Interview with Canadian-American Poet, David Cavanagh

October 30, 2014
Photo: David Cavanagh

Photo: David Cavanagh

Brief Biography:

David Cavanagh’s most recent book of poems is Cycling in Plato’s Cave, from Fomite Press, 2014. Earlier books include Falling Body and The Middleman, both from Salmon Poetry of Ireland. A fourth book, Straddle, is due out from Salmon in 2015. David’s poems have also appeared in numerous journals and anthologies in the U.S., Canada, Ireland, and the U.K. A dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., he lives in Burlington, Vermont, where he writes along with teaching and advising part-time at Johnson State College. David’s website is:

Geosi Gyasi: Could you describe the community of writers in Burlington, Vermont?

David Cavanagh: There are so many writers here, and so many different kinds, that it’s hard to characterize the community in any simple way. It’s a very lively, eclectic, and loose community of poets, novelists, memoir writers, journalists, and playwrights. There are readings on a weekly basis and new books coming out regularly. Burlington is a progressive, small city. Some of its writers grew up here. Many have come from New York City and Boston, but also from other parts of the U.S. and the world. I myself grew up in Canada and came here seeking a lively creative community, and I certainly found one.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember the time when you wanted to be a writer?

David Cavanagh: From about the age of 18 or 19, when I started reading poetry in a serious way. William Blake, W.B. Yeats, and T.S. Eliot made a huge impact on me. I wanted to write a poem as good as “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Soon I was reading Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, Anne Sexton, many others.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you feel you have any weakness as a writer?

David Cavanagh: Tons of them. Too many to mention here! Also, weaknesses are not only weaknesses: they’re challenges, and in facing them, they can become a source of energy in the writing. Maybe you want more richness of imagery in your work. So you start looking more carefully at things, trying to be more specific, and after a while the language gets lifted.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you do lots of research when you’re on a piece of writing?

David Cavanagh: It depends on the piece.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think reading or performing poetry adds to the importance of a poet?

David Cavanagh: It depends on what you mean by “importance of a poet.” Public readings and performance do help make poets more popular. But much more important than that, they are a great way of expanding the audience for poetry. Many people who don’t read a lot of poetry have trouble appreciating poetry when they read it on the page. When they hear it read aloud, they often “get it.” I wish more people would read poems aloud to themselves at home.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any idea about the importance of the musician to the poet?

David Cavanagh: The music in poetry is supremely important! The sound of poetry is one of the main things that distinguishes it from other writing. The sound of a poem goes straight to the heart of a reader. Are musicians important to the poet? It depends. I love a lot of music. I’ve had the pleasure of working with musicians – reading poems along with jazz in the group, PoJazz, or along with an Irish band, Wind That Shakes the Barley. Sometimes the combination falls flat, but sometimes the coming together of poems and music creates a new kind of magic.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell us a bit about your books, “Falling Body” and “The Middleman”?

David Cavanagh: The Middleman was my first book. It contains a variety of poems, but the overall theme is that life is a balancing act, a tightrope walk, that we need to explore all sides of issues, and that refusing to accept one extreme or another is not a weakness but a middle position of tension and strength.

            Falling Body focuses on the links between our inner and outer worlds, our private and public selves, our present and our past, our losses and small triumphs. Several of the poems also talk about the importance and difficulty of paying attention — how challenging that is in our world, where we often live in a constant state of distraction that can prevent us from any serious understanding or action.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think teachers make better writers?

David Cavanagh: No, not necessarily.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: Did your obsession for cycling influenced your most recent book, “Cycling in Plato’s Cave”?

David Cavanagh: Yes, cycling is at the heart of the book. I’ve been riding bicycles regularly since I was a little boy in Montreal. In the past 15 years, I’ve become obsessed with bike riding as a way of keeping in shape, as a stress reducer (a lot cheaper than therapy), as a form of meditation, as environmentally sound, as a very practical means of transportation, and just a lot of fun. I wrote a few poems about cycling and realized that it could be a way of getting at some concerns that are important to me. The book grew from there.

A bicycle is a beautiful thing. It has a classic design that hasn’t changed much in more than a hundred years. It gives people a simple, efficient way of getting around and a personal connection with their surroundings; it encourages a thoughtful response to the world. My book tries to explore these issues with a light touch, without getting preachy.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you arrive at an idea for a poem?

David Cavanagh: I don’t really arrive at an idea for a poem. It comes to me, if I’m lucky, or grows slowly out of me – and as I write this sentence it doesn’t feel like a good description at all for what is really a complex, even mysterious process. I try to work at poems almost every day. Sometimes an image comes to mind and becomes the basis for a poem. Sometimes a bit of remembered conversation, or something I’ve seen, triggers a poem. There is no one way, and I never know until I’m well into a piece, and sometimes not until well after the piece has been drafted, if it has the potential to be a poem.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think writers should have specific mission to fulfill within the society?

David Cavanagh: It’s a very good and complicated question. Writers have a mission to do the best writing that they can – the most honest, best crafted, and most engaging writing that they can do. They have a responsibility, first of all, to the work and to their own vision. They have a responsibility within society just as any human being does, but I don’t think they must feel obligated to take an explicit political or social stance, for example, in their writing. If they do, and it happens naturally as part of their most authentic work, great. Of course, all writing is political and social at some level, so any good writer contributes to society by adding a drop of honesty and clear vision to the pool of public awareness.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the most important review you’ve ever received from a reader?

David Cavanagh: Oh, well, that would be the one where the reader just loved the poems and said everyone should read them! Just kidding. Seriously, I think of two different “reviews,” which were really comments by two poets whose opinions I respect very much. One said that I had become one of the “touchstone poets” in his life. The other liked a particular set of poems but thought some of them could go deeper. Both reviews have spurred me on.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you describe your daily working habits?

David Cavanagh: I write nearly every morning for a couple of hours, though I’m not at the desk with my head down the whole time. I’m reading, I’m writing, I’m getting a cup of coffee, I’m writing some more. In the afternoons, I work at my part-time job at a college. In the evening I read some more.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any book(s) that have inspired you over the years?

David Cavanagh: I try to read a lot and widely, so I would say that the collective reading that I have done inspires me. It’s difficult to pinpoint any particular books. The work of Adrienne Rich, William Butler Yeats, William Blake, Wallace Stevens, Alice Notley, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Don McKay, my great friend Greg Delanty, my partner Sharon Webster, and many others have inspired and influenced me.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think there is more to writing than putting pen to paper or the mere typing on the computer screen?

David Cavanagh: To write good poems requires bringing all of yourself, all your concentration, all your energy, all your life, past and present, to the work of getting down a few authentic words. It’s a crazy business, and it’s the most wonderful work imaginable.


