An Interview with Kathleen Rooney
Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novels Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey (Penguin, 2020) and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s, 2017). Her poetry collection Where Are the Snows, selected by Kazim Ali as the winner of the X. J. Kennedy Prize, is forthcoming from Texas Review Press in September 2022, and her novel From Dust to Stardust—based on the life and work of the silent movie star Colleen Moore—will be published by Lake Union next year. She lives in Chicago, with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay, and teaches at DePaul University.
In Where Are the Snows, Kathleen Rooney asks, “Who will write the moral history of my generation?” While she doesn’t pretend to be that person, she does, in the thirty-nine poems that make up this collection, address the kinds of issues—faith and religion, hope and desolation, societal normalities and abnormalities—that would most certainly be part of such a chronicle. As Rooney explains, her poems are reminiscent of a fragmentary Japanese form, zuihitsu, in which seemingly random ideas are brought together to create something greater than its individual parts. In deft language and lines, Rooney steers the reader through contemporary life with observations that reveal the absurdity of our world and our struggles to understand. The result is a book one reviewer says “is unafraid to face the various crises of the world and admit it might not work out . . . funny, playful, cynical, indulgently dark, and poignant.”
Where Are the Snows will be released by Texas Review Press on September 7, 2022, but you can pre-order it here.
Patrick Parks: Though it may be simplistic to characterize it this way, of all the literary genres, poetry is perhaps the most protean in terms of the way it appears on the page. From haiku to epic, villanelle to free verse, form is as integral a part of a poem as function. Where Are The Snows is, on one level, free verse, but it also seems to redefine that label. How would you describe the shape of the poems in this collection?
Kathleen Rooney: Literary work that stands with a foot in more than one genre has always been appealing to me, so much so that when we founded Rose Metal Press, my coeditor, Abby Beckel, and I decided to dedicate ourselves to literary work in hybrid genres, specializing in the publication of flash fiction and nonfiction; prose poetry; novels-in-verse or book-length linked poems; novellas-in-flash; lyric essays; text and image works; and other literary works that move beyond the traditional categories of poetry, fiction, and essay to find new forms of expression.
So it makes sense that I often write hybrid work, which I consider Where Are the Snows to be. The pieces in the collections are poems, but the kind of poems that a reader might describe as prose poems because they’re organized more by sentences and stanzagraphs than line-broken stanzas. Another reader might describe them as lyric essays because of the way they meander around their subjects, free associating and getting discursive.
The writer Leslie Jill Patterson told me they reminded her of zuihitsus. I didn’t know what that was so I had to look it up, and when I did, I discovered that—as Poets & Writers explains—“the zuihitsu is a Japanese form and genre comparable to the lyric essay comprised of casual, loosely connected fragments and ideas, often in haphazard order, such as in Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book,” and often “collecting a dozen or so random thoughts and personal notes about your surroundings, and incorporating text fragments, observations, and lists.” I didn’t write these pieces with that form in mind, but being told about it after the fact felt revelatory, and I’m grateful to Patterson for that insight.
PP: In a press release, your publisher says these poems “strive to be as interesting, alive and determined to connect as a YouTube comment.” In terms of the construction of your poems, are they singular observations that coalesce under a title that suits the compilation, or do you have the title/theme in mind before you begin?
I wrote each poem by thinking of a specific topic (superpowers, snow, hope, childhood, etc.) and trying to offer statements and interpretations on that topic from a variety of angles, letting my mind ricochet around like a pinball inside a pinball machine.
KR: Ha. That press release copy was written by yours truly, and I’m so proud of it. Jacket copy–style writing of that sort is a tough genre, and I feel like I nailed it. Part of what I enjoy about YouTube comments for music videos is that everyone has shown up to weigh in on the same thing—the song/the band/the vid—but the range of perspectives and observations is multifarious, and the way they appear in the thread is wackily juxtaposed. I wrote each poem by thinking of a specific topic (superpowers, snow, hope, childhood, etc.) and trying to offer statements and interpretations on that topic from a variety of angles, letting my mind ricochet around like a pinball inside a pinball machine. The field of play was pretty clearly delineated, but within those parameters I could bounce all over the place. It was fun—a game I could play over and over to amuse myself.
