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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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Fiction Spotlight: Ranbir Singh Sidhu

rsnewheadshot-smallWe were lucky enough to snatch up Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s hilarious short story “‘Cross-eyes’ Thorpe Hits The Mark” for Memorious 25. Though he has spent the better part of the last two decades in Brooklyn and Crete, Sidhu is a writer with California in his blood. This is a component of his backstory—Sidhu was born in London and raised in the Bay Area—but also a central focus of his remarkable debut novel, Deep Singh Blue.

Sidhu, the author of the short story collection Good Indian Girls (Soft Skull Press) and a recipient of both a Pushcart Prize and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, presents us with a version of Northern California in the mid-80s as experienced by Deep Singh, a complex and highly-charged narrator. At the start of the book, he has transferred out of high school to enroll in a community college, hoping to put some distance between himself and his suffocating home, where his parents, first-generation Indian immigrants, subject him to their own ideas of the good life. Indeed, the California of Deep Singh Blue, with its cheap motels, liquor stores, and rent-by-the-hour hot tubs, seems a place where ideas of the good life have festered and soured, a place that contains within itself many of the forces that would come to characterize the country in the decades that followed. Kirkus calls the novel a “heart-wrenching coming-of-age tale in which survival depends more on compassion than rebellion.” Sidhu was kind enough to talk with Memorious fiction reader and contributor Chris Arp about his writing process, the state of the novel, and his weird home state of California.

 From the very first pages, the Northern California of Deep Singh Blue is an awfully claustrophobic place, both in Deep’s home and the wider environs. I’m thinking also of his driving trips, which seem to promise freedom but also an aimless kind of wandering.

 It’s set in the middle of the 1980s, in the heart of what was Reagan’s America, and even in California I think you felt the chill of that world. Certainly to me, as a recent immigrant at the time, I remember finding that world still closed in on itself and that surprised me. I knew kids in school who had never left the city limits, let alone hopped on the BART train and taken it to San Francisco or Berkeley, which was only a half hour away. And in such an enclosed world, which I think is what so much of American suburbia was back then, an aimless kind of wandering was the only real recreation, beyond drinking or making out, the latter if you were very lucky.

As far as how I approached it in the novel, I wanted Deep’s wider world to reflect his inner, and not so much as a literary device but to reinforce that this is how he sees the world because this very much is the kind of world he’s grown up in, if that distinction makes sense. He isn’t yet able to imagine a wider, more generous reading of what the world could be, even in the admittedly claustrophobic universe of the Northern California I paint here.

screen-shot-2016-01-21-at-3-09-44-pmOne of the triumphs of the book, to my mind, is the way the environment can be read as both subjective and real. Deep’s world is symbolically resonant, while at the same time drab, under-stimulating, and altogether uninterested in our protagonist. And isn’t that exactly what it feels like to be a teenager?

I wouldn’t think of Deep’s world as “symbolically resonant”—I’d just think of it as Deep’s world, and painted as clearly as I can with a mind to how he interacts with it. This is his world—whether the world he sees is different from some idea of a so-called “real” world I couldn’t answer. But that particular agony of teenagehood interested me, and in particular, Deep’s teenage years as a child of immigrants and growing up in a world that had absolutely no room for that experience.

It’s an interesting tension. He is at times explicitly interested in his parents’ lives, and at times not. On the first page, he says of his parents, “They weren’t doctors or engineers, neither had much of an education, they were the other Indians, the ones that don’t get talked about and whose stories don’t get written…” Now, this is told from a position of the somewhat older Deep, and when I read it I was prepared to learn their stories. Yet Deep spends most of the novel regarding his parents through the haze of his own frustration and rebellion. Sympathy only comes at the bitter end. Why portray his parents’ experience through such a narrator?

 I wanted to anchor Deep’s voice in that moment of his teenage years, and paint the world through that lens, which seems to me very interesting. And Deep’s older voice, which only comes in a few brief times, does give a larger sense of the world, or of a person who’s come to see the world as larger, but he doesn’t yet. I don’t want to undermine how horribly enclosed his world is and how intensely he finds himself shut out from larger conversations. That’s a very real experience of the world, and I didn’t want to devalue it by suggesting it was a false experience—it’s not, it’s as real and valid as any other, just more painful than many.

Yeah, the outside world trickles in, and is somehow twisted in the process. References are made, throughout the book, to the Sikh and anti-Sikh violence in the Punjab in the 1980s. Yet Deep hears about all this through Uncle Gur, whose reactions seem as outsized and impulsive as his comical business dealings. Who is Uncle Gur? How did his character come about and why was he chosen as the conduit for so many of the larger conversations?

 He grew out of a lot of people I know personally I suppose—and his reactions don’t seem particularly outsized to me frankly. As far as this question of why he was “chosen”—I really have to say he wasn’t chosen at all. I mean he’s just one of the characters in the extended family, and he certainly has a presence and a far greater interest in what’s going on in Punjab than Deep’s father does, say, but he wasn’t written in for that reason, rather all of that grew out of his character. I never write with an idea that I have something to say about a particular subject, and any larger meanings or connections come late in the process, and are usually a surprise to me.

You must have access to more passionate uncles. The only one I’ve ever known rarely spoke above a murmur. That’s interesting about your process. Who were the first characters in the genesis of the novel? Did it grow out of the central storyline between Deep and his initial love interest, Lily, or was the family there from the start? Or both, or neither?

