Monday, June 7, 2010

Monday Muse: West Virginia's Poet Laureate

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. 

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 DodgeArts & LettersQuarterly West, BlackbirdSouthern Heritage, The Georgia ReviewVersedaily, 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)

Blue Ridge Country profile of McKinney (September 1, 2006) Included here is McKinney's poem "Home".

A Conversation with Irene McKinney (Part 1 of 3):

Parts 2 and 3 (Listen, especially, to her descriptions of her experience as a writer of poetry.)

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)


M.L. Gallagher said...

I have to come back and watch the video -- I love the quotes you started with and Stained is beautiful!

But I've got to run! I'll be back.

L.L. Barkat said...

I am hoping that poets will not be negligible in our culture anymore. I would like to be part of the wave that washes over society, making it ache for the sound of poetry.

Yeah, I have big dreams. :)

Doug said...

I love the quote about saying what you want to because no one will listen anyway. Thanks for the article. That's why we teach our own children...for we can teach them poetry and art and it won't die off to video games and TV.

Anonymous said...

to let you know...

so far enjoyed post, and video 1.

Anonymous said...

watched all three videos.
very cool.
i just love the way she says "hickory".

taking a break...hope to get back to the rest.

Nancy Denofio said...

I see the face - feel her life - and know poetry is real and should be read as often as any other book, thanks for this wonderful peace of the world from an outstanding writer of poetry.
Sincerely, Nancy Duci Denofio

Lulu, the Dewey Dame said...

Thanks for this post. Irene has been my favorite poet for over 30 years, when I first saw her at the Women's Voices creative writing workshop. I fell in love with her husky voice, her sly sense of humor,and her courage in pursuing the poem. She amazed me again and again.

I ache for the loss of her, though I haven't seen her since the 1980s. I console myself with the good fortune I had of knowing her, however briefly, and the knowledge that her poems live on... Vivid Companions, indeed.