Otherlight: A Conversation with Jill Mceldowney — curated by Esteban Rodríguez

When my grandmother died, my mother mourned for months, wiping away tears while watching TV, staring longingly at her plate at dinner as my stepfather, sister, and I tried to navigate a conversation that sounded somewhat happy. That summer, we all mourned, no doubt, but my mother, being the second oldest in a family of nine, and the oldest daughter, couldn’t move past what my grandmother’s death meant for her. Her grief was heavy, and it was the first time in my life I fully realized how that type of sorrow doesn’t have a time frame, that the way one person experiences moving through labyrinths of emotion and memories is completely different from the way another person will process that exact same situation. Grief is unique to each of us, and Jill Mceldowney’s Otherlight (YesYes Books 2023) is a testament to the kaleidoscopic manner in which we process loss, love, the complexity of human relationships, and the courage to forge a new path forward, regardless of how difficult that may be.

Esteban Rodriguez: Jill, I greatly appreciate your time. I’m in awe of Otherlight, and there is so much to dissect, but before we dive in a bit further, I wanted to discuss the epigraph by Emily Dickinson. I’ve always been fascinated how the choice of an epigraph really frames a book, and I think this Dickinson excerpt from a letter from 1883 (letter 830), ties the entirety of the collection together:

You are like God. We pray to Him, and He answers No.
Then we pray to Him to rescind the no, and he doesn’t answer at all.

The poet Averill Curdy in the The Longman Anthology of Poetry (2006) states that she found that Emily Dickinson (along with Elizabeth Bishop) seemed to be the only poets on whom every writer and reader agrees. Dickinson follows the lines above by saying, ““Seek and ye shall find” is the boon of faith.” What faith did you find in Emily Dickinson that inspired the poems in Otherlight? Were there other writers, or artists in other mediums, that you looked to as a source of inspiration?

Jill Mceldowney: First, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about Otherlight. I appreciate it and am excited to talk to you about this collection.

I love Dickinson’s more traditional poetry, but I think she is at her best in her letters. Her Master Letters, of course, are incredibly beautiful, but even more so are her general correspondences with her friends and family. Her most interesting—funniest and wittiest— letters are the letters she writes to people who aren’t writing her back, letters to unanswered letters.

And that’s definitely something Otherlight is working through, how to communicate with someone who is beyond communication. It’s important to note that there is never a point in Otherlight where the beloved speaks in the present tense. Anything they say appears filtered through the past tense. There is a series of poems that run throughout the book, the “I Would Say Poems” that are intended to reflect that. These particular poems, like Dickinson’s letters, are supposed to raise the question of who is the letter, who is this communication actually for? The dead don’t need us to talk to them and it’s okay to speak the truth about them.

I have such gratitude for Dickinson’s work and letters in this sense as well as writers like

Alejandra Pizarnack, Ursula le Guin, Louise Glück, Simeon Berry, Paige Ackerson Kiely. Their work definitely informed this collection. Berry’s work, especially his Ampersand Revisited, I think, is underrated in American Poetry for the way it navigates the past tense and destabilizes high lyric.

E.R.: I love how you frame Dickinson’s letters, and how ultimately, the “dead don’t need us to talk to them.” Apart from trying to understand death, however, there is always a constant attempt at understanding loss in Otherlight. I found myself returning to the following lines from “Psychotherapy: Prologue”:

What is lost can never be gotten back.
How solemn, how terrible, how terrifying—

                                    but I am looking forward to the way a city falls in love as it burns
                                    to the day when I can’t remember him at all.

While the fires of a past situation/experience/relationship burn, one has no choice but to forge a pathway forward toward love. And that definitely shows in poem after poem throughout the collection. When you began composing Otherlight, how did you go about depicting loss on the page? Were there personal or tangential experiences that seeped into your speaker’s emotional plight?

J.M.: Loss and grief are universal but look differently for everyone and I think that’s why they are so fascinating to me. I don’t know if I could’ve written the book or even approached the subjects of loss and grief without having acutely experienced them. In my early twenties, a very close friend died of a heroin overdose. It was earth-shattering, reality distorting. It was the first time someone I knew or was close to was here one day and then, overnight, gone.

