"I wanted to believe that I would be a writer when I grew up. 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 asked me, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' I'd 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 ... "
A glimpse of Irene McKinney
Irene's younger years were spent, feisty and independent, on a steeply hilly mountain farm in Barbour County, surrounded by neighbors who helped each other butcher livestock, harvest corn, put out fires, or whatever else was needed. When she wasn't doing chores - digging potatoes, hauling water to the house, etc. - she could often be found up a tree with a book, or hanging out in the barn with the animals. Her stories of growing up on a rural farm are wonderfiul for all ages.
Irene grew up to be a nationally-loved poet and West Virginia's very down-to-earth poet laureate. Her insightful, passionate poems -- often funny or surprising -- are written in plain, rhythmic language people of any age can understand.
In this program, Irene shows us how to start with an ordinary image or event, then use that thing to cut to the bone of a deeper reality. Insightful, articulate and often funny, she delivers first-rate advice about writing and tells moving stories about her life and the rural farming community where she grew up. Her poems prove that ordinary moments in the lives of women, animals, and rural people are wonderful subjects for art.
She left the state in her twenties to get a Ph.D in literature. She then got a tenure-track job, a husband and two kids. In her late twenties, drawn by West Virginia, she came back to the farm for a visit and never left. By the time she died in 2012, she had published six acclaimed books of poetry, started West Virginia Wesleyan's MFA program for writers, and inspired thousands of West Virginia students.
A sample poem: Atavistic
Click the triangle to hear Irene read.
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.
An activity to go with this poem: Create your own poem, using Irene's structure. This is a great way to study Irene's sentence structure and the way she uses details. Keep her sentence structure, but change her details to your own details. An example: "I wanted to get in a truck and drive away from my apartment next to the interstate and come to the waterfall at night. Model the whole poem. Pay attention. You can learn a lot. It all builds to the last stanza. In that stanza, Irene breaks away from physical description and says what she thinks. What will you say in that stanza?
Go to the Activities page for other ways to learn from these writers.
Five ways to get the most out of this website:
1. Listen to a wonderful hour-long visit with Irene. Enjoy Irene's voice, stories, readings, and advice. See link below.
2. Read/download the transcript of the hour-long conversation with Irene. Read it as you listen, marking passages you want to remember, or while thinking about how you might use the programs in your class.
4. Play short audio snips of the Irene program for a class or audience. It's easy! The program is divided into short tracks that can be played one at a time.
5. Try some activities that help you learn from these writer's storytelling/writing skills.
"I think that, in certain kinds of very intense lyric poetry, the poem knows better than I do. If you're paying attention to whatever the poem is demanding of you [as you write], it knows much more than you do.
"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. I might not see everything that's in that poem till later on, when I learn a little more in my life. And then I look back on the poem and say, 'Oh! That's what I meant!'"