Kathleen Rooney – Chicago writer and teacher at DePaul University – is frequently found around town typing poems on demand as part of the Poems While You Wait team. Ruth Lilly Fellow, she is also a frequent contributor to Chicago magazine. His latest collection of poetry, Where is the snow, has been selected by Kazim Ali as the winner of the XJ Kennedy Award and will be published September 7 by Texas Review Press.
Composed during the pandemic, Where is the snow reflects the anxiety and pessimism of the time it was written. But these are not moody poems; they joke and play with frantic and irresistible energy. Rooney’s writing invites the reader to look through his window beside him and know the birds, and the thoughts that haunt and electrify his poetry. Rooney has written an immersive book of poems that observe motherhood, love, capitalism, and more.
You wrote most of the poems of Where is the snow for a single month. How did the constraints of this challenge influence the poems in this book?
Constraints are often where I find my greatest freedom. I give a ton of prompts when I teach creative writing at DePaul, and my fellow typewriter poets and I get a ton of prompts when we write for strangers at Poems While You Wait. So I jumped at the chance to do the National Poetry Month Poetry a Day Group that my friend Kimberly Southwick put together for April 2020. There’s something appealing about discipline and dedication – engaging in something that at first seems arbitrary, but through repetition and ceremony takes on a deeper meaning.
In “A Court Game Played with Long-Handled Rackets”, you write: “I used to think: If I don’t try hard, do I even really try? Now I allow gaffer marshmallow fluff. This stanza seems to me to be a kind of ethos for this book. Why did you approach this project with this type of game and what do you think the game adds to the collection?
Due to the communal nature of writing poems that we all knew in the group and everyone would see, I felt hyper self-conscious about wanting to make sure they would have a great time reading a poem from a given day. Poetry can be many things, but one of the things it can be is outward-directed introspection. All the poems deal with topics that I thought (and still think) intensely, but it was fun to think of each line as part of a volley – sending a thought through the invisible net and hoping that the person in the other side would. find it interesting enough to shake it in their own heads.
Where is the snow takes its title from the 15th century poem by François Villon “Ballade des dames du temps passé”. What about that poem that called you to engage her in conversation via Where is the snow?
History gives a long vision of the human condition. Although the specifics differ, the outline of being alive in the past was probably a lot like being alive now. People enjoyed the delights of their individual lives: games, silly jokes, tasty food, their loved ones. But they were appalled by the greatest sorrows they collectively faced: war, pestilence, death, greed, political incompetence. Villon’s poem is an “ubi sunt”, Latin for “where are they”, used to meditate on the ephemeral. Villon’s poem haunts me because its content is basically “where are all the people in the past who thought they were so huge and important?” Dead, as we will be.
In “A human woman who gave birth to a baby”, you say “This is a poem that will make a lot of people hate me”. Two things interest me: the first is the use of the aside as a poetic movement — as a sort of spoken caesura before returning to the subject in question. What was your editorial process for Where is the snow? How did you decide which asides to keep and which to cut?
I love that you come in on this line. I added it based on group feedback. Because the poem becomes irreverent towards sentimental attitudes about motherhood, it stirred people even within this small community. This line is a way to add a measure of self-awareness, letting readers know that strong opinions come up that they might not like, but I still hope they stick. My editorial process was to cut and add this kind of audience-facing material to create that volley feel – a book of poetry as a racquet sport.
And why do you think “A human woman who gave birth to a baby” will make a lot of people hate you?
Every time I mention that being a mother in our grind-to-die American culture is raw business and that the sacrifices demanded by mother capitalism are ones I don’t want to make, people go nuts. I am interested in other ways of organizing society. As I say in the poem, “I don’t want to be ‘motherhood’ per se; I just want to take care of others like anyone should.
I was struck by the frank pessimism of certain poems by Where is the snow. As a reader, it was refreshing. What is your relationship to hope as a writer?
Toxic positivity frowns upon any acknowledgment that many things systematically suck. But when it comes to hope, I have plenty of it. Despair is what oppressors around the world hope the oppressed will sink into because then they will give up. Pessimism is a starting point, not an end. In order to create the better world that we all deserve and that is entirely possible, we should first admit, “These conditions are awful.”
However Where is the snow is expansive, it’s also quite local. We accompany you on walks and observe the world through your window. In particular, the birds feel like intimate companions in the poems. Which birds have recently visited your window and what is your relationship with them?
It’s very poetic capital letter, but I love birds. We have a pair of hummingbirds that live outside our third floor apartment. Martin and I are in awe. They are incredibly small and beautiful, but also smart, tough and determined. I don’t know if Zum Zum and Li’l Zum (they are mother and daughter) will ever know what they mean to us, but we hope that somehow when we put their food and make eye contact, they can say that we like them very much.