 It very much grew out of Deep and wanting to look at his life, and actually the relationship with Lily came in quite late in the process of rewriting. It was their relationship that catalyzed so much of the novel for me, and made it considerably stronger, and she also gave him so much to play against and allowed him to look at some really quite dark parts of himself.

She’s a dark character. In one of the novel’s most electrifying sequences, she nearly runs a car off the road. She is half Chinese—“a fucking half-Chink, half-cracker,” is how she introduces herself—and so is the family in the car. Afterwards, she says, “At least the Chink had balls…Usually they shit their pants.” Deep’s reaction is really interesting. She insists that he refer to himself as a Paki. “‘Paki,’ I agreed, thinking there it was, the cages we both lived in, for her Chink, for me Paki, like she was shining a light on the bars.” You say the relationship with Lily came in later, but she reads as essential to Deep’s development, as well as a central and uncompromising character in her own right.

Of all the characters in the book, I think I have the deepest affection for Lily, and the true disaster she’s made of her life, or is making of it. Not that you can blame her, I don’t, and I find a lot of myself that lies buried is expressed rather forcefully on the surface with her. She’s obviously self-destructive, but I think a lot of people who act in outwardly self-destructive modes often understand intuitively that this might be the only viable escape route for them, by that I mean it’s almost a rational choice—whether they can clean themselves up before they do actually destroy themselves is another matter.

And what is she escaping from? We learn a good deal about her home life and her past, both of which are very hard, but is there something more? Early on, Deep wonders if it is a “rootlessness of the soul” that makes him most properly a Californian. He seems to find a kindred spirit in Lily.

 Definitely he does, and yes, to me California felt very much like a place where you wandered rootlessly to, and got stuck because often you couldn’t wander any farther. That’s not the case any longer, as it’s become so expensive, at least in the cities. In some of the desert communities you still have that feel, but it’s also a feeling of crushing economic hardship as there are few jobs. I think of this California, the 1980s version, as a last holdout of a dream California, but it was one that was already dying or dead. Then the 1990s tech boom came along and basically just tossed the body over the cliff and into the ocean. As far as what Lily’s running from, other than how it’s described in the book, I feel that’s very much the reader’s decision to ask themselves if that’s whey want to find out.

And what was the dream California? What was killing it by the mid 80s?

 I doubt there ever was such a California, thus the dream part—but there was a much more working class California, and a working class Bay Area, and a much more multi-layered city (I’m thinking mainly of San Francisco here), which was swallowed up by the tech boom. These things happen, and that city isn’t ever coming back—it’s one of the reasons I don’t live there anymore. But there was a time when money didn’t have to be such a determining factor in where you lived and who you knew and what you did with your life. I think the latter is so much the case now, and not just in large parts of California, but across this country. I miss that other world where money mattered less, even though we had so much less of it in general.

Forgive me widening the lens here, but do you think this shift in America has changed the novel? Do we need different kinds of novels? Has it changed you as a reader, or as a writer?

 No, please do. And I don’t know if it’s changed the novel, or how it would, but I do think that how we imagine America has changed dramatically. In that sense I hope the novel, for all it’s surface bleakness, brings to life a more potential time, a more possible time. I feel these days we find ourselves pushed into ever narrower realms, into ever narrower ways we are described and how we describe ourselves. This happens in fiction in the abundance of genres and sub-genres, which I find troubling, because it posits a world where we read with expectations of a particular experience, and also in the larger sense, live with expectations of how we will experience a certain moment. I’m all for cross-genre writing, multi-genre writing, but I’d much rather break the back of genre altogether and watch it happily die. I like writers who try all types of different books, and different stories, and ways of telling stories—but that’s a tough sell in the bottom line-driven world of corporate publishing.

And do you see these tropes or types cropping up in literary fiction?

 I find much literary fiction these days to be highly genre-defined. For me good writing breaks boundaries, and these days I feel few established writers, especially at the major houses, are interested in that at all—they want to rehash the same book that was written twenty years ago, maybe fifty years, or longer. That’s fine, but let’s say it’s a genre as much as self-styled romance novels are, and in the larger sense of whether it moves the form forward, then let’s agree that it most definitely does not. There’s a lot of really great writing out there—I’m currently totally hooked on Ron Currie’s extraordinary Everything Matters!—but we’ve allowed literary culture to be largely defined by the marketing departments of the big houses and the soporific tastes of pretty much universally white, privileged editors, and much of what they put out is as dull as wallpaper paste.

Amen. And aside from Currie, where else might the desperate reader turn for some originality? What other writers do you see as fighting the good fight?

 Two books I recently read that I think push hard against how we imagine modern literary fiction are Alex Shakar’s Luminarium, and Jan Morris’ Last Letters from Hav. They’re very different works, and imagine two very different approaches to writing, but both engage with literature from the sentence level upward. Two of the writers I grew up reading are both British experimenters—Alasdair Gray and Brigid Brophy. Again, they produced very different works, and with both authors, each of their books is often very different from previous ones, but they’re enlivened by a spirit of pushing against form and expectation. They struggle with the material at hand.

Chris Arp is a graduate of NYU’s MFA program in Fiction, where he was a finalist for the Axinn Foundation / E.L. Doctorow Fellowship. Since then, his work has been published in Storgy Magazine and the Cumberland River Review, and is forthcoming in Memorious 26. One of his stories was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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