Joy in the Face of Sorrow: An Interview with Kathleen Rooney

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Kathleen Rooney chose the perfect poem to kick off her new poetry collection, Where Are The Snows. Entitled “Dress Up,” the book’s opening poem serves as a kind of gateway into the reading experience, preparing its audience for the time traveling mixture of humor and heartbreak to come. “Let’s give featureless time some features,” Rooney says in the poem’s first lines, “Horn-rimmed glasses—bushy eyebrows attached—and a large plastic nose above a plushy mustache.” With the mention of “featureless time,” she hints at how the poems that follow will weave back and forth across centuries, calling up images of classical paintings and referencing a timeline of abiding luminaries that includes everyone from Lucretius to The Beatles to Satan himself. As she tours us through the ages, Rooney seems to take on the role of a Dickensian Christmas ghost, pointing a knowing finger at the pains of the past—the greed, the disregard, the inequalities, the plagues—and calling attention to how those issues still remain.

Fear not, though. As her page one poem suggests, she’ll dress those troubles up in a comedic disguise, delivering lines like, “Sometimes a friend posts a photo of their newborn and it's all I can do not to type, Welcome to Hell!” with the tone and timing of a standup comedian. Lines like this abound in the collection, allowing Rooney to pay homage to Francois Villon’s “Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past,” the poem that informs the collection, while also wielding her trademark wit. Where Are the Snows reads like an updated version of Villon’s ballad, or a modern take on T.S. Eliot’s modernist work, The Waste Land. I spoke recently with Rooney about these alignments, and about how humor, politics, Catholicism and a bevy of quirky facts all find their place in her work.   

TriQuarterly: Let’s start by talking about your range as a writer. You’re a true literary triple threat, writing comfortably across fiction, non-fiction and poetry. What does poetry allow you to do as a writer that the other genres don’t?

Kathleen Rooney: Poetry as a process is something I can do quickly and more improvisationally and spontaneously than [other forms of writing]. I am an extremely type A / planner person. I’m a scheduler to the max and when I’m writing prose, especially fiction, which to me is the most architectural genre, I have to have a blueprint. I have to have a frame. I can’t just wing it. But in poetry, I can be like, “Ok, I’m interested in this. I have some time this morning. I’m going to take a couple of hours and I’m going to finish a draft.” So I think there’s a sense of immediacy and playing around and amusing myself when I’m writing poetry, and I hope that carries over to the reader. I hope it retains that sense of just goofing around.

TQ: Which genre came first for you? Was poetry your first love?

KR: For sure, poetry. My parents always read to me, which is a sort of classic thing for writers to say. But to their credit, they had a ton of poetry around. A lot of people don’t do that because maybe they find poetry intimidating, or because it’s considered “boring”… It’s not the first thing people reach for. And again, to their credit, they had some serious poetry but they also had a lot of really funny poetry. Shel Silverstein. Jack Prelutsky. Even Mother Goose is funny in a truly bizarre, folklore-of-childhood kind of way. I mean, why could Jack Sprat eat no fat? You could ponder that for days! Poetry is really easy for kids to grasp. You see that with the 826CHI poetry anthologies, which feature the writing of Chicago youth. You read some of the stuff children are putting out and you’re like, “They’re geniuses, just effortless geniuses.”

TQ: The collection’s title references the refrain—“Where are the snows of yesteryear?”—from François Villon’s “Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past.” That poem dates back to the fifteenth century and yet its central question still rings relevant today. Can you talk about how you interpret Villon’s question and how it relates to these poems?

KR: I have a poem in the collection called “Ubi Sunt,” which is the Latin term for what [Villon] does in his poem—wonder how all these important people can have melted away like so much snow. It’s a classic form—it’s also found in the Book of Baruch in the Bible—almost like a vanitas or a memento mori, that acknowledges that each era has its notables and that they live and they effect titanic change and then they die. There’s something about being alive now that makes me think that he really understood this question that I see plaguing humanity at every era, which is: Has living on this planet always been this bonkers?

So to me, his poem—and this is my interpretation as someone living through and writing mostly during Spring of 2020, at the onset of this pandemic—is asking: “What should be my posture toward current events, or toward history, or toward the things that we’re told matter the most? And are they really the things that matter the most?”

A lot of people have told me that they find my collection nihilistic, and I see that and I’m not saying that they’re wrong. But I think when you see Villon’s poem, and then my reappropriation of it, asking, “What does any of this matter because we’re all going to be dead?”— it doesn’t have to be nihilistic. If anything, stating that because we’ll all melt away soon, and that the ladies of times past are past, makes everything matter more. Because this is it. History, posterity—maybe that sorts itself out. But the present is the time for action, for love, for compassion.

