Jill Mceldowney is the author of the full length collection Otherlight (YesYes Books) and the chapbook Airs Above Ground (Finishing Line Press). She is a founder and editor of Madhouse Press. Her previously published work can be found in journals such as Prairie Schooner, Fugue, Vinyl, Muzzle, and other notable publications.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Otherlight is my first full length collection! I’m super excited about it–publishing a full length collection is something I’ve been chasing for almost 10 years so it feels amazing to have it out in the world. I’m incredibly lucky to have been able to bring this book out with YesYes Books–working with them has been nothing short of absolutely amazing.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually started out as a fiction writer! I took an Intro to Poetry class in undergrad to fill my required credits. The class was taught by Josh Young who, about half-way through the semester, was like “You need to be a poet.” That kind of decided it for me honestly.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I wrote Otherlight very quickly. It took me about 3 months to write the first full draft and then I spent about two years revising it and rewriting it. I used to be able to write so fast–I wrote 2 full length manuscripts while in grad school. Now, my process is much slower which I actually think is more in line with the material that I’m writing about and thinking about.
I usually start out with a plan for a chapbook and then see how things go. I love really concise, straight to the point books so that process really makes sense for me.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’m definitely a “book poet.” I don’t know if that’s an actual “thing” or not but I’m always writing toward a book or a full length manuscript. I’m not the poet who can write a singular stand out poem. I love the challenge of working on a manuscript and the way verse lends itself to world building and creating an atmosphere. Building a world for the poems to live in is one of the most fun parts of the whole process.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Otherlight as a whole is particularly interested in interrogating grief–what it means to individual and what it means to live with unresolved grief. I really wanted this book to–as closely as possible–depict grief and the processing of loss. It bothers me when the end of a book wraps up grief so neatly at the end and gives the impression that everything is okay. It doesn’t really work like. In the last few poems of Otherlight I wanted my reader to get the sense that the speaker was working through their loss, their grief–but wasn’t necessary working their way out of it.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I definitely have my “first readers” who I send everything to. Caroline Chavatel, who works with me on Madhouse Press, is a brilliant editor. Katherine Sullivan was the editor for Otherlight. Working with her was so amazing–her attention to detail made the book that much stronger. It was a gift to have an editor who saw what the book could be from the start.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I definitely don’t have a strict writing routine–I have to write when I can now. I'm a lawyer and that is a job that can definitely be all consuming. I have to be kind of crafty with my time and how I work in poems. If I have a 5-10 min break between meetings or research or drafting a legal brief, I’ll try and draft something–anything–even if its just a line. I take a lot of voice memos now while I'm driving and craft poems out of them later.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Interestingly enough whenever I feel stuck or like I can’t write–I go read a novel. Reading prose really helps me when I get stuck. I also I have books that I just keep returning to and rereading that just make me want to write poems. Just to name a few, some of those books are Ampersand Revisited by Simeon Berry, Carolina Ghost Woods by Judy Jordan, Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love by Keith S. Wilson, A Hunger by Lucie Brock-Broido.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Having a life outside of being a “poet” is definitely important for me and my work. Even just having a job that is not academia or poetry related is really healthy I think. It works for me. I spend time riding my horse, doing other types of art.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
It would certainly be nice to be a full time writer. :) Right now I’m working in tax and immigration law full time but I love poetry
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m working my way through all the books I bought while I was in law school and didn’t have the time to read. I just finished Yellow Rain by Mai Der Vang and thought it was absolutely brilliant.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a manuscript that is investigating adult friendships, childhood, nostalgia. I’m also heavy into the revision process on a manuscript that continues my study with grief, trauma, violence.