Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Jill McDonough

Memorious contributor Jill McDonough’s latest poetry collection, Reaper, takes war poetry to new places: computer screens far removed from the action. With elegant, conversational free verse and surprising, deft villanelles, McDonough ruminates on drone warfare, one of America’s more controversial war tactics. In chatty meditations on drones’ names, McDonough reveals what their makers might have been thinking. In tragic scenes overseas, she taps into the helplessness America’s “enemies” internalize daily. Perhaps most importantly, McDonough reminds us that while war is almost always painful to confront—whether up close or on a screen—“if we are willing to look at it, we can end up seeing it more clearly.”

Reaper meditates on drone warfare and America’s drone program. Often, this meditation centers on the names of the drones or other weaponized machines, from things like “Firebee” and “Cardinal” to “Predator, Reaper. Dominator.” Why did the names of these objects play such a big role in this book, and what are these poems saying about the power of language and naming?

I think of the naming as a kind of tell, a bit of subconscious coming through. Like how we all learned Rick Santorum wants to have sex with a dog when he said gay marriage will turn into man-on-dog—who the hell thinks of that? So “Firebee” and “Cardinal” reveal what the makers were thinking about those drones: they were proud they were making things so animal-like. Now we give these kinds of things these crazy names like Reaper and Hellfire and it seems childish to me—I say “My drone’s tougher than yours times infinity,” thinking of what the namers wanted to accomplish: my dad could beat up your dad, et cetera. But the people who actually get killed by these things probably don’t have much of a chance to be scared by the name—the name is for the namer, not the person whose house is enveloped in the sound of them hovering. And a name like Reaper or Hellfire takes the agency out of our hands as much as the distance of the tech does.

With drone warfare, we see a blurring of man and machine, which makes us question who is really in control. Reaper also questions who or what we can trust—humans or robots. In “Negative Obstacles,” the speaker says “the author suggests / we can’t be trusted, but robots probably could. / We could program them to always be good guys.” How do you think this trust—or lack thereof—in humans or machines plays into the poems in this collection?

I think it’s the kind of question we should be engaging with as a country, as we let the technologies seep in, become an unquestioned part of our lives. But at the same time we see these technologies becoming more advanced, and we take them more and more for granted, we also have more objective proof about how people in authority—in our police forces, in our government—reveal themselves as racist, as having poor judgment, as making decisions for money or power instead of for the greater good. The machines’ lack of self-interest helps us see ourselves better, you know?

In the current political climate, the issue of American exceptionalism is a source of tension. Our current president ran his campaign on an “America first” agenda, and many people disagree with this view of our “place” in the world. Several poems in this collection directly or indirectly question how exceptional America really is. Can you talk about this idea a little more and how it helped shape the poems in Reaper?

When I was a kid I saw Platoon on a school trip, and it completely blew my mind to realize that maybe Americans weren’t always the good guys. But we fought Nazis! So we had to be good, right? We still think we are the good guys, which is really sweet, but thinking we are in the right leads us to some pretty dark places.

One American idea I really struggle with is Freedom. We love Freedom! It has to do with eagles and flags and is super American. I have no idea what it means. We are more free to criticize our leaders than people living under Putin? Okay. But it seems to mean something bigger, something less specific than that, to the people wearing eagle hats. I think it’s another tell, another indication that we’re trying to forget we were made possible by slavery and keep profiting from prisons. Freedom! Love it or leave it! What the hell?

I really appreciate that you don’t shy away from highly politicized subjects, including, for example, gun control in “I Dream We Try Gun,” and income inequality in “The Money.” Do you feel that writers today have a duty to directly address issues like these? Why did you choose to write about these subjects? What do we lose if we don’t face these subjects head-on?

“Duty” is such a funny word. I could never tell someone “it’s your duty” with a straight face. I also don’t believe in telling other people what to write about. I do talk to my students about the importance of stakes in a poem­—we should feel a need to read it, you know? If it’s too slight it can feel pointless. Of course, a poem can also be too plodding or too boring or too shrill—it’s just one of the potential pitfalls, that maybe nobody cares about your poem but you. Writing about real stuff in a real way is more interesting for everybody. Even if the real stuff is an imagined Age of Giant Squid.

