Jill McDonough and I met as undergrads at Stanford, where her honors thesis analyzed the language of stories about mothers who murder their children—namely Euripides’s Medea, the myths of La Llorona, and the then-current case of Susan Smith, who strapped her two sleeping boys into their car seats, then pushed her car into a lake.
This double-helix of language and horror recurs throughout Jill’s body of work, bonded by her direct, intelligent, and innocent curiosity. In her poems live humanity’s dark and darker decisions and consequences, but also—and this may be hard to believe without reading her poems yourself—humor and celebration.
Jill’s first book, Habeas Corpus, comprises fifty sonnets on American executions, from 1608 to 2005. Here, the sonnet—a form traditionally for love poems—is dedicated to these condemned dead, be they guilty monsters or wronged innocents. With primary source material incorporated into many of the poems, the book is an exquisite, inquisitive consideration of capital punishment in America.
“Habeas corpus” is literally “you have the body,” and many poems in Jill’s second, more autobiographical book, Where You Live, continue this parsing of body—body as dwelling, memorial, awesome creation, futuristic robot; body as language, mystery, history; as love, lust, punishment, miracle, epiphany; imperfect, perfect, mystical, funny; body as a means to other ends. And what places do those bodies inhabit—what country, what community, with what customs, in prison, at home, what abode, what ceremonies, with whom? And what does it all add up to? “[T]his other kind of grown-up,” she writes, “people we had no way / of knowing we’d grow up to be.”
Jill is one of the most cheerful people I’ve ever met. Wherever we’ve crossed paths—from San Francisco to Singapore to Boston (where she lives with her wife, Josey Packard)—Jill knows which museum not to miss, which bar’s drinks are bona fide, which restaurant has the best combo of ambiance-cuisine-uniqueness. She knows back routes and days when admission’s waived.
And while Jill may be the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes and a slew of fellowships—Fine Arts Work Center, New York Public Library, Stanford’s Stegner, Library of Congress, to name a few—she remains unflinchingly candid about the pragmatic challenges of being an artist, by which I mean procuring time and money. After seventeen years of adjunct teaching, including thirteen years teaching in Boston University’s Prison Education Program, last fall she landed at UMass-Boston, in a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor of Poetry.
Just before New Year’s, we met up in her home and drank too much coffee.
The Rumpus: Many poems in your new collection are about working in prison.
Jill McDonough: I’m not using people’s real names, but if I wasn’t writing poems I think that I would get in trouble. There are lawsuits over memoir about prison. Somehow there’s a different kind of permission when you’re writing poetry, because nobody fucking reads poetry.
Rumpus: They think poetry is unicorns and flowers?
McDonough: They just can’t see it. They look at it and it’s in line breaks, and so it’s in code or something, and they’re like, “That’s fine.” You can take anything into a prison if it’s in poetry. That’s one of the reasons that poetry really flourishes in prison, because people figure out that it’s not something that people think of as reporting. They really can’t see poetry. And that’s not just true in the Department of Corrections, that’s true all the time. There’s all kinds of secrets in poems and people just don’t—nobody can read it.
McDonough: They just don’t read it. If they don’t open the book, they don’t even know the book is there.
Rumpus: You were forced to take down your blog, Jail Not Yale.
McDonough: That was very visible, right? You can see it on your computer screen, and it’s in prose and there’s photographs and it’s super accessible. Both of the people [who asked me to take it down] were new in their positions, and didn’t know that I had already gotten permission to have the blog. They were just scared. They’re just catching on to how social media is working and it makes them really nervous.
I’m now teaching for Changing Lives Through Literature in the South Boston Courthouse and they don’t seem to have any of those restrictions. It’s all ladies and they’re all completely panicked. They’re like, “Poetry is terrifying!” They have these long stories like, “I know I did this wrong and I don’t understand anything about poetry and I’m not really much of a reader and I couldn’t find my book so I didn’t do the homework but I did like this one line, ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’, because when you love another person, it’s not just one thing: the way that I love my son, I love him like I want to take care of him, and I love him like I think he’s funny—but I know I did it wrong.” And I’m like, “You didn’t do it wrong at all. Look, you’re making me cry. I’m so happy for you that this poem was useful to you.” They don’t get it that that’s all it is. Good! You read that, it meant something to you, you’re done. Nice job.
