Kathleen Rooney Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
These poems speak from the perspective of pet dogs, whether about art, war, or their owners, René Magritte and his wife Georgette. Could you discuss your decision to use this point of view?
Because René Magritte himself is so famous and because his works are so well-known, I wanted to try to find a way to write about his life and his art that could be surprising and strange (much like the paintings themselves). Taking on the perspective of Loulou -- the series of Pomeranian dogs, all of whom went by that name, owned by René and Georgette -- offered a means of doing that. René and Georgette adored their poms, and the idea of taking the being who was closest to them all their lives and hearing what he had to say about their domestic arrangement and Magritte's art itself was fun, and sort of surreal in a manner that felt in keeping with the weird and playful intent of the images.
These Pomeranians are not just a part of the art world, but part of the world itself. They speak to subjects such as the aesthetics of art and colorblindness of dogs, protecting their home from men in Magritte’s paintings were they to ever approach the front door, and the Nazis invading Belgium. I understand that these poems are part of a collection you’re working on, and I’d love to know about some of the other ways in which these pets take part in the world throughout the larger manuscript.
Yes, these stand-alone pieces--some of which I suppose are prose poems and some of which I suppose are flash fictions--are all part of a full-length manuscript that operates as a novel whose themes are, in part, love, loyalty, creativity, and the cyclical/repetitive passage of time. It's called THE LISTENING ROOM. In it, the point of view alternates between a close-third-person from the perspective of the very art historically smart and worldly poms, all called Loulou, and a close-third-person from the perspective of Georgette Magritte. Instead of focusing on a more expected form of domesticity that might consist of parents and a child or set of children, I thought it might be cool to focus on a domestic situation that consisted of two childless adults and their much adored dog(s). I'm very interested in the idea of chosen family, and also in non-human consciousnesses.
I'd love to hear more about your interest in chosen family and non-human consciousness. In what ways do these impact your work outside of THE LISTENING ROOM ?
It's always struck me as strange to think that everyone's ultimate goal should be to get married and have children, and yet in many quarters, that's the assumption that everyone's making, especially for women: that one day, every female person will fulfill her assumed desire to get hitched and reproduce herself. As someone who has never been interested in having kids and who really enjoys not having them, I like thinking about why people make the decisions they do about what family means to them. My novel LILLIAN BOXFISH TAKES A WALK, coming out next year from St. Martin's Press has a protagonist who is extremely ambivalent about marriage and child-bearing, but she does both anyway, and it leads to a lot of conflict.
As to non-human consciousnesses, it's always struck me as arrogant for humans to assume (and again, as with the above, not everyone does this, of course, but in a lot of quarters, they do) that humans are in some way superior to all other animal life forms.This presumed superiority is used to justify a lot of practices that are probably worth questioning, like eating meat or making animals work for us or exploiting them in myriad other ways, not to mention destroying the earth and environment that we are all supposed to share. I was raised Catholic and as a kid, I was told by priests and religious family members that our family's pet dogs, gerbils, and fish, all of whom I loved, would under no circumstances go to heaven when they died because heaven was only for beings with souls and free will and that just meant humans. I think I tried to be like "What about St. Francis of Assisi, who loved the animals so much?" and I was just told "Nope, no pets in heaven, kid." I don't even believe in heaven or hell or religion anymore, but this explicit concept of human supremacy hit me as suspect then and it still hits me that way now.
I admire your use of the prose poem for this work. Along with the surreal quality of the form, which allows a poet to be wildly imaginative, it also allows for an intellectual dialogue of issues important to the poet. Is this one of reasons you're drawn to the form? Are there other reasons as well?
Thank you! In addition to the qualities you describe, which are also reasons I love the prose poem, I thought that prose poems and flash fictions/tiny stories would go well with the ekphrastic approach. Each little square of text, be it fiction or a prose poem, echoes in a formal and structural way the little squares or rectangles of canvas on which Magritte did much of his work.
I love that idea of the prose poem reflecting a small canvas. Could you talk about your interest in Magritte's work, as well as your work as editor of MAGRITTE’S SELECTED WRITINGS, which I'm eagerly anticipating?
Sure thing! I've been a Magritte fan for years and years, ever since I first saw some of his paintings at the Chicago Art Institute on a field trip we took there in elementary school. They're so witty and mysterious, and frequently outright funny. His playfulness has always appealed to me, as has his interest in language--he seems to me to be a very literary painter, as concerned with meaning and syntax as painterly skill or picture quality.
So back in 2014, when the Mystery of the Ordinary show of his works came to Chicago, I was excited to see it. My friend and fellow Poems While You Wait poet, Eric Plattner, is a member of the museum, so he and I went together and while we were there, I was smitten by the quality of the wall texts describing the paintings, and noticed that many of them consisted of excerpts of Magritte's writing (much of which is prose poem-y in its own right). I exited through the gift shop, as is customary, fully intending to buy his SELECTED WRITINGS, but to my chagrin, it wasn't there. An internet search revealed that there'd been a translation supposed to come out in the late 1980s, but it hadn't--the only book of his writings was the French COLLECTED edition that came out from Flammarion in the late 1970s. So through some lengthy detective work (which was great because I've always wanted to be a detective) I was able to track down the long-lost typewritten manuscript in an archive in Caen, France and then, through the help of Alma Books, which owned the UK rights, I was able to arrange for it to be published with them in the UK and with University of Minnesota Press in the US. Eric is the co-editor on this project, naturally, and we're both really excited that it's going to be out later this summer. I wrote the introduction and the art historian Sandra Zalman wrote the preface. It's a fantastic work and anybody who is remotely interested in Surrealism or Magritte will probably find a lot to admire in it--he's a delightful writer.
