EDITOR’S NOTE: Irene McKinney (1939-2012) is one of the most noteworthy and accomplished poets from the hills of West Virginia. She grew up on her family’s Barbour County farm and went on to wide acclaim as a poet, serving as W.Va. Poet Laureate from 1994 until her death. She was featured in the 2002 West Virginia Public Broadcasting series “In Their Own County,” in which Kate Long profiled 14 of the state’s most acclaimed writers. Below, Long shares an excerpt from the episode on McKinney. NOTE: The “In Their Own Country” series is slated to be online in 2023. Stay tuned to when it’s available by free subscribing to WestVirginiaVille at: westvirginiaville.substack.com
By Kate Long
I interviewed Irene McKinney at her family’s Barbour County farm. She stirred my brain cells, made me laugh, and routinely said things that seemed to go right to the heart of whatever we talked about. This story is taken from the “In Their Own Country” program to give you a good dose of Irene: nine poems and fabulous glimpses of Irene’s thinking.
Irene always wanted to write.
“I wanted to believe that I would be a writer when I grew up,” she said. “It seemed almost too wonderful a thing to actually happen. But I went around telling people that I was going to be a writer. And I think I told them that before I’d written very much at all. Anytime anybody would ask me, ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ I would say, ‘I’m going to be a writer!’
“I stated certain fantasies and made certain fantasies come true. Just by talking about them, imagining about them, speculating.”
And you know, it worked.
When she died in 2012, Irene McKinney was a nationally-praised poet and West Virginia’s very down-to-earth poet laureate. As the Hiram Poetry Review said: “Even people who think they don’t like poetry end up loving Irene, her sense of humor, her ‘rhythmic, beautifully ordinary speeches of the heart.”‘
And as a Hungry Mind Review said: “.. a beautifully crafted voice is at work here, in the rhythmic language of authority, a voice that knows … a place well.”
That place is definitely West Virginia. Fifty years ago, Irene McKinney was one of six kids growing up on a working farm on the Barbour/Randolph county line. Their farm was an hour from the nearest town. Irene carried coal for the fires, slopped the pigs, fed the workhorses, cleaned the fireplaces, gathered eggs, dug potatoes and so forth. And after work was done, she had fun.
“I loved my life,” she said. “I loved the freedom of wandering around in the woods … that sense of knowing that I could go off and do whatever it was that I wanted to do. Usually it was like … taking the dogs out in the woods, going out to pick walnuts, going up in the apple trees in our orchard and sitting all day eating apples … picking raspberries … All those things were like … I could be a self-starter, and nobody told me not to.
“And it got me used to solitude. And one of the things that has been puzzling to me in contemporary life is seeing so many people who are absolutely terrified of solitude and would do anything to avoid it.”
I asked her what solitude is.
“Somehow knowing that your own company is probably pretty good. And that you can come up with interesting thoughts and ideas all by yourself, really,” she said.
“But of course, in my solitude, I always had books. For me, to go off someplace with a book was just the height of pleasure. I remember reading a book that my dad had about sheep shearing, and I just read it because it was there, and it was a book. And I considered anything printed, between covers, to be magical, valuable, and wonderful. So, I read it.
“He also had a book on the repair of farm machinery, which I remember clearly. It had a blue cloth cover. And I read that! We had an old copy of Byron’s poems, and I read that! We also had an old copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s work, and I read that!”
So, I was a scavenger child, whuffling in filthy attics, scrounging for broken-backed editions of Edgar Allen Poe, covered with pigeon droppings, accumulating old yellowed books from abandoned schoolhouses buried in the woods smelling of piss and mire, and all abuzz with giant wasps building a nest in the pump organ. These were my fabulous loves, my secret foods These were my handholds into shakey light My emergence from the pit and loving the furniture of the pit. My dedication to the darkness and the shadows of fireflies’ bodies found between the smelly pages. The vile effluvium of bookworms’ paths trekking with intention through one after the other, out one cover, into the next, eating their way through shelf after shelf Byron, Sheepshearing in America, Kiss Me Deadly to Paradise Lost and Lo, the Bird. Why should a hungry worm care what it ate? It was all paper and words, all black magic marks in an unmarked world. All height and depth and beautiful fodder, a method of moving the eyes until they brimmed with startlement. The swollen pupils, reading themselves to death and up beside it and into it.
She was the hungry worm. “And I still am,” she said. “I read everything that comes to me, constantly, almost without discrimination. I started somewhere around the age of 10 or 11. And I remember sitting down one afternoon up in my room. And I was looking at a poem written in rhyme and using that as a model. And I tried to duplicate that. And I thought, ‘I can do this.’
