An Interview with Kathleen Rooney

Kathleen Rooney’s poem “Robinson Sends a Letter to Someone” appeared on Linebreak on May 4. The poem borrows its voice and subject from the work of Weldon Kees, a poet, composer, and painter who disappeared at the age of 41 in 1955. A chapbook of Rooney’s Kees-inspired poems, After Robinson Has Gone, is forthcoming from Greying Ghost Press. Rooney’s most recent book of nonfiction, For You I Am Trilling These Songs, is available from Counterpoint.

JW: What drew you to Kees in general, and to Robinson specifically?

KR: Kees, to me, is a very American–specifically a very Midwestern–personage, but I had to travel to England to even learn of his existence. My tutor at Oxford, the poet Kate Clanchy, had me read Simon Armitage as part of a crash course in UK poetry. He includes some of his own “Robinson” poems in his 1992 collection Kid, and in that book’s sixth poem, “Looking for Weldon Kees,” he writes “I’ve heard it said by Michael Hofmann / that Collected Poems would blow my head off…” So I went and got Kees’ Collected Poems and it blew my head off.

He was stylish to the max. His poems are stylish, his painting, his fiction, and his whole persona. He’s the real deal, the total package. Right up to the way he authored his own end–suicide or disappearance to Mexico?

I’ve been obsessed ever since. The sensibility that underlies all of Kees’ many artistic and literary undertakings is this deeply appealing mixture of quiet anger, bitterness, and hopelessness, combined with persistent optimism, cutting wit, a mastery of form and a sharp sense of humor. In his fiction, his poetry, his criticism, and his letters, Kees is able over and over to look at things and see them as they are–usually pretty fucked and disappointing–but to imagine them otherwise. In almost all of his written output, you get the sense of a person who knows that the world is unjust and will probably let you down, but who continues to show up and try–to be decent and do his best in spite of everything. The letter that I get part of the cento included in Linebreak from, for instance, is a good example of what I’m talking about. It’s from 1938, and he’s discussing “the apparently insurmountable difficulties entailed in writing as one wants, the discouraging business of trying to get your stuff in print, the realization that nobody much gives a damn whether you write or take dope or read the American Magazine.” The sentiment is still super-relatable today, but Kees kept working hard to get his stuff in print anyway; I like that about him. Kees’ friend, the novelist Anton Myrer, called him “one of the last great romantics,” and said “He genuinely believed that sensibility and talent would receive due recognition with time.”

Also? Kees was such a good dresser. And that hair? That mustache? He was stylish to the max. His poems are stylish, his painting, his fiction, and his whole persona. He’s the real deal, the total package. Right up to the way he authored his own end–suicide or disappearance to Mexico?

JW: I like that you mention how you were introduced to Kees — almost everyone I know who admires his work has a similar story. He’s one of those poets you only hear about from other poets. (I learned about him in a workshop with Davis McCombs.)

It’s interesting that you list “persistent optimism” as one of the qualities in his work. I think that’s correct, but it’s probably not a quality that every reader would recognize. The hopeless notes in the poems can be so much louder — I’m thinking of the creeping doom of “For My Daughter” or the exhausted horror of “Robinson at Home” — especially on first read. Where do you find that optimism in his poetry? Is it in specific poems or lines? Or is it more to do with his stance as a disappointed romantic?

KR: An optimist is one of the saddest things a person can be. Kees is a classic example of this paradox, both in his personal stance as a disappointed romantic and in his poetic output, dark as it is. His work is characterized by a bitterness and a disappointment, definitely, but a person can’t become so bitter and disappointed if he didn’t start out full of hope.

Reading Kees, I get the sense of someone who knows full well that he ought to hope for the best and expect the worst, but who can’t quite force himself to do that. Even though he is sophisticated and knows that what he expects is impossible, he can’t help but keep wanting the world to be better than it is–that people should be kinder to one another, that the government should be more just, that humane behavior toward other people should be returned and maybe even rewarded–and inevitably, he keeps being thwarted in these desires. A quick example of this is “Variation 3” from “Eight Variations,” where he writes:

Ruined travelers in sad trousseaux
Roost on my doorstep, indolent and worn.
Not one of them fulfills despised Rousseau’s
Predictions. Perhaps they are waiting to be born.
If so, the spot’s been badly chosen.
This is a site for posthumous investigations,
Pillows stuffed with nettles, charnal notions:
Apoplectic executioners, bungled incisions.
Indeed, our solitary midwife fondles the hemlock.

We welcomed one poor hackneyed Christ,
Sad bastard, croaking of pestilence. The basement
Holds him now. He has not as yet arisen.
The tickets are ready; the line forms on the right.
Justice and virtue, you will find, have been amazingly preserved.

Here and elsewhere, you see Kees holding the world to a higher standard than it can ever possibly achieve. And even as he cuts his frustration with wit and humor, you sense his optimism lurking around in there. Another example is the last part of his poem “The Speakers,” where he writes:

“This age is not entirely bad.”
It’s bad enough, God knows, but you
Should know Elizabethans had
Sweeneys and Mrs. Porters too.
The past goes down and disappears,
The present stumbles home to bed,
The future stretches out in years
That no one knows, and you’ll be dead.

You can’t get this frustrated if you didn’t have high hopes to frustrate.

JW: One of the pleasures of reading through your chapbook is seeing how you work in details from Kees’s biography, as well as allusions to specific poems and phrases from his Collected. (My favorite example of the latter is in your poem “Robinson’s Refrigerator,” where “The fridge / light coming on” echoes “the porch light coming on” from Kees’s “1926.”) How did you navigate that combination of the real and the imagined in working with his biography and in combining his language with your own? Were those conscious processes, or were you feeling your way through? Did Robinson’s voice come naturally to you?

