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January 10, 2018 | Interview

Interview with Jill McDonough

Daniel Pieczkolon

Interview with Jill McDonough photo

As Alexandra Alter noted earlier this year in The New York Times Book Review, explicitly political poetry is enjoying a necessary resurgence.  American poets have taken to the page to articulate their compatriots' fears and anxieties and, in doing so, have offered readers a form of immediate satisfaction that actual change—with its requisite elections, civil discourses, and bicameral compromises—often cannot. 

In Reaper, Jill McDonough’s latest collection of poems from Alice James Books, the poet largely ignores the reader’s desire for grand and urgent political proclamations and, instead, takes a well-researched and complicated look at the reader’s (and the poet’s) complicity in morally suspect acts perpetrated by the American government.  Burgeoning technologies capable of murdering large swaths of people without ever seeing the whites of their eyes are considered in terms of their grace and aesthetic/technological beauty; code names for government operatives are broken apart to reveal the inherent tension between their literal meanings and their symbolic ones; the daily routines of drone operators are rendered painfully normal.  

In other words, McDonough works to humanize the technologies that carry out our most dreadful acts and forces us to examine the ways in which we abandon—or, perhaps more accurately, ignore—our agency in order to protect our fragile consciences.

McDonough was kind enough to talk to me via email about our shared role in American violence, the constituent elements of a good love poem, and the joys of teaching.

I wonder if you could start by discussing how this book came about.  While it incorporates a variety of themes, the book returns over and over again to the relationship between humans and various types of robots.  In dealing with this issue, you carefully vacillate between innocent (and philosophic) curiosity and a more calculated, research-driven point of view; in fact, you directly cite a number of expository works of nonfiction that aided and/or complicated your thinking about these burgeoning technologies.  What drew you to this topic?  And what were you hoping to learn and/or communicate by exploring it in poetry?

Thank you for calling that curiosity “innocent.”  I like the sense of “innocent" as “guileless,” rather than “not-guilty,” since the poems sketch both our ignorance and our complicity.  I think I started by thinking about the lack of proportionality in our military actions, whatever the hell they are these days.  The not-fair of American Exceptionalism, or the Bush Doctrine, or kill lists, or signature strikes, or all the ways we torture and assassinate people while sometimes bothering to call it something else. It’s crisply illuminated for me by really expensive, high-tech killer robot planes, killing dudes on horses.  To explore this in poems, I need to admit that I profit from this lack of proportionality. I love my country.  Also, my taxes help fund really cool tech that sometimes kills people and their horses, and boys on bicycles. Not to mention cops who shoot black people, or the death penalty, or our many, many prisons.  But also the subway! And the Smithsonian! So reading things that complicated my thinking while teaching me new things was part of my job, writing these poems. I got a lot of help from books like Matt J. Martin’s Predator: The Remote Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan, The Girls of Atomic City, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, and Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots.  But I also got a lot out of just noticing how we use our phones, how military tech is everywhere from our jacked police departments to our pockets.  The complicity is something you can see around the house, but we can’t name which countries we bombed this week.  I wanted to pull at the edges of that a little bit, make it fray so I could see what we take for granted.

In a way, language itself is a technology of violence, in that we can use it to obfuscate or to mitigate the consequences of our actions or, as you put it, we are all complicit in terrible acts of violence "while sometimes bothering to call it something else."  I'm thinking of "Name Day" specifically, but throughout these poems, you investigate how proper nouns can be detached from their referent.  What is the significance of naming?  And what is your role, as a poet, in exploring the relationship between politically-sanctioned violence and the language we use to describe it?  In other words, do you see the poem as a space to re-attach these disembodied proper nouns to the violence they are shorthand for or as space to obscure the relationship into something new altogether?

I want to re-attach the disembodied proper nouns to their violence by re-imagining what it was like to make up a name like Hellfire or Reaper.  (Or a code name like “Credible Dove.”  What the hell is that about?  Who’s the audience for that purported credibility?)  In a way, the namers of Hellfire and Reaper anticipated the “Don’t fuck with us” credo of our current administration. We’re no longer pretending to be about nation-building or winning hearts and minds. Even “SERE”—Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape—turned from a strategy to help our soldiers anticipate how bad guys would mistreat them, to our own proprietary methods of beating information out of people.  Torture means we’re one of the bad guys now; it’s hard to remember that. So the fact that “sere” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “being dried and withered,” that’s just gravy, for a poet. (“Gravy” just auto-corrected to “grave” and I almost left it:  both are correct.)