“And I remember at some point thinking, ‘God, this is hard. I didn’t know this would be so hard!’ And I could feel my brain reaching and trying to expand, to try to encompass this new kind of mental experience.”
Hold the stone in your hand.
Put the stone inside your mouth.
Grind your teeth against it.
You know it will not crack.
Drag your tongue over it.
Fit the buds of your tongue
in its pores.
When the stone begins to speak,
“Paying attention to what’s around you is, I think, maybe number one on the list of
things you need to be doing when you’re writing a poem.”
Irene’s poems are like can openers. She starts with something ordinary, something grounded, something we know, like a stone or an owl or coal mining, then uses her poem to peel back the lid and show us something below the surface that we hadn’t seen before.
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. I knock it loose with the heavy hammer. I load it up and send it out while you walk up there on the crust in the daylight and listen to the coal-cars bearing down with their burden. You’re going to burn this fuel and when you come in from your chores, rub your hands in the soft red glow and stand in your steaming clothes with your back to it, while it soaks into frozen buttocks and thighs. You’re going to do that for me while I slog in the icy water behind the straining cars. Until the swing-shift comes around. Now, I am the one in front of the fire. Someone has stoked the cooking stove and set brown loaves on the warming pan. Someone has laid out my softer clothes, and turned back the quilt. Listen. There is a vein that runs through the earth from top to bottom. and all of us are in it. One of us is always burning.
“I just picked up the details for that poem through my life, through the general culture of mining, having uncles who were miners, and hearing reports on the radio. And community talk.”
That last line: One of us is always burning…
“This is one of the odd things that can happen when you’re writing poetry. When I wrote that, I was thinking more about personal relationships, how at any given moment, one person has the power, and the other is slaving in some way to please the other. And how this can be reversed, suddenly, as in the swing shift image. Then everything turns around. Everything turns upside down.
“But later on, somebody said to me: ‘This is a mythical poem about the journey to the underworld.’ And in many ways, I’m sure that it is. You go to the underworld, you go to the unconscious, to find things, to bring back up to the surface.
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“All the work that gets done in our society is hardly acknowledged at all. And the people who are the recipients of all this good stuff stand around in front of the fireplace and rub their hands together.
“And my idea of chopping these things loose and carrying them back up. It’s a great labor to write in an original way, to mine this stuff and bring it up to the surface and do something with it, turn it into fuel or whatever.
“And the third dimension to the poem came to me after I started teaching the course in Appalachian lit. I think it’s a political poem, too, about the levels of power in a culture. The people who provide the fuel don’t get acknowledged. They work hard, they strain hard, they’re pushing these loads of things, whatever these loads of things are.
“All the work that gets done in our society is hardly acknowledged at all. And the people who are the recipients of all this good stuff stand around in front of the fireplace and rub their hands together.
“So I think, really, I don’t want to brag on this poem, but it does work on three levels, at least.”
How can it be that you can find meaning in something that you wrote, years later?
“I think that, in certain kinds of very intense lyric poetry, the poem knows better than I do. That is — I’ve heard many poets say this — if you’re paying attention to whatever it is that the poem is demanding of you, it knows much more than you do.
“Actually, what I think happens is that, when you’re hot, when you’re writing rapidly, with intense energy, all the best parts of you are clicking together. Then when you quit, you drop back to your usual, ordinary state. So, as a person in my ordinary state, I might not see everything that’s in that poem, until later on, when I learn a little more in my life. And then I look back at the poem and say, ‘Oh, that’s what I meant.'”
Some people say writing helps them make sense of life. Irene agrees.
“Probably for those of us who write, we’ve made a decision sometime in our lives, either consciously or unconsciously, that this is the way we’re going to understand the world. And so anything that’s going on needs somehow to be interpreted by a poem or a story or an essay.”
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. Near Mabie, West Virginia I pulled off the narrow road one morning on my way to work as a substitute teacher. I wanted to stand there awhile to see how bad it was, my shuddering in ten-degree weather on my way to something that couldn’t possibly matter. I had quit smoking and I felt like a squireel about to be shot, looking around in a frenzy. There was a squirrel there, not afraid at all, turning a hickory nut in its hands and ignoring me. I must’ve looked like what I was, a woman who had lost her bearings and refused to admit it. It was another day in my history of posthumous days, another day when nobody touched my body.
Another day when nobody touched my body …
“One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is: I no longer care to come out sounding wonderful in a poem. Come out smelling like a rose. I think there’s always that impulse in a poet’s writing. But I’m not trying to be wonderful. I’m not trying to be anything more than I am, which is, an ordinary person with ordinary desires and ambitions.
