Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She’s the author of five books: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, and the winner of the Moon City Book Prize, Field Guide to the End of the World. Her web site is www.webbish6.com and you can follow her on twitter @webbish6.
Curtis Smith: I really enjoyed this collection. The book had a real cohesiveness, a fullness I found very satisfying. Front to back, it held this great vibe—calm yet nightmarish, a series of everyday apocalypses. It had me thinking about the lens you’ve held up to our world. Can you talk about this perspective?
Jeannine Hall Gailey: I just notice how apocalyptic every day life had become – Twitter makes every bombing and earthquake immediate, YA novels feature nothing but post-apocalyptic dystopias, 24-hour news cycles amplify every negative story, and even the weather reports announce “snowpocalypse!” Everything’s a disaster, but just the same, we have to get up and live every day as if it’s not our last – flossing, helping each other out, grocery shopping. The mundane becomes heroic in the face of so much.
CS: May I assume you have a passion for the sciences? I ask because I do as well, and those strains pulled me in. And beyond science, there’re other, more traditionally-thought-of left-brain topics such as math and time travel. Writer-types are usually tagged as right-brainers, so what about the sciences attracts you? What does it bring to your work?
JHG: Yes. My first degree was in biology, and I especially enjoyed classes like “ecological toxicology” and “evolutionary biology,” classes that really can evolve your world view of what is safe, what humanity’s role is in the larger universe, etc. My father is a robotics scientist who was regularly lecturing us at the table using algebra and calculus, and my mother loved poetry and encouraged us (my brothers and I) s in the arts. I figure I’m definitely the product of both my parents. I worked for years in computer software (I even authored a book, God help me, in the early days of web services) and my husband is a chemical engineer who is also a programming wizard. So maybe I gravitate towards geekiness but believe I can integrate that into what has always been the sort-of-rarified air of poetry. You know, snowy barns are great, but give me a poem about a video game or a comic book any day.
I like other poets who ask philosophical and scientific questions in their work. I think there’s a too-easy stereotype of the English major who doesn’t like math or science, but we should challenge that! (As you can see, I’m very pro-STEAM – a little poetry – or landscape painting, or theater – with that robotics, please?)
CS: One of the aspects I admired most about the collection was your ability to balance so many moods and tones. There’s a normalness beneath the chaos of a burning world. Another balance I enjoyed was the inclusion of popular culture. There are references and tangents dedicated to American Idol, John Cusack, teen vampires, Martha Stewart, the X-Files, Anthropologie catalogs, The Wizard of Oz, and others. For me, these familiar things had a way of making the surreal and nightmarish aspects of the book feel both closer and less threatening. Can I ask what role you see these relatively benign pop culture elements playing?
JHG: I’ve always enjoyed the odd and ridiculous juxtapositions of pop culture – the superheroine in tiny bustier and high heels, etc. I thought about all the shows and reading material that took on apocalyptic subject matter – and also “shelter” magazines and Food Network hostesses, built to be comforting and unthreatening. What would it be like if Martha Stewart were giving advice about how to survive the plague? Why do Anthropologie catalogs always seem like they already take place at some very glamorous end-of-the-world party? So it was the play between our culture’s desire to be titillated by fear and the desire to be comforted. Cupcakes and wooden stakes, if you will. Dorothy from Oz is a great example of a “safe-for-consumption” heroine who gets to have great adventures and even kill witches and becomes very powerful, but at the end of the story, has to return to a fairly restrictive life of toil and poverty at the end.
CS: The book is broken into distinct sections—Disaster Studies, Hard Science, End Times Eschatology, to name a few. When did this structure come to you? Was it there all along, or was there a point in the midst of your work that it made itself apparent? Or was it at the end, when you had all these published pieces and then saw them as fitting into these groupings?
JHG: I think the first section to gel was “Hard Science” – my idea of playing with the idea of the classroom at the end of the world, migrations and mass extinctions, math and chaos theory and that type of thing. My original idea for the book was to make it truly like an old-fashioned field guide, playing with academic forms (hence the “Introduction to Blank Studies” titles) – but the post-apocalyptic postcard idea sort of weaseled its way into the book, and at the end, became a very prominent part of the book.
JHG: When I was writing this book, I was thinking a lot about mortality and what really makes life worth living. I just kept coming back to relationships – friends, lovers, family members – and that those relationships are always highlighted when they are in peril – or when we are in peril. When crisis comes, we naturally want to build up and protect love above all.
And I definitely meant for there to be a LOT of humor in the book. Who wants another humorless, depressing book about the end of the world? The trick was to talk about this dark subject matter in a way that was accessible, humanized – and humor IS probably my own number one coping mechanism. When I got a cancer diagnosis recently, I started making up jokes about it even as I was processing the news. I watched a constant stream of 30 Rock and Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you ask me about my health today, I’ll probably make a joke about it.
CS: There are pieces in the book that straddle that fine line between flash fiction and poetry. I’m not keen on placing all writing into categories, but I’m interested in your thoughts. Is there a distinction you draw between the two? I’m thinking in terms of a writer submitting to a lit journal who might have a similar piece and has to make the decision of which editor to submit it to.
JHG: The question of difference between flash fiction and prose poetry is an interesting one. Lots of people have written about this, probably better than I will here. Is there always a difference? I usually associate flash fiction with story – even if it’s one small scene, a flash fiction piece has scene, character, plot. Prose poetry could have a story in it, but the most important things in a prose poem are the poetic elements – language, imagery, sonics. Ostensibly you could have a lyrical flash fiction piece that also operates as a prose poem, or a prose poem that told a satisfying story. (Full disclosure: yes, I’ve published “prose poems” as “flash fiction” before. Or perhaps it was publishing “flash fiction” as “prose poetry.”)
CS: What’s next?
JHG: I’ve been working on a series of “self-portrait” poems – “Self-Portrait as Bad 1950’s Sci-Fi Movie,” for instance – and I think I might even have the scaffolding ready for another book, dealing with luck, cancer, and like this book, survival and the things that might make survival worth the work.
Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chapbooks, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing published Kurt Vonnegut: Bookmarker, a collection of his essays about Slaughterhouse Five.