, you sort of start spontaneously creating more poems in the same vein. I rarely feel “finished” with a book – my editors will tell you I’ll be trying to take out old poems and put in new ones until the very last minute. But my books were all pretty tightly themed, and I seem to write about the same subject matter for a few years naturally, until it’s out of my system. Right now it’s apocalypses.

I went through a hardcore apocalypse phase myself at the start of 2015. I was gulping down the newest releases in that genre like nobody’s business! What is influencing your poetry to turn toward the apocalyptic?
Well, I often write about pop cultural trends, and television, movies, YA books... all of them have been full of apocalypses for the last few years. I wanted to look at why we are so interested in the end of the world - is our culture out of hope? Can we see it through a personal lens - i.e., what would be my own personal end of the world scenario? And of course, I like writing about zombies, vampires, viruses, and other scary apocalypse-triggers.

How long have you been writing poetry?
When I was ten, I started writing poems on my computer before school, so all in all, about 31 years. I got my first Poet’s Market when I was nineteen, and religiously sent out submissions for a while in college. I think I didn’t really get serious about literary publishing, though, until my late twenties-early thirties, a few years after I got my Master’s Degree.

What was the first poem to get picked up by a publication? How did it feel seeing your work out in the world like that for the first time?
I have a funny story about this, because three poems got picked up at almost exactly the same time, but because of the venues, they came out at three different times. A poem was accepted first at Seattle Review, but that one ended up long coming out after the other two; another was accepted at Beloit Poetry Journal, and that one ended up coming out first, and around the same time, another poem came out in an online journal called, Can We Have Our Ball Back?

Of course, I was thrilled, because Beloit Poetry Journal was one of my favorite journals at the time, Seattle Review because I had moved to Seattle recently and was happy to have a local journal take a poem, and Can We Have Our Ball Back because it seemed like a fun and hip place to be published, you know, outside the mainstream. When I decided to volunteer locally, Seattle Review was one of my first choices because of that support and publication, probably. (I worked on the board there for a couple of years.) It also led to me meeting the wonderful and charming Colleen McElroy, who became something of an encourager-and-mentor to me.

At the start of the new collection, in the author’s note, you mention that while fictitious to an extent, many of the poems in The Robot Scientist’s Daughter are based on your childhood experiences, growing up on the farm near Oak Ridge National Laboratories – where your father consulted on nuclear waste cleanup.

So much of the content in these poems – your familiarity with the Geiger counter; the way you speak of residual radiation poisoning in the snow, the cow’s milk, the wasps’ nests, the grass you chewed on; your obsession with studying the Latin names for diseases; returning to your childhood home to find it leveled – struck me as incredibly intimate. Was the release of this collection more or less difficult for you than those in the past?

Yes, this one is definitely the most “autobiographical” of all my books, so it is the hardest, for instance, to read from out loud. I think two people really challenged me, after years of writing a ton of persona poems, to kind of reach in and write more personally; Ilya Kaminsky, who, after reading my first two books, told me to find and create “my own fairytales” and Dorianne Laux, who challenged me while we worked together at Pacific University to write more from my own experience. It was interesting because it took a while for me to be able to write poems about myself, my childhood, etc.; I just didn’t think it would be interesting to others. You know how you always find your own stories boring but everyone else’s fascinating? That was definitely me.

You also mention in the author’s note that one of the reasons you wrote this book was “to raise awareness that nuclear research is never harmless” as well as to “tackle the pop culture representation of the atomic age” and “our attitudes toward science.” Do you think The Robot Scientist’s Daughter is achieving what you set out to accomplish so far?
I hope so?

As I am sure you are aware, April is National Poetry Writers Month - an annual project that began back in 2003 where participating poets write a poem a day for the entire month. Have you participated in NaPoWriMo before? What sort of impact do you think this project has within and outside of the poetry community?
I’m probably not the best example of the kind of poet who writes a poem a day. I probably write a couple of poems at a time every two weeks, and that has been the schedule for about seven or eight years, which means my writing flow just never worked with NaPoWriMo. But as a good poetry citizen, I love it when more people think, read, talk about, and write poetry!

Who’s your favorite poet?
I have a bunch! I would say I’ve probably been most strongly influenced myself by Margaret Atwood, Louise Gluck, Lucille Clifton, Dorianne Laux, and Denise Duhamel. I love a bunch of current poets – some of whom are also friends – like Matthea Harvey, Dana Levin, Kelli Russell Agodon, Annette Spaulding-Convy, January O’Neil, Sandra Alcosser… but I could go on!! (Oh, I left out men – so: Ilya Kaminsky, Jericho Brown, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Eduardo C. Corral…)

What’s your favorite poem?
Hard to say! I have a couple of favorites – “My Father in the Night Commanding No,” which I memorized when I was eleven. Dana Levin’s “Ars Poetica (cocoons)” and “Quelquechose,” Louise Gluck’s entire book, Meadowlands. “She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep” by Robert Graves. That poem by Dorianne Laux about the tooth fairy – all of Denise Duhamel’s Barbie poems. Lots of favorites!

Where would you most like to travel?
I would love to go to England, Ireland, and Scotland, since I’ve never been. I was an exchange student in France as a teenager and have been back once to Paris with my husband – I’d gladly go there again at any time. I’ve always wanted to explore the ruins of Ancient Greece, too. (You may notice the lack of tropical paradises: I am literally, much like a vampire, allergic to the sun, so no sunny beaches for me! It’s part of the reason I love Seattle and the Northwest so much!)

Where do you do most of your writing?
I’m a computer girl, so anywhere I can take my laptop! I do quite a bit of scrawling in doctor’s offices, since I spend so much time there. Also – any time you have to buy a car, bring something to write on. They always give you so much time to write at car dealerships!

What’s the one thing you are most afraid of?
I’m not crazy about rollercoasters, wasps, or spiders. So don’t take me to a rollercoaster park full of bees. And because I grew up in the eighties, global thermonuclear war (Any references to WarGames must be forgiven due to my age.).

Lori Hettler is our Chief Staff Interviewer and handles our interview series for The Inductor. Lori founded the book blog, independent press resource community, and book club The Next Best Book Club (TNBBC) in 2007. An advocate for the small press and self-publishing communities, she has been featured from coast to coast, in both The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Portions of her reviews have been quoted for a number of books (most notably in the press release for Graywolf Press’ I Curse the River of Time, Red Hen Press’ catalog for David Maine’s An Age of Madness, and Heather Fowler’s Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness). Formerly the Marketing Director for Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP), Lori has now begun to take on freelance work under TNBBC Publicity. When she’s not curled up on the couch with a good book, you can find Lori on Twitter, TNBBC’s blog, Goodreads, and Facebook talking about it.

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