A Literary Disrobing

In her published works, alumna Kathleen Rooney draws on her own, and often unique, experiences while exploring different literary styles.

Kathy Rooney for the cover of For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs
June 17, 2010

By Julia Parmley

In 2002, Kathleen Rooney suddenly found herself unemployed after resisting the advances of a supervisor. But in her next job, Ms. Rooney, then a GW senior, received a lot more respect — even with the no-clothes dress code.

Ms. Rooney’s experience working as a nude model for students at the Corcoran College of Art and Design led to her 2009 book, “Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object,” in which she combines her personal experiences as a nude model with stories of other models and artists.

“[Nude modeling] is meditative and interesting and you get to meet all kinds of talented people you would never encounter otherwise,” says Ms. Rooney, who now lives in Chicago. “These days, though I don’t need to do it for the money, I still pose privately for artists and classes just because I enjoy the work so much.”

Ms. Rooney discovered the nude modeling job in the Washington City Paper classifieds. Her salary was double that of her old job and—ironically—she was “more respected and less harassed” as a model than in her previous position.

Ms. Rooney says the response to her book has been positive.

“When the artists who I work with and my fellow art models read the book, their feedback is typically either ‘I’ve always wondered what models were thinking or how the process feels from their perspective,’ or ‘You really nailed how it feels to be an art model,’” she says. “One of my goals was to be as accurate and honest about the nude modeling experience as possible, and I feel as though I hit that target.”

But nude modeling is just one of many subjects Ms. Rooney has written about. She has published two other works of nonfiction—“Reading with Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America” and “For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs”—as well as several works of poetry.

“For You” is a collection of personal essays about experiences ranging from her former job as an aide in Senator Dick Durbin’s office to falling in love. The title of Ms. Rooney’s book is a line from the Walt Whitman poem “O, Democracy,” which she chose because of the “loving and ecstatic” way Whitman can write about himself and the United States “even when he’s writing about hurtful and disappointing subjects.”

In her essays, Ms. Rooney weaves in words and experiences from authors she admires, including Whitman, George Orwell and John Berryman. “I also used a lot of fictional techniques like putting pieces in the third person, short-story style to experiment with distance and point of view and to write about subjects and events that might have been impossible to tackle from a first-person perspective,” she says.

To create her poetry, Ms. Rooney says she draws on musings jotted down in a personal notebook. Poems e-mailed back and forth between Ms. Rooney and her friend Elisa Gabbert have also led to a full-length book and two short chapbooks of poetry. “I love to appropriate the language of other venues—especially of business and the ‘professional’ world, since I’m fascinated by ‘work’ and how much time Americans spend at it—into my poems,” she says.

Ms. Rooney attributes her love of poetry to her parents, who were “constantly reading” to her and her sisters, and to two children’s books—“ Richard Scarry’s “Best Mother Goose Ever” and “ I Wish I Had a Computer That Makes Waffles: Teaching Your Child With Modern Nursery Rhymes” —which she describes as “the touchstones of my super-early literary development.”

As if writing doesn’t keep her busy enough, Ms. Rooney also helps manage Rose Metal Press, an independent, nonprofit publisher. The press, founded in 2006, publishes works out of the mainstream and “not so easily categorized,” including prose poetry, flash fiction or novels-in-verse. Ms. Rooney and co-founder Abby Beckel “do everything” from taxes and selecting new manuscripts to setting up book tours and printing the books themselves.

“Because we are independent and nonprofit, we limit ourselves to releasing two full-length books and one chapbook a year, but we also have the freedom to do whatever we want, which is one of the best feelings ever,” she says.

When she first came to GW, Ms. Rooney says she was more interested in pursuing politics than writing, but was drawn to GW’s English Department because of “stellar” professors, including Professors of English Jane Shore and Tara Wallace.

“Tara is probably my number one role model of what a college professor should be in terms of being a total expert in her chosen field, conveying that knowledge with incredible depth and enthusiasm, and always treating her students like the independent and free-thinking adults that they are,” says Ms. Rooney.

Associate Professor of English Margaret Soltan, who served as Ms. Rooney’s thesis adviser, also helped Ms. Rooney start her research for her first book, 2005’s “Reading With Oprah.”

“Writing and reading have always been pursuits that I loved, but GW, much to my surprise, taught me that they were things that I could—and probably should—do professionally for the rest of my life,” she says.

As for anyone considering disrobing for art, Ms. Rooney says she encourages it. “Art modeling is one of the few arenas in which all bodies—all sizes, ages, races and genders—are equally necessary and admired, which makes an art studio a refreshing space to occupy,” she says. “You might discover that it’s not for you—not necessarily because of the nudity, but because, if you don’t like to sit very still and have nothing to do but think, you’ll find it violently boring—but then again, you might find it unexpectedly entertaining and addictive.”

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