every other day

20 AUG 06

How has your first book changed your life?

25.  Jeannine Hall Gailey

cover of Becoming the Villianess

How did your manuscript happen to be chosen by Steel Toe Books?

I had been a semifinalist in 2004 for their book contest, so I figured I'd submit to their first official Open Submission period. And, I thought, it was very fair to buy a book in exchange for the reading--much better than writing a $25 "check to noplace" for most poetry book contests.

I had been submitting my book for about 18 months when I got the call from Tom C. Hunley, the publisher of Steel Toe Books. First, he told me he had pulled the book from the Open Submission reading group because I had reviewed one of his books, The Tongue, a little while back, and he wanted the Open Submissions reading to be scrupulously fair. (Which I applaud. But at this point in the conversation, I was feeling a little down.) He went on to say that his first couple of readers had loved the book, which they had read after he pulled it, and he had too, so he wanted to publish it as Steel Toe Books' first "solicited" book of poetry.

This call came at a very important time for me--I had just a few months before almost died during a minor surgery because of an undiagnosed hemophilia-like bleeding disorder, had a massive immune response to the product they used to stop the bleeding, and was told I would need medication the rest of my life and would not be able to have children. My self-view went from "normal" to "Freakish mutant" in 24 hours. Imagine being told at 32 that you could have died from a bad nosebleed at any time over the last thirty years. I even took a semester off school because of the health problems. I think being able to focus on something positive, the book, probably saved my sanity. So, it had more of a positive impact on me than it might have had five years before, or if the news had come now.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?

I remember thinking, "Sooo Shiny." I'm a little like a crow, attracted to bright colors and shiny things. The amazing artist who did the cover for us, Michaela Eaves, was really adamant about the quality of the red on the cover, and it came out perfectly.

The other thing I was really (strangely) concerned about was curling covers, and the book seemed to hold its shape really well, so I was happy about that. You know they don't really know what causes that curling cover syndrome in paperback books? Something about the weight and ingredients of the paper and the way it is coated.

And then I cried when I read the dedication of the book (it's dedicated to my mother.) She is the one who really encouraged me to read and write poetry as a kid, and it's her fault the book exists. I know, so cliche. And sentimental. 

Did you imagine that your life would change with the arrival of your book?

I was lucky that I had a few friends who had already had their first books come out who warned me A: My life would not change dramatically after the book and B: the euphoria/depression cycle that follows a book's being published is perfectly normal. Because I think we poets always imagine, my book's going to change the world! It's going to sell a million copies! And then we think, my book's terrible, no one's going to read it, and those who do read it will hate it and give me bad reviews on Amazon out of spite. The truth is probably something in between.

I also had some perspective because I spent time as an Acquisitions Editor at a technical press, Microsoft Press. For instance, a technical book was considered a failure if it "only" sold ten thousand copies, and the press might barely recoup the costs of making and printing the book. I've been told that a poet would have to be very lucky to hit that mark. It shows you how poetry book publishing is really a labor of love--no publisher is making a ton of money selling most books of poetry.

What changes did the book bring?

I've been invited to do readings for money for the first time. Even if it's only enough to cover the travel expenses to get there, it is a great feeling that someone values your work enough to pay you to read it.  I get people coming up to me, telling me about the book, which is pretty much always a thrill. I was really moved when a woman came up to me and told me a friend had been using poems from the book at a domestic violence shelter.

I've also gotten a few solicitations for work, which hadn't happened before. I seem to be writing more but sending out less. I've gotten a little lazy with my submissions, possibly because I'm in school and trying to balance the book stuff with homework and freelance work.

Also, I seem to get a lot of superhero-oriented poetry in the mail. And e-mails from strangers telling me about their superhero poetry. Which I'm all for, actually. The more superhero-oriented poetry in the future, the better.

Were there things you thought would happen that didn't?

Really, nothing much changed, and that's what I expected. Just doing the work to promote the book when it first came out took away from my writing energy more than I expected. So I had a bit of a no-writing gap in April and May.

I was very surprised that Garrison Keillor read two poems from the book on The Writer's Almanac. Honestly, I did not expect this, as my work doesn't seem to have much in common with the work he normally reads. And then, amazingly, you could Google the titles of the poems and like twenty people had posted them to blogs and things. It was a weird dissemination of my work--like some kind of poetry virus. Also, my Dad is a huge Garrison Keillor fan, so I was really happy about it for that reason.

Were you involved in designing the cover?

Yes--the artist, Michaela Eaves, was recommended to me by a really good friend, who said she would be perfect for the kind of work I wrote. He was right. I gave her some vague ideas and she came up with the cover, which includes a background of symbolic birds and plants (swallows, deadly nightshade.) I mean, she's a serious genius. I love her work. Tom Hunley (the publisher) was very flexible and open to ideas about the cover art, which I really appreciated--I found out not every publisher lets you in on that side of the book production. And most people when they see the book say they love the cover. It does attract more goth teenagers than you would think a book of poetry might attract. I'm not sure they buy the book, but they pick it up and touch it a lot.

The woman on the cover looks kind of like you, right? What's the story there?

Ha! I get a lot of questions about that! I'm very flattered--but actually, the artist used a model friend (who ended up standing in an evening gown in the rain for an evening in winter for the picture--what a trouper!). I think Michaela was trying to capture the idea of a contemporary girl in the process of "becoming the villainess"--or at least contemplating it.

What have you done to promote the book and what have those experiences been like for you?