In the world of Otherlight, loss is something to be held onto, a tendency that, as we move through the grieving process and as we navigate loss there is a moment of reckoning where you come to the realization that you are ready to give up to ghost–to move on. This speaker is clearly not there. Their grief is some connection to the beloved and resolving that, healing or “fixing it” means giving up.

I think there is some comfort in visiting what causes us grief—I don’t think we always have a choice in treating it as a matter to be resolved.

E.R.: You’re incredibly right. And I think that people sometimes look to poetry, and literature as a whole, because they are looking for resolution they haven’t found elsewhere. But some of the greatest literature doesn’t tie everything neatly in a bow for its readers. I saw this sentiment in your “Otherlight” poems, which are speckled throughout the book. The title poem on page 46 stuck with me long after:

—terrible to survive
and surviving is never over.

I keep hearing the sound
of a tree struck by lightning. The assignment

was to fall in love, love came to me
differently, directly,

did me no good, changed me
for the worse.

The world aches to say Weren’t you rescued?

At the end of writing Otherlight, did you experience a form of rescue? What did you discover about yourself that you didn’t know before?

J.M.: I really like this question because I think that it gets to the heart of the book and what the book is ultimately about—that of course being unresolved grief and the way we are expected to navigate grief. One trope that I consciously tried to resist while writing Otherlight was the idea of resolving grief—or that concept of rescue. I think as readers we crave conclusiveness especially when we are reading a book about trauma. But reality and grief don’t work that way. Even years later, when we think we are over it or healed from it, it comes back. Maybe part of healing is getting used to that or getting used to living with loss? That idea is much less romantic than catharsis but it’s more in line with what is real. That’s one of the reasons I love that you pointed out the line “The world aches to say Weren’t you rescued?” The world–or even the people we love– wants us to rescue ourselves–or get over it–but that’s not how grief works.

Otherlight is relentless in its sadness and utter devastation. And that’s done purposefully, meant to reflect what processing grief is actually like: claustrophobic, apocalyptic—you feel like you’re drowning and even though you’d do anything never to feel like that again, there’s a resistance to giving up grief, resistance to rescue.

Throughout the book we see the speaker resist traditional healing. What comes to mind is the hostility and evasiveness from the speaker in the Psychotherapy/ Psychopharmacology poems. The line that comes to mind is from Psychopharmacology: Levels: “Healing means forgetting, means/ what happened never happened./ Do I want that? No—do I really want that?” I would love to be able to say that writing Otherlight was a liberating process but, for me, I don’t think that would be true. If I learned anything through the process of writing Otherlight it would be vulnerability and how it’s okay to bring that to a poem.

E.R.: Often, when I am writing about a certain aspect of my family or revealing an episode of my life, I have to pause and consider how much is too much. Sometimes there needs to be a balance between truth and fiction. Did you ever feel at any point in Otherlight that you had to pull back a bit? Were there points where there was no hesitation at all?

J.M.: In the first draft of this book, I definitely wrote about the more difficult parts of the book in a way that was more opaque in a way that skirted vulnerability. For the subjects and topics that I am interested in writing about—grief, guilt, violence, anger—it is really important to be committed to showing those on the page.  But I’m lucky in the sense that my mentors taught me not to pull my punches. I think it was Richard Greenfield–who wrote a beautiful blurb for this book– that really emphasized the importance of “just saying it.” There is something so vulnerable about “just saying it” but it is also commitment to the story you need to tell.

Vulnerability is difficult—especially when you then start thinking about who will read what you’ve written. There are definitely parts of Otherlight that make me uncomfortable. In particular “I Tell My Dead Ex-Boyfriends Mother I Wish It Had Been Me.” I don’t think I even sent that one out to journals for publication because I was like this is just too much.  But I’m glad it’s in the book and I’m really proud of the story that it tells, the narrative arch if you will.

E.R.: For me, when I’m writing a poem, there is obviously an emotional aspect to the composition, but there is also a physical one. My body needs to be moving in some way, and I need healthy distractions throughout. What does writing a poem look like for you? What things in your environment or physical space need to click for you to bring your work to life?

J.M.: I have to write when I can now. I’m a lawyer and it is definitely a job that can be all consuming. I have to be kind of crafty with time and how I work in poems. If I have a 5-10 min break between meetings or assignments I’ll try and draft something, even if it’s just a line. I take a lot of voice memos now while I’m driving and try and draft from those later. I’m getting better about protecting at least 20-30 minutes a day for my own writing though.