PP: The arrangement of poems in a collection is obviously an important part of the process. How did you come to select “Dress Up” as the first piece a reader encounters? What do you hope it does in terms of establishing the tone of your book?
KR: Something I like to say in my creative writing classes is that whatever else it is, a piece of writing is also a set of instructions for how it is to be read. A first poem (or first essay or story or chapter) serves that instructional function, welcoming the reader into the book and helping them know what to expect and how to play along. The poems all appear in the order that I wrote them as part of a National Poetry Writing Month poem-a-day group in April of 2020, and “Dress Up” was the very first one, and its opening sentences are:
Let’s give featureless time some features:
Horn-rimmed glasses—bushy eyebrows attached—and a large plastic nose above a plushy mustache.
I see it as my book’s speaker standing on a stage and clearing her throat and being like “Hey, I’m glad you’re here, and I’m going to put on a goofy costume and try to engage you in a way that you’re going to have fun with.”
PP: Some of the poems’ titles—“The Special Organ of Breathing and Smelling,” “The Word by Which a Person or Thing is Denoted,” “The Sweet and Fleshy Product of a Tree or Other Plant”—seem like the strangely translated instruction manuals for appliances made overseas. Why are these, and some others, purposely/purposefully obtuse?
KR: Confession: I am horrendous at titling my work. Just really not adept. Each of my three most recent novels were retitled by the publisher after my agent and I sold them, a development that I welcomed because I knew they were not up to par. The same difficulty plagues me in poetry. Usually, I solve this problem by making the title slide right into the first line such that it’s both the title and the first line simultaneously. When I write Poems While You Wait poems on the spot, I simply title each one with the topic that the customer has requested.
In this poem-a-day group, though, I would take whatever concept I chose to use in response to the prompts and look up various definitions. Thus, when I was writing about the idea of muses, I titled it “A Source of Inspiration, a Guiding Genius,” and when I was writing about light, I went with “The Natural Agent That Stimulates Sight and Makes Things Visible.” The defamiliarizing effect this method has on familiar things is pleasing.
PP: Catholicism and its trapping—in particular, saints—appear in a number of poems. Given the contemporary nature of the observations in this collection, how do you see religion and faith functioning as a societal component?
KR: Like I write in the book, “I might still be Catholic if they let women be priests. I might still be Catholic if they let me be a priest.”
I was raised with an intense emphasis on Catholicism—church every Sunday, even if you were sick, Sunday school, all the sacraments but especially confession to atone for your sins, youth group, you name it. For the longest time, I adhered to these practices for what you say above, the “social component”—my faith as something not solitary and limited to myself, but as a site of community and a guiding outlook: a way to see the world and know how to behave within it in an ethical way, and to live a life of purpose and meaning thanks to a connection to something huge and mystical. Catholicism is packed with so much beauty—and I mean aesthetically, just on a sumptuous, sensual level: those brocaded robes, that smell of incense, that music from the organ, and on and on. And the history of the Church is riveting, crammed with absolutely bizarre apocrypha and anecdote.
Eventually, like many people of a thoughtful, leftist bent, I came to accept (all the way in my senior year of college, because I so desperately did not want to cast myself out from God, the God I’d been raised to believe in and love and also fear) that I could no longer maintain the self-deception that Catholicism was “good.” I could no longer force myself to participate in or support an institution committed to lies, oppression, subjugation, and abuse—an institution hostile to free-thinking and actual social justice, so I quit. But two decades later, I still wish that I could belong to a faith community that didn’t actively work against the people it purports to “save.”
Now that I’m no longer being gaslit, I can still appreciate the Church’s artistic, intellectual, literary, and even comic appeal but from a safe distance, which is something you see me doing a lot in these poems.
