(Fifth Star Press, 2014)
I first met Kathleen Rooney at a neighborhood art event in an abandoned dry cleaner’s storefront in Chicago’s Uptown. I was showing my paintings, and she was writing poems on her typewriter as a founding member of Poems While You Wait. I remember she was both dazzling and composed from her geometric dress to her red lipstick. She looked up at me from behind her Skyriter, which was still sizzling and syncopating with the heat of a freshly churned poem, and even the silence when she stopped typing to listen to me felt like part of a song. That silence buzzed, and I felt as though I was spotlit, on a stage, and the world was waiting. That’s the thing about Kathleen. She really listens. This is only one of the qualities that makes her not only a fantastic teacher, but an astounding and elegant writer. She is always calculating, observing, and filing details away for further consumption. In this way, she never stops composing. I’m amazed by the way her brain works. Her memories must read like a Rolodex of eloquent musings of philosophers and contemporary critics. I was immediately impressed by her passion for poetry, or “compressed language,” as she put it. As an artist and a writer myself, I was inspired by her ability to be so multi-faceted, wearing various hats as she composes whatever form the moment requires, be it poetry, non-fiction, or fiction. In addition to being the founding editor of Rose Metal Press, she is the author of seven books that leap through traditional hoops and borders of form and voice in a way that I long for my own work to behave: fluid, uninhibited, and transformative. But the scope and prowess with which she composes her prolific collection of works for a young author of merely 34, while undeniably impressive, is not what marks Kathleen as one of the truly influential writers in the Midwest. Whether Kathleen is recounting the anxiety, adrenaline, and sexual tension of the female artist’s model in Live Nude Girl, or the chess game of Illinois politics in O, Democracy!, she does so with such an intent focus on the aesthetics of form that I lose myself in her rhythmic musings, and only later awaken to find I have been partaking in an elevated conversation about gender, identity, and power dynamics. She allows me to enter into these conversations with the awareness of the literary canon, the confidence of a blooming professional, and the subtle, honest, unveiling of a self who is haunting and adeptly aware of all the trappings of our jaded world. I find myself reading about my life, and, forgetting that I am reading, I start to think.
Rachel Slotnick (Rail): You open Live Nude Girl, a memoir which recounts your experiences as a nude model for art classes, with a quote from Darian Leader, “Most people can tolerate being looked at only when they are wearing a mask.” Can you speak a little to your selection of this quote?
Kathleen Rooney: One of the things I was most interested in exploring in Live Nude Girl was not just what it’s like to be a model, but what it’s like to be a person. Sometimes, we have this idea that we have this single, authentic, true self that is finite and unchanging, and that’s not exactly the case. Not just for art models who appear unclothed before people—they have to put up a certain persona to make it possible—but people do that every day in life. You’ve got your teaching self if you’re a teacher, you’ve got your work self if you work in any kind of gainful employment, you’ve got the self that you are around your family, you’ve got the self that you are around your romantic partner, and so that quote appealed to me. Sometimes, there’s this obsession in our culture with real talk, or “let’s be real,” and I was trying to get at how sort of fungible and changeable that idea of realness can be.
Also, as a writer, there’s a debate over writing that sounds like writing. There’s that famous Elmore Leonard quote, “If something I say sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” however, sometimes I want writing that sounds like writing. I want metaphor, I want rhyme, I want comparisons, I want quotations, and it’s important to remember that even the move of not trying too hard, is itself a form of trying.
Rail: The distinction between “nudity” and “naked,” plays a large role in this memoir. Often, you point at the moments between poses, or the transition back into the robe, or even moments when you are fully clothed but underprepared emotionally, as vastly more “naked” than those frozen and still, predetermined poses on the model stand. What is this mask that you speak of and how does it apply in your daily life? Do you ever feel “naked” when sharing your personal writing? Does memoir feel more “naked”than fiction?
Rooney: There’s a state change between being naked and being nude, and I explore that a lot in the memoir. Nakedness often has to do with power, and control, and I make the point—and lots of other experts such as Kenneth Clark have made it before me—that nudity is a choice. It’s powerful. Nudity is almost a form of clothing. The nude is a genre. Whereas, naked is often more vulnerable: prisoners might be naked, nakedness often occurs in healthcare situations, where you’re a patient versus a clothed doctor, so I don’t think it’s just divided by genre. It depends on the kind of fiction you’re writing, or the kind of memoir you’re writing. You could, in a memoir, strike a pose so to speak, and that can be a form of nudity because you’re not really revealing. You’re retreating into a pose, and sometimes the same thing can happen in fiction when you think, this is a character, I’m not revealing anything about myself. But so much autobiography, wittingly and unwittingly, finds its way into fiction.
I love Roland Barthes. He talks about how the most interesting parts of a text and of a person are where the garment gapes. It’s not about just a nice shirt, or some skin, it’s like, “ooh, there’s the wrist between your glove and your sleeve,” and you might not even realize those moments are being revealed. For me, those moments are most interesting in a text when I see someone contradict him or herself. Not in a bad way, but revealing a truth that maybe he or she didn’t even mean. And I think that can happen in poetry, that can happen in fiction, and that can happen in non-fiction. That’s why this idea of deconstructionism can be really fun in literature. I know it’s a scary word and people like to make fun of it, and I know literary theory is out of fashion, but when you break it down to that metaphorical content of trying to find those seeming contradictions and trying to open them up, that’s where being a reader can get really active and really fun.