In addition to violent robots and our complicity in their creation/deployment, there are moments of intense tenderness and love in these poems.  "Offices" and "All the Time," for instance, catalog the joy and anxiety that goes into loving another person (which is a much more fragile thing than, say, a robot).  As you were arranging the book, how did you think about these love poems?  What function do they serve in relation to the more explicitly politically-minded poems?

It was important to me to place this overlooked or secret part of being American in a domestic, everyday context.  And in my experience, loving another person isn’t fragile; it’s a lot sturdier than a robot. I joke in one of the poems, “Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots,” that  "In fifteen years we’ve had five//coffee makers, four toasters, three Crock-Pots.  Set/It and Forget It doesn’t work for long.”  I think I know what you mean, though—love is more intangible, more magical, maybe because of its sturdiness.  This is the eighteenth summer I’ve spent with Josey and I’m starting to feel like it counts as a long marriage, that I can gauge time better from inside its house.  Rep. Barbara Lee just got her way after 16 years of resisting the “war on autopilot” we started after 9/11.

I think the poems about Josey and our lives together, our sweet aging bodies, help me understand how long sixteen years is.  And they help keep the rest of the poems from feeling preachy or strident to me.  Not that I have a problem with preachy or strident, I just want a break sometimes, too.  Also, love poems about middle-aged couples in other decades don't  include twitter or deleting spam.  Or both of the couple-people getting mammograms. Which of course ends up being political, too: the personal is always political, but lesbians are super into it.

Could you say a bit more about the love poem as a genre within poetry?  It sometimes feels as though contemporary writers shy away from the challenge of the love poem for fear of being perceived as overly sentimental or saccharine or something of the sort.  You, however, are amassing a wonderful catalog of love poems (the aforementioned "Offices" and "All the Time" from this collection, but also "Ghazal for Josey" and "Wood Anniversary: Another Ghazal" from your earlier work, to name just a few).  What constitutes a strong love poem for you?  Are you particularly vigilant in the revision process to avoid cliche and empty sentiment?  

I do like specificity in a love poem, but I’m not afraid of sentimentality or being saccharine, as long as I can get Josey to cry. You’re right that the problem is “empty sentiment.”  If something is so cliched you can’t feel it, and it seems generic or rote, then it’s not worth the space on the page. I used to have this desperate need to write everything down in a journal, up until I met Josey. Now mostly I can just tell her stuff.  The love poems are a sort of insurance policy against our mortality and forgetfulness; when one of us dies the other can read the poems to prove it all happened, that we really cracked each other up this much, that we really had this good of a time.  And when we’re both dead they can be aspirational for people who want to know what love is; I’m pretty sure we’re just better at it than everybody else.  Except of course you and your partner. 

I like a love poem as an exercise in courage and vulnerability.  Sometimes I find that when people write impenetrably it’s because they’re scared of letting people know what they think or feel; if no one can figure out what’s happening in their poems, they get to have this lofty achievement AND not risk being understood and then mocked or dismissed.

Your first book, Habeas Corpus, was a sonnet sequence comprised of 50 poems and, since then, you've experimented with a number of different poetic forms.  Reaper feels remarkably eclectic, in terms of form.  Some poems seem carefully metered while others employ a more rhapsodic free verse; some are incredibly brief and imagistic while others are quite long and more narrative; there is even a new ghazal here, a form you've returned to throughout your career.  What led to the variety of forms in this project?  And, more generally speaking, how do you think about the relationship between form and content as you begin writing (either a single poem or something more substantial, like a book-length project)?

Sometimes the form is part of my original vision for the material; I wanted to write sonnets, which I think of as love poems, for people we’d decided to execute.  And I wanted to write sestinas for the drone pilots, since I saw the repetition in their experience and figured I could communicate it through the loops and cycles of the sestina. But often I find the form as I go along, and aiming for it is the tool I use to revise, make the poem feel finished to me. While I was working on this book I often taught heroic couplets, which students hated; they felt like they sounded clunky and archaic.  So that form gave me an opportunity to show students how important slant rhyme and enjambment and direct, conversational language and metrical substitution can be.  We ended up writing what we thought of as American heroic couplets, talkative and loose but still in rhyming couplets, still in lines of five feet.

Do you often find the writing classroom to be a generative place?  You currently teach in the MFA program at UMass-Boston but, over the years, you've taught writing to incarcerated youths, directed an online writing workshop, and served as an Adjunct Professor at a handful of universities.  How, in general, does teaching impact your writing and what, specifically, were you able to gain from each of these experiences?

