Kathleen McGookey’s prose poems and translations have appeared in many journals and anthologies including The Antioch Review, Boston Review, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Epoch, Field, Indiana Review, The Laurel Review, Ploughshares, The Prose Poem: An International Journal, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Seneca Review, West Branch, and Willow Springs. She is the author of Whatever Shines (White Pine Press), October Again (Burnside Review Press), and Mended (Kattywompus Press), and the translator of We’ll See (Parlor Press), a book of prose poems by contemporary French poet Georges Godeau. Her book Stay is forthcoming from Press 53 in fall 2015; her book At the Zoo is forthcoming from White Pine Press in spring 2017. She has received grants from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation and the Arts Fund of Kalamazoo County, and in 2014, she received a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which supports artists who are parents. She has taught creative writing at Hope College, Interlochen Arts Academy, and Western Michigan University.
Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin with your book of poems, Whatever Shines. From where did you get the idea to write it?
Kathleen McGookey: My mother had saved the journals that both her mother and her father kept. I think she had probably twenty years’ worth of journals by both her parents. And for a while, I was fascinated with reading them. Many of the poems I was writing during graduate school were based on these journals and also photographs that my grandfather had taken. Close to the end of my MFA, I took a writing workshop with Sharon Bryan and there were only two students in the class. Sharon liked putting book manuscripts together, so she worked with each of us to organize our poems into a book. It’s a very hard process. Sharon asked a lot of questions. I remember spreading the poems out over my floor, trying to figure out the order and how many sections.
Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write Whatever Shines?
Kathleen McGookey: I’m sorry, I don’t have any idea! If I had to guess, I might say four or five years to write the poems, and then another four years or so to send it out to publishers. But I organized the manuscript during that one semester with Sharon.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the toughest poem you’ve ever written?
Kathleen McGookey: I didn’t much like writing the poems called “Details” and “Disease in the Particular,” both of which are about the degenerative brain disease that my father had. These poems are both in my book Stay which is forthcoming from Press 53 this September. I also was very sad while I was writing poems after my parents died. The poems themselves weren’t tough to write, but I couldn’t escape the grief and loss, and that was awful.
Geosi Gyasi: Where do you often sit to write?
Kathleen McGookey: I sit at my desk in my office at home. I look out over a cornfield. It’s a very pretty view. But when I revise, I do it all over the house, or I take my drafts with me. Sometimes I revise while I’m sitting with my kids while they do homework.
Geosi Gyasi: How much importance do you place on language when you write?
Kathleen McGookey: When I am writing early drafts, I don’t worry about language a whole lot. I find myself trying to capture a moment or image. But when I start to revise, I place a lot of importance on diction and sound. I spend a fair amount of time looking words up in the dictionary and the thesaurus to make sure I’ve got the exact word I want. I love the part of revision when I play with sound and sentence structure. I just tell myself I have to hang on during the first draft to get to the revision, which I love.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your book October Again?
My parents died within two weeks of each other. My dad had been sick with a brain disease for several years, and my mother took care of him, but she was suddenly diagnosed with cancer and died not long after her diagnosis. I had an infant son at the time. And my husband and son and I moved in with my parents to help take care of them. It was a strange kind of completeness to simultaneously take care of my infant and my parents as they were dying. So for a long time, I wrote poems about grief and loss. I wrote poems about losing both my parents, but when I tried to organize October Again, it seemed clearer when I only included the poems about my mom.
Geosi Gyasi: How different is October Again from Whatever Shines?
Kathleen McGookey: They’re quite different. October Again is a chapbook, so it’s shorter, and it’s made up of a series of untitled prose poems. So it’s possible to read it as one long poem. Some readers have also said October Again is kind of like reading journal entries. Whatever Shines is a full-length book, and is separated into sections, and is also a mix of prose poems and poems in verse. Many of the poems in the book concern themselves with the idea of marriage.
Geosi Gyasi: What motivates you as a writer?
Kathleen McGookey: When I read something I love, I want to write. Right now, some of my favorite writers are Charles Simic, Gary Young, Nin Andrews, Marosa di Giorgio, Cynthia Marie Hoffman, and Cecilia Woloch. For some reason, the idea of not writing terrifies me, and that motivates me to write.
Geosi Gyasi: Does your family approve of your writing?
Kathleen McGookey: My parents were very proud of me. My husband is incredibly supportive. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law buy copies of my books to give to their friends. My daughter sometimes says she wants to be a poet. I feel very lucky.
Geosi Gyasi: How long have you been writing?
Kathleen McGookey: I have always loved to write. When I was a little girl, I remember making long lists of titles of stories I planned to write. I never wrote the stories. But I have been writing poems seriously since I was 21. So that makes 27 years that I’ve been writing.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you feel like not writing?
Kathleen McGookey: Yes. Most of the time when I sit down at my desk, I don’t feel like writing. I’ve only had the experience two times of having a poem come to me when I was not sitting down with a pen and paper. And that was wonderful. I couldn’t wait to write them down. But many days, I go to my desk and hope that my awful, early draft will turn into something better with revision.
Geosi Gyasi: Why did you decide to go to Western Michigan University to study poetry?
Kathleen McGookey: I had heard wonderful things about the writers who taught there—Bill Olsen and Nancy Eimers taught poetry, and Jaimy Gordon and Stu Dybek taught fiction. It was also close to home. But truthfully, I applied to only two graduate schools in creative writing: Iowa and Western. It was not the best plan. I had also applied to another school to study journalism. I didn’t get into Iowa, but I did get into Western and the journalism school. I decided I wanted to study poetry, so Western was my choice.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you do besides writing?
Kathleen McGookey: I sometimes teach classes in writing poetry. I bake pies. I waterski in the summer and downhill ski in the winter. I take care of my two kids, who are 13 and 9. I volunteer at my kids’ schools. I take walks. I do the mundane, daily chores to take care of my family.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any special reason why you decided to study French?
Kathleen McGookey: My mom had studied French, and in fact, was a high school French teacher for a short time. So the language was always around me as I was growing up. I also was fortunate to have an excellent French teacher in high school, Madame VanDam. I love how French sounds, though I would be terrible at speaking it now.
Geosi Gyasi: How often do you perform your poems?
Kathleen McGookey: I usually do four or five readings a year. Though I am not a performance poet—I do enjoy reading my poems, and talking with audiences, but I am not at all theatrical. This year, I am planning more readings to help promote my book Stay.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever experienced writer’s block?
Kathleen McGookey: Thankfully, I have not. But I have experienced times when writing was impossible—having an infant, for example. And I usually don’t get a whole lot of writing done when my kids are home for summer vacation. But I am grateful that I can see the cyclical nature of time, and I know that those times when I am not writing are only temporary.
Geosi Gyasi: What are you currently working on?
Kathleen McGookey: I am just writing poems. The last couple poems have been inspired by images from dreams I am having. I mean literal dreams, not daydreams. I don’t know what they will turn into.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you belong to any group of writers?
Kathleen McGookey: Yes. I am part of a writers’ group in Kalamazoo, which meets about every two weeks to discuss our poems. And I am part of an online writing group. The members post poems whenever they have them and then we respond to them. I usually show the same work to both groups.