I recently had the opportunity to ask (via email) author, poet and Professor Kathleen Rooney about her newest poetry collection, Where Are The Snows. Along with the award winning book’s vital take on a world insistent on ending, we get to talking about the collection’s relation to Rose Metal Press and Poems While You Wait, and finding poetry in unexpected places. Make sure to catch Professor Rooney along with Professor Tara Betts tonight, October 19, 6-7 PM in ALH 103 for a reading and book signing!
Thanks again for talking with me about Where Are the Snows. And congratulations on winning the 2021 X.J. Kennedy Prize! I was really taken aback by this collection. It felt very much like a living record of this moment in time, even when dealing with subjects that extend far beyond right now. Did the events of the last couple of years spur this collection, or did all of this catastrophe just coincide with your regular writing practice?
KR: Thank you so much and I’m happy to hear you found the book striking. All of the poems in the collection were written during late March and April of 2020. That kind of concentrated daily activity is not always a part of my writing practice. But my dear friend and fellow poet Kimberly Southwick put together a National Poetry Month poem-a-day group then as she often does, and I had signed up to participate. When I agreed to do the challenge (30 poems in 30 days!) I had no idea that April of 2020 would be a nadir of pandemic panic and despair, but it was.
Consequently, the poems, as you observe, distill the unique dread and misery of that period, but also expand outwards in such a way as to not make this merely a pandemic book. Catastrophe is kind of everywhere all the time now! Just a non-stop three-ring chaos circus 24/7! I think this mood of absurdity would have found its way onto every page of the book whether I had written it then or not, but the timing absolutely shaped the character of the collection.
A lot of the poems have this momentum like you’re trying to get to the bottom of something. You follow an idea as it spirals to its origin. “Ekphrastic” is one of my favorites. It begins in an empty museum with a sort of tribute to the people who would usually populate these galleries. It ends at this Bunuelian parallel between them and the bloodied goldfinch watching Christ. You strike the perfect balance between spontaneity and deliberation in the way you structure your poems. Do you begin with a place in mind you need the reader to arrive at, or are you as surprised as the reader when these ideas and images come together?
KR: Yes! Thank you! I love that description, like every poem is a ride down the tornado side on the playground. Each of these poems was a riff on a prompt provided by Kim or one of the other April poem-a-day group members and in some cases, I stuck pretty closely to what they were requesting and in others I departed wildly. But in all cases, I tried to open with an initial topic or premise or idea that I wanted to pay as much attention as possible to. There is no such thing as thinking too hard is one of my mottos. So I wanted to think and feel and muse for a sustained amount of time on every poem in the book. I think it was this balance of having a restraint and then letting myself spiral freely that led to the feeling of spontaneity and deliberation that you describe. I was mostly trying first and foremost to have fun and amuse myself, to play around and reveal some new insights which I then hoped would make their way across to the hearts and minds of my future readers.
How did you decide on the form these poems would take- the combination of prose poem and stanzas that feel like self-contained statements as much as they bound into the next one?
KR: Rose Metal Press, the small nonprofit publisher I co-founded in 2006 with my friend Abby Beckel, specializes in hybrid genres and so it made sense to me to let this project be a hybrid. I think these are prose poems of sorts? Definitely poems, but not in line breaks or stanzas, more in aphoristic sections and stanzagraphs. I wanted to let the process proceed by way of the sentence and not the line and to play with gaps and white space between really big and dramatic imagery and utterances and jokes and punchlines. Some of the poems actually ended up getting published as essays and flash nonfiction, so I don’t think that I’m enforcing a clear genre boundary with any of them.
In “The State Or Period Of Being A Child,” you describe a prompt you give to students. “Long shot, middle shot, close-up. Gradually zoom us in, really letting us see it.” You could say that prompt describes many of these poems, the way you follow an idea down a rabbit hole. How does your practice as a writer inform your teaching, and vice versa?
KR: That prompt is from Janet Burrorway’s wonderful textbook Imaginative Writing, which I use in my Creative Writing class and I love assigning it in-class each quarter because like you say, it sets students off into an intriguing rabbit hole that can take them a surprising distance away. I love receiving prompts for my writing and so naturally I love giving them.
Part of why I love Poems While You Wait so much is because when you are out in the world encountering randos and asking them to give you money and a topic for a personal one-of-a-kind poem, you are forced to write about things you might never have touched otherwise. I let that curiosity and chance into my own practice as much as I can even when I am not doing PWYW and try to bring it to bear in the classroom, too.
The collection is rife with religion, astrology, mythology, mysticism- the loathe/desire to believe in something or other figures as a recurring theme. In absence of social norms and a normal climate, do you find believing in something greater than the individual is useful, or even necessary, where hope feels like too much of a stretch?
KR: Solidarity—I believe in solidarity, as in the unity of a group or class that produces or is based on a community of interests, objectives, and standards. Hope is hard but I always have it because I do believe that even in a world that wants—and uses both mainstream and social media to propagate—to make us constantly terrified and competitive and angry, we can opt instead to find common cause. I believe in fun. Joy as form of resistance. Racialized misogynistic capitalism wants nothing more than to normalize misery and I believe in saying no to that and then creating spaces and communities and relationships that offer alternatives.
Told to be present and quit doomsurfing, you offer us, as an alternative, curated streams of your own content- stray thoughts, geography, definitions, memes, histories, factoids- punctuated by startling imagism. I loved the line in “A Quiet State After Some Period Of Disturbance” (a poem that might feature at least one of everything I just listed), “If calm were a tree it would be deciduous- shedding its leaves, putting them forth again.” Then, you end the following and final stanza with a voice over the CTA intercom, an unforeseen source of reassurance. Can you talk about finding poetry in unexpected places? In sampling from such an array of sources, including quotes from other poems, would you say there is an element of found art to the collection?
KR: Sampling—yes! I want these poems to be like a really great hip-hop song or a beautiful collage. Not something I created alone, but made with other people, both living and dead, both here and long gone. The imagination is a space that is potentially eternal and ideally shared. So I always try to let my imagination run wild over even seemingly quotidian things like commuting on the red line. Poetry, to me, is a very focused form of attention and when you “pay” attention to everything—even though that metaphor says you are expending currency—you are the one who is getting rich.
It’s hard to tell at times whether you see the glass as half full, or bone dry, but there is a sense of joy in these references you draw, in being fascinated by whatever fascinates you. There is an appeal to wonderment at the center of Where Are the Snows. Would you say taking an interest in the world around you, which can be its own struggle, is a source of self resolve?
KR: The glass goes up and down from day to day for sure. But yes, I think that as long as you maintain a sense of wonder, as long as you don’t let this cruel world grind you down too into thinking that cruelty is natural or indifference is fine, you are in some small sense winning.
Lastly, is there a class you’re teaching next quarter, or anything happening around DePaul you’d like to throw a spotlight on?
KR: Yes! I hope people will sign up for my ENG 309 Youth & Malice class where we write about the periods of childhood and adolescence but for an adult audience. Those eras of human development are so full of conflict and tension and emotion and interest, it always makes for a very fun class.