interview with Jeannine Hall Gailey

Earlier this year I took a class on fairytale poetry, and, soon after, happened to read UnexplainedFevers by Jeannine Hall Gailey, a poetry collection that explores different fairytales through persona. Having just learned how difficult it is to write a good fairytale poem, I was captivated by this book. This week I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview Gailey, and that is what I have to share with you today!

1) Pen, pencil, computer or typewriter?

JHG: I’ve been typing poems into a computer since I was six years old, using my Dad’s old TRS-80. My handwriting is so atrocious that if I write something on a scrap of paper I usually can’t read it afterwards or figure out what I was trying to say.

2) What are three books my readers should go out and buy right now?

JHG: ONLY three? I don’t think I could narrow it down that much. But I’ll tell you the books I recommend for my National students and for people whose manuscripts I edit. It’s mostly first books, because I think they help newer writers envision books as projects, rather than just thinking about individual poems, but others are third or fifth books. And these are just a handful, I could recommend a lot more: Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa. Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life. Denise Duhamel’s Kinky. Oliver de la Paz’s Names Over Houses. Louise Gluck’s Meadowlands. If you check out my blog I’m always talking about a new book I’ve loved and reviewed – just off the top of my head, some other great first books include Annette Spaulding-Convy’s In Broken Latin, Jericho Brown’s Please, and Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning.
I also advise my poetry students to read widely – short fiction, novels, memoirs, creative non-fiction, plays. I often find inspiration from scientific historical documents and short fiction, myself.

3) Why poetry?

JHG: I read all the genres, but I think I like poetry the most because it is the most like a piece of visual art – you have to make an art work out of thoughts, ideas, images and sound that stays in the mind of a reader. It’s a challenge! Also, it lends itself well to people with short attention spans.

4) If you could switch places with any other poet, dead or alive, who would it be?

JHG: Louise Gluck has always had a great shoe collection, and she wrote a poem about a fancy cheese shop that she lives close to. That sounds like a good life to me! But seriously, I wouldn’t switch places – I love the time and place I live in, as apocalyptic and doom-bringing as the headlines seem. I mean, has there ever been a better time for women writers who write about comic book heroines, embittered fairy tale characters, and robots?

5) If you could choose one book to have never been written, what would it be?

JHG: If I’m being snarky, maybe Twilight. But seriously, every creation is someone’s baby. Why stamp something out?

6) What is the best advice you've ever received about writing?

JHG: Maybe something about “doing what you’re doing, but take it even further.” I think taking your own tendencies, obsessions, and styles to extremes almost always leads to more interesting risks.

7) What is the worst advice you've ever received about writing?

JHG: Write what you know. Sooo boring. Write what you want to know. Do some research, use your imagination. Don’t limit yourself – that’s how we end up with so many boring books each year, because someone was told “write what you know.”

8) So, your latest book, Unexplained Fevers, is your third book. What has your journey to publication been like?

JHG: It’s had its ups and downs. The publisher of my second book, She Returns to the Floating World, Kitsune Books, was going to publish Unexplained Fevers originally. I had art work, blurbs, the manuscript edited, everything ready. But the editor and publisher, Anne Petty, got very sick, closed the press, and sadly, recently passed away. It was a blow both emotionally (she was a wonderful person, presence and a real mover-and-shaker among the speculative literary community) and mentally to figure out what to do next. I sent the book out to a few publishers – including one I’d heard about in a tweet from Margaret Atwood, of all people, an Irish small publisher called New Binary Press – and the editor wrote back to say they would like to publish it. I actually had a couple of offers from really nice small presses for this third book, which was really encouraging. I’m happy I went with New Binary Press – and soon they’ll be putting out an e-book of Unexplained Fevers as well!

9) Please tell us a bit about your latest book.
Unexplained Fevers allowed me to revisit some of the territory I explored in my first book, Becoming the Villainess, with a focus on some of the heroines from fairy tales that I avoided because I found them boring or too passive...Rapunzel, Snow White, The Princess from The Princess and the Pea, Sleeping Beauty. I decided to use these characters as a way to talk about the kind of mysterious health problems that young and middle-aged women tend to deal with – anorexia, chronic fatigue syndrome, heroine addiction, bleeding disorders, problems having children, etc. It sounds like a super-fun cheery ride, right? But seriously, I tried to take a little bit of a lighter look at the problems of contemporary women past their “happy endings” – after waking up, after being rescued, after escaping the tower. Deconstructing the mythology of “Once Upon a Time” and its promises, but also having a little fun with it.

10) Would you be willing to share a poem or link to a poem from Unexplained Fevers?
Some of my favorite reasons to read fairy tales is to discover the embedded wisdom from women in the past who weren’t free to talk about, say, child abuse, contraception, pregnancy fears – and to try to discern the hidden advice. This poem is one of the “advice” poems, called “Advice from the Pages of Grimms’ Fairy Tales.”

Advice Left Between the Pages of Grimms’ Fairy Tales

Life is not a fairy tale, and this isn’t your pumpkin coach.
You’re not lost in some magic wood,
and that blood on your hands isn’t from an innocent stag
at all. Princess, remember to fill your pockets
with more than bread crumbs, and
if you can’t sleep don’t blame the legumes
beneath the sheets. One look at that glass coffin
they’ve set up for you should tell you
everything you need to know about their intentions.
Remember a lot of girls end up dismembered, and
every briar rose has its thorn.
Forget the sword and magic stone,
forget enchantments and focus on the profit margin,
the hard line. Read the subtext.

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