“So it’s very precious to me that I be just as truthful as I can about the unpleasant things in my life. The times when I was depressed and confused and going in the wrong direction. I’m trying to use the poem as a place where I could see clearly. I’m painting a picture in this poem of a woman, a car, a squirrel, and cold air.”
I asked why not just write abstractly about that and say, “I feel confused” and sort of
discuss it? I have always remembered her answer in my own writing.
“Well, if my own reading experience is any gauge of that, I would just say, ‘Well, I don’t care,'” she said. “If somebody told me that, I would say, well, that’s too bad, but I don’t really understand fully what you mean, so I don’t care. To care, we need the squirrel and the car and the cold air.
“A good piece of writing makes you care, because it’s not about a thing, it is the thing. Robert Lowell said that once about poetry. He said, ‘Poetry is not explaining about something. It is the thing itself.’ A thing happens to you when you read a poem. Or it should.”
“There are several things that are very real in this poem, that I hope will bring it to life for other people. One of them is the iron-red water. On the property I live on, there’s a vein of coal under the house. So when we dug a well, rusty, iron-red water came up. So I have iron-red water. The mines themselves always cause iron-red water, which pollutes the streams.
“And I say I’m also stained with tobacco, which is quite true. I was a lifelong smoker. And red wine. I occasionally drink red wine. So I say, the rust of perpetual loss. If you name three real things, you may have earned the right to use an abstraction.”
Irene was complex, a farm woman wrapped up with a world-class poet. To know Irene the person, you have to know about the farm. She built her own house on the 250-acre Barbour County farm that has been worked by at least seven generations of her dad’s family, the Durretts. She could look out her window, across a steep holler, and see the house where she grew up.
“This farm is extremely steep and hilly. And lots of times, when I look out and think about my ancestors clearing this land, it seems to be a task that would be almost impossible. To pick rocks up off these hillsides, to try to get a plow up on the sides of some of these hills is just amazing to me.
“Where my house now is set is in a very steep spot. A friend of mine who is a poet came here. And he looked out on the landscape, and he said, ‘It looks like when you spread a bedspread over a bed, before it settles down.’ It just has those kind of soft, curvy, deep places, high places. So that farming was extremely difficult.”
Irene’s dad started running that farm when he was 10 years old. His own dad had died,
so he and his 12-year old brother just took it over.
“They kept that farm going for their mother and grandmother and their brothers and sisters a number of years on their own. The older farmers in the community showed the boys how to do things and helped when they needed it.”
“The idea of the farm being sold or falling apart was just unthinkable. When I was a little girl, the farm was the entire world to me. And when you talk about an isolated area being the entire world to you, there’s going to be a very strong positive side to it, and there’s going to be a very strong negative side to it.
“I think in the popular imagination, when people talk about living on a self-sufficient farm or nearly self-sufficient farm, the myth in America is that that was heaven, that that was all rosy and all good and all positive. And, of course, nothing with life in it is ever all positive. That’s totally insane. I don’t know where we ever got that idea.”
I wanted to walk without clothing in the woods beside the creek, and come to the barn at night and sleep beside the horses, curled in the smell and scratch of hay with the bitch and pups. The life of the house was flat, filled with monotonous talking, passing to and fro among the rooms, and for what. 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. If a cat or a dog came too close to the back door she threw scalding water on it, and was righteous in her anger, shouting that they were not human and didn’t feel real pain. If we must choose sides, I said as a child, I take the side of the animals.
“We give ourselves the impression that we’re the center of the universe, that we are truly unique among all other living creatures, that everything else in creation is a cut below us. And I truly do not believe that.”
The animals have tongues in their feet and taste the leaves in crevices and holes, in the quirks of the earth, They seep from your pores in your sleep, move into the woods and back The fox is a mantle of heat and stink, the owl’s deft sweep, a flume in the elm, I give my own peculiar call, three flaps and a glide. The continual thumbnail scrape of the cricket easing his knees: at the level of grass we fix each other with a stare, droning a cellular song And the bear’s shamble, his rooted breath, As you take them in, they come and go through the turns of the wrist, the temples, the vulnerable bend of the arm You take their faces between your hands, lick them into shape while you lie in the dark.
“The poet Gary Snyder was very important to me because he made me feel like I had permission to write about rural life. So many poems I was reading were about city life or didn’t seem to take into account the rural world in any way. Or if it did take into account the natural world, it was just kind of like a decoration. It was something in the background.
