Poetry Spotlight: Jill McDonough

Jill McDonough‘s newest collection of poetry, Here All Night, is a unique mix of free verse and sonnets that invites readers into tales of domesticity and community, though not everything is joyous and kind. In Here All Night, McDonough makes brilliant use of humor to analyze the economy, gender discrimination, and the penal system of America. With an easygoing wit and a style that appears effortless, McDonough reassures readers that in the end, things will be okay, but it is the reckless optimism of the book that makes readers believe it.

Jill McDonough‘s previous books include Habeas Corpus (Salt, 2008), Where You Live (Salt, 2012), and Reaper (Alice James, 2017). She has won three Pushcart prizes, as well as 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. Her work has appeared in PoetrySlateThe NationThe Threepenny Review,  Best American Poetry, and four issues of Memorious. She taught incarcerated college students through Boston University’s Prison Education Program for thirteen years. She now teaches in the MFA program at UMass-Boston and offers College Reading and Writing at a Boston jail.

So many of the poems in Here All Night seem to center around everyday tasks like conversations, teaching classes, finances, and even breakfast. What about these everyday moments inspires you to create such poignant poems? What would you say want to highlight in these poems, if anything? 

We are going to die, which is such a shame because it’s so so great to be alive. I love it, don’t you? I think writing the poems helps me take the time to see how super everything is, and then they are written and I can look back at them and remember, and look forward to the next great thing that’s going to happen. Like breakfast. Every night when I go to bed I get excited about the tea Josey is going to bring me when I wake up, or whether I’m going to drive stick shift across town or get one of the high-up seats with the good views on the bus, or take the T and fall in love with all the people looking at their phones. My friend Major Jackson says I’m an archivist of my own life, which I like. I used to keep a journal, like, a lot; like, I filled a blank book a month. Then I got together with Josey and just started making her listen to my bullshit instead of writing it all down. And taking the best parts and making them into little machines that make it easier to dismiss the bitching when I get fired or I have cramps or I miss my friend. Because something wonderful is about to happen again right now.

I know, sorry, my good cheer is unbearable. At least I’m also sarcastic and swear a lot. 

In pieces such as “In Which I Am Accused of Sleeping My Way to the Top,” and “Man’s Man” we can see the speaker shining a light on certain gender issues. How would you say gender identity (either self-imposed or prescribed by society) has influenced your work?

I think gender is hilarious. We’re all walking around wearing these costumes but some of us don’t know it? Or get mad when other people point it out? So paying attention to that, like paying close attention to most anything, is a useful way to get into a poem. I’m married to a hot butch lesbian, and lots of times I overhear people wondering if Josey is a man or a woman. Which is absurd, she has an incredible rack. Not to objectify my hot butch wife or her incredible rack. But the nervous laughter in people’s voices when they go Ha ha! Is that a man or a woman!? is so sweet. It’s usually a man who wishes he had biceps like Josey’s. It’s okay, buddy! Your arms are fine! I’m sure someone loves them just the way they are. Now move along.

As a queer poet, I sometimes grow frustrated when people claim my work is inherently political due to my sexual orientation. While pieces like “Sewn Stripes, Embroidered Stars” have an obvious political slant, do you view pieces like “Whitey Bulges” or “Tuesday Morning” as inherently political pieces? Has the politicizing of queer identities ever presented complications in your work? 

I’m down with being inherently political. I think it’s kind of a bonus, a free level of meaning. My corny-ass love poems get to fight the power—sweet. Maybe we get frustrated when people call us political because we think political translates into “no fun,” but of course nothing is more fun than burning down the patriarchy before breaking for cocktails and candy and making out.

In your previous collection, Reaper, you used the looping nature of villanelles to discuss some poignant aspects of this “drone warfare” America. In this collection, sonnets discuss anything from money (in “Sonnet for the Money”) to faculty meetings (in “On Faculty Meetings) to the process of writing poems (in “This Next Poem”). What led you to use sonnets to discuss these various topics? What do you consider when deciding what particular form a poem will take? 

And “Gay Freaking Assholes: On Tolerance”! That one’s a sonnet. Whatever that one is about. And “Lundi Gras at Commander’s Palace,” which is a love poem. Maybe they are all love poems. The sonnet is a perfect little machine, isn’t it? You can put your sloppy, half-baked notions into it and it makes them into something precise and elegant, like a Crock-Pot or a bread machine. Thanks, sonnets! Sometimes I like to make them as disguises, like in “This Next Poem,” which I wrote to imitate the kind of interstitial bullshit patter you hear at poetry readings.

And lots of times I write sonnets during graduation ceremonies or faculty meetings or some other event that requires my physical presence but not much of my attention. It’s a perfect little machine, and it’s a puzzle, or a toy, like a fidget spinner or a paint-by-number that you can keep fucking with until it it turns into something real, real art. It tells you what it needs! So few problems do that work for you, tell you the shape of the answer you need to find next. So lots of times I feel like the form isn’t about the desired result, but the process. I pick form because it will give me some emotional distance from the material, or scratch some itch for order, or help me see what it needs to be finished. Or I’m just showing off.

One word that came to mind upon reading this book was balance. Several poems in this collection balance humor and hard truth, such as “Eight of Wands” or “In Which I Am Accused of Sleeping My Way to the Top.” Was the concept of balance important to you when you were creating this collection, or did this balance occur naturally when you collated the pieces? 

That’s a nice thing to say, thank you; I think I’m working toward that balance in my life, like, trying to be gracious and charming and find absurd things funny and help others to find them funny too, instead of panicking about stupid shit and being small and letting people down. So that happens in the poems, too. I want to make fun of everything, including me. And this life is such a lucky beautiful one; what kind of asshole bitches about things? Me. This kind. I figure I’m allowed to bitch as long as I roll my eyes at myself for bitching.

Because of the breadth of topics covered in this collection, there are a lot of pieces that readers can find to admire. Is there any specific poem or group of poems in the collection that you are particularly proud of? If so, what drew you to write those pieces? 

I think “Ming” might have been the first time I wrote some heroic-ish couplets that I could get behind. And I have a whole section on my website that’s just poems about Josey.

My mother-in-law doesn’t read poetry, but she just emailed me that she was enjoying my book, which was a total surprise. She said, “You have a way of taking the tiny, every day stuff and making it important. Not tiny any more. Don’t know how else to say it…. And of course your love of Josey creeps in where you’d least expect it, and for this we are on the very same page….” Isn’t that sweet?

Interviewer Shay Hawkins is a second-year student at Bowling Green State University’s MFA program in poetry. She obtained her MA in Rhetoric and Composition from Appalachian State University and plans to continue on to a PhD. in Rhetorical Studies. Her research interests include the history of rhetorical theory and classicist poetics. 

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