Rumpus: In your new book, Where You Live, there are personal poems, and poems about your work in prisons, but then there are also a few poems that seem political to me, like “Dear Gaybashers.”
McDonough: Which is personal.
Rumpus: The personal is political?
McDonough: I was just talking about this with my friend Lauren. There’s a kind of automatic politicization of my marriage, my relationship with Josey, that Lauren doesn’t have around her relationship with her boyfriend. The country is figuring out what it’s doing with a relationship like ours. But really, us being gay doesn’t have much impact on our relationship. “Dear Gaybashers” isn’t really a political poem, because, I don’t think, it’s not about interacting in a dangerous way with the state. I think of “3 a.m.” and “Coffee For Everyone”—a poem about torture: definitely totally one hundred percent political. A lot of the poems are about, what does it mean to be American? That, to me, seems more political than what does it mean to be gay in a place where people want to throw hot dogs at you. It’s definitely a poem about, Look how lucky we are. Both “3 a.m.” and “Dear Gaybashers” are about how our lives are not political. But I don’t have a problem with them being referred to as political poems.
The poem [“That Other Aubade”] that talks about seven of the nine thirty-five-dollar overdraft charges, to me, is a more political poem than any of the gay ones. Because we’re living in a time in which we’re constantly skating on the edge of debt, or we’re fucking drowning in it. Debt, to me, is a much more political issue than the kind of sex we have. But that’s not the conversation that we’re having, as a country. Everybody’s much more interested in gay marriage than debt. Except Elizabeth Warren.
Rumpus: I think about your first collection, Habeas Corpus, fifty sonnets about capital punishment. Those are really political.
McDonough: Right. The poems that are about my life, whether or not we decide that they’re political, are the ones that just happened to me. “This really good thing happened and now I’m going to write a poem about it.” I don’t really have a lot of control over that. But the ones that require research are like an engine that I can keep running instead of being like, “I wonder if I’m going to write a poem today. I’ll ride the subway and see what happens.” That’s not useful for me as a writer. Having something that I’m obsessing over, something I can do lots of crazy research on, is fruitful.
Rumpus: What are you obsessing over now?
McDonough: I want to write about drones. The history of surveillance. I’m interested in stealth aircraft. I don’t have an attitude like, “I’m against drones.” I think a problem in America is we know so little about it, that you feel like to be a decent pacifist you have to be against killer robots. I don’t feel that way. I think it’s kind of awesome that we can be like, “That guy’s a bad guy, so we can kill him.” It’s just like, you should know he’s a bad guy. Instead, we’re killing a lot of people. It’s maybe a little too easy.
Rumpus: And we’re going over borders that we’re not supposed to be going over.
McDonough: I’m so interested in Trevor Paglen. He’s doing these beautiful large photographs that are landscapes, and then there’s the little fuzzy dot and it’s called “Untitled (Reaper Drone).” One of Trevor Paglen’s books is called I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me. It’s all insignia patches for black ops groups that are secret. There’s no record of them, but the patches exist. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has this “How Many People Have We Killed?” And they’re like, “Well, either 2,894 or 3,267.” We don’t know.
Rumpus: When did you figure out how to use research like this?
McDonough: During my fellowship in Provincetown [at the Fine Arts Work Center]. I was like, “While I’m here, I’ll do a lot of New England research,” and then started this five-year project about the executions. But sometimes something would happen and I would write this other poem. My relationship with Josey—I’d been with her for a year when I started doing that research. Whenever I had a fellowship—I had lots of fellowships during that time—I was like, “Okay, I don’t have a job right now, so either I have to find ways to be productive, and I don’t feel like writing today so I will do research, or I don’t feel like revising today so I’ll start a fresh poem.” It was Advanced Procrastination Technique, how I did the whole five years of Habeas Corpus.