Interview with American Writer, Betsy Fogelman Tighe

October 29, 2014
Photo Credit: Debra Kolodny

Photo Credit: Debra Kolodny

Brief Biography:

Betsy Fogelman Tighe has published widely in small literary magazines, including TriQuarterly 74, for which she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and Verseweavers, Number 14 for which she was awarded third prize by the Oregon State Poetry Association in the New Poets category. She had the opportunity to apprentice at American Poetry Review during her college years, as well as study with the likes of CK Williams and James Wright. She currently works as a teacher-librarian in Portland, OR where she lives happily with her young adult children.

Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin with “Girl’s Childhood” published in Rattle. What inspired it?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  Being a parent inspired it.  I think the most unexpected thing about parenthood, the surprise, is the number of things we cannot control for and about our children, and the pain of the utter helplessness of that.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you choose titles for your poems?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  Often the title is the first line, or the inciting moment, or my own answer to the poem’s puzzle.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write from your experiences?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  Mostly.  I was very lucky as a young poet to have James Wright as a mentor.  He urged me to move away from the autobiographical, which was challenging for me.   I tried and tried, but couldn’t quite force it.  It was only with a certain age that I have begun to genuinely begun to write about others.  In recent years, I have wanted to write a poetry of witness.  Not political poetry, but the witness of lives which may not be testifying about themselves.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult being a mother and writing at the same time?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  No.  I know other poets have talked about that being the advantage of poetry.  That sometimes it only takes 10 minutes.  My children are young adults now, anyway, so certainly there is no longer any real demand on my time.  Work interferes more now.  I’m a high school librarian, and while I do insist on working only my contract hours, nonetheless, my mind is on it a lot of the time, and my creativity seems to be tied to it 10 months of the year.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you enjoy performing your poems?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  I do love performing.  I started college as a theater major, thinking I would be an actress, and then had to admit that I really had no talent. But I am a bit of a performer.  I like the limelight.  I’m drawn to storytelling.  I like to gather people.  Maybe I should have been a comedian.  In the past few years, I have begun singing, with other people.  It feels like a divine activity.  Connecting the word, with voice, with others.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about the story of your intern at American Poetry Review? What sort of work did you do over there?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  I spent a year there, working a couple of afternoons a week.  I’d open the mail, read unsolicited manuscripts, proofread–that was when type was still typeset, and “blues” would come in and have to be gone over with a fine tooth comb on a pretty quick turnaround.    We had a system of one person reading aloud, while the other scanned the text.  There may have been other duties, but this is what I recall.

Geosi Gyasi: Which poets have had the most profound influence on you as a writer?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  James, certainly.  Then, a multitude of others.  After I read Anne Carson, I thought, I have to invent a form.  And I did!   But have not developed it.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you become a writer/poet?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  When I was about 13, I read Leonard Cohen, Richard Brautigan, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and that was that.  The siren call of the lyric.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a favourite among all the poems you’ve written?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  I always have a new favorite, usually a more current one.  At the moment, I’m perplexed that no one has taken “Pillow Talk.”

Geosi Gyasi: What interests you most about writing?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  In the beginning was the word.  For me, language is reality.  I take it seriously.  I don’t have enough capacity, but I like to keep practicing.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have specific topics you write on?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  No, I don’t think so.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any formal education in writing?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  I’ve taken 10,000 workshops with everyone from C.K. Williams to Kinnell to Olds to Ai  to Doty.  But no MFA.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you currently working on anything?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  During the school year, I do not do a lot of writing, but I write daily when I’m not working.  I’ve been shopping a manuscript for a long, long time.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind giving us some lines to anyone of your favourite poems?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  Do you mean mine or someone else’s?

Geosi Gyasi: Do you show work-in-progress to friends?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  I attend a monthly critique group, and occasionally when I think a poem is finished, I’ll send it off to one or two friends.  My oldest and dearest friend, Judith Parker, I met in a workshop with Bly, I think in 1982.  Wow!

Geosi Gyasi: Do you know when you’ve come to the end of a poem?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  Do you mean when I’ve found the right finish, or when I’m on the last draft?

Geosi Gyasi: Do you revise a lot?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe:  Most poems get 3-4 drafts, I’d say.  Many I start years before they are finished.

Geosi Gyasi: Would you like to end the interview?

Betsy Fogelman Tighe: Sure!



Interview with Mark Smith-Soto, Author of Splices

October 28, 2014
Photo: Mark Smith-Soto

Photo: Mark Smith-Soto

Brief Biography:

Mark Smith-Soto has been editor or associate editor of International Poetry Review at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for over twenty years. Along with four prize-winning chapbooks he has published two full-length poetry collections, Our Lives Are Rivers (University Press of Florida, 2003), and Any Second Now (Main Street Rag Publishing Co., 2006).  His work, which has appeared in Antioch Review, Kenyon Review, Literary Review, Nimrod, Rattle, The Sun and many other publications, has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize and was recognized in 2006 with an NEA Fellowship in Creative Writing.  In 2010, Unicorn Press brought out his work of translation Fever Season, the selected poetry of Costa Rican writer Ana Istarú. His most recent publications are Berkeley Prelude: A Lyrical Memoir (Unicorn Press, 2012) and the chapbook Splices (Finishing Line Press, 2013).

Geosi Gyasi: Was there any writer whose work convinced you to become a writer?

Mark Smith-Soto:  Growing up in Costa Rica, I had the good luck to have uncles and aunts who loved poetry and took every opportunity to recite it. Rubén Darío, Gabriela Mistral and José Martí were frequent guests at our dinner table whenever my extended family got together.  My uncle Enrique, whose daughter Ana Istarú is now one of Costa Rica’s foremost poets, was particularly fond of Darío and knew many of his poems by heart. I think it was listening to him proclaiming the verses of that exquisite Nicaraguan poet that first made me want to be a writer myself.

Geosi Gyasi: Can you define your voice as a writer?

Mark Smith-Soto: My voice is many voices, really. One of the problems I’ve had in trying to publish my books of poetry has been that editors, and the judges of poetry competitions, often have felt that the collections are too heterogeneous, that they lack a consistency of tone or theme.  Maybe I should follow Fernando Pessoa’s example and publish slim volumes under different names!

Geosi Gyasi: Berkeley Prelude is your memoir in verse and reflects your experiences as a university student in the early seventies. Which writers were mostly read at the time?

Mark Smith-Soto: Sylvia Plath, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, Philip Larkin, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo. Those were the ones that interested me most at that time.

Geosi Gyasi: You were born in Washington D.C and raised in Costa Rica. What do you remember about growing up in Costa Rica?

Mark Smith-Soto: I remember above all a sense of freedom. When school was not in session, I would run out of the house to join my friends in the morning and come back to the house only for meals. Even in the rainy season, between sudden showers, the weather was perfect, sunny and mild with flowers of all kinds sweetening the air. A paradise for a child, really.

Geosi Gyasi: What took you to Costa Rica?

