Portfolio Interview with Jill McDonough, by Christine Mallon
- Scoundrel Time: The spirit of play in “Spelling ‘Prostitutes’” is tinged with darkness that breaks through the lines of the poem, just as the dark past breaks in upon small moments of fun between the speaker-teacher and the kids in a juvenile jail. The focus is at once inward and outward, self-conscious and externally attentive—can you talk about how you balance the internal and external, why you need them both?
Jill McDonough: This is a poem, for me, about making sure I don’t “indulge my rage/or tenderness” when I’m on the kids’ time. My time there is for them. And it is just fun hanging out with them, most of the time, making up dumb word games when we aren’t working on their HiSet scores or reading comprehension. It’s important to remember it’s not news to them that life’s not fair. What’s news to them is Venice! I let myself mull it all over when I get out of there, but when I’m in there I need to be giving them Venice, not wide-eyed sorrow. They already have terrific, devoted teachers and counselors. I’m there for enrichment, possibility, showing them they can write whatever they want, and constantly talking about how great they’d do in college. Because those kids have some Harrison Bergeron shit going on, man. So much is stacked up against them and they are still just soaking the world in and crushing it.
- ST: In “Rosa Parks Edits Her Statement as She Writes It,” we see Parks as an activist and as a writer/editor. It seems like a daunting task to try to imagine Parks’ inner uncertainties, questions, and fragments because it considers the human element of self-editing that feels personal, that goes beyond the public image of the civil rights hero. How did you approach this representation?
M: A friend of mine found this in the archive and I was so excited to see Rosa Parks as a thinking, revising human writer, rather than an icon, a face on a stamp. It was a way to access her thought process, to imagine where her first thought was taking her, see how canny and accurate she’s being in her corrections, start to see how she sees the importance of this early narrative. Finding that personal self-editing, the strength required to get to “I didn’t resist,” made me excited to see past Rosa Parks as public icon to Rosa Parks as savvy activist.
- ST: The idea that ominous echoes from the past continue to surface in (seemingly very different) present moments appears in several poems. “On the Deerfield River” at once weaves together storytelling, death, fishing, and friendship—the dark past peeks through the present moment of recreation. How do you go about this weaving? Why is this diachronic mode important to your explorations?
M: Oh, because we’re going to die! (I’m sorry to break it to you. Wait: I’m sorry to break it to you lol.) I think all the time about how little time we get, how hard we need to work to make sure we are living the life we want, with whom we want to live it. . . remembering we are dying helps me do a better job.
- ST: “During the Ads” explores the way small moments between two people (that later become the fodder for go-to inside jokes and intimate language) feel when you experience them layered, as they are, upon past interactions/memories. Intimacy and nostalgia are so difficult to conjure in ways that ring true. How do you avoid “dismiss[ing] the everyday”?
M: We’re going to die, remember? JK. But for real one of the best parts about not being dead yet is witnessing this accumulation, so everything gets richer as we get older. I love it so much. One of Josey’s first love notes to me—I was 26!—said she knew it was crazy but she couldn’t wait to get “settled and dumpy” with me, slowly work in the garden, sit at the kitchen table doing taxes. We didn’t even have the garden or the kitchen table yet. Now we’re middle-aged lesbians with a Subaru Forester, and actually being settled and dumpy? Raking, doing taxes together? That is now totally hot and hilarious, in part because of that note, back when it was an impossible idea, when we couldn’t imagine middle age.
- ST: “Twenty Years” also looks beyond the routine quality of a couple’s daily exchanges to the intimacy they reveal. Telling “boring stories” signifies “Wanting to know everything/about your day,” which is “an eros” and seems to be part of the world of Matisse’s lovers. What inspired you to incorporate the found text in the beginning of the poem in this meditation that considers the way in which intimacy is rooted in the tenderness of routine interaction?
M: I thought that wall text from the museum was hilarious because it should be “where one body starts and the other body ends,” right? The confusion in the sentence somehow enacts the meshing of the bodies AND it’s funny. It’s perfect. So, too, a long and happy marriage, its racing pulse AND running gags.
- ST: After reading “Call in Steak” I have to wonder—have you ever called in steak? The casual sound of the poem, combined with its questions, alliteration, repetition, and bluntness make it relatable and musical, funny and true, personal—but not so personal that it’s untouchable. How do you strike this balance in your poetry?
M: Thank you! I don’t know what an untouchably personal poem would look like–I feel like when I can see inside someone else’s life I am there with them, not shut out. And I want to call in steak so bad! We did call in drunk to a party one time–we were already too loaded to bike up the hill to Todd and Maggie’s house, so we called them to apologize. But I’m too uptight and responsible to blow work off like that. Calling in steak is just a fantasy. For now.