On the other hand, sometimes I was teaching nine classes and I still wanted to find some time to write, so I needed to have a to-do list of “what am I supposed to be working on today,” instead of, “Eh, go for a walk.” There’s no time for that. My top priority is to continue revising this particular poem, or I have to track down this particular reference. It was about being focused, whether I had all the time in the world or zero time. Having a research project is very useful for me in terms of making that focus happen. When I’m teaching, I make the students work with outside sources just because I think it makes your work better.
Rumpus: I think so, too, but I have also fallen into the black hole of doing research and getting lost. Does that happen to you?
McDonough: All the time. The fellowship that I had at the Boston Athenaeum, I kept getting lost in that physical space. You read forever. You’re like, When do I stop reading? There was one woman that I ended up not writing about; the only thing we know about her is one line in a newspaper: “The slave Marja was hanged last week.” It’s kind of amazing to think about writing from just that much information.
Rumpus: When you write a poem, at what point do you figure out if it’s going to be in a certain form?
McDonough: Sometimes I know right away and I approach it with that kind of assignment for myself: now I’ll write a prose poem about riding Fung Wah. Sometimes I feel like, This kind of repetition lends itself to a particular form. Often, I use form as scaffold to get to some place. I start to write a villanelle or a sestina and then wind up abandoning the form, but it’s a way of getting me going.
A magazine, which shall remain nameless, asked me to look at government photographs and write a short piece about one of them. I chose a picture of a Japanese war balloon, which is like the first intercontinental ballistic missile. It went from Japan and it came over and wanted to start a fire in Seattle, but Seattle’s very wet. I wrote this blank verse poem that required a lot of research and took me months, and then I turned it in and they were like, “Oooh, yeah, we didn’t mean a poem. We meant a short piece.” And I was like, “Okay.” So I took out all the line breaks and made a couple of paragraph breaks, and then I gave it back to them and they were like, “Great! Thank you.”
Rumpus: That reminds me of what you were saying about poetry in prisons.
McDonough: People freak out. I used to think that it was people having bad experiences as children with poetry, but I don’t know. It’s just not that hard.
Rumpus: Sometimes it is hard, though.
McDonough: Some of them.
Rumpus: You read a poem and you’re like, “I don’t get it.”
McDonough: Right. Then you’re mad at poetry.
Rumpus: You think, This is some special club with a special language that I don’t belong to.
McDonough: I heard Louise Glück give a talk in which she talked about hearing Kay Ryan give a talk, in which Kay Ryan said, “Here’s this Emily Dickinson poem, and I really love the language here in this part, and then down here I have no idea what’s going on, and then I really love this part.” Louise Glück was like, “Holy shit, you can say that?” And she said it to a group of high school teachers, and all the high school teachers were like, “Holy shit, you can say that?” And I was like, “Oh my god, this is so good—if Louise Glück can convince high school teachers to admit that they don’t always know what’s going on, the world is going to be a much better place.”
There’s all kinds of times when you have no idea what’s going on, but you can still be interested in things you don’t understand. Like fucking drones. I don’t understand how I feel about them, but I’m super interested in the fact that we’re struggling with this new technology, because that’s the same old adorable human story about grappling and trying to do the right thing—which I think Habeas Corpus is more about than it is a political book. To look at the narrative arc of executions in American history—sure, we killed a lot of people and often we’re demonstrating who we’re afraid of. We kill a whole bunch of black people or we kill a whole bunch of single Irish women or whatever it is that we’re freaked out by, but there’s also all of these [excuses] like, “So violent; we shouldn’t let children see this,” and then, “We shouldn’t let ladies see this,” and then, “We’re going to do it at midnight,” and “We’re going to have a different mechanism; we’re going to have an upright jerker instead of letting them drop,” and “We’re going to do a gas chamber, because that will be more humane.” We’re just trying to be more humane at the same time that we’re killing, and that’s the drone thing, too; we’re trying to be more humane to our own soldiers, even as we’re like, “Sorry about your fifteen-year-old son, Yemeni Bad Guy.”
It’s sweet. It is a tenderness for human nature that we try so hard to do the right thing, even though it’s so obvious that we’re just fucking shit up. I love us.
