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Poet and prison teacher

Jill McDonough: Poet and prison teacher

Jill McDonough’s newest book, “Where You Live,” concerns the history of medicine.
Jill McDonough’s newest book, “Where You Live,” concerns the history of medicine.

For 13 years Boston poet Jill McDonough taught in Boston University’s prison education program, where the Pushcart Prize-winner developed a renewed appreciation for the value of a book. The prisoners were only allowed 10 in their cell. McDonough’s first collection, “Habeas Corpus,” was inspired by the history of executions and her most recent work, “Where You Live,” by the history of medicine.

BOOKS: What books have you taught in your prison classes that were a hit?

MCDONOUGH: I use Mark Strand and Eavan Boland’s “The Making of a Poem’’ as my textbook. Each chapter examines a different poetic form so we focus on the craft. That takes a lot of pressure off of them feeling like they have to write about their feelings or crime. I say, just write in meter.


BOOKS: Any poems that especially struck the prisoners?

MCDONOUGH: Mark Doty’s “Tiara,” about a friend who is dying of AIDS. That was salient because of this knee-jerk terror of gayness in the men’s prison and how much they then still can connect to the poem. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is good too. For these people who have lost everything, a poem that so succinctly describes loss is extraordinary.

BOOKS: What do you read mostly?

MCDONOUGH: I wake up for an hour every night and read fiction so I read a lot of fiction. I go to Boomerangs in Jamaica Plain to buy books. A great thing about Boston is everybody has already read everything. I got a first edition of “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan just weeks after it came out. I finished it on a bench in Boston Common and left it there for someone to find. I give away all my novels but keep nonfiction and poetry.

BOOKS: What kind of novel do you like for middle-of-the-night reading?


MCDONOUGH: Literary fiction. At Boomerang’s I look for ones that say “New York Times Notable Book” or some kind of stamp that indicates that fancy people like it. I went on a Jennifer Haigh kick recently. Another terrific random find at Boomerangs, Naeem Murr’s “The Boy.” Part of it is written in the voice of this cockney kid and is so moving I wrote a fan letter.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

MCDONOUGH: I just finished “Run” and “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett. She’s a genius. For poetry I’m reading Jack Gilbert’s “Collected Poems.” For nonfiction I’m reading “Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots” by Ronald Arkin. His premise is humans can’t live up to standards in war, but we could potentially program the robots to be ethical.

BOOKS: How’d you end up reading that?

MCDONOUGH: Before that I read “Drift” by Rachel Maddow, about how the US is now perpetually at war, and “Wired for War” by P.W. Singer, about robotic warfare. I haven’t used this reading for my poetry yet, but I think that is what is going to happen.

BOOKS: What did you read for your other works that stood out?

MCDONOUGH: “The Death Penalty,” by Stuart Banner about executions in American history. For “Where You Live” I read a lot of arcane medical literature like the 1684 anatomy book “The Anatomy Of Humane Bodies Epitomized’’ by Thomas Gibson, in which there’s a chapter discussing whether women have testicles. I liked William Alcott’s 1836 anatomy book “The House I Live In” so much I bought it.


BOOKS: How long have you been a voracious reader?

MCDONOUGH: Since I was like 4. Early on I got into my mother’s books, which became a problem. I remember asking my fourth-grade teacher what incest meant because I was reading “Flowers in the Attic” by V.C. Andrews.

BOOKS: When did you start reading poetry?

MCDONOUGH: My dad had a collection of Ogden Nash poems. We were playing witches and read his poems pretending they were incantations. That was my first exposure to poetry. Even the name Ogden Nash sounded like some kind of magical spell to me.


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Because of a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story gave the incorrect title for Jill McDonough’s most recent book of poetry. It is “Where You Live.’’ It also misstated the title of Ann Patchett’s most recent novel. It is “State of Wonder.’’