I started writing poetry when I was a kid. My mother let me borrow her college poetry textbook (circa 1969), and so I learned about T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, poetic forms, metaphors, and such things way before we would get around to them in school. I won a couple of poetry recitation contests in 5th and 6th grade, and the prizes were the collected works of Emily Dickinson and Carl Sandburg (I still have both). I think the first book of poetry I bought myself was the collected Edna St. Vincent Millay, when I was about 11.
My first degree was in Pre-Med Biology. I meant to become a doctor—but I took creative writing classes on the side. When I graduated, my immunologist told me there was no way my health would allow me to complete medical school, as grueling as it was in the early nineties. So I decided to set my sights elsewhere. Soon I started my MA in English, where I was introduced to formalism, deconstruction, and other -isms (and made some good friends). When I graduated, looking to be able to support myself, I took a job as a technical writer. I was still writing poetry, but not seriously trying to publish, until a health crisis struck and I had to quit my tech job. My husband suggested pursuing my earlier dream of being a writer.
Starting my Journey as a Poet
I tried out some local writer’s conferences (on scholarship) and seriously researching the literary magazine scene, volunteering for a few local literary magazines, and sending out work. I put together enough published poems for a chapbook, and got it published—my first little collection of poems, called Female Comic Book Superheroes. I applied to a few low-residency MFA programs, and started one, taking a semester off in the middle for (once again) health issues. During that off semester, I sent out my first book manuscript and had it accepted, which was Becoming the Villainess, published by a (then-brand-new) press called Steel Toe Books in Kentucky. The chapbook and book were considered “speculative” poetry at that time, not very common—poems about video game characters and superheroines were not common in the mainstream literary magazines, certainly not represented in the prizes. So I was a little out there. But it had a very positive response from young people, which I was very happy to see. If you can’t read and enjoy a few poems about comic book story arcs or mythological women turned to dragons when you’re young, then when can you?
Journey from First Book to Sixth
I felt very lucky with that first book—I had some modest success for a very new small publisher and a very small new poet. I was still able to travel more easily back then—making 20-hour car trips between Western Kentucky, Akron, and upstate New York.
Now that I’m on my sixth book, Flare, Corona, with a great publisher, BOA Editions, I’m a little older, with a little more in terms of health challenges (MS among them), and I’m not physically able to do what I used to. However, with the pandemic, I learned some new skillsets—photography and gardening among them—and I read a lot. During the first months of the pandemic, I tried writing a few personal essays – and got them published in Salon. This book is the most vulnerable and more autobiographical than all my previous books. My previous books: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, and Unexplained Fevers, I frequently wrote in persona—characters from mythology, fairy tales, anime, and traditional folk tales. In Field Guide to the End of the World, I created a fictional character navigating a fictional apocalyptic landscape (though it didn’t feel fictional in 2020!), so at least there was a little differentiation between the main speaker and myself. In Flare, Corona the speaker is essentially me, describing some incredibly difficult experiences. I had to figure out a way to write these poems in a way that was direct but felt comfortable. I found myself writing a kind of “mutant sonnet” as well as prose poems—forms that helped me hold difficult subject matter in place, so to speak. Some themes from previous books return—a supervillain perspective on coronavirus, apocalypse poems, writing about growing up in Oak Ridge and its radioactive contamination—and those poems allowed me to, for instance, address what I refer to in the book as “the plague years” in a way that felt real and not cliché.
I’ve learned over the 20 or so years of publishing poetry books that one of the best things about the poetry world is making friends with the people in it—my publishers were, to the person, excellent human beings, and I consider many of them real friends and I truly grieved when I lost one of the them to cancer. I am very lucky to now have a bigger press—BOA Editions, who published some of my poetry heroes, like Dorianne Laux and Lucille Clifton—take my latest book, and I really am enjoying working with them as the book comes out into the world. Kindness to people becomes really important, and supporting other poets and writers as we go through our literary life is something I cannot recommend enough. I’ve been doing poetry book reviews for 20 years, and even if there is little monetary reward in it, I’m happy to have done it. Meeting friends I’ve made at a conference or a reading twenty years ago remains a great pleasure, even if I can’t travel as much as I used to. Community is important as a structure to support you and a structure to support other writers.
My work itself continues to evolve—as I play around with form, and language, and persona. My next book must be impacted by the last few years, but I don’t want it to be purely about that, and may also involve some of the ideas that appeared in Flare, Corona—the desire or will to survive despite difficult conditions. There will probably be dragons in it.
About the Author
Jeannine Hall Gailey is a poet with multiple sclerosis who served as the 2nd Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She’s the author of six books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize and the Elgin Award, and the newest, Flare, Corona from BOA Editions. She has a B.S. in Biology and M.A. in English from the University of Cincinnati and an MFA from Pacific University. Her work appeared in The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry. Her web site is www.webbish6.com.