Kathleen Rooney’s new poetry collection, Where Are the Snows, winner of the X.J. Kennedy Prize, reads like a collaboration between Michel Montaigne and George Carlin. You think, you laugh, you ponder the questions she asks.
Rooney makes observations you’ve never had before that immediately register as true: “Happy Birthday is a bit of a dirge.” “Museums are temples to necromancy.” “Flowers are flaunting their genitalia.” You rethink your relationship to the sky when you realize you could reach the clouds in an hour if you drove straight up. Written in the midst of the pandemic and Trump, Where Are the Snows is exorcism as lyrical standup. Recently we spoke about Oscar Wilde, climate change, and laughter as a weapon.
Robert Puccinelli: The first words in your book are: “In my own country I’m in a distant land.” Do you feel like you’re in a distant land in your own country?
Kathleen Rooney: I just read this great book Oreo by Fran Ross where she includes with her three epigraphs the winking statement that “epigraphs never have anything to do with the book.” But of course she’s kidding. Epigraphs always have a lot to do with the book.
Mine is from Francois Villon, a French poet from the 1400s who wrote a lot of ballads. He says
In my own country I’m in a distant land
Beside the blaze I’m shivering in flames
Naked as a worm, dressed like a president
I laugh in tears and hope in despair.
I wanted my epigraph to set the expectations of the reader early and get them to understand that these are going to be poems about America, which means they’re going to be sad and critical but also funny.
RP: Why did you dedicate your book to the future?
KR: It felt right to dedicate my book not to a particular person, but to an abstract concept. I hope the dedication echoes the despair of Villon, but also the hope mixed in. To put it mildly, the future poses a lot of challenges. But if we stop believing in the future, the future we get is going to be even worse than what’s already coming.
RP: You write that this year you gave up hope for Lent. That would’ve been easy for me. Was it for you?
KR: I wrote that in April of 2020. I don’t like participating in misery contests, but for me, that was the absolute abyss of pandemic-onset misery. In that line I was kidding, but also sort of serious because I think with hope is expectation. I would never really give up hope because giving up hope is a luxury that only people who think circumstances won’t touch them can afford. In the moment when I wrote that, there was a dawning realization that this wasn’t going to be a quick blip, it was going to be a miasma—the pandemic, the election, all of it. I was trying to set myself free from some of that anxiety by setting myself free of some of that expectation.
RP: Your poems convey a conversation. Sometimes you speak, sometimes you’re an interlocutor. Your questions remind me of Elizabeth Bishop. What was your intent with the repeated use of the interrogative?
KR: Uncertainty is something that most people find uncomfortable, including myself. I fully love to have things decided. But so much of life, especially these past few years, is uncertainty and trying to live with it in a way that doesn’t break your brain and destroy your will. I’m trying to live the questions.
RP: Your poem on light reminds me of jazz and Frank O’Hara, but it also reminds me of George Carlin. It’s almost like you’re onstage at a standup club delivering one-liners. Did standup influence any of these poems?
KR: I’ve never done standup. But I love the form. That observational angle, where somebody gets up and says, “Do you ever notice…?” and then just goes. A lot of comics at their best, including Carlin, are philosophical and literary. I was trying to write poems that—if memorized and delivered by somebody with great timing at the microphone—might stand a chance of killing.“Stare too long at a screen and the heart grows pathetic: misanthropic hamster, jogging on a wheel.”
RP: Some argue that the problem with The Daily Show and its ilk is that by laughing at the state of the world viewers feel as if they’ve done something. Their laughter releases their tension and then they don’t act.
KR: Laughter can be self-congratulatory or substitutive for action. But a lot of charismatic leaders—including Malcolm X, who I quote, and Gloria Steinem and Florence Kennedy—are extremely funny people and really knew how a punch line could drive a point home. It’s how you use it, right? If it’s just a TV show that most people are watching late at night when they’re already in bed, maybe it’s not going to change the world. But if you have a leader who’s using humor to bring joy to the process of resisting their enemies, then it’s super useful.
RP: “It’s hard to be an atheist in such an age, so why not make up your own theology?” Why is it hard and what would your theology be?
KR: I think a lot of us want a spiritual dimension to life, something mystical and something metaphysical. You see it in people who are into astrology, people who find a lot of insight in tarot cards, and even in people who adhere to purity—like the way the left can become a circular firing squad by finding and denouncing the people who fail to be immaculate. I’m not sure what my theology would be, but I’m excited at the prospect of myself and others creating a theology that is based on ecstasy and not agony.
RP: You quote Diana Vreeland approvingly: “I loathe narcissism, but I approve of vanity.” Why do you approve of vanity?
