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Poetry & Baking: A Conversation with Kathleen Rooney | Word Riot

November 15, 2014      

Poetry & Baking: A Conversation with Kathleen Rooney

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She is the author of several books of poetry and nonfiction including, the essay collection For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs (Counterpoint, 2010), a novel-in-poems Robinson Alone (Gold Wake Press, 2012), based on the life and work of Weldon Kees. Her most recent book is the novel O, Democracy! (Fifth Star Press, 2014).

I met Rooney as a grad student at DePaul University—where she is a Visiting Assistant Professor.

I am most fascinated by Rooney as a poet—especially the connections she has made between poetry and baking. Last holiday, I sent her Emily Dickinson’s Black Cake recipe via a Facebook message. As I initially prepared this, she posted on Facebook: “Sunny, 72 degrees, light breeze: perfect chocolate chip cookie baking weather.”

Thanks to her, learning how to bake banana bread helped me learn to write in the ghazal form. I think it has to do with craftsmanship. Like poetry, baking recipes require you to steer off course or compensate for a bigger batch, a smaller oven, etc.

I thought I would just ask her:

David Mathews: How would you explain poetry and baking somehow sharing a connection?

Kathleen Rooney: It’s great that learning to bake banana bread helped you learn how to write ghazals, because that connection seems right on: Baking—which typically requires a high degree of precision and accuracy—is like writing in a poetic form, whereas cooking—which I also love to do—is more like writing free verse or prose. Cooking allows, usually, for greater flexibility—you can throw in one carrot or five and still wind up with a delicious soup, for example—whereas baking is stricter—when the angel food cake recipe calls for only egg whites and not yolks, you should comply, unless you don’t mind ending up with something that is not angel food.

Which is not to say there’s not an improvisational element in both baking and cooking which writing certainly shares. For a while, we were getting a CSA box full of produce every week, and that was like getting a writing prompt in a class or a topic from a customer at Poems While You Wait. Left to my own devices, I never would have bought sunchokes, for instance, (especially considering that I didn’t even know what they were until they appeared in the box), but it was fun to have them show up and then have to figure it out and to wind up knowing something at the end that I didn’t at the start.

To take the connection even further, if baking and cooking are like writing, then eating can be like reading. It’s like going somewhere—a restaurant or a friend’s house for dinner—and trying something and wondering, “Can I do this at home?” and finding that usually the answer is yes. That experience is not dissimilar to reading a writer that you admire and finding them inspiring and wanting to give whatever they’re doing a shot. It’s not hubristic like, “Oh, I could do better,” but more like, “I respect what you’re doing and you make me want to attempt it, too.”

David Mathews: I am not the only one to learn this from you—Clare Stuber and I feel the same way. Do you consciously share this connection with your students?

Kathleen Rooney: Clare was in my Writing the Body workshop, and eating has very much to do with the body, so yes, I suspect that I probably did share that connection, at least implicitly. Somebody, I think it was Lorca, said that the past can reach us here in the present most directly in the forms of music and food. So much of being a good writer involves the ability to manipulate time—past, present, and future—whether it’s time that belongs to you personally or time that belongs to your character. Baking and cooking, too, involve a careful focus on the passage of time and the transformations that time’s passage can bring.

Even more broadly, baking and cooking don’t have to, but can (and I like it when they do) involve research and a sense of history, as can writing. Often, with food, there’s a backstory—something more than meets the eye (or mouth). One of my favorite recipes in the world is a banana cake with burnt butter frosting for instance—you can enjoy a slice of it without knowing that it’s my Granny Marie’s own grandmother’s recipe, but if you know that too, then maybe it’s even better: more delicious for being more interesting. Having a thoughtful attitude toward eating is not necessary, of course, but is compatible with a thoughtful attitude toward research, history, reading and writing.

With my graduate students, just because there are usually fewer of them and they’re easier to cook for, I make the baking-to-writing connection even more explicit. When I was the Writer in Residence at Roosevelt a couple years ago, I’d almost always bring in some kind of food to our once a week evening workshops—muffins, cookies, cupcakes, things like that. I did it just because I felt like it (and because my love of baking often winds me up with way more food than one person can eat), but also because of the tradition of food as fellowship. We were consuming each other’s work, which of course builds community, but I figured why not have some food in our community too. My mom taught me how to cook and bake, and for that I am eternally grateful to her (it’s like she taught me magic). But for a while, I went through a period of thinking “I shouldn’t bake and bring foods to my students because I don’t want to be seen as maternal or overly nurturing.” And then I realized that was stupid. Baking should not, because of its historical association with women, be seen as somehow lower than other pursuits. And cooking and eating don’t—or should not have—a gender. They’re human activities. They’re for everyone.

David Mathews: Do certain baking recipes remind you of certain poetry forms? Do you purposely start a baking project to help you with a poetry one?

Kathleen Rooney: Good question. I don’t associate any of the many things I like to bake with a particular form, but I almost always bake as part of my long term writing process. It helps me step away from my desk for a little while and then come back with a new perspective. The walk from my office to the kitchen is not very far, but sometimes those few steps and that short time away can really help when I’m stuck on a writing project.

Also, I think there’s something about how cooking and baking are so seasonal (or can be) that is compatible with the kind of observant mindset that helps with writing. Seasonal cooking can put you in touch with your surroundings and cause you to attempt new (or new to you) things or things you haven’t done in a while. For example, it’s rhubarb season now, and tomorrow, my parents (who are avid gardeners) are going to be giving me a bunch of rhubarb. I’ll probably make a rhubarb custard pie because the last time they brought me rhubarb I made a crisp, and I’m working on my custard skills.

David Mathews: Did you make Dickinson’s Black Cake? I’m dying to know how it tasted.

Kathleen Rooney: I haven’t yet, because it’s still on my very tall Things-to-Bake recipe stack (twin to my comparably backlogged Things-to-Read pile), but I teach it in my Reading Poetry class. We cover a lot of biographical and historical detail in that course in addition to just the poems, and that recipe has been helpful in giving context and texture to Dickinson’s poetry. It’s helped to show her as a real person who did things real people do, and not just as some ephemeral and unearthly ghost, as the mythology behind her often pushes people to believe.

David Mathews: Is your recent novel O Democracy! somehow influenced by baking?

Kathleen Rooney: Yes, I think so, at least indirectly. Maybe not “influenced,” per se, but baking was part of my process in writing it just as it is in everything else I write. Writing a novel is, to state the probably-obvious, hard. It’s a long, time-consuming, all-absorbing process. But sometimes you have to get out of being absorbed. Or tip that absorption a different way and baking can help with that; it’s an excuse for getting up and doing something unrelated to writing, but still permitting yourself to think not so much about the draft, but around it. To background the drafting, and then come back again after the cookies are baked or the pudding is made or the pie is in the oven or whatever.

And stopping to bake something can give you a small sense of accomplishment in the midst of a project that is not so easily accomplishable. Like, “Well, I have 100 pages to go before I finish this draft, but at least I have this loaf of banana bread to show for myself today.”

Taking long walks probably helped me write the book at least as much as baking, but that is another subject for another interview.

About the interviewer:

I earned my MA in Writing and Publishing at DePaul University where I studied under Richard Jones. My work has appeared in Eclectica Magazine, After Hours, One Sentence Poems, OMNI Reboot, and Midwestern Gothic. I’m a life-long Chicagoan, and I currently teach at Wright College.

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