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Interview with Louis McKee

Louis McKee

Write a bio.

Born in Philadelphia (July 31, 1951) I've been a part of the Philadelphia poetry scene since the late 60s / early 70s. My books include Schuylkill County (Wampeter, 1982), The True Speed of Things (Slash & Burn, 1984) and eleven other collections. More recently, I've published River Architecture: Poems from Here & There 1973-1993 (Cynic, 1999), Loose Change (Marsh River Editions, 2001) and a volume in the Pudding House Greatest Hits series. Near Occasions of Sin was issued in 2006 by Cynic Press.

I was a longtime editor of the Painted Bride Quarterly in the 80s. During this time I edited three special issues of the journal, celebrating the work of Etheridge Knight and John Logan, as well as a retrospective 20th-anniversary volume of the PBQ. I currently operate Banshee Press and was the editor of One Trick Pony until its demise in 2007.

A book of my critical essays and reviews, Sweet Cakes, Small Stories, and a Few Words on Poets and Poetry, is forthcoming, and late in 2007, Adasta Press will publish a limited edition, letterpress collection of my translations from Old Irish of Monastic Poems from the 9th - 11th Century.

Describe your favorite place to write.

I have a desk - two in fact. One I use for spreading out; I guess a lot of writing gets done there. The other has the computer, and while poems rarely begin there, much of the revision is done on computer. As often as not, though, my poems come about as I sit in my big comfortable chair in the living room. The window there is bright, though I tend to work more often in the evening. It is pen and legal pad, until at some point when I want to see the piece typed, get a feel for its look on the page. I print out a copy, then carry it around, making changes wherever I might be. Later, I'll put those changes into the computer and make another copy, a newer draft, that I can carry with me for a while. Eventually I get tired of tinkering, and I declare the poem finished. Abandoned, as Auden suggests.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

There are so many. I always look forward to new poems by C. K. Williams, Gerald Stern, Stephen Dunn, and so many others. Jim Daniels, Philip Dacey, Afaa Weaver, and Michael Waters - I know and like how different these poets and their poems are, and I like to think I am learning something about poetry from all of them. I should also say that I return fairly regularly to Yeats, James Wright, Dick Hugo, William Stafford, and John Logan.

Do you have one particular style you like to write in or do you try all forms?

I write a personal poem,; regardless of what the poem is about, it is likely to be full of "I" and "you." I write mostly short lyrics, but with a winding narrative that goes through them. While I work in free verse, I must admit that I am conscious of meter with every poem I begin. I may abandon it, the cadence, early, and it is never strict to begin with, or I may consciously play against the expectations it sets up, but there is always a sense of the dance in the back of my head. And I am equally conscious of sound - the rhymes, chimes, and noises the words make. I avoid absolute rhyme, and don't want duck-stepping lines, but I want something around which to wrap my poem, a frame or ribbing of sorts.

Where do you find inspiration for writing?

Actually, I don't have much trouble getting started. Toby Olson used to talk about "out the window" poems, and that can sometimes be enough, to simply look around. I have a lot of years and miles behind me, as well as a big Irish family that was full of characters. I teach. There are poems in every direction I look; it is simply a matter of slowing myself down enough to recognize them. When I am in the right frame of mind, it is not difficult at all. And if I get stuck, I read. Good poetry is always an inspiration.

Talk about your newest book, Near Occasions of Sin (2006)

A few years back, I published a selected poems, River Architecture (Cynic Press, 1999,) and I realized how many of my poems dealt with love - if not love poems exactly, then poems that were informed by love, the need for love, the desire for love, and the disappointments so often associated with love.

For balance, I passed on a lot of these poems for River Architecture, and decided to create a manuscript that gathered them together. Then there was the direction of the good sisters. The Oblates, the Christian Brothers, and eventually, the Jesuits, lent their hand, and by the time I left grad school, eighteen-plus years of Catholic education, I was well aware of the numerous near occasions of sin. I didn't do much to avoid them, either. And there were consequences. And there are poems.

Other books you have published include River Architecture, Right as Rain, Loose Change, and others. Please talk about these books. Is there one you feel especially close to?

In 1982, Wampeter Press accepted Schuylkill County for publication. I'd gotten some good feedback on the manuscript, and Bill Stafford and Dick Hugo offered to do blurbs - the poems had appeared in lit mags here and there -- but it was the acceptance letter from Wampeter that convinced me I was on the right track. That book will always be special to me. And The True Speed of Things,(Slash & Burn Press,) which was actually published a couple of weeks earlier, though consisting of newer poems, is another that means a lot. Suddenly, all the hard work was tangible. I think favorites tend to be the more recent, though. Loose Change (Marsh River Editions) contains my newest work.

You were editor of The Painted Bride Quarterly. What was this like for you? How many years did you edit the review?

The PBQ is a brilliant literary journal that was created in 1973 by Louise Simons and R. Daniel Evans. It quickly developed a solid reputation publishing the finest poets regionally and nationally. (In 1993 I edited PBQ: A Poetry Retrospective 1973-1993.) I was a co-editor, (with Joanne DiPaolo and Lou Camp,) of the PBQ from about 1983-1988, and I can honestly say that I believe we made the quarterly even better than it was. I also individually edited two special issues: one celebrating the work of Etheridge Knight, and the other in memory of John Logan. Both men were good friends; Etheridge lived with me for a while, and John used to stay at my house when passing through town. I enjoyed the experience of editing the PBQ. It seems as though I have been involved with some magazine or other since college. I did have a problem with the triumvirate - we were three strong and different personalities. I was the only one on the staff who wrote and published, so I served as the contact person for contributors and submissions. This was also rewarding, getting to know the poets. Like anything else, though, one gets worn down. I needed some time to myself, for my own writing. I did return to guest-edit the Logan issue and the 20th Anniversary anthology. And I'm glad to report that the PBQ is still going strong, online and in print, under the direction of editors Kathleen Volk Miller and Marion Wrenn.

You currently edit One Trick Pony and Banshee Press. When did you start these? Talk about the challenges you face. How do you find time to write and balance your time with all your involved with?

Well, Banshee Press is still active, but One Trick Pony, I'm sorry to say, is no more. After eleven issues, the usual bugaboos, financial and health woes, interfered. I hope when things improve, to do another two issues - the material that had already been accepted before we shut the operation down. Those poets, I'm sure, will find another home for their good work, but I still would like to see it where it was first intended to appear - with proper credits listed, of course.

Banshee - this last year we published a series of limited edition, letterpress broadsides, featuring Philip Dacey, Paul Muldoon, Gerald Stern, and Denise Duhamel. These were intended as a fund-raiser for the magazine.

What are you working on now?

Poems. "Words, words, words." I write the poems first, then think about how they might fit together into a manuscript. I don't set out to write with a particular intention. I did recently finish a group of Old Irish translations, monastic quatrains, and I am supposed to be writing an introduction for the letterpress edition being done by Adastra Press. And I have a collection of essays on poetry coming, so I am supposed to be working on them, my last chance to tinker with the manuscript. Notice the word "supposed," in the two previous sentences.

What is the writing scene like in Philadelphia?

I used to be so much more involved, so much more conscious of what was going on. Of course, there are the school programs, predominantly UPenn's Kelly Writers House and the Writing Program at Temple University. A grassroots thing has been around for a long time; called Mad Poets, they have more than a dozen regular venues in the Philadelphia area. There are other on-going ventures, including the Painted Bride, as well as those which come and go with the drop of a hat. It is an active time in this city that has always been a vibrant place for poetry.

Any last comments?

Only to say thank you, Gloria, for this opportunity.


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