KR: If you’re vain enough to put on a dress when you walk down the street or to do your hair in some fabulous way, it shows you probably care about yourself and that you also are maybe putting on a little show for other people. I like it when people are a little bit vain because to me, it means they care.
RP: There are wise precepts scattered throughout these poems. Sometimes they’re by other people and often they’re yours. You write that “emotion is not a state but a process and in that sense every person creates their own weather.” To what extent do you think that’s true?
KR: Part of creating your own weather hopefully means treating yourself and others who are in your immediate sphere with as much compassion as you can. Something I’ve occasionally found frustrating in activist circles is a simultaneous advocacy of abstract notions of care while treating the people in your orbit like chopped liver. That’s antithetical to the whole point of the bigger project.
RP: “Please respect others and only take what you need: the rule on complimentary tampons and pads in bathrooms is basically my plan for the entire economy.” You have a keenly observational eye for espying connections. Things mean more than they are aware they mean. Do you think this idea from your poetry applies at large to everyone and everything? Because it seems like you do it a lot.
KR: I really appreciate you noticing that. As “prosey” as they sometimes are, part of the reason these are poems is because words are magical. They truly have this enchanted quality.
DePaul, where you and I both teach, literally has that passage in the bathrooms. I love that DePaul offers sanitary products in that spirit of generosity and fairness and wish it were the case everywhere. It’s unfortunate that people who get their period often have to pay extra just to have things available to them. So on a literal level, I love it. But on a more mystical level, I thought, “Wow, this applies not just to this tampon dispenser, but to a way we could organize the world political system and economy.”“We should fly the flag at half-mast all the time because so much of America is spiritually dead.”
We live in a system that emphasizes competition and scarcity and so many people accept it because it’s been normalized as the quote-unquote “natural” way of doing things. And it’s just as constructed and chosen as any other, so it could be equally natural to say No, things are abundant. There’s enough for everyone and we’re going to start acting that way.
RP: I love that. And it’s a way of seeing the world where you’re being spoken to constantly by the environment around you.
KR: John Berger has a famous book Ways of Seeing. One of his points is that there are ways of looking at art and once you get into the mindset, a whole new way of seeing opens up to you. I’ve asked myself, “Do I have a poetic way of seeing the world because I am a poet, or am I a poet because I have a poetic way of seeing the world?”
Of course, it’s both. It’s like the ouroboros eating its tail. That’s just how I walk through the world—seeing what is on the surface and what is deeper—and I hope that this poetry book will help other people see stuff like that.
RP: “Stare too long at a screen and the heart grows pathetic: misanthropic hamster, jogging on a wheel.” “Stop doom surfing the Internet.” “Your phone is a portal, a portal to Hell. Look up.” “Every morning the first person I see says, Hi, I’m the internet, here to shorten your memory.” What’s your relationship with the internet? And what’s the ideal?
KR: Mary Gaitskill has this great essay called “The Hidden Life of Stories” where she muses on how when she started teaching, people were more tolerant of description in writing, and now there’s this tendency for students to get bored by it or to just not know how to do it.
She mentions established authors like Joyce Carol Oates and George Saunders who have bought into the idea that maybe heavy, loving, detailed description is an old fashioned or outmoded way to write. Her idea is that the reason that description is falling out of favor and becoming difficult for some people is because we look at our phones all the time. People don’t look out the window, people don’t look at a face and then try to describe that face to someone else later. They don’t stare at the trees and think about the nests in the branches.
In addition to all the degradation of the discourse and how social media provokes us fight each other—every time I’m on Twitter I feel like I’m in a box full of rats being shaken to some Battle Royale because it incentivizes cruelty—it’s taking something from us aesthetically. And spiritually—to look at a screen with someone’s picture on it versus to look at their face. I like technology, but I also think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s making us worse.
RP: I don’t write letters anymore, but you write about the magic of a letter dropping into the blue mouth of a mailbox. Do you have nostalgia for the ways of the past because those ways are rarer? Or are they actually better in some ways?
KR: I read the Little House on the Prairie books as a kid and was struck over and over by how long the Ingalls family would have to wait for news from their family back in Wisconsin or wherever. I wrote a book about WWI (Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey) and one of the protagonists is a carrier pigeon. Imagine waiting for a message from a pigeon in wartime! So I’m hesitant to say that it’s not better to have these technological improvements.“Where are the good, the beautiful, the movers and the shakers?”
