Monthly Archives: September 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen: Llewellyn McKernan

Bio:  Llewellyn McKernan has a Master’s Degree in English from the University of Arkansas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from Brown University. Her poems have been published in the Antietam Review, Southern Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, Appalachia Heritage, Appalachian  Journal, Now&Then, Kestrel, and others. Llewellyn McKernan’s poems have also been published in three chapbooks: Short and Simple Annals: Poems From Appalachia, Llewellyn McKernan’s Greatest Hits, and Pencil Memory. The full-length one is called Many Waters: Poems from West Virginia. Another full-length one, The Sound of One Tree Falling: New and Selected Poems, will soon be published by MotesBooks. McKernan is also the author of four poetry books for children: More Songs of Gladness, Concordia; Bird Alphabet, Standard Publishing; This is the Day and This is the Night, C.R. Gibson. She has received eleven writing grants, among them fellowships from the American Association of University Women, the West Virginia Humanities Council, and the West Virginia Commission on the Arts. Her poems have won eighty-five prizes, awards, and honors, and have been published in thirty anthologies. She lives with her husband, John McKernan, on a rural route in West Virginia.

  • Your poem, “Time and Change,” is really quite sad.  Was this poem based on a real incident?

It’s based on my own experience. It’s about my dog. I called her Pupette from the time she was a puppy until her death when she was only three years old. One morning she was as lively as ever, but when I came home in the afternoon, I found her lying still on the grass in our front yard. She had only recently died because her eyes still had a little life left in them. But she didn’t have a mark on her. We live just off Route 10, where heavy traffic rolls up and down the hills all day, so Pupette could have been hit by a speed-demon driver and crawled home to die.  But there was a man who lived about a mile down from us on Route 10. He did not like dogs.  He was paranoid about dogs. He had even killed one he considered dangerous who had come on his property. But I had talked to him, and I thought he had understood that Pupette was a friendly loveable pet and wouldn’t hurt anyone. But maybe he wasn’t convinced. He wouldn’t have shot her. That way I’d have known that he killed her. But he could have poisoned her. That’s anonymous. No one would ever know who did it or why. That possibility made me feel awful…  But even worse—her death was so sudden I was stunned; then grieved and lonely because she had been such a good friend, loyal and loving through all the good and bad times in my life. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I had to write a poem about her. It took a long time, but eventually I wrote an elegy called “Time and Change,” and I am grateful to editors, Cat Pleska and Michael Knost, for including it in Fed From The Blade:  Tales And Poems From The Mountains.

  • Is there a form of poetry that you prefer? How many different forms of poetry do you like to tackle?  (ex. elegy, lyrical, free verse, villanelle).

I mainly write in free verse because my poems come to me in that form. Each has a rhythm which I hear in my head and which determines pace and pause in the poem from beginning to end. I also love words that rhyme or off-rhyme (words whose vowels or consonants rhyme) but within the line, not at the end. Somehow these harmonic pairs come naturally to me throughout the poem so that as it grows on paper, the unbroken rhythm and the repetitive sounds not only formally control the content but lend a musical quality to it, one which I hope creates a kind of pleasure in readers and keeps the flow of meaning from getting stuck or monotonous or bogged down in rhetoric. Stanley Kunitz (a wonderful poet who lived and wrote poems until he was a hundred years old) described the process this way: “I choose to write by and for the ear, without pre-imposed conditions. I trust the ear to let my rhythms go where they need to go. The ear is the best prosodist.”

Sometimes, though, I’ll try out a poetic form just to see what happens. I once began a villanelle, but discovered when I finished that the only thing I had kept intact was the device of alternating the two lines in the first stanza throughout the rest of them. But I didn’t care. I got a real poem out of it and that was the important thing. The same thing occurred when I tried to write a ghazal. I won’t describe in detail what this complex form requires; I’ll just say that the only formal element I kept was the two-line stanza. But because I experimented with that form, I wrote a poem in which the word “Appalachia” was the center and circumference for all the others. The first poem is called “The Hollow,” the second one “In Appalachia,” and both appear in my first chapbook titled Short and Simple Annals.

