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 http://www.webbish6.com.
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.
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.