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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Poetess achieves duality of words, numbers

Jessica Goodfellow has taken a winding path toward success


Special to The Japan Times

Statistically, there's no accounting for Jessica Goodfellow's life in Japan. The daughter of an engineer, on a fast track in her early 20s to a Ph.D. in economics at California Institute of Technology, Goodfellow realized something essential didn't correlate: her incalculable love of poetry.

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Jessica Goodfellow's "A Pilgrim's Guide to Chaos in the Heartland" was a pivotal accomplishment in the Kobe resident's career as a poet. COURTESY OF JESSICA GOOD FELLOW

Goodfellow, 45, started writing before she could even spell. "I used to say to my mom, 'Write this down, write this down,' and I would recite poems, usually rewritten nursery rhymes, where I would change the words to what I wanted or what I thought it should be, but with the rhythm of the rhyme behind it."

By the time she entered grade school, Goodfellow also showed a talent for math. "Since it was unusual for a girl to be gifted in math, I was encouraged to study it above everything else." Yet, her early love of words grew exponentially, and by the time Goodfellow was in high school she won honorable mention in a nationwide poetry contest, receiving a cash prize and the publication of her work.

Poetry, however, remained confined outside the parameters of her everyday life: "My family was not discouraging, exactly, but being a poet was just not a realistic possibility in the world I lived in. Nobody knew a writer, nobody thought you really did that for a living, so when I said I wanted to be a writer, there would be absolute silence, and then someone would ask how my differential equations class was going."

Goodfellow's talent in math repeats throughout her family. Out of her five sisters and one brother, four siblings work in math-related fields, and as the second oldest, Goodfellow's acceptance into prestigious Caltech to pursue her Ph.D. seemed a logical path.

Yet Goodfellow felt early on the nagging pull of contradiction: "People at school always group together English/history types and then, math/science types, but I was a math/English type. To me, math and writing are connected, since letters and words are symbols in the same way numbers are symbols. They are both symbolic representations, and I have always enjoyed manipulating symbols."

With an undergraduate degree in economics, Goodfellow entered Caltech to study micro economics and econometrics. In two years all her course work was completed, exams passed, with her thesis remaining as the final element to her Ph.D.

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Only, Goodfellow had not been able to write while she was in graduate school. "It was too difficult to turn the analytical part on and off, and plus, I was studying all the time. I was unhappy. I realized it was not what I wanted to be doing, but I did not want to let anyone down."

Goodfellow took a leave of absence from university to search for alternatives, hoping to resume writing and "think about my life." When she chanced on an ad in the local newspaper to teach in Japan, she called immediately. "People ask me what drew me to Japan, but it was pure luck. I wanted out, wanted some distance from all the people expecting me to return to school."

Goodfellow arrived in Kobe in spring 1990, 24 years old and free to write. She taught English during the day and focused on words, producing poetry and "one awful novel." Still, she was writing, and she became more determined not to return to her analytical studies.

Ten days after her arrival in Japan, another improbability reset her universe: She met Naohiko Ueno, a young medical intern and her future husband, on a street. "I was just getting to the stage of thinking, what have I done, I don't know anyone here, when he came up to me on the street and asked me if I spoke English."

Ueno's English was fluent because of a home-stay in America during high school, and the two started a friendship.

Uncertainty shadowed their deepening relationship, and Goodfellow's one-year contract in Japan stretched to two years as she accepted a new job so she could stay near Ueno and consider the possibilities. They finally decided to part. "We just didn't see that our relationship could work out. There were too many things that would be difficult in an international marriage."

The trade school where Goodfellow was teaching English decided to open a branch in Seattle, and she took the opportunity to return to the U.S.

Back in America, Goodfellow took another chance to use her master's in economics and return to an analytical field, accepting a job as a financial consultant in California a year after she returned.

"I finally decided to be what I had always been groomed to be, and I thought, as long as I am working, I might as well make good money. I also thought I would still be able to write."