Mark Smith-Soto:  My mother missed her family and her friends. Also, my father did not like the political climate being created at the time by Joe McCarthy and his supporters.  Two years after I was born, my father decided to give life in Costa Rica a try. He loved it there, as it turned out, and we stayed eight years.

Geosi Gyasi: You were raised bilingually as you lived in different places. What languages do you speak?

Mark Smith-Soto: English and Spanish. I read French and Italian with relative ease, but I am far from a fluent speaker of either.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write best in the English language?

Mark Smith-Soto: Yes, when it comes to poetry. Most of my scholarly articles and books I wrote in Spanish.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think the language a writer writes in matters at all?

Mark Smith-Soto: I do, although I couldn’t really explain how that works. My good friends have often told me that I seem to be a different person when I speak in Spanish, that I am more animated and appear more playful and relaxed. So it follows that any poetry I might write in Spanish would be quite different from what the English muse whispers in my ear.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poetry collection, “Our Lives Are Rivers”?

Mark Smith-Soto: The poems in the first and longer part of that book draw principally from memories of my Costa Rican childhood and my family there.

The rest of the collection is not so unified in theme.  I wrote those poems over a ten-year period, so naturally they did not spring from any single inspiration.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: And “Any Second Now” came out in 2006. How long did it take you to write the book?

Mark Smith-Soto: One poem in that book I worked on, off and on, for almost thirty years. Others I finished in the weeks immediately prior to its publication.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a professor of romance languages. What actually is a romance language?

Mark Smith-Soto: The romance languages are the offspring of Latin: Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian and Portuguese. My own field was Latin-American literature—primarily poetry written in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I am now retired, and my only formal connection with the university is that I continue to work with the International Poetry Review, a magazine I directed for over twenty years.

Geosi Gyasi: You are the founding director of the Center for Creative Writing in Arts at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Has the purpose for which the center was set up been achieved?

Mark Smith-Soto: Unfortunately, the economic downturn of the last few years resulted in budget cuts so drastic that the Center’s ability to carry out its work has been much hindered.  However, it has survived due to the support of an enlightened dean, and I trust it will flourish once more in the not too distant future.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you think of new writers coming out of America?

Mark Smith-Soto: I have just served as the judge for a first-book poetry contest held by Unicorn Press, and the general quality of the writing has delighted me– surprised me, in truth, with its inventiveness and power. If those manuscripts are a fair sample of what upcoming poets in America are doing these days, I would say that we are in very good shape.

Geosi Gyasi: How often do you return to Costa Rica?

Mark Smith-Soto: I return every four or five years. Not as often as I would like!

Geosi Gyasi: As an editor of the International Poetry Review, what do you ascertain as the main challenges editors face?

Mark Smith-Soto: My main challenge is to keep a fresh eye on the submissions that come in.  It is difficult to read hundreds of poems a year without becoming jaded or cynical or dismissive of work that doesn’t fit one’s tidy notion of what poetry should be. I have for years now depended on the younger people who have volunteered themselves as associate editors of the magazine to keep me honest as far as giving each submission a fair chance, and to open me up to different approaches to the art.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you do lots of editing?

Mark Smith-Soto:  If you mean do I rewrite much, the answer is absolutely yes. I am not one of those writers who get many “gifts,” as those poems are often called that seem to pour out of one’s mind heart and mind completely finished. It very often takes me years to find a poem’s definitive shape, and not even publishing a poem keeps it safe from my further tinkering.

Geosi Gyasi: How did the idea for “Night Watch” come to you?

Mark Smith-Soto: My dog fetched it for me! Seriously.

Geosi Gyasi: How? Could you explain?

Mark Smith-Soto: Sure. At the purely literal level, what the poem describes is exactly what happened: my dog’s barking led me to explore outside the house to see what might be disturbing him.  Not finding anything amiss in the growing darkness, I felt at a loss, and his continuing alarm awakened in me a feeling of vulnerability–it sensitized me to the fact that the world is full of potential dangers for all living creatures. If not for Chico “fetching me” that realization, the poem would never have been written.


Night Watch


Chico whines, no reason why. Just now walked,

dinner gobbled, head and ears well scratched.

And yet he whines, looking up at me as if confused

at my just sitting here, typing away, while darkness

is stalking the back yard. How can I be so blind,

he wants to know, how sad, how tragic, how I

won’t listen before it is too late. His whines are

refugees from a brain where time and loss have

small dominion, but where the tyranny of now

is absolute. I get up and throw open the kitchen door,

and he disappears down the cement steps, barking

deeper and darker than I remember. I follow

to find him perfectly still in the empty yard—

the two of us in the twilight, standing guard.


Night Watch by Mark Smith-Soto first appeared in Poetry East.


Interview with Robert Fanning, Author of American Prophet

October 27, 2014
Photo: Robert Fanning

Photo: Robert Fanning

Brief Biography:

Robert Fanning is the author of American Prophet (Marick Press), The Seed Thieves (Marick Press) and Old Bright Wheel (Ledge Press Poetry Award). His poems have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, The Atlanta Review, and other journals. Recent work has also appeared on The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor on NPR, and Fanning was interviewed at the Library of Congress for the nationally-syndicated radio program “The Poet and the Poem.” A graduate of the University of Michigan and Sarah Lawrence College, he is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Central Michigan University. He is also the founder and facilitator of the Wellspring Literary Series in Mt. Pleasant, MI., where he lives with his wife, sculptor Denise Whitebread Fanning, and their two children. To read more of his work, visit

Geosi Gyasi: It wouldn’t be bad if I begin with your book “American Prophet”. It has an interesting title. What inspired the book?

Robert Fanning: American Prophet was inspired by the passing thought of a rather brooding, grave man in a black suit standing on the diving board during a pool party. He tries to bring dire warnings to the people in the pool, but everyone ignores him. This became the first poem I wrote for the book, entitled “The Prophet’s Lament at Spring Break.” It was some time later that I realized I didn’t want to be done with this character, that he had something to say, that he wanted to walk the American landscape. So I set out to follow him.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you sometimes find the art of writing poetry difficult? 

Robert Fanning: Writing poetry is utterly challenging. “Difficult” is true, but not the right word, because it feels too negative. It is a deeply challenging endeavor, but a fantastically worthwhile one, even though it results in complete failure much of the time. The process of making poetry, and art, in general, involves creating problems and trying to solve them, in service of some truth.

Geosi Gyasi: What drew you to poetry?

Robert Fanning: The pleasure of putting words beside each other, one by one, and stepping back to see what sounds and pictures they’ve made.

Geosi Gyasi: How long have you been writing?

Robert Fanning: Since I was very young, probably since I could hold a pencil, though I started out writing stories mostly. I didn’t write poems until high school, then I never strayed from the art.

Geosi Gyasi: Which of your own poems do you personally admire?

