An Interview with Kathleen Rooney on “Where Are the Snows” – Chicago Review of Books


I met Kathleen Rooney soon after moving to Chicago in 2012. Since I grew up in Dallas where women don fresh blond highlights even in their babies’ birth announcements, Kathleen was the most radical person I’d ever met. Who was this intellectual who didn’t want kids, was decidedly going gray, and was a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, the acclaimed independent publisher whose logo is the sign of the horns?

She was my poetry professor and I liked her on day one. I loved her soon after when she arrived at class wearing a gothic purple corset (she swears this outfit didn’t exist). Ten years later, she’s still a mentor and a friend and—one of my all-time favorite writers. Through Chicago’s Poems While You Wait, which she co-founded, we now work together, traveling to events around Chicago and beyond writing one-of-a-kind, typewritten poetry on demand.

Her latest prose poetry collection, Where Are the Snows, chosen by Kazim Ali for the 2021 X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, is an incisive yet psychedelic showcase of Rooney’s talent. Critical and inclusive, researched and relatable, optimistic and darkly funny, Rooney’s newest says “fuck you” but also “I love you” to the world and the state of it all. I’m stoked I got to pick her brain about this frank, trippy book.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Caroline Macon Fleischer

You’ve talked and written, at length, about climate change, atmospheric catastrophe, and the Anthropocene. I’m struck by your dedication in Where Are the Snows: “To the future.” How do you think these poems serve as letters to the future and do you think, ha ha, that there is hope for us yet?

Kathleen Rooney

God, yeah, being alive and conscious right now can feel like a pummeling, like we’re all in the ring for a boxing match we never consented to and we keep getting hit and hit and hit. As you and I are talking now, in early July of 2022, in addition to the ever-present ambient bad climate news, we here in Chicagoland are reeling after the mass shooting perpetrated in Highland Park on the Fourth of July. At times like these, it’s hard not to think that all life in America has become is running errands and keeping busy until we get mass-shot. But that is not all life is, no way. Another world is possible and we deserve that world. Our leadership has failed us, but we do not have to fail ourselves. Neoliberal capitalism would like nothing more than for us—the people who are good and decent, or at least would like the opportunity to be (and we are in the majority!)—​​to stop hoping. To cease to hope would mean to cease trying to bring this better, more just and equitable and safe and harmonious world into existence. Hope is the most beautiful product of the human imagination, as beautiful as any poem or song. So when I dedicate the book to the future, I mean it with hope.

Macon

My above question was super sad. And your book is super sad! But so funny, too. The poem “The Life of the Mind” says, “I can easily imagine the world and the end of capitalism. / Can’t wait to catch you on the other side, where the blank page holds its breath and waits.” Are you talking about death or the end of the world?

Rooney

Both, I think. But I don’t think of the end of the world in an apocalyptic or dystopian way. I have a distaste for dystopian stories because to me this idea of a cataclysmic, definite end point seems false and even like a wish-fulfilling fantasy. Like, how many of us wrongly imagine the extinction of the dinosaurs: the meteor hit, then bang! The era ended. But really, the suffering was lengthy and protracted, just like our suffering is and will be in climate change and in late capitalism. The world has ended, the world is always ending, and I want that poem and the book to suggest that maybe the end of one world can make way for a new one. The old ways of doing things—the carbon-based economy, the Second Amendment (repeal it!)—have failed, that much is clear. But the question is: Now what? What world comes next?

Macon

I like “A Human Female Who Has Given Birth to a Baby.” The line “My mom used to dream of becoming an archaeologist. Dropping me off at college she said she wished that she’d never had kids. I wish I could know her as a person, just a person” is heart-stopping. How do you think the events of 2016 and beyond have given new dread to phrases like “women and children,” especially in women who don’t want kids?

Rooney

The election of 45 and the fall of Roe (to which his election directly led) have been gut punches. As predictably awful as those events have proven, they give us an occasion to think anew, not that most of us had stopped thinking about it in the first place. So much of our governing class holds the view that women are not people. To the misogynistic radical right wing (who are in the minority, but who hold power), women are not individuals worthy of the rights and choices of complete personhood. I want our society to grant personhood—the right to a qualitatively good existence—to more people, not fewer. I want personhood for women, I want it for children (who are also not treated as citizens), and even for animals and this earth, perhaps our ultimate mother. Supremacy of all kinds—white supremacy, cis supremacy, male supremacy, human supremacy, and on and on—poisons us. But a way of being that lets everyone—from my mom to all moms to the women like me to whom motherhood is anathema to Mother Earth, if that’s a way you like to think—live without being taken for granted, abused, and sacrificed? I guess that’s what I want. I want the phrase “women and children” to fill us with hope, not dread.

Macon

That poem reminded me of the 1970s Free to Be… You and Me song “Parents Are People” that says, “Mommies are people, people with children” and “Some mommies are ranchers, or poetry makers, or doctors or teachers, or cleaners or bakers / Some mommies drive taxis, or sing on TV / Mommies can be almost anything they want to be.” When my son was a baby, I hated that lyric. But then it haunted me until I liked it.

