By Ryan O'Connell
Arts & Features Editor
The fifth annual Alan Feldman Week of Poetry, hosted by the English Department and Arts & Ideas, began with guest poet Jill McDonough Oct 18.
McDonough, who teaches both in the MFA program at UMass-Boston and College Reading and Writing to incarcerated individuals in Boston’s jails, shared some of her poetry from her past books and newest upcoming release, “American Treasure.”
She first read from “Reaper,” which she said was all about the experiences of military drone pilots, and the repetitive, violent nature of the work.
“You have this very cyclical - kind of boring - job, terrorizing people a whole world away. And then you go home to your family, and then you do it again and again and again,” she said.
McDonough narrated “Twelve-Hour Shifts,” which she said was a villanelle - “a really repetitive poetic form.” She added a significant portion of the book ended up being villanelles from the perspectives of drone pilots.
She read, “It’s done in our names, but we don’t have to know. Our own / lives, shifts, hours, bounced off screens all day. / A drone pilot works a twelve-hour shift, then goes home; / fresh from twelve hours off, another comes in, takes over our / drone.”
McDonough then shared two poems from another book of hers, “Here All Night.” One of these poems, “In Which I Am Accused of Sleeping My Way to the Top,” is about an experience she had reading dismissive online comments, and how they were actually encouraging.
“My face is still up there, though, / with comments about how slutty I look. I am in my thirties / in the picture. It looks like me. No makeup. A student / evaluation once included this sentence: ‘Sometimes I think Jill / forgets to brush her hair.’ This is sexy. This is all that. I am ecstatic,” she read.
She added, “Here All Night” was a less focused collection of poetry, in which a theme was absent, unlike in “Reaper.”
McDonough then read from “American Treasure,” her latest project which is set to be released in November. She started with “Zero Slave Teeth,” which recounts the origin of George Washington’s false teeth, that slaves lost theirs for his benefit, and the violent denial internet users engage in on topics that challenge America’s perception of freedom.
“Zero slave teeth. No innocents on death row. No lynchings, / not all men. Everybody crying rape, not all slave / owners were bad,” she read. “Sally Hemmings? In love. Three hots / and a cot. Must be nice! FREEDOM FREEDOM USA!”
McDonough said her ideas about freedom and the truth of American history, represented in poems like “Zero Slave Teeth,” originated from her involvement in Boston’s jails, at both juvenile and adult levels.
“College Reading and Writing in Grown-Up Jail,” includes her experiences helping a student write their first ‘grown-up sentence,’ teaching her class about white privilege, and how the United States’ decisions makes her empathize with the incarcerated, among others.
“I hear some of the things they did and look at Flint, at Puerto Rico - kids in cages - think this government makes even their violent crimes look like shoplifting. You can only hurt so many people at a time with your one body, and usually it’s yours getting hurt,” she read.
McDonough wrote she had a Romanian woman in her class who couldn’t speak or write English. She said she taught her the alphabet, McDonough’s name, and asked her what else she wanted to know how to write.
“She wants to write ‘I miss my children,’” she read. “So I teach her. Help her write their names and ages. Names she touches after she writes, with little finger pats.”
McDonough shared “Big Earth” next, a poem about flight, the exchange between Pats and Bills fans outside the Buffalo Stadium, and a veteran who changed their stance on war.
“He said when he was a kid he couldn’t wait to kill bad guys. But now he’s not convinced they’re all so bad,” she read.
“Sestina For The Women Locked Up At Framingham Who Make American Flags” is about McDonough’s work in jails and the lives the incarcerated live there. The poem discussed the practice of prison labor, and made connections to slave labor, as well as the irony of the product prisoners were manufacturing.
“The men in New Hampshire make ‘Live Free or Die’ license plates. Women at Framingham learn digital embroidery, make all the American flags,” she read. “What if we paid them fairly? Or just their families? It’s f***** up to make money off people in prison, right?”
McDonough moved away from poetry based on her time working in prisons, and read “The Serious Downer.” The poem is a slightly gruesome account of how she claims if she ever found her wife Josey dead, she would “eat her face” before she calls the police.
“I tell her the EMTs for the dead, the morgue guys, will walk / in on me, her blood by now darkening and crusting / all over my mouth, me looking up like ‘dag, busted.’
“‘But it’ll be so sad; you won’t be there to think it’s funny,’ / I say. ‘That would be the drag,’ adds Josey, nodding, complacent. / ‘That would be the serious downer of that situation,’” she read.
McDonough then read “Backhoe in Snow,” and “Testicles at Trinity,” two other poems involving experiences with her wife Josey: the first a traffic jam caused by a stuck backhoe in Boston as snow started to pile up; the other about their trip to the Trinity atom bomb test site in New Mexico.
She concluded with a poem about an experience she had with a young man in prison, “Donuts in Kid-jail,” which began, “Here is how often you see donuts in kid-jail: never. Zero times.”
The poem details an interaction with a young student who had been given two donuts and a carton of milk. She said as they worked together, her stomach growled, and the boy offered her his other donut.
“So I said / ‘You are a sweetheart and I am never going to eat your donut.’ / Which made no sense to him. ‘Dude, I have a car and money - / I can walk out of here and buy a dozen as soon as you finish / this poem,” she read.
McDonough read the audience a list of what the boy had lost. “Mother, Father, Sister. Grandmother, school, ring. Country,” she read. She said the boy continued to offer her the donut, said she could have it, and he was going to the bathroom - “Donut as test!”
She said she joked to the guard she was going to eat it after the boy had left. The guard begged her not to because donuts were hard to come by. She didn’t, she said, and after the boy came back and finished his poem, she left the prison.
“I drove away, past / Forest Hills and new condo construction, Blissful Monkey / yoga studio, Whole Foods. Parked my car and walked into my / house, where no one hurts me, where I eat whatever I want,” McDonough read.