Conversely, Goodfellow saw all chances to write disappear with such mentally demanding work, but she had other worries. "My grandfather got cancer, and he and I were very close. It was very upsetting, so I called Naohiko to ask for information, with his experience and education in medicine."

Their relationship resumed, long-distance, but it was four more years before Goodfellow asked for a commitment.

Marriage, however, was not such an easy solution for Ueno, the oldest son, who felt pressure and doubt about an international marriage from his parents. His father asked him to go through the process of omiai, or formal introductions to prospective females for the purpose of marriage. Ueno reluctantly agreed.

As Goodfellow explains, "I had very complicated feelings about it all. I didn't understand the culture. Naohiko assured me it was just a 'surface thing,' something to appease his father, but it really bothered me that woman were going through this process and had no idea that they were not being accessed honestly. I also felt if he's not ready now, if his parents are still that powerful, (then) I don't want to come between them."

Goodfellow broke off the relationship, but Ueno added another variable, his own determination. "Naohiko kept calling me, insisting he had told his parents he would only marry me, but I wasn't convinced until he said, 'I will come and I will stay in California as long as it takes to convince you that we are not finished.' I knew leaving Japan in the middle of his residency would be death to his career, but he was serious, so I finally accepted."

They married in November 1996, settling in the Motomachi area of Kobe. Goodfellow worked at the YMCA teaching English part time, and refocused on poetry. "It turned out to be very easy to write again, and I began sending out poems to journals and magazines. I found quickly that the poems that were popular and usually accepted were the ones that had math imagery or somehow dealt with science, so I made a list of all the mathematical concepts that I thought were interesting, and another list of all the other things going on in my life or what I was thinking about, and I matched them up.

"For example, we went through fertility treatments for a while, so I wrote a poem about infertility, but the poem is all about the binary code." The couple later welcomed two sons, now 8 and 10 years old, into their family.

A pivotal accomplishment occurred when Goodfellow's long poem, "A Pilgrim's Guide to Chaos in the Heartland," was published in the Beloit Poetry Journal in 2004, later winning the Chad Walsh Award for best poem of the year.

"It's an important poem for me, one that people still talk about, that still attracts attention. I was actually typing a report for work with my 2-year-old next to me and my baby on my lap, and my 2-year-old kept banging on the number keypad. I tried to stop him and delete all the numbers, but it was too hard so I decided to let him play and I would take all the numbers out after the kids went to bed. But later that night, when I opened the document, I couldn't find the numbers, my eyes just skipped over them as if they weren't there, and I realized I could create poetry out of this randomness."

Goodfellow's work has attracted attention from opposite fields, seeming to act as a bridge between left and right brain ideas, thus leading to an array of accolades and acceptance in a short period of time. Her first chapbook was published in 2004, winning the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Competition. Her work has been included in the anthology Best New Poets of 2006, and has twice been featured on National Public Radio in America's popular show, "The Writer's Almanac," hosted by famed author and storyteller Garrison Keillor.

She is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, an organization that honors the best literary works from small presses throughout America, and was awarded the Sue Lile Inman Fiction Prize. Her poetry manuscript, "The Insomniac's Weather Report," won the Three Candles Press First Book Prize in 2010 and is due out this month.

Goodfellow admits her daily life sometimes veers toward chaos, busy with raising two boys, tallying her husband's busy schedule as a doctor with her own writing. Goodfellow also edits and proof-reads academic papers for doctors and scientists from home, and occasionally accepts teaching positions.

Still, the factors of her life seem to complement each other, and Goodfellow thinks the pull brings a balance to her writing.

"I think my writing reflects something going on in society right now. People feel technology is taking over and there is a backlash against it, you can see it in the fundamentalism of religions rising everywhere. The way I feel about numbers and letters is a reflection of the tensions in society right now except I don't feel the tensions. I feel they work together, and maybe this appeals to people."

For more information on Goodfellow's poetry, see www.jessicagoodfellow.com


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