“Risks in My Work”: An Interview with Jill McDonough

Ms. McDonough is a very well known poet who has many published poems, and will be releasing her fifth poetry collection in the coming months. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts- Boston, and reads her poetry at schools around the country. She is also the recipient of three pushcart prizes and taught incarcerated college students through Boston University’s Prison education program. She also runs a fine art works center called “24PearlStreet” where students can come and workshop their writing. I picked this poet to interview because of a poem she wrote called “Dear Gaybashers” which was selected for the 2011 volume of Best American Poetry. This poem struck a chord with me as soon as I read it, and it raised important questions for me. Ms. Mcdonough provided me with the response I needed to help resolve my questions.

Will Rehm: I enjoyed reading your poem “Dear Gaybashers.” What inspired you to write it?

Jill McDonough: It happened!

WR: Why did you choose to have such a sarcastic tone in that poem, even though the stories that you describe is incredibly traumatic?

JM: It wasn’t that traumatic; just weird. I wrote it with tenderness as well as sarcasm—I don’t want those assholes to win.  My life is better than theirs, so I wanted to show the kind of wonder and glory of the everyday, my friendships and scarves and worries and concerts.  A richer life than the one available to people who want to throw hot dogs at strangers and scare them for being gay.

WR: Is writing poetry something that you have loved your whole life or something that you have learned to love, and if it something that you have learned to love, was there a poem or author that inspired you to start writing?

JM: I used to play witches with my sisters and friends and we had a book by Ogden Nash on the shelves and I thought his name sounded like a magic spell.  I was like 5. And I didn’t understand his work yet then but I could read it and liked the sound. But writing poetry is something I have loved my whole life. I loved Shel Silverstein, all of it.

WR: Has seeing students’ work that they hand in to you in the MFA program at UMASS-Boston helped you grow as a writer? If so, how?

JM: Yes! I feel like I take risks in my work in part because I want them to do that, too.  

WR: Have you ever written a poem and thought it meant one thing, but then gone back and realized it has a new/different meaning?

JM: I can’t think of one! I work pretty hard at getting them to say what I mean. Sometimes people interpret them differently from I do. That’s cool.


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