Chicago poet Marty McConnell's book when they say you can't go home again what they mean is you were never there, winner of the 2017 Michael Waters Poetry Prize from Southern Indiana University Press, was published this fall.
She will perform some of the poems at a book launch party Monday, Nov. 26 at The Whistler, 2421 N. Milwaukee Ave. Windy City Times spoke with McConnell about the process of writing this book, which went through many drafts and iterations before she and her publisher settled on the final version, as well as her influences and how it fits in with her other works.
McConnell wrote the title poem during a week-long teaching session at Sarah Lawrence Collegewhere she earned her MFAabout five years ago, after a feeling she had walking across campus she describes as "walking through my own ghost." According to McConnell, most of the poems in when they say you can't go home again echo this kind of simultaneous location and dislocation through various lenses, ranging from her own home( s ) and family to socio-political spaces she occupies as a queer white woman in the United States and a human complicit in Earth's climate crisis.
"There's so much Chicago in the book, especially in the sense that Chicago is always with me," she told Windy City Times. McConnell said she felt the strong presence of her home in Logan Square while working on the bookand even during a two-week retreat at Hedgebrook Retreat Center off the coast of Seattle.
McConnell and her wife, visual artist Lindsey Dorr-Niro, co-performed an experimental, site-specific installation based on the title poem in August 2014 that informed McConnell's approach to many of the other poems. The installation was hosted at The Storefront Theatre in Chicago through The Works Residency program of the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. McConnell and Dorr-Niro performed an interactive combination of poetry and meditation accompanied by a film projection. They envision this as "an ongoing experiment in vulnerability" that may have future iterations at other locations, according to Dorr-Niro's website.
The cover art for when they say you can't go home again is a plaster sculpture of a head made by Dorr-Niro for their installation project. She smashed the plaster head at the end of the performance, then painted and photographed it. McConnell was drawn to the image because of its resonance with her subject, a disturbing sight that nevertheless compels the viewer to keep looking. The arrangement of the title in concept map format on the cover echoes concept maps that McConnell used during her writing process, a few of which are printed in the book.
"[Home] is a kind of idealized notion that I'm interested in sort of blowing apart," McConnell said. McConnell's interrogations of the concept of home lead to the conclusion that home is not a static entity, but an invention continuously being made and remade. Acknowledging that her personal notion of home is a privileged one, McConnell said she feels compelled to deconstruct the assumption that home is a safe space one can always return to.
"I couldn't write this book at this time and not address in some way what it means to be a Chicagoan at this point ... and a white queer American," she added. She said pinpointing her subject matter of vulnerability and "damages that we inflict and incur in the world based on who we are and how we walk through it" helped McConnell determine how and why to write about politically charged topics like race, rape culture and climate change, choosing to write as herself in current moment rather than taking a genealogical approach. The decision to include love poems also came with this realization, as a survival method for living in a dangerous world.
Compared to her first collection Wine for a Shotgun, which McConnell described as "very aggressively queer" since it explores topics of sexuality and queerness in persona, autobiographical and confessional modes, queerness in when they say you can't go home again is still omnipresent, though it comes through more subtly as one thread among many others.
McConnell takes an active role in creating a home space where writers can be vulnerable in the Vox Ferus workshops that she runs out of her Logan Square home. A nonfiction book on this process is forthcoming from YesYes Books next spring, and it is titled Gathering Voices: Creating a Community-Based Poetry Workshop.
"A lot of my ... function in the world is to create those spaces and then support people in creating their own version of those spaces that are simultaneously bounded enough to feel home-like, but porous enough that folks can come in and we're not just hearing ourselves talk," she said.
McConnell chose to hold her upcoming book launch party at one of her favorite bars in Logan Square, The Whistler. Though most book launches in Chicago are held at bookstores, this venue will accommodate the projection and music McConnell plans to incorporate in her performance as a nod to the larger ongoing collaboration with her wife. Guest performers Maya Marshall, co-founder/co-editor with McConnell of underbelly; and Ben Clark, an editor for Muzzle Magazine and Thoughtcrime Press will join McConnell.
The book launch party for when they say you can't go home again, what they mean is you were never there will be held Monday, Nov. 26, at The Whistler, 2421 N. Milwaukee Ave. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the show starts at 7 p.m. The venue for those 21 and older; the restrooms will be all-gender. Visit whistlerchicago.com/calendar/marty-mcconnell-book-release-party/.