Can you read the message my heart has etched
on my skin, this petal-thin map?
-Jeannine Hall Gailey (excerpt from “Introduction to Dermatographia“)
I came across Jeannine Hall Gailey’s lovely poem “Introduction to Dermatographia” in an online magazine called The Freeman. In this poem, she makes the drama of dermatographia eloquent, and likens her skin to a map that manifests messages. Needless to say, I love it! At once she brings up the fragility of our skin, the desire to protect it, and the beauty of it all. Go on over to The Freeman and check it out.
Jeannine and I had a nice email conversation about skin, dermatographia, poetry, and inspiration:
Ariana Page Russell (APR): Please tell me a little bit about you (where you live, what you do, etc.).
Jeannine Hall Gailey (JHG): I’m a writer, editor and sometimes-professor who recently served as the second Poet Laureate of my city, Redmond, Washington, where my motto was “geeks for poetry, poetry for geeks!” I worked for a dozen years in tech before I became a full-time poet, and I like to write poetry that is friendly to non-poets, and especially to those who consider themselves “geeks” – comic books, video games, anime, science, fairy tales – these subjects have all inspired my books! Their titles are: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, and coming this spring, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter. I live outside of Seattle, which is a bubbling metropolis of fun – great coffee shops, bookstores, etc.
(APR): Your book titles are great! And yes, the Seattle area is certainly fun. I’m sure it’s inspiring to write there. I lived in Seattle for 6 years and loved every minute of it (except maybe the super gray winters–those occasionally got to me ;’), and found it very inspiring.
When and how did you find out you have dermatographia? How long have you had it?
(JHG): I think I’ve had dermatographia my whole life, but I was only officially diagnosed in the last ten years, while being checked for other things: autoimmune problems, allergies, etc. I’m sure that’s how most people get diagnosed with it – when they’re checking for something else! The phenomena of having things linger on the skin – a scratch from a branch or bramble – has been happening my whole life. I used to be a tomboy and had a lot of colorful marks during my childhood in Tennessee from climbing trees and hiking!
(APR): Ha, yeah I bet! How do you treat it (do you take antihistamines, or something else)?
(JHG): Because I also have chronic urticaria (otherwise known as the lovely condition colloquially called “hives”) and a number of severe food allergies, I’m on a constant diet of antihistimines. Now, a couple of doses of Benadryl don’t even make me sleepy! I’ve also followed many of this site’s recommendations: comfortable clothes (lots of cotton, no wool or tags), products designed for sensitive skin, organic diet as low in processed foods as possible, stress reduction, allergy avoidance, etc.) for some years now. Because I have a genetic bleeding disorder as well, I avoid steroids – they make bruising and bleeding problems worse. I even tried a new drug called Xolair – but, um, ironically enough, had an autoimmune reaction called “serum sickness” to the drug. So, I guess I’ll just carry on with “managing” it the best I can. My one big ire – wishing I could wear more jewelry! Even my wedding band leaves a red mark – not to mention necklaces, earrings, watches. How do other women with dermatographia accessorize??
(APR): Hmm, I’m fine with wearing my wedding band and earrings, the occasional bracelet is fine too, as long as it’s not too tight. I made sure to get my wedding band in a size that’s a tad big for my finger. That way it’s super comfortable. Necklaces tend to irritate my skin though–especially the short ones. I also don’t wear watches because it doesn’t feel good to have them touching my skin all day.
What gave you the idea to write a poem about dermatographia?
(JHG): I was struck by the idea of writing on your skin – a kind of calligraphy, a temporary tattoo, if you will – and that’s what inspired the poem. And I was writing a series then about the Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy coming to Seattle (sometimes called “The Emerald City,”) so the Glinda thing probably sprang from that.
(APR): How else does your skin inspire you?
(JHG): Well, on the lighter side, I’ve always missed being the kind of girl who hangs out in the sun – I turn into one big red rash whenever I venture out into bright sun – but now, at 41, I see the advantages! Ha! No plastic surgery or botox or me!
I wrote a series of fairy tale poems for my book “Unexplained Fevers” – about the intersection of fairy tale lore and modern-day health problems, and of course was particularly interested in Snow White and the French folk tale “The White Deer,” about a princess unable to go into the sun because of a curse – who becomes a white doe.
Thank you very much for featuring me on the blog! I look forward to reading more in the future!
(APR): Thank you Jeannine! It’s always nice finding people who make art with dermatographia. Your stories sound amazing–I’ll definitely check them out.
Please keep in touch and let us know when you write more about skin!
Image courtesy of Jeannine Hall Gailey