GUEST POST: Dr. Eric Waggoner on Irene McKinney

Whenever I loaned a book of Irene McKinney’s poetry to a fellow writer, that person came back a stone convert. People who openly stated they neither enjoyed nor understood poetry responded immediately, and strongly, to Irene’s. Irene’s poetic voice—clear, honest, fiercely intelligent, and unafraid to explore the ecstatic and terrible extremes of human experience—was, and remains, absolutely unlike any other I’ve ever encountered. 

Irene immersed herself in the study of poetry, and remained a voracious reader to the end of her life. But she came out of no one school, and clung to no tradition, trusting that the rhythms and intuitions brought about by thoughtful, reflective expression would lead her where the poem wanted her to be. She refused to think of poetry as a shell game, a clever exercise in misdirection designed to befuddle the reader or show off how smart the poet was. (And make no mistake, Irene was brilliant.) For Irene, poetry—and literature, and art in general—mattered primarily insofar as it was able to help us articulate core truths about our brief, complicated lives, and the spaces in which those lives were lived. For Irene, poetry had to be forthright, it had to be honest, and it could never, never cheat or shortchange the reader for the sake of pretty phrasing, pretension, or false sentiment.

Among the many things Irene taught me over the two decades we knew each other, the fundamental lesson was this: The world will try to silence your voice in many ways, but primarily by making you doubt the value of your own experience, and the power of your own speech to describe it. Never doubt it. Be humble, be committed to studying the traditions in which you’re working, respect the tradition’s long history, and remember you’re only one of many practitioners—several of whom you will spend your life trying, unsuccessfully, to match up to. But never doubt the power of your voice.

I miss her all the time. Her conversational voice, which was wry and tough and funny; her unerring bullshit-detector, which ensured she wasted as little time as possible on things that really didn’t matter; and her boundless generosity towards young writers, whom she encouraged and mentored and (most of all) read closely and thoughtfully, even more so late in her life, when she knew her time was growing limited.  

“Monkey Heart”; “Deep Mining”; “For Woman Who Have Been Patient All Their Lives”; “Vivid Companion”; “Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet?”; “The Outsider Speaks”; “Past Lives”. Irene McKinney’s poetry is a record of a life deeply, deliberately, and determinedly lived. I always learned from her. I still do.

Dr. Eric Waggoner is one of Wesleyan's MFA core faculty members. In addition to writing literary criticism, Eric Waggoner, founding editor and publisher of Latham House Press and Associate Professor of American Literature and Cultural Studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College, regularly contributes music and film journalism to numerous magazines and newsweeklies. Over a twelve-year writing career, he has published interviews with performance artist Laurie Anderson, bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley, punk and spoken-word performer Henry Rollins (twice), minimalist composer Terry Riley, indie-rock producer Kramer, and noise-rock trailblazer Michael Gira, as well as hundreds of profile pieces, and book, record, concert, and film reviews. Eric Waggoner’s music writing has appeared in Harp, Blurt, Jazziz,, the book collection Kill Your Idols: A New Generation Of Rock Writers Reconsiders The Classics (Barricade Books, 2004), and the New Times, Metro Times, and Village Voice newspaper chains. He has worked as a masthead-listed writer for the Phoenix New Times, Detroit Metro Times, and Seattle Weekly newspapers. He currently appears monthly in Magnet magazine, where he is Contributing Editor.