Robert Fanning: I tend to admire the poems I’m working on now, because they need the most love and attention, and many of them won’t make it into the world! I look at some of the work in my first collection, “The Seed Thieves,” and I’m not sure how I wrote them anymore, so I sort of marvel at them now from a distance, as an observer. But I’m very excited by the many new directions I’m headed. I don’t want to be the same poet over and over again. I’m constantly trying to evolve, and each book, as well as my current manuscripts, are quite different.

Geosi Gyasi: Your chapbook, “Old Bright Wheel” won Ledge Press Poetry Award. Was it your debut book? Were you surprised to have won the award?

Robert Fanning: Yes, “Old Bright Wheel” was my first book, a chapbook. I was ridiculously excited to have won the Ledge Press Poetry Award. My goal was always to have a book someday with my name on it. It was my first experience of that, so it was wonderful.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a professor at Central Michigan University. Is there any striking element that connects teaching to writing?

Robert Fanning: Teaching and writing are similar in that they both involve the whole spirit–one needs to be tireless, creative and deeply giving in order to be both teacher and writer.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever written out of anger?

Robert Fanning: Oh, sure. I’ve written “out of” many emotions–but part of the challenge is to channel those emotions, to transmute them into something that can be felt by a listener or reader. In other words, much like transferring electricity, the writer must be the conductor–NOT the electricity. It follows, then, that to sit down and try to write in anger, or grief, or joy, or lust, will not make for a good poem. I will usually meditate before writing, to get to a space where I can be a better conductor for the material of emotion and thought into language.


American Prophet

American Prophet

Geosi Gyasi: Are you inspired by nature when you write?

Robert Fanning: Absolutely, but I don’t often directly write about nature. Walking in the woods, sitting by the river, these activities for me great nourishment for the spirit–that I draw from when I write.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any writers you look up to?

Robert Fanning: I am inspired by many writers–the contemporary scene is very vibrant. I particularly enjoy following the work of my writer friends from Detroit: Peter Markus, Jamaal May, Terry Blackhawk, Matthew Olzmann, Vievee Francis, francine j. harris, among others. I sort of see my friends from Detroit as my writing family.

Geosi Gyasi: You are the author of two full-length poetry collections and one chapbook. Could you distinguish between a full-length book and chapbook?

Robert Fanning: As a music lover, I often distinguish between them as comparing a chapbook to an E.P. (24-32 pages), and a full-length collection as an L.P. (48-64) pages. The former is a slice of pie. The latter: a whole pie.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you see yourself publishing more poetry books in future?

Robert Fanning: I see myself publishing poetry books, yes. However, I’m not sure yet if publishers see the same thing! I have completed one new manuscript, entitled “Our Sudden Museum,” and am at work on two others, one entitled “Severance,” and the other “Man Carrying a Corpse.” I’m actively pursuing publication. Fingers crossed.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s most important to you as a writer?

Robert Fanning: The writing is the true playtime, the splashing around in the river and mud of words. But what’s most important to me is bringing that art to others–whether in the form of giving a poetry reading, hosting a poetry reading series as I do, or teaching. I like talking about the art, sharing books with people, telling people about the poems I love, sharing my enthusiasm for the art, because I believe it is a deeply necessary, crucial human thing.

Geosi Gyasi: Who reads your books?

Robert Fanning: Very sexy, very charming, very fashionable, highly intelligent people.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that writers are often boring to be with?

Robert Fanning: Most people are very boring to be with, including me, most of the time. I’m usually a very exciting person about once a week, but unfortunately I’m often alone at that moment. Being a writer doesn’t make one any more or less boring. I know stock brokers who are painfully boring. Doctors, musicians, insurance adjusters, attorneys, mountain climbers, teachers, janitors–in the immortal words of Morrissey, “the world is full of crashing bores.” Writers don’t, unfortunately, have a corner on the boring market.

Geosi Gyasi: Can a writer survive only by writing?

Robert Fanning: Well, Mahatma Gandhi went three weeks without eating. So most writers would be able to live for about a month or so. However, they’d be probably hallucinating and having trouble typing after a couple of weeks. Therefore, it’s good to try to eat, drink and exercise and have some occasional social relations in between writing. In order to eat, drink and have shelter, however, one needs money. Writing can be a way to attain money. But it’s not the easiest or quickest way to attain money. Crime is much quicker, but tends to be risky. Therefore, if one chooses to write to make money in order to survive–one should plan to write books a whole bunch of people will buy. Unfortunately, poetry is definitely not the form of writing to undertake in order to attain such a readership. Thankfully, poetry is very much at odds with money. Therefore one ought to have several contingency plans of primary income if one chooses to be a poet.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any extra activities you engage in besides writing and teaching?

Robert Fanning: Hanging out with my wife and kids is the ultimate pleasure. I find, when we’re not busy or goofing around, I spend a lot of time just quietly looking at my wife, my son, and my daughter and admiring them. My own family, my mother, my siblings–the people we love are what matters most. The older I get, I realize that more and more. That’s what matters, and maybe all that matters in the end–the people we love, the ones who will be holding our hand along the way and at the end.


Interview with Liz Scheid, Author of The Shape of Blue

October 26, 2014
Photo: Liz Scheid

Photo: Liz Scheid

Brief Biography:

Liz Scheid’s first book, The Shape of Blue: Notes on Loss, Language, Motherhood & Fear won The Lit Pub’s first annual prose contest and was published in 2013. Her work has appeared in many magazines, such as; Sou’Wester, Terrain, Third Coast, The Journal, Rattle, The Collagist, The Rumpus, and others. She currently teaches at a community college in Fresno, California and also online at University of Texas at El Paso.

Geosi Gyasi: Were you surprised that your first book, The Shape of Blue, won The Lit Pub’s first annual prose contest?

Liz Scheid: Yes, I was super surprised. In fact, I was riding shot gun on my way to LA with my mom when I got the email. I think the subject said, “Lit Pub Winner!,” and I was just thinking it was a rejection. I almost didn’t even open the email, but I thought that I’d like to know who won. I had to read the email like five times to fully believe what I was reading. I made my mom pull over and we screamed and cried and screamed a lot. It was pretty amazing.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you feel winning the award?

Liz Scheid: I was really overwhelmed with feelings. I had put so much work into my writing, into this book, so this moment felt so surreal to me. I couldn’t really believe it was happening. In fact, it didn’t fully hit me until I held the first copy of the book in my hands. That’s when it hit me. I was stunned. It was a beautiful moment.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have specific theme(s) you write on?

Liz Scheid: I don’t ever set out to write about a certain theme/thing. These things sometimes arise from the work, but it’s not usually intentional. It’s an interesting thing to talk about though because my kids are often in my work, which gets me categorized and quickly pigeonholed as someone who writes about motherhood, pregnancy, etc. These things are there obviously. But most of the time, I’m exploring larger issues.  But, it’s interesting that my male friends who often write about their kids don’t get categorized as “someone who writes about fatherhood.”

Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you write for?