“But to me, the natural world was in the foreground. When I would go down to the barn and spend time with the cattle, with the workhorses, also we usually had some hound dogs down there, these were important characters in my life. And their life processes were important to me. Gary Snyder — in talking about rural life and tribal life and traditional kinds of life, farming and living off the land — made me suddenly realize that I could write about that, that I could bring that into my poems.”
My brother walking home at noon, his face clenched like a trap with a stuck spring, a possum hanging on his thumb, bitten through to the bone. It sits on a shelf in the storage room now, a dusty albino with red glass eyes. The mice have eaten its feet and the thin bones small as a mouse’s leg shine through, caught in the swirling sunlight from a haze of windows.
The house Irene grew up in was built before the Civil War by one of her ancestors. “I remember a lot of winter mornings there, because it was all very intense. We all slept upstairs, and it was icy-cold up there. There was no heat up there. So my mother arranged all these feather ticks over us at night. We were sort of embedded in this big nest. And you could get very, very cozy in those feather ticks, even if it was zero outside.
“My father was the first up and got the fires going, and my mother got up shortly after that. And at some point, she would call me. And this was always a difficult (laugh) ten or fifteen minutes, because she would have to call and call and call before I would finally agree to put my feet out on the icy floor.
“We’d all come down in front of this huge, blazing fire in the fireplace and stand there with our backs to it awhile till we thawed out. When we were school-age, we’d all be rushing around at this point, because the bus came very early from Belington.”
When I saw that I would have breasts and that they wanted me to cover them up, I took my shirt off and tied it around my waist and stomped out into the yard. I was so furious that no one stopped me, not my mother, who thought I was acting crazy, not my father, out working in the hayfield, not my brother, who thought it was a game, not my sister, who thought I was acting-out, who thought I was crazy. I was crazy. For three days I stalked around and stomped, refusing to wear a shirt. They all said “Cover up” and to cover up made me feel weak. I wasn’t weak: I was damned if I’d pretend, I was damned. They were two badges on my chest, each of them saying, “This is me.” First the nipples plumped up and turned from pale pink to dusty rose. They were two eyes seeing things my other eyes couldn’t see. Then they rounded out and ached. They wondered what was going on, getting ready for the long story, nursing mouths, kisses, suckles. Later, I would stand in the bathroom with my arms raised painfully while my husband wrapped a wet towel tightly around them to bring down the swelling of too much milk. Later, I would stand at the lingerie counter and choose a black lace bra. Later, I would change back to white cotton. Later, I wouild burn them. But that week when I was eleven, I wanted it to be solved. I wanted it to be over. I took a hoe from the shed and stood bare-breasted outside and beat the hoe to splinters on the trunk of a maple. I knew it wasn’t over, but I was exhausted. I would have to enjoy not covering up in secret. That’s when I began to speak in my head as the naked one, and the other went clothed into the world.
Speaking in her head as the naked one? “The thing that I really value in poetry, that I really love when I come across it in poems and want very much to have in my poems is the sense that I am getting as close to the naked truth as I can.
“That facade that we present to the world is necessary, as a kind of social lubrication. Yet I think it’s very, very dangerous if we forget what the self is, the sort of bare, naked self beneath that facade.”
“I think our connection with the natural world has to be primary. I feel very sad and very sorry for people who don’t have the opportunity to have that kind of connection in their lives. People who live in the inner city all their lives, for example. I think that they’re cut off from a lot of sources of human strength.”
Nothing but secrets and mysteries endure. Our 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 its objects. But the woods do not glare, they are furtive, dark green. They will close over, they will wrap and enclose with layers of darker green. They will proliferate, encase, hide, obscure. They transform light into dark leaves. They make as many leaves as they have to. And a secret grows on the underside of every leaf.
NOTE: This is about a third of the “In Their Own Country” visit with Irene McKinney. The full profile, along with profiles of 13 other West Virginia writers, will be online in 2023. Free subscribe to WestVirginiaVille for notice of the launch of that website: westvirginiaville.substack.com
A Celebration of Irene McKinney’s life and craft
The video above is an edited documentation of a multi-media celebration of the life and works of Irene McKinney (1939-2012). The event was hosted by the current W.Va. Poet Laureate Marc Harshman, along with isights and readings by Maggie Anderson, Jeff Mann, Devon McNamara, Jessie van Eerden, and Barbara Weaner. West Virginia Public Broadcasting and John Nakashima provided montages of radio and video clips from some of the poet’s most memorable interviews and readings while Kate Long sang “Goodnight, Irene.” Recorded at the Culture Center in Charleston, WV.
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