Winner of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Library of Congress and director of UMass Boston’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, Jill McDonough’s new book of poems, Reaper, assembles robots, drones, military technology, drone pilots, and engineers who make these technologies. Through her poetry she examines the contemporary culture of secrecy and willful ignorance, what is being done in our name as Americans, as well as what it means to be an American in the present moment.
“I wanted to examine how technology is changing,” she explains. “It is changing the way we think. It is changing the way we look at one another, whether it is through iPhones or through drones.”
Much in our contemporary moment, McDonough suggests, is unprecedented. She cites the idea of a “kill list” as an example. “What does it mean to have a kill list?” she asks. “We don’t know who these people are. We don’t know their names. We are choosing to kill people based on the observations of drone pilots.”
McDonough recalls the 1927 execution of two Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti. One of the evidences presented against them was that they “walked like foreigners.” That shouldn’t have been sufficient evidence for their persecution, but, says McDonough, “we singled out specific behaviors that we decide are worth assassinating.” McDonough sees this culture of mistrust birthing “a future of killer robots with an ignorant populace.” Poetry is one way she tries “to be less ignorant.”
She chose the sonnet form for many reasons. Firstly, the people executed didn’t receive a tombstone, or a eulogy. “The formality of the sonnet seemed to be a way of acknowledging that and giving back something that they hadn’t had.” The form also helped her to maintain a respectful, but candid tone. “The sonnet is too short,” she says. “There’s no time to look away.” The strictness of the form kept her focused on the act of the execution. “Because once you start reading the stories and doing all that research, well it could be a novel, you could get lost in it.”
McDonough’s second book, Where You Live, contains both formal and free verse poems that look at the history of medicine and the history of the human body.
McDonough blends the personal and the political with grace, panache, and mastery. The unprecedented moment of now holds enough magic for her. The act of sitting in her office overlooking the Boston Harbor is just as worthy of examination as is the act of a drone taking off a ship. She wants to question the meaning of progress in all its forms. “What does it mean,” she asks, “that we look at a phone longer than a person’s face?” Progress, she suggests, “is drone technology. But progress is also me owning a house with my wife. That’s not normal,” she declares. Poetry allows her to marvel at all the unprecedented phenomena.
Poetry, she believes is the perfect form for her inquiry. “Poems are short enough that you can take a rich and complicated subject and break it down into its component parts. You can focus very sharply on just the experience of, say, Bin Laden’s funeral at sea.” Being able to look at these specific small things helps her plot her thinking on a larger graph of what is going on in this national moment.
When asked why is poetry important, she says, “Why is public transportation important? Poetry has been around for a long time because it brings pleasure. One reason I live in Boston is so that I can get on the train and go to the MFA. Living with art is how I understand my life.”
McDonough brings the same honest inquiry to teaching. She mentors students through the struggles of being a writer -- the struggle of being alone with a blank piece of paper, the struggle of finding the time to be alone with a blank piece of paper, and how to disseminate that piece of paper once it is filled.
One of her many accomplishments during her time at UMass Boston is the launch of “Submitathon,” an event where students gather over pizza to submit their work to magazines. McDonough believes this process removes the secrecy about the process of submitting. “There’s a lot of envy and fear surrounding the process,” she says, “and submitathon helps students see that it’s just secretarial work.”
It is clear to see how much McDonough enjoys and excels as a teacher. She describes teaching at UMass Boston as a cocktail party without booze. “My students are adults who care about literature. It’s an extraordinary privilege.”
When asked what brought her to poetry, she reveals, “I was bored in school and I wanted to make a small perfect thing. I loved writing each word in a different colored pen. That’s the basic work of being a poet.” Her passion for art is as fundamental to her now as it was then. “The unexamined life has its appeal,” she says simply. “It’s not an option for me.”