Liz Scheid: Everyone. Women. Men. Mostly women. Yes.

Geosi Gyasi: Why did you have to do an MFA in poetry? Why not any other genre?

Liz Scheid: I love poems. I started writing them when I was a kid. My early poems were short, and consisted of short, silly rhymes. But I was also reading and memorizing poems. It really ignited a lifelong love of language for me. I learned to listen to the subtleties in language, and I learned to appreciate all that it could do. I’d say that I became a very disciplined writer and reader by studying poetry.

Geosi Gyasi: Have your study in poetry benefited you as a writer?

Liz Scheid: Yes, massively. I just don’t think you could undo this. Or separate these things. It’s embedded in everything I do; the way I see the world, the way I talk about the world.

Geosi Gyasi: You have twice been nominated for the Pushcart award? Now, what does that mean to you?

Liz Scheid: Of course, I was honored for the nominations, but it also means I need to keep striving harder and harder. I need to always keep working and revising and reshaping. I hope to win a Pushcart someday.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell us a bit about your student days at the California State University?

Liz Scheid: I had a great experience during my MFA days. I studied and wrote and read and had lots of fun. It was an amazing space for me; I felt so vulnerable, kind of like a child in many ways. Everything I read felt new and awesome. I absorbed it all like a sponge. I remember being so blown away by so many books and so many great professors and writers.  What could be better than going to class to talk about books for hours? Truly, it feels like some sort of distant dream now, but it was an incredible experience. I have so many wonderful writer friends, who I met during my grad days, who still continue to inspire and teach me.

The Shape of Blue by Liz Scheid

The Shape of Blue by Liz Scheid

Geosi Gyasi: You divide your time between teaching, mothering and writing. How does the three merge?

Liz Scheid: Just call me Triceratops. I wear them all around with me everywhere I go.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult mothering and writing?

Liz Scheid: I think this is an interesting question. It’s one that I get asked a lot. Both are equally demanding and wonderful in their own ways. But both are so engrained in my identity that the boundaries are blurred. I’m writing as I’m mothering, and I’m mothering as I’m writing.

Geosi Gyasi: What is your greatest challenge as a writer?

Liz Scheid: I have an incredibly hard time sitting still. I’m impatient. I fidget. I get distracted. I like to move around a lot, so getting myself into that space where I can hyperfocus on words and images takes a great deal of energy and commitment.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you do if your writing is not going well?

Liz Scheid: If it’s only getting worse, and I don’t find anything good in the writing or anything worth exploring/pursuing, then I’ll leave it alone. By leave it alone, I mean, I’ll take a break from writing. I’ll go for a walk, bike ride, swim, or do something other than write. Many times, I just read and read when I’m in a slump. Eventually, there’s something that hits me in the gut or heart, and I’ll feel pressed to hit the keyboard. But I’m not the writer who can just write routinely everyday. It’s never worked out for me that way. I’m more of a spontaneous type of person anyway, so I find the ideas and inspiration comes to me in bursts more randomly than anything.

Geosi Gyasi: Which writers do you look up to?

Liz Scheid: I look up to a lot of writers. But the ones who come to my mind immediately are: Lia Purpura, Connie Hales, Steven Church,Yusef Komunyakaa, Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, Dave Eggers,  Mary Karr, Carmen Gimenez-Smith, Chloe Caldwell.

Though, this is largely an incomplete list, however, these are ambitious writers, who are constantly taking risks in form or subject matter. I love that, and I try to read everything they write.

Geosi Gyasi: What must have influenced your poem, “Magic”?

Liz Scheid: It was a combination of so many things: my daughter’s preoccupation with dead things at the time, and the idea of childlike wonder that in so many ways is so beautiful and magical. My kids have challenged me to see in this light, and it has inspired so many different pieces of writing, much like that piece.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a special time when you write?

Liz Scheid: No, not at all. I could say that I usually write more in the mornings because this is when I have more energy and have more bursts of creativity, but then again sometimes, I write late at night. I wish it was more predictable, but it’s not.

Geosi Gyasi: I am not sure if you would be interested in answering this but how is marriage life like?

Liz Scheid: I’m incredibly lucky to have someone to share the wonderful and messy parts/moments of the world with, and of course, I’m also very fortunate to have someone who supports what I do. My husband is an incredible father, and that is such a beautiful thing. The kids and I are lucky to have him.

Geosi Gyasi: Would you want any of your children to become writers?

Liz Scheid: If that’s what they wanted to do, then absolutely, yes, I’d support them. But mostly, I want them to find what it is they love, and by love, of course, I mean, I want them to love it massively.


Interview with William Trowbridge, Author of Put This On, Please

October 25, 2014
Photo: William Trowbridge

Photo: William Trowbridge

Brief Biography:

William Trowbridge’s latest collection, Put This On, Please: New and Selected Poems, was published in March by Red Hen Press. His other collections are Ship of Fool, The Complete Book of Kong, Flickers, O Paradise, Enter Dark Stranger, and the chapbooks The Packing House Cantata, The Four Seasons, and The Book of Kong. His poems have appeared in more than 35 anthologies and textbooks, as well as on The Writer’s Almanac and in such periodicals as Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, The Georgia Review, Boulevard, The Southern Review, Plume, Columbia, Rattle, The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Epoch, and New Letters. Trowbridge lives in the Kansas City area and teaches in the University of Nebraska low-residency MFA in writing program. He is currently Poet Laureate of Missouri. His website is

Geosi Gyasi: What do you do to relax besides writing and teaching?

William Trowbridge: I like to watch film classics, which I’ve always drawn from in my poems. I especially like the silent comedies and especially the ones of Buster Keaton. I’m also a big fan of the Laurel and Hardy talkies. And I’ve written whole collection of poems narrated from the point of view of King Kong. I also like to ride my Triumph Sprint ST motorcycle, travel, dine out with friends, and tend to the landscaping in our yard. And, of course, I enjoy giving poetry readings around the country.

Geosi Gyasi: Teaching and writing – which of them do you enjoy doing most?

William Trowbridge: That’s a tough one: each activity offers its own rich rewards. I’m having an especially fulfilling experience in my present teaching post in the University of Nebraska Low-Residency MFA in Writing Program — wonderful students of all ages and a first-rate group of colleagues. But I must say that I enjoy writing even more — though not by much.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever encountered any student who is frustrated about writing?

