When I was ten years old, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said “I want to be a poet.” I memorized John Berryman (“Life, friends, is boring,”) T.S. Eliot, and E.E. Cummings.
But, growing up, my path was guarded by practical desires – I needed to be able to support myself, I needed to make money, etc. I ended up with my BS in Biology and then an MA in English, working as a tech writer. I got married, I grew up, I put my dreams of poetry aside. The usual.
I think, like most people impacted by physical problems, that I want to believe that they do not impact my inner self; that I can go and do and be anything I want. But the truth is, my health has impacted not only my decisions about my life, my work, but has even carved out space inside my subconscious, causing me to fight to find new subjects. Like superwomen.
I spent my mid-twenties climbing a typical techie corporate ladder; I led a team of techies at a big software company and had a glowing future. I was still a writer underneath everything, but my writing energy was directed in memos, proposals, technical papers. Then I started to get sick. Really sick. Sick enough that I had to quit working. I took a temporary disability leave. And I didn’t end up returning.
This could have been a tragic, sad turn in my life. And I’m not going to lie – the physical part of this time in my life was no picnic. Surgeries, endless hours in waiting rooms, tests. But it also gave me freedom, for the first time in my life, to decide what I would do with my time if money had nothing to do with it. And you know what I wanted to do? The same thing I wanted to do when I was ten years old: write poetry. My husband encouraged me to go back for an MFA in poetry, to try to send out a book of poetry. Why not give it a try? What did I have, at that point, to lose? The answer was: nothing.
When I started to write poetry, I noticed that the poems developed their own voices – women from mythology, women from comic books, women who had transformative powers. I think these superwomen (and supervillains) interested me because I was trying to write my way out of my inner crisis. If I wasn’t going to be “normal” – i.e., work a nine-to-five job, have kids, which I was being informed was not going to happen – then what was my storyline?
In comic books, kids who were hyperintelligent but physically fragile tended to supervillain storylines. In comic books, women who were super-powerful often had no choice but to move to the dark side eventually (Dark Phoenix comes to mind as the prototype for this) although it certainly beat being de-powered as female comic book superheroes tended to be (see Gail Simone’s web site, Women in Refrigerators, for a prep on how women superheroes have fared in comics.) How could I harness my inner powers without going dark? How can frailty become a strength? The poems that I wrote – which eventually turned into my first book, Becoming the Villainess – explored these issues internally, even while I refused to acknowledge the issues consciously.
It’s been a decade since I quit my techie job and turned to poetry. I did get an MFA, I’ve published two books of poetry now, and even teach part-time and online classes. I’ve created a life that has space for my physical issues but doesn’t let them take over my entire narrative. I’m managing. After all, a lot of my writer heroes had serious physical illnesses yet still managed to write every day, to publish and teach and travel. They overcame with superheroic strength. I realize now my need to reach out in poetry to the heroic narratives of my childhood – the X-Men, Wonder Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer - was my own effort to fight the demons I had chosen to fight – and still fight - to overcome. My more recent subject matter- women who turn into foxes and cranes in Japanese mythology, fairy tale heroines trapped in towers and glass coffins, even the stories of my childhood in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the beautiful surroundings of woods and farms hid nuclear contamination that ended up in our food and drink - still tells a story of a women trying to build an inner life that takes into account her limitations, but also her strengths.
Bio: Jeannine Hall Gailey is a Seattle-area writer; she has published two books of poetry, Becoming the Villainess (Steel Toe Books, 2006) and She Returns to the Floating World(Kitsune Books, 2011.) Her work has been featured on NPR's The Writer's Almanac and Verse Daily; her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, and The Beloit Poetry Journal. She is working on a third book of poetry and a memoir about her health. Her web site is www.webbish6.com.