FICTION

BY JENNIE LIN
THE JOURNAL

IN THIS WEEK’S BOOKLET

No One Noticed the Moon Was Defaced

Kathleen

Rooney
raises the dead

THE MYSTERY OF ‘THE FIFTY YEAR SWORD’

PRINTERS ROW
OCTOBER 14, 2012

Darin Strauss
A life-changing memoir

ONE BOOK

ONE CHICAGO:
Inspiring talk
about violence with

‘The Book Thief’

Don DeLillo collects the Sandburg Award

RICK KOGAN ON

J.R. MOEHRINGER’S

‘SUTTON’

Reviving a lost but hopeful artist
Kathleen Rooney channels the alter-ego of ‘bitter’ Weldon Kees, who disappeared almost 60 years ago
BY KEVIN NANCE
Taylor Glascock/Photos for the Tribune

At first glance, Kathleen Rooney, a 32year-old Chicago poet, and her literary hero, Weldon Kees, who disappeared in San Francisco in 1955, might seem worlds apart. They’re of different eras, genders, temperaments. He was moody and often quietly despairing, and he almost certainly committed suicide — he probably jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge, though no
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one saw him do it, and his body was never found. One of his champions, the late Donald Justice, called him “one of the bitterest poets in history.” Rooney, by contrast, is anything but bitter. Like Kees, she understands that it’s the destiny of most poets to exist well off the public’s radar. Unlike him, she seems largely to accept this, letting it roll off her back as if she were wearing an invisible raincoat. The only reason she approaches a bridge is to cross it.

And yet the things that separate them — time and space, personality and outlook — pale beside those that bind them together. They’re both from Nebraska, whose Midwestern values (in which artistic ambition is often viewed as impractical at best and, at worst, an unseemly form of attentionseeking) they found lovely but limiting. Conversely, they share a love of life in the city, in particular the company of the kindred spirits to be found there. Their poems

rarely use traditional forms but emit strong whiffs of formal rigor, playing with rhyme and a strong sense of line, music and meter; both exist partway between the flirtation with obscurity associated with modernist poetry and the confessional verse of the next generation, especially Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. They’re both concerned with self-presentation — he always natty in a suit and tie, she a study in bohemian chic (vintage skirts, blouses and cardigans, a well-worn pair of Nancy Sinatra boots); his trademark was a well-groomed mustache that she sometimes mimics, with unnerving accuracy, by stringing a strand of her hair just below her nose. The mind-meld of Rooney and Kees reaches its apex in “Robinson Alone,” her eerie and accomplished “novel-in-poems,” to be published this month. In the book, Rooney channels Kees in the form of his alter-ego, Robinson, telling the older poet’s journey from Nebraska to New York City with his wife during the years just before World War II; his successes and struggles there; their move to San Francisco; his wife’s mental breakdown and their subsequent divorce; and, finally, his own descent into depression and apparent selfdestruction. And yet Rooney, as is her wont, focuses less on Kees’ unhappiness than on his capacity for hope, so often disappointed but perpetually regenerating, at least till the end. “Yes, he was bitter, but I think people can’t get that bitter without having begun with the expectation that things could be quite ideal,” she says over lunch at m.henrietta in Edgewater, where she lives with her husband, fiction writer Martin Seay. “Kees was disappointed with how his own career didn’t get the recognition it deserved, but also with the way the world was unfair — the way the society was unjust, the way America always had a chance to be better, but almost always, according to him, chose not to be. But he was also an optimist, although a frustrated one — always believing that just around the corner, in the next room, he would achieve his dream.” Rooney sighs, as if in commiseration; tellingly, she speaks of him in the present tense, as if he were still alive. (It’s technically possible, though he’d be 98 now. In his apartment, he left a bowl of milk for the cat, a pair of red socks soaking in the sink.) “Every time he starts a new project, he seems to know from the outset that even if it’s not doomed, it’s just not going to go as well as he would like it to. He’s no Pollyanna — ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’; he does everything with his eyes open, knowing full well how doomed it is. But he keeps trying, and that’s what I like about him. In a world that doesn’t necessarily value the things he does, he values those things, and finds a way to keep going. He never stops making art.” Why this long immersion in, and identification with, Kees? “I think his productive dissatisfaction with the texture of modern life is something that just about anybody can identify with, if they encounter him at the right time, and of course Kathleen encountered him in her early 20s,” Seay says. “That’s the age when most people