In conclusion I guess I’m a lousy prosodist, but a lucky poet to get something valuable out of my attempts to write in a poetic form.

  • Who were your influences?

I like to think my influences are varied as the shifting colored patterns of a kaleidoscope. There are so many, but here are a few.

birdsong

tree frogs

drizzle-sizzle sound of rain

wind given flesh by what it blows against

twenty-year-old and new poetry workshop

forty-six-year-old and new marriage

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

Emily Dickinson’s poems and portrait

my father’s illness

my plucky, buster-brown, over-the-top daughter

always shifting surface of Four-Pole Creek

April snow

wonderful friendship of West Virginia writers and

others throughout Appalachia

silence

my mother’s intense will to live

my niece’s death from ovarian cancer

Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”

His “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Rage

Rage Against the Dying Of The Light”

all Bob Dylan songs

songs in the Old Cokesbury Methodist Hymnal

quote by Colette, 20th century French writer: “Look long and hard

at what gives you pleasure.  But look even longer and harder at what

gives you pain.”

quote from Life’s Little Instruction Book by H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

“Judge your success by the degree that you’re enjoying peace, health,

and love.”

  • If there was one poet, living or deceased, you could talk to, who would it be? Whatwould you most want to ask?

I would like to meet Emily Dickinson. She was brilliant thinker. I’d like to sit and just soak in some of the wit and wisdom she lavished in letters to her kin and friends. As for my contribution? I’d tell her that her best poems, and there were many, sounded like they could have been written in the 20th century. That’s how far her work was ahead of her contemporaries.  I’d also tell her how sorry I am that she had to endure so much pain and sorrow during her brief life (56 years) and that I have an infinite admiration for the fortitude and fierceness that spun her terrible experiences into golden poems. And the question I’d ask her is “Why did you become a recluse who always wore white?”

It’s serendipity, I guess, how the above question made something I read yesterday take on a new significance.  I was reading the ninth chapter of Ecclesiastes, and suddenly verses 7 and 8 jumped out at me. “It is now that God favors your work. So at all times let your garments be white and spare not the perfume for your head.”  What if it were these verses that had made Emily start wearing white?!  She came from a family of pious Protestants who would have known the Bible from “Genesis” to “Revelation.”  She would have, too.  Some of her poems indicate that she had quarrels with God about nature, human nature, and the nature of the divine, but these debates only meant she believed in Him (you don’t argue with someone you don’t think exists). Perhaps she read verses seven and eight, and realized that her ever-increasing thirst to write more and better poems was a heavenly blessing so, in return, she always wore white.

Whether this theory is true or not, I like to think of Emily Dickinson alone in her home, wearing white, and as she walks about her room, everything (especially her poetry) soaks up the scent of her lavender and rose, mint and mystery.

  • What poets in West Virginia do you read? 

I read the works of West Virginia poets like I generally read other poetry and prose—when I suddenly have an intuitive feeling that it’s necessary for me as a writer and human being to read a certain work. This hunch comes with a kind of urgency that makes me follow up on it at once.  I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Marble Faun, when I was searching for an imaginative answer to questions about human good and evil. And, sure enough, the novel provided one (it was not conclusive, but it expressed in character and plot the whole perimeter of the problem).  This kind of thing happens with poetry, too. It happened on the national level with authors like Mary Oliver, Jane Kenyon, Sylvia Plath, Susan Woods, Louise Gluck, and others.  I read their works at certain times when I felt that I was the most receptive to what they said and how they said it, when the content and the craft taught me what I needed to know as a person and poet. That’s how I read West Virginia poets, too. Ones like Ethan Fischer, Irene McKinney, Louise McNeill, Eddy Pendarvis, Laura Tracy Bentley, and others. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, and I’ve read other West Virginia poets that are first-rate and worthwhile to read. But there’s something special about those that arrive like a gift on my doorstep. How, I wonder, did the giver know it was the one that right then was the right present for me?

  • Are you originally from West Virginia or elsewhere? 