Rail: You quote Kenneth Clark as saying, “one person’s mask is another person’s monster.” Can you elaborate on the masks you wear, as a teacher, writer, and model? Do you feel the need to wear a mask as an author and to protect your private life?
Rooney: Yes, I do. I always try to teach my students that any time you’re writing, even if you’re writing non-fiction, you are in a persona. It’s not just a matter of saying, “I’m going to write as Lorenzo de’ Medici, therefore I’m wearing a mask.” It can be writing from an “I”that’s very, very close to you. I try to teach that if something is very difficult to write about, if it’s very close to you, or it’s a troubling situation in which you are uncomfortable, or there’s some ethical ambiguity, whatever the reason might be, you can pop it into third person. I do that in some of my essays. Instead of saying, “I went to work, or I rode the train,” I say, “Kathleen spoke to him, or Kathleen felt this way.” I do that for the essentialness of that mask, and wanting to be honest. And I think it’s that weird relationship between artifice and “reality,” which I think is closer often than we think. Some of the reviewers were like, “oh eye-roll, why is she writing about herself in third person?” I can understand the misreading that it’s pretentious, but placing that distance and that artificiality into the text allows writers to get to a deeper level of honesty.
Rail: Are you saying it allows you to speak to something that you might otherwise be avoiding, because it’s not you anymore?
Rooney: Yeah, if you’re saying “I, I, I,” you’re so in your head, you might be justifying, or saying, “here’s why I did this, let me explain.” Whereas, if you say, “she,” or “he,” you can often be a little more raw and say, “I wasn’t the best, I did something bad or troubling.”
Rail: You open the book with a statement about Bishop Berkeley: “Bishop Berkeley worried that if he wasn’t looking at the world, it might disappear. I worry that if the world isn’t looking at me, I might.” Can you explain this impulse to live eternally through art? Do you feel the same way about writing novels? Why or why not?
Rooney: I often give my syllabi titles, and one of my titles for my creative writing class is, “A Kind of Double Living.” The phrase is from a Catherine Drinker Bowen quotation, but it’s also a riffing off this James Bond theme that you only live twice. Of course, in that theme song, the twice is once in your real life, and once in your dreams. In creative writing, it’s once in real life, and once in the art that you create. I don’t think everyone needs to make art, and I don’t think everyone has that impulse. I do think people should try it, if they’re curious. I quote John Berger a lot, and he has this concept in his book, Ways of Seeing, and I think ways of seeing for artists can very much be ways of being. I’m reading Dmitry Samarov’s memoir about being a cab driver, and he talks about how he’s a writer, but the way he experienced the world since childhood was drawing. It’s how he processed things. And for me, that’s true of writing. I can’t imagine not writing, even without publication. Although, certainly I want publication, I want an audience, I want to connect, and I see writing as a communicative act, I think that something is not fully real until I write it down. Because life is often very messy and very confusing and very complicated, and to be given the chance to get this do-over in words can really help. I don’t want to say writing is therapy, and I don’t want to say you get to make yourself look like a hero. I just think it helps you process. I used the Bishop Berkeley quote because I definitely wanted to open with what I hope was self-awareness. Because there’s this knock on memoir that it solipsistic, it’s narcissistic, and it can be that, but when it’s good it can be as profound as any other genre. Just because it’s my experience, and it’s my connection, doesn’t mean people won’t see themselves or find themselves in it, even if they haven’t been an art model.
In my class yesterday we discussed this idea of “relatability,” which has become a word that I truly despise because I think sometimes “relatability” just means, if it’s not about a 30-something college professor, I can’t relate. That sounds like hell to me. I want to read about people who are nothing like me. Because when you do that, you realize these people who seem nothing like me are actually a lot like me. And these experiences that I’ve never had, I can still apprehend them.
Rail: Absolutely. I use Scott McCloud a lot in the classroom for his theory of abstraction. It’s really helpful to discuss the simplicity of the cartoon, as the more abstracted a portrait is, the more people can relate. It’s similar to writing a character, in that people see themselves on the page. I showed a video in class yesterday, from Britain’s Got Talent. It was not highbrow art by any means, and it depicted a shadow dance. It tells a story about someone who goes off to war and leaves a child. Perhaps because it’s just a silhouette, the class was almost in tears. You can relate to the silhouette, because it can be anybody. It encompasses all of us. So, what you’re saying is that memoir can act like a silhouette that people can step into?
Rooney: Yes, right. If they let themselves step into it and don’t let themselves be held back by, “I’ve never been a nude model,” or, “I’ve never been a cab driver.”So what? Give it a shot.
Rail: Since you mentioned Berger, I want to ask you about Berger’s quote, “Men look at women, and women watch themselves being looked at.” Can you explain in what ways your decision to be “looked upon” empowered you? Do you feel that women are still the subjects of the paintings rather than the painters? In what ways has the art or the literary world begun to address these issues? Do you feel that in some ways, by modeling and writing, you altered this relationship?