William Trowbridge: I think everyone gets frustrated about his or her writing once in a while. Sometimes a poem just won’t come out the way you’d hoped. William Stafford had some refreshing advice about one kind of frustration: “There is no such thing as writers block for writers whose standards are low enough. ” I don’t think he meant to just start writing bad poetry. Rather, he was suggesting a strategy for avoiding the feeling of anxiety people suffer from having overly-high hopes for an early draft and giving up on it too soon. As Stafford said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” When one of my students gets frustrated, I try listen to what the worries are and try to address them. I find that sometimes assigning a poetry exercise helps get things going again. One of the best exercises I’ve ever run across is “20 Little Poetry Projects,” by Jim Simmerman. It asks you to do the twenty projects the exercise calls for in the order in which they’re listed. They are very little projects. For example, one of them asks you to “use an image in such a way as to reverse its usual associative qualities.” You can start this exercise without having any idea what the poem is going to be about or where it will go, and you almost always wind up with a poem worth keeping. I’ve found that it works for students from junior high to graduate school, as well as for established poets. There’s an anthology consisting entirely of poems written from this exercise. It ranges from works by kids to ones by poets like Robin Becker, Allison Joseph, and Michael Waters. It’s called Mischief, Caprice, & Other Poetic Strategies, ed. Terry Wolverton (Red Hen Press).

Geosi Gyasi: For how long have you been writing?

William Trowbridge: If you mean writing poetry, I started later than most. I was going to be a scholar, specializing in the American novel. My doctoral dissertation was on the novels of William Faulkner. But while I was studying modern poetry to prepare for my Ph.D. comprehensive exam, I came across some poems by Howard Nemerov that seemed to cast a spell on me. So I decided to write a poem, imitating his style. Then I wrote another and another, and finally I had enough to take to a trusted professor to find out if they were any good. He liked them enough to recommend I enter the Academy of American Poets competition at Vanderbilt, which I wound up winning. I think from then on, that encouragement and, even more, the lift I got from writing poems carried me into a new vocation, though it took me a number of years to shift from Faulkner scholar to poet.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?

William Trowbridge: No, thank goodness.

Geosi Gyasi: What interests you about the writing process?

William Trowbridge: I think the most interesting part is the series of discoveries you usually make while writing a poem. I tell my students to “listen” to what the poem says to them about where it wants to go. When a poem begins to steer you away from your original conception, it’s time to follow it instead of enforcing that old rule about “sticking to the subject” we’re given in early prose-writing classes. In most cases, following where the poem takes you will yield delightful and necessary surprises — necessary because, as Frost famously said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I love those surprises.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you remember most about your days as a student at Vanderbilt University?

William Trowbridge: I have good memories of many of my professors and fellow students. My dissertation director, Thomas Daniel Young, was one of the best teachers and best people I’ve ever encountered. I wasn’t alone in that opinion: a fellow grad student named his first child after Dr. Young. I’m still in contact with some of my grad student pals. And I also recall the lingering aura of the Fugitive Poets, a Vanderbilt group that included the poets John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate. The English department was then located in Old Central Hall, which was the original farmhouse on the property purchased with money Cornelius Vanderbilt gave in 1873 for the founding of the university. In the entryway was a plaque that read, “Through these doors passed the Fugitives daily.”

Geosi Gyasi: Is poetry hard to write?

William Trowbridge: I guess my answer would echo Woody Allen’s reply to the question “Do you think sex is dirty?” He answered, “Only if it’s done right.”

Put This On, Please

Put This On, Please

Geosi Gyasi: So what makes a poem “right”?

My answer was “only if it’s done right.” Whether a poem is “right” or is “done right” are two different issues. What I meant by “done right” has to do with devoting maximum and sustained attention to the elements of craft, including form, word choice, line breaks, accentual stresses, sound, sentence structure, use of tropes, and use of detail. All should work together toward the final version of the poem. Of course craft isn’t the only element at work in composing a poem. There are also those less definable ones some call “inspiration,” “insight,” and “emotional truth.” At any rate, writing a good poem almost always takes a lot of hard work, a lot of drafts before the poem is finished. Though once in a great while a poem will develop very quickly, with little revision, I’m not a believer in “first draft, best draft.” As to a poem being “right.” The finished poem may end up “right” to varying degrees, from generally right to exactly right. Which degree applies must be decided ultimately by the reader, whose decision I don’t think is entirely subjective.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve won a host of awards including Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize, a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship, a Camber Press Poetry Chapbook Award, among others. Which one of them are you most proud of?

William Trowbridge: The Academy of American Poets prize was my first award, one that contributed to my decision to become a poet. The Bread Loaf scholarship and the Yaddo fellowship were other early contributors. And the Pushcart is certainly a source of pride: there were over 8000 nominations the year I won one and only 67 winners. I’m also proud of being appointed Poet Laureate of Missouri.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you get along when a poem isn’t going well?

William Trowbridge: Like most writers, I usually put it aside for a while in order to later look at it without the tunnel vision that sometimes happens when you’re working and and working and the poem still won’t come to life. When I put it away for a couple of weeks and then come come back to it, I usually discover a strategy for making it work — though in a few cases I’ve just had to send it to an early grave.

Geosi Gyasi: You were once an editor of The Laurel Review/GreenTower Press from 1986 to 2004. What’s your observation about editing and writing?

William Trowbridge: Two colleagues and I took over The Laurel Review in 1986 and edited it till 1998. None of us had any idea how much work must go into editing a good literary magazine.

I was a smoker most of those years, and I hate to think about how many cartons I went through per issue. But the rewards are also great. A great feeling of pride comes from holding a new issue you know contains some first-rate writing. I also enjoyed the contact the magazine gave me with other writers, some of whom are now old friends. And, of course, it was always a thrill to discover a writer who hadn’t yet been published. Though publishing established writers is important to the life of a literary magazine, perhaps its main function is to discover and encourage new talent,

Geosi Gyasi: You have about five poetry publications. Do you fill fulfilled as a writer? Does the number of books one writes matter at all?

William Trowbridge: Actually, I’ve published six full collections and three chapbooks. However, I find the writing of poems, rather than their publication, to be the most fulfilling. As long as I’m writing new poems, I feel fulfilled. Certainly publication is an important element of being a poet, but I think that, if it’s the main motivation, the actual writing is likely to become just a task. When that happens, you should find a different task, one that pays better.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us about the writing of “Ship of Fool”?

William Trowbridge: The book consists mainly of poems about a character named Fool. At first I wasn’t clear on exactly who Fool was — other than an interesting figure to write about, one who seemed connected to the fool figure in silents and standup comedy (e.g. Keaton, Pryor, Woody Allen). But now I’ve gotten to know him better, I see him as connected to the fool archetype that appears not only in silent and stand-ups but also in tales running back to the beginning of storytelling. To borrow from Yiddish comedy, he is a combination of schlemiel and schlimazel. The difference, as you may know, is that the schlemiel is a bungler who’s always accidentally breaking things and spilling stuff on people and the schlimazel is a sad sack who’s always getting his things broken and getting stuff spilled on him. My Fool is both. He is often treated harshly, which seems to come simply from his being a fool. Most fool figures, though “comic,” are subjected to a great deal of violence. The very term “slapstick” derives from this. In her book The Fool: His Social and Literary History, Enid Welsford concludes that the Fool’s essence is expressed in St. Chrysostom’s phrase “he who gets slapped.” The fool’s vulnerability and “foolishness” are seen by the non-fool population and perhaps by the fates as an invitation to take a shot — or at least be amused by watching someone or something else do so. The fool becomes a kind of scapegoat. Nathanael West, in Day of the Locust, discourses briefly but memorably on the clown’s tendency to create a thirst for violence — usually mirthful but sometimes not — in an audience. People laugh when he gets slapped or slips on metaphorical or literal bananas. Keaton discovered this as a child when he was in his parents’ vaudeville act. When the acrobatics began to feature little Buster taking what looked like and often were hard falls, the audience roared. The Keatons became a hit. I touch on the violence motivation fairly directly in several of the Fool poems.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your book, “Enter Dark Stranger”?

