Irene McKinney is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and a West Virginia Commission on the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.
Irene McKinney is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and a West Virginia Commission on the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. She is the author of five books of poetry: THE GIRL WITH A STONE IN HER LAP (North Atlantic, 1976); THE WASPS AT THE BLUE HEXAGONS (Chapbook, Small Plot Press, 1984); QUICK FIRE AND SLOW FIRE (North Atlantic, 1988); SIX O’CLOCK MINE REPORT ( University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989), and VIVID COMPANION (West Virginia University Press, 2005). She is editor of BACKCOUNTRY: CONTEMPORARY WRITING IN WEST VIRGINIA, and has held fellowships at McDowell Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Blue Mountain Center. She was appointed Poet Laureate of West Virginia in 1994. Recent poems are in AMERICAN VOICE, ARTFUL DODGE, KENYON REVIEW, CONFLUENCE, SOUTH DAKOTA REVIEW, KESTREL, POETRY NORTHWEST, CLACKAMAS LITERARY REVIEW, and THE GEORGIA REVIEW. She has been writer-in- residence at Western Washington University at Bellingham, the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, and others. She is Professor Emerita at West Virginia Wesleyan College.
Triple threat. I am a poet, a woman and a West Virginian, three identities which will not win me any points in the big corporate or social worlds. I once mentioned this to another poet and when she began to commiserate with me, I hastened to tell her that no, this is a good thing! Knowing that you have nothing to lose, no vested interests, no high social position, no automatic prestige, can be a blessing. It can bestow a great sense of freedom – freedom from social expectations and robotic thinking, freedom from a value system based on earning power and worldly position.
As a poet, I could not “sell out” even if I wanted to, because no one is buying! Even our best-known poets cannot make a living from writing alone, and usually become teachers. I feel very fortunate that my poetry and my region are so closely linked, and that I’ve been able to convey to my students my love for both.
Almost heaven. This slogan designed to bring in tourism and to boost local pride is too elevated to be of any real use in mountain peoples’ lives. It perpetuates an impossibly rosy view of rural life in the mountains. Life here has a basic, intrinsic truth and does not need an idealistic image to make it valuable.
West Virginia is often defined as an “undeveloped” region, and I see this as potentially an enormous stroke of luck rather than a catastrophe. Being left behind in the great rush to development means that we have more time to make informed decisions about what parts of our traditions and ways of life we want to hold onto, and to work out political strategies to make that possible. This state has a window of opportunity that many other parts of the country did not have before they were inundated with industry and strip malls and endless pavement.
Back here. In relation to the rest of the country, I feel very much in the backcountry. I live in a geographically isolated state, in a sparsely-populated county. I live in the woods at the end of a dead-end road. I live here, back here, by preference.
Although West Virginia has steadily lost population for decades, it’s important to remember that at the same time many people have struggled to return here, or to remain here. A librarian friend being interviewed by a city newspaper was asked why she, as a professional, was living in West Virginia.
“Because I have a right to,” she answered, neatly turning that value-judgement into its opposite.
Homesickness is indigenous to the area. West Virginia natives often spend their income-earning years elsewhere, but sustain a desire to return to their roots as soon as they can. This is not mere nostalgia, but is based on a clear view of what is beautiful and valuable.
I returned from a productive exile in California, Utah, New York and other locations where I went to teach over a 25-year period, knowing all the while that someday I would find a way to come back.
The cycle of exile and return is a central paradigm in the lives of many people in this region. The painful struggle involved in leaving and coming back forms a central theme in the literature and art of the Appalachians, and figures prominently in the work of Kentucky writers Harriette Arnow and Gurney Norman, and West Virginia writers Breece Pancake, Jayne Anne Phillips and Pinckney Benedict, among others. The young male protagonists of Pancake’s stories enact that struggle. And Arnow’s character Gertie Nevels suffers the tragedy of displacement when she and her family move to Detroit.
The Appalachian mountains and the people of this region have long memories. There is an awareness of history that is part of our deepest consciousness. Not just political history, but family history, regional history and geological history. As former State Poet Laureate Louise McNeill wrote, we come “from a place called solid.”
Staying in one place, becoming intimate with that place, teaches us central truths about all of human history. The age of the land itself forms a bedrock for our sense of who we are, not just single human beings living out narrow lives, but a part of the flow of creation.
Secrets. Nothing but secrets and mysteries endure. Our surface lives are full of the glaring dead light from the television, the staring light on a field of asphalt, the metallic shine of information unhitched from real life. But the woods do not glare, they are softened, dark green. They thrive, entwine. They hide and protect. They transform light into dark green leaves. The trees make as many leaves as they have to, and a mystery grows on the underside of every leaf.
This is not the mountain mother,
The hills with green arms.
We give the mountains our names
And they stand still: The Cheat,
The Black, The Backbone.
Because we cared to name them
We can talk. We make a roughened
Music, rubbing up against them,
Deep into the grain of sandstone,
The layers of trilobites.
Our music comes out like
A sweet molasses, dark liquid
Globing from a fiddle,
Falling in dollops from the banjo.
Repeats the ground of repetition,
Foliage of burning sweetness.
Deep in Shady Grove the buds unfold
And glow. Dance Little Fawn.
The Shelvin Rock. And in the cities
There is another burning
And they want to come home.
“Home” is excerpted from a work that first appeared in “Vivid Companion,” Vandalia Press/West Virignia University Press, 2004. http://www.wvupress.com
Irene McKinney’s web site is http://www.irenemckinney.com