Michael Meyerhofer: One thing that instantly drew me to your work is your wonderfully wry sense of humor. Can you comment on the value of humor in writing, given the fact that some successful writers seem (either deliberately or simply as a matter of style) to avoid it?
Jeannine Hall Gailey: In my opinion, to paraphrase an old evangelist’s saying, it’s a sin to bore people with poetry. Humor allows the writing to have a bit of a jolt that maybe the reader wasn’t expecting. Also, I’ve always watched a lot of cartoons, which I’m sure has something to do with it; fragments and lines from everything from The Animaniacs to Futurama to Daria have made it into poems. And, if you’ve got a lot of dark going on in your poetry, you have to provide some light, too.
As far as some poetry being humorless; well, I think poetry always reflects the person writing it, don’t you? My favorite books of poetry are the ones that can grapple with serious issues but don’t shy away from a bit of wit or even silliness.
MM: A lot of your poems contain social commentary that especially resonates because of what I take to be your preference of imagery over philosophical exposition. Can you share some of your poetic strategies for tackling politically charged topics like gender stereotypes? Going along with that, what are your thoughts on the challenges of writing political poetry in general?
JHG: Going back to the idea that I don’t want to bore people…I want people to be able to draw their own conclusions, I don’t just want to rant that “blank is unfair” and “this is bad.” Political poetry can often go astray by being overly simplistic or over-determined; you want there to be a bit of surprise, something that makes people think but doesn’t judge them, something that might make them question their own belief system. Imagery is a great distraction that a poet can use; humor can often undermine any “preachy” tendencies in a poem, too. Those are probably my two best strategies. Lately I’ve been trying to tackle subject matter like radioactive pollution, Fukushima and Oak Ridge, some other heavy material, and I’m striving to maintain a balance, to present two sides, and avoid letting the “message” of the poem overwhelm the poem itself.
MM: Many writers have their own special go-to places for inspiration. Are there any special sources or subjects that you find yourself continuously revisiting?
JHG: Fiction books provide a lot of inspiration for me, particularly mythological or speculative fiction. I know the short stories of A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Osamu Dazai and Kelly Link have all inspired poems. I think poets should read widely and fearlessly. Visual art is also definitely a draw for me, films like Hayao Miyazaki’s early work Nausicaa, comic books, biology textbooks, annotated mythology collections…really I’m sort of a voracious consumer of all kinds of media, and the more I take in, the more I write…
MM: I’ve noticed some speculative elements in your writing; I’ve also come across your work in some sci-fi/fantasy based journals like Strange Horizons and Mythic Delirium. As a speculative writer myself, I’m curious about your thoughts on the difficulties and/or benefits of pursuing more than one genre or style at the same time.
JHG: I think there are definitely separate crowds at the literary magazines versus the genre/speculative magazines, and I hate to say it, but I think there are more actual readers at the speculative markets, and more involved readership. I get responses and letters from readers more often when I publish in the speculative magazines; it’s very rare when I publish even in a larger literary university-run magazine to get a letter or e-mail about my work.
And, you know, a lot of speculative magazines actually pay their writers for their writing, which is a nice, refreshing change for us poets! There are benefits to being in both worlds – in reading speculative journals and participating in online speculative communities, I’ve discovered fascinating writers and conversations I would never have heard about otherwise. I think more literary writers are dabbling in speculative writing than ever, actually, so I hope there is more commingling of the two groups!
MM: More and more contemporary writers seem to be embracing technology as a tool in publishing and networking, whereas others are steadfastly avoiding it (as evidenced by, say, the general lack of electronic publications represented in anthologies like Best American Poetry). In your experience, what are the good and bad aspects of electronic publishing, not to mention social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook?
JHG: I have to say that most of my experiences with networking and technology have been positive; my blog, which has been around for a few years, was one of the first places where I found a really supportive poetry community, and I guess Facebook and Twitter are sort of slowly infiltrating for their moments of “Ack! I had a poem rejected!” or “Yay! I had a poem accepted!” which you can share instantly. Writers really work in a vacuum, so anything that allows us to share our experiences and be understood is a bonus, in my opinion. I think online journals get a huge reading audience that it would be a real shame to overlook; e-books, for poets at least, are really still “for future readership” as I don’t know that too many people are buying poetry on their e-readers, yet.
MM: Any new projects in the works?
JHG: Yes, I’m working on a collaborative book with a painter named Deborah Scott from Seattle that involves the darker side of fairy tale characters called “Unexplained Fevers,” and yet another book about growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, my childhood there and the environmental damage from Oak Ridge National Labs and some of the issues around nuclear pollution in general…and robots. So I’m keeping busy!
About Jeannine Hall Gailey:
Jeannine Hall Gailey is the Seattle-area author of Becoming the Villainess (Steel Toe Books, 2006) and She Returns to the Floating World (Kitsune Books, 2011) which is an Eric Hoffer Montaigne Medal finalist. Her poems were featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac and on Verse Daily; two were included in 2007’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, and Crab Orchard Review; she reviews books for The Rumpus. She volunteers as an editorial consultant for Crab Creek Review and currently teaches part-time at the MFA program at National University.
Photo: “Open Book” by Sarah Browning on Flickr