An Interview With Writer and Professor Kathleen Rooney
Editor Staff, Interview, October 8th, 2010
Matty Byloos conducted this interview over a few rounds of email, with poet and professor Kathleen Rooney, who lives, writes and works in Chicago, IL.
I have not (yet(?)) met Kathleen Rooney, but through certain channels and friendships and colleagues in the literary world, was introduced to her work a little while ago, and took to it quite quickly. From there, we exchanged work and a few emails, and established a friendship and dialogue.
As a former professor of English teaching Composition and Rhetoric myself, I found her nonfiction book, For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs, to be a picture-perfect testament to exactly how the mode of essay writing should be practiced. She writes with a casual authority and genuine interest in the world around her, and in discovering her place within it.
In this interview, we discuss being a poet, the value of education and its role in the life of a writer, and some things currently on her bedside reading table.
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Byloos: As a poet, how do you deal with various schools / genres / etc. when you are creating new work? Is this something you’ve never paid any attention to? Do you feel rifts between, for instance, MFA and non-MFA poets? How, if at all, does this affect your work? And does this impact when and where you submit work for publication?
Rooney: Trying to sort poems into “schools” can quickly devolve into a way to avoid reading the poems; you’re just grouping them by affiliation and not actually reading them. The process of assigning things to categories tends to be an exclusionary process—a process of elimination, like “Oh, clearly, School of Quietude poets would hate this, ergo it must be Language poetry.” So I try not to write with the intention of excluding or irritating anybody (except maybe pince-nez-wearing cultural gatekeepers, or whistle-blowing referees, or jerks who sort of generally think art is a waste of time or whatever). I like to believe in a smart general reader who, regardless of their having attained a certain degree, wants to read and think about all kinds of different writing. If anything, I try to provide potential points of entry, both in my solo work, and in my collaborations with Elisa Gabbert, to people who haven’t read a poem since they were coerced into doing so in high school. Mostly it’s about having fun.
Byloos: You’re teaching (again?) now, correct? Are you teaching creative writing? How do you approach creating a syllabus? Are there non-canonical texts that you were absolutely inspired by that you make sure to include? Are there canonical ones that you decidedly omit? What’s the strategy when you set up the course of study, and best case scenario, what would you have your students come away with from one of your classes?
Rooney: Yes! After a sort of excruciating “job transition” fraught with the anxiety that I may have inadvertently “ruined” my “life” through the loss of my previous job, I ended up with a dreamy position teaching English and Creative Writing at DePaul here in Chicago.
I write each syllabus the way I would a book; I try to make it complete and thorough, and to make sure that each element of it has a clear purpose, and that the whole thing has an arc, so that you come out at the end feeling like something’s changed, hopefully for the better (and also that you’ve been entertained along the way). My Reading and Writing Poetry syllabus, for instance, is 25 pages long, but that includes all kinds of prompts and guidelines for how to write various assignments (ekphrases, villanelles, elegies, and so on). For my straight-up literary classes, like the Modern British Novel or Reading Poetry, I do try to consider the canon, but if I’m faced with a choice between including something because it’s “canonically approved” or because I really, really like it, I go with the latter. For example, in the novel class, I knew I had to include Jane Austen because she’s so significant to the development of the form, but instead of going with a more canonically sanctioned title like Pride and Prejudice, I picked Northanger Abbey. Some critics dismiss it as juvenilia, but I think it’s brilliant, especially for the way it speaks directly about the history of the form; the whole thing is about learning how to read, and why novels — even “trashy” Gothic ones — can be worth looking at.
As for the “takeaway” from my classes, I guess the biggest thing is for my students not to be afraid of or anxious about making sure they’re reading “the right way,” especially in the poetry courses. I mean, we do learn how to properly close read a text, and also how to investigate the historical and cultural conditions of its production, but mostly, I want them to learn to be confident in their ability to read and write about complicated works. At the start of this quarter, I had quite a few people emailing me that they were having “mild freak outs” about “getting” poetry, so I hope by the end of each class, they realize they can actually read and write — and probably enjoy — it. But then again, a lot of my students are already super-confident, and love love love poetry, and can’t wait to read and write and share it. I had my Reading and Writing Poetry class write sonnets, which were due yesterday, and one student turned in a formally perfect one entitled, “You’re my everything (and I love your tits, too).” So. Many of them are not terribly shy. (I recommended that he read John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, if he’s into raunchy verse; he’s not somebody I’d necessarily slap on the syllabus, but if somebody wants to walk down that road, I will happily point the way).
Byloos: What is your stance on the role or necessity of the MFA in a contemporary writer’s life? This may be especially pertinent given the fact that you are dealing with young writers and poets, some of whom I would bet will show themselves to be of promise, and with you as a teacher or mentor, what will you tell them as far as next steps are concerned? I think there’s a mindset that says, If you’re serious, then go to school, maybe after you’ve lived a little bit more of life. But there is an entirely different and equally confident school of thinking that says — If you want to write, then get out in the world and live. Then buy some paper and start writing. Where are you on that continuum, and maybe you can separate your thoughts between Teacher Kathleen and Poet/Writer Kathleen, etc.
Rooney My “stance,” if you can call it that, on the perennial to-MFA-or-not-to-MFA debate is that the whole conversation becomes kind of specious/starts going astray when it gets broken down along book smart v. street smart lines, like “Either you go to school and get some rarefied knowledge, which will ergo force you to write in a certain MFA way, or you go live your life and get some gritty experience, which will ergo force you to write in a certain earthy way.” Obviously, people in school can still live their lives and people living their lives can still get educated.
I guess the biggest thing, which seems really obvious, but maybe isn’t is that if you want to be a writer, you have to read and read and read and read. Old stuff, new stuff, traditional stuff, experimental stuff, trashy stuff, highbrow stuff, whatever, just be reading all the time. I try to tell my students (if they ask) that regardless of whether they opt to go to school or not, they need to keep reminding themselves of what Wallace Stevens said about how writing poetry is actually a very intense form of reading. You probably can’t get good at the “very intense” form of anything if you are not also engaging as much as possible in the basic form of it.
Byloos Given that, tell us what you’re currently reading, and maybe a quick sketch of one or two things that you count among your favorite or most influential reads.
Rooney I just finished reading Sula by Toni Morrison and now I can’t stop recommending it to everyone. And right before that, I read Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys, which I loved so much, I convinced my book club to read it. Currently, I’m re-reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy—so over the top and pessimistic!—gearing up to teach it in my Literature & Identity class for the Winter quarter. My most influential read, which is also a fave, is probably Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey for the way he mixes personal, autobiographical, and critical writing for a result that is smart and funny and sharp and touching. And also the novel-in-verse Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, for the way she bends genre to come up with something so weird and beautiful.
Thanks so much for asking me these questions!
Byloos and Smalldoggies: Thanks Kathleen!
Kathleen Rooney is the founding editor of Rose Metal Press (along with Abby Beckel), works as a Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at DePaul University, and is the author of several books. She currently lives and works in Chicago, Illinois.
She is the author of the non-fiction books For You, For Your I Am Trilling These Songs, Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object and Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America, in addition to collections of poetry, After Robinson Has Gone (forthcoming 2010), Oneiromance (an epithalamion), and several collaborative works with poet Elisa Gabbert, some of which you can read in the Smalldoggies Poetry Suite #3.
Learn more about Kathleen Rooney at her official website here.
(Author Photo courtesy Switchback Books.)