Rooney: One of the things I’m really interested in is the way that empowerment and exploitation are essentially opposite sides of the same piece of paper. It’s really hard to talk about one without the other. My decision to step into this tradition of women who let themselves be looked at for the creation of art, could be seen as exploitive, right? I was definitely not the creator, I was definitely the one getting paid, I was definitely the nude one, not the clothed one. It’s a sliding scale. How much was I being exploited? I felt safer nude on the model stand than I often do, still, walking down the street when people are whistling or cat-calling or what have you, because it was a place of respect, and a place with rules, and it was a place where you don’t make those kind of comments to the model. You certainly aren’t going to touch her, or threaten her.
I definitely identify as a feminist, and I definitely try to talk about it in a way that the “F” word is not bad. I am interested in really helping people understand that it’s a “struggle to end sexist oppression,” which is bell hooks’s definition, one of her many definitions. It’s one of my favorite definitions because it makes the point that it’s not just for women and it’s not just this outlier, weird opinion; it’s to end the oppression, period. So that’s where I saw the empowerment coming in, not just particularly through modeling, but through writing about it in an alternative narrative. I don’t see myself as self-righteous. I’m not somebody who would say, “I’m giving a voice to the voiceless.” I think that sounds cheesy. But I was trying to give a voice to myself, and to these people who have participated in this tradition for hundreds of thousands of years, but who haven’t had a chance to talk about it. That’s something that runs through a lot of my work: trying to take these things that are important and worth notice, but maybe weren’t noticed as much as they could have been, or in the right way. Oprah’s Book Club was something I wrote about—and certainly that was famous—but I felt a lot of people were wrong about it. So I wanted to right that wrong and say, “It’s smarter than you think.” Or lots of people have written political books, of course. But many people haven’t written about it from that super low-level, subjugated, bottom-of-the ladder senate aide perspective like in O, Democracy!.
Rail: That’s such a wonderful point about O, Democracy!, since the book is already oscillating between the perspective of the founding fathers and this close third person of Colleen. It offers this other alternative perspective of a low-level political worker, who’s a woman no less, being sexualized throughout the book.
Rooney: That’s sort of the tension that I wanted. There are moments where it is like, “Why are there no founding mothers?” And I think that’s a question we need to ask.
Rail: It has always fascinated me that art history has such dependence on the nude female. It’s something, as an art student, you are not really supposed to question. As a young female painter, I certainly had my moments of rejecting what John Berger calls, “the male gaze.” You even refer to the disrobing as a sort of adrenaline rush. Can you explain what fears you conquered by doing so, and how it stimulated your creative process?
Rooney: There’s a literal thing happening there, and there’s a metaphorical thing happening there. I love my family. I love my parents. They are both very Catholic, and they are both very Midwestern, and I think with that comes, in a good light, humbleness and humility. And in a potentially less good light, shame and embarrassment and silence. My mom is horrified, still, that I ever worked as an artist’s model, and she’s also been horrified at the fact that I write about my life; a lot of it has to do with gender—a woman shouldn’t single herself out this way. It also has to do with her sense of a Midwestern person: don’t toot your own horn. That’s the adrenaline rush, both literally and metaphorically. I was coming out of a tradition where there was a lot of shame associated with the body. We weren’t told that our bodies were things we should love, or be happy with, or be proud of. They were kind of this unfortunate consequence of being alive. As though if we could all be brains in jars, that would be better. But we have these bodies, which makes everything, at least in the background that I’m coming from, horrible and embarrassing. So it took me a long time to get over that, and art modeling was literally taking off my clothes and asserting, “I have a body, and I’m not embarrassed.”
I do get an adrenaline rush when I share something. I don’t make a point of writing about risqué things or shameful things, but I have written about bikini waxing, and reviewers have been like “Ugh, who wants to hear about her private parts?” It’s not so much that I think my private parts are anything special, but it’s a phenomenon that a lot of women think about and a lot of women go through, so I do try to write about these things in a way that lets us talk about them, rather than acting like they don’t happen, or they’re not worth literature.
Rail: I want to ask you about the pressure of being reviewed and coping with people’s opinions and reactions. Do you ever feel that the expectation or fear of criticism inhibits what you write? Does it ever impact your choices, knowing how judgmental and reactive people can be?
Rooney: No, I don’t think it inhibits me. Sometimes, it can be useful to think of the meanest review you’ve ever gotten, and ask yourself, “What would that person say of my argument?” That can be productive because it can lead to, “Oh, this is a little half-baked,”or“I need an extra scene.”
My writing partner, Elisa Gabbert, has said to me when I’m down about reviews, “Look, the fact that you get mixed reviews or negative reviews, as well as positive ones means that people who aren’t your friends and family are reading you.” That adds legitimacy. It can be hard to look at it that way, but her point has been useful to me.
Rail: It’s wonderful to think of it that way. It’s something I’m very afraid of because writing is very personal, especially memoir. At one point, you discuss the truism that each painting, even of a sitter, is in fact a portrait of the artist. I find this hard to avoid in the classroom, as paintings have a tendency, even when they’re of a still-life, to feel intensely autobiographical. When we look at the evolution of notions of beauty from classical Greece, to contemporary artists, art seems to reflect a changing society. In what ways does studying art and artist model relationships make you begin to question this idea of “accurate likenesses?” In what ways does it make you question our preconceived idea of beauty? Did your ideas about your own beauty and sexuality change from the experience of modeling, or writing about modeling?
