Photo by Beth Rooney
I'm obsessed with peanut butter, but all that's ever gotten me is a closet full of stained clothes. Poet Kathleen Rooney on the other hand, used her obsession with poet, musician and painter Harry Weldon Kees to fuel her own work, ultimately creating Robinson Alone, a Novel in Poems. She spoke with Our Town about their shared Midwestern roots, how her work as a teacher informs her writing, and most importantly, Kees' mustache.
Our Town What originally drew you to Harry Weldon Kees?
Kathleen Rooney His mustache, obviously. Kidding! (Although I do love the mustache.) Pinning down a single point of attraction would be impossible. I first heard of him while I was studying in the UK, in a poem by the British poet Simon Armitage called “Looking for Weldon Kees,” in which Armitage writes, “I’ve heard it said by Michael Hofmann / that Collected Poems would blow my head off…” At that time, 2001, Kees’ Collected was not so easy to find, so the very effort required to track the book down set me up to love it even more than if finding it had been simple. Once I began to read it, I found his formal facility and his distillation of the best tendencies in midcentury poetry appealing. I also found his gift for the mordant and the grotesque, his poised disappointment, and his overall style—as a person and as a poet—to be eerily resonant and instructive in the twenty-first century. Adding to the appeal was the fact that not only Kees’ poetry but Kees himself were tricky to track down: he disappeared in 1955 and is believed either to have leapt from the Golden Gate Bridge or to have vanished into Mexico. I connected with Kees in part, too, because he and I both have roots in Nebraska; he grew up in Beatrice, and I grew up in (among several other places) Omaha.
OT What do your shared Nebraskan roots mean to you?
KR Even more than the shared roots, the intentional moves that Kees made from an environment that he found provincial and parochial to environments that were cosmopolitan and lower-case-C catholic struck me as highly relatable. With his balance of sharp wit and careful civility, Kees is to me a very Midwestern artist, but one who, like many Midwestern artists, found it hard to be who—and to do what—he wanted in the place he came from.
OT You determined that the protagonist, Robinson, in four of Kees’ poems is his alter ego. How did you come to that conclusion?
KR It’s not that Kees’ Robinson character has a biographical correspondence to Kees himself (which is closer to what I do with my reinterpretation of Robinson in my novel-in-poems), but more that he possesses a sympathy in attitude, affect and emotion to Kees. Kees’ Robinson is, like Kees, someone who is aware of the enormous gap between the way the world actually is and the way he’d prefer it to be—the yawning divide between the world as a hopeful dream-come-true and the world as an absurd and disappointing nightmare. Robinson, like Kees, is a flâneur, a thinker, a wanderer, wry and dissatisfied. The correspondence between Kees and Robinson is close but not exact, comparable that between John Berryman and the figure of Henry in Berryman’s “Dream Songs.”
OT How did you conceive your novel in poems? Did you start writing the poems first and then realize they related, or did you have the concept in mind right away?
KR Kees’ original Robinson series seems to invite addition and elaboration. When I began, I thought I might write four or five of my own “Robinson” poems and be done with it. But I quickly realized that the depth of my interest was considerably greater than a handful of pieces, and I began to immerse myself not just in Kees’ own writing, but also in research about the time period—American from the late 1930s to the early 1950s—more generally. I concluded that I wanted to write a hybrid work—a novel, but in poems—that would depict Kees/Robinson not merely in fragmented glimpses, but as a fully rounded character engaging in a narrative arc. It took me roughly ten years of work—on and off, but still—to get the project into a shape that I considered finished and publishable.
OT What potential pitfalls are there in using someone else's character?
KR As I was writing I kept imagining what Kees might think of the manuscript if he ever read it, and that was partly a potential pitfall, because if I let myself become too anxious about paying homage or doing justice to the original work, I could begin to feel paralyzed. But this sensation was also an aspect of the fun of the project; it felt like I was having a conversation with Kees—an impossible but still weirdly two-sided conversation.
OT How did you know when to take a break from the project and when to return?
KR I started the project in the fall of 2001, shortly after returning to the States, and I arrived at the finished manuscript in 2009 (and then spent quite a bit of time trying to find a publisher). During the intervening years, I went through periods of working on the project intensely, abandoning it, coming back to it, re-imagining and re-writing it, abandoning it again, re-imagining and re-writing it again, and on and on. Even during the times when I wasn’t actively writing new poems for it—and/or when I was immersed in writing other, very different books (both in poetry and in other genres)—I’d be thinking about this project: doing research, reading and re-reading Kees’ books, learning much, much more about the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s than I’d ever be able to fit into the completed project, no matter how long or detailed I made it. Robinson Alone is as much a scholarly work as a creative one, because I wanted to supersaturate the manuscript with texture and detail.
OT You teach as well as write. How does your teaching inform your writing and vice versa?
KR One of the things I try to teach my students is how to read like a writer, which is to say how to read closely, deeply, critically and analytically. To use an analogy, reading like a reader might be compared to just learning how to tell time—you look at a clock and can say, with ease and satisfaction, “Hey, it’s 4:30. Cool.” But if you read like a writer, you look at the clock and flip it over and open it up and try to figure how it functions in such a way that it can effectively tell people it’s 4:30. I try to read like a teacher which is very similar, and I try to do so not merely when I’m reading student work, but when I’m reading anything, and that mindset tends to deepen my experience of texts of all kinds (not just books, but cinema, fashion, sports, people, etc.), which in turn (I hope) deepens my writing.
OT What are you working on next?
KR Thanks for asking! Presently, I’m working on a novel-novel, which is to say not a novel-in-poems like Robinson Alone, but a more “traditional” novel that is written entirely in prose chapters. It’s called O, Democracy! and it will be coming out from Fifth Star Press in Spring 2014. Stay tuned.
Catch Kathleen Rooney at The Dollhouse Reading Series, Saturday, December 15 at 7:30 p.m.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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