Interview with Irene McKinney

Posted: October 5, 2011 by fsucenterforcreativewriting in Events, Interview, Poetry

The FSU Center for Creative Writing recently hosted a reading by poet Irene McKinney.  She is the author of six books of poetry, the most recent being Unthinkable: Selected Poems (2009).  McKinney has been the poet laureate of West Virginia since 1994 and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and two West Virginia Commission on the Arts Fellowships in Poetry.  The following interview was conducted on September 28, the morning after McKinney’s reading.  –Nina Forsythe

Forsythe:  Could you talk a little about your formation as a poet?  You mentioned that your father read to you and that without that early introduction to the magical world of literature you probably would not have become a writer.  What were your other influences?

McKinney:  I both suffered and benefitted from my upbringing.  I had no support from my family or husband, so I had to go it alone:  write alone, figure out poetry alone, pursue my education on my own.  However, I come from a culture that prizes independence and self-reliance.  We were very isolated so we had to do everything ourselves, so I internalized that self-reliance.

My husband was completely opposed to my going to college, so I had to finance it myself by taking in boarders, and I had to work out child-care arrangements.  In college, there were no writing workshops, no courses on contemporary poetry.  I would seek it out in the library (there weren’t many “little” magazines, but they did subscribe to Poetry and a few others).  I didn’t understand contemporary poetry at all, but I kept pushing, kept reading–and learning bit by bit.  I felt a lot of guilt for taking time away from my kids, maybe short-changing them, but it felt life-saving.  I wanted to develop a self I wasn’t ashamed of.

Later, at WVU, I met other writers at conferences.  That’s how I met Bill Matthews.  He gave me the best feedback–he really understood what I was trying to do.  Even after he left, we continued to correspond, and he published me in Lillibulero.  He was my mentor for about two years.

  You are described most often as a West Virginia poet, and your body of work is evidence of your deep roots there; however, your poetry also ranges widely, from the Buddhist and yogic poems in Quick Fire and Slow Fire to the Emily Dickinson and Oneida Community persona poems.  Were these originally a way to escape being “just” a West Virginia poet?

McKinney:  Yes.  I love the region and the culture, but I didn’t want to be labeled a regional poet, especially not a hillbilly poet.  I dislike the sentimentality of a lot of regional writing–it’s not honest and it’s not good writing.  But it’s hard to escape the label.  It bothers me that anthologizers always go for my West Virginia poems.

  In the prose piece in Girl with the Stone in her Lap, you mention wanting to eat everything in your environment “to become [your] place and be in it….”  You also mention smelling your brother’s vials of animal scents and so being able to “enter that animal.”  Your poems seem to do the same type of inhabiting–of animals, places, and people–your persona poems being the prime example.  Do you see them as of a piece?

McKinney:  I never thought of it that way.  I thought that acknowledging animal life was a spiritual step forward, not so human-centric.  But I never thought of the poems as having the same impulse.

  That prose piece, which is about your home place and your childhood, covers much of the same material as the poems in that volume.  What was the purpose of including it?  Did you have to fight for its inclusion?

McKinney:   No.  The editor, Richard Grossinger, was doing a lot of that because of his belief that geography powerfully affects the writer.  I wanted to show readers that the poems were grounded in life, that I wasn’t just spinning a fantasy.  It was also a truth check for me.  Grounding is crucial:  it keeps the writer honest and it engenders trust in the reader.  I transform facts a lot–I can make up half of a poem, but it has to be true to the grounding.  So that prose piece comes out of a belief in the centrality of place–wherever it is.  I tell my students, “Start with a tangible place–a tree by the side of the road, say–and the rest of the poem has to be true to it.”

  You told the beginning writers in the audience that you are never done learning, that with every new poem you are learning all over again.  Could you expand on that a bit?

McKinney:  I never write a poem with a clear idea of where I’m going.  I don’t start with an ending in mind or an overall structure.  Sometimes I don’t even know what the next line is going to be.  But I’m willing to undergo the anxieties of this approach for the sake of being surprised. As Frost says, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”  A lot of contemporary poetry works this way, but the surprises seem arbitrary.  For me, whatever pops up has to make sense.  It should be unexpected but fitting.  I hate to bore my audience–or my students.  I guess I hate to bore anybody.

  Would you say that the poetry world is less navigable today than when you were coming up?

McKinney:  The growth of MFA programs has completely changed the landscape.  It has resulted in a proliferation of writers and lit magazines.  I try to read just about everything that comes out, so I know what to recommend to my students, and it’s an awful chore.  There’s lots of negligible poetry being written and getting published because there are so many magazines.  So there’s a lot more to wade through to find the good ones.


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