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 for 2012. Her upcoming collaborative book of poetry and art, Unexplained Fevers, is forthcoming from Kitsune Books in 2013. Her work has been featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her poems have appeared in journals like The Iowa Review, The Seattle Review, and Prairie Schooner. She volunteers as an editorial consultant for Crab Creek Review and currently teaches part-time at the MFA program at National University. Her web site is www.webbish6.com.
I first encountered Jeannine Hall Gailey’s work while searching for poetry that would appeal to my students. They were at the height of the Twilight obsession, and I thought if I could find poems with younger themes, it might open a window for them into this world they were so wary of. I posted the question on the Wom-po listserv, and Jeannine herself said her first book, Becoming the Villainess, “does have poems about Buffy, evil Snow Queens, villainesses of all sorts...teenagers seem to dig it (though I wrote it with a slightly older audience in mind...).” Who was this Gailey person? I did a quick Google and found “The Night I Realize I Won’t Be Able to Have Children,” in Blood Lotus. So began my love affair with Jeannine Hall Gailey.
She was right about Villainess, by the way. Everyone I’ve ever told about this book (and they’ve been many) has loved it, and students who “don’t like poetry” like Jeannine’s poems. When she contacted me about reviewing her second book, She Returns to the Floating World, I immediately accepted, even though I had sworn off reviewing forever in a stupid attempt at “concentrating on my own work” that I’ve since quite obviously given up. I was floored by the book, which collects poems about Japanese traditional mythology and popular culture in an intensely personal context centered on the myth of the kitsune, the fox-become-woman of Japanese myth. In the traditional tale, the fox falls in love with a human male, and in She Returns, she is the central character in poems exploring themes of marriage, maternity, womanhood, and womanhood’s relationship to the environment. The review appears in the current issue of the Southern Humanities Review, and, as a companion piece, I asked Jeannine if she would answer some questions:
Q: She Returns begins with a rather lengthy set of acknowledgments in which you list seven “books and sources . . . invaluable to my research.” I’m sure there are plenty of people who don’t necessarily think of research and poetry as easy partners. Could you comment on the kind of research that you did, and why, and how it fed into the poetry?
A: Well, I’m the kind of person who likes to look stuff up for fun, which can really start an avalanche effect. For instance, Hayao Miyazaki mentioned in a couple of interviews that the story for one of his first movies, one of my favorites, called Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, was based on a Japanese traditional tale called “The Girl Who Loved Caterpillars.” The discovery of this charming tale, along with the discovery, quite by coincidence, of a fabulous resource, Hayao Kawai’s The Japanese Psyche: Major Motifs in the Fairy Tales of Japan – which I picked up just for fun at a used bookstore – they both kind of pushed me to start reading Japanese folk tale collections, criticism, and even start exploring Japanese short fiction, like Osamu Dazai, who is now among my favorite writers of all time. So it sort of built on itself. I really wrote the first poems in the book from watching Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, which are almost large visual poems in themselves, and then, as I read all these other books, the voices started up in my head – the fox-wife, the crane wife, all these transforming women – and the big sister/little brother trope in Japanese folk tales was equally fascinating to me. The idea of the female savior – which reappears quite often in anime and in Japanese folk tales – just seemed so liberating in the face of much pop culture “victim/sex object/villainess” stereotyping in Western culture. Of course, then, listening to Japanese pop bands, reading contemporary Japanese poetry, and learning more about the history and culture of Japan – these all seemed like natural ventures after I started up the project.
Let me point out I read probably twenty-five or thirty books of research for Becoming the Villainess, too – books of feminist fairy tale and comic book criticism, researching older and varying versions of fairy tales across different languages and cultures, so, um, it could be just a thing I do when I write.
Q: You learned Japanese. You researched. You wrote a 128-page book, lengthy for a poem collection these days. How long did this project take, and what was it like to get through such a complex endeavor?
A: I think the book from start to finish took about six years.
I wish I could say that I knew enough Japanese now to even have a regular conversation of the street – but no, I am still a stuttering idiot who can barely introduce herself in Japanese! I can recognize words in conversation, and I think Kanji is so beautiful I just want to learn more of it for aesthetic reasons – but I still can’t say I’m at all fluent in the language.
All of the books I read along the way so enriched my whole life, and the people I got to make friends with during the process of writing the book – my little brother’s Japanese professor, Dr. Ayako Ogawa, was quite helpful in reading early drafts of the book and helping me research Japanese terms and stories, even sending the book around to her family to get their input – and Roland Kelts, who I ended up meeting in person last year after corresponding for some time – and I ended up seeing Hayao Miyazaki in person in Berkeley CA, which was a dream for me. So really it was wonderful to get to meet and work with wonderful people who were so much more knowledgeable than I am! Even now, this last year, I’ve made new friends online in Japan who are working with translating some of my poems, and I never would have made those connections without the book. So the process was really something that changed me as I wrote.
