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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Interview with Jeannine Hall Gailey

I'm starting a new feature to this blog: an occasional interview with a poet. To begin, I've
interviewed Jeannine Hall Gailey about her new book The Robot Scientist's Daughter (Mayapple Press, 2015). Mayapple also published my most recent book, but I had e-met Jeannine previously when she was the judge who chose my chapbook for the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Competition about a decade ago. So I'm pleased to have her as guest here today.

I'd also like to invite other poets who'd like to be interviewed to contact me via my website.

Okay, now on with today's interview!

JG: Your book book has as its launching point your childhood experiences growing up in Tennessee in the shadow of the Oak Ridge National Laboratories and the nuclear research being done there. On top of that, you did quite a bit of research to contextualize scientific facts and political issues that you likely weren’t fully aware of when you were growing up. Consequently, there’s a lot of information and explication that you had to embed in your poems without being obvious about it, without sacrificing poetic diction, imagery, etc. What were some of the techniques you used to achieve this?

JHG: Good question! This was tricky. I noticed some of the poems were heavy with prose-y, scientific language, so to mitigate that, I tried to embed some of the information in more purposefully lyrical poems and in some of the more conversational autobiographical poems. Some of it probably still reads a little, you know…it’s hard to put “Oak Ridge National Laboratories” in a book so many times and still have it read like poetry! But some of poems, I feel I was able to get a more seamless combination of the scientific and the lyrical. But it was a problem I was very conscious of from the beginning. I wavered between splitting the poems into stanza-fied verse and prose poems for a long time. A prose poem may not succeed if it is too prose-y.

JG: A good number of poems are entitled “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter” followed by a word or phrase in brackets. What does this repetition achieve? How did you decide on the words or phrases to include in the brackets?

JHG: I wanted to get the idea across that there was a recurring character, who was not me, in the book, and the titles were how I wanted to do that. I was probably influenced in this by Marvin Bell’s Dead Man Poems and Matthea Harvey’s repeated titles in Modern Life. Creating that character allowed me a certain flight of fancy the strictly autobiographical poems and scientific poems did not.

The bracketed words were sometimes just fun (like a personality test I took that gave me the response, “Director” as my career choice, which I misread as “Dictator” and ended up putting in a bracket) and references to in-jokes like “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [villainess]” which references my first book.

JG: The artwork on the cover is stunning. Please tell us about it.

JHG: Yes, this book’s cover art was quite a bit more difficult to find than my other books, simply because the subject matter was more complex, and I didn’t want something too simplistic on the cover. There was a lot of wonderful art with robots, and a lot of wonderful art with little girls; I almost used a vintage postcard that said “Welcome to Oak Ridge!” with a split image of oak tree forests and cheerful-looking scientists in lab coats, and that would have been lovely but conveyed something different. I found symbolist painter Masaaki Sasamoto’s work online, and I tracked down his web site where his contact info and everything else was in Japanese, so I had my little brother (who can read and speak Japanese) help me translate his contact info and wrote to him. We wrote back and forth using Google translate! He was very gracious and offered a choice of many different images from a fantastic series of little girl dolls with robotic innards, and all of them were beautiful. I chose one called “Cocoro” which means roughly (according to my little brother, who tipped me off to the fact that it is also the name of a famous Japanese novel) “what comes out of the heart,” which is especially great in its literal and metaphorical sense because in the picture we chose for the cover, the little girl’s heart is exposed as mechanical. My publisher, Judith Kerman from Mayapple Press, then used her graphic design skills to take elements from Masaaki’s art that were also in the poems, like gears and butterflies, and include them in a beautiful border used all the way around the book cover.

JG: Is there any poem in the book that you think hasn’t gotten the attention it deserved? If so, please tell us about why it is important to you. 

JHG: There is a poem I almost always read when I do readings for the book called “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [medical wonder]” that blends quite a bit of my real life medical experiences with the fantastical, and I think it’s probably key to understanding the book. It was originally published in “The Cortland Review” in 2010. It’s all about the hope that science offers, and sometimes, promises falsely.