TQ: I appreciated the way these poems move back and forth across centuries. One minute you’re quoting St. Vincent DePaul and the next, Patti Smith or Belinda Carlisle. We get references to Tiepolo’s baby Jesus and Melville’s white whale but also to She-Ra the Warrior Princess and Elvis and the poop emoji. There’s a sense of deep time that made me think of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Do you feel this work is in conversation with Eliot’s and if so, were you conscious of it in the writing?

KR: I’m honored that you thought of that because I love T.S. Eliot’s poetry. The Waste Land is a really important poem to me and probably to every poet that came after. The way that it is such a pastiche, and the way that it’s in conversation with such polyglot sources. It’s literally in a bunch of different languages. He’s quoting stuff but he’s not necessarily attributing the quotations. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot in relation to this collection, and in relation to historical fiction, which I also write, is this fetishization of originality, this often reductive idea that to be original, something has to have never been said before or has to have been completely quote-unquote made up—whatever that means. Pure fiction. Pure imagination. But something about The Waste Land that I love is that he makes something original out of these found parts and he’s sort of like a bricoleur or a collagist. I love visionary or outsider art, where you see artists taking old dinner plates or steering wheels or driftwood that they didn’t themselves manufacture and, through their obsessive and visionary juxtaposition and assemblage, making something wholly original. To me, that’s The Waste Land. And I also love hip-hop and I love the art form of collage. Max Ernst says that in the art of collage, there should be a spark of poetry.

TQ: In the poem “To Cherish a Desire with Anticipation,” you quote Patti Smith’s advice: “Don’t be afraid to feel joy in the face of sorrow.” It feels like that stands as a kind of thesis for the collection. These poems make us stare directly at every woe of our world and feel all the expected emotions—anger, sadness, frustration—but they also make us laugh. Why was it important to you to instill these poems with a sense of humor?

KR: I think a lot about fun. Fun sometimes gets dismissed as frivolity, or as this inessential extra that, if we’re serious people who want to live meaningful lives or effect political change or what have you, we have to cut out. I think the opposite is true. One of my favorite activists is Florynce Kennedy, who said she couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to be in a picket line with her because she makes it so much fun. She had all these little gags and all these cheeky touches to get the powers that be to take notice and to see that she was mocking them, but also that she was enjoying herself. I think that’s much more effective than a somber, “we’re all in church,” puritanical approach.

There’s this great quote in her biography by Sheri M. Randolph, which came out a couple of years ago, where she said, “I can't understand why a person would rather go on a ski slope than a picket line because I think a picket line just happens to be more fun, and the fact that it is politically astute is just a bonus.” That’s what I want. Life is often a struggle and if you can’t find that joy in the struggle, you’re going to get churned under… Or at least, I’m going to get churned under. I think we can walk and chew gum. We can soberly lament the state of the world while also making some sick burns about Donald Trump.

I was also thinking about jokes and the structure of jokes. The need for impeccable timing to be a good comedian is kind of true in poetry, too. You need good timing everywhere but especially where you’re being funny. I have the line, “Meaningless suffering is the aim of Satan. Guess we better find some meaning”—which I want to be sad, but I also want to be like, ba-dum-bum.

TQ: We don’t see a lot of comedy in poetry. Why do you think that is?

KR: That’s a great question. I recently taught a workshop called “Send in the Clowns” at the Midwest Writer’s Workshop in Muncie, Indiana on how to put humor in your poetry. I picked three poems by poets who I think are consistently very funny. These are poets who mean a lot to me but I’m not sure they’re big mainstream poets.

Just to give some shout outs… Sommer Browning is one. She’s based in Denver. She’s a librarian and a phenomenal poet. She blurbed my book and part of why I asked her is because I think she’s so funny and I hope I am, too. Her new book Good Actors is funny in a similar way that I hope to be funny, where it’s emotional and intellectual and devastating but also hilarious. Check her out.

I also taught Mark Leidner at the workshop. He has a book out called Returning the Sword to the Stone that is so funny that when I was reading it, I had to put it down and take breaks because I was literally crying. I’d stop and read poems out loud to my husband Martin, who’s also a writer, and we’d both just crack up.

Then I also taught José Olivarez, who also blurbed my book. He’s a Mexican American poet and his first book is called Citizen Illegal. He identifies himself in his bio as the proud son of Mexican immigrants and I think he’s a great example of why more people should use poetry as a humorous space. The serious points he’s making are so much sharper because of his ability to add humor to them. So there are people who are doing it. You might just have to dig a little to find them.