Rooney: I’m teaching a class now called “Writing the Body,” at DePaul, and that’s the kind of thing we talk about. Is there some kind of internal notion of beauty that’s unchanging throughout history, or is it transient? Well, I think, of course, it’s the latter. But, one of the things that did help me come to that conclusion about human bodies and about art is just the vast array of different people I came into contact with through modeling: old, young, male, female, conventionally attractive women with thin bodies, long hair, and big eyes, or men who were very cut, very buff, and very masculine. To everything that’s not that—people covered with tattoos, people with lots of body modifications, old people who hadn’t had any work done and were just proudly aging. I first started modeling when I was 21, which seems so young now. I think I was a little ignorant, and modeling helped me appreciate the different kinds of beauty that do exist. It also opened my mind to the different kinds of texts that could be beautiful, and to see that essay could be as beautiful if not more so than poetry, or that ugly stories could be as compelling if not more so, than beautiful stories.
Rail: It was interesting for me to read it as an artist, since I’ve never been on the model stand. I’ve always wondered how someone could be so brave. I know that I always prefer the more unusual bodies for my own work. It’s a big difference what you see when you think of conventional beauty on billboards, and what you see in the classroom which is this rainbow of body types. It’s a beautiful idea to also apply that to text.
I was so excited when you mentioned Ivan Albright and Dora, and Dorian Gray—as The Picture of Dorian Gray, is one of my all-time favorite books and one of the reasons I am so invested in fusing writing and painting. What is perhaps most astounding in both Wilde’s and Albright’s work, is the ability to create something simultaneously beautiful and hideous. In what ways do you feel your work resides in the boundary between art and fear?
Rooney: I think one of the biggest sources of fear for most people, myself included, is the anxiety of the unknown. A writer that I love, Lemony Snicket, a.k.a. Daniel Handler, writes in his book The Series of Unfortunate Events, about the difference between nervousness and anxiety. He explained that nervousness is when you have a specific thing to be nervous about: “I’m nervous about the first day of school,”or“I’m nervous about my new job.” Anxiety is much more generalized and free- floating: “I just feel anxious about the ineffable.” Writing is a way to process that free-floating anxiety that I am very prone to and that a lot of people are prone to. It helps me process unknowns into knowns, and I think reading is almost the same thing as writing. Wallace Stevens says that writing is a very intensely concentrated form of reading. Reading can do the same thing; it can take these unknowns and make them knowable. For me, fiction has often taught me a lot, if not more, about these unknowns and these things I’m anxious about, than non-fiction. And so, I try not to be fearful, but I realize that I do have fears, and writing can be a way to confront those fears. I’m not going to say there’s nothing to be afraid of, but one of the great things about reading and writing is that they help you see things for yourself, as opposed to just experiencing received ideas. It can help you decide what’s worth being afraid of and what’s not. This ties back to your previous thought because I think a lot of people are trapped in this shorthand of beauty. It helps you free your mind and break out of this ridiculous, reductive notion of beauty. See it for yourself and decide what you think is beautiful, and decide what you think is fearful. Don’t just coast on TV, advertising, movies, and videogames.
Rail: Have you ever written anything you would consider grotesque? Have you ever written anything you hesitated to publish?
Rooney: Yes, yes, I have. I feel like everything I’ve written, I’ve hesitated to publish! But I think that’s good. It’s not like a hesitation that stymies me or prevents me, but it stems from not fear of self-exposure, but of a more utilitarian concern, as to whether or not what I am going to publish is gratuitous. Is it going to add to people’s understanding of the subject?
Rail: So is it less about ego and more about communication?
Rooney: Yes, exactly, although of course you can never really separate ego from it. I really do hope it’s part of a conversation and not just a monologue to myself on stage.
The grotesque can be part of that, and it can be harder to publish something that seems grotesque. An example of this would be in For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs, my relationship with the Chief of Staff is very complex. He was by anyone’s estimation, clearly a sexual harasser, but I chose to put up with it because I loved the job, and also I came to even like this person who was himself highly grotesque. He was charming, but he was an unremitting asshole. I hope the essay grapples with these shades of grey. It’s not just clear choices. It’s hard to just quit your job. It’s hard to hate someone. There are usually more levels of complexity. Stuff like that is what gives me the most pause, and I think it is in the realm of the grotesque.
Rail: Did you ever worry that the Chief of Staff, or the people you were writing about would read this and be upset?
Rooney: Yeah, of course. And I worry about that all the time. I reconcile those concerns with actually publishing stuff by asking myself whether I have written with what Janet Burroway calls, “the absence of the intent to deceive.”Have I been honest? Am I deceiving others or myself? Am I sugarcoating or lying? I never publish anything if I feel that I’m deceitful. I also ask myself whether I am score-settling or trying to get even. If the answer is yes, I don’t do it. But if the answer is no, this is me trying to honestly depict something, trying to grapple with something, trying to make sense of something in a way that might help other people in a similar situation make sense of it. Then I’m okay with publishing it.
Not every writer decides that way. My friend Liz Hildreth, who’s also a poet, grapples with this too because she writes autobiographically, and she said to her husband David, a visual artist, “How can I write this? It’s going to make somebody unhappy.” And David said, “Somebody’s already unhappy.”That sounds so basic, but it’s profound because somebody is always already unhappy. There have been times when I’ve written about people in a way that I thought was so loving and so positive, and they’ve been pissed off at me just because they don’t care what I wrote, they care that I wrote it. I respect that and I understand it, but I don’t let it stop me because I don’t feel that I’m acting from a place of malice.
