Whose Words These Are (1): Jill McDonough

In anticipation of the 2009 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, where does poetry come from these days? And where is it going?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Jill McDonough. (26 minutes, 12 mb mp3)

Jill McDonough is reverent about traditional form, raucously funny and often dark about much else. Her first book, Habeas Corpus, gives line and meter to four centuries of legal American executions, from Mary Dyer (1660) to Timothy McVeigh (2001). McDonough’s poems have appeared in Poetry, Threepenny Review, and Slate. She lives in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, and teaches at Harvard, UMass Boston and the state prison at Norfolk, MA.

Jill McDonough

Q: The poem that got you into the game.

A: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Q: Who’s in the conversation with you?

A: Eavan Boland, Robert Pinsky, Shakespeare …

Q: A signature poem of your own?

A: “June 11, 2001. Timothy McVeigh

Q: Who are your brother and sister artists in other mediums?

A: Mark Rothko — those enormous chapel paintings. When you stand close enough you can’t tell if your eyes are open or closed. That kind of suspension or flooding … I’d like to be able to recreate that sense of losing yourself.

Q: What is the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: Humor / Empathy. It depends which side of the street I am walking on that day.

Q: What’s the talent you most covet that you don’t have, yet?

A: Boxing … I’d like to beat the hell out of somebody.

Q: What quality do you look for in a poem?

A: Saturation. It is a dark time, it is terrific to be able to open up a book and leave the room. A poem can be a magic ticket.

Q: Expand on the times.

A: I’m so disappointed in Obama. There is a lot of stuff we are [still] doing on the world stage that I am really ashamed of. I love my country but it is a hard time to be proud to be an American. I love my country.

Q: What’s the general state of the art?

A: Poetry is not just alive. It is thriving

Q: What do you learn from high school students?

A: They are desperate for tradition. They want to place themselves in a trajectory, they want to ground themselves in their poetic heritage.

Q: What’s your motto?

A: “Writers write.”

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  • nother

    “He lay as one who lies and dreams

    In a pleasant meadow-land,

    The watchers watched him as he slept,

    And could not understand

    How one could sleep so sweet a sleep

    With a hangman close at hand.

    But there is no sleep when men must weep

    Who never yet have wept:

    So we—the fool, the fraud, the knave—

    That endless vigil kept,

    And through each brain on hands of pain

    Another’s terror crept.”

    From The Ballad of Reading Gaol

    by Oscar Wilde (the only thing he wrote while he was in prison).


    Seamus Heaney, writing on Yeats, said “The aim of the poet and the poetry is finally to be of service, to ply the effort of the individual work into the larger work of the community as a whole.”

    Jill McDonough seems to fit right into that tradition. And I love Jill reads. It’s raw.

    And three cheers for the Grolier Poetry Book shop.


  • jack

    Apropos Habeus Corpus, a wildly funny polemic against captal punishment:


    I’ve sent it to proponents of the death-penalty, to a deafening if not deadening silence.

    I don’t know Jill McDonough’s work, but I’ll look out for it.

    The best imagined description of an execution of a killer that I know of toward the end of Denis Johnson’s Angels, where your heart pounds in rhythm with his heart’s failing.

    Thanks for the show. Look forward to the rest of the series.

  • Words I live by (in my photography) come from a great poet. In the introduction to his collected poems, Richard Wilbur writes…

    “There is nothing to do in art but to persevere hopefully in one’s peculiarities.”

    Encouraging words, and I love the resolutely old-school use of hopefully.