When I think of traditional war poetry, my mind goes straight to the trench poets writing about their experiences in World War I. Their physical proximity to death and destruction was often the core of their poems. One of the unique and frightening facets of drone warfare is that we can be so far away from the places we’re bombing—further than we’ve ever been before. Does this physical distance make writing about drone warfare more complicated? How? 

In a way, the distance makes it more real to me. I was never going to be in a trench, but I am one of the millions of people who own those drones. The tech makes it easier to ignore, but if we are willing to look at it, we can end up seeing it more clearly. Those WWI poems are the closest we can get to the trenches, but we can go on YouTube and see the same screens our drone operators saw when they decided to sparkle a target or pull the trigger.

While many of the poems in Reaper are written in whip-smart, conversational free verse, there are several poems written in form. There are two series of three consecutive villanelles that really stand out amongst the free verse of the collection. How do you think the themes and subject matters of these poems lend themselves to the villanelle form? Why did you choose to group these poems the way you did?

How stoked was I to realize my notes on the drone operators’ experience was starting to sound like a villanelle? The looping repetition of the form enacts some of the everyday twelve-hours-on, twelve-hours-off all-screens rut of the drone pilots’ experiences. This made me think about how you can watch the same place for twelve hours at a time for weeks and hope you get to bomb the place because what’s it all for if it’s just some innocent family you’ve been watching? It was useful to realize it’s not necessarily a relief when it turns out there’s nothing to worry about with that house . . . which helped me understand some of the thinking that lets innocent people get hurt.

The first villanelle section is a kind of warm-up for the Lt. Col. Matt J. Miller poems, a way to introduce the concept and the subject so the reader is ready for Miller’s perspective. I wanted all of Lt. Col. Matt J. Miller’s villanelles together, for company, and to draw focus to how useful his book was to me. He actually wrote to me when one of these first appeared online, “Still Death”—it ended “I work on forgetting the two boys” but he emailed to say “One slight point of contention—I’ve never tried to forget those two boys. I remember them often. I’ve done my best over the years to make sure we operate with greater discipline, restraint, and ability to avoid making those same mistakes. And I think we’ve made a lot of progress.” So I changed the poem.

One of the most heartbreaking emotions I felt at the end of some of these poems was helplessness. “In the Next Chapter” paints a picture of a world where humans eventually give up because of their powerlessness against drones. In “Stoning the Drone,” we see Afghans throwing rocks at a fallen American drone in a futile clash of man and machine, as the reader understands that this one failed drone will not make a difference in the big picture of war. In the former, I felt helpless as a human and an American who is against these practices and yet cannot stop them. In the latter, I see the helplessness of nations who can never compete with America’s war technology. Did this sense of helplessness and futility affect the writing of these poems? How so?

Yep. My first book was all sonnets about executions in American history, and since it came out I’ve given readings and people often ask what I thought sonnets were going to do to end the death penalty. And I’m all, “Oh, nothing. Nothing at all.” But it has to do more than not writing them at all, right?

So too with these poems—things bothered me, so I wrote about them. The poems helped me think. The helplessness helped me see what I wanted to think about.

Jill McDonough is the author of Habeas Corpus (Salt, 2008), Oh, James! (Seven Kitchens, 2012), Where You Live (Salt, 2012), and Reaper (Alice James, 2017). The recipient of three Pushcart prizes and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and Stanford’s Stegner program, she taught incarcerated college students through Boston University’s Prison Education Program for thirteen years. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Slate, The Nation, The Threepenny Review, Memorious, and Best American Poetry. She teaches in the MFA program at UMass-Boston and directs 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center online. Her fifth poetry collection, Here All Night, is forthcoming from Alice James Books.

Interviewer Susan Elliott Brown is the author of the chapbook The Singing Is My Favorite Part (Etched Press, 2015). Her poetry has appeared in The Best American Poetry blog, Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry, and Reunion: The Dallas Review, among others. She received her PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Mississippi. She currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama and works in advertising.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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