Rail: That is such an interesting code of ethics.
Rooney: In creative writing classes, I like to emphasize that you really have to decide for yourself. I think non-fiction has to be true, but short of that, I think every writer draws the line in the sand.
Rail: You reference occasionally the narcissism of memoir. As a writer, I worry about this constantly, and take your advice to heart about the need to craft an artful story, and to remember that something isn’t relatable just because it happened to you. Can you speak a little on narcissism, and how it might propel and also hinder art making?
Rooney: Narcissism is really interesting as a feminist, because I feel that women are much, much, much more frequently subject to that accusation than men. I think we still, unfortunately, live in a culture where women are told that they’ll be more appealing if they essentially shut up and look pretty. Not always, but you can definitely find that in reviews, and in the reception of different kinds of books by different kinds of people. I always try not to be narcissistic, and to offer my audience beautiful language or craft, so that there’s something else going on. Of course I’m a fan of criticism, but I think people need to really examine where the criticism is coming from.
For example, I recently wrote an essay about my personal relationship to perfume, much of which had to do with gender. For years, I didn’t let myself like perfume because I was raised in a household where to be overly feminine was discouraged, and so the essay is about my grappling with that. But I also framed it as an abecedarian, because I want it to be more enticing. If you’re not into perfume, you can still read it because there’s form, language, and there’s something else happening. In that way, a fear of narcissism is good because it can push you to these formal things that can make a piece more interesting and beautiful, but it would have been bad if I’d let that voice and that fear of narcissism prevent me from writing that subject. It’s better to think about how to make people care about that subject than to just be quiet.
Rail: On page 156 of Live Nude Girl, you investigate how artists scramble beauty to leave a stamp on those that they love:
I have seen the way that artists invent their own ideal images by disregarding physical constraints... I have read that Ingres added an extra vertebra to the neck of his odalisque. Picasso scrambled his loved ones’ features. Modigliani made their faces in almond shapes. Such are the things we do for our visions. Such are the things we do to create things we love.
This passage has stayed with me, as both a reader and as an artist. When I was an undergraduate in Wayne Thiebaud’s classroom, he asked us to define art and beauty, then challenged all our definitions. (This is something I still do every semester in my classroom). One brave sculpture student said, “Art is the creation of objects you are in love with.” That has always stuck with me as the best definition of art I have come across so far. So my question for you is two-fold: One: If the artist sacrifices the reality of the model to create something he or she loves, do you still feel that those armies of “Kathies” you thought of as living eternally are representations of you? Or are they somehow some other strange version of you? Or are they versions of the artist? And does it bother you that you may go misrepresented? And two: Do you treat your characters with the same attention to reality, or do you scramble their faces (like a Picasso) for the sake of your writing? Do you feel guilty if you do, due to your experience as a model?
Rooney: You probably remember the book ends with that tiny little poem by Bill Knott, about being misunderstood, and he expresses what I think is a gorgeous human desire for connection. He says essentially that he wishes to be misunderstood, that is to be understood from your perspective. That really sums it up for me both in fiction and non-fiction, in what artists do, and in what I do with my characters. Any time you seek to understand someone else or to represent someone else, the endeavor is doomed from the start. You’ve always already messed it up. And you’ve always already remitted to making it as much about yourself as to what you’re representing. But, that failure is beautiful. And that failure is paradoxically what pushes us to try. I know I’m never going to get this right, but screw it, I’m going to give it a shot.
Rail: There were moments you seemed somewhat disrespected by the way students were told to ignore you, and scramble you as the model. At times, it seemed impersonal or dehumanizing. Are you supportive of the scramble for the sake of creating objects you are in love with?
Rooney: The only times that I felt negative about the scrambling were when they seemed like omissions or deposits that reduced humanity rather than the ones that celebrated humanity.
Rail: Okay, so the crazy, Cubist paintings might seem more real or more true than the realistic portrait?
Rooney: Exactly, and I think you can often see Picasso’s bizarre singular vision in a way that you wouldn’t in realism, and it seems more loving.
Rail: You quote Plotinus, and you explain that you use this passage in the classroom regularly about sculpting the self:
Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smooths there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labor to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiseling your stature, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendor of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness established in the stainless shine.
In what ways has this quote impacted your writing, your teaching, and your personal life? How does art relate to our daily decisions, morality, and our identity?
Rooney: To be very clear, I love that quote, but I love it as it applies to art. I’m not saying get plastic surgery! I’m saying look at the thing you’re creating! Whether it’s a non-fiction composition class, or a novel. It’s a plea for self-awareness, and a challenge to the self. Don’t be satisfied. Try to perfect. Also, it is a sense of forgiveness. You can look at something, and see that it’s not perfect, but it is mine and I did my best. It has something to offer. This quote is a useful way of cultivating an internal critic that is constructive and not destructive.
I also like how it puts creativity and inspiration clearly in the hands of the individual. I don’t like this idea that creativity strikes like lightning from outside you, and you have to wait for it to be creative. I think it really is more internal, and you have more of a control over your ability to create.
Rail: You quote Aristotle as well: “the greatest thing by far is to have command of a metaphor.” How does this apply to politics for you? If metaphor and language are about precision and communication, what attracted and disgusted you in politics?