But I do think that a specialness is lost. I’m trying to not enforce a binary: the past was better, the present sucks; or now is better, the past was trash. Things change. So what do we lose? What do we gain? How can we honor the vestiges of the past even though they’re rare? How can we incorporate them even though now most people do things in a faster, more supposedly advanced way?
RP: In “A Quiet State After Some Period of Disturbance,” you quote Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde once said, “All art is quite useless.” In the face of disaster, how is art an active choice rather than a passive one?
KR: I love Oscar Wilde. What’s not to love? He’s so aphoristic and I had to put him in because, like you said, one of the things that I’m trying to do is make aphoristic witty utterances that I hope amuse people, that I hope make people laugh, that I hope get people to think and to wonder and be like: “Wait, is that true?”
Art can absolutely be an active choice and can be a way to bring people together and to provide comfort and to organize. But I am loath to say that art is identical to activism or that art alone is all a person needs to do. When things seemed dire, I shifted from spending a ton of time writing to a ton of time trying to be an activist for what I hoped to see happen in the election.
Art is both useful and useless. Here’s the thing. With all my quotes, I’m trying to show my voice is just one voice in a bunch of voices. I’m not trying to write a manifesto and tell people what to think. I’m trying to put a bunch of stuff into the field and let people play and have a good time.
RP: “The big dick twirling contest is coming right up. I mean, ‘the election.’” I never pictured it this way before, but it seems impossible to change. Are we doomed to endless dick twirling contests for perpetuity?
KR: (laughing) My head says yes and my heart says no. I guess that’s my answer.
RP: “For Wittgenstein, concepts resemble tools and they, like tools, can cease to be useful.” What concepts have outlived their usefulness in your opinion?
KR: Oh, man, there are so many, but with that line, I’m focused on histories of ideas. With the idea of progress and evolution, there can be a tendency as 21st-century people to think, “Ha ha, the people of the past were so silly and now we’ve arrived at the best ideas.” Which is clearly not necessarily true. I think of ideas as being like styles of clothing. You put them on and you take them off. Women used to wear corsets and now we think, “Wow, bad idea.”When you’re a woman who says, “I love not having kids as much as some people love having them,” people get mad.
One concept that I think has outlived its usefulness and is leaving, but is leaving slowly, is this idea of human supremacy and mankind as the thing that gets to dominate and use the wilderness. I just read a book about the intellectual history of the idea of the wilderness. It talked a lot about the long-held European male idea of so-called virgin land, which led to this idea of male explorers who were coming to marry it at best—which would still involve making it their own, making it do all their work for them—or actually assaulting it at worst. Ideas can change and a lot of times they should.
RP: Is poetry elitist? Does the density of references keep some people out? Or words like “syzygies”?
KR: Any genre can be elitist and exclusionary. And any genre can be welcoming and inclusive. In junior high, I started loving groups like Arrested Development, De La Soul, Digable Planets and so on. In “Tennessee,” it’s beautiful the way Arrested Development is able to reference things that some people in their audience might have experienced directly and that some people in their audience might never have experienced.
Hip hop is not the same as poetry, but there’s a close relation. I hope that all my allusions work not like I’m off with my nose in the air talking in a way where you’re going to be lost, but more like Arrested Development using a sample from Prince saying the word “Tennessee.” If you recognize the sample, you think, “That’s a cool callback” or maybe “Oh my God, that was probably expensive.” But if you don’t, you just think, “Oh, that sounds neat.” Ideally, quotations and allusions can add an extra layer, but not knowing them won’t take anything away.
RP: “I haven’t got faith, but I’ve got an aesthetic.” What is your aesthetic and how does it help you in the way that faith helps people?
KR: I think my background in Catholicism first and foremost helped me appreciate a high degree of aesthetic beauty because it’s such a sumptuous religion with all the brocade and the smell of incense and the stained glass. It’s just an aesthetically gorgeous religion to me.
This goes back to the vanity thing—dressing up to put on a show when so much of life is deliberately dreary and unbeautiful, such as the kind of architecture that we’re encouraged to accept or the hideousness of car culture and the fact that there’s asphalt friggin’ everywhere. So many forces are conspiring to make our environments as ugly as possible that if you have your own aesthetic, committed to whatever your definition of beauty is, that can be used against the ugliness that your enemies try to make you accept.
RP: That’s beautiful. It’s interesting because people usually think of beauty as shallow. But from that perspective, it’s quite deep. You also write that “we can’t have hope without futility.”
KR: Many people, myself included, have a tendency toward on/off switch thinking. Things are all one way or they’re all another and we’re all playing some kind of zero-sum game where somebody wins and everybody else loses. If you think of it like a train map, it is helpful to have those two termini, but there are a lot of stops between hope and futility.