Q: In the dedication, you credit your little brother with turning you on to Japanese language and culture, but poems like “Code III,” show a personal involvement with gaming culture in particular. Can you talk more about what it’s like, as a girl, as a woman now, to participate in worlds usually dominated by boys and men?
A: I grew up with three brothers, and I learned to program my first computer game when I was around seven (I made an alien stick out its tongue, and another where a maze exploded when you took a wrong turn – all in TRS-80-ready BASIC!) My father never acted like technology was something just for boys, my mother played early video games with me like “Zork!” and we were all encouraged to play with the computers and robots that went for tours in the house while my dad worked with them. So I’ve always felt pretty much at ease around techies, who, for the most part, have been men. At AT&T at one of my first jobs, I had this wonderful brilliant engineer friend from Ghana who was happy to show me all sorts of stuff – how to be a network administrator, a little bit about Unix and Java – and I never felt that I was treated differently at my jobs because I was female (except for being asked out on the occasional date!) That doesn’t mean I wasn’t appalled by occasional stuff – guys discussing the code for making breasts bounce in a certain volleyball video game comes to mind – and I’ve been a little disappointed sometimes in Geek culture for not embracing more females as something besides the sex objects – I remember feeling so sorry for the “booth babes” when I went to Comdex one year in Vegas because none of the men would make actual eye contact with them or acknowledge them as human beings. On the other hand, I’m totally happy to see more women at the bigger cons like WonderCon and ComicCon, and Seattle is hosting a new phenomenon called Geek Girl Con, which was fabulous last year. So I think Geek culture may not always be so male-dominated – at least I hope so!
I also think not being the sturdiest human physically has contributed – necessarily – to finding things to do when I was sick, stuck indoors, recovering from whatever…and video gaming, books, movies, these are all part of the process of staying sane when you’re not able to “go outside and play.”
My little brother definitely deserves the credit for helping educate me about a wide variety of anime series – he also is the one who showed me which comic books were cool in the eighties, and which ones had great writers – and when he started studying Japanese in college and visiting Japan it was a wonderful chance for me to tag along in learning. He’s three years younger than me, and seems to have a wonderful sixth sense about the “next big thing” in the culture – he told me Nirvana and Pearl Jam, for instance, would be huge, even when no one knew who they were. So, I’ve learned to pay attention to him whenever he recommends a band or a movie.
Q: Beyond the personal, can you say how you see the relationship between Japanese and American culture now, how it is evolving?
A: I really loved talking to Roland Kelts about this, author of Japanamerica, a book that was published a couple of years ago, that talks directly about the give-and-take of cultural flow between the two countries from WWII till today, especially as it pertains to pop culture. I certainly think that things like anime and manga have influenced the popular culture, especially of young people – I just think of the crowds of kids (and adults) at things like SakuraCon here in Seattle. For me, personally, I think it’s a shame the folk tales of Japan aren’t more widely read here – the fairy tales of Japan have unique qualities that I think would be a wonderful addition to the children’s cannon of tales. I hope my book sort of helps popularize some of the not-as-well-known tales like “Big Sister, Little Brother” or “The Girl Who Loved Caterpillars.” Some of the stories weren’t widely available in English when I was doing my research, but since the publication of the book, Osamu Dazai’s wonderful collection of folk tales has come out in English translation – it’s called “Otogizoshi: The Fairy Tale Book of Dazai Osamu.”
Q: The common thread between Villainess and She Returns is your wonderful ability to write persona poems. In Villainess, however, the territory is Western: fairy tales, myth, popular culture figures from comics and television. What did the switch to a Japanese cultural vantage point enable you to do?
A: I think the mood of the books is much different. I think I wrote Becoming the Villainess and She Returns to the Floating World in very different spaces, and I started them almost a decade apart; while Villainess is kind of brash and funny, She Returns is a more serious, meditative, melancholy book; definitely the notion of “aware” or “softly despairing sorrow” that characterizes so much Japanese literary art rang true with me when I started writing the book. The idea of separation – relationships that move apart for whatever reasons – and the idea of alienation from the body – were both things I was struggling with when I wrote many of the poems in the second book.
Interestingly, my third book, the upcoming Unexplained Fevers, returned to a lighter tone and to some of the Western fairy tale heroines I sort of passed over in the first book – the characters who were trapped in glass boxes, towers, coffins, etc. And then a fourth manuscript is all about my childhood in Oak Ridge and my father’s work with robots and kind of goes off in a sci-fi direction. So, you know, I get interested in different subject matter, then I write kind of single-mindedly about it for a few years, that’s how my books get written. I definitely write poems in “books” and then just weed out the weaker poems later.
Thanks so much for the opportunity to be on your blog, Celia!
And thank you, Jeannine, for taking the time to answer these questions, but most of all for sharing your passionate interests and interesting passions through your work.
Read some of Jeannine’s poems online:
“When Red Becomes the Wolf”
“Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon”
“The Husband Tries to Write to the Disappearing Wife”
“Sleeping Beauty Loves the Needle”