Rooney: I am a huge fan of George Orwell, and I’ve mentioned him in essays specifically about working in politics. He is really no bullshit. There is an important distinction to be made between truth, lies, and bullshit. Truth, obviously, is true, lies, obviously are deceitful. Bullshit is far more threatening. Politics has a ton of bullshit, and I’m not just being crass. Harry Frankfurt has written an entire book on bullshit that I highly recommend. Bullshit is when the person speaking is not only avoiding the truth, but he or she doesn’t care about the truth. In a way, a lie is less harmful because you can look at a lie and identify it as such. But what’s worse is when people muddy the waters or try to have it both ways or do something opportunistically without concern about truth or falsehood.
For me, George W. Bush was the epitome of this: “Are there weapons of mass destruction? Who cares?” There was even that Bush official who was quoted as saying that reality doesn’t matter, and that the officials of his administration made their own reality. That’s bullshit, and that’s terrifying. The thing that would thrill me the most in politics was when, as a member of the communications team, I really felt like we were trying to tell the truth and trying to raise awareness about an issue. And the times when I was most disgusted were when the truth was being obscured for some pragmatic political purpose. We’re going to fudge this because it is going to be more appealing to people because we don’t trust people to grasp the nuance, so we’re going to glide over it. To bring it back to Orwell, that’s why he’s so against clichés and dead figures of speech, and 1984 Newspeak, because it’s insulting to the truth and it’s insulting to the people and it doesn’t trust people to be smart.
Rail: I think that’s so fascinating as this muddying the waters is also sort of the ability, or the double-edged sword of language, that you can transform anything into anything else. So it’s a love and hate of the same tool.
Rooney: It’s also the fiction in the politics. One of the things I touch on in O, Democracy!, is this recurring accusation of the “liberal media,” which is much overstated—and not true—so news sources often try to overcorrect for that assumption. In O, Democracy!, there’s a scene at the Lake Michigan press conference where the oil company is going to dump more pollutants into the lake; the newspapers report it not as “dumping more pollutants into the lake is stupid and dangerous,” but as “opinions differ on toxicity of toxins.” That’s the bullshit I’m getting at. Dumping pollutants into the lake is categorically, undeniably negative. But all these people feel they have to appear fair and balanced. Truth often gets sacrificed in the political realm and it’s extremely dangerous.
Rail: Do you think there are ethics involved in subject matter for fiction? Are there certain stories that can’t be written by certain people? Or is it all available for experimentation?
Rooney: I think it’s all fair game but you need to be extremely cautious. This just came up in the classroom yesterday. I have this great student who is a wonderful writer and he had this idea about writing a gay love affair set in the time of World War II. And he was really scared to write it. He sent me an email saying, “I’m gay, but I’m not Jewish, and I clearly didn’t live through the Holocaust. Do I have any right to even talk about this?” And I said, “Yes, but be careful.” I said, “Be as sensitive as you can, research, be respectful, and then see how it goes over.” It’s important to be super cautious. But, I also don’t want to say that a white person can’t write from a non-white perspective or vice-versa. I don’t want to say that a man can’t write as a woman or vice-versa. I don’t want to say a straight person can never write a gay character. I think that’s really depressing and limiting because it assumes that we can only ever understand or respect people who are identical to ourselves, and I don’t think that’s true.
Rail: One thing I show in the classroom is the wall Banksy tagged between Israel and Palestine, and we discuss the idea of ethics in illegal graffiti. Is it okay for Banksy, a British artist, to have tagged the wall between Israel and Palestine, when he’s not Israeli, and he’s not Palestinian? Is that his wall to tag? It’s kind of a similar question of respect. He’s obviously taking a side in the argument. I don’t know how I feel about it, but I also love that he makes us ask those questions.
Rooney: Me too. The answer to that question might depend on a lot of things, but on how you feel about democracy and what you feel democracy is and does. Democracy just means that everyone is equal and everyone participates equally. Of course, in practice, it doesn’t happen that way. Who you are and the money you have play a big role. If you have a democratic view of art, then things like what Banksy has done, or what this student of mine has done are very democratic. They are saying they’re equal; they’re not saying they’re better than other people, and they’re not saying they’re worse than other people. Other people could also choose to comment. People don’t have to agree.
And a caveat to that—having a democratic view of art certainly doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be offensive. Certainly, someone might be offended. But it does contribute to the conversation, and democracy is very rough and tumble. So the conversations you have when you operate in a democratic view of art end up being messy. You can talk for hours without deciding what is right.
Rail: In O, Democracy!, was it freeing to write a sort of sassy character, who wasn’t exactly like you?
Rooney: What you gain from fiction as a writer and a reader is the idea that everything has a point of view, and everything has a perspective. Fiction really shows both the writer and the reader that there are different kinds of truths, and different voices in stories that tend to get spoken and tend to get silenced. In O, Democracy!, writing Colleen as a sort of sassier character who wasn’t bound by what was really happening gave me more power in some ways, even though she comes to an arguably troublesome end. That was exciting. And that gets back to that double-living. What if I had a do-over? What if I wasn’t just bound by fact? Had I just written a memoir about the campaign season, I don’t think I would have had as much to offer the reader as I did in the novel form.
Rail: How did you make the choice to go into politics? I know I speak for us all when I say, we are glad you migrated from politics to poetry. What led you away from that world towards academics and the classroom? Did you have a clear change of heart or were these gradual stepping stones?
