When Irene McKinney died February 4, 2012, on her family farm in Belington, West Virginia, I lost a vital part of my writing life. She was stubborn, unsentimental, and never took herself too seriously. But she always took her writing seriously, drove herself to do the best work she could. The last five years of her life proved to be a productive period, during which she established a low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Welseyan College, published a volume of selected poems, completed a manuscript that will be published posthumously, and saw the reissuing of her book Six O’Clock Mine Report as a contemporary classic.
Irene’s work has been published widely in well-regarded journals (Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Southern Poetry Review, Verse Daily, and Blackbird, just to name a few), been featured on NPR, Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, and in numerous anthologies. She received grants, awards, fellowships, residencies and honors from the NEA, the MacDowell Colony, Breadloaf, and others. She taught at colleges across the country. Despite all that, and a publishing life that spanned five decades, Irene remained virtually unknown outside of West Virginia and its neighboring areas. I recognize my bias, but I have always been vocal that her work should be much better known than it is.
Irene McKinney was one of a kind (I want to say sui generis, but she’d counsel me to get rid of that Latin and just say it plain.) Immediately following her death, this quote showed up frequently: “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.” In that one sentence, there’s a declamatory elegance and a “to hell with what you think” brio that typifies Irene. There’s self-deprecation there, pugnacity, audacity. Irene was all of that, and she brought it all to her poems. She understood and exploited the power available to those of us in the margins from our very marginalization. And though she’d proudly call herself a hillbilly, Irene would never allow herself to be dismissed as a regional writer. “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,” she said. “The positive side is nothing without that under lament of the gritty parts of life.” She preferred clarity to romanticism. Yes, she wrote often of West Virginia, her family farm, her life and surroundings, but she did more than that. She also wrote about India, Buddhist meditation and the Asanas, the spectral and literal Emily Dickinson, Baroness Elsa Von Freytag Loringhoven, the Oneida Community, and Graciela Iturbide’s “Señora de Las Igaunas.” She recreated herself numerous times in her life. There were innumerable Irenes, but all of them were genuine.
Irene was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2004. The original prognosis was for three-five years. She lived for eight. There’s no denying that the cancer, its diagnosis, and treatment impacted her life and poetry. Perhaps her most powerful poems from the last few years dealt with the facts and complications of the aging female body and her own terminal illness. She knew that many of those poems made people uncomfortable, but when talking about such negative reactions, she’d just laugh and shrug—it was their problem, not hers. Her later poems are energized by a sharp wit, existential dilemma, and a generosity of spirit that’s rare in contemporary writing.
She was my earliest model of a working writer, she fostered my work and encouraged me when I was just this side of demolished. Anything I say will always be insufficient. So I’ll say this: read her poems, search her out for yourself. Your Irene will be different than my Irene, but she’s definitely worth knowing.