Kathleen McClung on Fierce Tenderness and Dreaming Big
Kathleen McClung, author of Almost the Rowboat, teaches writing and literature classes at Skyline College and the Writing Salon. Her work appears in Atlanta Review, Unsplendid, A Bird Black as the Sun: California Poets on Crows and Ravens,Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspaceand elsewhere. Winner of the Rita Dove Poetry Award, she is a Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the 2014 Bay Area Poets Coalition contest. She serves as sonnet sponsor-judge for the Soul-Making Keats literary competition and reviews books for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, sponsored by the Stanford University Libraries.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I’m a writer, editor, and teacher. I’ve been writing for more than forty years, editing and teaching for more than twenty. I currently focus primarily on poetry and memoir, but I enjoy working across genres—fiction, nonfiction, drama.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
My biggest struggle is balancing all the different facets of my work and, in particular, preserving ample solitude for writing while also devoting energy to teaching with passion. As an adjunct professor and adult educator, I work with close to a hundred students and their writing each semester. Mentoring so many different people and going inward to create art requires enormous patience, a kind of fierce tenderness.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Follow your curiosity, both in and out of school. For me, school was always a stimulating, pleasurable place. I loved reading, writing, discussing, working on publications and speech and drama projects, taking field trips. I was fortunate to have many caring, gifted teachers from elementary school through graduate school. Build good working relationships with your teachers and with all who cross your path.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
I loved spending time with my father’s parents in San Jose in the 1960s before it became Silicon Valley. My grandma Mary was a tiny, red-haired woman who knitted me a hot pink sweater when I was about nine and gave me my father’s Wizard of Oz books. She was a quilter, gardener, avid reader. My grandpa George always seemed crotchety, but after he retired as an electrician he did a lot of fishing, became a rock hound, and made jewelry in his garage. I still wear the necklace he made me out of an Australian opal. My grandparents helped fund my college education. I’m grateful for their generosity and creativity.
Who did you admire when you were ten years old? What did you want to be?
I went through a huge Alfred Hitchcock phase at about ten. I loved his scary movies and his TV show and his accent. I also admired Gloria Steinem. My mom took women’s studies classes around 1970, and I would read her Ms. magazine when it came in the mail. I was proud to be called a “women’s libber” in fifth and sixth grade.
What is your fondest memory?
There are so many to choose from! Here’s a really early fond memory: Riding home from preschool on the back of my dad’s mo-ped. I liked the feel of the wind on hot days and holding on tight to my skinny dad.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Conflicts near and far resolved through peaceful negotiation, rather than violence.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve finished a book-length collection of poetry titled Lighter than Her Lace, and I’m looking for a publisher. This collection contains mostly formal verse—sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, rondeaus—and honors women’s work as artists, writers, waitresses, teachers, toll-takers, traffic reporters, support staff, mothers and daughters.
What kind of writing do you most admire?
I have eclectic taste and admire lots of different kinds of writing. I just read Emma Donoghue’s brilliant 2010 novel, ROOM, and I greatly admire the artful way she sustains the narrative voice of a 5-year-old boy throughout the book. Donoghue has such empathy and intelligence as well as masterful pacing/plotting. This is one of those novels people read—or long to read—in one sitting, because the author’s created world is so vivid and intriguing. I’m now reading Donoghue’s most recent collection of short stories, Astray, and I love the way she breathes life into characters across many centuries. She’s inspiring me to try my hand at some new persona poems.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
I’ve lived in San Francisco for almost twenty five years and find the city endlessly surprising and beautiful, but we low- and moderate-income people need all kinds of resources, both inner and outer, to flourish here. I would redistribute wealth.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
An incisive new play at an intimate venue—maybe the Magic Theater in San Francisco or the Aurora Theater in Berkeley—then pizza with artichokes and a half carafe of burgundy at Gaspare’s with my partner, Tom, and a walk home in the fog swirling on Geary Boulevard.
What can you do with 50 dollars?
Donate it to Project Read, an adult literacy program at the San Francisco Public Library.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Pineapple, plum, coconut, jasmine.
If you got an all-expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
Great question. Dream big! I would study/apprentice with some or all of these filmmakers—Jane Campion, Nicole Holofcener, Kelly Reichardt, Lisa Cholodenko—and then I would write/direct my own film, a tone poem/mystery with a soundtrack heavy on Debussy solo piano. I would, of course, hire the finest cast and crew and shoot in gorgeous places across the country, including locations around the Olympic Peninsula, Wyoming, and Manhattan. My quiet jewel of a film would gross millions of dollars, enabling me to set up a foundation to make more movies and support other creative projects.