Interview with John McKernan

John McKernan is now a retired comma herder. He lives – mostly – in West Virginia where he edits ABZ Press. His most recent book is a selected poems Resurrection of the Dust. He has published poems in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review and many other magazines.

SCP: To begin with tell us a little about the layout of your poems. They are sparse, strategic, and full of windswept spaces. Have you always written in such a distinctive style, or are there more traditional poems of yours hiding from posterity in old literary magazines or dusty drawers?

John: Most – not all -- of my poems are in two modes:

ONE: The most common of these are 15 line poems with the first line – which is the title –capitalized. If they can be called stanzas, the units in this form are one line, two lines, three lines four lines, five lines. There are spaces between each of the units. I got this idea from studying the history of the Sonnet and the many different structures of the Sonnet

TWO: I like to write sometimes in long lines poems of no predetermined length. In the back of my pencil’s brain are the rhythms found in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in Jeremiah, and in John’s Book of Revelation. These – it seems to me – are the sources and energies of Walt Whitman’s long lines, such as those found in his Song of Myself and When Lilacs Last in Dooryards Bloomed

Three things are important to me in everything I write:

a. I want my poems to have the sound and tone and timbre of the human voice – to be spoken and to be speakable as a dramatic script.

b. I want my words to create precise visual images at the same time they make the reader think and make the reader feel something.

c. I want my poems to be unique and distinctive. I want them to be mine and not sound like someone else’s poem or poetry.

SCP: Who are some of the poets that you consider as having influenced the style of your work?

John: The list is very long. The word poet in Ancient Greek means maker.

These are people who changed the way I saw and thought and felt and wrote

I will choose two from many different countries and different languages:

David the Psalmist and Isaiah the Prophet

John the Evangelist and Paul the Apostle

Virgil and Horace

Dante and Petrarch

Shakespeare and John Donne


T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams

Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson

Rimbaud and Baudelaire

Mayakovsky and Weldon Kees

Paul Cezanne and Mark Rothko

Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan

Flannery O’Connor and Willa Cather

SCP: We know that you have edited various literary mags and journals. Speaking from your experience what do you think about the state of poetry publishing in contemporary America? Online poetry journals? Print-On-Demand books etc?

John: There is a lot going on out there in very many different places. Much of it is good and worthwhile. Too bad that some people confuse poetry with the slime of politics and with the good impulse to make the world better.

I believe we need places for poets to publish their work. Wherever. Whenever. However. Whoever. The more the better. Sure some stuff written is garbage and some of it makes me cringe. Not every writer is a good writer. So what? Poems need to be out there. Poems are the inner life in language. 

Nothing is more important in human life than the inner life. Nothing. I always keep in the back of my mind Marianne Moore’s “I too dislike it.”

It gets harder and harder but I enjoy and find value in publishing a poetry magazine ABZ and in publishing First Books of Poetry. I wish more people 

did it.

SCP: How would you describe the process which produces your writing? Some poets seem to take the time to sit down at a desk and meticulously hammer out their words; others pluck them out of nothingness as though they were floating on the air. Can you tell us a bit about how your poems come to be?

John: I set aside a chunk of time in the morning and another chunk of time in the evening during which I do nothing else but work on writing and revising my poems. I do this every day of the year.

Sometimes words just float out of the sky and land on a page of my paper.

Sometimes poems are reporting of actual events.

Sometimes a poem is a memory or a dream or a wish or a fear or a story overheard or an episode of pain.

Sometimes a poem will take ten or twenty years to get written.

SCP: A pervasive theme of your work seems to be the constant presence of mortality. But not just mortality in the grand, abstract sense related to the fact that we all die, but a very personal experience of mortality. Your poems seem to be haunted by figures from the past; presumably real people that now drift through the pages like strange ghosts and numina. Can you tell us about these presences?

John: They are very real to me. They are my constant companions. 24/7/365

A mystery woman goes by the name of Susan.

My Father is my father who died when he was 47 and I was 16.

My brother Tom died when he was 26.

Frank Stanford I met in Fayetteville Arkansas in 1966. He died when he was 30. A Genius.

Omaha Nebraska.

SCP: And lastly, what changes would you like to see (if any) in the infrastructure of the poetry world as to drive a wider readership and/or greater appreciation of the art. Any innovative ideas you've caught wind of? Any new projects of the sort you've been working on?

John: I am not at all good at any of this, but all of it needs to be done.

SCP: Thanks so much John.