William Trowbridge: Well, of course, my interest in the dark strangers in film, fiction, and poetry. The book contains poems about dark strangers like King Kong, Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, and Jack Palance’s hired killer character in the movie Shane.The ones most effectively portrayed in literature and film elicit at least some empathy, however uncomfortable, as well as disapproval. And quite often they’re more interesting than whatever hero they’re in conflict with. Milton was accused by some of being a Satanist because of his riveting portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost.

Geosi Gyasi: Which of your books stands out best for you?

William Trowbridge: Just as my latest poem is always my favorite, so is my latest book.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you feel poetry has a place in modern world?

William Trowbridge: It certainly does. The problem is getting people in America to realize that. Right now, there’s considerable effort being put into making that happen, but many other countries seem to have much larger audiences. But when poetry no longer has a place in the world, we will have lost our collective soul.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the most difficult part of writing?

William Trowbridge: The most difficult for me, due to it’s tedium, is the clerical part: keeping book and individual poetry manuscripts circulating to magazine editors, book publishers, and contests, though I don’t spend much time on the latter. It involves a lot of record keeping, as well as envelope stuffing and stamp licking. Ugh. On-line submission, when a magazine will allow it, has made things a little easier, but I still to do a lot of the work the old fashioned way. Habit, I guess, and fear of pushing a button that will send my submission into a web black hole.


Interview with Jeannine Hall Gailey, Author of Unexplained Fevers

October 24, 2014
Photo: Jeannine Hall Gailey

Photo: Jeannine Hall Gailey

Brief Biography:

Jeannine Hall Gailey 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, upcoming in spring 2015, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Iowa Review, and have been featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac and in The Year’s Best Horror. Her web site is

Geosi Gyasi: You did a Bachelors of Science in Biology at the University of Cincinnati, a Masters of Arts in English at the same university and then an MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry, at the Pacific University? What accounted for the change of route from biology to creative writing?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: When I was about to do my MCAT, I started having some strange medical symptoms. I went to an immunologist in Cincinnati who was one of the top in his field, and he told me that medical school, with its stresses, schedule, and exposure to sick people, was probably not a good idea for me with my autoimmune problems. At the time I had planned to go to medical school, I had taken all the required classes, I had been volunteering for years at hospitals, working and volunteering and studying my heart out for that “medical school” goal. When I thought I had to give that up, I was pretty heartbroken. My mom introduced me to technical writing (she was then, I think, the acting president of the local branch of the Society for Technical Communication) and so I did that immediately after graduation to earn money.

I didn’t go back to graduate school right away. I spent a couple of years working as a tech writer until I became a technical writing manager at AT&T. While I was working there full-time, I was accepted into the University of Cincinnati’s graduate program in English, where I studied both creative and professional writing. (Not ideal: working a full-time job and going to grad school, FYI.) I couldn’t, at that time, see pursuing poetry as a practical way to earn a living, so after I graduated, I continued working as a technical manager and ended up at Microsoft in the Seattle area. My health problems cropped up again, this time in a more serious, life-endangering way. When I had to quit my stressful, 90-hour-a-week job, my husband suggested I give poetry another try. “If you don’t have a book in three years, you can always go back to tech writing,” he said. I started the MFA program at Pacific University and had a book out in two years.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you remember about studying in Pacific University?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: I really enjoyed the laid-back, casual environment of low-residency – so different from a more stringently-academic, literary-minded MA program at University of Cincinnati – and there was really a sense of family there with the faculty and students. This is when it had just started up, and it got listed in the Atlantic as one of the top five low-res program, heady times. My mentors were all fantastic, and more than that, even the faculty that didn’t get “assigned” me as a student, including some of the fiction and non-fiction faculty, really reached out and helped me and went above and beyond. I will say that it was a bit of a party atmosphere at the residencies in the years I went there, and since I can’t drink (genetic alcohol intolerance) and have been happily married a long time, sometimes I heard the strains of that old Adam Ant song, “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do? Goody goody two-shoes…” in the back of my head. Although I do have fond memories of two of the students playing guitar one night with a big group of people, super late, and everyone was drunk except me, and we were singing Tom Petty’s “Yer So Bad.” (I’ve been back to residencies since as a guest alumni and it’s a little less rowdy now, maybe because the size has increased or it’s gotten to be a more established program.)

Geosi Gyasi: When did you fall in love with poetry?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: Probably pretty early. I remember writing poems at 5, and 7, and memorizing my first poems at 10. “anyone lived in a pretty how town” by e.e. cummings, and part of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and Louis Simpson’s “My Father in the Night Commanding No.” I can still remember most of all three poems! My mother was getting her B.A. and taking a poetry class at that time, and she brought me home her textbook, Introduction to Poetry by XJ Kennedy, and we would read through it together.

Geosi Gyasi: Does writing come easy for you?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: Hmmm – I don’t know if writing is ever easy, but I’ve never really been a “writer’s block” type. One of the professors at Pacific, Marvin Bell, used to tell students, “Writers write” and I believe it, that we have to keep acting like writers, consciously, all the time, to continue to be writers. As in, put in some time reading and writing every week. Even if it’s just blog posts and freelance queries.

Geosi Gyasi: Does it pay to enroll in an MFA writing programme?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: No. I mean, if you mean money-wise, it does not pay. It’s a shame, but I think in America right now the MFA is sort of a privileged program, one only people who can afford not to make a living doing something else for a couple of years can do. I like low-residency programs because they allow, for instance, people to keep their jobs and their family obligations, but they are typically very expensive, and there are so few teaching jobs out there for MFA grads (and even for my PhD grad friends) that it would be very foolish for me to tell prospective students, yes, it’s totally worth the gamble!

However, if you’re looking for something to help reinforce your commitment to being a writer, and you can afford it, it’s a wonderful way to practice. A friend of mine put it this way: an MFA costs about as much as a Toyota Camry, except you don’t have a car at the end of two years, you have a degree. It’s literally buying yourself time, energy, and focus to write. I come from a working class type of family on both sides, so I believe in being honest about the class and cost issues in graduate studies. This is probably true in America of every kind of graduate study – it’s expensive, and there’s no guarantee there’s a job at the end. Look at law school graduates – super expensive degree, and afterwards, I’ve heard about 50 percent do not end up working as lawyers. Many MFA grads do not get jobs in the writing/publishing fields afterwards. But they can get jobs as English teachers, grant writers, tech writers, etc. I don’t want any MFA grads to wind up homeless because they think they have no marketable skills!

