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Meet Kathleen Rooney: Spreading the love of literature

Kathleen Rooney sits behind a manual typewriter
Through her pop-up project Poems While You Wait, Kathleen Rooney says, "I've learned that the vast majority of people love poetry." (Photo by Beth Rooney)

Kathleen Rooney, one of DePaul's 125 Faces during its 125th anniversary year, strives to be a good literary citizen. That is a phrase she didn't create, but she teaches it to her students at DePaul, where she is a senior professional lecturer in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.

"It's basically what it sounds like: You engage with literature in a way where you realize you aren't this solitary, atomized individual; you're more of a node that has all these rays that branch out to other nodes and create a community," she says. "Citizenship has that positive connotation of showing up for other people, and not just asking people to show up for you."

Her career, then, is a colorful map of where that citizenship has taken her. First, there is Rooney as a freelance writer and author of 12 books. The most recent, "Where Are the Snows," was awarded the 2021 X.J. Kennedy Prize. It consists of poems she wrote in the early days of the pandemic, as a member of a group celebrating National Poetry Month by writing a poem daily. That community gave her purpose and added structure as life went suddenly remote in March 2020.

As a good literary citizen, Rooney isn't just driven by her love of literature; she wants to share that love. In 2011, she and two colleagues founded Poems While You Wait to inject poetry into modern-day life. They set up typewriters in museums, hotels, markets and other spaces around town, ask passersby for prompts and type a poem on the spot. (In December, she had the pleasure of writing a poem about bees for Chance the Rapper.) The interactions affirm for Rooney that poetry is not dead. "I've learned that the vast majority of people love poetry," she says.

In exchange for the poems, the crew asks for a $10 donation, which goes to benefit another endeavor: Rose Metal Press, a small, nonprofit, literary press Rooney founded with her friend, Abigail Beckel, in 2006. They publish two books a year, gravitating towards literary works in hybrid genres that don't fit the traditional publishing model (think: flash fiction, prose poetry, lyric essays).

"We just saw a niche that wasn't yet being filled," says Rooney. "And we were like, 'We are the people to fill it.' "

And, of course, there is teaching. Rooney has worked at DePaul since 2010, teaching classes in creative writing and literature. To encourage her students to think creatively and push boundaries, she adapted a unique grading system (originated by Peter Elbow at University of Massachusetts Amherst and introduced to her by DePaul colleague Eric Plattner) called "Contract for an A": A student who is present, engaged and does the work—whether it's writing an analytical essay or a poem—earns an A.

"I don't believe in objective taste," she says.

By offering students the freedom to explore without judgment, she aims to stoke their creativity and encourage them to push boundaries. And, along the way, she's helping to develop the next generation of good literary citizens.

Kate Silver is a freelance writer based in Chicago.