Rooney: I was a huge political dork when I was in high school. I’ve always been very interested in history and I have always been very interested in trying to make a difference. Before I could even drive, I was volunteering on political campaigns out in the suburbs of Chicago for female, pro-choice, and doomed non-wealthy candidates who never won, and that was important to me. When I went to college, I thought I was going to be a political science major. I was an intern in Durbin’s office starting when I was 20, which again I look back and am amazed that I was so young. I truly was idealistic. Poetry and politics, or writing and politics were never separate for me. I was always interested in both of them, but what happened over the course of my 20s, as happens to a lot of people in their 20s, was I started realizing that my limitless potential had limits and that I couldn’t do everything. I realized that deciding to do one thing meant deciding not to do another.
Democracy is an idea worth believing in, complicated though it is. And then there’s politics, which can be understood as the politics industry. It’s like any other industry: it’s bound up in capitalism, it’s very much bound up in inequality and ensuring that people who have power continue to consolidate that power. So people like me—these dorky, wide-eyed enthusiasts—are the fodder of the politics industry. Politics cannot function without these unpaid interns and these low paid aides. These people have completely drank the Kool-Aid and died for the cause. But I think those who stay in it outgrow that and become much more opportunistic. Those who are unwilling to do that, leave, or have to leave. I wouldn’t say I’ve lost my idealism, but I’ve gained an informed disgust for politics. I still vote, even when it seems pointless, and I don’t kid myself that my vote is all that powerful. But I do think it’s important and it’s helped me see that there are other ways to be engaged and to be a citizen. I think my transition from being someone who works in the politics industry, to being someone who now is a professor and a writer, has caused me to beneficially realize that there’s more than one way to be a citizen.
Rail: You’re probably influencing so many more people by writing than you would be if you were staffing in an office.
Rooney: Yeah, I hope so. “You have to have a passion for anonymity,” is something that the Chief of Staff said to me in real life. He says this in the novel too. I do not have that passion because I want to be able to say my opinions and not censor myself to protect Dick Durbin or because I fear alienating some voters. You have to be really centrist and mediocre in politics, but in real life there are some things that you can’t be calm and even about because they are so unjust.
Rail: You open For You, For You I am Trilling These Songs with getting waxed which was intensely sexual and personal and end on a nun, questioning spirituality. Can you speak a little to the ambivalence you felt about modeling, nudity, and female empowerment through religion? Did you see it as a clear choice between art and faith?
Rooney: I have fallen away from religion. I was raised extremely Catholic and I now cannot stand Catholicism or any organized religion because I don’t believe in God and I can’t lie to myself and act like I do. I also don’t like the idea that the only reason humans should behave ethically is because we fear punishment from “Sky God.”I think we should find it within ourselves to be good people on our own. I have deep skepticism of institutions, and it’s hard to think of institutions that are more “institutiony” than religion. So, yes, I have made a conscious turning away from religion. But I also don’t like to sound too cheesy and say I don’t believe in God because I believe in art. It’s not that. So, I’m hesitant to say I believe in art, although I love art. What I do believe in is the power of human imagination. Imagination is one of the things that makes us human. With imagination you can envision a world where people at McDonald’s get $15 an hour, you can imagine a world where domestic violence is not a secret and is not tolerated, and you can imagine a world where all people regardless of sexual orientation can marry who they want. So, that’s what I mean when I say that I believe in imagination. Not just art, but the ability to see the world in a more just way.
Rail: What exactly do you admire so in Weldon Kees’s poetry? How did seeing the spaces he inhabited affect your interpretation of his work? Are you impacted by him as an interdisciplinary artist? Are you fascinated by his mysterious disappearance?
Rooney: All of that. I love Weldon Kees because he’s just a great writer. I love his Robinson character and the way he makes this alter-ego that’s him, but not him, and the way he uses imagination to open up possibilities. I love that he romantically disappeared—and that’s not to romanticize suicide, but I do think there’s something compelling about mystery. You see someone whose date for his birth is 1914, and then the dash leads to 1955, and a question mark for his death. You want to understand. There’s a line in Robinson Alone, “Incompletion makes people want to fill your blanks in.” I also think I just relate to him a lot as an interdisciplinary artist. He was a fiction writer, he wrote reviews, he wrote poetry, he painted, he did photography, and he even started at the end of his known life exploring film. I also think he never got the recognition that he deserved. He was great, and his greatness went unrecognized. I think it bothered him a lot. That still is a problem in culture today. If you’re too interdisciplinary, people don’t know what to do with you.
Rail: You speak about being in love with him. Do you often fall in love with writers when you read? Have you fallen in love with others, if so who?
Rooney: I don’t mean for it to sound like some silly crush. It’s not that he’s dreamy—although I do think Weldon Kees had a dreamy moustache. I’ve fallen in love with all kinds of writers. I think that kind of deep identification or sense of not being alone or being in the presence of someone you truly get or who truly gets you is part of why reading or art or music can be so transformative. You come into the presence of a person you didn’t know, and it’s like making a new friend. You meet them, and they show you things and you start to take up these new interests, because they directed you to them. It’s very enriching. That’s what I mean when I say I fall in love with writers. And sometimes I fall in love with writers who have personal lives or beliefs that I don’t always find attractive. For example, I love Muriel Spark’s novels, but I don’t entirely admire her personal life. She became extremely Catholic and really went hook, line, and sinker into the faith, which as I have said, I completely divorced myself from. So, when I say I’m in love with a writer, it’s not a blind love. It’s very human. We all love people who are not perfect, and being able to have that kind of warts and all love is important in the real world, and also important in the aesthetic relationships.