I was probably influenced by the fact that my parents both have PHD’s, and so I’ve always thought of graduate school as something I could and would do, despite not being particularly wealthy. When I got my MA, I had some generous financing from the University of Cincinnati, and I was working full time as a technical writing manager at AT&T. When I got my MFA, I was working part-time the whole time as a contract technical writer. So, you can work to pay for your school as you go, and financial aid from the programs can help a lot. I have taught as an adjunct, since graduation, at an online MFA program, and the pay was pretty low for the hours I put in. It’s not necessarily financially rewarding. I really liked the teaching part, though, and the fact that I got to teach poetry, which is my passion. There are so few tenure track jobs these days…I think my ideal life/work/writing balance would be teaching part-time at a low-residency program, teaching at writer’s conferences a couple of times a year, then spending the rest of my time writing. A girl can dream!

Geosi Gyasi: Do you ever regret being a writer?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: Not at all. I think if I had run into the kinds of limitations that I have had in my life – being in the hospital and in doctor’s offices a ton, being in a wheelchair for a couple of years, being too sick to get up and walk around for months at a time – without the idea that I could write and be somehow productive, I think I probably would have gone crazy, or at least found another art form to practice. Also, I think it’s important that people remember you can make a living as a writer, maybe not as a poet, but definitely as an advertising copywriter or technical writer or grant writer. Same skill sets!

Geosi Gyasi: Where do you get ideas to write?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: All over the place, but a lot of them from pop culture, from books, especially speculative fiction by the likes of Kelly Link, Margaret Atwood, and Haruki Murakami. I’m also heavily influenced by visual art, and have struck up some collaborations – and later friendships – with visual artists that I’m very happy to have in my life. Movies like Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and television like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias have also made their way into poems.

Geosi Gyasi: At what stage of writing does a poem take shape?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: Right away! I mean, it might turn into a different shape, but I believe poems are born into some kind of form. Kind of like bread. If you mess around with it while it’s in process, you can make it into a lot of different shape, but every bunch of dough has its own organic shape when it turns into a loaf of bread, right?

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write with a dictionary besides you?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: No. I grew up using computers and use the online dictionaries, thesaurus, etc.

Geosi Gyasi: What memories do you have of your first piece of writing?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: I remember writing an atomic protest poem about “a boy in a green raincoat jumping in a puddle of mud.” Um, the green raincoat was supposed to represent the military and the puddle of mud was supposed to represent nuclear pollution, I think. I was about seven and I thought it was brilliant. Ha ha ha.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: Tell us how you got your book, “Unexplained Fevers” published?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: Unexplained Fevers had a bit of a sad journey. My second book’s publisher, Kitsune Books, was set up to publish it, and we had signed the contracts, but shortly after my second book came out with them, the publisher developed terminal cancer. She closed the press and then passed away very quickly. It was tragic because she was an amazing force, a smart, fierce woman, and a terrific editor and publisher. I loved working with her and I still feel her loss. After that happened, I wrote to a few presses explaining the situation, and one of them was New Binary Press in Cork, Ireland. They were the fastest to respond and very easy to work with, despite the fact that we were on different continents! James O’Sullivan, the editor and publisher, is bright, ambitious, and cares about books. I felt lucky to work with them.

Geosi Gyasi: Beth Ann Fennelly, author of Unmentionables have said of your book as “…Read Unexplained Fevers, and be transformed.” What sort of transformation do you think she is talking about?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: The book itself is all about transformations, especially of the body, especially those transformations found in fairy tales. Often in life, women experience what seems like alien takeovers of their bodies – puberty, pregnancy, autoimmune illnesses (which we have, for whatever reason, much more often than men), menopause – and I believe the fairy tales are coded to tell us how to survive these changes and thrive. “Unexplained Fevers” is really reading Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel as myths that explain to do when we are trapped, frozen, or unconscious. For instance, in the book, I give Sleeping Beauty various reasons for being asleep – in one poem, she’s in a coma, getting an MRI, in another, she’s a heroin addict giving up the love of the needle. How do we free ourselves from our metaphorical towers and glass coffins? Often by changing.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you start writing “She Returns to the Floating World”?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: That book was really born out of my love for Hayao Miyazaki’s work, and a wonderful book I encountered in a used bookstore by Hayao Kawai called The Japanese Psyche: Major Motifs in the Fairy Tales of Japan. That book was a wonderful introduction to the folk tales of Japan and how things like Shinto and Buddhism have influenced Japanese culture over the years. I was fascinated by the existence in the fairy tales of a recurring “older sister/savior” character who repeatedly comes to the rescue of her younger brother, a trope not often found in Western fairy tales, and of the disappearing wife, a character who may or may not be fully human, who leaves the marriage to transform into a totally different life form – peony flowers, butterflies, white birds, foxes. I recommend the book and then a lot of reading of collections of Japanese folk tales, my favorite collection being by Osamu Dazai.

Geosi Gyasi: What was your first book published and how well was it received?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: My first book, published in 2006, was called Becoming the Villainess. It’s still probably my bestselling book. It is all about female characters from comic books, fairy tales, and Greek mythology, and how the dichotomy between disempowered women – victims – and empowered women – typically portrayed as villainesses – impacts our own modern culture’s attitudes towards women. The publisher (Steel Toe Books) at that time was still fairly new, and I didn’t know much about promoting books back then, so I think we were very lucky in its reception. We had mostly very nice reviews. It’s still taught in colleges and high schools, and was even made into a play by a group in Florida. I think what really helped us was that Garrison Keillor read two poems, “Female Comic Book Superheroes” and “Spy Girls,” from the book on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac show, and the poem “Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon” was featured on Verse Daily. Those things can really help a book’s sales. I still see people posting the poems from the book on places like Tumblr.

Geosi Gyasi: You recently served as the second Poet laureate of Redmond, Washington. That must be humbling?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: It was an honor and a good lesson in civics for me. My favorite parts were working with local artists, high school kids, and our wonderful Redmond library. And it was fun to get to talk to the mayor about poetry!

Geosi Gyasi: Your poem, “Introduction to the Body in Fairy Tales” was included in volumes 6 (2014) of The Year’s Best Horror. How much horror feature in your poems?

Jeannine Hall Gailey: There is a sense of horror in a lot of the source material I write about – old sci-fi movies, comic books, science (especially biology and nuclear science), fairy tales, anime – so I think that comes into play in the poems I write. I was honored to be included, and though I don’t consider myself strictly a horror writer, or strictly a fantasy writer, elements of both appear fairly frequently in my work.



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