Jeannine Hall Gailey is an eco friendly feminist poet that utilizes wit, pop culture, and myth to illuminate the likeness of present messages towards women “hemmed in by cultural expectations, by violence, and by exploitation,” to those of fairy tales and other mythological archetypes. Here in the juxtaposition, she continues, is the ability to “illustrate how limited the scope of most women’s lives remains.”
Author of Becoming the Villainess, and her newest book She Returns to the Floating World, that will come out in July, 2011, Gailey celebrates the “idea of woman as monster/changeling, as a way to communicate concepts of female alienation and/or men’s fear of women’s ‘other-ness’.” At the same time, enticing the reader with humor filled succulent bites. Comedy, she describes is “tremendously powerful because it comes in a non-threatening box.” For Gailey, writing “is the product of our imaginations, our upbringings, and the things – intellectual and otherwise – we fill our brains with every day.” A message that reminds us to acknowledge the power of both word and image and the ways in which we choose to live.
1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?
The first poems I learned by heart (for a fifth-and-sixth-grade school poetry recitation contest) were “Anyone Lives in a Pretty How Town” by e.e. cummings and “My Father in the Night Commanding No” by Louis Simpson. My mom talked me out of trying “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as she said the tone was off for a ten or eleven-year-old girl (and as always, she was probably right.) My mom introduced me to poetry as she was studying it herself in college, and one of my most treasured books is her 1969 textbook, Introduction to Poetry, with her notes in the margins.
In college – well, while I was getting my MA, as my BS was in Biology – I learned that – gasp – there were women poets besides Edna St. Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson – I got to read Louise Gluck, Rita Dove, Margaret Atwood, Dorianne Laux, Denise Duhamel, and HD – all of whom had some influence on how I write today.
2.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?
I have been lucky, in the past ten years, to meet quite a few of the writing heroines of my youth. – and feel special appreciation for all the professors I worked with in my MFA, Dorianne Laux, Pattiann Rogers, Sandra Alcosser, Joe Millar and Marvin Bell in particular. They all went above and beyond in terms of encouragement and support.
I also had the opportunity to work with writers at conferences like the Port Townsend Writers Conference, which is a great nurturing environment for writers of all stripes – I loved working there with writers like Erin Belieu (who was the first person I heard talk about the importance of women poets volunteering to write book reviews) and Kim Addonizio.
I also credit the writers in my writing group of nine years for helping me keep sane and giving me feedback on poem after poem over the years.
The first writers that I remember wanting to write “like” were Louise Gluck and Margaret Atwood. They both have a sort of hardness to their poetic voices that I was really attracted to (an early attraction to the villainess voice, I suppose) as well as their tendency to mythologize contemporary women’s voices.
Sometimes I think that every woman writer I run into leaves something in my brain – Debra Earling’s vivid storytelling, Dana Levin’s intellectual lyricism, Matthea Harvey’s playful attitude towards language, Denise Duhamel’s irreverent humor. They have all given me permission to do something in my own writing that later I found very valuable. This is why I think it’s nonsense when some writers talk about not reading other writers for fear it will somehow harm or contaminate their own writing. Every writer you encounter is an opportunity to learn and grow and change, and allow yourself to walk through another gate. Why limit your own vocabulary, your box of tools, so to speak, that way?
3.) How has your own work changed over time and why?
I notice each book has its own mood, tones, and obsessions – my first book, Becoming the Villainess, is concerned with violence and power, images of heroines and villainesses. The comic book and my old copy of Grimms’ and the Andrew Lang Fairy Books were the main inspirations for the book. The book contains a lot of humor as well as a certain…sharpness in critiquing the role of women in contemporary pop culture.
The second book, She Returns to the Floating World, is more melancholy, and was inspired by my study of Japanese archetypes in folk tales and my lifelong love of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. The forms and the tone differ from Villainess in that I explore forms like haibun and haiku, as the voices tend towards the expression of that feeling “awaré” – a term that means “softly despairing sorrow.” This book was mostly written while I was struggling with illness and the fact that I was not going to be able to have children, and I think those things make their way into the book, though not directly.
My newest manuscripts, Unexplained Fevers and The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, are different from the previous published manuscripts as well. Unexplained Fevers is more language-oriented and focused on issues of the woman’s body and passivity in certain fairy tales (Snow White, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty in particular) and The Robot Scientist’s Daughter is probably my most autobiographical work to date – it explores growing up in Oak Ridge, the fallout of living downwind of Oak Ridge National Labs, and the fraught relationships between fathers and daughters.
4.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?
