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Eileen G'Sell Interview

The Glowing Ovals Had Adhesive on the Back

Amy Wright: Why were you attracted to your first boyfriend?

Eileen G’Sell: It’s hard to say who my first boyfriend really was. The first boy I made out with was Ted Steiling (pronounced “styling”). I was attracted to Ted because he reminded me of Captain Planet—in physique, bone structure, and, most importantly, aqua-colored hair. We were at a ska show (mid-90s) and pretending to be Muppet characters. I thought, “He should be my boyfriend.” And soon he was.


But I also like to think my first boyfriend was Mark Schmidtkens, from the first grade. Mark and I sat next to this other boy, Gary Opitz, every single day on the bus ride to and from school. We were fast friends and played basketball during recess. I did not have a crush on Mark or Gary, but was excited that I had real buddies who didn’t say mean things about me behind my back, as had happened with the girls I tried (and failed) to befriend. Then, one day, inexplicably, Mark started teasing me on the bus. We were three to a seat, and I was always in the middle, Mark next to the window, and Gary by the aisle. So Mark says, “Why are you sitting so close to Gary? Is it because you like him?” I reply with something like, “I sit here every day, and I’m only close because “three to a seat” is the school bus law!” His taunting continues and my indignation mounts. Gary just sat there; I had to do something. “Stop it!” I kept saying. He was like, “What you gonna do? What you gonna do?” then finally, “What you gonna do? You’re just a girl!”

I snapped and socked him in the mouth. I can still remember how shocked (and pleased!) I was by this course of action. I was a shy kid and a perfect student. I never got in trouble. But here I was, hitting my best friend! “She’s got you now, Marky!” Gary said. Mark’s mouth was bleeding. I think he was in shock. I knelt (yes, knelt—remember, I was only about forty pounds here) in the tiny space in front of his seat and begged him not to tell our bus driver, a grizzled-out molester-looking dude who played his “Slippery When Wet” cassette every single afternoon. When Mark did NOT tell the bus driver, I found myself suddenly attracted to him. Later on, in school, when I bragged to others about punching him in the face, I was also delighted (and surprised!) that he did not deny it. I started fantasizing that he would be my boyfriend, that we would go roller skating or go see a movie, maybe even rent a tape and watch it at his mom’s house (his parents were, exotically, divorced).

But instead Mark changed schools the next year. I haven’t seen him since. I heard in high school that he had become a skinhead, which is really too bad, because he was a swell first-grader.

AW: If you were to define a contemporary feminist, what would it mean?

EG: To me, feminism today isn’t dead, nor should it be. Women are oppressed all over the globe, but also in our communities. I didn’t become fully conscious of this till I got out of school; academia today can be a beautifully sheltered place for students with two X chromosomes. To me, a contemporary feminist is one who is critical of patriarchy AND critical of feminism’s own fettered history. Basically, to be critically engaged with everything, to help any underdog can be a feminist act. Donna Haraway, who’s sort of a hero of mine, was doing a lecture on “companion species” around the world. She showed slide after slide of animals and humans working together in mutually beneficial relationships. After the lecture, one winsome undergrad carefully asked, “What does this have to do with feminism?” Haraway replied, “It’s ALL feminism! Don’t you see?!” She was very excitable, and excited, which is one reason she’s one of my heroes.

AW: Tell me about your most “tomboy” moment.

EG: I used to tear off the lit abdomens of fireflies when I was growing up. My uncle showed me how to do it in Texas, and if you did it the right way, the firefly wasn’t killed (though of course, its quality of life was almost certainly compromised).

In a less-than-tomboy turn, I realized that the glowing ovals had adhesive on the back, and could totally be used for stick-on earrings.

AW: When in your life have you felt the most free?

EG: That’s hard. Maybe when I was first traveling by myself when I was twenty. I remember one time feeling so fortunate that I wanted to cry looking out of a bus in rural Scotland. But I also felt free tiling my floors last summer. I wish it were more predictable.

AW: Do you have any pets?

EG: Holden. He’s a wonderful dog, and hates phonies, if you want to know the truth.

AW: How would you define phony?

EG: In this context, I am quoting J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, my puppy dog’s namesake and a protagonist with whom I have long identified (though not because I’ve been kicked out of prep school). In reality, I think pretty much everyone’s a phony to a certain extent—we can’t be our true selves all the time, and sans the zest of the performative gesture, the world would be a boring, depressing place.

My dog Holden actually hates almost no one, which has had a positive influence on me. He only hates our lady letter-carrier, and she certainly hates him back!

AW: How would you define poetry?

EG: Poetry grapples with wonder and loss—often wonder at loss, really. Life is about loss, loss, loss, and still keeping a sense of wonder about it. So in very broad, abstract terms (what I advise my students against in their actual verse!), I think that’s what poetry is trying to tackle.


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