Saturday, November 19, 2016

Robots, Imagination and the End of the World with Jeanine Hall Gailey

This week I had a chance to interview poet Jeannine Hall Gailey, whose work I first became familiar with as a regular presence in the Science Fiction Poetry Association. She's the author of five books of poetry, including the recently released Field Guide to the End of the World which came out this month. I've come to appreciate her imagination and sense of history as I read her work over the years.

She has a B.S. in Biology and an M.A. in English from the University of Cincinnati, as well as an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Pacific University. As one reads her poetry, it's easy to see she has a great respect for the mythic and fantastic, the classical and the contemporary. These range from Ovid's Metamorphoses or The Tales of Genji, to comic books and folktales.

With that range of influences, I always find it interesting to see what she does with her books, which include Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, and The Robot Scientist's Daughter.

Among her awards, she she received a 2007 Washington State Artist Trust GAP Grant and she is a two-time winner of the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize (2007 and 2011.) She Returns to the Floating World was a Eric Hoffer Montainge Medal Finalist (2012) and received the  FPA President's Award for Poetry (2011). Two of her poems from Becoming the Villainess, "Persephone and the Prince Meet Over Drinks" and "Becoming the Villainess," appeared in the 2007 edition of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. She also took an "Honorable Mention" in the 2008 Mainichi Haiku Contest. She also served as the 2nd poet laureate of Redmond, Washington.

In addition to her poetry, she also writes book reviews, flash fiction, and occasionally creative non-fiction. She recently taught with National University's MFA program and the Young Artist Project at Centrum.

I was delighted she shared so much of her journey with me during our conversation, and I think there's much we can learn from her approach to speculative poetry and her literary journey.

Let's start from the beginning. When did you develop an interest in poetry?
I've been writing poems on a regular basis since about fifth grade, when a teacher encouraged me to try to write every morning before school and pointed me to Emily Dickinson and Carl Sandburg for inspiration. My mother also shared her college poetry textbooks (she was in college when I was in grade school) and that was very inspiring to me as well. Even before I tried to really publish much, I was writing regularly. I started sending work out regularly around 2002.

How would you describe your access to poetry growing up?

(Did I already answer that question above?) If not, besides the fifth grade teacher and my mother's college textbook (Introduction to Poetry by X.J. Kennedy used, circa 1969, if you're curious), I also participated in poetry recitation contests (my school was super nerdy that way!) and won a couple of years in a row with poems from e.e. cummings and Louis Simpson (his excellent "My Father in the Night Commanding No" is a terrific high-school kid poem), which encouraged me to continue to memorize and recite poetry. I used to carry a very tattered copy of Edna St. Vincent Millay to school with me in high school to read between classes. I also loved Edgar Allen Poe and T.S. Eliot, especially "The Raven" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

Have you always been in Washington? What was your family's reaction to your poetic path?

No, I've lived all over. I was born at Yale Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut, where my father worked in research for early CT-scan machines, then we moved to LA, then Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where he worked at University of Tennessee and consulted at Oak Ridge National Labs. I wrote The Robot Scientist's Daughter (Mayapple Press, 2015) all about growing up in an "atomic city." Later we moved to Cincinnati where he taught at University of Cincinnati, which is where I went to get my undergrad in Biology and MA in English. I took a job in Richmond, Virginia, stayed there for a year, and then got an offer from Microsoft in Seattle, which I quickly accepted. I really did love working there, but got sick a little bit into my time there, and my husband encouraged me then to go get a low-residency MFA. I think that's when I really got serious about publishing as well as writing, and the Pacific Northwest is a wonderful place to be a writer - wonderful inspiring natural surroundings, a supportive writing community, and a great art-and-coffee-shop culture. (I had a quick flirtation with CA as an adult too - a year in Napa, and a year in San Diego.) So really, I've lived everywhere I've ever wanted to live except probably Boston and Paris.

My parents had encouraged me to study medicine - I was pre-med for my first degree. I finished the degree in three years, but ended up with some severe health problems, so medical school was off the plans for me as I recuperated. I ended up working as a tech writer - my mother was a technical writer for years - and going back for my MA in English while I worked full-time. I don't think this is probably the typical poet's journey - planning for one career, doing a second, and meanwhile writing the whole time - but that's how it worked out for me.

Which poem of yours do you usually recommend to someone who wants to read your work for the first time?

That's a tough one. I've been kind of in love with two poems from the new book, Field Guide to the End of the World, "Introduction to Disaster Preparedness" and "Epilogue." But if you really want a quintessential "me" kind of poem, then go with "Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon" from my first book, Becoming the Villainess.

Do you prefer coffee or tea?

I love tea, but became, if you can believe it, allergic to it in the last six years, and I don't drink a ton of coffee but I do love the smell and taste of it. I use coffee in cooking all the time! My husband the real coffee lover - he could probably tell you the best local places in Seattle to buy roasted coffee, to try a latte, or experience a particularly interesting brewing process. I love the coffee shops here for the community and the atmosphere - we are very luck to have a ton of great coffee shops nearby. I think bottling the smell of coffee and selling it a a perfume would be an excellent idea. I know I would wear it!

If you could have any imaginary being for a pet or companion, what would it be?

Oh, I think I have to go with flying telepathic time-traveling unicorn as shown in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, but if that wasn't available, definitely one of the Anne McCaffrey psychic-type dragons or even just one of her fire lizards.

You've had some exciting successes lately, including two second-place finishes for Book of the Year for Unexplained Fevers(2014), and The Robot Scientist's Daughter (2016) from the Science Fiction Poetry Association, as well as the release of your latest book, Field Guide to the End of the World, which received the Moon City Press Book Prize. Each goes into some very different territories of speculative literature. Can you tell us a little about your process for determining a focus for your manuscripts?

