Jeannine Hall Gailey
Michele Lesko: When did the process of writing begin to cohere for you as a poet?
Jeannine Hall-Gailey: I’ve been writing poetry since I was a kid. I started memorizing poetry when I was ten years old, and I remember buying my first copy of Poet’s Market when I was nineteen. I went to get my MA in English in my early twenties, where I wrote and submitted a bit more seriously, but it took me a while to think of myself as a poet. Later, going back for an MFA a few years later, I started thinking about creating a book of my own.
ML: Is there a lengthy writing background of self-discovery that led up to writing your first book Becoming the Villainess? Did you enter contests, publish for a long period, or did you set out to write poems that would come together as superhero poems?
JHG: I started writing poems about characters from Ovid’s mythology in my early twenties, then moved on the fairy tale poems. The comic book poems, which I started writing a little later, didn’t at first seem to be connected to the other poems I had been writing, but my husband noticed that the themes seemed to come together in a way that might make an interesting book. All in all it took me about ten years to write Becoming the Villainess, and about four to finish She Returns to the Floating World. Maybe I’m getting more efficient? I’ve got two more manuscripts written and waiting in the wings now, one on fairy tale characters and another on my childhood in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
ML: How easy or difficult was it to get Becoming the Villainess published? Was your manuscript sent to Steel Toe unsolicited, did you send the manuscript to numerous publishers, did the original mauscript change before publication -poems added or removed?
JHG: I did enter contests and send to open submissions at publishers for about eighteen months before the book was taken by Steel Toe Books. I was a finalist at a couple of interesting places before Steel Toe took it, and it was taken through an open submissions period, I believe. I thought the comic book angle might alienate some publishers, that it wasn’t “serious” enough, but Steel Toe Books was a great fit. For the second book, I was a little less random in the way I submitted, and sent to open reading periods of presses I thought would be a good fit for my kind of work, since the book is kind of idiosyncratic. I learned about Kitsune Books while I was researching an article for Poet’s Market on speculative poetry publishers; they published all kinds of writing, not just poetry, but their aesthetic seemed to be right in line with She Returns to the Floating World. I sent it in, and a few weeks later I heard back from them. It’s been a great working with them so far! In fact, in the mail, they just sent me my first ever poetry medal (for a Florida Publishers Association Award that She Returns to the Floating World won). I’ve never gotten a medal for my writing before – I feel like a show pony! It’s very novel and exciting.
ML: Your two collections each maintain the trope of woman becoming something other, something out of the ordinary, where the female's existence is no longer anchored by physical realities. Your females approach the mundane filtered through a lens of the extraordinary. Can you recall a moment or a poem that worked for you in this way as the precursor to these collections?
JHG: Well, I grew up reading Andrew Lang’s colored Fairy Books – and was especially transfixed by stories in which princesses married bees, became snakes, disguised themselves in animal furs, and in other ways escaped their normal lives. Ovid’s Metamorphoses really interested me as a young person as well, especially the way that women seemed always on the cusp of interacting with gods and becoming trees, birds, etc. So these tropes were firmly ensconced in my brain by the time I grew up. I will probably never shake them now. A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood and Kelly Link also do great short stories about women and transformations.
ML: As a writer, how do you divide your time with real world demands?
JHG: I don’t really divide them – if a poem comes up, I try to capture it no matter what I’m doing. Sometimes I’ll get inspired in a bookstore, in a doctor’s office, so I try to keep a notebook and pen handy. I end up writing poems in the margins of a lot of books, or napkins, or, strangely, receipts! My most common writing time is either first thing in the morning or late at night. Those are the times when I’m least likely to be interrupted by that pesky “real life.”
ML: I was told, “You're not a professional until you get paid for your writing.” Has publishing two books created a different approach to your writing life?
