Gail Segal on “The Swing”

Gail Segal | Issue 1

Gail Segal | Issue 1

From her apartment in New York City, Gail Segal spies a little girl and her oversized teddy bear in “The Swing” (Issue 1). Segal meditates on the idea of possibility. In her interview, Segal discusses influences, timed writing, and films.

Gail Segal is a writer and filmmaker living in New York City. Her most recent collection of poems, “The Discreet Charm of Prime Numbers,” is just out from Finishing Line Press. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and at this moment is at work finishing a narrative short, filmed in the Arabian Desert. She’ll travel almost anywhere, but her favorite perch is the wide sill of her living room window.


What inspired you to create this piece? I had been out of the country and away from my home for several months – returning I felt glued to the large picture window in my living room that overlooks a children’s park. Watching the interactions of people – grown and small – in that park is an irresistible past time.

How would you characterize your creative process as you worked on this piece? (ex: fast and furious, slow brew, fits and starts). Every morning I write for fifteen minutes – no more, no less. This winter I added the burden of writing something different every day for 30 days before I allowed myself in revision.

What writing or other artistic expression has had a profound impact on your writing? Why? Photography and film have a profound impact on my writing.

Where do you create? Tell us about your workspace. I write at a standing desk in a study, that also has a large picture window overlooking a small park.

Who has been influential in your writing/creative work? Why? I love the passage by Elaine Scarry, in her book On Beauty and Being Just, which states “one submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky.” Good luck came to me in the chance to study with remarkable teachers, in particular in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College where I studied with Ellen Bryant Voigt, Thomas Lux, Gregory Orr, Michael Ryan, and Stephen Dobyns. There were many influences before and have been since, but this convergence afforded me many comet sightings in a very short period of time.

What do you do to help yourself get over a creative block? I have two reliable methods: Set the kitchen timer and write for only 10 minutes as if the house is burning down. And two, require myself to take one (but only one) photograph every day for a month.

What living writer would you recommend other nonfiction writers read? Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just. I also am enchanted with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets.

What are the benefits (or disadvantages) of writing every morning for 15 minutes (no more, no less).  For me, setting a kitchen timer for 15 minutes, first thing in the morning is a great way to start new work… without the pressure of completion. I experience it like a cooker, heating, it builds the need to “say oneself.”  And the dreaded blank page becomes, after even a week, a mercy landing.  One is happy to be there.  Often I will impose this limit for one month – and each day begin new work.  Then, at the end of the month, I allow myself the ritual of revision… with longer periods of writing.

You said that films influence your writing. Are there any specific films that have been especially influential? What genre of film do you find influences you most? I work in film and I write – and these two bleed into one another constantly.  Years ago, I wrote a manuscript of ekphrastic poems  – each poem based on a different film. And my nonfiction writing will more often than not reference a movie.  But making films and making prose (or poetry) require submission to different syntactical laws and conventions, particularly, if like myself, you love sentences – their shape and sound and meaning.  

Film-wise, my obsession (and influence) these days are the films by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas and Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 is an all-time favorite, which I have seen a squillion times.  In America, I’m following closely and with great pleasure our former students whose works include:  Winter’s Bone, The Woodsman, Fort Tilden, Skeleton Twins, Jane Eyre, the first season of True Detective, Appropriate Behavior, Une Noche, Cronies, and the soon to be released Mediterranea.  


We asked Gail to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer. This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? a tap dancer, who could also sing.

When and where were you happiest? In 2000, in Provence, my partner and I stayed at the home of friends – an old monastery, on a hill above fields of lavender. In a single day we did a morning trek, played boules, went swimming, rode horses, visited a small village church with red stained glass windows and took a jeep ride into the lavender fields. And after all this, a feast outdoors over an open fire.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? How do I say….?

What is your greatest extravagance? time, energy, money to make a film.

Which talent would you most like to have? tap dancing

Who is your hero of fiction? not sure.

What is your current state of mind? Fatigued. It’s been a bumpy two years.

What is your motto? If at all possible, choose joy.


This interview was curated by Erika Williams, Proximity‘s Interview Series Coordinator and a creative writing student at Ohio University.

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