An Interview with Jeannine Hall Gailey

I think I must have a long-standing obsession with women who transform into monsters or animal spirits. The idea that women necessarily must live in two worlds—the animal and the human—kind of crosses over multiple cultures…


Jeannine Hall Gailey is the Seattle-area author of two books of poetry, She Returns to the Floating World (Kitsune Books 2011), and Becoming the Villainess (Steel Toe Books 2006). She has a B.S. in Biology and an M.A. in English from the University of Cincinnati, as well as an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Pacific University. Her poems have been featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac and on Verse Daily; two were included in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. In 2007 she received a Washington State Artist Trust GAP Grant and a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize. She is an editorial consultant for Crab Creek Review, writes book reviews, and teaches at National University’s MFA Program. She also writes about the poetry business and her writing on her blog. Read our recent review of She Returns to the Floating World.


Welcome to The California Journal of Poetics! In your poem, “Aberrant Code III,” the lines, “me, a fox in the dust, / some hybrid of woman and mythical beast. I like to chew jewelry,” are indicative of the shape-shifting characters of the Japanese fairy tales you recreate in the book. Can you speak more about this connection between these shape-shifters and the speaker’s sense of an “aberrant code”? Why do you write about Japanese folk tales?

Well, in my first book, Becoming the Villainess, there are a lot of transforming female characters from fairy tales (mostly German and French in origin) and comic books, so I think I must have a long-standing obsession with women who transform into monsters or animal spirits. The idea that women necessarily must live in two worlds—the animal and the human—crosses over multiple cultures, don’t you think? I was researching Japanese fairy tales in conjunction with the first book when I came across religious and Jungian scholar Hayao Kawai’s amazing book, The Japanese Psyche: Major Motifs in the Fairy Tales of Japan, and just completely fell into such love with the stories, with his ideas about the disappearing woman and the idea of awaré. According to Kawai, awaré means “softly despairing sorrow.” And at the same time, I was taken back to my childhood love of Miyazaki’s classic movie, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was itself inspired by a Japanese fairy tale, “The Princess Who Loved Caterpillars,” according to an interview he did. Those dual loves inspired this book, as did my father and brother’s frequent trips to Japan and our friendship with my little brother’s professor of Japanese language and culture, Dr. Ayako Ogawa. I ended up with quite a fantastic reading list (for anyone who is interested, contact me!). But it includes Karen A. Smyers’ The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, The Tale of Genji, Susan Napier’s Anime From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, Antonia Levi’s Samurai From Outer Space, Grace James’ Green Willow and Other Japanese Fairy Tales, and The Gary Synder Reader: Prose, Poetry, and Translations.

The idea of aberrant code came from my study of biology as an undergraduate, in particular, of mutations in DNA (I was a research assistant in a tissue culturing lab for tomatoes at the University of Cincinnati.) I myself have a few genetic mutations that have made for plenty of interesting health troubles in my life, so I am thankful I spent so much time studying them when I was younger. The idea of being different, or “other,” has probably influenced a lot of my poems.


Your book is composed of many haibun poems, a form that Bashō created to write about his travel experience. Can you talk about why you chose to write in the this form? What about the haibun form appealed to you? In what ways has the creation of this book been a journey?


I fell in love with the haibun form as soon as I saw it. I think I ran into poems by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Oliver de la Paz, and Bashō at about the same time, and as soon as I saw this form, which so lends itself to ideas of travel and of dreams and the subconscious, as well as the tension between prose and poetry, I had to try it.


She Returns to the Floating World is really all about journeys—between the realms of dreams and reality, the realms of life and death, of going back and forth to the spirit world or the animal world and returning wiser but perhaps changed.


You grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the U.S. created the atomic bombs that they dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII. Could you speak more about your circumstantial relationship to this history? Has this connection influenced your work?

I think when I was ten years old, I was reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, which was all about averting a nuclear apocalypse, and at the same time I was reading a historical account of the Japanese bombings of Hiroshima in my school’s library. This was the seventies. One of my very first poems I wrote at that time was about nuclear holocaust and nuclear pollution. My father (who consulted for Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL) on ways to use robotics to more safely dispose of and handle nuclear materials) discussed radiation measuring and radiation poisoning repercussions with me from a very young age. In fact, I started proofreading his papers on nuclear waste cleanup in high school. So I can’t really remember a time when these issues weren’t important to me.


My whole family took trips to Japan, at first for my father’s work, and later because they loved the culture (my little brother ended up minoring in Japanese in college). Each time the trip came around, a health problem prevented me from going with them—one time, the measles, and another time, scarlet fever. So I’ve never been, but the stories my family brought home to me inspired hours of reverie.


If my first book’s inspirations began with comics like the X-Men, then this book’s inspirations began with my childhood viewings of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime. His obsession with eco-saviors—with humanity’s destruction of the environment—is clear in almost all of his work. Those images are repeated in She Returns to the Floating World, images of poisoned forests, of humans and animals fighting to save or destroy the landscape.


The book White Flash / Black Rain: Women of Japan Relive the Bomb (Milkweed Editions 1995) is an anthology that includes poetry and prose of the survivors of the bomb and their accounts of it. Carolyn Forché also wrote a poem, “The Garden Shukkei-en,” in which a survivor of the bomb relates her experience to the speaker in the poem. What literature has inspired you in writing about this tragic history?


Growing up in Knoxville, the bombing of Hiroshima wasn’t ancient history; it was part of the region’s past, present, and future. Some of the scientists who worked on developing the bomb were still at Oak Ridge National Labs (ORNL). In Seattle, the statue of Sadako (a little girl who died of leukemia as a result of the Hiroshima bombings, and whose story includes a very moving account of folding a thousand origami cranes) is routinely visited with gifts and little paper cranes, which are replaced after every rainfall. I was living on Bainbridge Island one year while I was writing the book, so the frequent reminders there of the history of American treatment of Japanese Americans during the war – the deportation and internment of American citizens – also influenced what I wrote. There is now a memorial on Bainbridge.


White Flash / Black Rain is a beautiful book that everyone should read, so heart-wrenching. I was also reading a book by an ORNL safety physicist called The Angry Genie about the development of the bomb and the building of the ORNL site. Another influential book is the novel Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse.


Statue of Sadako at the Seattle Peace Park

On a side note, one of my poet friends, Kathleen Flenniken, has an upcoming book about Hanford (the other site involved in the making of the bomb, here in Washington State) where her father worked—a fantastic weaving together of historic documents from Hanford and her own memories. I would recommend it to everyone as soon as it comes out.


What projects are you currently working on that we can look forward to?

I have two other manuscripts in the works, one of the female body and the “trapped” fairy tale heroines (Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty) and another that develops the ideas about growing up in Oak Ridge and the fallout (both literal and figurative) of the nuclear work at ORNL that began with this book. I’m also hoping to do some more collaboration with visual artists in the near future—I love working with the visual arts!


More Jeannine Hall Gailey:

Visit Gailey’s web site

Read our review of Gailey’s book, She Returns to the Floating World

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