RP: “Meaningless suffering is the aim of Satan. Guess we better find some meaning.” What meaning have you found?
KR: The meaning I’ve found is that one of the coolest things we can do is make meaning.
RP: Nice. Your search for meaning occurs ironically in the Noam Chomsky quote: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” As a linguist, Chomsky designed it to be meaningless, but you manage to make it meaningful.
KR: That is me having a bit of fun; in a world that tries so hard to be ugly and meaningless being like, “Haha, I win. I found some meaning even there.”
RP: Your book is full of fabulous quotations from St. Vincent’s “Love is inventive to infinity” to Langston Hughes’ “I have never known the police of any country to show an interest in lyric poetry as such. But when poems stop talking about the moon and begin to mention poverty, trade unions, color lines, and colonies, somebody tells the police.” You even have a quote from the window of a martial arts studio and interspersed throughout are your own observations, such as “The best way to avoid having your birthday ruined is to avoid having any expectations for your birthday.” Are you discovering these quotes through research or do you have them already in your head from reading?
KR: In that Joan Didion way, I keep a notebook. In Montaigne’s day, even people we’ve never heard of would keep a notebook if they were literate. They’d write down things that they came across. I absolutely love and cultivate that habit. Supposedly, Montaigne used to sit down and say, “What do I know about X?” And then just go.
I tried to take that mindset: Okay, some of this is going to be me. Some of this is going to be somebody else. The poems are part collection and part invention.
RP: You reject the cultural insistence upon certain gender roles such as being a mother and having children. Can you elaborate on why this choice is important and empowering and how we can resist the cultural hegemony?
KR: When I wrote that poem in the group about not being a mother and how motherhood is kind of a raw deal as it is currently constructed, one of the other group members got offended. It wasn’t a stranger, she was a friend, but she literally called me on the phone after she read that day’s poem and was livid—“How could you write a poem that is so hostile?” This was coming from someone who’s not a normcore, mommy-track person.
Her reaction was the reason I revised the poem to have the line: “This is a poem that will make a lot of people hate me.” I wanted to get meta and get out in front of it because when you criticize being a mom or when you’re a woman who says, “I love not having kids as much as some people love having them,” people get mad. It’s important to put my voice out into that space. It’ll make a lot of people angry. But it’ll make a lot of people feel, as the kids say, seen.
RP: Your book makes me think of Viktor Shklovsky because your titles do a wonderful job of defamiliarizing. “To Celebrate the Anniversary of Someone’s Birth.” “The Point in Time or Space at Which Something Originates.” “A Place Set Aside for Burial of the Dead.” What was your strategy in doing that?
KR: You’re validating me so much right now. That was exactly my strategy. I have a poem that could have just been titled “Light,” but instead I give it this much longer, more elaborate title. I think some topics are perceived by the audience as more poetic, so if I just call my poem “Light,” there are all these connotations. Whereas when I call it “The Substance That Makes Things Visible,” it’s a different vibe.
Many of the titles are so long they’re hard to remember. They’re the antithesis of what you want a title to be. They’re not catchy, they’re not familiar phrases. But they put the reader off balance right away and let them know that whatever they were expecting might not be what they’re going to get.
RP: Where Are the Snows? I love the title and immediately think of climate change. Why did you choose that quote as your title and why do you say you’re jealous of it?
KR: It’s from another poem by Villon—my epigraph guy—called “Ballade of the Ladies of Time Past” where he’s doing what’s called an ubi sunt, which is Latin for “Where are they now?” He’s asking, “Where are the good, the beautiful, the movers and the shakers?” Usually the answer in a poem like this is kind of a memento mori. They’re all dead, they’re all in the ground, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I like that association. But the meaning of a work of art changes over time.
“Where are the snows of yesteryear” is a gorgeous way to speak of the loss and change of people and places. But we’re also having this conversation on a day where it’s getting close to 100 in Chicago in early June. It shouldn’t be doing that. It’s kind of an ubi sunt for the beautiful world that we had and have been taking for granted and abusing.
RP: “We should fly the flag at half-mast all the time because so much of America is spiritually dead.” Do you think it’s possible to reach outside our bubbles and effect change? Or are we fated to live together in mutual incomprehension?
KR: It’s not like we on our own as a people just randomly began to hate and distrust each other. There was a ton of money and continues to be a ton of money and effort and messaging spent on getting us to despise our fellow Americans. I don’t know how we fix that exactly. But because the mutual incomprehension has been artificially created, it can absolutely be reversed.
Kathleen Rooney’s Where Are the Snows is available now from Texas Review Press.