Kathleen Rooney is a poet and writer, whose most recent work of non-fiction is a collection of essays entitled For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs, in which short stretches of her experiences as a teacher, Senate Aide, sister, cousin, daughter, and wife are used to analyze identity, relationships, responsibility, idealism and its’ inevitable companion, disappointment.
She spoke with me recently about her collection, and some of the surprising unintended consequences of its publication.
Let’s begin with the most recent drama. The publication of your new personal essay collection/memoir (of which some pieces have previously appeared in print) has led to your losing your job as a Senate Aide; can you tell us that story?
Is there someone to whom I should be sending a particularly scathing letter?
Good direct address of the elephant seated right in the middle of the room. Yes, it’s true: you can draw a short, straight line from my publishing my fifth book to my getting dismissed from my position as Senate Aide.
The story is sort of beyond complicated, but can maybe best be told with a simple timeline: in 1999, between my freshman and sophomore years of undergrad, I was an intern in Senator Dick Durbin’s Chicago office. They thought I was a strong writer and invited me back as a staffer, so I worked as a Senate Aide in the summer of 2000, when I was just 20.
After that, my path diverged from politics—I finished undergrad, got an MFA in Writing, Literature and Publishing, taught college, published my first book—but in the summer of 2006, I returned for the third time to work as one of the coordinators of the internship program in the Senator’s office (see the title essay for details).
After that, I spent a year on the West Coast as a professor of creative nonfiction, but returned for the fourth and final time in June of 2007 in advance of the 2008 election season with the idea that I’d either help work on the campaign, or just generally be a Senate Aide again, since it was work that I’d been doing on and off for eight years at that point, and I really loved it.
During that last period of employment, the Chicago office was nothing but supportive of my being a writer—my co-workers and supervisors attended my readings, bought my books, and had them signed. My supervisors generously granted me a two-month leave of absence in the spring of 2009 to go on a 25-city book tour behind Live Nude Girl, and also approved a temporary part-time three-day-a-week schedule starting in September 2009 so I could work on a novel loosely based on my experiences working there.
The Senator himself introduced me to people as a poet and joked that he thought I probably wrote poems when I was at work and the office wasn’t busy. He and I exchanged book recommendations and talked about a set of essays, including pieces about his own life as a public servant that he had been writing. So right up until the unexpected end, I had every reason to believe that my being a writer in addition to being a Senate Aide was not only tolerated, but supported and encouraged.
Everything unraveled, though, when the DC staff read a review of the book in the Washington Post, read the book itself, found the third essay (“Fast Anchor’d, Eternal, O Love!” which had previously appeared in Southern Humanities Review), and, on the basis of that, conducted a sexual harassment investigation.
When I made it clear that I had no interest in filing a complaint against the Chicago office Chief of Staff, they mentioned that they’d have to “talk to you about the ethics of your writing.” I said sure, and cooperated with them completely, showing the DC Chief of Staff and one of the DC staff lawyers my whole C.V. and listed the (very small) amounts of money that I’d earned as a writer.
In return, less than two weeks after concluding the sexual harassment investigation, they called me into the room with the TV and fired me over teleconference. It was heartbreaking. But: I did not try to fight it, and despite the way they treated me, I’m not a vengeful person, so don’t worry about the scathing letter.
A couple things I would like to take this opportunity to clarify, though, as long as you’re asking are: the DC spokesman, Joe Shoemaker, says I “insisted on being fired.” I suppose that is true, but the situation was: I could sign a separation agreement in order to get my severance, but that would have meant remaining confidential around the circumstances of their firing me and of my work as a Senate Aide in general.
I could not in good conscience sign anything I knew I would not be able to uphold, so I declined and instead had to be “fired.” Also, there have been some implications—usually by whackjob comment box commenters—that I must have gotten this job just to write about it. To be very clear: this job was not a stunt. I could not have worked as hard as I did for such little money for the past 11 years if I did not think that the job was worth taking seriously and doing well. Plus, I really did need the money, so it wasn’t just a lark.
That’s the long version. Short version: everything was fine fine fine right up until I inadvertently embarrassed the Senator by affectionately revealing that the Chicago office was run like a pirate ship. So, the “authorities” from DC, no longer able to believe their own noble ideas about themselves, felt compelled to get rid of me as soon as possible.
The craziest thing is that I never wanted to bring negative attention to the Senator or anyone else in the office, so I wish it had not gotten so public and so ugly. The great irony is that if they hadn’t dismissed me, nobody would probably know or much care what office I was writing about. All the names are changed, I never use the Senator’s name, and the book is hardly a blockbuster. Anyone who buys it now expecting some salacious tell-all will be deeply disappointed.
Anyway, someday I’ll write a full account of all that happened and what it meant, but for now I see this as an opportunity to find a job at which I am better respected, better paid, and intellectually free.
It’s a shame that their response was so unequivocal; it’s clear from your essays about the office that you really loved your job and took it seriously, not just as a money-earning vehicle, but as part of the young idealist’s imperative to save the world.
A driving theme throughout the essays is the struggle of forming an identity, or rather, living in a way that reflects the image one has of oneself. Would you say you wrote (some of) the essays as a way to find the conjunction between what you were doing for money and who you wanted to be? Or to analyze situations that were more of a compromise?
A major theme of the book is disappointment, and a recurring plot arc is that inevitable progression from idealism to disappointment. Come to think of it, considering how everything at that job ended, the theme seems even more fitting retroactively.