I was born in the 40’s in the family home six miles away from a small town called Hampton, Arkansas.  But I consider West Virginia my true home because I’m a poet, children’s book author, and teacher who has lived and worked in Huntington, WV, for over forty years.  My husband, John McKernan, is a retired Marshall University English professor, and in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, I myself from time to time taught at the university as an adjunct English professor. Both of us have lived in West Virginia longer than any other place on earth.

We live on a rural route in a brown wood-frame house, with a creek bordering our front yard and a hill rising up in the back. I have a pine-paneled study with five windows that look out on the hill, where squirrels quarrel and deer graze, chipmunks scurry, redbirds and gold finches fly, and sometimes a coiled black snake suns itself in the grass. Most of the time I compose my work on the computer in the study. It’s large and the view expansive and the natural world is close by—a scene quite similar to the one that surrounded me when I first started writing poems. I lived in the country then, too, on a farm, only I was ten years old and sat on the steps of a big porch, all of nature spread before me, writing slantwise with my trusty pencil onto blue-lined notebook paper, for I was often alone and had to entertain myself ( my parents and sister were too busy and practical to pay much attention to a little daydreamer like me).  My only friend was a pencil and a piece of paper, the place where I dared to express the thoughts and feelings bubbling up in me, and where I dreamed that someday I would find a reader who would understand my poems and like them.

When Marshall University hired my husband as an Assistant Professor of English, and we moved to West Virginia, I found many such readers. That’s another reason I consider this state my true home, for its people soon became like family members who finally listened to me. Every writer needs an appreciative audience, and I found it in this state, and it has kept me writing and getting my poems published throughout my career.

It was also in West Virginia that I had a baby girl and experienced in her birth something like a rebirth myself. I realized that the habit of writing poems I’d cultivated through childhood and adolescence, college and graduate school, was for “better or worse” my true vocation. And since I wanted to make it “better,” I went to Brown University in Providence, RI, and got a Masters in Creative Writing. Then I returned to Huntington. What I learned getting that degree became the foundation for the long years of my trial-and-error poetic apprenticeship, which continues to this day. But all the moment by moment writing experiences happened and keep on happening in this state. If “home is where the heart is,” writing poetry is always “home” to me, and I’ve written more poems in West Virginia than anywhere else on earth.

*The thoughts and feelings I’ve expressed in this answer have been explored more fully in “Letter From A West Virginia Poet,” an essay that was published in Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers, edited by Joyce Dyer, and published by The University Press of Kentucky, and also in my “Introduction” to The Sound Of One Tree Falling: New and Selected Poems soon to be published by MotesBooks. (It will be distributed world-wide by Ingram and sold through local or online booksellers.)

  • Please write a short poem using this scenario: You are walking on a downtown street in Huntington.  No one else is about.  A flock of pigeons flutters up suddenly when you turn a corner.  Then you notice there are no cars anywhere.  No people, no birds either. You catch sight of yourself in a store window and what you see stuns you.

JOURNEY

What’s familiar is the downtown street in Hunter,

the flash and flock of its pigeons, the guttural

enigma of their speech; also the store windows

that teach me how much can be found

behind glass.

What’s strange

is what remains inside the pane, the clinical

data of my own darkness,

my reflection its momentary figure

of speech and

stranger still

how I lose my pink skin

when I borrow my shadow’s, how

its small skeletal hands

hold so much that can

never be fathomed.

*I’m glad I got this prompt. I took some poetic license, but I think I got a real poem out of it, which is the most important thing. My poem does follow the general outline of the prompt. First it emphasizes the familiar (as the prompt does), narrowing the focus to the street, pigeons, and store windows. Then it emphasizes the strange (which the prompt does next), and ends, I hope, with a kind of surprise which the last part of the prompt required.

*This prompt also inspired a flash fiction piece. But before I submit it to the public eye, it needs a whole re-vision, which means looking at each line as if I’d never seen it before.

* If you want to leave out the paragraphs on this page, that’s fine with me.

  • Oh Llewellyn, I think it’s best to include. 🙂

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