JHG: I started out as a technical writer, so I did plan to earn a living as a writer from the beginning! I’ve always been pretty realistic with my expectations about making poetry money; what’s the old saying, “There’s not much money in poetry, but there’s not much poetry in money?” Or the other one: “How do you make a million dollars in poetry; you start with two million?” I also remember framing my first check that I got from poetry; it was a big moment for me. I’m not sure how much my financial life changed when I published my first or second book of poetry, sadly, I haven’t been able to pay my rent with my royalties or anything…but I think the books have created opportunities to teach and do more outreach types of programs, at conferences and schools. I teach part-time now, which was probably made possible by the books. I think the biggest difference in mindset after publishing two books is I’m more realistic in my expectations. When you publish your first book, you think it’s going to rock the world and change your life, but for the most part, your life pretty much goes along in much the same way. Now, looking forward to publishing my third and fourth books, I think: oh, I know this will happen, and then that will happen, and here’s how much effort it’s going to take, etc. Getting a nice review or an award is still a huge thrill, though – those things never really lose their zing!
ML: You mentioned to me that you are a nomadic writer, living with your laptop as your traveling work space. I've noticed a sense of place in many of your poems but that place is mythical yet distinctly common, not mythical in the grandiose sense of imitating myth to propel the voice. How much do you use your immediate surrounding and how much of place is completely an interior world of fairy tale?
JHG: I do think I’ve always lived quite a bit inside my own head, making up worlds rather than focusing on my immediate surroundings, imagining Ray Bradbury’s rainy Venus or Miyazaki’s poisonous post-nuclear forests. However, where I live definitely influences my mythical landscapes; when I was living in Port Townsend, a beach town in a rather cold and dank season, a lot of my poetry contained imagery of seaweed and otters. Some of my more recent poems evoke the landscapes of my childhood, the oak trees and daffodils of eastern Tennessee.
ML: Do you live with or are you surrounded by anything that or anyone who inspires your writing?
JHG: I’m very inspired by music and visual art; if I could afford it, I’d have a huge studio with paintings by Rene Lynch, Yumiko Kayukawa, and my friends Deborah Scott and Michaela Eaves, among others. I like hanging around art galleries, like Seattle’s Roq la Rue, and listening to music to create a certain mood. I also consider reading fiction and watching television and movies to be important – if I don’t keep reading and getting new images in my head, then I tend to stay in a safe yet repetitive zone. Reviewing books also often helps take a critical look at my own work, and think abut poetry in a new way.
ML: What is a usual day like?
JHG: Since I freelance and teach part-time, each day is different; I might be grading, or editing other writer’s manuscripts, writing a review or prepping poems for submission. I usually do my “business” work in the late mornings and afternoons, when I’m the least creative, and save the “creative” mind time for writing. But my schedule’s fairly flexible – if I have a reading, I’ll be busy preparing for that, or if I teach a workshop in the afternoon – but typically I can schedule my paying work and creative work as I like. I try to return e-mails and phone calls promptly, but that means spending a lot of time on the phone and on the computer. It’s not great for my posture! And social media has sort of made that worse – you know, everything in real time on Facebook and Twitter, and you feel a lot of pressure to “be there” online, which I think that can be detrimental to a writer’s mindset. It’s good to disconnect once in a while (I say while balancing my laptop and my smart phone on one knee, while looking something up in a book on the other knee. It’s all about balance!)
ML: Tell our readers a bit about your process: time to complete a poem, how the poem comes to life, how long you let a poem sit before editing or sending it out?
JHG: Hmmm…I’m usually inspired by something specific, a bit of song or an image from a television show and write down a draft pretty quickly. I revise continuously, sometimes even after a poem is published! (And my good friends know that I have a slippery sense with both verb tenses and commas in my writing, so it’s probably good I keep revising!) I tend to send out in bunches, rather than immediately after something is written. So I usually let a poem sit for at least a few months before sending it out, unless I’m completely in love with a poem, or I’ve got a poem that fits a theme issue.