Note Added April 5, 2012: Irene McKinney died on February 4, 2012. She served as Poet Laureate for 18 years. An obituary is available here.
Irene McKinney became Poet Laureate of West Virginia in 1994.
Irene McKinney became Poet Laureate of West Virginia in 1994.
The state's official poet is appointed by the governor and serves a two-year term with no restrictions on reappointment. (Under W.Va. Code, Sec. 29-7-1, the incumbent serves "during the will and pleasure" of the governor.) He or she must be a resident of the state and have written and published poems "of recognized merit". The appointee receives a salary of $2,000 annually, which is paid quarterly.
McKinney succeeded Louise McNeill Pease, who served from 1979 until 1993. Roy Lee Harmon officiated three times (1961-1979, 1946-1960, and 1937-1943). Others who were appointed to the position are Vera Andrews Harvey (1960-1961), James Lowell McPherson (1943-1946), and Karl Myers (1927-1937), the state's first Poet Laureate.
* * * * *
I'm a hillbilly, a woman, and a poet,
and I understood early on that nobody was going to listen
to anything I had to say anyway, so I might as well
just say what I want to.
~ Irene McKinney*
Poets are negligible in our culture. We can take them or leave them.
But we are all meaning-hungry. . . And to be in the presence
of a unique, personal voice speaking directly to us,
striving to create meaning, satisfies a deep and abiding hunger....**
Irene McKinney, Ph.D., a native and current resident of West Virginia who teaches part-time at West Virginia Wesleyan College where she is a professor emerita, has published the collections Unthinkable: Selected Poems 1976 - 2004 (Red Hen Press, 2009); Vivid Companion (Vandalia Press, 2004), Six O'Clock Mine Report (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989; reissue, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2009), part of the Pitt Poetry Series, Quick Fire and Slow Fire: Poems (North Atlantic Books, c. 1988), Poems from The Wasps at the Blue Hexagons (Small Plot Press, 1984), and The Girl with the Stone in Her Lap (North Atlantic Books, 1976).
Photo Credit: John Nakashima
As the quotes above suggest, McKinney is not afraid to come right to the point, whether she's carrying on a conversation (see the wonderful video in Resources below) or writing poetry. She's as apt to write of pain (see her poem "Stained"), suffering, and mortality as about the natural world, such intangibles as greed and selfishness, or fictionalized historical personages (as in "The Only Portrait of Emily Dickinson"). She can be deeply profound by turning the simplest of phrase.
McKinney's voice is distinctive for its spiritedness and often-raw honesty ("I discover things in poems that I didn't know I knew," she says), its rootedness in place and land (her home looks out on where she was born), its ability to connect through acknowledgment of the simple and the alive. She reflects in her writing deep humility, as well as empathy and tenderness; she's straightforward and truthful about what she calls "the rough" or "the gritty parts" of life, especially in her native West Virginia, and writes candidly about both the "trap" and "haven" of the community of which she's part. McKinney's a poet of rich imagery, of witnessing (she describes feeling "deeply compelled to acknowledge our 'human stain'"), and of memory, and she displays a fierce determination, as in her poem "Ready", to "connect this lifeline into the next one".
Some lines from her evocative poems:
. . . My mother hated
animals, the way they ate the
food and dirtied the floor.
They were her enemies; she fought
their right to be there and
would have wiped them off the earth
if she could have. . . .
~ From "Atavistic" in Vivid Companion
. . . I'm stained with the iron-red water from the mines
and I'm stained with tobacco and red wine and
the rust of perpetual loss. . . .
~ From "Stained"
. . . From his sleeves of coal, fingers
with black half-moons: he leans
into the tipple, over the coke oven
staining the air red. . .
The roads get lost in the clotted hills,
in the Blue Spruce maze, the red cough,
the Allegheny marl, the sulphur ooze.
The hill-cuts drain; the roads get lost
and drop at the edge of the strip job.
The fires in the mines do not stop burning.
~ From "Twilight in West Virginia: Six O'Clock Mine Report" in Six O'Clock Mine Report
Think of this: that under the earth
there are black rooms your very body
can move through. Just as you always
dreamed, you enter the open mouth
and slide between the glistening walls,
the arteries of coal in the larger body. . . .
~ From "Deep Mining" in Six O'Clock Mine Report
. . . in broken drawers,
in sooty cabinets, are grainy photographs
of the eccentric dead. A seven-year-old girl,
her blonde hair princked in a mishaped halo
is painted like a fever, high spots
of power pink on her smooth cheeks,
lips touched outside their outline,
the staring drills of impossible blue eyes.
~ From "The Ruined House of the Photographer" in Unthinkable
I am familiar with the ones I'll never know.
I feel their little hearts with me always.
I come as near their speech as anyone can,
and yet they fly away, and will not talk. . . .
~ From "The Birds" in Six O'Clock Mine Report
Poems by McKinney have been published in numerous literary journals, magazines, and periodicals, including Appalachian Heritage, American Voice, The Kenyon Review, Artful Dodge, Arts & Letters, Quarterly West, Blackbird, Southern Heritage, The Georgia Review, Versedaily, Break Out of the Box, and Trellis, and such anthologies as Her Words: Diverse Voices in Contemporary Appalachian Women's Poetry. They also have been featured on Garrison Keillor's radio program The Writer's Almanac.
Co-founder, with Maggie Anderson, of Trellis, McKinney also has been an editor of Quarterly West and the anthology Backcountry: Contemporary Writing in West Virginia (Vidalia Press, 2002).
A recipient of many honors, McKinney has been awarded esteemed residencies at Bread Loaf Writers Conference and MacDowell Colony; has received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, West Virginia Commission on the Arts, and Kentucky Foundation for Women; and won an Annual Poetry Prize of the Cincinnati Review and a Utah Arts Council Prize Award in Fiction. McKinney's "Marginalia: Windows and Bones" was a Memoir Journal Pushcart Prize nominee.
In 2010, McKinney was Thornton Writer-in-Residence at Lynchburg College. She lectures and reads frequently.
All poetry excerpts © Irene McKinney
* Quoted in Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia (Sandra L. Ballard and Patricia L. Hudson, Eds., 2003)
** Quoted in "Irene McKinney on Being West Virginia's Poet Laureate" (West Virginia Public Broadcasting, April 3, 2009)
Wick Poetry Center Interview with McKinney (February 27, 2008)
A Conversation with Irene McKinney (Part 1 of 3):
Some McKinney poems online: "Past Lives", "Protection Cord", "Unthinkable"; "Atavistic", "Fame" (this poem is widely available), "Homage to Roy Orbison", "Ready"; "The Only Portrait of Emily Dickinson", "Visiting My Gravesite: Talbott Churchyard, West Virginia"
Audio of McKinney reading "At 24" (from Vivid Companion) at 2007 West Virginia Book Festival
McKinney is a cancer survivor. Here, she writes about hair. (She writes a monthly column for public radio.)
A particularly good review of McKinney's Unthinkable in Rattle (February 15, 2010)