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John McKernan

by Matthew Ankeny, former Managing Editor

Fourteen Hills reconnected with Issue 18.1 contributor John McKernan, to discuss his poetics, poetry’s aesthetics, and the small press. McKernan is the editor of ABZ Press out of West Virginia, where he lives and writes. His poetry has been featured in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Poetry, The Paris Review, and many other magazines. His most recent book is Resurrection of the Dust.

Fourteen Hills: Your work addresses poetic form in a deliberate way. How do you see form interacting with the content of a piece?

John McKernan: I have not shied away from writing in formal patterns. When I began 45 years ago studying and writing poetry, I wrote practice poems in classical metrical patterns and forms. I have

published sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, blank verse, couplets, etc. When I was in that practice mode, form came first and content (if there was any) was definitely secondary.

I love the rhythms of the long lines of Christopher Smart, William Blake, and Walt Whitman. They were influenced powerfully and in different ways by the Psalms in the Bible. I consider that long line a form all by itself . I have used the long line as a form. In about 1980, I began writing poems [in a form resembling the sonnet] with the title (the first line) in all capital letters and then a two-line unit, a three-line unit, a four-line unit, and a five-line unit with spaces between. My poem that appeared in Fourteen Hills [18.1] is an example:


The hearse
Turns left

From the ice-flecked modular family graveyard
Deep within red-dirt gravel
Half-lane railroad tie creek-bed road

To a modern four-lane asphalt highway
Slows for a minute or two
Behind a Wonder Bread truck

The policemen back to sleep in their squad car
Keep the hearse moving
On the prowl
Through a necklace of red lights
Empty Wax Black & Gleaming Chrome Empty

This form makes claims on me. Every new poem is an experiment. In my writing I sense the form pushing me to be concise, direct, and clear. Two of my heroes in writing are William Carlos Williams and Ernest Hemingway who quite often manifest minimalist tendencies. Me too.

FH: At times, you seem to be placing images as if they were thoughts themselves. They stand alone, in replacement of the traditional phrase of description. How do you view the role of an image in a poem?

McKernan: In the way I exist, nothing is more important than the image. I think in images. I feel in images. I love images in visual art and in poems. I can be as abstract as Kant or Thomas Aquinas or any particle physicist, but I much prefer the specific and the sensuous. Fog is more than fog when you have Keats’s autumn poem somewhere in your skull. Good writing deepens my apprehension of and responses to “Reality.” The image deepens whatever is going on in the poem.

FH: There is also an element of repetition in your poetry. Repetition we often hear in real-life, but less frequently see it in print.

McKernan: Repetition is fine. One of Poe’s interesting poems ["The Raven"] is maddeningly repetitive. Who would want it any other way? I love the repetitions in excellent villanelles. Roethke and Bishop for example. Too bad that so much in our culture is boringly repetitive. Sad to say but you can hear a beautiful song too many times. Another reason for always keeping the TV unplugged.

FH: Should poetry mimic the cadence of speech or thought, or should it determine/create its own cadence? 

McKernan: What a poet needs is a voice. A poem needs a distinctive sound. It is not a phone book or an article in a newspaper. Springsteen has a voice. Emily Dickinson has a voice. How one gets a voice is a mystery and a miracle but it is what every poet is creating or not creating. We want to hear that voice – sometimes we want the way the poem sounds more than we want the thought or the feeling in the poem.

FH: You have been publishing poems since the sixties, how has your poetry evolved over time?

McKernan: I have always enjoyed writing poems. Many poems! What I do not enjoy is the hard work of revising or entirely rewriting a poem. I think nothing of working four hours non-stop on a 14 line poem or even working four 9-hour days on a poem that has me in its grip rather than the other way around. It takes several kinds of energy to improve a poem. The hard thing for me is to make revising an act of the imagination – rather than a painting project or a sawing journey or a hammering expedition. One thing has changed. Years ago I would never have thought of simply deleting a poem. Now, if I can’t get anything out of the words or take the words some place significant or real, that poem is in danger of death. It happens.


FH: Have you seen poetry, as a whole, evolve?

McKernan: Not really. The language changes in big and little ways and the poems that get written reflect – as they should – those changes. There are more audiences for poetry today and more kinds of poetries today. More people. A bigger country. There are many more kinds of music today than 50 years ago, and the writing of song lyrics has actually seemed to improve. Rap and Country have both produced powerful lyrics.

FH: You edit ABZ: A New Magazine of Poetry, so we’re in a similar business. What do you see as the role of the small press?

McKernan: Very important. Writers can benefit from having an audience. Poets can write without an audience, though. People need to never forget that Emily Dickinson was not a Poet Laureate of anything. She needed poetry and she needed to write poetry. She made it without a small press around or a large press either. I am happy that she wrote all those poems. I am happy to think that ABZ has published poems and books and in its small way helped poets by doing that.

FH: What do you see as the future of the small press?

McKernan: I honestly don’t know. I’ll keep doing what I am doing until they plant me in my grave.

Read John McKernan's poetry in Fourteen Hills 18.1

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