I’m a pretty voracious reader – not just of my own genre, but of fiction, especially short story collections, from Margaret Atwood to Osamu Dazai and Haruki Murakami to Kelly Link. I definitely enjoy literature that falls into the “speculative” category, and love prize-winning books like The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay that sort of brought to the mainstream or glamorized geek and comic-book culture. The comic book genre influenced not only the poems in Becoming the Villainess but also the structure of the book, which mimics the necessary narrative element (origin stories, the “dark phoenix” gambit of turning a good character evil, etc.) of the comic book. She Returns to the Floating World draws very much on the world of anime and manga, which I have been a fan of since I was a kid, even more so that traditional American comics. I’m a lover of film and television, and I’m not ashamed of it. Hayao Miyazaki’s movies are just as important, just as visually stunning, to me as any art work I’ve seen in a museum. And I love hanging out in museums, galleries, constantly acquiring a new visual library – images are really important to me when I’m writing.
I think our writing is the product of our imaginations, our upbringings, and the things – intellectual and otherwise – we fill our brains with every day. If you grew up in a cityscape, cities are bound to reappear throughout your writing; if your day job involves amphibians, frogs will probably appear in your poems. So, everything we read, every piece of visual art we encounter, every song we listen to and show we watch – eventually filters through into our creative writing. I was listening to Rae Armantrout read from her new book, Money Shot, and realized from listening how much television she had been watching – I clocked references to True Blood, Buffy, CNN, and porn all in one poem.
5.) What are you plans for the future?
Well, I have my second book, She Returns to the Floating World, debuting in July, so there will be a lot of readings starting in September, in Seattle, Portland, Cincinnati, and probably some other cities as well. I’m also polishing my third and fourth manuscripts, and
I’m hoping to do some more community-based teaching in the near future. I’ve been teaching online poetry classes for three years and I miss the face-to-face part of teaching. I’d like to start my own small press someday.
6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?
I think proliferation is important. Not too long ago, most critics compared women poets to a stingy handful (Plath, Sexton, maybe Elizabeth Bishop) – and now, if a critic doesn’t have a bigger pool to draw from when making a comparison, then it’s a sign he is poorly read. There are too many excellent female poets to count on one hand, and I applaud seeing more young women with more ambition that I dared to have when I was twenty, for instance. I am all for young women becoming editors, critics, publishers. I think that’s the most important change that has yet to happen – more women in positions of real power in the writing and publishing industry.
7.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?
My favorite women writers working currently – well there’s a huge list: Dorianne Laux, Matthea Harvey, Dana Levin, Beth Ann Fennelly, Rachel Zucker, Kristy Bowen, Rebecca Loudon, Suzanne Frischkorn, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Mary Biddinger, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Denise Duhamel…I could keep going! I like what Tracy K. Smith is doing. Really, I discover new favorite writers every day – I just reviewed a book called “I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl” that was so amazing, I made all my friends read it, by Karyna McGlynn. I haven’t met her, and I’d never heard of her before reviewing that book, but now I’m going to read everything she writes!
As far as fiction, I’m a fan of Kelly Link and Felicity Shoulders and will buy whatever they publish as well. There are a lot of writers, like Helen Phillips and Lizzie Acker, who are exploring a kind of book – hyrid-form apocalypse-oriented short-short linked collections – that I enjoy a lot.
I am also a devoted fan of the poet s in my writing group – Kelli Agodon, Annette Spaudling-Convy, Lana Ayers, Janet Knox, Natasha Moni, Ronda Broatch, Holly Hughes, and Jenifer Lawrence. They are all amazing writers and I am proud to have worked with them for almost nine years now!
8.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?
I’m pretty leery of labels in general, but I’d say it’s safe to say that as a writer I’m ecologically-minded, I’m feminist, I’m interested in pop culture, humor, and mythology, in the language of archetypes and the hidden messages found hidden in our stories, our ads, and our art.
When I look for labels for the kind of visual art that appeals to me, I find things like “pop surrealism” or “underground gothic folk-art.” Whatever words describe artists like Yumiko Kayukawa or Rene Lynch – these words would probably also apply to me.
9.) There are a number of women writers writing within the realm of fairy tales and mythology. How and why do you use these genres as a platform for feminist discussion?
I think I mentioned I was inspired first by writers like Margaret Atwood and Louise Gluck who often use tart-tongued, updated versions of mythological characters to make cultural critiques; later, reading writers like Alicia Ostriker who did similar work in the space of the Old Testament stories was also inspiring.
I also liked the idea of giving silenced characters in these old stories back their own voices, their own versions of the story – that poor stepmother, the Snow Queen, Melusine and witches and saints, etc.
To me, these old stories, “Little Red Cap,” “the Cinder Girl,” “A Thousand Furs” – they are all encoded messages passed on through generations. Men like Perrault and the Grimm brothers may have had their own agendas in their collected retellings, but the power of the original stories remains at the core. What is the hidden agenda in “Little Red Cap?” Even after they added the woodsman (in the original story, Little Red Cap herself takes an axe to the wolf) the story is essentially one of self-protection. So I think of these stories as the original female empowerment tales. After all, it’s Gretel, not Hansel, who murders the witch.