KR: I started the project in 2001 and arrived at the finished manuscript in 2009. During the intervening years, I went through periods of working on the project intensely, abandoning it, coming back to it, re-imagining and re-writing it, abandoning it again, re-imagining and re-writing it again and on and on. I worked on it for about eight years, and even during the times when I wasn’t actively writing new poems for it, and/or when I was immersed in writing other, very different books, I’d be thinking about this project–doing research, reading and re-reading Kees’ books, learning much, much more about the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s than I’d ever be able to fit into the completed project, no matter how long or detailed I made it. I wanted to supersaturate the manuscript with texture and detail. My frequent pauses and delays stemmed from my anxiety over being able to settle on a voice that I’d be satisfied with–that would sound like it “came naturally” even if it didn’t exactly–and that would do justice/hold a candle to Kees’ own writing. And to his life.

Poetry is often–not always–about creating an atmosphere or a tone more than a “world,” and a huge part of tone has to do with voice and speech, and speech is used in conversation, so a dialogue seems like a natural result. Conversation seems built into the form.

Writers are constantly re-purposing actual people and historical figures and events for their own ends, obviously, so I don’t think I’m doing anything “new” or unusual, per se, but unlike other projects I’ve undertaken, I had more anxiety over this one in terms of being able to do the things you describe in your question–settling on a balance between Kees’ poems, letter, and stories and my own voice, and doing so in a way that would add up to a book that felt complete in its own right, not just like an homage or an exercise. Or worse, something substandard or offensive to Kees’ fans. I wrote dozens more poems than I knew I would be able to include because I wanted to be able to use only the best ones. I kept imagining what Kees might think of the manuscript if he ever read it. It felt like I was having a conversation with him–an impossible but still weirdly two-sided conversation.

JW: Yes, a conversation. I’ve always thought that poets are much more prone to addressing each other in their work than writers in other genres. (I read Thomas James’s Letters to a Stranger recently, and there he’s addressing Sylvia Plath). As someone who writes in multiple genres, would you agree? I notice you’ve also done some direct collaboration in your books with Elisa Gabbert. Is there something about poetry that makes all this talking back and forth more common than in other genres? Or more noticeable?

KR: You can be reasonably sure, if you’re a poet, that whoever is reading your stuff is also a poet, and that’s not a recent development. So that may be part of it–a desire to communicate within this relatively small but passionate tribe of other readers and writers who, even if they don’t “get” or like your poems, per se, will nevertheless “get” or like the practices of reading and writing poetry at all.

In prose, especially in fiction, part of the goal is to create a distinct and fully realized world that your characters inhabit and in which the action takes place. In poetry, especially lyric poetry, that’s not really the focus. Poetry is often–not always–about creating an atmosphere or a tone more than a “world,” and a huge part of tone has to do with voice and speech, and speech is used in conversation, so a dialogue seems like a natural result. Conversation seems built into the form. And it exists in the history of the form as well–frequently, poetry has historically (Shakespeare’s sonnets spring to mind) been presented as a communication from one particular person to another particular person.

As for actual back-and-forth poetic collaboration, Elisa and I like having the writer and the audience be literally coextensive in real-time–we are always already each other’s fellow author and first reader simultaneously.

In terms of conversationality with dead or other authors in other genres, the personal essay seems like a venue that lends itself to this mode, too, or at least for me it does. In one of the essays in my latest book, For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs, I quote lines and lines of the poetry of John Berryman, and the essay is called “First Person Impossible,” which is supposed to refer to narration from the perspective of someone who could not possibly narrate, such as a dead person. But now that I’m thinking about it (good question) I’d say that in essays, the interaction with other authors tends to feel more like a multi-person conversation, maybe like at a party with a lot of people talking as opposed to just one or two. Whereas in poetry, this interaction feels more like a dialogue–that intimacy of speaking intensely with just one other person.

JW: That small tribe quality of today’s poetry community fascinates me. As many things as its members share — most readers of poetry are also writers, many have been through MFA programs, many help produce a journal or a website or a press — the community can still feel awfully fragmented. It’s at once intimate and divisive. What do you suppose Kees would make of the poetry community today? Would he be sitting on panels at AWP, running his own small press, starting flame wars on Twitter? (Now that I think of it, I’m surprised that no one has set up a Kees persona on Twitter.)

KR: Ha. Maybe now someone will. Maybe you? You should call dibs, so everyone reading this knows you’ve claimed it.

Kees did say from time to time in his letters that he wished he weren’t so broke because he wanted to start his own literary magazine, so maybe, if he were around today, he’d start an online journal or something? Or at least he might have found the way that technology has lowered so many monetary barriers to entry in the world of publishing refreshing. As isolated and misunderstood as he often seemed to feel, it also seems like he might have thrived on the kinds of community endeavors–small presses and forums like Big Other, for instance–that are possible to undertake now. He was always getting together with at least one other person, or a bunch of other people to do projects–in Provincetown, when he was on the East coast, for example, and in San Francisco when he was on the West one–so it seems probable that he would have done the same kinds of things today; the biggest difference really is probably that now he could blog about them.

JW: Obligatory final question: suicide or Mexico?

KR: If I felt like I knew the answer to that, then I probably wouldn’t have been able to write the book. A huge part of Kees’ appeal is that he’s like Schroedinger’s cat or something: he’s both alive and dead–an escapee and a suicide.