Tom and I both sent out copies of the book for review, and to the usual places, Verse Daily and such. I have a healthy number of reviews, maybe a modest handful, coming out in the future that I am happy about. No New York Times Review of Books or Publisher's Weekly, but good literary magazines. I think I didn't expect anyone to even notice the book, so every time I heard about a review I was elated.

I set up a lot of readings locally, in Seattle and the surrounding areas--Open Books, by the way, a poetry-only bookstore in Seattle, has got to be one of the all-time best places to read--did two festivals (Skagit River Poetry Festival and Wordstock in Portland) and have a bunch of readings coming up that Tom and I organized in Kentucky and Ohio, where the press and my Alma Mater (University of Cincinnati) are located. I actually love reading, especially with an enthusiastic audience, but afterwards I am always wiped out physically. I think October (which has me doing readings in the Midwest for eight days, coming back and reading in Portland, OR, two days later, and then a week later going up to Bellingham, Washington) will probably kill me. I'd still like to set up some readings in the Bay Area and New York, but it probably won't be until next year that I can do that, logistically.

My blog has a lot more promotional stuff--announcements of readings and reviews, etc--than it used to. I don't love doing self-promotion--it's weirdly unnerving. I'm very jealous of people who have PR people to help them out.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?

I really owe a debt to Erin Belieu, who taught at a summer conference a few years ago that I attended. She told me two things: one, that, since there are very few women critics out there, I had a responsibility to start writing reviews, and that two, I should take my work seriously and start putting together a book manuscript. I don't know that I would have even thought about "a book" without her encouragement. Writing reviews made me much more aware of what people my own age were doing in the poetry world--I had to read their work so closely, judge what I considered attributes or weaknesses, notice the way their words worked together. Also, in a world where very few people care about poetry, it feels like putting some positive energy out there--hey, notice this writer, this book, pay attention: this person is doing something good!

I also really appreciated having several good friends with recent first books who warned me about the hard work that comes with a first book--that you have to work to promote your poetry, to promote poetry in general, give back to the community of writers you live in, etc.

Advice I wish I'd gotten: Go over your book with a fine tooth comb and take out anything that bothers you. I did a lot of reorganizing and cutting before I gave Tom the final version manuscript, and I'm glad I did. I probably should have done even more.

What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?

I'm trying to mine different areas, because I think I could pretty much write forever about Western mythology and fairy tales and popular culture heroines, but that might get a little dull for readers. So I've immersed myself in Japanese poetry, mythology and popular culture, even trying to teach myself Japanese. The female archetypes are startlingly different, but some similarities--especially the woman as monster or animal/human hybrid--surprised me.

I'm trying to get more intense language, different kinds of language, into my new poems, and a more lyric feel, because I felt I needed to get away from so much narrative. So I'm trying things like prose poems and experiments with voice and sentence fragments. Also experiments with Japanese forms, the tanka, the haiku. I think also that my health problems have put a weird spin on what I write, issues of being physically "abnormal" and childlessness come up a lot now, but in indirect ways.

How do you feel about the critical response and has it had any effect on your writing?

It is very interesting to me to read other people's responses to my work. Some readers got very different things, some things I intended and some things I did not intend. Once your work goes out into the universe, there's no more control over it. I don't think it's really affected my new work, since the stuff I'm writing is so different. 
Do you want your life to change?

I feel that the past few years, working as a freelance writer and going to school, have been something of a break--I worked for ten or eleven years straight as a technical manager before that. So, I've been thinking about a new type of working life--maybe teaching, editing, coaching, maybe doing something in publishing. Definitely jealously guarding my writing time--something I didn't do much before the last year or so--and being more conscious of my physical health. I'm kind of in a holding pattern right now, instead of planning, just waiting to see what the universe will bring. (Very New Age, I know.)

Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?

I'm going to finish up my MFA in January and my new manuscript, and then--we'll see. I've already started talking to publishers and have tentatively sent out CVs to a couple of schools. I'm also thinking of starting up my own literary magazine revolving around pop culture and even a small feminist press. I've volunteered for the last five or six years at several literary magazines in different capacities and feel like I might be able to pull it off.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?

When I'm feeling optimistic, I do. I think it's one of the reasons I continue to write poetry, rather than technical manuals. A lot of the poems in the book have to do with women and violence, women and power. I think Margaret Atwood, when asked if she was a feminist, responded that yes, she was a feminist, if that meant she would like women to be treated as human beings. I'd like it if poetry could affect the way that women are treated--women who are denied the right to property, voting, even reading or driving a car. I'd like it if fewer women were victims of rape or abuse. But I'm not sure if poetry can help. It feels like a little dust kicked into the Grand Canyon.

On the other hand, I'm sure that reading poetry changed me. So, theoretically, it might change others. I remember discovering contemporary women writers (I had grown up with Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, like most girls my age) when I was 19 or 20, and thinking, wow, here are women speaking their minds, here are people saying things I can relate to. Margaret Atwood, Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton, Louise Gluck, Carol Ann Duffy, Denise Duhamel, Dorianne Laux--a string of poetry heroes that I think made it possible for me to write what I write.


A poem from Becoming the Villainess by Jeannine Hall Gailey:

Playing Softball with Persephone

She throws that heavy globe
so that it sinks in the dirt
a gash in semisoft mud
around the shoe-crushed wildflowers
and the gnats ring her hair like a crown.

She looks right at me while she drinks Gatorade,
pulling her sweaty bangs up over her face
and her eyes like a whole field of forget-me-nots.

The ball rolls forward and she grabs it,
squeezes it like a ripe pomegranate, almost takes a bite,
then wipes her mouth on her dusty arm.

. . .

next interview: Christopher Salerno

other first-book interviews

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