The Robot Scientist’s Daughter [medical wonder]

was a bit confused. She started down a road
to medical wonder, sat under the machine’s lights,
but then tiptoed off on a paper trail,
looking for an island of cranes. She made a thousand
wishes, still she shed a blue glow
and everyone said how sickly. Her nails
made of plastic and paper maché, her heart’s
thump-thump three times fast. Her one kidney
curled inside her ribs, her blood trying to escape.
“Father” she screamed but he couldn’t save her.

The robot scientist’s daughter knew
what she had to do. With her own two hands
she built a new body, one that worked better
this time, silver and shiny and smooth
as mirrored glass. After all she’d been trained,
it was no less than was expected. She crawled inside
and adjusted the fit. This time, there will be no
stopping her. The curves are all impenetrable
and the precision of each drum-kit-beat keeps her in line.
She’s a soldier, a savior, a ship to bear prisoners into space.

JG: The image that stood out to me the most in the book was when the father brings the Geiger counter to the daughter making a snowman in order to show her that it was not safe to eat the snow. Which image from your Tennessee childhood haunts you the most?

JHG: It reappears throughout the book, but it was going back with my husband to show him where I had lived as a child, and seeing the wonderful woods, the garden my mother worked so hard to keep up, everything just flattened and covered with concrete, completely barren. All the daffodils, hundreds-of-years-old oak trees, rock formations, violets, rose gardens, lilacs, spirea, forsythia, rhododendrons – not a bit of it left.

Another was a wildlife encounter that strangely enough, appeared more in my second book, She Returns to the Floating World, than this one; I was on the edge of a field by the woods, some distance from my parents, as a young child, and a red fox came up to me and put her face up towards me. She stood motionless a long time, and then trotted off. I think now, because of the size of the fox, that it was probably not full grown, but a kit. Anyway, a pretty outstanding experience for a kid of six or seven.

JG: This book blends autobiography, fiction, pop culture, and scientific fact in a way that mimics what the experience of growing up in a community shrouded in secrets must have been. Was that one of the purposes of blending the edges of these sources, to recreate the fuzzy edges of you experienced in a community in which everyone is warned to keep secrets? If so, how did you achieve that effect? If not, what was your intention in blending imagery from such disparate sources?

JHG: I think the fact that even now, it’s hard to get a complete story out of people who worked (or work) at Oak Ridge, from the government sources, etc., mean that some of the story will always be blurred, or at least out of focus. There’s at least a fifty year redaction period on all paperwork,even unimportant paperwork, coming out of ORNL. That means by the time what was going on when I was a child comes out, I’ll be an older woman, and probably won’t have all my memories of my childhood intact. (I have neural lesions, the cause of which has not been found, that do affect my memory more and more as I get older.)

There’s also something very dark, untrusting, in the tone, that results from knowing your phone lines are tapped, that government agents could be watching you, even when you’re a small child.The true stories that make up the histories of America’s “secret cities” – for instance, of the purposeful poisoning of American citizens at Hanford of the “Green Run” to test the effects of radiation.

JG: After readers finish your book, what would you suggest they read next?

JHG: I think if you are interested in the historical aspects of this book, you would probably enjoy former Washington State Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken’s splendid work on growing up and working at Hanford, Plume. If you’re interested in the playful exploration of robots and their inner lives, look up Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life. And if you haven’t read any of my other books, the book that I recommend reading after this one would probably be She Returns to the Floating World, which explores Japanese folklore and history but contains shades of the same ecological concern that this one had. (Originally published by Kitsune Books, it has been re-released through Two Sylvias Press with new tremendous illustrations by my friend, artist Michaela Eaves.)

The Robot Scientist's Daughter is available here.


Karen Paul Holmes said...

Enjoyed the interview, and the book sounds wonderful.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Glad you enjoyed the interview, Karen. Hope you'll enjoy the book too.