Rumpus: A lot of your poems are about Josey. Is any stuff off-limits?
McDonough: It hasn’t come up. Because I’m lucky in that they’re all love poems. I don’t have any nasty smack to say about her. Everything I’ve ever written about Josey is like a present for her, like how much I love her.
Rumpus: Do you ever have any qualms when you’re writing, like, this is too personal, too intimate?
McDonough: I have a new poem that I just submitted for publication. It’s the only time that I’ve been like, I don’t know if I want to publish this. It’s set in when I was in Salt Lake City, and I was so fucking depressed and hated it so much. It talks about a student who had real problems with depression and was talking about that experience beautifully, and me having to help her with her poems when my periods were just fucking awful. I have a little bit in the poem where I’m sitting on the toilet bleeding and crying. I was like, I’m really going there? I think the line is “Bleed on the toilet, weep, go on.” It’s about convincing yourself how to get through the day. Like, if I can do this, then I’m going to take myself to the dollar movie and get a large buttered popcorn. Or, once I’m done with this, I’m going to have a martini and watch TV. These rewards for yourself that are just absurd.
Ariana Reines is a poet I admire whose writing is completely different from mine and the kinds of risks she’s taking about confessionalism in her work are so much bigger. She has a Tumblr, and she got her period on the street and came home and posted a picture of the blood on her panties. I was like, “Holy fucking shit! You’re blowing my mind!” Like, really? That’s what’s shocking in art?
Rumpus: Did you see the Cindy Sherman retrospective at MOMA?
Rumpus: She has a photograph, part of which is a mannequin of a woman’s torso, with a vagina, hairy, with a tampon string coming out of it. When I saw it in the museum, I had this feeling of like, That’s so weird to see on a museum wall.
McDonough: I went to Art Basel with Susan [Mikula], and there was a huge painting, the size of a wall, that was a woman’s spread legs, hairy crotch, tampon string, and a chicken head, in the frame, and people were just like, “What the fuck?” It was very upsetting just to think of having a live chicken that close to your crotch. So there’s a visceral “we’re not supposed to see that,” and there’s also a visceral “get that chicken away from my crotch.” There’s a crowd of eight strangers staring at it, saying, “Who would buy that? Have that up in your house? Like, you have your coffee and think about a chicken poking your vagina?”
Rumpus: “So I need to get butter, eggs…”
McDonough: “…chicken, Tampax. Thanks, painting!”
Rumpus: One other thing that stuck out for me in your new collection was this idea of “we didn’t know the people we were going to grow up to be.”
McDonough: I think that’s political.
Rumpus: In what way?
McDonough: Because when you’re a little girl, you’re like, “And then I go to college, and then I meet my husband, and then we get married, and then I have kids, and I don’t want to work and have kids.” When you’re a child and you have a picture of adulthood, it is not partying until 4 am when you’re forty years old with your bartender wife, and then getting on your bikes and then going home to your apartment in North Beach and thinking about your overdraft charges. It’s a model of adulthood that has no expression in the hinterlands. Josey’s from Topeka; I’m from Alexander, North Carolina. If we saw single women at all, we certainly didn’t see lesbians. There were no women who lived together. There also weren’t adult single women. It was all “family.” Families with children. So for us to be a family? Like, today we were raking together. It was so sweet. Josey’s wearing her orange satin jacket that we got from the thrift store and these big hand mitts we got from Target, that you pick the leaves up with—that was not an available pattern and that’s what our adulthood looks like. It’s awesome.
And who are these people who tell you, “These are the best days of your life, ’cause adulthood is coming and then it’s just fucking misery”? In fact, I would say that although I was not unhappy in high school, those were the worst years of my life because I didn’t have any agency. Before I could drive, all I wanted was a car. If I could drive, then everything would be better. And then I was like, Okay, I can drive—I just want to live on my own. And having these dreams about what would that look like. And then you start having these inklings of, I could be a single woman living in a city. And that starts to get at the central freedom of our relationship, that Josey and I live in a city, and nobody tells us what to do. As a child, you have some inherent understanding that you will have more freedom when you’re an adult and many adults are telling you, “No, you don’t, actually it sucks.”