In the essay, “Fast Anchor’d” that caused the whole, what to call it, um, kerfuffle, I quote from the essay “Against Joie de Vivre” by Phillip Lopate, in which he says:
“Disappointment is the flip side of a strong, predictive feeling for beauty or appropriate civility or decency: only those with a sense of order and harmony can be disappointed. If we continue to expect what turns out to be not forthcoming, it is not because we are unworldly in our expectations, but because our very worldliness has taught us to demand of an unjust world that it behave a little more fairly. The least we can do, for instance, is to register the expectation that people in a stronger position be kind and not cruel to those in a weaker one, knowing all the while that we will probably be disappointed.”
This, of course, is a kind of self-flattering—but not inappropriately self-flattering, nor inaccurate—definition of what it means to be the “kind of person” who gets “disappointed.” A lot of what the reader will see in essay after essay is someone who starts out hopeful and trying not to be disappointed, ending up disappointed, and in many cases being disappointed with herself for being so disappointed.
And yes, I (like probably many people, I suspect) write to try to impose a pattern on, or make sense of, events that do not make readily apparent sense. Like Hamlet says, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Writing personal essays is a way to reason—to yourself, and hopefully in a way that is also interesting or relatable to others—“Is this good? Is this bad? WTF is this?”
You also address identity via your relationships, with students, with coworkers, with (your husband) Martin, and with your family – not just how you think you are perceived, but also in how you work to control how you are perceived – dressing a particular way, being polite to people who are harassing you, the difference between what you think and what you choose to say.
I found this particularly interesting from a feminist perspective, as you are clearly aware of occasions of being objectified, one way or another, and the way you handle it seems to me a way of taking control and ownership of it (e.g. the Brazilian, dressing in a ‘feminine’ way, mild flirtation) – something you also dealt with in Live Nude Girl (about your experiences as a life model).
Would you say a feminist perspective influences your writing and identity? Do you think any woman (or any person, for that matter) has to take the assumption of objectification into account in matching their behavior to their self-image? Can you be less polite, less concerned with appearance, and at greater liberty to be yourself when writing essays, without the immediate response from physically present interlocutors?
To get ready for a panel I’m participating in April called “Exploitation, Empowerment, and Everything In Between: Women on Writing Sex,” I’ve been re-reading the introduction to The Second Sex. In it, de Beauvoir quotes Dorothy Parker as remarking, “I cannot be just to books which treat of woman as woman…My idea is that all of us, men as well as women, should be regarded as human beings.”
I love Dorothy Parker, and I want what she says to be the way the world is: that every individual, whether he or she is a writer or not, could just be regarded as a human being, and therefore equal. Unfortunately (see the above material on disappointment), as much as the feminist in me wants this to be true, and hopes that it someday will be, it is not the case now.
Responding to Parker, de Beauvoir says, “In truth, to go for a walk with one’s eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests, and occupations are manifestly different. Perhaps these differences are superficial, perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that right now they do most obviously exist.”
As an essayist trying to go for a walk with my own eyes open, and trying to work from a self-identified feminist perspective, I do try to show honestly what it is like—not just for me, but for a lot of youngish women—to be looked at and reacted to as a person whose face, whose clothes, whose hair, whose body signifies to others, “Here is a youngish woman.”
I don’t think of myself as a political or message-y author, but when I write, I definitely feel aware of giving voice or bearing witness or however you’d like to put it to a decidedly female or feminine experience, and part of that experience does include greater or lesser degrees of objectification.
Thus, the idea of trying to at least control your own idea—and thereby to influence other people’s ideas—of what kind of person you are is deeply appealing. And sure, some of these means of controlling one’s self-presentation are through behavior—being polite even when people are acting like dicks to you—or through dress—wearing makeup, pretty clothes, etc.—and through writing itself.
A big part of my life has to do with my being a woman, and another big part of it has to do with my being a writer, and happily, experimenting with self-presentation is possible and encouraged in both fields.
I’ve always thought cynics (including myself) were disappointed idealists.
Poetry provides a kind of structure for your collection, as a way of discussing ideas and framing events, and providing inspiration, in the case of the essay on Weldon Kees, “To Build a Quiet City in My Mind”; you are (would you say?) first and foremost a poet, not simply in terms of what you write but in the reference to and self-identification within the poetical canon.
How would you say poetry fits in to your prose writing? How does it affect your intention and use of language? Do you address experience and ideas differently in poetry?
I’m not sure if I could say that I’m mostly/firstly a poet, or that I’m mostly/firstly a prose writer. I consider myself both, but I don’t really perceive a stable distinction between poetry and prose anyway; both poetry and prose are just a set of strategies and techniques with which to approach any given writing project. Part of why Abby Beckel and I founded Rose Metal Press was to showcase writing that works the borders between the genres and blurs those distinctions.
Form determines the content of my essays and poems as frequently as the content determines the form. Like in “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” I had the idea to write an essay composed of short vignettes based on models and makes of automobiles before I knew exactly what I’d be “saying” in the piece.
Same thing with “Did You Ask for the Happy Ending?” where I give alternate happy/sad versions of the same set of events. Form, to me, is often a generative device that can help determine or produce content, as opposed to just shaping or framing it. Poetry probably has a lot to do with this, for me, though, since poetry is probably where I first learned that oft-cited concept of the freedom that comes, paradoxically, from restraint.
You can impose a sort of strict structural rule on yourself and then see how free you can be under that rule.
What’s next for you? Can you tell us about your upcoming writing projects and work with Rose Metal Press?
Rose Metal Press is getting ready to release the second in a set of Field Guides on hybrid forms. The first one, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, came out in May of 2009, and this second one, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry, will be available in April. In the summer, we’re putting out Mary Hamilton’s flash fiction chapbook We Know What We Are, and in the fall we’re releasing Adam Golaski’s collection of short fictions, Color Plates. Add to cart!
Personally, I’m wrapping up the first draft of what I hope will be my first novel. In the meantime, Elisa Gabbert and I just keep collaborating.
Like Journey says, “The movie never ends—it goes on and on and on and on.”