would want one. This way, it conveys to the audience that what they’re getting is something of value, something worth paying for.” Rooney smiles. “For $5, I’d say it’s a bargain.”
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begin to be aware of the tendency of the world to fall short of the promises it makes.” In Rooney, a visiting assistant professor of English and creative writing at DePaul University, that awareness has only deepened over the years. “Like Robinson Kees, I always have a Alone sense that your idea — By Kathleen your ideal — is always Rooney, Gold going to be much bigWake Press, 134 ger and better than the pages, $12.95 actuality,” she says. “I don’t mean that in Go terms of just my own Rooney will pursuits, but artistic launch her new pursuits of all kinds; book with a the fact is simply that a reading at 7:30 lot of people just aren’t p.m. Nov. 2 at going to care about Women & Chilthem. That makes me dren First, 5233 sort of sad — not just N. Clark St., in for the artist, because Chicago. they won’t get the attention that perhaps they should, but for the people who chose to ignore those things, because they’re living lives that I would argue are impoverished by the lack of those things. That’s why I encourage my students to keep a notebook. To paraphrase Henry James, it helps you to be a person on whom nothing is lost. Yes, I wish more people read poetry; I wish more people read, period, but they don’t.” She shrugs, both resigned and determined. “But it’s still worth writing books.”
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As a little girl, Rooney read avidly — Richard Scarry’s illustrated “Best Mother Goose Ever” was a great favorite, as was Fitzhugh Dodson’s “I Wish I Had a Computer That Makes Waffles,” a collection of more modern nursery rhymes — and began writing poems at age 5. She wrote poems

through high school at Downers Grove North, and after a brief flirtation with political science at George Washington University, returned to her first love, English and creative writing, as her major. She discovered Kees while spending her junior year at Oxford, and spent the next decade writing, among other things, the poems collected in “Robinson Alone.” During that period she also wrote “Oneiromance” (2008), a poetry collection that won the Gatewood Prize; “Reading with Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America” (2008), a scholarly study of the influential book club; “For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs” (2009), a collection of autobiographical essays; and “Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object” (2010), a memoir of her years working part time as an artist’s model, which distressed her mother. “She never thought that was something a nice young lady should do — posing naked for artists,” Rooney recalls. “She certainly didn’t like me writing about it.” Rooney also founded a small publishing house, Rose Metal Press, which publishes books in hybrid forms, especially very short — “flash” — fiction and nonfiction. She began to teach, at DePaul and Roosevelt universities, among other places. And she began to explore alternate ways to expand the audience for poetry, by herself and others. These include the Chicago Poetry Brothel, a poetry series, and, over the past year, Poems While You Wait, a collaboration with two other poets in which they pay monthly visits to street fairs, libraries and other venues to sell poems, written on demand in short bursts of time, for the small but not insignificant sum of $5. “The fact that people pay $5 for what we do is really key,” she explains. “It’s the Craigslist paradox. If you have an old sofa and you want to get rid of it, you post it on Craigslist and say, ‘Free sofa! Come take it away!’ And nobody wants your sofa. But if you post the same sofa with the same picture and say, ‘Sofa, $75,’ you’ll get a ton of offers. And that’s what we’re doing with Poems While You Wait. It’s not much money, but if we offered free poems, nobody

At the Randolph Street Market one recent sunny morning, Rooney and fellow poets Eric Plattner and David Landsberger are typing away at a table on manual typewriters; Rooney’s is an old Smith-Corona with a few keys — the small “a” and “o” in particular — that could use a swabbing. Business is slow but steady, and by lunchtime, about 25 people have dropped in to purchase poems. The customers provide the topics; today’s requested subjects include the old standbys, love and romance, but also some more unexpected themes, including “integrity,” “learning to fly,” “being mute” and “the word ‘bonkers.’ ” “There was a little bit of a learning curve at first,” says Landsberger, who started the Chicago trio after being introduced to a similar gig in Miami. “Figuring out how to balance what the customer wants with your own work, your own artistic standards? It’s not easy. Then there’s the time limit, which is about 15 minutes, tops. Also not easy.” Aesthetically, he says, the three poets are very different from each other. “Eric is the most thoughtful, I’m the most playful, and Kathleen is the most sensitive. She’s really good at reading the customers in just a few seconds, understanding what they want.” Normally the customers don’t get to pick which poet tackles their topic, but a visiting reporter gets special consideration. He wants Rooney to write the poem. He hands her a $5 bill, then writes on the sign-up sheet: “Some words for fall.” Does he have anything, she wants to know, particular in mind? Maybe something about the idea that autumn is so many people’s favorite season, even though, symbolically, it seems to be a little morbid — falling leaves, the beginning of the end, and so on. Rooney gets straight to work. She leans forward, intent and intense, her legs crossed at the knee, her sunglasses perched on top of her head, pounding at the keys. She doesn’t smile. She’s very, very serious. She gives the impression of someone on whom nothing is lost, and who never stops making art. Exactly 15 minutes later, she hands over the poem, which is called “Fall Appeals.” “The same way / a bruised knee feels,” it goes, & a moonless night looks: hooked with gentle sadness whose passage is not unhappy. To autumn, as a verb, is to cheerily despair— to put leaves in hair, to perhaps grow a neckbeard. The weird allure of October fills with marvelous. Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
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