Yes!  I teach a 2-2 course load now; that means two classes in the fall, two in the spring, and no classes in the summer.  So I have lots of time to write.  But when I was an adjunct professor I was often teaching like a 5-7-5—five classes in the fall, seven in the spring, five in the summer.  So I learned to take writing time for myself when I gave it to my students.  Now the kids in juvenile facilities seem to be better able to focus when they see I’m writing, too. They give me assignments when I give them assignments, ask me to write about them.

Everybody—kids, grownups, undergrads, grad students--catches on faster to how sloppy freewriting can be and how meter works when they see me scribbling and spelling stuff wrong on the board, then turning it into a line of iambic pentameter, or a heroic couplet, or whatever.  Lots of times beginning writers think form and attention to sound “just happens,” and it’s useful to show them you can take a mess and revise it into something to be proud of.

So after fifteen years or whatever of 5-7-5, I’m used to stealing good lines from students and making them happy by telling them I’m doing it, and building assignments for them off whatever interests me as a writer at the moment.  Let’s all write heroic couplets/sonnets/stories that are funny and sad!  Let’s all use the rare books room!

Teaching college classes in prisons gives me fresh ways of understanding literature; I’ve written about how incarcerated ladies argue Desdemona behaves exactly as they expect a battered woman to behave, and how incarcerated men say Iago has the right to be as bat-shit crazy as he wants, since there were even just rumors that his wife fucked Othello.

I figured out that when undergraduates mourn what they call "the loss of innocence" they are really just humble-bragging about how much play they get, which helped us all be funnier and more real. And my MFA students and I work on how to keep our work fresh with new sources, incorporating research and admitting our own complicity in whatever we’re bitching about.

Judging by your recent literary output, it would seem that you are productively using the downtime of your well-earned 2-2 course load.  Reaper just came out a few months ago and you have another book, Here All Night, forthcoming from Alice James Books.  Were you working on poems for these two projects simultaneously and, if so, what distinguishes them?  Or did the Here All Night poems just come rather quickly once you finished Reaper?  In which case, what was the catalyst?

It takes so long for a book to come out there’s plenty of time to write another one.  I hooked up with Alice James in 2014 and knew Reaper would be out in a couple years; in April 2016 I submitted Here All Night to them and they agreed to publish it in a couple more years.  I tend to work on a kind of project book at the same time I’m writing the regular old I-do-this-I-do-that kind of poems—so poems like “Accident, Mass Ave.”  and “Breasts Like Martinis” from Where You Live were getting written at the same time I was finishing Habeas Corpus, which is all sonnets about executions in American history.  And all my research about military tech took a couple years for writing Reaper, but I still had regular life poems to write like “Ming” and "Another Art,” which are in Here All Night.

I thought a nice way to wrap up would be to have you discuss what you've been reading lately.  What poets or poems have you excited about the form right now?

One of the cool things about teaching in the MFA program is to meet poets when they come into the program and then years later I’m happily writing blurbs for their first books, first books that get it so right I can’t stop bragging on them.  Krysten Hill’s How Her Spirit Got Out and Karen Locascio’s May All My Wounds Be Mortal are two recent ones.  It’s not just my students at UMB--my fellow poetry-profs Lloyd Schwartz and Lillian-Yvonne Bertram have terrific new books out this year, too.  We gave a reading together a couple months ago and it make me so happy to see how varied our work is, what different tasks we set ourselves, and that all of us found a home at UMB. 

Also I was just teasing Tyehimba Jess about how many pages are in the astonishing Olio—that usually what I love about a book of poems is I can put it in my pocket, but Olio I had to lug around in a backpack. That it’s not enough to have 240 awesome pages or whatever, you also have to have some that you can cut out and make into Mobius strips.  But that’s how you win the Pulitzer, man. Tyehimba won the Pulitzer!  And I think that’s what has me the most excited right now; I love Tyehimba and his work—we met when I wrote a fan letter about his first book, Leadbelly, and he visits UMB and gets us all fired up about inventing new forms for ourselves, working with research, embodying forgotten voices. . . and then he gets this well-earned recognition.  I’m proud of him, my students are proud of him, we are all proud to know him. . . him winning, and Tracy K. Smith being PLOTUS, makes me feel better about America.  It’s exciting to see how making up your own rules can bring all kinds of success: the kinds where you feel like you did a good job and the kinds where strangers recognize your accomplishment.