Interview With Poet Jill McDonough

I just checked: at there are “Only 11 left in stock (more on the way).” of Jill McDonough’s new book Where You Live (Salt, 2012). You should probably put in your order soon, sign up on a waitlist, or something, because this selling-out-quick stuff seems to happen a lot when Jill releases new poems. For instance, this past summer her second collection of poetry Oh, James! (Seven Kitchens, 2012) sold out within a week or two of its original release. She’s a Pushcart Prize winner, a demanding poetry professor, a Witter Bynner and Stegner Fellowship recipient (among many others); you’ll find her work in publications like Slate, The Nation, and AGNI. Here’s an interview with Jill where she talks about empathy, bizarre pickup lines, and the power of ghazal.

Amy Marengo: During a Q&A a few years ago you said that empathy is one of the most important things you strive for when writing poetry. In your new book Where You Live we see empathy in many forms—from the meter maid in “Great Day at the Athenaeum” to women passing around a “cotton candy pink / angora sweater” in “Women’s Prison Every Week.” How do you empathize with the characters you write about without crossing a line and just feeling bad for them? If a poet sees that she has unintentionally victimized a person or people in one of her poems, do you have any advice on what she should keep in mind while editing?

Jill McDonough: First of all, sometimes a poem’s job is just to witness things.  For instance, I feel bad for Susanna Martin, who was hanged for witchcraft in 1692: in a poem I wrote about her I just documented the crazy things that counted as “just and sufficient proofs” against her.

But other times the poem’s job is to give the poet a vehicle for complicating her own initial feelings or response.  One thing I like about empathy is it helps make me bigger.  “[F]eeling bad for them” doesn’t usually do enough interesting work, for me; empathy means I’m going further, thinking about the specifics that make somebody’s life his or her own, admitting the ways I’m working on understanding what’s going on for anybody else.  And sometimes just completely falling short, too self-centered to be able to pull it off.

That meter maid, I felt bad that I misunderstood her–I wrote a poem, in part, to deal with the embarrassed kind of social horror that makes you wake up cringing, wishing you could take back the stupid thing you said.  It was a near miss–I could have been a pedantic asshole in that story, but instead I got to be a pedantic asshole who happened to make her laugh.

Those ladies passing around the sweater, I think that poem is less about them and more about me realizing how lucky I am, how blind and blithe I am about the things I take for granted, like clothes.  I guess I think the best way to deal with characters you feel bad for is to interrogate that feeling, to admit to your own blinders and try to see around them, to see things from other people’s perspectives.  To try to get big enough to do that.

AM: You recently got a full-time position teaching poetry at UMass-Boston—congratulations!  How is your writing/routine benefiting so far from not having to scramble to work as an adjunct?

JM: I still don’t get it, actually–I don’t yet have a routine, and I’m still getting my office set up.  I’m still understanding that it’s my office, and I don’t share it with anybody, and part of the job is that I can go there and write.  I’ve always had to be brutal with my time and my writing–to steal time or write while teaching comp or record ideas while driving to the prison, to always be multi-tasking.  And now I have not just more time but also less anxiety.  I’ve gotten grants, and been underemployed before, so I’ve had time like this, but it always came with a sense that I need to be hustling to figure out where the next money would come from, after the current money runs out.  So now I’m just kind of figuring out what it means to be safe.  So far it means a lot of reading.  And visiting with friends.  And exercise.  And sleeping through the night.  And appliances.  I have a washer, dryer, and dishwasher getting installed next week.  Because I am a fully employed American, goddammit.

AM: What’s the best conversation you’ve overheard lately and thought, “I NEED to write this into a poem”?

JM: The subway is always great for that.  A guy at Downtown Crossing told me and another woman–I think he was hitting on us–that if he saw us getting raped, saw us in our bra and panties, with a rapist on top of us, he would kill our rapist.  The other woman seemed impressed.  She thanked him.  And I just wanted to tell him, look, I feel like your heart is in the right place, but don’t lead with the bra and panties, you know?  I don’t know if I’m going to get that into a poem but I have for sure been thinking about it a lot.

AM: If you started a lit journal right now, what would you name it and who would you want in your inaugural issue?

JM: Wow!  I love this game.  My friends are really great writers–I’d want Tyehimba Jess and Michael McGriff and Matt Miller and Alexandra Teague and Kirsten Andersen and Andrea Cohen and Maggie Dietz and Todd Hearon and Liz Bradfield in there.  And my former students.  I’d get you and Danielle Jones-Pruett and Tara Skurtu in there.  So I guess I’d call it NEPOTISM.  I don’t know Rebecca Lindenberg but I’d want her in there, too–I keep teaching her poem “Catalog of Ephemera” and it keeps turning out awesome; students write amazing imitations of it, so good they are startled.  I’m taking it into a prison next month, for PEN New England.

AM: What’s the most important thing you teach young writers?

JM: I think it’s something about organizing your time.  I try to get students thinking about assignments for themselves, and mini-deadlines–write as much as you can in three minutes, that sort of thing.  Because the more you write the better you write, and having a direction and momentum in your writing can mean you get more good stuff done.  And everybody is tired and working a million jobs and looking for better work.  So finding the time to write, even when the whole point is that you want to be a writer, can be tricky.  Teaching them how to carve that time out of whatever circumstances they find themselves in is probably the most important thing I do.

AM: What’s the coolest moment of your poetry career?

JM: I am not really sure where the edges of my poetry career are, in the rest of my life.  But writing and publishing poems and teaching poetry has meant that I get to hang out with a lot of smart writers.  I like drinking with writers–there have been a lot of cool late-night moments in bars and hammocks and around kitchen tables.  When my first book was published I was teaching in China and skyped with Josey when she opened the box of books–that was cool, although I really wanted to be there and smell it.  When I had a fellowship at the New York Public Library they brought me rare books on a cart whenever I asked for them, and I had the run of the place.  I got Josey to go out with me because I wrote her a ghazal–that’s pretty good.  And when I got this awesome job the UMB students threw me a surprise party that made me cry.

For more info on Jill McDonough:

Amy Marengo is getting an MFA in poetry at Virginia Tech.



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