I am really looking forward to reading it, Kathleen! Thank you so much for your time and wonderful conversation.
Uniform and in formation, are the bland men falling? Are they like a fine rain? Is the day cold and raw or hot and splendid? The kind for lighting a pipe and staying by the fire or the kind where those who’ve been inside for work emerge and practically eat the sky with a fork and a knife, so hungry are they to feel unconfined? Either way, Loulou the Pomeranian knows they’d dress the same: flat black suits and bowler hats, the latter like the master wears whether in publicity shots or taking Loulou out for walks. Are the bland men floating up like soap bubbles; if poked, would they pop? Loulou has a mind that they might be suspended, a silent grid like atoms in the crystal lattice of a diamond. The master’s poet friend, Scutenaire, named the painting after Golkanda, a ruined Indian city once famous for its mines. Individually, the bland men in the air do not look strange, but almost all are strangers. If they tried to get into the home that Loulou shares here in Jette with Magritte and Georgette, he’d have something to say to every last plain one of them. Fierce and warning. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. But hark, over there! By the chimney of the house on the right – that’s Scutenaire. No bark for him. Just a nuzzle and a sniff. Then? Again: Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.
LE MAL DU PAYS
The master’s paintings have a technical sheen – an intellectual cold. Loulou the Pomeranian will not disagree. But that’s only bad if you think warm is the best way for a painting to be. This one shines as golden as heaven, but feels like soundless misery.
The downcast man in a slate-gray suit and matching black wings turns his face away, but Loulou can see it’s his dear Magritte. Preemptive angel or potential suicide? The man’s eyes angle to contemplate the river. Were he to leap, Loulou wonders, could he keep from flapping to complete the deed and end his life, or would he rise, unable not to vanish into the yellow skies? The lion on the pavement beneath the green gas lamp of the bridge refuses to be hungry, and in its hurt dignity, Loulou can see Georgette. The man would not object to being eaten, but the lion consumes only its own ennui.
This one is from a time that Loulou remembers when life itself had seemed just a slow death. The pain of suspension without the sweetness of anticipation. Homesickness rendered double by the riverine drifting apart at home. Loulou had worried he might soon not have a family: it was 1940, when the Nazis had just invaded their beloved Belgium, and the master and Georgette were at their worst as a couple – the edge of a jump into dissolution.
Loulou sympathizes with the man, but identifies with the lion. Loulou knows what it’s like to crackle with static. Loulou knows what it’s like to have to sit and to wait.
L’ESPRIT DE LA GÉOMÉTRIE
There are few people to whom Loulou the Pomeranian can speak his mind honestly and not be seen a philistine. “I sometimes grow disenchanted with the Renaissance,” he can say to the master. “All those Madonnas-with-Child. All that reverential religion.” And the master can reply, “Why yes, I see.” But the colors, those colors! other people always say to Loulou, as if that could persuade him, but here’s the thing: he’s a dog, and thus colorblindish. Not to mention the macabre anatomies. Painted by men who seem like they’ve never seen a naked woman: icon after icon and on and on, their high-up breasts, misplaced and grotesque, proffered to babies who look like little old geezers. Even the best can be corny as sunsets. Though Loulou will allow he admires Artemisia’s rendition for its sweetness and knowledge of what goes where. Her spirit of geometry for the seventeenth century. And the master’s for the twentieth: a fresh-smelling exchange. The man-sized baby has dressed himself smartly: a puff-sleeved blouse and a chic pencil skirt. His infant-sized mother clings unweakly to his neck, her body swaddled and her hair marcelled pretty well, considering how small she is. The disturbing inversion that is maternity.
LE DÉMON DE LA PERVERSITÉ
When Loulou the Pomeranian cannot remember where he heard something exactly, he likes to start the sentence with the phrase it is commonly known. “The better to add credibility, my dear,” he joked to Georgette, when she noticed the habit.
Like: “It is commonly known that Leonardo da Vinci advised young painters to study the cracks in old walls for inspiration instead of making sketches.” This anecdote erects itself like a wall in his mind when he regards this painting of an irregular wall: A mahogany blob, rich and polished, with smaller blobs cut in and pine boards peeking through.
Loulou wonders if the imp of the perverse is what motivates him to resort to the vagueness: It is commonly known. The plain behind the wall is dim, and the night sky suggests the limitless universe.
Explanations from the master’s childhood leave the master indifferent, but in the spirit of perversity, Loulou looks at this painting and says, in his best snooty curator impression: “It is commonly known that when the young René was just a pup, a hot air balloon crashed into the shop where the family was living. This long soft thing had to be removed from the roof by stern-faced men in leather clothes and helmets with earflaps. They dragged it downstairs and Magritte found it extraordinary, hence the biomorphic blobs in so much of his oeuvre.” This is partly true. A dirigible did once land upon the childhood home.
There in the studio, Magritte throws his head back. Loulou likes to make the master laugh. Loulou does not need to say “It is commonly known” before his next fact, because he knows it was Hobbes who called laughter “nothing else but sudden glory.” Loulou is capable. Loulou is capable.