Irene McKinney was a much-loved West Virginia treasure. In a 2004
interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, McKinney talked about finding her voice:
"When I first became an English teacher, for about the first
three years I was very conscientious and I thought, ‘If I’m an English teacher in
a college or university, I ought to lose my accent.’ And I worked very hard to lose it, and to sound
like Middle America. And I think
probably on campus and in the classroom, I succeeded.
"Just gradually, this made me very angry. I had a kind of angry reaction. And then finally at some point I thought, ‘this
is the way I sound, this is the voice I hear in my head, the people I grew up
around sound like this, and most of all, when I write, I hear an accent.’ And if I don’t I can’t tell the truth. I tell somebody else’s truth."
Maggie Anderson became a close friend of McKinney’s when they were both students at Wesleyan. She spoke from McKinney’s house Monday
"She was an extremely talented, gifted poet who rose up
out of somewhat improbable circumstances," Anderson says. "She was a student all her life. Anything that interested her she studied. There are probably 7,000 books in
this house and I’m sure she read every one of them. And she was a teacher and a mentor to a whole
generation of writers from this region. And I think she was one of the very best writers in this country of her
In 2004 McKinney was diagnosed with cancer and told she would live 3 to 5
years. She took eight. Anderson reflects on how that struggle affected McKinney’s work.
"Two things happen," says Anderson, "One is that she began to write more than before although she always did—all
poets do, I guess—she began to contemplate mortality more. She began to develop a voice in her poems
that was kind of both funny and defiant and, just razor-sharp wit."
Writer and radio producer Kate Long spent hours
interviewing McKinney over the years.
They became good friends.
"Irene was quoted in an anthology on women writing in
Appalachia and she wrote, ‘I’m a hillbilly, a woman, and a poet, and I
understood early-on that no one was gonna listen to what I had to say anyway so
I might as well say what I want to.’ And
that was Irene I mean, that was her. She
always said what she meant. It was just,
Hell with it. She said one time to me, ‘I no longer care if I come out smelling
like a rose. I just want to tell the
truth.’ And that’s how she was," Long remembers.
"I want very much to work against a stereotype of living
in the mountains and living in Appalachia as some kind of paradise on Earth," McKinney said. "We all know that isn't true. It's rough.
These choices are rough. And
there's a lot of isolation. A lot of
being cut off from the larger world at various times. A lot of limited job opportunity. A lot of lowered economic expectations. And to me it is equally important to look at
that in poems as it is to look at the positive sides. The positive side is nothing without that
under lament of the gritty parts of life."
Twilight in West Virginia. 6 o’clock mine report. …
Twilight in West Virginia:
Six O'Clock Mine Report
by: Irene McKinney
Bergoo Mine No. 3
will work: Bergoo Mine
No 3 will work
tomorrow. Consol No. 2
will not work:
Consol No. 2 will not
Green soaks into
the dark trees.
The bills go
clumped and heavy
over the foxfire
At Hardtack and
Amity the grit
abrades the skin.
The air is thick
above the black
leaves, the open mouth
of the shaft. A
man with a burning
carbide lamp on
swings a pick in a
beneath the earth.
His eyes flare
white like a
horse's, his teeth glint.
From his sleeves
of coal, fingers
half-moons: he leans
into the tipple,
over the coke oven
staining the air
red, over the glow
from the rows of
fiery eyes at Swago.
Above Slipjohn a
six-ton lumbers down
the grade, its
windows curtained with soot.
No one is driving.
The roads get lost
in the clotted hills,
in the Blue Spruce
maze, the red cough,
marl, the sulphur ooze.
drain; the roads get lost
and drop at the
edge of the strip job.
The fires in the
mines do not stop burning.
In 2004 McKinney
was at her home dealing with the aftermath of chemo-therapy. McKinney’s
publisher had been calling her, but she was ignoring her phone. She turned on the radio in time to hear this
Garrison Keillor said: Here’s a poem by Irene McKinney entitled Fame.
That I would
That someone would
I would be
recognized and not pitiable
And I would remain
as strong as I was if not stronger
And overcome my
Through sheer will
And that others
younger or less talented
Would not become
Or at least not
until I was
recognition would reward me for all I’d undergone
My bravery of
My refusal of
And my good will
would be returned to me many fold
After the years
And I would not be
Nor would I act on
Nor suppress my
And none of this
McKinney: On happiness.
For many people, including me, illness or hardship of any
kind can become an entry way into feeling real compassion for other
people. And that’s the most difficult of
all the spiritual emotions. But when we’ve
learned to feel this, there’s great benefit on both sides. Our own pain leads us to understand the pain
of others, and therefore we can act, to help them in real ways, not just make
sympathetic noises. And feeling
compassion helps us because it deepens and enriches our spiritual self.
Now I’m as wary as the next person about
abstract words like compassion and happiness, but it’s been confirmed for me
fairly quickly that these emotions are at the center of human striving and
possible wisdom. And I can see that
there’s a strong prejudice about talking about happiness. Before my own period of hardship I was
uncomfortable with the very word, ‘happiness.’
And I was surprised and dismayed when I saw the language of
much writing about this subject. \Here is
the meta-prayer from the Buddhist tradition:
May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings awaken to the light of their true nature.
May all beings be free.
Irene McKinney published her
first book of poems, The Girl with the
Stone in Her Lap, in 1976. McKinney’s latest manuscript, Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet? No I Haven’t Had Enough Darkness, is due
to be released in 2013.
The Irene McKinney Award for West
Virginia Wesleyan MFA Students is a fund that was established in her
Special thanks to John Nakashima for his help in producing this report. Tune into WV PBS to see a 2005 interview
that will be broadcast 9pm
Friday Feb 10.
TO MY READER - Irene McKinney
There’s a passage through the night
where someone awards me, hangs
the tassle of distress off to the side
and replaces it with a badge
indicating that I did one thing
right by continuing what
I’d started when I didn’t know
it had begun, and I was sure
of no reward.
Blessings were not
forthcoming, daily distress.
The path is aerial seen from
above. I startle myself
and feel I have no choice but
to proceed by inches.
I pull down
the magic curtain, curb the car,
get in and drive, coaxing
the pattern to relief.
And you have been with me
through the long and hateful night
although you are only a shadow.
You have stayed behind
my shoulder and I’ve sheltered
you there, made a place for
you in my mind. In
in rain, in the loss of breath,
you have been with me
and I have not failed you
because I continued to speak
when you begged me not
to inquire further and I spoke
to your fears in a voice of grief,
saying, yes they are gone and
will not return, but you
are still breathing.
And I sang
you a song that came through
a trail of nerves down the generations
through all we have read together
and all we have remembered.
Remember the words, and I’ll remember you.