Remembering Irene McKinney

Women writers, and all who write about the working class and farmers and miners of Appalachia, lost a sterling voice over the weekend. Irene McKinney, former poet laureate of the state, teacher, editor, and light in the darkness, died February 4, on her family farm. She was only a few weeks shy of her 73rd birthday.

The daughter of a schoolteacher, she grew up in Belington, WV, and returned to those acres after a life that took her first to West Virginia Wesleyan College, just down the road, then West Virginia University, and finally the University of Utah. She traveled widely beyond those academic settings, but her heart was always home. “I’m a hillbilly, a woman, and a poet,” she once said, “and I understood early on that nobody was going to listen to anything I had to say anyway, so I might as well just say what I want to.” But people listened. She gathered up honors from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the MacDowell Colony, the West Virginia Commission on the Arts, the Utah Arts Council, the Kentucky Foundation for Women.

She wrote six books of poetry including The Girl with the Stone in Her Lap (1976); Six O’Clock Mine Report (1989), which was chosen for the Pitt Poetry Series; and Vivid Companion (2004). Unthinkable: Selected Poems 1976–2004 was published in 2009. Another collection, Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet? No, I Haven't Had Enough Darkness, will be published posthumously by Red Hen Press.
Irene was always reaching out to other women and other writers in West Virginia and beyond. As a newbie writer, I was awed by her gifts and her assurance when I first met her at a West Virginia University gathering. I would go on running into Irene for the next 20 years, at writing conferences large and small.
She invited me to speak at a writers’ conference at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where she taught up to and past retirement. This small liberal arts college, built around a “quad” at the edge of Buckhannon, attracted a who’s who of Appalachian writing for these events – Jayne Anne Phillips, Maggie Anderson, Richard Currey, Gerald Stern – I sat at table with them and just drank in the writerly goodness.
Irene was also my introduction to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, which is having its annual gathering right now. She asked me to be on a panel – with Denise Giardina and Tom Andrews – and I questioned her decision. I was just a newspaper reporter and farmer, with some poetry to my credit, and a single novel. When she introduced me, it was as “a woman of letters.” I’ll never forget her generosity.
Like Churchill, she believed that you never, ever give up. The last time I saw Irene was at the West Virginia Book Festival. Her poetry collection Vivid Companion had just come out from WVU Press, which also published my short story collection Fidelities that year. She had just recently been diagnosed with the bone cancer that would take her life. Yet she was writing, and cogitating over the plans that would occupy the last three years of her life, founding and directing the Low Residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at West Virginia Wesleyan. Her last wishes were that donations be made to help support students enrolling in that program.
She was a sparkler – powerful, illuminating – at the end, thin but still red-topped and glowing, refusing to just let go.
Here’s a link to a poem that so many who knew her are quoting today: “Visiting My Gravesite: Talbott Churchyard, West Virginia.”

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