Reaper: An AJB Interview with Jill McDonough


AJB: In this collection, man and machine are often juxtaposed but also at times morphing together. Would you say that machines and technology are a part of nature—that they are still derived from alloys and materials from the earth? Why or why not?

JM: Sure, they’re part of nature, but less because they are from alloys and more because they are from our big fat brains.  If we are nature, with our Cheetos and fillings and sports bras and freakishly long lifespans, so is the tech we invent. Just because something’s natural doesn’t mean it’s sweet, right? Tsunamis are natural.  Grisly grizzly attacks.  Plagues. But I prefer calling room service to camping, and the Department of the Interior has a beautiful Instagram account. I’m less interested in blaming the artifice of it and more concerned about malicious intent, and carelessness about consequences, our lack of imagination.

AJB: Devices, from the phones we hold in our hands to the appliances in our kitchens, are updated and replaced at a rate that is hard to keep up with. What your thoughts on planned and perceived obsolescence? How did those concepts impact your work?

JM: I think planned obsolescence is funny. It must be so hard, at first, for smart people to do less than their best because that’s what will make more monies.  And our poor sweet brains have to keep up with all the ways software changes around us.  All the passwords we have to remember, the new ways we change them, how each iPhone or iOS update means we have to learn a slightly different way to access photos or podcasts or blogs.  It’s like we recognize our surroundings sort of but really almost not.  I imagine it’s good practice for dementia; our own unplanned, painfully perceived obsolescence.

AJB: Would you say our society, or even humanity, has become desensitized when it comes to the power of technology, like the concept of a “Fire-and-forget missile”. Do you see human beings losing their agency and drones gaining more agency?

JM: I think we’ve lost our agency less because of military technology and more because of daily technology.  We’re so distracted by the decadence available to us—or, for more of us, the fifteen jobs we have to work, the struggles with our insurance companies, finding a ride to the private prison where our family members are held —that we can’t keep track of all the wars being fought in our names.  With our taxes.  We’ve lost our agency because so many people in power benefit from our ignorance.

AJB: In your poem “Car Wash” you write, “You can tell a secret in a poem and it will stay a secret/ forever. No one reads poems except for me and you.” How do you see poetry evolving? What do you see in the future for poetry, for the arts?

JM: I see the future in conversation with the past.  I teach my students iambic pentameter, form. We translate Sappho, mine the past for treasures.  But we also come up with experimental forms, with new ways of saying what we mean, of accurately portraying real lives now unremarkably measured out in Candy Crush, the eroticism of the right-swipe, an evening out, curated by strangers on Yelp.  Poetry is positioned perfectly for this short-attention, small-screen world: it’s so often the size of your hand.

AJB: Speaking of the future, how do you deal with heavy thoughts of mortality, of life beginning and ending with such finality? In your poem “How We Do”, you talk about the human species potentially becoming extinct—how can we cope with those anxieties, especially in these times we are in?

Shrugging.  And making out.  And fighting.  Going the gym. The pleasure of protesting in a group, and of Netflix-and-chill, crockpots of posole, pitchers of margaritas.  Classic Boston Bar crawls, finding cashmere at the Goodwill.  It may be the endtimes, but in part that’s because it’s such a good time.  Our brains are big.  We can take on the challenges facing our peoples and planet and still enjoy a good car wash or milkshake.  We help the people who are worse off than we are, and enjoy what we can afford to enjoy.  Humans: that’s pretty much how we do.