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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