In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Jeannine Hall Gailey
Your poem “On the Autumn Equinox, 2019” from Volume 24 explores some big ideas on resistance: resistance from rape culture and patriarchy, resistance from predators or the changing of seasons, the body resisting it’s own state of health. Can you tell us how this poem came to you? What inspired you to write it?
At the time of writing that, I think we were going though the Kavanaugh hearings, and I had just been in the hospital with something MS-related. Before the pandemic, during the Trump presidency, it just seemed to be going from bad to worse – and I had no idea what would be coming. The birch trees in my yard were dying of a contagious disease, and it was hard not to feel it was a metaphor for my own life.
You mention Margaret Atwood in “On the Autumn Equinox, 2019” and even without her inclusion by name, there’s a very Atwood-esque world built in your poem. It’s quasi-dystopian and female-centric, and I felt a sense of power from the bodies that appear in your poem because of this idea that we have to be prepared for the worst. What does power from bodily agency mean to you?
I can’t remember where I read that Atwood quote, if it was an interview or something, about always keeping cash on hand in case credit cards were suddenly unavailable. My grandmother used to send us these paperbacks called The Foxfire Books, which I found fascinating as a kid, all about how to plant crops and skin a pig or deer and rudimentary health care – all about survival. In a way, the other things I was fascinated with as a kid – fairy tales and mythology – were also essentially about survival. It’s a pretty abiding theme in all my books, from all kinds of angles – you will encounter danger, from outside, even inside your own body – and you will have to fight to survive.
While reading through some of your past work, I came across your poem “The Husband Tries to Write to the Disappearing Wife”. I sense an overlap of ideas from that poem to “On the Autumn Equinox, 2019”. How do you envision these heroes, these agents of resistance and change that continue to surface in your writing?
I’m glad you found that poem, which is in my second poetry book, She Returns to the Floating World. Many of the Japanese folk stories have a theme of the “disappearing/transforming wife” – the crane wife, the fox wife – and I identified with those characters, the same as I identified with Ovid’s female characters in The Metamorphoses. The idea of transformation that keeps a woman from being an ideal wife/mother character – or that helps them to escape a dangerous situation – is a fascinating one.
So much of your past work includes a lot of traditionally fictitious elements, like world building, folklore and fairy tales, mythology. What is it about speculative fiction that pulls you to it? What is it about poetry that allows you to marry these two genres?
I’ve always thought speculative work – fairy tales, mythology, science fiction – allows more space for “outsiders” than most traditional fiction. Monsters, mutants, rebels…Obviously I identified with the outliers in science fiction and comics more than the women presented in the majority of the literary fiction I had encountered as a young person. Outsiders, supervillains, weirdos, witches, women that turned into dragons – these were my literary touchstones.
Who are some speculative fiction writers that you admire?
I love Margaret Atwood, Kelly Link, Haruki Murakami, Yoko Ogawa, Osamu Dazai. Aoko Matsuda is a new discovery I absolutely adore. I highly recommend her book Where the Wild Ladies Are – feminist, comic retellings of traditional Japanese ghost stories. A.S. Byatt’s Possession may not be what people consider “speculative” but it made me fall down the rabbit whole of studying the fairy Melusine mythology.
You have two forthcoming books: Fireproof, due out in 2022 from Alternating Current Press, and Flare, Corona, due out in 2023 from BOA Editions. Congratulations on both! What can you tell us about each book?
Flare, Corona was started first; I actually started writing the manuscript in 2018 when I was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer after a random ER visit for stomach flu. That night there was a Blood moon eclipse, and a coyote ran across the car’s path on the way to the hospital. Later, after 2nd and 3rd opinions, I had my first round of chemo and had seen a grief counselor – it was decided by a different group of specialists that perhaps the liver tumors might be benign. A few months later I woke up and vomited every day for three months. I rapidly lost the ability to use my left arm and leg, to talk, to stand without drastic vertigo, and had to be hospitalized and then have intense physical, vertigo, and speech therapy. After multiple doctor visits, MRIs, blood work, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which was a breathtakingly bad diagnosis, except for the fact that I was looking at it in comparison with a diagnosis of terminal cancer. As soon as my MS started to get somewhat stable, the pandemic was starting. An MS event like mine is called a “flare,” and around a solar flare, there is a “corona” of light. Hence, the title.
So, I know it sounds like a lot of serious topics, but there are also supervillains, fairy tales, film noir tropes, and a sense of humor that (I hope) makes the book fun to read. I also hope it helps familiarize people more with multiple sclerosis – a fairly common but widely misunderstood disease.
Fireproof started as an idea or image – the idea of Joan of Arc and the witches of Salem being burned at the stake, and their offspring developing a genetic resistance to fire. This was written mostly during the Trump administration, when a weeping-about-beer rapist was appointed to the Supreme Court, and it felt like toxic misogyny, racism, and ableism were being celebrated in our country. Trump repeatedly referred to himself as being persecuted in a “witch hunt”, which I wanted to write more about, since the meaning of that phrase – how women throughout history were literally hung, drowned, tortured and burned for such things as reading and growing an herb garden, or leading armies successfully – and how the term had been mitigated in the public discourse, or even deranged.
You mention in a blog post on your website that Flare, Corona will be your seventh book and it will be published right around the time you turn 50. You have years of experience in publishing, both on the editorial and writing side. What advice would you give to writers on career longevity?
The first is: Don’t give up! There were so many times that I thought I’d never make it this far, and I almost gave up writing to go back to a “regular” job. Even at the beginning of last year, I was feeling so discouraged I considered quitting poetry. I had a number of surprising and encouraging acceptances at journals I’d been trying to get into for a long time – including Water~Stone Review – and then the two book acceptances.
And the second thing: be kind. Be kind to everyone you meet and work with. There is no way that being kind in the poetry world can hurt you, but being unkind definitely can. And make friends with other writers – their support and encouragement has been so invaluable to me over the years, and I’m not sure I would have stuck with it if I hadn’t made friends with writers who I’d seen succeed, and I’d seen persevere through their own hard times.
With two books forthcoming, what projects are you working on now?
I have a gigantic collection of pandemic poems – because for a lot of the pandemic, because I’m immune-compromised, I was very isolated and had a lot of time on my hands to read – and, yes, to write. I’d estimate I’ve written 200 poems in the last two years. I don’t have any idea yet how to shape them into a coherent collection, but that’ll probably be the work that will turn into my next book.
Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second poet laureate of Redmond, Washington. She’s the author of five books of poetry—Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, and Field Guide to the End of the World—and winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize and the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Elgin Award. Her work has appeared in journals such as The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and POETRY. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @webbish6 and learn more about her work at her website.