10.) Your poem “The Changeling,” reads, “It is as you fear; / beneath the push-up bra, / the false set of eyelashes, / I am fundamentally ‘other.’” Do you see this perception of ‘other’ changing from the fundamental to a flexible equality in difference? If so how?
I love the idea of woman as monster/changeling, as a way to communicate concepts of female alienation and/or men’s fear of women’s “other-ness.” I’m not sure if the perception is changing. I hope so!
11.) You have been commended in various reviews for your utilization of wit. Do you believe that wit / humor permits access to the reader that would be otherwise alienating?
I’m a fan of humor in poetry, from Kenneth Fearing to Denise Duhamel, and I like the way that humor can be used as both a welcoming entryway for a new reader and as a devastating weapon in the right hands. Duhamel’s book, Kinky, is a great example of that – a hilarious but awfully cutting critique of the norms of beauty that little girls are introduced to with Barbie.
I also think of the work that Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert do with their shows – the idea of displaying the news machine as ridiculous, of producing a cultural critique that’s tremendously powerful because it comes in a non-threatening box. “Oh, it’s only comedy.” So, they can get away with saying a lot more than a typical journalist might.
12.) In Fickle Muse, a review by Sari Krosinsky states, ““Becoming the Villainess” gives a different twist to the old tale of the reclaimed mythic woman. What makes its heroines empowering is not that they overcome their obstacles—they often don’t—but that as much as they lose, they don’t lose themselves.” I am interested in your research process for these archetypes and how you remaneuver these traditional roles into an empowering embrace of the feminine.
Terri Windling’s The Armless Maiden was on the essential list of reading for the writing of Becoming the Villainess, along with a bunch of fairy tale criticism: From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers by Marina Warner is a great one, Jack Zipes, Maria Tartar…The old Endicott Studios online archives have a great bunch of links to essays as well. Margaret Atwood and A.S. Byatt both have really intelligent things to say on these topics in their fiction and their criticism. I love reading Jungian criticism in particular and that is actually how I fell into writing my second book, She Returns to the Floating World, by falling in love with the work of Japanese Jungian scholar Hayao Kawai. (His fairy tale criticism is some of the best I have every read.)
(Sub-note: this web page’s archived conversation contains a great bunch of resources for those involved in researching fairy tale lit crit: http://userpages.umbc.edu/~korenman/wmst/fairytale_feminist.html)
All of this reading influenced how I made my own particular statements about the artchetypes women are expected to embrace, how to transcend them.
13.) Maya Jewell Zeller, in LitList, writes in a review that “Gailey normalizes the fantastic, contemporizes the Gothic, and leads Persephone into Seattle in such a casual way you wonder why it didn’t make your evening news.” Can you elaborate on your use of pop culture and how the juxtaposition to classical myth gives you the space to negotiate the feminine?
I’m afraid to say that when I juxtapose modern contemporary pop culture heroines with mythological or folk narrative heroines, I find that not much has changed for our heroines. They are still struggling with the same issues – the silenced voice, the violence of men against women, the balance of caring for family and caring about work in the realm outside the home. Our comic book heroines are almost as un-empowered as Ovid’s heroines. The juxtapositions mostly illustrate how limited the scope of most women’s lives remains, the way women are hemmed in by cultural expectations, by violence, and by exploitation.
14.) The tales that encrypt the narrow dimensions of traditional archetypes are saturated with violence. How do you traverse this space in a way that invites the reader to listen?
Becoming the Villainess focuses on power and violence in many of the poems, with characters from ancient mythology to contemporary comics. Yes, I always say Ovid was the Jerry Bruckheimer of his time—his stuff is full of sensationalized sex and violence. I thought it might be nice to take a look at some of his characters in Becoming the Villainess and give them a bit more of a POV and a chance to expand on their circumstances. Although fairy tales are often encoded warnings to young women on how to survive, they end up depowered in a depressing number of tales (“Snow Queen” and “Jorinde and Joringel” being exceptions). Women end up playing the victim role far too often even in the comic books of today—a phenomenon addressed by comic book writer Gail Simone on her web site “Women in Refrigerators,” which I reference in one of my poems.
So, how to address these issues without alienating the reader, without becoming didactic? I think I use humor to diffuse some of the issues, and (I hope) that a tone of directness about the issues of violence that confront women today in some of the poems doesn’t cause anyone to set down the book—though that’s probably unrealistic. Using persona poetry—and women’s characters from past and present—to address these issues adds some distance that may make these stories easier to read, and hopefully, easier for a reader to identify with.