Thank you for saying that! I think we poets rarely think of ourselves as successes.

Each book sort of decides itself – this latest book started off with these odd postcards by a fictional person at the end of the world, along with the idea of syllabus-themed poems “Introduction to Ecotoxicology,” for instance. The academic-theme was sort of apocalyptic, and the post-apocalyptic postcard series sort of made a good counterpoint to the science poems, and that’s how that happened.

The Robot Scientist’s Daughter happened when I tried to write some truly autobiographical poems – a challenge I hadn’t really bothered with much before this book – and even though it did end up with a series of persona poems, it was a much more historically-based book than any of my others. (I still have a ton of books having to do with the cold war, the atomic age, Oak Ridge’s history, etc. Fascinating stuff!)

So I think each book sort of defines itself as I go – I don’t really start out with the idea of the book, I usually have an idea for some poems, and that idea develops as I write more and more poems. I do end up with very thematic books, but that’s probably because of the way I write – a series of poems on a certain theme or subject until I run out of energy.

When are you most often satisfied with a poem? What's the signal to yourself that the poem is finished, at least for the moment?

Sometimes a poem isn’t really finished until it’s in the final copyedit of a book manuscript, and I might still change a poem after that. Some poems are very malleable, and some come out completely finished. I don’t ever really feel completely satisfied with my poems – there’s usually something I’ll feel like changing after reading it years later. Is that terrible? Or just the nature of language – that we’re never completely hitting all the notes we want to hit?

Washington seems to inspire many poets and the writers of the fantastic and the imaginative. What catches your interest about the Washington speculative arts scene?

I’ve always thought Seattle was the inspiration for Frank Baum’s Emerald City, and didn’t Ray Bradbury live in Oregon for a while? And I got to see Ursula Le Guin read poetry and defend the reputation of speculative writing during a storm on the Oregon coast, which was grand. Of course lots of science fiction and fantasy writers are drawn to a place with fewer crowds, more grand mountains/volcanoes, oceans, crater lakes, medieval-type forests, odd buildings and weird-looking mushrooms. I really like the variety of writers out here, and I do feel there’s a bit more tolerance for the eccentric – be it in writing, art, or clothing/hair color – than other places. I’ve never really “fit in” anywhere I’ve lived, but it feels like a good place to not fit in, if you know what I mean. There’s a museum here run by Paul Allen – formerly known as the EMP, known now as the Museum of Pop Culture, which includes exhibits on rock music and science fiction – first editions of classic sci-fi novels, cover art, and great exhibits on Star Wars, Star Trek, and Game of Thrones. It’s a great place to wonder around if you’re a sci-fi/fantasy fan feeling touristy in downtown Seattle.

Everyone's dying to know: What does it feel like being a poet laureate of a city like Redmond?

I served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond – they’re on their fourth now – but I had a lot of fun, especially working with the techie-poetry connection and working with the extremely talented young people at the high school and at the Redmond Library. Redmond is noted as a tech-friendly town – home to Microsoft, where I worked briefly, to the American headquarters for Nintendo and video game schools like Digipen. So it’s an educated and diverse populace, but not maybe as known for its artistic culture as, say, downtown Seattle. I felt the audience there was engaged in science and tech but felt alienated from literature, so I focused on the connections between those things. We talked about superheroes and anime characters and e-books, and things like Japanese poetic forms and poetry translations.

I feel lucky that I lived in a city that valued the arts to have a Poet Laureate program! I’ve recently moved to another town on the East side of Seattle called Woodinville – I’m hoping I can persuade them to start one as well! Seattle doesn’t have an official Poet Laureate program, but Washington State does, and I’ve been lucky enough to be friends with a couple of poets who served in that program. They travelled all over the state to promote poetry in different towns and environments, from the Pasco desert to Yakima wine country – truly, it sounded much more grueling that my gig. I encourage poets and people who care about poetry to show up with a plan to their own city councils and ask about setting aside a small budget and a small amount of time in their Parks and Rec programs for a Poet Laureate program! Poets can do a LOT with a small budget – for instance, I was able pay visual artists and show collaborations between artists and poets, as well as have in guest speakers to run workshops for teens. Why not? It benefits the population, the city and the reputation for culture in both small and large towns.

What are the ideal writing conditions and workspaces for you?

I can pretty much write anywhere I bring a laptop, and I've written a lot of poems of scraps of paper and receipts, backs of prescriptions, in offices, used car lots, in line at the of the places I write the most is where I spend a lot of time, unfortunately - hospitals and doctor's waiting rooms. Lots of spare time with nothing better to do and lots of stress = effective poetry writing. My new place (we just moved) actually has an office just for me, which is I think the first time I've had dedicated space in a long time. It's really nice!

What's been the hardest secret of writing for you to get across to your students?

That reading widely and deeply - in other subjects, other genres, etc - isn't something dangerous that will screw up their voice, but something necessary that will help them become better writers. No one should be afraid to read because it will "steal their voice" or "influence them too much." If you read enough, all the influences sort of blend together to help make your writing voice even more individual, nuanced, unique.

What has been one of your favorite readings?

I really liked seeing Margaret Atwood read. I think I remember she not only read, but she sang in her funny Canadian/midwestern twang. She also held really tight to her purse the entire time she was giving her lecture and reading. I also love hearing Dorianne Laux read, every time I see her.

What would you name your robot?

I'd probably name her after a character in Greek mythology. There's something so inherently tragic about being a robot, isn't there? Calypso or Cassandra or Calliope. All the robot characters I write are quite melancholy.

You can visit Jeanine Hall Gailey online at:

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