Rooney

I want that lyric to be true. It’s bananas that our country offers us so little in the way of support to parents, or support period. The way we get thrown to the wolves of capitalism daily is the very antithesis of “pro-life.” This lyric makes me wonder, as I often do: What if we, as a country, put programs and policies in place to make life easier and better not only for mommies and parents of all sorts, but for everyone? What if we got parental leave and childcare and equal pay for equal work and then kept on going? Let’s go all the way! Let’s cancel everybody’s student loan debts right now. Let’s grant universal healthcare. Let’s give everybody a universal basic income so if Mommy is a taxi driver, then it’s because taxi-driving fulfills her deepest soul, not because she has to grind or die to keep food on the table for her kids.

Macon

My favorite in the collection is “Ekphrastic.” I can’t stop laughing about the origin story, that the goldfinch got a red spot because it was splashed with Christ’s wound blood. Like, WTF? And in the scope of your larger collection, I wonder how a poet who will “never show my face in” capital-C Catholic Church can be inspired by its aesthetics?

Rooney

Aw, thank you! As I often say, the Catholic church gave me my earliest sense of the aesthetic and in spite of all the other damage it has caused me and millennia of innocent people, I am at least grateful for that. The lore of Catholicism is packed with compelling and grotesque and absurd and touching details like that one, and I’ve put a lot of those details into this collection because I think they’re so illuminating and fun to contemplate. I am interested in the mystical side of life, in the metaphysical realm—in the way a spiritual, or cosmic, or however you want to put it, mode of thinking can be an antidote to human supremacy. The aesthetics and teachings of various religions can open doors to being humble—there’s so much we do not know, so much we as a species have been wrong about—but also ambitious. We deserve (as Belinda Carlisle, who I quote in the book says) to make heaven a place on Earth. Why wait until we are dead? We could have Eden here if we stop fucking around.

Macon

During the early parts of the pandemic, Poems While You Wait was doing remote poetry. But unlike in person, where the poems get typed within minutes, there was a two-day turnaround time. Did you tend to sit and think on poems during those 48 hours or did you still do them in 10-15 minutes?

Rooney

Great question! I missed being in person so much during that time, both for PWYW and for every other type of human interaction. Screens are my enemy; face-to-face is my friend. I can’t answer for the other poets, but for me, a PWYW poem is a genre of its own, serving a slightly different function than a typical poem, and therefore coming into being by a different means of composition. Whenever I called dibs on one of the requests, I would try to pretend that person was in the room with me and had just told me their topic and would crank it out in that energetic, improvisatory 10-minute manner.

See Also


Macon

Did participating in National Poetry Month in April 2020 help scratch that itch of the fast poem?

Rooney

It did, yes, but it also returned me to the mindset of the slow poem. I hadn’t written regular old solo poetry in so long. I do poems on demand so frequently, but I’d been focused on nonfiction prose writing and also writing novels for a few years when the pandemic hit. Kimberly Southwick’s amazing Poem-a-Day group in April of 2020 re-introduced me to drafting poems by myself over longer stretches of time, but still blended in aspects of PWYW that I love. Thanks to the group, we had prompts and suggestions as well as community and connection. I wasn’t writing the poems for a customer per se, but I knew that the other group members would read and remark on what I wrote. I would do the same for them because we were more into affirmations than critiques, being of the mindset that the point was to write and have fun, with the editing coming later. The atmosphere was super encouraging and motivating.

Macon

A version of “To Celebrate the Anniversary of Someone Else’s Birth” was published in The Atlantic. Can you talk a little about the edits you made for the magazine version versus the version in the book here?

Rooney

The Atlantic is a magazine in which I have hoped to have a poem forever. When they accepted that poem, I was over the moon. As a glance at the book version and the magazine version reveals, the mag wanted a snappier title so we went with “Birthday,” and they also wanted the piece to be in lines and stanzas. I consider the pieces in Where Are the Snows to be prose poems (and even to push past that border into essay territory) and deliberately wrote them in these non-line-broken, sentence-driven stanzagraphs. But the chance to reach an audience as big as that of The Atlantic led me to think, “Why not?” I’m an editor, too, at Rose Metal Press, and believe editors have visions that add value. Following this editorial vision struck me as an opportunity, not a drawback.

Macon

Lastly, a process question! When you were first writing these, did you see themes coming through as a collection during the process? Or were you doing it pour le sport?

Rooney

As much as I try in every aspect of my life to just be in the moment, or whatever, that’s rarely possible (and probably that’s fine). I am usually simultaneously in the present, the past, and the future! (Most people are, probably? These states seem inextricable.) So although I considered trying to take each poem one day at a time and not have too many expectations or plans, I almost immediately knew that this was going to be a book—that all the poems would be composed in a similar manner, that they’d all have a certain kind of title, and that they’d all be in prose. Now that I’m answering this question, Caro, it’s taking me back to the beginning because I think my orientation toward future-thinking—I get so excited imagining how something will turn out and what will happen next—is probably what makes me so well suited to hope. You can’t dedicate a book to the future if part of you isn’t already living there and trying to make it fun.

POETRY
Where Are the Snows
By Kathleen Rooney
Texas Review Press
Published September 1, 2022



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