PP: When you write, “My faith remains gone. And yet my ears strain. A longing to hear someone in the beyond explaining: Follow the sound of my voice. Rejoice when you get to the end of this hallway,” is it the lack of religious faith that you’re lamenting? Is there anxiety in not knowing what’s at the end of the hallway that religion could assuage?
KR: When I wrote them, I think I intended those lines to be less about the uncertainty of not knowing what happens to us after we die (although if a reader takes it that way, that’s in there, too) so much as about the grief that comes after you lose someone. Losing the God—and the angels and the saints—that I had been taught was correct was hard, not unlike losing a real loved one. It took me a long time to figure out how to think of the “beyond”—not just like heaven or something but all that is beyond the borders of the self—and how to pray after I walked away from the Church.
PP: Along the same lines, when you explain that “aporia, in rhetoric, is a useful expression of doubt,” is this a key, perhaps, to understanding the collection?
KR: Yes! I hope this book reads as somebody who wants to believe in mystical and profound phenomena—phenomena beyond puny human understanding—and is figuring it out. Like I say in that same poem, “A little epistemic humility can be worth a try. The best philosophers admit they have no idea what they’re talking about.”
PP: There are lines in the book that seem to operate as something other than commentary or observations. A few are listed below. Can you elaborate a bit on each? Do they come from some other sensibility?
“What do I do now? Someone tell me what to do.”
“I am ready to be initiated into the mysteries.”
“I don’t want to die in anyone’s displeasure. I don’t want to die.”
“Who doesn’t want this grim slog to be going somewhere?”
KR: A lot of the lines in the book are aphoristic for sure, aspiring to that pithy observation of some general truth (or even just one-liners that will make somebody laugh). But a lot of the lines like the ones above are, I suppose, questions and requests shouted into the abyss—the pleas of someone who doesn’t really expect an answer, or knows she’ll have to take responsibility for any answers herself, but who still hopes maybe “someone” is “out there” listening. They’re passionate outcries of appeal or protest—“cri de coeur” is probably the best term.
PP: Lest it seem from these questions that this is a book steeped solely in sober takes on the world, there is also a great deal of humor—some of it ironic, some laugh-out-loud funny. Is this a reflection of your take on life’s absurdity? Do we need to look at even the most serious of subjects and find a way to ameliorate the situation to keep going?
The poems are kind of like badminton matches, but not singles or doubles; rather self-on-self.
KR: Oh yeah. I love to laugh and think that sorrow and laughter are like chocolate and peanut butter—they go better together. The tragedy of existence is such that if you don’t recognize the absurdity, you’ll never have any fun and fun is super important to me. I think that liberation can come in the form of fun—that joy can be a form of resistance in a rapacious economic system that seems hellbent on making people resigned to misery, or at least to way less than they all deserve.
I have a poem in the book about badminton, which my sister Beth and I played in high school, and which I love to this day. The poems are kind of like badminton matches, but not singles or doubles; rather self-on-self. I hit the shuttlecock over the net to myself and then whack it right back because it’s amusing and seems like just one possible way to not let the bastards grind me down, as it were.
PP: And yet, while humor finds a home in these poems, you chose to end the book with a rather grim poem, “With the Face to the Rear, In the Direction Behind,” which conjures up images of dystopia and resignation before concluding with a challenge of sorts to your readers: “We must do more than idly talk. We must become a flock of smaller birds attacking a hawk.” Have we reached a point when our best bet is to rise up and rebel against the powers that make us miserable? Can we do it?
KR: Yes, we can. We can and we should. Every single thing that humans do—from letting the zombie of capitalism eat everybody’s brains to destroying the Earth—is a choice and each moment gives a new opportunity to choose differently, and better.
PATRICK PARKS is author of a novel, Tucumcari, and has had fiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews appear in a number of places, including Southeast Review, Six Sentences, Another Chicago Magazine, The Chattahoochee Review, OxMag, and elsewhere (the adverb, not the publication). He is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, a recipient of two Illinois Arts Council artist grants, and lives with his wife and requisite cats near Chicago. More at patrick-parks.com.