Rail: How has teaching impacted your creative process? Do you find yourself working in a different way when you have lesson plans to research, and plagiarism to deal with?
Rooney: I’m lucky in that I love teaching. I’m also very fortunate that my work in the classroom feeds my work as a creative person. I know there are people who feel that their artistic life goes on hold when they teach due to grading and planning, but luckily I find teaching very stimulating. Part of that is that right now, at De Paul, plagiarism (which I write about in For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs, and which galls me to no end) is less of a factor because I am teaching all creative classes. Not that one can’t plagiarize creative work, but it’s less often done and is less difficult to catch. I’m teaching poetry, creative writing, and writing the body, so I have a lot of leeway and a lot of freedom to teach classes that are in my wheelhouse already. I do realize that I’m in a fortunate position to be able to teach in a way that feeds my writing.
Rail: When you write about plagiarism, I love the point you make that even if it’s choppy, or it’s not perfect, it’s your voice. And I was wondering if that lesson of bravery in the classroom factors into your own writing?
Rooney: I do like to push people, myself and others, to be the best they can be. I also tend toward this imperfect Immanuel Kant sense of beauty, as opposed to a Platonic sense of beauty. I find the things that are universally ideal and universally loved less lovable, and less interesting. They’re less interactive and engaging than things that have contradictions or gaps. I like stuff that’s a little more flawed because I feel I can get into and relate more interpretively to blemishes than to things that are just perfect. It’s like too shiny of a surface. You try to run and you just slide.
Rail: Do you find yourself altered by being forced into subjects? Does the typewriter, the slowness of it, and the authority of type, offer you a sort of more tangible relationship to the words on the page? Does it make it feel more precious, or more real in some way? What exactly, does the typewriter do for you?
Rooney: It’s all of what you said. I think the improvisatory element and the musical element are the biggest things for me. It’s like improv comedy, but it’s also improvisatory in the sense of jazz. Dave Landsberger, whose idea it was to bring PWYW to Chicago, has compared it to playing the word saxophone. I like that. The typewriter is somehow very much like a musical instrument. If you’re playing the piano, you are going to produce different things than playing the flute. I think playing the laptop versus playing the handwritten notebook, versus playing the typewriter, produces a different kind of music. I think it has to do with the slowness, and the fact that we can’t erase. I don’t draft, I just bang it out on the typewriter and that pushes me to places I wouldn’t otherwise go. It’s about being comfortable with imperfection. When you’re writing a poem on a topic you didn’t choose, and it has to be done in 10 minutes on a typewriter, you’re going to fuck it up. But you have to let it go. And you have to realize that sometimes those fuck ups end up being your most beautiful moments. Not always—sometimes they’re just bad—but more often than not by letting yourself be free to not be perfect, you end up being better than if you were perfect.
Rail: So it helps you fall in love a little bit with the mess?
Rail: You speak so much and with such knowledge of visual art—is there some part of you that longs to be a painter?
Rooney: Yes. I do take a lot of photographs, and I do paint. I consider those things hobbies, but very serious hobbies. I don’t mean hobby in a cute, dismissive way, and I’ve always loved visual art, but I realized early on that my skill as a writer vastly exceeded my skill as a painter or drawer. But, I feel that art enriches my life as a spectator or a fan in a way that’s really beneficial. It’s very cool to love something so much, and think about it, and read about it, but I don’t have to feel that same pressure I feel with writing. I don’t have to interact with art in the same way I do with writing, from a practical standpoint. It makes it a freer space for me.
I recently started trying to write more art reviews. One of my favorite critics is Dave Hickey. He wrote Air Guitar, and also has a book that just came out called Pirates and Farmers. He’s been an art dealer and an art critic his whole life. He is not himself a visual artist, but the way that he writes so knowledgably and enthusiastically about visual art is inspiring. He’s my ideal in that regard.
Rail: It kind of touches back to visionary art, and this idea of removing the pressure. Your writing is your professional space, and your paintings are your private world where no one gets to review you, so it’s kind of a special territory. I wanted to ask you, do you have a favorite, most iconic painting that inspires you or encapsulates how you think about yourself as an artist?
Rooney: I love the work of Dorothea Tanning. For one thing she’s a female artist, but I don’t just love her for that, I admire the way she’s able to paint very representationally when she wants to. She has the ability to paint the world exactly as it looks, but more often than not she chooses not to—she’ll make a sunflower grow out of a stairway, or represent a bizarre dreamscape that could never exist. She resonates with me, too, because she came to be a respected poet later in life. I love the way she could shift gears like that.
Rail: In closing, I want to ask you which of your books do you feel most accurately represents who you are today, as contemporary Kathleen?
Rooney: Right now, I feel that the book that most encompasses me is probably, Robinson Alone, which is weird because that’s the book where I’m actually not writing about myself. It’s not based on my life, it’s based on Weldon Kees. The mask that Kees wore, and the mask that writing that book let me wear, ended up conveying a truer representation of how I feel about a lot of things, even than when I’ve written about myself. Sometimes you have to get more removed in order to get closer.