Today in the MADHOUSE, I'm having a chat with one of my favorite poets, Jeannine Hall Gailey. I first read Gailey a year or so ago when I picked up The Robot Scientist's Daughter and was blown away (ha--get it? Nuclear-blast humor?) by her ability to weave science and fact into her poetry in a way that I not only enjoyed, but understood as well. To me, she was like the cool science teacher I always wanted, but never had as she was able to educate/entertain me through her verse and turn of phrase in a way where I had fun learning, and was still enamored and immersed in the art. Her work is satirical at times, and dark at others, and after reading her latest collection Field Guide to the End of the World, my fandom (and respect for her) only increased.
For those unfamiliar with Gailey, she served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington and is the author of five books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to theFloating World, Unexplained Fevers, The Robot Scientist's Daughter, and Field Guide to the End of the World, the winner of the Moon City Book Prize. Her web site is www.webbish6.com and you can follow her on Twitter @webbish6.
Now pack your disaster bags and open a can of baked beans. It's time to hear about the end of the world.
With a radiation-like glow,
Stephanie M. Wytovich
WYTOVICH: Tell us about your collection Field Guide to the End of the World. What inspired you to write it?
GAILEY: I started writing this collection thinking about the humorous side of survival. I was living in California when I began writing these poems, where you’re constantly aware of potential disasters – fire, earthquakes, mudslides. There are reverse 911 calls in some parts of California which you might have five minutes to get out of your house with all your stuff and pets, and you have to have a kit prepared with which you’re supposed to dig yourself out of rubble or whatever (CA’s suggestions for the kit included a wheelbarrow – like we could fit one in our tiny one-bedroom apartment!) One of our apartments burned to the ground a year after we moved out, and the other was severely damaged in an earthquake two years after we moved out. So I think that made me start thinking about how to prepare for the worst. Plus, as I was writing, part of the time I was dealing with a neurological crisis that put me in a wheelchair for a few years and had me managing memory and motor skill problems, then later, right around the time when it was accepted for publication, I was diagnosed with metastasized cancer. So then I was struggling with real life-or-death issues – which got woven into the book, the poems about contemplating death and how to best live on borrowed time.
This all probably makes it sound like a much grimmer book than it actually is! I’m a naturally optimistic person, and I loved the idea of playing “apocalypse with a sense of humor” games – Martha Stewart’s guide to apocalypse living, or imagining an apocalyptic version of the Anthropologie catalog. Just having fun with some of the “comfort/shelter” tropes in American culture right now, the idea of cozily sitting down to a fire where you’re eating the last of the rationed food, or raiding hotel mini-cars and coffee shops for sustenance.
WYTOVICH: Can you talk a little bit about your writing process? What do you find is the hardest and easiest part of the craft?
GAILEY: I write a lot, and I’ve been writing poetry on a regular basis since I was a kid. I’m not a person with a schedule for writing, or a problem with writer’s block, though I don’t always love the editing/revising process – it’s harder and longer, and I’ve got a short attention span! I’ve been playing around with the personal essay and fiction pieces, and course my poetry toolkit doesn’t always fit for those kinds of genres, so I’m kind of in a “learning” place with that stuff right now, which is challenging but interesting. I like pushing boundaries between genres – prose poems, Japanese forms, speculative work that is maybe a little outside the norms.
WYTOVICH: How do you know when a poem is finished and ready to be sent out for publication consideration?
GAILEY: I don’t! I’m literally one of those people who continues revising poems right up until book publication, and even after – I’ll be reading for a book, and saying “Oh, that word isn’t exactly right – that word cut be cut,” etc. I take a leap of faith that poems are ready and send them out on a regular basis. If they come back a lot, I may take them out of circulation, or cut them up, or if I think they’re good, just keep sending them out.
WYTOVICH: Do you write outside of the poetry genre? If so, what, and where are some places readers can find your work?
GAILEY: I’ve written a couple of personal essays. I’ve been writing poetry book reviews for over a decade (I regularly contribute to The Rumpus and other outlets.) I’ve published some flash fiction over the years (I think Fiction Southeast might have some of my most recent flash fiction work.)
WYTOVICH: Who are some of your influences in poetry?
GAILEY: My earliest influences were writers like T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. In college, I discovered Louise Gluck, Margaret Atwood, Lucille Clifton, Dorianne Laux, and Denise Duhamel, all of whom gave me a sense of freedom to mess around with alternate storytelling from a female perspective.
WYTOVICH: What is your origin story? What drew you to poetry (or H/SF/F) in the first place?
GAILEY: I think my poetry has always fallen into the speculative realm – when I started turning in poems about superheroines and Ovid/Grimm’s re-tellings during my MA workshop classes, I’m not sure all the professors were totally down with it, but it was really a reflection of my interior interests – and that I’ve always really identified with outsiders and mutants. Great characters in comic books and fairy tales, heroines who struggle against odds and don’t necessarily have happy endings, but survival, in mind.
WYTOVICH: What’s sitting in your TBR pile these days?
GAILEY: I’m working on a review of Marie Howe’s Magdalene for The Rumpus. I’m so impressed how she works with persona (in this case, Mary Magdalene) and how she makes the mundane poetic and melancholy. She really is a poetry heroine. I’m also reading Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook for the first time. I’ve read some of her more speculative work, but not this.
WYTOVICH: Where do you think the H/SF/F genre is presently sitting at in the market? What do you think the next big trend is going to be?
GAILEY: I’m expecting much more crossover between “high” and “low” culture as younger people become the main audiences for literature. The artificial distinctions are already starting to break down, and I think the upcoming generation of ysoung people won’t have the snobbery towards the sci-fi-fantasy genre that previous generations did. Writers are proud of their geek heritage these days. It’s more inclusive. I like it.
WYTOVICH: What can your readers look forward to on the horizon?
GAILEY: I’ve just completed (gulp) a new poetry manuscript about my experiences being diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live, and then outliving the diagnosis, and then outliving it some more. I’ll start shopping it around to publishers soon! There are also some (double gulp) more political poems in the mix, which I guess is inevitable with the current stuff going on.
WYTOVICH: If you could give one piece of advice to poets, what would it be?
GAILEY: Persist. Persist and be your own weird, unique self. Even if it isn’t everyone’s taste immediately, audiences may catch up down the road. When I started sending out superhero poems, almost no one was doing them – then a few years ago, there was an entire, healthy-sized anthology of superhero poems published by Minor Arcana Press, and I was so happy to be at one of its launch readings at AWP Seattle, watching tons of poets I admired reading superhero poems out loud. So much fun. If you feel alone and you’re doing something new with your work, well, you’re probably doing something right. And others will eventually catch on.