Rumpus: A lot of adults choose to imprison themselves, whether it’s getting into a marriage they don’t want or a career to please their parents.
McDonough: Also: “I can’t take any risks.” Just today, the home inspector guy who came to look at our house was like, “There’s a lot of investment properties that I’d be interested in, but I got a mortgage, I got kids.” Like: mortgage and the kids, mortgage and the kids, mortgage and the kids—I can’t take any risks. The ways that people tell themselves that—“I’m grounded. My parents say I can’t go out this weekend. I can’t do anything interesting with my life because I have a mortgage and kids.” It’s not true. I don’t believe that’s true. We have a mortgage; we do all kinds of crazy shit.
Rumpus: When I was here over the summer, we had a conversation about the fallibility of the idea “do what you love and the money will follow.” But now here you are: great job, two books, lot of publications.
McDonough: Part of that conversation was me saying, “I’m really nervous about encouraging people to go for their MFA, even implicitly by teaching in an MFA program” and you said, “Jill, that’s bullshit. You told me that you got your money’s worth, even though you’re still paying your debts off.” And I was like, “Good point.” There have been big times in my life when I’ve said, “The important thing is to become a better writer and having time to write, so I don’t care if I’m going into credit card debt.” And then there have been times of tremendous regret where I’m like, “What was that for? Now I have to take all these part-time jobs and I’m tired and I don’t have insurance and I’m scared.” That kind of anxiety makes it really hard to justify fifty sonnets about executions in American history, even though I’m proud of the book, especially from this distance. There are lots of dark fucking times when you’re an artist in America. Now, the answer is really easy: everything worked out. Maybe I felt like I didn’t have any choice. Of course, there’s the love part of it. I love writing and so I can’t stop doing it. I love Josey, so I’m going to live with her even if I have to live in a cage.
Even though there was no future in being an adjunct professor, it was not an option for me to wear panty hose and work behind a desk from nine to five. That’s not a life I can imagine myself being satisfied with. I’d rather be overworked, working seventeen part-time jobs and having that sense of freedom, than be in a cubicle. There were lots of ways in which the choices were already made for me. Sometimes that was frustrating. Now it feels like freedom. You know what I mean? But there’s certainly no take-away for other writers in this story, unless the take-away is: sorry, dude. If you’re stuck doing this, you’re stuck. And I have given that advice to lots of students before. If it’s possible for you to write in fiction instead of poetry, write in fiction, because there’s more of a market for it. If it’s possible for you to not write at all, or write computer code, do that. Do those things. But if it’s not possible, then good luck. Try to develop another skill set? Be good at waiting tables? I don’t know what the answer is.
The take-away for me is the importance of working with people less fortunate than yourself. I mean, the money was pathetic. I got $2,200 for teaching in the prisons for Boston University per class, and seven grand for teaching at Harvard per class. Teaching in prisons was bad money, but it was some money so I could afford to do it. It changed my life in terms of: even though it’s really hard, and even though I have all this debt, and even though I have a cold and I have to do to this work and I’m staying up until 2 am grading things, and then I’m getting up at six to go to another class, whatever—you’re not incarcerated. Your life is worse than a lot of other people’s, but it’s better than a lot of other people’s.
Having that kind of reminder has been central to a kind of happiness. It’s really hard to feel happy when you’re feeling put-upon. And there are a lot of people in academia that feel put-upon all the time and compared to working fourteen hours a day in service, or compared to being incarcerated, or compared to a million other things, teaching seven classes as an adjunct is kind of sweet. It’s hard to remember that when the guy across from you is a tenured professor, and getting seventy grand a year and sabbaticals and a teaching assistant. Constructing a life in which I spend at least as much time realizing how lucky I was as I did resenting the people who had stuff that I was never going to get—which I then got—was very important.
Rumpus: So how would you rewrite “do what you love and the money will follow”?
McDonough: “If you have to do what you love, make sure you volunteer in prisons.” I’ll work on making that pithier.