TQ: As a reader, I sensed you had a fair amount of fun while writing these poems. There’s a lot of playfulness in the language (e.g. “A morning constitutional, mourning the Constitution”), a lot places where you subvert our expectations—like when you insert a line of HTML that generates a piece of pixel art, or when you invite the reader to google Madonna of the Goldfinch while you wait. Was it as much fun as it appears?

KR: It was absolutely as much fun as it appears. I wrote the rough draft of the manuscript (which I edited, of course) as part of a poem-a-day challenge that my friend Kimberly Southwick put on. She’d done it for a few years and she’d asked me a few times before and I’d always been like, “No, I’m too busy,” because, per my earlier answer, I’m a type A overachiever and if I say I’m going to do something, I want to do it A-plus-one hundred-percent-gold star or I don’t want to do it.

So in past years, I said no because I thought I’d fail, or I wouldn’t actually do it every day and that would drive me crazy. But then for whatever reason, even before we knew there was going to be a lockdown, I was like, “Yeah, you know what? 2020’s the year. I’m going to make time for this. I’m going to make space for this in my life.” I think I agreed to do it in January of 2020 before any of us knew what was about to hit us. So it is not an exaggeration to say that when I was writing these—you know, getting up every morning in April of 2020 and going into the Google doc that Kim had set up and finding the prompt and spending those two or three hours before I logged into my computer to teach my asynchronous classes, knowing that I was going to live the whole day not seeing another human—it was the best time of my life in that extremely excruciating era we were all living through.

TQ: I learned so much while reading these poems. You layer in a lot of interesting, often offbeat facts about everything from dolphins, who have distinct whistles they respond to like names, to cinder blocks, which you inform us are called breeze blocks in the UK. Are you a collector of facts by nature?

KR: Yes, I am. I’m not a diarist and I’m not a journal keeper. I have good friends who are and it’s a practice that I admire and even envy, but every time I’ve started to keep a diary, I get so freaking bored with myself. That’s why I’m a historical fiction writer.  I find other people far more fascinating and I learn more about myself reading about others than I do plumbing the depths of me. No shade to people who are the opposite.

What I do is keep a notebook in that sort of Joan Didion “On Keeping a Notebook” sense where she says something about how you have to be kind of a magpie to keep a notebook. Of course, magpies—I put a lot of birds in the collection, too—are famous for stealing all kinds of little things to put in their nests, or maybe they steal just for the sake of stealing. Who knows why they’re doing it, right? They’re like the dolphins with the names. They’re animals and they do a lot of things and we don’t really know why they do them.

I’m a magpie by nature in that if I see, while I’m reading or watching a documentary or talking to a person, something that strikes my fancy, I write it down in my notebook. Usually with no clear purpose. I’m not thinking, “Oh I’m going to put that in an essay” or “Oh, my character is going to say that.” I think, “That’s neat.” Later I can come back to it and think about whether it might go somewhere. I might be writing on a topic and remember I read that thing about dolphins a couple months before and maybe I’ll throw it in.

Related to that, I do Poems While you Wait, the typewriter poetry group that invites people to give us a topic and a donation in exchange for a poem. I always have my jotting notebook next to me and when somebody gives me a topic, I’ll flip through my notebook to see if I can find an entryway into it. I did that in the collection, too.

People say such beautiful things all the time. It goes back to the idea of originality. I don’t know if I could ever say something better than the person who originally said it so why would I not use it? I’m going make it new, I’m going put it in my own context but it’s like finding a jewel and being a jeweler and putting it in the perfect setting. There’s an issue of The New Yorker out now that contains all archival stuff and they have this great Kenneth Tynan piece about Louise Brooks. I’m obsessed with silent movies. My new novel coming out in the fall of 2023 is inspired by Colleen Moore, a silent star. Tynan quotes Louise Brooks about how dancing with Fatty Arbuckle was like “floating in the arms of a huge doughnut.” And that’s amazing. I cannot do better than that. So I hope I get to put that somewhere, with credit to Louise Brooks. When I come upon stuff like that I think, this is gold! And then I magpie it up.

TQ: Catholicism and its many saints and symbols feature prominently in these works and you write about them in a tone that doesn’t come off so much critical as it does knowledgeable. At times, even a little wistful. Can you talk about your relationship to Catholicism and why you wanted to explore it here?