Otherlight, or the process of writing it, was very different. I wrote and revised it while I was still a student–first in my MFA and then as a law student—so I definitely had more time to just sit in one place and work on a poem from start to finish. I wrote the book within 2-3 months and then spent about a yearish revising it. I don’t think I could do that now.  This question makes me wonder how much our physical spaces affect the way that we write.

I’m glad that I wrote Otherlight when I did. I don’t know if I could write that way now to be honest? I don’t know that I could find that same voice with the pace of my life.

E.R.: One of the things I absolutely love about Otherlight is the form of the poems. A majority of the poems are characterized by long lines, the use of italics, and sizable white space that often flanks brief stanzas. Can you describe your style and how it works for the content of your poetry?

J.M.: I think form is one of the most important parts of Otherlight. It’s also one of my favorite elements of poetry in general. I think the way the poems are arranged on the page help the reader “hear” the poem better. The white space, and the way the poems are arranged downward—almost like steps or a ladder—is meant to invoke a descent. That’s super prevalent in the title poems where there is a lot of white space, and the poems move across and down the page the further you read.

I think it was Carmen Gimenez Smith who told me that form informs content, content informs form. I’ve always kind of carried that in the back of my mind and tried to puzzle through it while working on poems.

E.R.: In “I Would Say,” the speaker reflects on the ways in which she would reach out to others in times of need, calling on the phone but receiving no response. Ultimately, the speaker has to ask the following:

            Does forget mean forget
            forever or did you learn everything

            in the space of a single night,
                        in the seconds between ring and no answer?

If you were able to call your younger self, do you think your younger self would answer and what advice (writing or otherwise) do you believe she would receive from you? What conversation would you have about where your journey has taken you thus far?

J.M.: First of all, I think my younger self is definitely screening my call. Lol. I’d definitely have to leave a voicemail at first, but I think once I got her on the phone I would tell her to be patient and not put so much pressure on herself as far as publishing goes. I’d tell her she made the right choice by not going into academia–that she would hate it–and that living your life is also an important part of being a poet.

Publishing Otherlight, having an actual physical copy of my first book, has brought up so many strange, unexpected emotions. I think now I’m better able to work through those now that I’m older vs when I was younger. When I was still in my MFA and chose to go to law school instead of pursuing teaching and the traditional academia route, I kind of went through an identity crisis. I had always thought of myself as just “poet” and I was so anxious that being anything other than that would alienate me from that community. But of course, that is not the case and I think my writing is so much better for making that choice. Plus, it’s kind of fun to be on the outside of everything.

E.R.: In the last poem, the speaker concludes, “I won’t worry about how I might become someone / no one / could ever live through.”  In a way, having Otherlight in the world has closed a chapter in your journey to bring it to life, but it’s opened another in establishing a relationship with readers, since no book exists in a vacuum. What do you hope readers “live through” in these poems, and what relationship do you hope Otherlight has with other writers, books, and with your future work? 

J.M.: Treetops, the last poem in the book, was probably one of my favorites to write. I think it’s one of the few poems in the book that actually sees a path through grief—it doesn’t resolve it, but it sees a way to navigate it.

Of course, I hope my reader loves the book. Otherlight is so relentless in its telling of grief, I hope it is a book that becomes a place to return to repeatedly. I hope that each time they read it, they find some new perspective to take with them that will help them also navigate grief.

For me, all of my work exists in the same cinematic universe. I’d like to write a book that is in direct opposition to Otherlight, if I ever arrive at that place. I think Otherlight is so very concerned with the question “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” I look forward to, one day, asking “what is very best thing that could possibly happen?”

Esteban Rodríguez is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently Lotería (Texas Review Press, 2023), and the essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lip Press, 2021). He is the interviews editor for the EcoTheo Review, senior book reviews editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and associate poetry editor for AGNI. He lives with his family in south Texas.

Jill Mceldowney (she/her) is the author of the chapbook Airs Above Ground (Finishing Line Press 2019). She is an editor and founder of Madhouse Press. Her previously published work can be found in journals such as Prairie Schooner, Muzzle, Vinyl, and other notable publications..