Cherry Tree Contributor, Jeannine Hall Gailey
1. Your poetry collection begins with a beautiful essay about overlapping themes in The Robot Scientist’s Daughter: the Tennessee countryside, your father’s work as a scientist and professor, and the potential risks of nuclear research. Was this essay part of the original draft of your manuscript? Or, did you decide—in collaborating with your editor at Mayapple Press—that the book needed this piece of prose?
JHG: The essay was written after the manuscript was ready for publication, actually. I had read a few author’s notes to books that I’d been reading, and although I’d included footnotes in previous books, I’d never included an author’s note. I thought the subject matter was important enough that I should probably explain some things in prose at the beginning of the book – things like, a little history about Oak Ridge, a little about nuclear pollution, and some of the details of my childhood, that kind of thing.
2. With poems like “Cesium Burns Blue,” “Iodine-131,” and “‘Now I Am Become Death’” you merge science and lyricism. What strategies do you use for incorporating scientific language (not to mention actual scientific facts) in your poems, while preserving their musicality and narrative compression?
JHG: I’ve been balancing scientific language with imagery and more consciously lyrical/musical language since my very first poetry workshop in my MA workshop in my early twenties, when I brought in a poem to workshop that included words like “sentry enzymes.” The large Latinate words that accompany any science vocabulary are not, themselves, easy to read or easy to fit effortlessly into poetry, so it takes some conscious kajiggering to balance the scientific terminology – which I didn’t want to sacrifice – with poetic devices like alliteration, syllabics, and internal rhyme.
3. The Robot Scientist’s Daughter also explores the intersection of the natural world and the high-gloss, metallic realm of the laboratory. You give us foxfire and Geiger counters, mountainsides and test tubes. How do you see these two landscapes enacted in your poems? Why show us both?
JHG: Well, the fun/ominous part of Oak Ridge National Laboratories is that it’s an incredibly sophisticated nuclear research center – which you might not even notice if you drove past it, because of the dense woods, agricultural landscape surrounding it, etc. My childhood was literally one of gathering flowers in the yard and then coming in and “helping” my Dad with the robot arm in the basement, or trying out a few lines of code. In college for my B.S. I studied Biology, and I was fascinated then too with the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the horrifying, like a jar of tiny fetal pigs sitting out, or the strange, almost-but-not-quite-baking-like smells of cinnamaldehyde we made in the lab.
4. Woven throughout your collection is a series of poems titled “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter,” each one containing different bracketed information, such “[medical wonder],” “[experiments in sleep deprivation],” and “[ghost in the machine].” This series is clearly the anchor of the collection. Did you write these poems first and then build the rest of book around them? And how did you find the third-person voice of these poems, which seems a mixture of autobiography and mythology?
JHG: Some of the poems in this book were written years before the “Robot Scientist’s Daughter” poems, and the “Robot Scientist’s Daughter” poems really were just a trio of poems for a long time, that I didn’t think about making into a larger series. So the poems sort of grew together organically. When I first put the collection together, too, I saw that I would need some poems that filled in the gaps of the history of Oak Ridge, the descriptions of Knoxville and its environs, a little about my own autobiography – those poems probably came in the latest.
As far as the voice – well, if you’ve read my other three books, you know the mode I’m most comfortable writing in and have the most fun with is persona poetry, so I kind of tried to create a persona that was sort of me but not quite me, which allowed me to mix personal details with science fiction, fantasy, mythology, history, etc. I also think those poems were probably still, like my second book, She Returns to the Floating World, highly influenced by Japanese anime, particularly the movies of Hayao Miyazaki. That guy really is one of my continuing muses!
5. Ekphrasis plays an important role in this collection. There are poems inspired by movies and photography (there’s also a great poem that engages with W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”). How does ekphrasis serve you when you’re writing a book-length series of poems? Why turn to other art forms or other artists?
JHG: Yes, I’d say almost all my books have some elements of ekphrastic poetry in them – simply because many times I’m inspired by “things” – comics, anime, scientific news articles, visual art, a song, a short story – and the poems definitely reflect that. External stimuli often “knock” poems out of me. I do think it’s important that poetry is in conversation with other art forms and with “real world” objects that people can relate easily to – say, television shows or comic books. Sometimes people think of poetry as so rarified, difficult to access – but those same people can walk up to a visual art piece or listen to music and immediately access it. They don’t think of those art forms as “rarified.” I want my poems to have that sense of immediacy, and also have some sense of involvement in the world. As a poet, I want people to know I’m not sitting in a garden with a quill pen listening for a muse or something; I’m doing the same things they are – dealing with traffic, listening to the news, trying to re-write last night’s episode of The Vampire Diaries so it makes more sense…
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