Remembering Irene McKinney
Irene McKinney was born April 20, 1939, in Belington. The remarkable writer and state poet laureate published many books, including The Girl with the Stone in Her Lap, Quick Fire and Slow Fire, and Vivid Companion. At the age of 72, after a long fight with cancer, she passed away in February 2012.
Friend and fellow writer Devon McNamara shares some of her memories of Irene:
I met Irene McKinney in the early ’70s when she lived at Spall Lick, off Route 57, in Barbour County, where I was conducting a poets-in-the schools project. She came to read her early work (from her first book, The Girl with the Stone in Her Lap) in my classes. I recall her effect on students at (now defunct) Flemington High School in Taylor County, how her no-nonsense delivery of astonishing truths—as in “What This Poem is About,” a poem about writing and about “someone who understands you and your metaphysical stutter," or “Animal Oils,” about trapping the wild creatures all about us in the woods and fields—made them laugh and shift and jump up to write something honest themselves. Irene’s brilliant high school student, Jayne Anne Phillips, was just putting the finishing touches on Sweethearts, her first book of prose poems, and a year or two later, during a fierce winter (1977), Irene and Jayne Anne visited a Midwestern college where I was doing a guest semester, and just overwhelmed the students with their honesty about women’s issues and the drama inherent in the West Virginia struggle with its extractive industries, its heart-stopping rural beauty, its music, its echoing past.
For me personally, Irene was a genuine friend and fellow artist, always a rich source of inspiration, of original observations, funny, tragic, always recounted with directness and panache, no matter the subject. She was a splendid performer, whether on my porch, in the classroom, at the reader’s podium, or next to me in the car on one of our innumerable car trips. Driving to D.C. in the late '90s for a conference—Allen Ginsburg had just died—she read from her notebook the newly completed “Viridian Days” (from Vivid Companion), and we laughed and laughed over the fragility and immortality of words. I particularly loved her vast, energetic, infinitely open-minded reading habits. We traded books for decades—she was a treasure trove. She lived in the house I shared with my husband in Barbour County one winter while we were on the road and she left poems everywhere—and memories of parties I am still hearing about. But her endless piles and shelves of books—everyone who knew and loved her can say the same, my colleagues at Wesleyan, other close literary friends far and near—“Irene’s read everything.” The little house she built on her father’s land near Belington, off the Talbott Road, she called a “cross between a library and a church”—the reverence for the source of human nourishment that is poetry, fiction, philosophy, history, social commentary, and spiritual meditation from all over the world and time, everywhere in abundance, floor to ceiling, overflowing the balcony, the kitchen, the bedroom, up and down the living room walls beside the big windows that gave on to the pasture. She knew what it was to be an artist—the cost, the hard work, the real rewards.
The poem “At 24” read recently by Larry Groce at a Mountain Stage visit to Wesleyan recounts her early struggles to write, to save her life, as she said, “As I knew it could be.” She and I once tried to share a position at Wesleyan—so we could teach and still have writing time. The dean at the time wasn’t interested, but I did join the faculty and we soon cooked up an Irish trip with Irene as the star traveler. We “presented” her in Dublin, where she gave a workshop at the Irish Writers’ Center. She loved the Aran Islands, the “rooks in the rain” along the cliff hung West of Ireland coast, the pounding of the Atlantic. She was interviewed on Irish Public Radio, and I taped her conversation with Salmon Poet Mary O’Malley in Galway on the subject of being a woman, a poet, and rural Irish or hillbilly. She made sure there would be an Irish component to the Wesleyan MFA Creative Writing Low Residency Program.
Despite her wrestling with the demands of full-time, she was a brilliant teacher. Former English department chair and now Director of the School of Arts and Humanities at Wesleyan Boyd Creasman says she was “a legend and a champion.” She continued to publish while inspiring generations of students, bringing out Six O’Clock Mine Report, Vivid Companion, and the collection Unthinkable while teaching classes on Appalachian literature, women poets in translation from other cultures, and creative writing. She read her work on Mountain Stage and, ever an ardent environmentalist, at gatherings to fight mega-landfills and mountaintop removal. One of her Wesleyan students recently received a Mitchell Fellowship (a highly competitive award founded by Senator George Mitchell, active in the peace process in Northern Ireland) for a year of graduate work in Irish literature in Dublin, and many of Wesleyan’s current seniors are grateful to remember having worked with her “for real.”
Irene meant most to me as a genuine friend of the spirit, and as a generous, discerning artist, always willing to read work honestly and encouragingly, always alive with insight, the highest standards, that immense reference library in her mind always at the ready along with the best belly laughs in the world. When she put her feet up in your kitchen, you were in for immortal stories. It’s important to add that back when there wasn’t much being written about “the problem that has no name”—Irene used to say we had Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and that was pretty much it—Irene was examining the specifically female elements of what was to become her remarkable journey from bookworm in the barn to poet laureate with an honest eye and a firm grasp of the sometimes uncomfortable facts of gender politics. She was way out front as a writer on women’s issues, her writing workshops facing that particular music from Santa Cruz to Morgantown, in small town settings and at universities.
Irene told me over and over again how deep down happy the founding of the MFA Program at Wesleyan made her—the chance to support good writing of the region and to connect it with the wider world. The last lecture she gave during our January 2012 session, was wise and witty, downright funny, lighthearted, and honest, its inclusive approach comforting and solid, old as the hills, and totally contemporary, just like her: Wilda Irene Durrett McKinney.
Devon McNamara is Professor of English, Irish Literature, and Creative Writing at West Virginia Wesleyan College and on the MFA Low Residency Creative Writing Faculty.