KR: I was raised Catholic—very strongly, not casually. My parents still go to church every Sunday and—this is in one of the poems—I have a ton of priests and religious people in my family. My granny Marie, my mother’s mother, was one of six children and of those six, four took religious orders. Her sister Elizabeth became a nun and three of her four brothers became priests. One even went on to become a bishop so we’re talking hardcore, it’s not casual Easter/Christmas Catholicism. It was every day and I believed it all. Believed it completely. 

Then I, like many people, went through a disillusionment because I realized that while so much of the church that is mystical and beautiful and moving—the stories, the stained glass, the vestments; it’s an aesthetically vivid religion—so much of it is unjust and abusive and petty and oppressive.

Then again, on the beauty side, if you’re someone like me who likes schedules and likes repetition, the ritual aspect of it is incredibly comforting. I love all that. Like just last night, I was having a hard time sleeping and I prayed the rosary. People out there reading this interview might think, “You did WHAT?” Because I don’t talk about faith a lot and it can be received as passé to in any way incorporate elements of a religion that is so not where it should be with social justice.

All of that is to say I’m not a practicing Catholic. I don’t have a church. I don’t have the relationship with it that I used to. In my twenties, I was very mad at it and thought, “Screw this, it’s all crap. I can’t believe I was gaslit for this long.” And I don’t think I was wrong about that but now that I’m in my forties, I’m not mad anymore. I’m just thinking about it.

Any longing that might come across signifies a longing for a faith and a faith community, for this thing that has the capacity to be really beautiful and a force for good to live up to what it could be. I think you see that yearning all through the book. I feel the same way about democracy. We’ve kind of never had it. After November 2020, when Biden finally won, I allowed myself to read Jill Lepore’s These Truths, her huge, almost 1000-page history of America. I couldn’t read it before I knew how the election turned out because I knew if 45 was still in charge, it was going to be too painful. That book is a look at how, conceptually, what America is supposed to be on paper is so appealing. But we’ve never had a true democracy where women and people of color and poor people have been enfranchised in the way that they’re supposed to have been. So I guess I feel the same way about Catholicism. It talks a good game, but I’d like to see the execution level up.

TQ: You write, “It’s hard to be an atheist in such an age, so why not make up your own theology?” What would your theology look like?

KR: For theology, it’s hard to do better than to peel every twisted thing organized religion added away and go back to what Jesus said. I admire Jesus as a person, that basic golden rule stuff. The beatitudes and the corporal works of mercy. I want a world where people comfort the sick and visit those in prison and welcome the stranger—stuff like that. Just really beautiful New Testament Jesus behavior.

It would be something like liberation theology. I mean it doesn’t have to be Catholic but again, that’s the tradition I’m coming from. I know the most about it and I hesitate to speak about other religions if I don’t know what I’m talking about. The idea of liberation theology, of taking kind of a Marxist approach, being a Marxist Christian and acknowledging how nuts it is that this many people live in poverty, that this many people don’t have homes. It’s important to have that pushback in a world where so many people feel like capitalism is the best system. How can you look at the world we have and say that? What if we made a different choice?

TQ: These poems are unflinchingly political. You leave no question on where you stand on topics like capitalism, climate change, our former president. How freeing (or frightening) was it to write with such honesty?

KR: It was very freeing. I think something I’m interested in is that Overton Window concept, that window of what people consider possible. I think it was Marx—it might have been Engels, one of those great thinkers—who said that an idea becomes a material force once the masses start to believe in it. This idea of an abstract concept becoming tangible because enough people get behind it is very appealing to me. I’m not a person who’s like, “my poetry is my activism” or “my poetry is my politics.” I think they’re absolutely related but it’s not enough to put out a poetry book. But in a weird way, in a small way, it felt really freeing to contribute to hopefully opening the Overton Window.

We’re doing this interview right after Biden announced his debt forgiveness plan and I think that’s a great Overton Window example. For so long it seemed like nothing was happening and I can only imagine that the activists in the Forgive the Debt movement spent many years thinking, “This is pointless, no one’s listening.” But you don’t know when that Marx magic is happening and suddenly an idea is becoming a material force. We just saw that happen. Ten years ago, if you were like, “Yeah, maybe we should forgive some peoples’ debt,” most people would have said, “That’s stupid. That can’t happen. That’s not a thing.” Whereas now, lots more people think that could absolutely be a thing.

TQ: What is your hope for how readers will respond to this book?

KR: Oh that’s a great question. I hope they have some fun. I hope they come away from the book thinking, “That was an awesome way to spend two hours.” And maybe also, “Now I’ll go read some more poetry.”